Thonburi’s Kudi Jeen district, which now has its own museum, offers a well preserved glimpse into Bangkok’s oldest community
It is a peaceful place; a place where you might think that you are miles away from the hustle and bustle of a metropolis of over 10 million inhabitants. Nestled in the shadow of the Memorial Bridge on one side, and Wat Arun on the other, sits the Kudi Jeen district, a small area centred around a couple of narrow streets on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. By boat, it is easy to spot the area. A church stands near to the river—one of the oldest churches in Bangkok—known as Santa Cruz church, once the centre of the Portuguese and Mestizo community. They fled, along with the Siamese population, from the former capital of Siam—in Ayutthaya—following its complete destruction by Burmese army troops back in 1767.
Ayutthaya was a cosmopolitan metropolis at that time, equivalent to European cities such as Paris or London. It had attracted for centuries a large multi-cultural, multi-ethnic community, including Portuguese settlers. Back in the 15th century they were the first merchants, catholic priests, and shipbuilders to settle in Siam. At that time, their community in Ayutthaya numbered approximately 3,000 people. With the destruction of Ayutthaya, they decided to resettle in the new capital city of the Kingdom, created in 1768 in Thonburi by King Thaksin. The area became a “mini-Ayutthaya”.
“It attracted Portuguese, Siamese, Chinese and Muslim merchants from the South and Burma,” explains Mrs. Navinee Pongthai, a Eurasian lady who is proud to talk about her roots. “Kudi Jeen means, in fact “Chinese Church” due to the blend of cultures here.”
Linked by ferry to Yopiman Pier across the river, the Santa Cruz Church is the most prominent structure on the opposite bank, boasting gracious belfry. It stands on the site of a previous church, built in teakwood, which was constructed in 1770. Following a fire, the church was rebuilt around 1833, and then again extended and embellished 80 years later, resulting in its final design. The church was rebuilt by architect Mario Tamagno and engineer Annibale Rigotti, a pair of Italian artisans that were at that time working for the Siam Department of Public Works. The Tamagno touch is visible in the layout of the church, with its arcades and central dome that echoes basilicas in Tuscany. The church is, however, rarely open to the public, but visitors might take their luck on Sunday morning before the mass.
It’s also fascinating to walk in the maze of minuscule streets surrounding the church, especially in the direction of the canal separating the community from Wat Arun and Wichai Prasit Fort. Many of the small houses, although modern looking, bear distinctive signs of their Portuguese heritage. Pictures of the Virgin Mary of Jesus on the Cross are omnipresent on the walls while some ornate azulejo tiles (Portuguese blue ceramic tiles) can also be seen. But perhaps what’s most amazing is simply observing the people living in this area. After almost 250 years, many still have faces with distinctive Portuguese features, turning them into perfect Eurasians.
NOTE: A few steps beside the main square of Santa Cruz church—on the right side—stands an elegant new house decorated with azulejos and an inner courtyard with a coffee shop. This is the new Baan Kudichin Museum, located at 271 Soi Wat Kanlaya, which is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30am to 6:30pm.