A place to treasure

Amid pressure from materialism, an old house-turned-local museum in the heart of the city allows visitors to explore the lives of Bangkokians in the 1930s-1950s

The main house of the Bangkok Folk's Museum is a two-storey teak wood house with a hip roof (panya in Thai) paved with red kite-shaped tiles. It is the work of Chinese workers. The house was built in 1937 with a budget of 2,400 baht according to a house catalogue from famed architect Luang Burakamkowit. This property was donated to the city by biologist Assoc Prof Waraporn Suravadi for use as a local museum. Pichaya Svasti

Nestled behind trees on a 1,700m² plot of land near the congested Charoen Krung Road is the Bangkok Folk's Museum. Donated by biologist Assoc Prof Waraporn Suravadi to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) in 2003, this museum features three houses in a lush tropical garden with a pond.

The museum, also known as the Bangkok Local Museum Bang Rak, was established under a BMA pilot project to set up local museums in all Bangkok districts.

Built in 1937, the museum is the former residence of the Suravadi family. Waraporn turned her property inherited from her mother Sa-arng Suravadi (Tanboontek) into a museum for the new generations to learn. This week, she accomplished her goal to seek public donations totalling 10 million baht to add to her down payment of 30 million baht to buy an adjacent land plot where a tall building project was planned.

The compound's three houses, furnishings and accessories provide a glimpse into the lifestyles of Bangkokians between 1937-1957.

The main house of the Bangkok Folk's Museum is a two-storey teak wood house with a hip roof (panya in Thai) paved with red kite-shaped tiles. It is the work of Chinese workers. The house was built in 1937 with a budget of 2,400 baht according to a house catalogue from famed architect Luang Burakamkowit. This property was donated to the city by biologist Assoc Prof Waraporn Suravadi for use as a local museum. Pichaya Svasti

"Everything is displayed as it was -- closest to reality. Nothing new was bought and added. We just fixed broken stuff. There is no trouble about termites since the houses and furniture were made of teak wood," Waraporn, 81, noted.

The characteristics and decoration of the three houses reflect the influence of Western architecture and culture on Thailand in the 1930s and some years earlier. The various rooms in the main house are decorated in European fashion of the 1930s. Outstanding items include an old-fashioned Western-style toilet and European-style wooden furniture, such as dressing tables and four-poster, canopy-draped beds.

"Almost all the furniture in these houses belonged to Dr Francis (Dr Francis Christian, the first husband of Sa-arng). I believed it was made-to-order by Gerson & Sons Company since I found copies of cheques issued for this company," added Waraporn, who was born to Sa-arng and her second husband Bunphum Suravadi.

Stepping from the veranda with its wicker chairs into the main house, visitors will reach the living room, which has a piano, wooden furniture and a cabinet displaying crystal bottles and wine glasses from Europe. Next is the TV room, which is presented as the dining room.

If you walk across the hallway, which has a large gramophone and mother-of-pearl cupboards, you will find an old-fashioned Western-style toilet next to the staircase. A connected room is a grandmother's former bedroom, which also holds the medical books of Dr Francis.

Walking up the wooden stairs past a cloth presser, you will later see the ancestor room and three bedrooms with European-style wooden furniture and mixed Western and Thai decorations. Among highlights are an art deco dressing cabinet in the mother's bedroom, a large safe, a modern bathroom and a huge European wardrobe in the bedroom of Wanida Suravadi, Waraporn's elder sister.

Behind the main house is the second building dedicated to the memory of the life and work of the British-educated Dr Francis Christian, an Indian physician and British subject.

The third building was modified from a row of eight commercial buildings. The ground floor displays the family's household objects while the upper floor keeps Waraporn's rare books and shows the "Overview Images of Bangkok Metropolis" permanent exhibition, which focuses on Bang Rak district where this museum is located.

Rapeepat Ketkosol, secretary to the Thai Tourism Society, said the museum is a living museum that mirrors the lives and stories of dwellers and also the social condition of the elite before World War II. It is outstanding for serving as a learning centre and focusing on ecological management.

"A must-see there is an exhibition of people's lives from waking up, giving alms, cooking, working to doing housework, maintenance and hobbies. It is comprehensive," Rapeepat noted.

The living room also served as a piano room for Sa-arng, Waraporn's mother, who would normally call her children for a singing gathering during leisure times. The piano was imported from Denmark, bought and given to Sa-arng by her father Sart Tanboontek. The glasses and bottles on view here dated to 1897-1927 and belonged to Dr Francis Christian. Pichaya Svasti

According to museum volunteer Thananchai Anantachaiyakorn, the Bangkok Folk's Museum attracts about 1,000 people, both Thai and foreign, each month. The visitors like the atmosphere and shade trees, as well as rare items, such as a wooden icebox.

Thananchai has continued volunteering even after his employment as staff volunteer was recently terminated by the BMA due to budget reductions. Staff volunteers are paid 360 baht a day by the BMA.

According to Waraporn, the Bangkok Folk's Museum might be one of the very last museums donated by civilians to the BMA. Earlier, there were a number of people who wanted to give their houses for use as local museums. However, red tape and failure to take good care of local museums caused potential donors to change their minds.

"I wonder why the BMA prefers constructing new museum buildings to keeping old houses-turned-museums in good shape," Waraporn questioned.

According to Rapeepat, this museum is a role model for others, with a founder who is unselfish and shares what she has with society. A similar local museum donated by civilians is the Ban Chirayu-Poonsapaya Discovery Learning Library on Sukhumvit 101/1.

