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Down Sampeng Lane

Down Sampeng Lane

The Story of Bangkok’s Chinatown

On June 10, 1782, Rama I was formally proclaimed King of Siam and the reigning Chakri dynasty initiated. The new king's first act was to announce the transfer of his capital across the Chao Phraya River from Thonburi, where it had briefly been the capital under King Taksin, to the more easily defended east side of the river. In Burma, King Bodawpaya had but recently seized the throne and Rama I rightly anticipated trouble from this direction.

Before Rama I took his bold decision, the main settlement of Bangkok – the name means, in loose translation, "olive tree village" – had been on the west side of the river, in present day Thonburi. In marked distinction to the situation today, the east bank of the river was relatively undeveloped – though it was not uninhabited. Dominating the waters from a point which is now the heart of Bangkok was a 17th century brick fort, in the lee of which lived a flourishing community of Chinese tradesmen.

Political and commercial relations between Siam and China were already long-standing. A Chinese community estimated at 3,000-strong played an important role in the trade of the old royal capital at Ayutthaya, and settlements of Chinese traders on the banks of the Chao Phraya below the city were also well established; French maps of the late 17th century, for example, show an "Isle Chinoise" just to the south of the former capital.

Commerce with China – and consequently the Chinese presence in Siam – increased markedly after 1727, when the Ch'ing Empire relaxed restrictions on the import of Siamese rice to south China, and trade began to boom. Great fortunes were made, both by the Siamese court and by Chinese expatriates at Ayutthaya.

Relations were close indeed: King Taksin, who drove out the Burmese and reunited Siam in 1767–82, was half Chinese, the son of a Teochiu father and a Siamese mother. His chief lieutenant Thong Duang – destined to become King Rama I – was the son of a Siamese nobleman and his Chinese wife, the latter quaintly described by King Mongkut (Rama IV) in a letter to Sir John Bowring as "a beautiful daughter of a Chinese richest family".

Under these circumstances Rama I can hardly have been surprised to find a community of Chinese traders – some of them already wealthy – settled just where he intended to build his grand palace. In the event, all was settled simply enough. The Chinese were persuaded to move elsewhere, apparently with appropriate compensation, and the construction of Siam's new capital – grandly renamed in forty-three syllables beginning Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, "The City of Angels, The Capital City' – was begun.

Meanwhile the community of Chinese merchants displaced from the site of the grand palace moved south and eastwards a short distance to re-establish themselves outside the new city walls in an area called Sampeng. In time this narrow lane would become the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown.

In the first years after its founding, Bangkok (Foreigners, quite understandably, retained the old name in preference to Rama I's lengthy new title)  grew at an astounding rate. By 1785 the western end of Sampeng's Chinese quarter was almost surrounded. During the subsequent half century this process of expansion continued, so that by 1850 Sampeng was completely absorbed within the inner city.

In 1861 the Western diplomatic residents of Bangkok petitioned King Mongkut (Rama IV) to construct a road 'for going out in the open air, riding carriages, or riding horseback for pleasure'. This was the beginning of New Road, better known in Thai as Charoen Krung, or "Developing Capital". Until this time Bangkok had been almost exclusively a city of canals and floating houses – the one major exception being Sampeng Lane, where the Chinese merchants preferred to build brick buildings at ground level.

The construction of Charoen Krung marks the beginning of the transformation of Bangkok from the "Venice of the East" to the great steel-and-concrete megalopolis of today, mainland Southeast Asia's largest city, bound up with concrete and tarmac highways, and sadly deficient in open waterways. With the development of a road network the European community, following the example of the British Embassy, moved eastward to the Ploenchit Road, leaving the Siamese authorities in unquestioned possession of the Grand Palace area. The Chinese, however, stayed where they were – in Sampeng.

As Bangkok expanded so, of course, did its population – and in particular the Chinese element. Between the mid-19th century and the outbreak of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrated to Thailand. As in other Southeast Asian countries, many of these migrants stayed on permanently, prospering and becoming middlemen, traders and skilled craftsmen. Most came from southern China, especially Teochiu and Cantonese speakers from Kwangtung, Hokkien and Hakka speakers from Fukien, and Hailam speakers from Hainan Island. In Bangkok they congregated in and around Sampeng, gradually forming a Chinese district in the heart of the Thai capital. Sampeng Lane, the narrow heart of old Chinatown, continued to thrive, but was soon surpassed in size and splendour by Yaowarat – which today constitutes the great gold bazaar of Bangkok.

