“Updated Sense of Belonging” of Nang Loeng 

by Boonanan Natakun and Non Arkaraprasertkul

During the past six months after Southeast Asian Neighborhood Network (SEANNET) workshop in Bangkok last July, we have been keeping track with what has been happening at project site, the Nang Loeng Neighborhood. Residents, as always, know and therefore welcome us to their homes and speak to us about the change they have experienced. According to these residents themselves, the most observable change has been in the increasing public engagement through public events taking place in the Neighborhood. These events, on the surface, undoubtedly yield some positive signs of improved social engagement. Residents have been mobilized to take part in activities that their local knowledge, social capital, and avid interest are vital to co-creating a larger collective sense of awareness of the existence of this close-knit community. As one of the keys to the success of participatory community development is the reinforcing of the “updated sense of belonging” — the feeling of being able to keep up with the change — of the local residents, these public events have a measurable impact, among the local residents, in fostering such sense. In this report, we want to share with you what these events are and what are the set of practical questions we would like to ask in how they have affected Nang Loeng Neighborhood.

Here is a disclaimer. As much as we would love to confidently claim that our two-year involvement with the community through the SEANNET program has helped to spark these positive signs of improved social engagement, we could only speculate that our humble assistance and support for the local residents in empowering them with design thinking approach may have a small role to play in inducing these projects (interested readers may like to read our previous post on design thinking and Nang Leong community development). To be precise, the observed two cultural events and one “mysterious” physical improvement project are, to us, examples of cultural movements with the synergy of global connectivity and their effort to promote the sense of “updated sense of belonging” through local tourism.

1. Buffalo Field (งานสนามควาย): A Performing Art Event at Nang Loeng (25 Nov – 1 Dec 2018)

This performing art event was held for the second time in a row. Needless to say, Dr Boonanan Natakun (Pan) had a soft spot for this type of events owing to his passion (aside from doing research) as an avid musician. The latest Buffalo Field (the latest event) was much bigger in scope and more flourish in the presentation than the last one. Funded by an international organization, the event invited international art performers from all around the world, such as Colombia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand, to interact with the neighborhood and their unique social spaces, showing how they reinterpreted Nang Loeng based on their diverse artistic perspectives.

With over a century-long of the history of traditional Thai performance, namely the Chatree Play, Nang Loeng was a perfect ground for these enthusiastic artists. Along with unique spaces and old buildings in the Nang Loeng Neighborhood, the Chatree Play was the major source of inspiration for these international artists to utilize their contemporary yet cultural-specific interpretations of performance art to interact with the local culture.

Focusing on their (em)bodied perceptions and movements, these artists transformed the local spaces into “artistic realms” where keen observers and local residents experienced unique artistic interpretations. One of the interesting groups of multinational artists, for instance, performed their spiritual dance in front of a temple wall, which was originally designed to keep and protect cremation for the worshipping of the ancestors’ descents. Though paradoxical, at least culturally as it may sound, this performance’s re-interpretation of the meaning and use of this particular spiritual space positively evoked the sense of curiosity both among the locals and outside observers. What does it mean for a wall to be a place for worshipping, and what does it mean for such a place to accommodate a kind of active performance that provocatively ascend its deeply-rooted meaning of the passive wall for the passive spirits to reside? Another example was a New Zealand artist chose the interior of a shop-house styled space, previously utilized as a local clinic before being abandoned, to create their artistic performance. And the list goes on.

To engage with the locals and the general public, this event also offered a contemporary dance workshop, which Pan did not think twice before taking part in it. Yes, it’s a “contemporary,” and not a typical dance workshop; hence, participants were urged to listen to their inner voice, with the help of the artist’s props, to dance unchoreographically. What Pan, a-researcher-turned-situational-contemporary-dancer, learned (beyond the feeling of initial awkwardness) was how “not to think,” but how he might sensibly express his inner feeling through the movement of his body. No one was watching and no one was paying attention except Pan himself (at least that’s what Pan thought). We wish we could show you how awkward that dance was for Pan through a video; unfortunately, it wasn’t recorded. At this point, the other researcher Dr Non Arkaraprasertkul, also wished he could join but sadly he was not in the country at the time. “Just move as your inner feeling tells you,” said the artist. Afterwards, Pan remarked: “What I had learned from the workshop was that being an embodied art performer was not easy; however, there was a need of focus upon a single or several subjects at the same time and move my body to interact with those subject(s) without any hesitations and recognition of others looking at you.”

