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Old March 24th, 2007, 12:08 PM   #1
hkskyline
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Bangkok's Shophouses

Shophouses: Reviving the distinctive face of Bangkok
By Jennifer Chen
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
IHT

BANGKOK: These days Bangkok's downtown skyline is a jumble of colossal condominiums, office towers and shopping malls. But Ing K. remembers when the cityscape was dominated by an entirely different sort of architecture: shophouses, the distinctive two- to three-story buildings popular with Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia.

"When I was a child, wherever you'd go, you'd see them," said the writer and social activist. Accompanying her mother on grocery- buying trips, Ing developed an early fascination with shophouses and how their ornamental facades and the friendly, family-run businesses within added to the vibrant street scene. "Every shophouse is like a face to the world for the owner," she said. "Houses behind fences... they're private, they look inwards. Shophouses, they say, 'Hello!'"

Owning an old shophouse became a dream for Ing. So it seemed a stroke of good fortune when one day in late 2005 she noticed a handwritten cardboard sign advertising the sale of a colonial-style shophouse in the middle of the Silom business district. More than a year and 700,000 baht, or almost $21,400, worth of renovations later, Ing and her companion, the artist Manit Sriwanichpoom, opened a photography gallery.

With their gallery, Ing and Manit joined a small but growing cluster of Thai and international artists, architects and other creative types who are rediscovering vintage shophouses. In a city blanketed by indistinguishable glass-and-steel highrises, these pioneers have taken a radical turn from Bangkok's obsession with the new, and may help efforts to save the city's historic residential buildings after decades of neglect and get-rich-quick refits.

Shophouses are the quintessential Southeast Asian building. Influenced by Chinese courtyard houses and colonial architecture but unique to the region, shophouses were designed in the 19th century to accommodate businesses on the ground floor, with living quarters upstairs. Usually only six meters, or a little more than 19 feet, wide, these buildings sprouted across Southeast Asia as Chinese traders put down roots.

Since the 1990s, cities like Singapore and Penang, Malaysia, have restored their shophouses, turning them into boutique hotels, hip clothing stores and cafés. Bangkok, however, has allowed its shophouses to be demolished or to fall into disrepair, leaving only a few pre- World War II examples around the city.

Architects and urban planners active in the city's fledging historic preservation movement blame the neglect on a multitude of reasons. For starters, legal protection and preservation efforts usually are limited to buildings tied to the royal family and the government and private owners are given few incentives to hold onto their buildings, let alone restore them.

"You put a sign marking a building as historic, most owners won't feel proud," said Vira Sachakul, the former dean of Chulalongkorn University's architecture school, who is working on a proposal to revive shophouses in Bangkok's Chinatown, an area called Yaowarat. "They still can't do anything with that building. They still have to put up their own money to restore."

Compounding the problem is residents' overwhelming preference for new buildings. Shophouses invoke working-class, ethnic Chinese roots that many in Bangkok, a city where at least 60 percent of the 9 million residents are believed to have some Chinese ancestry, are eager to shed.

Paradoxically in modern Bangkok, people also shun older buildings because of a pervasive belief in ghosts. Thais believe every building has a spirit, and that older houses attract ghosts by the droves. "I've had some friends ask, 'What about the ghosts?' and 'Do you have company?'" said Jim Brewer, a 31-year-old British filmmaker who has lived in a renovated shophouse in Yaowarat for three years.

Ghosts did not dissuade Anikamon Amphansook, the personal assistant to the American composer Bruce Gaston, and her boyfriend, Justin Mills, a disc jockey and artist from England, from renovating the two-story, 80-square- meter Art Deco-style shophouse in Yaowarat that they rent for 10,000 baht a month. The couple felt that rehabilitating the shophouse, with its high ceilings, wooden staircase and other enviable features, was more attractive than living in a modern apartment in central Bangkok, where rents can be 40,000 baht for the same amount of space.

As construction workers began tearing down a wall to extend the bathroom, though, Anikamon, 33, received an unusual request: the foreman wanted a ceremony performed to appease the shophouse's resident spirit. Two workers had fallen ill, and the foreman was worried that a disgruntled spirit was wreaking havoc.

The biggest challenge, however, was dealing with the results of the renovation. Unlike Europe or the United States, Thailand does not require builders or specialists to be licensed. "The electrician was a real cowboy. He did some terrible wiring. The water was coming in and the bathroom wasn't grounded," said Mills, 42. "I don't think he was an actual electrician."

Still, the couple is pleased with the renovation, which cost around 200,000 baht. Anikamon, who designed sets for college theater productions, used her skills to ensure the kitchen and bathroom made effective use of the space and that all the rooms were adequately lit.

Getting in more light also played a major role in Ing and Manit's renovation of their three- story shophouse, which they bought for 6 million baht, a bargain for the area. The previous tenant, a gem-trading business, had installed a low false ceiling on the first floor to save on air conditioning and covered the windows with black film to keep the hot tropical sun out. "And when we went to the second floor, it looked like a cave — no light, windows covered up," said Manit, a photographer.

There were, however, tantalizing glimpses of what the building must have been like in its glory days. Peeling back the linoleum on the second floor, the couple discovered solid teak planks, already an expensive rarity in Bangkok in the 1940s. "It was like a beautiful woman with terrible, cheesy makeup on — like a mask," Ing said. "If you rip the mask off and take the makeup off, she's stunning."

Such architectural surprises also have tempted Chalermpan Boonsaner, a 35-year-old architect, to rent two shophouses in the heart of old Bangkok. One he intends to convert into a café and gallery, while the other down the street will be turned into his residence and studio.

Chalermpan, who studied architecture in Italy, relishes living in a neighborhood with close communal ties and where a casual stroll down the street can provide a history lesson. "Walking down the street here, I can look at a window or a door and be able to tell you the history, the culture, the traditions behind a building," he said. "I love that I can walk around in this neighborhood and read that language."
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