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Charming Chinatown

September 21, 2017 Chinatown

Everyone should recognize that the reference above is to Chinatown Bangkok as the only alliteration with a "C" to describe the word "China" is "corrupt." Only in China does the word "corrupt" go beyond financial corruption to just about every form one can imagine. Whenever we go to Chinatown Bangkok, I think we ought to spend more time there though it is a bit chaotic and lacks the calm of the Dusit area where we stay. However, you might recall some scenes from the movie, Year of the Dragon, starring Mickey Rourke as portions of it were filmed in Bangkok's Chinatown in lieu of that of New York.

First of all, Chinatown sits between Dusit and the original foreign settlement downriver where The Mandarin Oriental is located. However, in order to navigate this area and most anywhere in Bangkok, Nancy Chandler's map is a must.

Yaowarat Road is the main artery of historical Chinatown though it now covers a large area around Charoen Krung Road (New Road) which leads to the long-established business district of Bangkok. In 1891, King Rama V ordered the construction of these roads to house the Chinese community as well as to lead to the foreign community settlement. The path of Yaowarat Road is said to resemble the body of a dragon. Moreover, in the "black and white days" there were some folks who would "chase the dragon" in the odd opium den.

We go to Chinatown for three basic reasons: to shop for gold, fabrics and sewing accessories and to eat.

Recently, our close friend, Khun Suphapong, gave our daughter Katie a very special Buddha that imparts power. Accordingly, he and I headed off to Chinatown to buy a 23K gold chain to enable her to wear the Palang (Power) Buddha. Throughout Chinatown, the signs are both in Thai and Chinese with both languages spoken. Everything is sold by weight with daily fluctuations in gold prices and little price difference between gold bars and ornamental jewelry. Interestingly, the root of the Thai currency "baht" is the term for weight in which the jewelry is sold by weight. One baht is roughly equal to 15 grams. The 20,147 shown on the window is Thai Baht (roughly $575) for one baht in weight of gold.

Also, in the "black and white days" of the late sixties, we would buy 23K gold jewelry in Laos at a subsidized price of $18 per Thai baht weight or roughly 3% of the price today in Thailand. Bear in mind there was considerable duty in Thailand in those days, but Air America pilots and crew had no concept of boundaries or legality. Also, the gold was an insurance policy that if you ever got shot down you could buy your way out of the bush. Unfortunately, no one ever lived to verify that concept and 25 of them were lost during the illegal war.

Gold shops are a trip in their own respect. This shop was packed on the weekend we were there.

Some of you may have seen the fatigue fabric shirt we had made in Vietnam with an elephant embroidered on the back. Well, the buttons came from the chaotic market area in Chinatown. It is a great place for fabric, buttons or just about anything. Be prepared to bargain but forget it in a gold shop.

Our favorite food is the long-standing noodle vendors that, apart from their cooking, are facing considerable heat from the authorities in their attempt to modernize this important part of Bangkok which would eliminate street food in a cultural heart of Thailand.

Apart from food vendors facing restrictions on their activities, other businesses may face financial issues as Chinatown has now become hip. Land is precious, though never sold as it has been in Thai/Chinese hands since the days of Rama V, but the rents are increasing which threaten some of the non-family owned enterprises going forward. Therefore, there may be more chic bars replacing noodle vendors on the streets but Chinatown will remain one of the most iconic places around.

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