Losing its soul

Thailand’s military government wants to turn the chaotic metropolis of Bangkok into a kind of Singapore: tidy, sterile and easily controllable – and thus, a symbol of its power

Katrin Kuntz
July 19, 2018
Losing its soul
A Thai man walks past a large billboard showing a completed artists impression of the under construction Grand Rama 9 Tower, in Bangkok. Photo: Narong Sangnak / EPA-EFE

On an evening in Bangkok, when the streets vibrate with the rattling of the mopeds and the blue hour descends, the cooks pour out of the alleys to defend their city’s heritage. They are women with strong arms and men with tanned faces, they push metal carts in front of them, light fires and open pots. From behind a wall of steam they serve meatballs, hot papaya salad, sticky rice with mango and shrimps on a spit.

They roast fast and shred in a hurry, because Thailand’s junta hunts them, the vagabond salesmen, mercilessly.

The capital Bangkok, which has grown into a functioning chaos over decades, is to become a kind of second Singapore. The process is advancing quickly and decisively. The junta wants to show it is moving Thailand forward. It’s a gang power structure.

And so Bangkok, that vibrating juggernaut, is lying there these days as defenceless as an anesthetised elephant. Investors are pulling up malls and residential towers at every corner, opening coffee chains and burger shops.

A woman grills chicken skewers at a street food stall in Chinatown, Bangkok. Photo: Diego Azubel / EPA

Globalisation comes in the guise of a leveller, courted by a military government that has forgotten part of its history and culture. The generals have been in power for a good four years, but in the end they have come under pressure in the face of accusations of corruption and ever-louder demands for democracy. And they do not have much time left to present a legacy, a justification for their rule, before the elections due to take place in spring 2019.

This is what the “embellishment” of Bangkok – the transformation of this metropolis of 12 million inhabitants into a sterile and faceless place – is supposed to achieve.

We have decided to drive them all away now. About 20,000 vendors still need to be relocated

Vallop Suwandee, Advisor to the Governor of Bangkok

The street vendors are the first victims of this campaign because they are relatively easy to get rid of. Under the pretext that they block pavements, the military harass them to pay fees or increase the cost of renting a place in a market hall.

“The police took the cart from us,” says Wassana Thanom, 36, who has been selling coffee with her husband for years. “We had to pay THB 2,000 ($60) to get it back.”

The junta is not the first government to clean up Bangkok; Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in 2006, also admired Singapore’s tidiness. “But we could ignore earlier warnings,” says Thanom. Since the military gave orders, she doesn’t dare anymore.

And the military are wasting no time. “We have decided to drive them all away now. About 20,000 vendors still need to be relocated,” Vallop Suwandee, an advisor to the Governor of Bangkok, said in March. “We want to compare ourselves with Singapore. We want to compare ourselves with Tokyo,” he continued.

Tourists walk past street food vendors in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Photo: Diego Azubel / EPA

But what does that mean when you try to turn a city with a centuries-old history into a modern metropolis in a hurry? Will the 20 million tourists who arrive every year recognise it? Will a trimmed Bangkok keep its place as one of the most visited cities in the world? And what happens to the inhabitants, especially the poor, when investors take control?

What gentrification does to Bangkok can be seen in many places, in a historic fort, in the creative district by the river and, above all, in the Chinese quarter.

“We show guests Chinatown before it disappears,” says 39-year-old tour guide Michael Biedassek from Germany, who has lived in Bangkok for over 15 years. “The city is changing so fast that every day houses, roads and people disappear.”

On this day Biedassek, a humorous man in jeans and trainers, sits in a café in Chinatown with his Thai colleagues and discusses a new tour called “Bye-Bye Chinatown”. Behind Biedassek, old Chinese men, who play backgammon or have dozed off, squat like scenes from a historical photo book.

Biedassek wants to show tourists all facets of the city. So he also has to deal with the rapid changes.

“Come!” he calls and walks out into the alleys with the guides. Bangkok, he says, became the capital of the kingdom of Rattanakosin in 1782. At that time Chinatown developed into an important trading centre, a red light district with opium sheds, theatres and nightclubs. Much of the atmosphere has remained; hardly any malls, skyscrapers or hotels of international chains are standing here. But this is likely to change as soon as four new metro stations are opened in 2019.

“Thailand’s richest investors buy up Chinatown,” says Biedassek, pointing to what he calls “wounds”.

Magnolias Ratchadamri Boulevard is a new mixed-use development in Bangkok

There’s a channel where market women sold vegetables for decades until the government chased them away. There is the old market with the first butcher of Bangkok, recently bought by the brewery group ThaiBev, whose founder, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, is one of the richest Thais and one of the biggest real estate investors. And in the city centre, the tycoon is currently having the district “One Bangkok”, the country’s largest private real estate project, built.

