Bangkok (AFP) – For nearly a century Thanuan has lived in the heart of the bustling alleys of Bangkok’s Chinatown, one of the few areas in the city that still escapes huge malls and skyscrapers. But not for long.
A new metro line will soon pass through this historic district, inevitably bringing about a profound transformation of this chaotic but picturesque area.
The location is ideal to make it a popular new real estate area, a stone’s throw from the Chao Phraya River.
“There is nothing we can do,” said Thanuan Amnueilap, 92, seated at one of the noodle stalls that invade the alleys of the Charoen Chai district.
He lives a stone’s throw from the location of the future metro station which should open in 2018 and will link the district to that of the modern center of Bangkok, not far from there.
About 60 families have lived here for generations and fear eviction. Dozens of houses at the bottom of the street were razed to allow passage of the metro. And the price of land has increased by 20% in five years.
Thanuan and his neighbors are particularly threatened since they live on a plot owned by a charity organization run by the governor of Bangkok, a descendant of the royal family.
“If they want us to leave, we will be forced to,” Thanuan says, back in front of his modest house.
The governor-led body declined to answer AFP’s questions. Since the metro plans are known, it only offers leases for a period of one month.
– Chinese merchant houses –
The district developed in the 18th century, when crowds of merchants of Chinese origin took over and transformed it into a center for commerce.
It is one of the oldest and most important centers of the Chinese diaspora, many of whom fled the famine in southern China and arrived by boat with meager savings in their pockets.
Their dialect, Teochew, can still be heard haphazardly down the alleys.
Some of them have come a long way: some businessmen at the head of the biggest companies in Thailand come from this district.
Among them is Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, who owns and runs the conglomerate TCC Land, which notably owns Chang beer.
He has just bought several small shops selling car spare parts and musical instruments.
No plans have yet been released for this area of Woeng Nakhon Kasem, but residents fear that a shopping center will emerge: Charoen already has several in the city.
Unable to outbid the billionaires, residents nevertheless try to save the soul of their neighborhood.
Sirinee Urunanont, 45, has taken the lead and transformed her small store into a micro-museum dedicated to Chinese opera, popular in the neighborhood. “We have to show people why we want to keep this area,” she said.
Protecting the historic buildings of Chinatown is the mission that Yongtanit Pimonsathean, professor of architecture at Thammasat University, has given for years.
“In Thailand, everything is focused on the preservation of temples, but nothing on private property,” he explains in an office overflowing with maps listing the treasures of the district.
Only 26 buildings in the area are classified as historical heritage, argues the Thai government. However, according to Yongtanit, nearly 7,000 private buildings in the district deserve to be protected.
The biggest challenge, according to him, will be to make the voice of residents heard against real estate developers.
The communities of Bangkok have had difficulty in preserving their art of living and their specificities. Many streets in the Thai capital, including some in Chinatown, have been emptied of their typical little street stalls selling all kinds of skewers or bowls of noodles, much to the chagrin of locals and tourists alike.
According to the plans of the city of Bangkok, the new Chinatown will have green parks and well-aligned fountains, far from the current jumble.
To save her neighborhood, Sirinee and her group sent dozens of petition letters to the authorities. But so far, “it has had no effect,” she laments.
© AFP CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT
A vendor prepares food in an alley in Bangkok’s Chinatown on April 12, 2016