Although you’d never know it based on the current political and social degradation of anything non-white, those married to people of other cultures, races or religions understand first hand what an ignorant viewpoint that is. Enriching the lives of all those who’ve embraced multi-cultural marriages, there’s nothing more interesting and fulfilling than learning about and becoming part of a culture other than the one you’re born into. Having married into a second generation Canadian Chinese family, I’ve been exposed to a world very different from my caucasian New York roots and always jump at a chance to learn something new about Chinese civilization. Clearly the most uneducated interview given in the joke known as The Republican National Convention, some moron asked CNN this beauty: “What has anyone other than European whites really contributed to the world”?
Sadly, the xenophobic idiot was an elected official and the fact they even allow such a comment on the air speaks volumes about what’s wrong with the nation.
Had I been asked the question, I’d counter the sadly uninformed racist legislator and delve into a long-winded response detailing the amazingly storied and fascinating history of Chinese civilization. Ruling over territory ten times larger than Europe, Chinese people are the world’s most successful group of emigrants and communities ranging from 9 million to a few hundred live in dozens of nations on every habitable continent. Choosing Southeast Asia as a retirement destination allows expats interested in things other than border walls and isolationism a great opportunity to discover more about eastern civilization, Chinese history and Asian contributions to humanity. Having explored Chinese museums and exhibitions in Singapore and Penang, I’ve gained a plethora of knowledge about Chinese integration into different societies around Asia and always try to learn more when visiting other countries. Having already done the major tourist attractions of Bangkok on an exploratory vacation that included Borneo and Singapore in 2009, our recent trip presented a perfect chance to learn about Thai Chinese culture. Comprising one sixth of Thailand’s entire population, more ethnic Chinese live in Thailand than anywhere on earth making Bangkok’s Chinatown a perfect place to start our trip after a harrowing start the night before at Dun Mueung Airport.
Usually located somewhere near main city centers, the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown is Yaowarat Road. Steeped in history that makes up a sizable part of the city’s development and growth, Bangkok’s Chinatown is larger than many cities at over two square miles. Unlike San Francisco and New York where you find throngs of tourist shops selling junk and mostly senior citizen Chinese residents, Bangkok’s community is mix of working class shops, restaurants, goldsmiths, and street vendors and feels more like Yangon’s bustling streets than a quick stop on the tourist buses. Easily accessible from an Orange express boat on the Chao Phraya River, we prefer the riverside hotels when we stay in Bangkok although many TripAdvisor comments say it’s too far from everything.
Reasonably priced, we chose the Chatrium Riverside Hotel and utilized their free shuttle service to the Sapan Taskin Pier. Formerly known as the Central Tourist Pier, we remembered it as the primary location to hop on a boat upriver or catch the BTS, (Bangkok’s skytrain) but instead found a major renovation project making it a bit confusing. Recently completed, a very uninspiring collection of shops and clubs known as Asiatique provides a free boat shuttle that leaves from the same place as most riverside hotel shuttles creating bottlenecks every evening as throngs of locals enjoy Bangkok’s apparently trendy version of San Francisco’s Pier 39. (Avoid it). But mornings are clear so we made a left turn and stood in line for the Orange Express Boat. Recalling this boat stops at the same places as the ripoff “Tourist Boat”, it only costs 14 Baht each and it seems everyone figured this out so be ready for a full crowd and use Google Maps to track your progress or you’ll risk missing your stop as you fight the crowds to exit at the back of the boat.
According to the website, the orange boat on the Chao Phraya Express Boat Service stops at the Marine Department pier (stop #S4) which is only ten minutes from the Central Pier and makes a great jumping off point for a short walk to Chinatown. But someone forgot to tell the boat captain who bypassed it so we hopped off at the next stop (Ratchawongse, stop #S5). Backtracking, this stop is an excellent place to see the working class side of Chinatown. Heading one block north we made a right turn and followed Song Wat Road, passing by the largest collection of second-hand steel and machinery shops and warehouses I’ve ever seen.
Surviving since the 19th century, many shops are still working today and we followed the road up towards The Celebration Arch of the 6th Cycle Anniversary Memorial. Constructed in 1999 to celebrate the highly respected Thai KIng’s 72nd birthday, it’s where they celebrate Thailand’s largest Chinese New Year celebrations.
At the heart of Chinatown is the roundabout where Yaowarat Road begins. Built by order of King Rama I in 1891 to help ease congestion for the large resettled Chinese population that moved to the riverside area after they moved the kingdom’s capital, it was a grand boulevard and developers designed its shape to mimic a curvy dragon’s body to represent an auspicious location for business. Unlike the reign of most Medieval kings, Thailand’s history features many examples of royal generosity and Kings acted mostly in the interest of the kingdom’s citizens. As far as I can tell, the Chinese in Thailand have traditionally been treated better than most immigrant groups and the Thai people accepted many of them into society as equals. To this day, Thai Chinese are prominently represented in politics, business and the financial sector. Mostly owned by wealthy Chinese families, the limited real estate around Chinatown remains among Bangkok’s highest and is the neighborhood’s gold shops stand as a testament to this.
