by Thomas Manuel
The SEANNET team flew into Bangkok on July 15th, the day of the FIFA World Cup final. It was an event that seemed to take on a deeper significance after the recent triumphant rescue of the young Thai football team that had been trapped for weeks. As volunteers flocked from across the world, the rescue had become a much-needed symbol of international collaboration. Similarly, in their best moments, events like the football World Cup bring the world together in celebration of shared humanity. As the SEANNET team watched the final match together with hundreds of Thai supporters in front of a large outdoor screen, it was not about competition, it was about camaraderie.
The day after the final, the Bangkok workshop began in earnest. The venue was the Phra Nakhon campus of the Rajamangala University of Technology (RMUTP), which was very close to Nang Leong, the neighbourhood that was the site of the Bangkok case study. The history of this particular community dates back to the mid-19th century, during the reign of King Rama III. Today, it’s a multi-ethnic neighbourhood with shop houses along the main roads, a large market, many old wooden residences, temples, heritage sites and other features. The Bangkok team, consisting of Boonanan Natakul and Non Arkaraprasertkul, describe Nang Leong as a community in “trilemma”. This trilemma arises from issues around heritage, community and development. Much of these tensions are wrapped up in the functioning of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), the quasi-governmental body that manages the property of the monarch of Thailand. Most residents in Nang Leong are tenants who rent their homes from the CPB. The presence of the CPB ensures that the typical structures of private and public become more complicated. The impending arrival of a metro station is another source of hope and anxiety for the residents as they weigh its commercial advantages to the threat of gentrification. As a quasi-private, quasi-private organization, CPB does possess a relocation plan for those displaced by its development but these plans need not necessarily be democratic or participatory. The Bangkok case study analysed the neighbourhood and its trilemma through a combination of GIS and anthropological methods.
Responding to these and other observations by the Bangkok team, Erik Harms of the Vietnam case study, talked about the problems of defining neighbourhoods and the need for ensuring that boundaries reflect the views of the community residents. These boundaries are often complicated as Jayde Roberts of the Myanmar case study pointed out, saying that in Thingazar town, social and physical boundaries do not overlap. Pijika Pumketkao of the Chiang Mai case study also brought up the difficulty in translating words like “neighbourhood”, especially when the government might use the same word to mean “slum”. Liling Huang of National Taiwan University described how during her own research, one community member had defined a neighbourhood as the “place where you can wear your pyjamas comfortably”. The complexities of definitions and boundaries of the neighbourhood in the South East Asian emerged as an area for potential further exploration with each team possibly contributing from their own contexts. While Paul Rabe cautioned against getting bogged down in debates around definitons, Jeff Hou also added that definitions need to be seen as iterative to avoid excluding subaltern groups.
In a lecture discussing gentrification, Jaturong Pokharatsiri of the Thammasat Faculty of Arch & Planning discussed how rents in Bangkok had risen in some places from 300 baht to 30,000 baht. He described an instance of a primary school being turned into a hotel as an example of “tourism gentrification” where the influx of tourism entrepreneurs have very different uses for space when compared to previous residents. Surajit Sarkar of Ambedkar University responded by saying that while urban development will always lead to winners and losers, planners need to avoid thinking in the binary of old neighbourhood and new development and find ways to harmonize both.
After the lecture, the SEANNET team explored the streets of Nang Leong in six groups. Each group had a different area of focus: heritage shop houses, market, Sala Chaloem Thani, Wat Kae Nang Leong, House of Dance, and deep-fried banana shops. These groups were selected by the organizers for their significance in the identity of Nang Leong as a neighbourhood. For example, the Sala Chaloem Thani or Nang Leong theatre might be the oldest public cinema in Asia. The large wooden theatre was built in 1918 but has been silent since 1996. The resurgence of this theatre as a piece of living heritage is in the hands of the local government. A more intangible example would be deep-fried banana shops, which were an iconic part of the neighbourhood both for their taste and their strategy of selling directly to the cars as they passed through the main roads. While this kind of direct selling is now prohibited and the shops have moved, deep-fried banana is still available in the community.
The team members were encouraged by Non Arkaraprasertkul to apply ‘design thinking’ principles to their observations on Nang Leong. The exercise involved combining fresh eyes and community needs to arrive at out-of-the-box solutions to any problems that the groups might perceive. A few of the members of the Nang Leong community attended these group presentations and seemed to enjoy the spirit of the exercise and the enthusiasm with which the members participated.
The second part of the workshop in Chiang Mai will be expanded in the next blog post.