If you are in Bangkok, grab a tuk-tuk and head over to Hualumphong station. Just a few metres to the southwest is Thanon Traimet which is so-named for the eponymous Wat that sits halfway along the road inside the sprawling area that is Bangkok’s Chinatown. It’s a tourist destination (though not in any top ten guide list) because the Buddha you can see to your right is solid gold. That’s right, solid gold. You can tell because it’s not the nice shiny yellow colour DIsney would have us believe, but that slightly duller, browner colour which is true gold.
Not only is it solid gold, but at 5.5tons it is the largest gold statue in the world! Called Phra Phuttha Maha Suwan Patimakon, the Suhkothai Period statue was covered with a layer of stucco, painted and inlaid with bits of coloured glass just before the Burmese destroyed Ayutthaya in 1767. It wasn’t until a piece of the stucco fell of during transport in the 1950s that the glorious interior was revealed.
However…that isn’t why I am at the Wat. Ostensibly, it is to look at probably the only true Museum housed in a Wat…given over to the the history of the Chinese in Bangkok and Thailand. Isla is on half-term so I decide to waste an hour of her life with a fun ride in a tuk-tuk racing down Rama IV – well I say ‘racing’, you know I mean crawling at Bangkok traffic snail pace – and have a look at this piece of iconography.
For some reason it is a blisteringly hot day in Bangkok , despite the claim of it being the rainy season, and Isla is hanging out the side of the tuk-tuk like a hot dog catching a breeze. We squeal to a halt outside, jump out and mix with the throng of farang just off their sweaty coach tours and the persistent swarm of street vendors. I brush past the camera-touting-grinners knowing they’ll take photos anyway and then try to get me to buy badges or cups with our irritated visages on them later.
I go for the ticket booth. 100Baht for the Museum, 40 Baht for the Wat. Simple stuff….though apparently as clear as orange tanning lotion for the TOWIE Easyjet Brits on the first level of the Wat who are complaining vociferously about the fact they have to pay to get into the Museum.
“It’s a cryin’ shame, Dave” bleats the false-bronzed Essex wannabe to her gut-sagging, tattooed beau. “We come all they way over here and they charge us to get in. Who do they think they’re rippin’ off?” Imagine all this in a spectacularly whiny Essex accent on top of an ignorant culture who thinks complaining and talking loudly to people who don’t understand you will somehow get you your way.
I’m wincing at the horrendous image my countryfolk are wafting over everyone in a miasma of cheap perfume and sweat. I suppose I could explain that £2 to go see a good Museum is a great price anywhere; but their obnoxious wails mean I’ll get tarnished by them.
Isla and I skip on past into the cool air-conditioned room, where my patter of tiny Thai vocabulary gets us in quickly with smiles. When in Rome….and all that.
Anyway, my purpose in coming here is to learn about the history of the Chinese in Bangkok. It’s pretty fascinating.
Chinese traders used to travel by junk, some settling in Siam. Specifically, the Hokkien Chinese settled on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river during the Ayutthaya Period. Taksin the Great (of Chinese paternity) later established Thonburi as his new capital. When it was moved to the east bank in 1782, Rama I relocated the Chinese residents onto land between Wat Sam Pluem and Wat Sampheng canals. This triggered the rapid growth of the Chinese Sampheng community up to 1851. A typical human expansion of colonisation through trade.
Isla starts poking at a hole in the brown trousers of one frozen man. He glares down. I look at his plaque. He’s a tax collector (a job that is universally loathed throughout history) who is tasked to carry out phuk pi in lieu of labour recruitment. Once paid, he ties a piece of string to the Chinese immigrant’s wrist, seals it with wax on the knot in the form of a token and affixes an official seal. This, apparently, lasted you six months. The tax itself back in the nineteenth century? 2 Baht per year, per person rising to 4 Baht in years two to four – a bit lower than the 6 Baht per Thai, per year. Now, if we can just get Western democracies to adopt the same level of Income Tax rate….
We move on; Isla is bored with this one and wants to investigate a wooden boat. This one tells us about the Chaozhou Prefecture in Northern Guandong, China where Sino-Thai trade was particularly strong in the early period of Rattanakosin. The main port was Janglin where the bows of ships and junks leaving the port were daubed red earning them the sobriquet: Red-Bow Junks. Their cargo was an even split of goods and eager young passengers off to seek fame and fortune in Siam. With them on their month’s journey, they took some scanty belongings, steamed Chinese pastries to munch on, plus the odd ash-pumpkin which could be a thirst quencher/handy lifebuoy in the event of capsizing.
Usually the junks arrived between January and April into Bangkok, mooring at Sampheng port. Markets buzzed, mosquitoes bit; the wharf facade was a wall of Chinese architectural buildings. Yet, as with all great trading migrations, there was a sea of both kind and nefarious inhabitants ready to pounce on the naive and weary travellers. Much the same as the great migrations through Ellis Island into New York around the same time.
Isla and I turn a corner, walk into what must be the central atrium of this floor of the Wat. In it is a vast model of Bangkok’s Chinatown. We are looking at Talat Kao and Talat Leng Buoi Eia – both old markets in Soi Isaranuphap, each side of the main road through the area – Thanon Yaowarat. Back then, as now, it is lined with shops offering Chinese commodities such as crispy pork, preserved sausage, confectionery, soy sauce shops, pepper shops…all made here for nationwide consumption. Oh and some bastard cardamom. Mixed in with this are the Chinese Opera theatres. Daily stage shows with both afternoon and evening matinees,the most popular venue was Tang Chek. In the evenings rickshaws thronged the bustling highway.
Isla and I wander outside suitably impressed with the modernity of the Museum – absolutely worth 100 Baht even if you are from Essex. The sun is blisteringly hot today – a thermometer glistens on a white wall: 43C. I lug her up two more flights to the entrance of the Wat where the solid golden Buddha sits quietly amongst the pseudo-flash of farang lightbulbs.
Isla cracks a grin.
We plunge back outside, wander past a Confucian monk statue, sidle past two yellow-robed Thai monks and squeeze past two large coaches full of German tourists.
Where’s a tuk-tuk?
“Suan Limpini, kap. Neung roy.”
And we’re off, but not without a final glimpse behind us at all these views:
Is this what diplomacy is all about?