Cultural melting pot

Former trading centres of Siam, Yaowarat and Talat Noi areas are a testament to the years gone by

Bangkok is populated by many Thais of foreign descent, a majority being Chinese. Yaowarat and Talat Noi are among the city's oldest Chinese communities. The area once boasted major ports and trading hubs, which also accommodated places of worship for Christians and Muslims in addition to temples and shrines for Buddhists of different sects.

Yaowarat, or Chinatown, dates to the early Bangkok period when King Rama I had a Chinese community relocated from the current location of the Grand Palace to a riverside area outside the city wall southeast of Rattanakosin Island. The stretch ranges from Wat Sampluem to the Sampheng Canal. This Chinese trading community has been continually growing.

In 1892, King Rama V (King Chulalongkorn) initiated the construction of Yaowarat Road with the aim to promote businesses in the area. It took eight years for the project to be completed because the community was densely populated and land expropriation had to be done with care. Yaowarat Road followed the earlier walking and cart routes to avoid people's houses, so it became very curvy and is also known as "Thanon Mangkorn" (dragon road), which refers to its shape. A nearby Chinese community called Sampheng is popular place for fabric, garments and other goods at bargain prices.

The 1.2km Songwat Road was named because its outline was "drawn" by King Rama V who wanted to ease overcrowding of the Sampheng area after a big fire. The first phase of Songwat Road from Chak Phet Road to Rong Kratha Alley was built in 1892 and the second part from Rong Kratha Alley to Charoen Krung Road was constructed in 1907.

In the past, Songwat Road, including its Ratchawong Pier area, was an important commercial district and the centre for the transport of goods from ships on the Chao Phraya River to other parts of Bangkok. Along Songwat Road are alleys leading to piers which linked Bangkok, Chon Buri and Ban Don in Surat Thani, and also connected other ports for the transportation of food, herbs and spices to the capital. This was the abode of piers, warehouses, shops and offices. Songwat Road was a trading hub of farm produce and processed fishery products, while Ratchawong Road focused on packaging.

At present, the Ratchawong and Songwat areas are still trading and cargo zones. It is very busy and lively during office hours, but quiet in the evening and on weekends. Most buildings along Songwat Road are old two-storey buildings, which still serve as stores and offices, while those in alleys and by the river are residences and warehouses.

As Songwat Road was full of imported farm produce and export stores, old buildings along it are decorated with fruit and floral stucco art and nicknamed "fruit buildings". Modern street art on certain buildings, such as an elephant by a Belgian artist, a bicycle by a Spanish artist and pink graffiti by a Romanian artist, stand out.

Strolling along Songwat Road, one comes across the Lao Pun Tao Kong Shrine, a Teochew Chinese shrine, Peiing Public School, a popular Chinese-language institution, and the privately-owned Luang Kocha Itsahak Mosque. The area where Songwat and Trai Mitr Roads meet and next to Klong Sampheng, is Wat Pathum Khongkha or Wat Sampheng. Not far is the Cho Su Kong Chinese shrine, founded by speakers of the Hokkien dialect, which originated in southern Fujian province in mainland China. Beautiful old buildings, built during the reigns of King Rama V and VI, line Mangkorn and Sampheng Roads.

Nestled by the Chao Phraya River and not far from Yaowarat is Talat Noi, a smaller and quieter part of Chinatown. Dating back to the Ayutthaya period, it combines various cultures -- Portuguese, Vietnamese, Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka Chinese. The area has changed over time from being the city's major source of blacksmiths to a used auto parts market, widely known as Siang Kong.

Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix, a French Catholic bishop in Bangkok wrote in his Description Du Royaume Thai Ou Siam, published in 1854, that foreign trade during the early Rattanakosin period relied on Chinese junks and large ships owned by bureaucrats and foreign traders, and that during the cool season until Chinese New Year, as many as 60 Chinese junks would be anchored in the Chao Phraya River next to Sampheng to offload and load goods.

Talat Noi boasts many old shophouses, restaurants, Buddhist temples, a Vietnamese temple, Chinese shrines, Holy Rosary Church established by the Portuguese, and a centuries-old Chinese house called Sol Heng Tai, the residence of the Sols -- a wealthy Thai-Hokkien family and ancestors of several influential families such as the Chatikavanijs, Srivikorns and Posayajindas.

