Urban development squeezes a hallowed Chinese burial ground
“When I was little, I used to come here all the time with my parents, but by the time I was a teen I didn’t want anything to do with Chinese customs anymore.”
“I stopped coming, and forgot it even existed until one day not long ago when I was visiting a restaurant on Sathorn Soi 12, and recognized the neighbourhood. I couldn’t remember where the old cemetery was exactly, but after walking around a bit, I finally found it.”
Waraluck was stunned when she saw the graveyard—wedged in between Silom Soi 9 and Narathiwat Ratchanakharin Road—for the first time in over 30 years.
“I wasn’t sure if it was even the same place, because it looked so different,” she says. “I remembered large, tidy, and well-kept grounds from my childhood. It was sad to see the old graves covered in overgrowth, and falling down.”
Waraluck’s great grandfather left China’s Fujian province, an area vulnerable to catastrophic floods and drought, for a new life in Thailand in the late 19th century. From 1882 to 1917, up to 35,000 Chinese entered Thailand every year, mostly settling in Bangkok and along the Gulf of Siam coast.
In 1961, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration banned all burials within city limits, and since then no graves have been added to the Hokkien Cemetery, which is administered by Thailand’s Hokkien Society.
After the opening of the BTS Silom line in 1999, and subsequent construction of Narathiwat Ratchanakharin Road, the cemetery became an embattled piece of real estate. Today, the land holding these graves is worth well over a million baht per square wa (4 sq.m). The Hokkien Society stands to make over a billion baht if they can convince descendants of the people buried here to move them out.
Since 2000 there’s been a steady push to have families shift graves to a new and more spacious cemetery in nearby Chonburi province. The Hokkien Society offers new burial lots at the Chonburi grounds for free, and will pay B100,000 for each grave taken out of the old cemetery.
Enough Chinese Thais have accepted this offer to reduce the size of the Hokkien cemetery by half. Where once there were around 180 graves, today roughly 90 remain.
Looming over the old cemetery like an ascending dragon is the MahaNakhon building, a 77-story luxury mixed-use skyscraper that was conceived in 2009 and is still under construction. Asked whether it was bad luck to build next to a cemetery, MahaNakhon’s managing director Kipson Beck recently stated that they sorted it all out in advance by organizing Buddhist, Christian (a nearby Christian cemetery was also affected), and Brahmin ceremonies to ensure the spirits will be on their side.
“According to our spiritual advisors, the spirits are strong, very powerful. They can be powerful to help us,” said Beck.
The Hokkien Society rents out adjacent land to MahaNakhon as a base for their work force for an estimated B800,000 a month. The society also earns money from owners who pay to park their cars in an empty space in front of the graves.
Starting last year, the society adopted a policy in which anyone who neglects to pay respect to their ancestor’s graves—signing a registry each time—for three years running will lose the right to the graves.
Among those who dutifully tend to their ancestors’ graves, the biggest holdouts at the Hokkien Cemetery are wealthy Chinese-descended Thais—owners of banks, oil companies, and other large businesses—who believe their success may be due to the cemetery’s powerful feng shui.
The future of the cemetery, at least for the short term and in a reduced size, thus seems assured. Khun Yai, the resident caretaker, sleeps every night in an old reception hall in front of the graves. He says he sees ghosts occasionally.
“I’ve seen the reigning spirit here several times,” he says. “She’s a Chinese woman, wearing a blue top and a white bottom. She walks around like a landowner, or a guard. I’m not afraid, but when I see her, I don’t stare. I usually close my eyes for a while, and when I open them, she’s gone.”
Other spirits make appearances as well. “Once in a while there’s a short lady spirit standing in front of the grave belonging to an ancestor of [banker and former finance minister under Abhisit Vejjajiva 2008-2011] Korn Chatikavanij,” he goes on to say. “She usually wears either pink or yellow.”
“If it were me, I’d cremate like the Thais rather than bury my family members,” he adds. “But I’ll stay here till the end. There’s something here—worth memory and respect.”