Deck: Bars, galleries, and creative types transform Chinatown’s Soi Nana
Recently I spent an afternoon and evening strolling and drinking my way through the Soi NaNa Craft + Jumble Trail, the third in a series of home-grown street festivals focused on the southeast corner of Prom Prap Sattru Phai district in Chinatown, just a 10-minute walk west of Hua Lamphong Railway Station.
The opening of several bars and public galleries within the last three years alone has put the neighbourhood on the map and made Soi Nana a Bangkok media darling.
In fact the area has been steadily heading towards an urban-tropical interpretation of early 1970s New York Soho for the last 15 years. Thai and expat artists seeking convenient live-work spaces were the first to move in, attracted by old shophouses with high ceilings, lots of natural light, and low rents. The first outsiders to take over a shophouse to use it for something other than pure commerce—Chinese herbal pharmacies and sign-making businesses dominated for most of the 20th century—were Thai photographer Nopadon Kaosam-ang and his wife Klaomas Yipintsoi, who opened About Studio/About Café in a century-old, two-story building at 402-408 Maitrichit Road in 1998.
About Studio/About Café was ahead of its time. It soon became known as one of the best venues in the capital for Thai contemporary art happenings, but if you dropped by for coffee during the day you might find yourself the only customer. By 2006, when my now-defunct band The Tonic Rays shot publicity photos there, its days as a café-gallery were done, and it was only occasionally being used for events.
The fact that Maitrichit Road was—and still is, to a large extent—lined with flophouses whose doorways framed nodding junkies and cut-rate prostitutes has always deterred folks from more genteel parts of town. Today a children’s day care facility has taken over the former About Studio/About Café. Meanwhile Klaomas and Nopadon are busy restoring an old Straits Settlement shophouse in downtown Songkhla to host an art museum which is due to open later this year.
Soi Nana, a 300-metre lane running southwest between Maitrichit and Charoeng Krung roads, took over from where About Studio/About Café left off. Expat Jim Brewer, also known by his artist handle Darkle, found a shophouse to his liking in a quiet sub-soi off Soi Nana, taking up residence in 2002.
“I spent weeks roaming the streets, meticulously photographing the facades of shophouses all over the district and filing them away, just to make sure I hadn’t missed a better spot,” says Brewer. “My shophouse has a certain romance that’s not part of the advertised dream for most upper-middle class Bangkokians. The building creaks, groans, breathes and sweats of its own accord. But one loves it that way. Living on the edge of Chinatown is rawer, more real. It’s social documentary rather than soap opera.”
It’s no coincidence that the soi bears the same name as the Little-Arabia-meets-red-light Nana area along lower Sukhumvit. Much of the property in both neighbourhoods (as well as in Khlong San across the river) is owned by the Nana family, successful descendants of Muslim Gujarati immigrants who not only prospered in business but also developed strong royal and political connections. Lek Nana, known as the “landlord of Bangkok” because of his extensive land holdings, co-founded the Democrat Party and served in various prominent government posts before he passed away at the age of 85 in 2010.
The 15 local shops and galleries participating in the third Soi NaNa Craft + Jumble Trail represent a new generation of residents, both Thai and international, who are changing the neighbourhood’s public image by bringing business here.
Spain’s Victor Hierro, who left a Madrid advertising firm to travel Asia more than a decade ago, moved in to Soi Nana in 2013. Although originally he intended only to reside there, Hierro and his Thai wife, who had mastered Spanish cooking while living in Madrid for six years, opened tapas bar El Chiringuito on the ground floor of a shophouse as an experiment.
Hierro, along with fellow Spaniard David Fernandez, later co-founded an arts venue called Cho Why in a large corner shophouse further up the soi towards Maitrichit Road. The week of the street fest, Cho Why hosted a workshop and exhibition led by photographer Walter Astrada. On the Sunday of the festival, Let The Boy Die served their signature beer Golden Coins, while Finca de Barn and Mad Moa provided coffee and food on the ground and upper floors.
Baan Yok, in a shophouse adjacent to El Chiringuito, is Hierro’s latest venture. Five guest rooms decorated with Chinese and Vietnamese antiques, but with a Spanish flair, go for B850 to B500 a night. Meanwhile Baan Yok’s ground floor has been converted into a restaurant serving Spanish cuisine. Like El Chiringuito it’s only open Thursday to Sunday from 6pm to midnight.
On living in Chinatown, Hierro says “It’s noisy, hot, and crazy, but on the other hand it’s a real neighbourhood, a village really. We buy everything we need locally, so I rarely go anywhere else in Bangkok.”
Bar23, which for seven years livened up Sukhumvit Soi 16 with its reasonably priced drinks, minimal décor, rootsy artwork, and a magnificent selection of rock n’ roll recordings, occupies another renovated shophouse on the soi. The heart and soul of the bar-cum-gallery is artist and rock DJ Mongkol “Go” Sanla, who moved shop to Soi Nana less than a year ago. The most casual venue on Soi Nana, Bar23 offers space for art and photo exhibitions on two floors. It’s open every night except Monday.
“I moved Bar23 because I wanted a fresh start,” says Go. “The scene is new here, you can still feel the raw power. I love the local ambience and the unique characters running around. Plus it’s a lot cheaper than Sukhumvit.”
Former ad-man Kong Lertkangwarnklai runs Tep Bar in a 1920-vintage building that once served as a location for Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth.” The name is an abbreviation of Krung Thep, the Thai name for Bangkok, and the theme is retro Thai. Cocktails are fashioned around Thai herb-infused liquors, and a small piphat ensemble plays Thai classical and fusion most evenings.
“My clientele is about 70 per cent Thai, 30 per cent farang,” says Kong. “The younger generation these days sees Thai-ness as old-fashioned, so we present it in a casual, stream-lined package that blends well with modern life.”
Anikamon Moni has lived in Soi Nana with her DJ/painter husband Justin Mills for the last nine years. I paid a visit to their rustic live-work space to listen to her opinions on where the neighbourhood was going.
“The first generation of residents in Soi Nana, those who have been here over 30 years, accepted the second generation quite readily because all we do is live and work here. We don’t do business, and we have no public face,” she says.
“Now that a third generation has moved in during the last three years to open bars, restaurants, and galleries, Soi Nana is no longer the quiet back soi it once was. But the original residents are still pretty accepting. The challenge is to keep these three generations living in harmony side by side. Noise levels are definitely an issue with the older residents, but so far so good.”
Darkle says change in faddish Soi Nana is inevitable. “That’s Bangkok. It was photo stickers, roti buns, and Krispy Kremes, and then fixed-gear bikes and beards and vintage markets—with many more moves in between—and who knows what next?”