Spending an entire day exploring the Ratchawong, Songwat and Talat Noi areas enriches cultural, artistic and religious insights.

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Holy Rosary Church in the Talat Noi area is the third oldest Christian church in Bangkok. It was established on a royally-granted plot of land in 1787 during the reign of King Rama I by Portuguese Christians, who had fled the war in Ayutthaya. They settled in Bangkok and later separated from Santa Cruz Church to build a new church on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. The church was rebuilt in 1898 as a brick building without the use of steel or piles. In the Neo Gothic style, the structure has a high façade topped with a towering spire, but is smaller and less lavish than original Gothic churches. A statue of the Virgin Mary stands above the high arches framing the main entrance, leading to tall arched doors. The church has a stunning set of Romanesque stained glass windows and gold gilded ceilings decorated with star images. Interestingly, this church also organises mass in the Teochew dialect. During Easter, the church hosts a procession of the crucified Christ along the streets of Talat Noi. Pichaya Svasti

The Sol Heng Tai Residence in Talat Noi is the only remaining pre-Bangkok Chinese house in Thailand. It is built in the Hokkien- Teochew architectural style, known as Sue He Yuan, with a group of four houses surrounding a large courtyard. Original Sue He Yuan houses have only one level but Sol Heng Tai houses have two, an adaptation of Sue He Yuan and traditional Thai houses. The structure of the house is mainly made of wood while the external walls and the entire first floor are made of brick. The beautifully carved wood roofing is in the Hokkien-Teochew style from the southern part of China demarcated by the Yangtze River. The roof of the central house looks like the tail of a swallow. The wooden doors on the first floor are painted in the images of local trees. The wooden walls on the second floor adapt Chinese and traditional Thai styles. The main ceiling pillar bears a yin-yang symbol while others are decorated with wooden inscriptions in Chinese. Unfortunately, the place is now in a sorry state and in dire need of state support for restoration due to extremely high costs.

Wat Pathum Khongkha dates back to the Ayutthaya period. At the entrance stands a small shrine in memory of Krom Luang Rakronnares, the 33rd son of King Rama I. Inside the ubosot (ordination hall) is a Buddha image, which was restored during the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868). The statue is in the subduing Mara posture, royally attired and bejewelled in a style called song kruang. Pichaya Svasti

Luang Kocha Itsahak Mosque is privately-owned and built on 2 rai on Songwat Road near Ratchawong Pier. It was built by Luang Kocha Itsahak (Kerd bin Abdullah), a Saiburi native and Malay-Siamese language translator for Siam's foreign trade department, for Muslim traders who docked their ships at piers from Ratchawong to Bang Rak. It was first made of wood and later rebuilt during the reign of King Rama V as a European-style building before Songwat Road was built. The mosque is now used by the Samantarat family (descendants of Luang Kocha Itsahak) and also Muslim vendors and shoppers in the area. Though the area has no Muslim community, the Indian-owned and operated gem shops attract Muslim customers. Pichaya Svasti

Buildings on both sides of Songwat Road are considered 'early row buildings'. Three-storey buildings decorated with stucco art line the river bank, while two-storey buildings on the opposite side sport Corinthian pillars and stucco in fruit and floral motifs. The arches over the window panels are adorned with colourful glass. Pichaya Svasti

Dating back to the reign of King Rama I, the Cho Su Kong Shrine is in a small alley near Wat Pathum Khongkha. It is a fine example of Hokkien-style architecture, such as traditional motifs on the pillars and ceilings, as well as two windows sandwiching the entrance. Many people worship Cho Su Kong, a Fujian monk of great piety, and pray for good health and a blessed life. Every February, on or around the Full Moon day in the third Chinese lunar month, a ritual called wai kanom tao is performed. People bring Chinese buns baked in the image of turtles (tao in Thai), symbolising longevity and colourful miniature models of temples made from paper and place them before statues representing various deities and sages of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Pichaya Svasti

About the author

columnist
Writer: Pichaya Svasti
Position: Life Writer