Neo-Classical princess languishes by the river, awaiting the kiss of life
For local photographers, it’s a semi-secret spot for fashion shoots and album covers. For real estate developers, it’s the dream project of a lifetime. And for the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority, it’s an eyesore which barely escapes being condemned and barricaded.
The former Customs House, a set of three grand Neo-Palladian buildings facing the Chao Phraya River at the end of Charoen Krung Soi 36, was built in 1888 to collect import and export duties on all goods coming in or out of Siam by ship. The Siamese Treasury chose the location because it was next to the French embassy (now the French ambassador’s residence), and very close to the Oriental Hotel as well as Diethelm, Grimm, Louis T. Leonowens, and other major trading company offices of the day.
Rama V (King Chulalongkorn) ordered the construction of the facility in order to cope with administration tasks pursuant to the signing of the Bowring Treaty of 1855, which liberalized trade with the United Kingdom and captured the attention of other European trading interests.
Joachim Grassi (1837-1904), probably the first Italian architect to work for the Siamese crown, designed the edifice, and today it’s considered one his finest achievements. A few years earlier, Grassi designed what was then the largest building in Bangkok, the imposing Royal Army Barracks, opposite the Grand Palace. He was also responsible for the 1877 construction of Wat Niwet Thammaprawat, an unusual Buddhist temple in Bang Pa-In designed in European gothic style, complete with a church-like tower, stained-glass windows, and a gothic altar where armoured knights flank the principal Buddha image.
In classic Neo-Palladian style, the façade of Customs House’s main building is richly decorated with columns, and both bay and arch windows topped by delicately carved teak fanlights. The bulk of the building consists of three stories, with soaring three-meter-high ceilings and a flat parapet roof. The center wing of the building adds a fourth story with a Greek-inspired hipped roof, in the gable of which is placed a giant metal clock embellished with the royal insignia of Rama V. At the apex of the hipped roof sits a rectangular block topped by two lion sculptures, symbolizing power and royalty. The lions are standing on one hind leg, and using their two forepaws and other hind leg to support a pair of chatra, the three-tiered ceremonial umbrellas often seen in Thai temples and palaces. Among the interior highlights are a grand central teak staircase and an intense yellow and red linoleum floor, featuring a striking solar symbol in the center. Many of the rooms bear teak-plank floors and teak ceilings.
Aside from the many rooms dedicated to tax activities, a large hall on the left wing of the third floor was created as a ballroom for visiting ships officers and foreign emissaries. When Rama V returned from his first visit to Europe in 1897, his ship docked in front of the Customs House, and an elaborate reception was held in the ballroom and in the main foyer on the ground floor.
In 1949, after a larger, more modern port opened in Khlong Toey, the customs office was moved to the new port. The buildings stood vacant until 1959, when they were turned over to the Bang Rak Fire Brigade for use as a residence for their employees. Over time, the fire brigade employees and their families were joined by families of the Bang Rak Marine Police, and the Treasury Department, who are allowed to live here rent-free.
Sadly the Thai government performs virtually no maintenance on the three buildings, and today the grande dame presents a conglomeration of peeling ochre paint and failing plaster that has fallen away in many places to expose brick to the elements. Banyan trees and other vegetation have invaded the roof, especially in the eastern corner of the central building, and are steadily destabilizing the walls. Blue-streaked doors and windows, often framing laundry flapping in the river breeze, add to the faded charm.
Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai used the Customs House as a backdrop for several scenes in his highly regarded film In the Mood for Love. The film was set in 1962 Hong Kong, and as the director said in an interview, “To make period films in Hong Kong is almost impossible. You need to go to places in Southeast Asia like Bangkok or parts of Malaysia, because in these cities you still find old buildings which belonged to Chinese communities in earlier days.” The Customs House also crops up in scenes from The Killing Fields (1984), standing in for old Phnom Penh.
What the future holds for the old Customs House is difficult to ascertain. A decade ago plans were afoot to renovate the buildings as a super-deluxe Aman resort. Natural Park Public Company signed a contract with the Treasury Department to develop and manage the hotel for 30 years. Money changed hands, disputes arose, and the project has been postponed.
My general impression is conservation needs to begin very soon, before collapse sets in. In the meantime, it’s surprisingly open to the public—in neighborhood eyes, it’s little more than a slum. Do be very careful if you decide to have a look inside, as the flooring can be fragile, even absent in places.