Wandering around the main street we came across a bustling Chinatown. Larger and more interesting than any North American version which usually hosts junk shops and parks filled with retired seniors playing checkers, Bangkok’s is a thriving noisy collection of shops selling garments, souvenirs, textiles, computers, antiques, and almost everything else found in upper middle class suburban areas. And of course there’s inexpensive street food of all types although the Southern Thai food is very different from Northern Thai and features much more Cantonese influence than Chaing Mai. Threatening skies held out long enough for us to spend a few hours before making our way to the day’s highlight.
Possibly one of the Chinkiest white guys you’ll come across I love foods that are usually only found in Chinese homes like bitter mellon, jook (Chinese porridge) and chicken feet. After awhile we got hungry and I found one of my favorite specialties on the corner. Up there with pickled herring, chopped liver and other New York Jewish foods I grew up with, Fish Maw Soup is a strange concoction made from the dried form of fish bladder. Rated almost as high as abalone, sea cucumber and shark’s fin but much more affordable, fish maw is high in protein and nutrients and they soak the premium versions in water for 12 to 18 hours until it softens. Believing it nourishes yin, replenishes kidneys and boosts stamina, many Chinese women also think also think it improves their skin and blood circulation. While I’ve been exposed to eastern and non-traditional medicine since being part of a Chinese family, I only eat it because I love the gelatinous mix of corn starch, egg whites, mushrooms, ginger and of course, fish maw.
As luck would have it, the rain arrived right as we made our way to one of Bangkok’s best kept secret cultural attractions. Probably the best and most detailed Chinese culture or history museums I’ve visited including Singapore, Penang and New York City, the small but inviting Yaowarat Chinese Heritage Centre is well worth a stop for anyone wishing to enhance their knowledge of Thai Chinese. Well hidden in the second floor of the highly visited Wat Tramiot which houses a Golden Buddha, most visitors skip the center entirely, opting only to see the main attraction of the compound. Highly informative signage is in both Thai and English and multimedia, full-sized models and dioramas takes the visitor through the entire history of Chinese immigration from the earliest Kings through the present.
Packed with historical information, I eagerly read everything and came away with more knowledge in two hours than thirty years in my old work cubicle. Professionally presented, the last room features nostalgic models, pictures and life scenes and details every aspect of life for Thai Chinese throughout Bangkok’s history. Wishing people would spend more time educating themselves about contributions that ALL cultures have made to our world today and less time listening to racist U.S. senators on CNN, this center is an excellent choice for personal enrichment.
After spending a few hours at the center, we came out and found heavy rain. Strangely, we’ve not really seen many torrential downpours after living in Penang for a year. Probably because of last year’s El NIno, it’s been relatively dry in northern Malaysia and oddly, there’s no clearly defined “wet season” for Penang. Earlier in the day we splurged and spent a buck or two on two of those stupid plastic bags that serve as rain coats in places where it’s simply too hot for your lightest jacket. And this was rain like I expected in the tropics. Having toured rivers in Costa Rica and hiked trails in Borneo in deluge conditions, we knew how annoying tropical downpours can be so we donned the ridiculous bags and started walking towards the ferry back.
Naturally, we missed the last ferry (they only run until the end of evening commutes) so we opted for a tuk-tuk back to the National Stadium BTS Station and headed towards the hotel. Arriving at the dock wet and hungry, we walked down a local street to Asiatique but found it almost deserted due to the rain and most western style restaurants weren’t open yet anyway. Needing something to eat, we trekked back down the flooded street. Eyeballing some small food courts, nothing really looked appealing in the working class neighborhood and unlike Chiang Mai, street food loses its appeal to us once leaving the trendy areas, at least in Bangkok. Fortunately, it’ still Thailand and just as it looked hopeless, we approached a small hole in the wall with no English signage and only four tables. Doing their cooking in an alley next to the small restaurant, they spoke no English so we pointed to the pictures in the menu and out came one of the tastiest fish we’ve ever eaten in Thailand.
Completing the first full day of our eight-day Bangkok getaway, we made our way back to the hotel with full stomachs and opted for some crappy TV. Apparently every Asian hotel subscribes to some version of a premium American movie channel that’s been specially filtered for Asian audiences. Usually this means lots of action packed flicks with big guns, violence and other cultural gems that give America its worldwide reputation of a Wild West racist nation where black people are always the criminals, Latinos are the drug dealers, women are all models and white guys are ALWAYS the hero. Getting ready for the next day, we mapped out the route to Khlong Toei Wet Market, Bangkok’s largest fresh food outlet where we planned on spending a few hours the next day.
Apologizing for the long delay between the airport post and this entry, we both came back and picked up head colds. Seemingly ridiculous in a tropical environment, they’re different from cold weather colds and learning about the immensely different medications in Asia and how they’re used takes some research. The skinny: In Asia you can get almost anything you’ve grown up believing is “prescription only” at any pharmacy. And unlike the overpriced $20 ripoff from Walgreens, they come packaged in small aluminum packets of 8 or 10 pills with no fancy labeling, cost about 70% less than North Americans pay and have doses twice as big as what the FDA falsely claims is “safe”. Imagine that. A better way to do things in healthcare. Better not tell the Republican presidential nominee or he may ban the internet so nobody learns anything.
Cheers from cloudy Penang.