During the late 19th century Bangkok's teeming Chinatown became closely associated with corruption, as well as with legal commerce. Gambling houses and opium dens thrived, and the green lanterns of Sampeng's many brothels achieved nation-wide notoriety. Even today the phrase "woman of Sampeng" is recognised in Thailand as the epithet for a prostitute. During this period H.W. Smyth, a British resident of Siam, dismissed the Sampeng area as 'Chinese Bangkok, malodorous and ill-mannered'.

Meanwhile Chinese migrants continued to flow in, most of them single men, bringing with them secret societies and vice, as well as hard work and creativity. At the turn of the century conflict between the Yee Heng and Su Lee societies spilled over into open street-fighting in Yaowarat and the northern part of Charoen Krung. The resulting battle, in which firearms were used from behind street barricades, was only halted by the intervention of Danish officers, and led both to an upsurge of anti-Chinese feeling and to the establishment of a modern Siamese police force.

As the number of Chinese migrants continued to rise, suspicion and subsequent hostility began to grow amongst the Siamese host population. The best estimates indicate that the Chinese minority grew from about 230,000 in 1825 to 792,000 in 1910, or in terms of proportion of the total population of Siam, from less than 5% to almost 10% in less than 100 years. This trend reached its peak during the reign of Rama VII, when Chinese made up 12.2% of the population nation-wide, and a much higher percentage in Bangkok itself. Moreover, due to an increase in the number of Chinese female migrants, the establishment of many Chinese schools, and a flourishing Chinese-language press, the rate of assimilation into Siamese society began to noticeably slow.

It is no coincidence that this period coincided with the rise of Thai nationalist politics associated with Phibun Songkhram: "Thailand's Mussolini". In a very real sense the economic and demographic strength of the Chinese community led to the nation's change of name, from Siam to Thailand. Phibun, then at the height of his power, wished to emphasise that the country belonged to the ethnic Thai, and not to the economically dominant Chinese.

Phibun's first period in power, from 1938 to 1944, also coincided with Thailand's wartime alliance with Japan, and represented a low point for the Kingdom's Chinese population. Measures were taken to cut back the Chinese press, Chinese schools were limited to teaching two hours per week, and Draconian steps were taken to reduce ethnic Chinese control of the nation's economy.

Despite these restrictions, Bangkok's Chinese population survived and continued to prosper. Today sociologists estimate that about 8 million people, or about 15% of the Thai population, can be broadly classified as "Chinese" in terms of descent, language, appearance and culture. About half this number live in Bangkok and its suburbs, most notably in Chinatown.

Sampeng Lane, too – albeit renamed Soi Wanit as part of the move to reaffirm Thai national identity – continues to thrive. It is true that, particularly among the younger generation, Thai is more often heard than Teochiu or Cantonese. Chinese dialects are still spoken at home, or in commercial arrangements between insiders, but relatively few outside the older generation are fully literate in Chinese. Still, overall the area remains hard-working, prosperous, and enthusiastically Sino-Thai.

Today Thailand's luk jin, or "Children of China" play a commanding role in the national economy, send their children to study in Bangkok's prestigious Chulalongkorn University (or to Taiwan, Oxford or Harvard), and are extremely influential in the political life of this Southeast Asian country. Yet a negative side, too, remains. Green lanterns may have disappeared, but the legendary "Women of Sampeng" remain conspicuous, particularly in Soi Texas and along Mitsamphan Road. Rong Nam Cha, or "tea shops" provide another front for prostitution, whilst gambling – especially Nok Kachok, or Mahjong, despite being illegal, is an addiction.

Meanwhile narrow Sampeng Lane and surrounding areas remain distinctively Chinese, particularly during festivals such as Lantern Day, Cheng Meng, the mid-autumn Moon Festival, and especially at Chinese New Year. On such occasions visitors to Sampeng might be forgiven for thinking they had strayed into Kowloon or a district of southern China. The air is filled with the noise of exploding firecrackers and the scent of burning incense; paper lanterns hang from every shop front, and familiar bright red posters bearing black or gold characters are pasted by every doorway. Perhaps the most common of these is addressed to Tu-ti ts'ai shen, seeking blessings and prosperity for the household. As Bangkok's Sampeng Lane continues to flourish, the invocation seems to be working well.

Photos by Pictures From History - © CPAmedia