Photos courtesy of Boonanan and Ploy Yamtree

2. Old Bangkok Neighborhood Development towards Creative Tourism (25 Aug – present)

Bangkok Tourism Authority and Sport Department under the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) have launched a collaborative and participative research project in selected seven old urban neighborhoods across the city, which Nang Loeng was of them. Needless to say, Nang Loeng has been chosen because of its unique history and cultural infrastructure. The goal was to build up the locals’ capacities to promote “creative tourism” in the city as well as the region. The project consists of three major parts. The first part consisted of a walking tour campaign at all seven chosen old Bangkok neighborhoods. Groups of local leaders were organized to bring all participants to well-known tourist areas with the goal of delivering the hands-on experience of how these successful tourist areas operated. By encouraging the local participants to engage with their own areas, the walking tour campaign helped the locals to empathize with the larger public: To see through their lenses what kind of things they would like to see, learn and experiences they would like to have when going on a tour. Second, there were collaborative meetings between active local actors and key informants to share their personal histories, wisdom and memories with the goal of collecting these qualitative data to be extracted and use as a means to prototype key value propositions of these communities. Moving to the third and last phase, organizers are hoping to design creative tour routes. With the understanding of the users’ need, User Interface and User Experience (UI/UX) elements such as signage and wall decorations are to be collaboratively designed to guide and orient visitors who may prefer to be self-guided around the neighborhoods. Most meetings and workshops were held neither the market nor temple areas, but the newly built community center nearby offering a nice, clean and comfortable venue for holding any community and civic projects both within and outside Nang Loeng area. Called “Bangkok 1899” and “Na’ café,” this public space was originally owned by a residence who was a member of a Thai noble family. The current house owner auspiciously rent out her house for this project to promote social enterprises, cultural and environmental awareness among Thai citizens.

At this point, we see how this collaborative “boosting” of local tourism would benefit local residents and build collective capacity. The idea of the locals’ organizing their own local tour is key to the sustainable transformation of the local neighborhoods. Who else would be the best to do it than by the locals whose sense of being and belonging are the most valuable infrastructure that drives them? Some of the new ideas sprung out of exposing the locals to the demand of the contemporary society (e.g., self-guided tour) giving them a better understanding of the perception of the larger public as well as the positioning of their own vital roles.

3. A “Mysterious” Physical Improvement Project of Sala Chalerm Thani (Dec 18 – Dec 19; as planned).

The last “mysterious” yet expectable change within Nang Loeng community is the renovation processes of Sala Chalerm Thani, the architectural emblem of Nang Leong. After several decades-long of being abandoned, this once the widest-single-span wooden structure in Southeast Asia was also once a state-of-the-art theatre of Bangkok. Today, visitors to Nang Loeng could not miss this gigantic building with a majestic feel of its past glory day as the hub of high culture. That said, these visitors may doubt why its door is always closed and that the building looks as though it could collapse any time. Arguments over the past decade about this building were primarily about its maintenance and future tenants: The building could be renovated but what mechanisms, market or else, would prevent it from deteriorating again? Currently, a long-term resident whose house is located right next to it has been renting the theatre from the de jure owner of the land on which the property situates, the Crown Property Bureau (CPB). This resident used this building only as a private warehouse; hence the reason why it is always closed to the public. It’s also he who also serves as an ad hoc caretaker of this building. Although the poor condition of the old timber roof trusses is the main reason for its largely unusable interior space, its spacious front lawn has been used, quite often, as a venue for public events. Recently, CPB has announced the plan to renovate the theatre, yet without mentioning and telling the local residents for what purpose it will be used.

Through these three events during the past six months, we have observed a positive community (re)development momentum garnering its acceleration from international networks, government authorities and landowners. Several questions has come up in our mind: Why Nang Loeng is so attractive to various stakeholders and the public? How do we respond to these uneven (re)development? Or, are we wrong to ask these questions because of the complexity of the issues concerning so many stakeholders? Throughout our two-year research, it seems as though the more we probe the more we see issues emerging from various angles.

Preserving the local cultural forms, while capitalizing on the opportunity to develop and protecting the housing rights of the long-term residents make the term “trilemma” (as opposed to just “dilemma”) and apt expression. Having undergone through many phases of transformation over the past two centuries of its existence, the community is facing a trilemma similar to many emerging “global” cities. Faced with the pressure of opportunity cost to redevelop, owners of the land seeks to relocate long-term residents for an urban renewal program. Preservationists and academics alike (including us) on the other hand, advocate pragmatic maintenance of the community through active engagement with the surrounding businesses and educational institutions. The locals, as shown in this post, have been given some voice in the process by being incorporated into events that give them some “updated sense of belonging.”

“It’s unclear where the future lies” may be the best we can say about the situation despite the positive vibe outlined in this post. What is striking here is that it is not because there is too little we know but too much has been done and studied to the point no “good” decision cannot be made. Or, perhaps we can only wait and see what these events will result in opportunities or threats to the residents of Nang Loeng. This blog post is a preface to the paper we will present at the International Convention of Asian Scholars (ICAS) in Leiden this year, in which we want to explore intertwined aspects of gentrification through the case of “developmental trilemma” in an urban community in Bangkok whereby the aforementioned conflicts propel the over-analyzing of its future hence paralyzing its decision, or “paralysis by analysis.”

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