Slow boat from China – Bangkok’s Chinatown

by Leonard H. Le Blanc III

It is both ironic and amusing to think of the original Bangkok most probably always had a Chinatown. It is believed Chinese traders were living in the small trading post and later customs port from the 15th century. Originally, the Chinese settlers had congregated where the Grand Palace is located today. Following the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, King Taksin established his new kingdom with his capital at Thonburi (‘Wealth Fortress‘). He received aid from the local Teochew merchants who shared ethnic ties with him. They supplied his new capital with rice and provisions. In return, he granted them many favours, including land on the East bank of the Chao Phraya River, opposite his palace and enclosed by city walls, on which to settle their community. The Teochew prospered under King Taksin, at the expense of the previously influential Hokkien, whose community was located in the area of Kudi Chin on the West bank South of the city. 

When King Rama I decided to move the capital from Thon Buri across the river in 1782, he asked the Chinese to move to a swampy, uninhabited area just to the Southeast further along the Chao Phaya River to free up the site of the proposed new palace. He had the palace moved to the East bank of the river, which was more strategically secure. This necessitated the relocation of the Teochew community, a move probably motivated by the fact that the Teochew had been supporters of the King Taksin, while Rama I had ties to the Hokkien. This new ‘Chinatown’ was called Sampeng or Sampheng. The Chinese simply replicated the community they knew in China: two storey shop houses with residences on the second floor, narrow alleyways, good sellers were all tightly clustered together by type or trade. There was one simple dirt thoroughfare called Sampeng Lane.

As wars, famine, and civil strife wracked China, Thailand became a safe haven for more and more Chinese immigrants from the Southern part as the decades passed. As Thailand became stable, trade dramatically increased between the two countries. Every day saw more and more junks appear. Due to a devastating fire that destroyed much of the area 1890, due to the inability of fire trucks to enter the narrow lanes to combat the conflagration. Soon the area was rebuilt with a broader road built in 1891 called Yaowarat.

Began to grow between the two countries. Every single day, more and more Chinese junk boats were bringing goods to Thailand and it was because of these boats that the Wat Yannawa, or the Boat Temple, was built during the Ayutthaya Eera. The main road weaving through Bangkok’s Chinatown is Yaowarat Road, built in 1891. This 1.5 kilometre road is often referred to as being dragon like, weaving in and out of Chinatown’s historical neighbourhood.

Bangkok’s Chinatown is one of the largest Chinatowns in the world. It was founded in 1782 when the city was established as the capital of the Rattanakosin Kingdom and served as the home of the mainly Teochew immigrant Chinese population, who soon became the city’s dominant ethnic group. Originally centred around Sampheng, the core of Chinatown now lies along Yaowarat Road, which serves as its main artery and sometimes lends its name to the entire area, which is often referred to as Yaowarat (Thai: เยาวราช). Chinatown’s entire area is roughly coterminous with Samphanthawong District and includes neighbourhoods such as Song Wat and Talat Noi along the Chao Phraya River, and Charoen Chai, Khlong Thom, and Nakhon Khasem along Charoen Krung Road.

Originally a wilderness area outside the city walls, Chinatown grew to become Bangkok’s commercial hub throughout the late 19th to early 20th centuries but has since declined in prominence as commercial activity moved elsewhere following the city’s expansion. It now serves as a hub of Chinese culture, with numerous shops selling traditional goods, and is especially known as a gastronomic destination.

King Taksin’s reign ended in 1782 when the general Chao Phraya Chakri instigated a coup against him and established the Rattanakosin Kingdom, becoming King Rama I. Rama I had the Teochew resettle in the area of Sampheng, on the river’s East bank Southeast and downstream from the city centre. The area, between Wat Sam Pluem (now Wat Chakkrawat) and Wat Sampheng (now Wat Pathum Khongkha), was then a swampy, inaccessible area. A small road, later to become Sampheng Lane, linked it to the fortified city.

As adept merchants, the Chinese community prospered in trade, and gradually grew as immigrants from China (including non-Teochew minorities) increasingly flooded into Bangkok. Chinatown underwent rapid growth following the signing of the Bowring Treaty, which liberalised international trade, in 1855. Import-export businesses flourished and numerous piers and warehouses arose in the area, their operations further facilitated by the construction of Charoen Krung Road in 1864. Chinatown, now a highly dense shantytown, was ravaged by numerous fires during the second half of the 19th century, which cleared the way for the construction of many new roads, including Yaowarat, during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). By the turn of the 19th -–20th centuries, Chinatown had become Bangkok’s main commercial area, as well as a red-light district hosting opium dens, theatres, nightclubs, and gambling houses.

In the 20th century, Chinatown’s commercial prominence gradually declined as businesses and well -off residents moved to newer areas of the expanding city. Those remaining, however, have continued to practice their culture, making Chinatown a centre of Chinese food, crafts, and religion, despite the general Chinese population’s gradual assimilation into Thai society.

The direction of Chinatown’s future again came into question in the 2010s, with the construction of the Blue Line of the underground MRT, whose Wat Mangkon Station will serve the area. There have been calls for urban conservation, among concerns that old communities are being displaced by development.

Areas

Samphanthawong District, containing most of the Chinatown area

Yaowarat: Yaowarat Road is Chinatown’s main artery. It runs from Odeon Circle, where it splits off Charoen Krung Road, to the old city moat of Khlong Ong Ang.

Odeon Circle: A former traffic circle at the beginning of Yaowarat Road, it is the site of the Chinatown Gate, built in 1999.

Sampheng: Now known as Soi Wanit 1, Sampheng Lane was the original street serving Chinatown. Today it is a busy market consisting of numerous shophouses lining a narrow pedestrian alley.

Charoen Chai: A historic community off Charoen Krung Road

Talat Noi: A fringe neighbourhood Southeast of Yaowarat, it is home to several historic buildings.

Song Wat: The street runs alongside the Chao Phraya River, and used to be the site of numerous cargo piers.

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