Lhonging for the past
Chinese-style buildings that date back to the era of King Rama III are set to become Bangkok's latest tourist attraction
It has been almost a year since "Lhong 1919", an old Sino-Thai heritage site on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok's Klong San district, saw its Chinese-style architecture undergo renovation and repairs.
The work is scheduled to be completed next month before the site comprising warehouses and buildings is unveiled as Bangkok's latest tourist attraction in early November.
The new landmark is situated at the end of Chiang Mai Road on the Thon Buri side of the river, opposite Talat Noi and Yaowarat, also known as Chinatown.
This heritage property belongs to the Wanglee family, whose members agreed the long-dormant location was in need of revival.
The site is home to Chinese-style buildings dating back to the era of King Rama III (1788–1851).
The structures were built in line with the Chinese principles of feng shui and yin and yang. The family agreed it should serve as a heritage site not just for them but for the nation.
"If we don't do something with this precious property then it will just end up being turned into another condo on the banks of the river one day," said Rujiraporn Wanglee, a fourth-generation member of the family that owns it.
"So we consulted among the family and decided to have it restored. It's been in a dilapidated state for ages," she said.
It is being fixed up in a way that retains its original character. Future visitors there will also be able to learn about the culture and history of Thai-Chinese relations dating back to the early Rattanakosin Period.
The 6-rai site formerly sheltered warehouses and office buildings for those who served roles similar to today's immigration officers as the facility also had a pier where most of the Chinese immigrants disembarked to start their new lives in Thailand.
Referring to the name Lhong 1919, Ms Rujiraporn said it derives from the Thai word Huo Chuan Lhong (steam boat pier) while the numbers refer to the year in which the Wanglee family purchased the land from a man called Tun Lip Buey. He in turn had bought it from Phraya Phisansuppaphol, who constructed the buildings there in 1850.
Earlier, the property sheltered a pier and warehouses to accommodate freight shipments from China, Singapore and Hong Kong. Following a drop in water transport to the site, the property changed hands to the Wanglee family.
"Warehouses were turned into storage sites for the Wanglee's farm produce shipped along the Chao Phraya River," said Ms Rujiraporn, adding the facility also served as offices and rented accommodation for workers, several of whom still live there today.
'Lhong 1919', Chinese-style buildings on the banks in Klong San district, will open its gates to welcome tourists soon. photos by Thiti Wannamontha
The buildings were built in the shape of a horseshoe with a court in the centre abutting the river to align with feng shui, Ms Rujiraporn said. The design represents the links between the sky, earth and river, she said.
After the family agreed to push ahead with the project last October, a clean-up operation was carried out (most the structures are made of concrete and teak).
Repair work was also carried out and new layers of paint applied in the same tone as the original, Ms Rujiraporn said. The biggest challenge was conserving old wall paintings and window frames, she added.
Workers were told to only clean and paint spots where the Chinese letters and images were clearly visible. Afterwards, thick glass was placed over them as a protective cover.
Saran Wanglee, an executive of Sino Port Co, which is overseeing the Lhong 1919 project, said it will launch in early November.
It comprises the 167-year-old Mazu shrine, a sacred place for Chinese in Thailand; buildings for activities and banquets; an outdoor space for activities; a co-working space; shops for specially designed products and handicrafts; restaurants; a leisure space on the bank of the river; a pier; cultural demonstration spots, including traditional Chinese architecture and wall paintings drawn by Chinese paintbrushes; and Wanglee pier, which is being set aside for visiting VIPs.
"We do not wish to get [any financial] return from this project. We just want the place to survive," said Mr Saran. He is targeting 2,000-3,000 visitors in the first year.
A 70-year-old woman called "Pa Orn" said her ancestors travelled from China to Thailand and worked at this pier. She still rents a house there for 600 baht a month. The Wanglee family have employed her as the caretaker of the shrine.
Given her close ties to the place she was happy to hear it would be preserved for younger generations to experience.
A 25-year-old artist who goes by the nickname "King" was contracted to repair the wooden window frames at the site. He said he was proud of his work and happy to learn new techniques about restoring old Chinese artworks.
Klong San district chief Tuangporn Supsakorn said the Wanglee family had consulted with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration on the project from the get-go. City Hall has given it a greenlight and believes it will boost cultural tourism in the capital, she noted.
She said her office helps improve the environmental conditions around the property and garden.
"It will be promoted as a key tourist attraction for Klong San district," she said.