There are many Chinatowns around the world and you may say you know what it’s like but you really haven’t been to Chinatown if you haven’t been to the Bangkok version of a Chinese community.
The Chinatown of Bangkok is called Yaowarat by locals, named after the main road running through this Chinese part of town and it can either wreak its own minor havoc with your perception of urban life or you will feel intrigued and fascinated by its energy and overwhelming abundance of never-seen before oddities and nooks and crannies that can be explored. Whatever it is, a journey through Bangkok’s Chinatown will catapult you straight into a corner of Bangkok that is so distinct from any other part and reminiscent of 50’s and 60’s Bangkok. Chinatown is not about seeing scattered, single attractions but about the overall experience as an all encompassing, unique micro cosmos of Asian vibe and exoticism. For first time visitors, coming to Bangkok, means heading straight to the historical core around the Grand Palace and Wat Phrakaew and the icons of Thailand’s tourism marketing but Chinatown is just as historical but it will take a bit more stamina and curiosity in urban exploration and it stipulates that every comparison or concept of urban-life has to be thrown overboard before entering this part of town.
Yaowarat is not only one of the largest Chinese communities but also the oldest and most authentic Chinese community outside China. It was born out of a relocation order by King Rama I who ordered the Chinese settlers (or maybe asked them politely) to move southwards to make way for the construction of the Grand Palace. Once they settled in their new home, the tiny, narrow lane where many of today’s accessory sellers buy their bling bling, became Chinatowns first main road called Sampheng. Today not only the retailers and vendors from Siam Square go shopping there, it seems as if the rest of Thailand follows suit and if they do so – they do it on their scooters!!
Chinatown was the gateway for massive Chinese immigration as well as the main trading point between China and Siam. And when Chinese junks started clogging the banks of the Chao Phraya River, Chinese immigration reached almost 1.5 million by 1907 making up 30% of Bangkok’s population. After Bangkok kept on sprawling further in all directions with the river as its starting point, King Rama V then commissioned the construction of the 1.5km Yaowarat Road in 1891. Yaowarat is now the main thoroughfare of Chinatown, weaving like the body of a giant dragon from the Odeon Circle (Chinatown gate) as its head westwards to Pahurat (its tail). The applied Feng Shui principle may explain why this is one of the very few curvy roads in Bangkok. To the north and the south of Yaowarat an incredible maze of alleys was formed, squeezing and condensing the area like no other part of Bangkok. In this bustling and buzzing human anthill business thrived and grew as fast as the community expanded and they expanded and grew faster than any other community. Whether that could be attributed to the magic of Fengshui in its midst doesn’t matter, what matters is that the Chinese who came to Siam built their lives from scratch or as the Thai saying goes:”One pillow – one mattress” but they became the dominant economic force until today. Upon arrival they were either being tattooed on their wrist to indicate a bond-slave status or given a token around the wrist to roam freely as tax payers. Whether token or tattoo, they were soon to control the trade and also set out to establish the first banks in Thailand. Their community boasted the city’s first high-rise buildings like the “Duek Gaw Chan” the nine-storey building which was the Bangkok 101 of the time. Yaowarat and Sampeng were the Fifth Avenue, Broadway and Wall-Street of the 19th and early - mid 20th century Bangkok, with all its department stores, shops, restaurants, trading houses but also brothels, opium and gambling dens. After a period of escalating gang warfare and a massive clean up by Siamese troops, Chinatown continued to do what it does best – business!
Today China town is bordered by the river in the south, and Luang Road in the north. The two canals Krung Kasem and Ong Ang are the brackets to the east and to the west embracing and squeezing this 3 square kilometer urban Olla Podrida in which the brothels, opium and gambling dens of the past are gone (except for the hidden illegal ones) but where still 99 Chinese temples, a Sikh temple, 3 Thai Buddhist temples, a mosque, a church, over 130 gold shops, trading houses, the Omnipresent markets, stores, restaurants, coffee houses and hotels can be found as well as traders and vendors of all types, from hardware to spices to dry goods and toys all generating income for most of the over 100,000 residents. On top of that over 300,000 visitors are absorbed into this urban supernova to do business, shop, eat and visit. No wonder till today, Chinatown is also the world’s largest market and trading center for gold ornaments. The skills and crafts of their goldsmith have earned world fame, the whole sale goods are sold throughout the country, the local markets attract even star chefs from five-star hotels, tourists are drawn by its off the beaten track charm, and Thais by the incredible choice of food with the reputation of boasting some of the best seafood in town.
In general it could be said that if Yaowarat was a flat-share community, it would be a 25 square meter studio apartment without air-conditioning, shared by 14 people all of them workaholics working from home and students with lots of stuff to store but most of them great cooks with space to conjure up the best food in the block. They would exhibit space efficiency on a new level and at the same time keeping the harmony as the people of Yaowarat display every single day. The reason why the area hasn’t changed much over the last 60 years could be rooted in a strong community fabric but also because there’s not enough space to even think about renovating or tearing down old buildings or… the Chinese are simply, just too busy. Whatever the reason is, we hope Chinatown will remain that way for decades to come, and that modernization and development keep their fingers of this part of town so it can retain its unique blend that makes it one of the most authentic, interesting, exciting, exotic and fascinating Chinatowns in the world.
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