At present, the museum is under the supervision of the Bang Rak District Office. Rapeepat suggested that the best way to ensure operational efficiency there is to either hire the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre Foundation or authorise the In-Sart-Sa-arng Foundation to manage the museum.

Participation of the people and business sectors, academics and youth in management should be allowed.

"I cannot say a word about the value and importance of this place. It was a nice, comfy place for me to live," Waraporn said.

The living room also served as a piano room for Sa-arng, Waraporn's mother, who would normally call her children for a singing gathering during leisure times. The piano was imported from Denmark, bought and given to Sa-arng by her father Sart Tanboontek. The glasses and bottles on view here dated to 1897-1927 and belonged to Dr Francis Christian. Pichaya Svasti

The living room also served as a piano room for Sa-arng, Waraporn's mother, who would normally call her children for a singing gathering during leisure times. The piano was imported from Denmark, bought and given to Sa-arng by her father Sart Tanboontek. The glasses and bottles on view here dated to 1897-1927 and belonged to Dr Francis Christian. Pichaya Svasti

In the dining room, you will see a dining table whose legs are decorated in the shape of a lion's paws. It is accompanied by eight Western-style wooden chairs engraved with floral patterns and wickerwork. On the table is a glass box for keeping imported kitchenware and utensils, such as Qing Dynasty blue and white porcelains, green-glazed earthenware, European porcelain by England's Johnson Brother Company and Persian ceramic bowls. Pichaya Svasti

Opposite the dining room is the former bedroom of Somboon Dechakaisaya, a younger sister of Sa-arng's mother In Tanboontek. As Somboon was disabled, she had to use an old-fashioned Western-style toilet although the house had modern toilets and running water. Such an old-style toilet was made of glazed zinc plates, had a wooden seat and cover and was placed on an iron three-leg base. It was widely used when Bangkok had no tap water and modern toilets. After use, users would have to discard the waste, which would be picked up by employees of Onweng Company, a cleaning company, who would ride house-drawn carriages to each house. Pichaya Svasti

Opposite the dining room is the former bedroom of Somboon Dechakaisaya, a younger sister of Sa-arng's mother In Tanboontek. As Somboon was disabled, she had to use an old-fashioned Western-style toilet although the house had modern toilets and running water. Such an old-style toilet was made of glazed zinc plates, had a wooden seat and cover and was placed on an iron three-leg base. It was widely used when Bangkok had no tap water and modern toilets. After use, users would have to discard the waste, which would be picked up by employees of Onweng Company, a cleaning company, who would ride house-drawn carriages to each house. Pichaya Svasti

The Grandmother's Room on the upper floor served as the bedroom for Grandma In Tanboontek and later for Waraporn. It consists of a Western-style bed with four posts for holding a mosquito net, a dressing table with perfume bottles and cosmetics, a wardrobe and a large safe owned and used by Sa-arng's father, Sart Tanboontek, at his rice mill. Also on view in this room are Buddha statues, amulets and several styles of fans. Pichaya Svasti

The Grandmother's Room on the upper floor served as the bedroom for Grandma In Tanboontek and later for Waraporn. It consists of a Western-style bed with four posts for holding a mosquito net, a dressing table with perfume bottles and cosmetics, a wardrobe and a large safe owned and used by Sa-arng's father, Sart Tanboontek, at his rice mill. Also on view in this room are Buddha statues, amulets and several styles of fans. Pichaya Svasti

The Mother's Bedroom is the house's biggest room. It is shown only as a dressing room for Waraporn's parents Sa-arng and Bunphum, who preferred to bring a mattress to sleep on the floor in the hallway to enjoy breeze in summer. The furniture in this room comprises an art deco dressing cabinet with three-sided mirrors, a red and white crystal receptacle set and a dressing table with a washing porcelain bowl. Adjacent is the ancestor room with the precious Benjarong bowls with the Thepphanom design and a small Benjarong jar with a gold-adorned lid (five-coloured ceramics with a design of the Deva (guardian spirits)) and a green crystal jar with a lid dating to the reign of King Rama V (1858-1910). Pichaya Svasti

The bedroom of the foreign-educated Wanida Suravadi is an extended part of the main house. In this room are a bed with four removable posts, a huge European-style wardrobe with curving door panels and oval shape mirrors. The two bedrooms on this wing share a modern bathroom, which had running water and also several big water jars in Thai style. Pichaya Svasti

The second building was relocated from its original location in Soi Ngam Duphi, Thung Maha Mek. Built in 1929, this teak house was intended to be a clinic for Dr Francis Christian. However, it was never used since the doctor died of heart failure at the age of 40. The ground floor keeps the family's old silverware and new paintings. The upper floor is exhibited as Dr Francis's bedroom with his belongings and a small medical examination room with the 1910s-1920s' medical equipment. A highlight is Dr Francis's bust statue cast by Thai contemporary art master Prof Silpa Bhirasri. Pichaya Svasti

The middle part of the third building's ground floor displays earthenware, glassware, baskets, old cameras and photos, a collection of rare goods, old trunks and sewing machines. The right section of the third building's ground floor shows household items, including jars, bowls, animal cages, gardening tools. A highlight is a small room displaying Sa-arng's dressmaking tools and clothes. According to Waraporn, her mother tailored clothes, even student uniforms, for herself and her children by buying fabrics from the Phahurat area. Pichaya Svasti

Travel Info

Located in Charoen Krung 43 in Bang Rak, the Bangkok Folk's Museum is open 10am-4pm from Wednesday-Sunday. Admission is free. Call 02-233-7027 or 02-234-6741.

To get there, travel by car or bus No.1, 16, 35, 75 and 93. Surasak is the closest skytrain station.

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