Sam Yan shows need to save history
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Sam Yan shows need to save history


This file photo shows a property development in Bangkok's Sam Yan district which threatens the Mazu Shrine, a sacred site to the area's Chinese-Thai community. (Photo: Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal)
This file photo shows a property development in Bangkok's Sam Yan district which threatens the Mazu Shrine, a sacred site to the area's Chinese-Thai community. (Photo: Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal)

What distinguishes Thailand from many other countries is our rich diversity in culture and history. Yet slowly but surely, the distinctive heritage of our local communities is disappearing. Often property developers destroy historic buildings in pursuit of profit. But why do their rights always seem to come first? Why do we have to beg to protect our cultural assets?

The underlying problem is neglect of duty by the state sector and politicians. Our leaders and government agencies fail to see the value of Thailand's diverse community heritage, dodging their responsibility to protect it. We need lawmakers and officials to enact strong, new legislation to revamp our heritage conservation system, which is weak and long out of date.

The gradual disappearance of Bangkok's heritage-rich Sam Yan district shows the problem. Look at aerial photographs taken 20 years ago, and you will see that this neighbourhood around Chulalongkorn University was packed with schools, religious buildings, shophouses, small restaurants, and movie theatres such as the Lido Cinema and Scala Cinema. For decades, these low-rise, vintage buildings have hosted a rich community life mixing local, national, regional and global people, cooking, art, learning, commerce, sports, spirituality and more.

The temples came alive on festival days. Those movie theatres were stylish places for young people to spend free time. Secondary schools there include top institutions such as Triam Udom Suksa, Satit Chula, and the Satit Patumwan as well as schools for disadvantaged children. Generations of Sam Yan's ethnic Chinese community have fond memories and stories about these places.

The Sam Yan area is owned by Chulalongkorn University, which is a government institution funded by our taxes. As landlord, it is the steward not only of property but also of cultural resources and historical legacies. In just the past 10 years, however, this institution has sacrificed much of the community's heritage. Many buildings have disappeared. Chula's property company raised rents, forcing families and legacy businesses to vacate. Religious sites are threatened. Condominiums and shopping malls have replaced rows of commercial shophouses and community schools.

The university has awarded concessions to big real estate developers. A much reported case is that of the Central Group -- a concessionaire that redeveloped a major site at Siam Square. Within half a year, the Scala Cinema, the largest standalone theatre left in Southeast Asia, was demolished to make way for a multi-storey commercial complex.

Culture fans and conservationists pleaded for the university to save this architecturally important building and use the structure as a cultural and education space. Scala indeed had been more than a theatre. Famous for its extravagant exterior with a giant hall, grand staircase and chandelier, built in the Art Deco style that emphasises the use of geometric shapes, the cinema -- designed by Chira Silpakanok and built in 1969 -- eventually received the Outstanding Architectural Conservation Award 2012.

But the Chula executive supervising property management responded that the Scala Cinema lacked sufficient merit as heritage. The university claimed that it had no responsibility to conserve the half-century old venue because it had not been registered as a heritage site under Thai law. This legalistic stance let our city down.

Old heritage, new generation

The heart of Sam Yan and its ethnic Chinese community is the sacred site popularly known as the "Mazu Shrine," named after one of the two goddesses worshipped there by descendants of Teochew immigrants from south China. Today's shrine dates from a 1959 renovation, but it was first established 150 years ago, before the university was founded. It now stands in the middle of an ugly construction site, soon to be surrounded by modern towers.

Despite this shrine's cultural and historical significance, the university, as landlord, defied the protests by demanding to take control of the site by 2020 so it could be demolished. Since the shrine's caretakers did not comply, the university sued them for 120 million baht in damages.

The struggle to save the Mazu Shrine continues. But even if it fails, the campaign has been worth the effort because it shows how much the public cares about heritage. The protesters have sued, refusing to give up even after four years. Students at Chula and other universities support the cause. A documentary film, The Last Breath of Sam Yan, revealed this story to Thais nationwide and people around the world when released last year in theatres and on Netflix. Social media posts about the Mazu Shrine on X (formerly Twitter) and on other platforms have been shared tens of thousands of times. During the past year, young people have flocked to the shrine to make offerings.

Why do millennial and Gen Z Thais love an old shrine? For many of us, it reminds us of our cultural roots. In a globalised city cluttered with look-alike high-rises, the Mazu Shrine stands out. It embodies the spirit of the unique town that we once had -- or that we might have again.

Sam Yan's redevelopment might make some profit, but these gains are outweighed by a huge loss of heritage. Nevertheless, Chulalongkorn and the rest of the government don't seem to care.

Mounting losses nationwide

Dozens of other historic buildings have been destroyed throughout Thailand since 2000. Bangkok's Mahakan Fort Community was evicted, and their 19th century wooden houses demolished in 2018. Thonburi's great temple, Wat Kalayanamit, tore down its century-old monk houses and other extraordinary buildings. These and other sad cases demonstrate the failure of the state and institutional landowners to protect historic buildings valued by the public.

We need a new approach. Yongthanit Pimonsathean, a Thammasat University conservation expert, says that unfortunately, our only legal tool to preserve heritage is the 1961 "Act on Ancient Monuments, Antiques, Objects of Art and National Museums, B.E. 2504," which is weak, ambiguous and outmoded.

This law mandates preservation of "monuments," but does not clearly define what they are. It puts the Culture Ministry's Fine Arts Department in charge of conservation, giving it discretion to interpret the law. In practice, the department tends to take a narrow approach, usually focusing on major religious, royal and government properties that are very old. Since the department is underfunded and understaffed, this might well be the most pragmatic approach. And to its credit, the department works hard to protect monument sites. But our vague 1961 law leaves many thousands of properties, such as important mid-20th century buildings, at risk of destruction. In the case of the Mazu Shrine, for example, the Fine Arts Department does not view it eligible for legal protection.

We need a strong law and system that, like in other countries, outlines specific, objective criteria for the classification and protection of all types of heritage, with guidelines and data accessible to the public. It should devolve some authority to local officials and communities, so that they are empowered to protect local sites. Because our system is so centralized, even the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration lacks the authority to protect heritage buildings and neighbourhoods. Only the Fine Arts Department can.

Decentralizing conservation would benefit our grass-roots economies. Our national government wants to develop "secondary" travel destinations and promote "quality" tourism. One good way to do this is to empower provinces, towns and villages to take care of their own architectural assets.

Quality heritage would appeal to visitors, help nurture small hospitality businesses and let local people keep their sense of identity and belonging.

My generation loves heritage. We and future generations have a right to keep it. Our lawmakers and government institutions have a duty to respect this right and to protect our heritage. The way to do it is clear: revise the outdated heritage law.

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal is a human rights activist, preservationist and former president of the Student Council of Chulalongkorn University. Settanant Thanakitkoses is former president of academic affairs of the Student Government of Chulalongkorn University. Heritage Matters is a monthly column presented by The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage to advocate conservation of the architectural, cultural and natural heritage of Thailand and the neighbouring region. Each edition is by a different guest contributor. The views expressed are those of the authors.

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