Narrow lanes lined with stolen goods and spare parts, a rabbit warren awash in red light. Peddlers shout and bells ring. The smell of roasting chestnuts floods the air. Neon is carved into the night sky. This is where the old stays old, where signs are handpainted and photographs look like daguerreotypes. It’s where the new grows on the old like patina on a copper pot. This is Bangkok’s Chinatown, a port for migrant souls, a time capsule forever filled with the folklore of the living.
The chronicles of Chinatown are fragmented and weird, written with backstories of migration, erosion, and rebirth. Hundreds of years ago, waves of Han Chinese settled east of the Chao Phraya. When construction began on the Grand Palace in the 18th century, they moved, forcibly or otherwise, down the river to Sampheng Road. In this pre-industrial landscape, the settlers put hammers to metal and built their community, holding tight to tradition as they integrated into Thai society.
Today, family-run businesses claim the same shophouses in which they were established, old institutions like Leng Buai Ia Shrine, Wat Pathum Khongkha, and the Thien Fah Foundation still operate, and, with various circumstances preventing the construction of skyscrapers, the district’s emblematic architectural style has been preserved. In many ways, it’s the same old Chinatown. And yet, current events reveal the early stages of a renaissance. Galleries have given dilapidated spaces new artistic vigour. Dining has left the sidewalks for more accommodating settings. There’s even a burgeoning nightlife scene.
While the cinematic, almost romantic depictions of Bangkok’s old quarters ring true, the ongoing revival in Chinatown unveils a world of greater complexity. It’s changing — and fast.
Some say that the revival was kick-started by El Chiringuito, a small Spanish tapas joint, complete with a bar, a second-floor gallery, and a definite artistic edge. The restaurant inhabits a renovated shophouse on Soi Nana, a pencil-thin alley off Charoen Krung that shares only a name with the more familiar Nana off Sukhumvit. It was a risk, a project started on the heels of a successful similar venture in Spain.
“In Madrid, my friend had bought many, many places in an area that was full of prostitutes and drugs. Not clean, you know? And I convinced him to let me take over a few [of them]. If it didn’t work, I’d give them back,” says Victor Hierro, who runs El Chiringuito with his wife, Supaporn Sae.
“So I called in artists and designers and chefs,” he continues, “and it was crazy good. Within two years it became a hipster neighbourhood, with galleries, restaurants, and cafés opening up by the day. When we came to Chinatown, we saw the same potential in Soi Nana, which was full of empty spaces. And, little by little, it’s working.”
If the movement got going with food, it has accelerated thanks to art. Speedy Grandma on Charoen Krung has given expats and locals a reason to visit Chinatown with greater frequency. Founders Thomas Menard and Lee Anantawat have linked up with fellow curators to offer gallery-hopping nights. They’ve introduced informal discussions with artists, talks that linger into the night at the Speedy Grandma bar. They’ve curated controversial exhibitions that challenge societal standards: nudes, experimental films, unconventional paintings and drawings.As ground-breaking as these artistic contributions have been, their greatest one transcends the medium.
Through pop-up markets, workshops, and parties that throw out all the rules dictating what an opening night should be, Speedy Grandma has engendered a sense of community among artists and art-lovers. Through another of Menard’s projects, Soy Sauce Factory, that community has expanded.
Occupying a building in which, fittingly enough, soy sauce used to be produced, the venue is less a gallery than a community space. On the ground floor is a bar-room, left bare and grey, where drinks come in at reasonable prices. A street food-style kitchen serves Northern Thai cuisine, also pocket-friendly, inviting a wider audience to at least check out what’s going on around Charoen Krung. Parties take over on weekends, but weekday events like yoga classes and film screenings speak to the diversity of activities being introduced to the
Near El Chiringuito stands the collaborative space Cho Why. Although the building may have been renovated in order to share emerging local art with residents of Bangkok, its influence has eclipsed its physical presence.
During one-off events, Cho Why bridges disciplines from film and music to photography and mixed media. Run by a collective of locally based artists and entrepreneurs, the space has invigorated the once-quiet Soi Nana with documentary screenings, rooftop parties and discussions rallied around current world news.
As this burgeoning community settles into its old Thai-Chinese terrain, nightlife has gradually taken shape. Recently, a scene has emerged, led by SoulBar. “I’ve always wanted to start a business in Chinatown. I mean, look around: there’s culture, passion, soul,” says cofounder Romain Dupuy.
Inside a renovated shophouse on the southern edge of Chinatown, shortly after Charoen Krung veers left and crosses the canal, live bands play every night of the week, blasting funk, motown, and soul. The soundtrack jumps from James Brown to The Four Tops. Crowds pour out into the street. The interior is dark and industrial. Local art adds a bright contrast to the walls. The drinks list offers stiff cocktails, a variety of high-end beer, and a rare concoction: draft Leo mixed with flavoured Kombucha, an effervescent, probiotic fermented tea provided by Pure Luck, a brewery down the road from SoulBar — raspberry jam accents the Spring Beer, and mint chocolate the Summer Beer.
There’s a second level with vinyl chairs and low tables for conversation, but Dupuy has plans to enhance it. “I want to carve out a section of the floor and make this area a mezzanine, so if you’re sitting up here, you won’t miss out on the action on the first floor,” he says.
It’s palpable, the excitement in the old town, a community with one eye on the past and the other on the future. The revival is real. It’s refined and dynamic. The Chinatown that has steadfastly clung to tradition, mechanically spooling back generations of migrant odysseys, polishing its timeless charm, has added another chapter to its unfolding story, but it’s nowhere close to complete. More cafés, bars, galleries, and restaurants will open soon. The community brought together by these pioneering artists and organizers will swell and expand, but the neighbourhood will retain its peculiar appeal. Chinatown appears ready to change without ever really changing.
By Craig Sauers