One of the very few remaining examples of classic Southern Chinese architecture left anywhere in Bangkok
Over 130 years ago, Teochew adventurer Tan Siew-Wang sailed from Southern China to Bangkok, where he founded the Wanglee clan, one of Thailand’s most prominent Thai-Chinese family dynasties, now in its 5th generation.
Virtually nothing is known of the Wanglee forbear, who took up residence next to a Chao Phraya River steamship pier, built in 1850 to receive vessels from China, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
One of tens of thousands of Chinese who disembarked at the Thonburi pier in the late 19th century, Tan Siew-Wang must have been a very determined man. Within a decade of his arrival, he established a successful rice mill next to the pier, along with another four mills further downriver.
After marrying a Thai woman of Chinese descent, he built Wanglee House, a large courtyard house in classic Southern Chinese style, along with a number of large go-downs, alongside the pier.
The house still stands today—one of the very few remaining examples of such architecture anywhere in Bangkok—and has been so well preserved that in 1984 it was honoured with an architectural conservation award from the prestigious Association of Siamese Architects (ASA).
The Wanglee House has never been open to the public, but an adjacent Wanglee warehouse and shrine complex was last year converted into a riverfront mixed-used community mall. Covering 6,800 sq.m, the historic site opened its doors last month with a co-working space, dining outlets, and art and design shops occupying huge, thick-walled rooms in the two-story complex.
Lhong 1919, the project’s official name, refers to the original Chinese name for the defunct steamship pier, Huay Jung Long. Curiously, no one involved with the project could explain to me why the ‘h’ is included in the Roman transcription, as there’s no such letter in the Thai spelling of the Chinese name. The 1919 refers to the year in which ownership of the pier was transferred to the Wanglee clan, at which point the name was actually changed from Huay Jung Long to Wanglee Pier.
The main two-story complex forms a U around a vast courtyard, offering visitors a look at post-Ming dynasty Chinese architecture designed with axiality, balance, symmetry, and other values of feng shui in mind.
At the inside lateral of the U stands a 167-year-old shrine to Mazu, a Chinese sea goddess believed to be a deified form of Lin Moniang, a 10th-century Fujianese shamaness who after her death became the patron saint of Chinese seafarers. Here the goddess is also referred to by her Teochew name Ma Jo, or by the more familiar Thai moniker Thapthim.
As marine trade at the pier dropped in the 20th century, the warehouses became a storage facility for Wanglee farm produce shipped down the river from up north. Rooms also served as offices and rented accommodation for company employees. As road and rail supplanted river transport, the facility was semi-abandoned and suffered neglect and disrepair.
When the Wanglee patriarchs decided to rehabilitate and open the complex to the public, Rujiraporn Wanglee (above right), founder of award-winning interior design firm PIA, was put in charge of the renovation, which was carried out so as to preserve the original art and architecture as much as possible. Layers of paint were removed from walls to reveal Chinese mural art, while wood lintels, windows, and door frames were refinished—and in many cases, rebuilt. To highlight the buildings’ age, brick has been left exposed in spots where the plaster had fallen away.
Whether the cute clothing boutiques, ice cream vendors, and Thai fusion coffee shops occupying much of the space at Lhong 1919 detract from the original intention is a matter of perspective. But on my recent Sunday visit, the thick crowds of cameraphone-wielding Thai and Chinese tourists were unequivocally a distraction. One could literally look in any direction and count at least 20 people posing for photos in one’s line of vision, with plenty of selfie sticks negating any contemplation of history.
Dining outlets so far include capacious Rong Si Rim Nam, specializing in Thai seafood, in a separate warehouse by the river, along with Nay Hang (traditional Thai coffee and simple Thai dishes like som tam and satay), and Plearn Wanpanich (Chinese-Thai snacks such as half-boiled egg, steamed bread with sangkhaya, and roast duck buns).
Dr. Saran Wanglee, senior executive vice president at family-owned Navakij Insurance and Lhong 1919 spokesperson, told the Bangkok Post in September that the complex was targeting 2,000 to 3,000 visitors in the first year, but so far such numbers are readily reached in a single weekend. Perhaps the crowds will thin out as the novelty wears off. In the meantime, I advise visiting on a weekday rather than the weekend if you want to avoid the crowds.
By the way, if you want to catch a glimpse of the Wanglee House interior courtyard, climb to the top of the eight-story pagoda at adjacent Chee Chin Khor Chinese temple. History here extends beyond the Wanglee property to Chiang Mai Road, the two-lane street leading to Lhong 1919 from Thonburi’s Somdet Chao Phraya Road. Today lined with 50- to 100-year-old two-story shophouses, the street was built in 1930 and received its name from Rama VII to commemorate the recapture of Chiang Mai from the Burmese in 1775 by a joint force of Siam and Lanna troops under the command of King Taksin the Great.
The only king of the short-lived Thonburi kingdom (1768–1782), Thai-Chinese Taksin is credited with the re-unification of Siam after the kingdom split into warlord-ruled fiefdoms following the total destruction of Ayutthaya by the Burmese in 1767. After establishing Thonburi as the new capital, Taksin was executed by his long-time friend Thongduang, a Mon noble who had served in Taksin’s royal court as Somdet Chao Phraya. Thongduang took the Siamese throne as Rama I, the first king of the Chakri Dynasty, and transferred the capital from Thonburi to modern day Bangkok, across the river.
By Joe Cummings/CPA Media
248 Chiang Mai Road, Khlong San
Open daily: 8am to 8pm
Tel: 08 1994 4597