All with the good will of the junta.

A walk with Biedassek seems like an excursion into a fading world. You can almost watch old houses, historical gates or traditional market stalls disappear or resurrect as Disneyland imitations.

In the street Soi Nana a young generation of rich Thais has established tasteful bars. On the ground floor craft beer is sold for the equivalent of $7, and on the upper floor tourists live in stylish Airbnb apartments. It is no longer only artists and dropouts from the West driving change, as they did a few years ago.

“Everyone wants a piece of the cake,” says one of the young Thai owners.

A major new construction called the Icon Siam featuring retail, residential, entertainment, art and cultural space – bordering the Chao Phraya river running through the Thai capital. Photo: Icon Siam Shopping Mall

For the moment, the prostitutes, the old coffee brewer, the homeless guy outside the door are still here. Soon, though, the residents will no longer be able to afford the rent and will be displaced by the Chinese tourists who take photos of their elaborately decorated cupcakes.

Biedassek strives for a neutral tone. “We don’t want to sound like activists,” he says. The guides should show the guests the development, but not necessarily comment on it. “Maybe the Thai like it better that way.” It is the question that arises in any kind of urban development: What’s good? And who decides?

Under the pretext of embellishment, the Thai government is undermining existing lifestyles and driving out the poor

Michael Herzfeld, Harvard University

In any case, the inhabitants have no say in the matter; change is prescribed from above. The Singapore model was also planned by the country’s leaders about 50 years ago, and the development was implemented authoritatively. The founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, transformed the island, a remnant of the British colonial empire without natural resources, into a globalised, modern metropolis. It does not evoke emotions, but it works. To transfer this example to Bangkok, 236-years-old and growing wild, is absurd. It was only a few decades ago that people there began to think about urban planning.

Fort Mahakan, in the old town, was built in the 18th century as one of 14 citadels protecting Bangkok’s city centre. On this day, behind the city wall, a bare-chested man is standing in a pile of rubble and bricks.

“We are fighting for our history,” Thawatchai Woramahakhun, 60, one of the leaders of the Fort community and a fierce opponent of the junta, shouts. “They’re not interested in the past. They’re tearing down our houses!” Trembling, he stalks through the remains of a centuries-old wooden house. The bulldozers have knocked everything down. The government displaced most of the 300 people who once lived here. Meanwhile, the last inhabitants have given up.

“Under the pretext of embellishment, the Thai government is undermining existing lifestyles and driving out the poor,” says Michael Herzfeld, professor of anthropology at Harvard University and an expert on Bangkok’s urban development. “Fort Mahakan would have been a perfect example of how traditional lifestyles can be integrated into the urban context.” But the junta despises the poor; it doesn’t want to integrate, it wants to clean up.

“Anyone who wants to run a city must first love its people,” says architect Duangrit Bunnag, who is regarded as Bangkok’s provocative lateral thinker and prominent opponent of the junta. Duangrit, 53, wears round hipster glasses and speaks with a slight American accent. In one of his rare free minutes he sits at a wooden table in the café of Warehouse 30, which used to be a warehouse. Duangrit is the co-founder of the “creative district”, which stretches along the river and includes galleries, cafés and historic buildings, but also luxury hotels and malls.

Duangrit raves about the inventiveness of the energetic inhabitants. “Cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur envy us because it’s so lively here,” he says. He wants to be on the good side of urban development, which takes the inhabitants into consideration. Every artist can apply to him with ideas, Duangrit says, and help to realise projects.

What he says sounds great. But if you take a closer look, you understand that Duangrit is something like an anarchist in Gucci clothes.

Architect Duangrit Bunnag

His attitude is not too different from the attitude of the Junta, which he criticises. The regime tolerates the supposed freedom because it knows that culture can be marketed well, especially if it comes along in “industrial chic”. In the form of abandoned warehouses that spring into bright, airy cathedrals where you can eat, shop or attend concerts.

The thing is, these cathedrals might as well be at home in New York or Berlin. Duangrit is also orientated towards the West and less towards what makes Bangkok what it is. But his word “creative” makes this gentrification sound good. But urban development, as Duangrit understands, must also be affordable.

In the Warehouse 30 shop you can buy nice things: vintage leather jackets, Manduka yoga mats, designer glasses or coconut-sweetened granola flakes. Duangrit has created a beautiful, expensive playground for hipsters.

It is not the junta alone that is driving out Bangkok’s poor, wiping out traditions and the old ways. It is also people like Duangrit – artists, creatives and traders from the upper-middle class who benefit from change, while millions of Bangkok residents become extras in their own city that they can no longer afford.

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