Guided By Memory Through Two Thai Chinatowns

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I started off with the right directions: Ride the Chayo Praya River boat to the dock for Chinatown; walk three blocks to Charoenkrung Road; turn right. Before we jumped off the boat, I asked in my rusty Thai if this was the dock for Chinatown. A boy said yes. But after walking for ten minutes, I realized he’d been following the Thai custom of giving whatever answer the other person wants to hear. It was not the Chinatown dock. And now I had to lead my wife and daughter on a forced march through the most congested sidewalks of Bangkok.

I dodged a man pushing a cart filled with magazines and glanced over my shoulder. My wife and daughter squeezed through a crowd waiting at a bus stop. They glared at me, heat and humidity sapping their will to keep up. But I was energized by the memory of my favorite Chinese temple. I remembered the interior garden with potted trees and teak benches, where we would relax in the cool calm—provided I was leading them the right way.

It was the first day of our first trip back to Bangkok in twenty years. We had moved here in 1995 hoping to cultivate an exotic expat life. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My wife and I were in our thirties; our daughter was just a year old. Magazine stories in 1990’s proclaimed “The Asian Century;” Thailand’s economy was “a little tiger.” I eked out a living editing development reports and writing articles for an English-language lifestyle magazine that published a few issues, then folded. When the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit, expat life became impossible and we returned to the U.S., tail between legs.

Since then, skyscrapers, shopping malls and an ultra-modern elevated rail system have gone up around Bangkok’s center. But the old dense and dirty Bangkok is still there, underneath. On this trip, I wanted to maximize the nostalgia, to experience the Bangkok I remembered. So it seemed wrong to stay in a skyscraper. Fortunately, Airbnb listed two rooms in a 1960s-era house located on quiet alley in a walled compound with a garden—exactly the kind of place Bangkok expats of my day dreamed of renting.

Even better, the owner was an expat who’d lived and worked in Thailand for 45 years. Online, he appeared to be the eccentric sort who was always fun to meet in Bangkok—the old Asia hand. And in person, he was. He greeted us in front of the house, in the dark, after the airport taxi delivered us at 2a.m. I apologized for the late arrival. “No problem. I’m always up this late,” he said. He wore cargo shorts, a baggy tee shirt and resembled the actor John Goodman, but with swollen ankles. We hauled our bags inside. He suggested we share a beer in his air-conditioned library, which we entered via a sliding glass door. The shelves were crammed with textbooks on various subjects, hoarded from his years of running a tutoring service. The house, he told us, was originally built for American officers stationed in Bangkok during the Vietnam War.

The next morning, in the light, I realized the place was a bit too eccentric for comfort. It had seen no upkeep since the Fall of Saigon. Plaster from the bathroom wall crumbled into soggy piles on the chipped tile. A painted plywood door was peeling down to raw wood. In the neglected garden, cats roamed and scratched on a wide dirt patch.

Still, staying there reminded me of younger days in Bangkok, when we were always living on the cheap and had only one air-conditioned room in our house. As the sun rose, I took a walk down the alley and familiar Bangkok sensations flooded back: the tropical bird calls announcing the dawn; the stink of rotting kitchen garbage followed by the aroma of marinated pork grilling; how your shirt instantly heats up in the sun and you slow your pace to keep from breaking a sweat.

If you think about it, you can imagine a line that begins on the spot you were born and traces the path connecting all the places you have ever been. When you live in one place and do much the same thing every day, this line loops over and over itself. When you are young, the fun of traveling abroad is to branch and extend your line into new territory. You take a step down a jungle trail or into a European cathedral and tell yourself: “This is the first time I have ever stepped in exactly this place.”

But when you are older, there is a thrill to visiting faraway places you lived years ago. You seek out the lines you walked before. And when you are retracing your steps, you can feel it in your body; the space around you comes alive with memories: “Yes. I remember this shop with the gold and red tissue paper offerings. Here are the temple gates. And the temple walls, decorated with Chinese and Tibetan characters. And the smell of incense from the cloud wafting out the temple entrance.”

In this nostalgic state, I lead the way to Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, my favorite Chinese temple in Bangkok. I hoped our trip would bring lots of these wandering and remembering excursions, and it did: we meandered through the Maboonkrong Mall to find our favorite vegetarian food stall; we glanced down every side street into Chulalongkorn University to find my old office building; we hopped puddles and dodged motorcycles to find the low-rise apartment building where used to live.

But there was one excursion that exceeded our expectations. While we were in Thailand, we discovered that so was our good friend Jeed. Jeed grew up in Thailand but now enjoys an enviable bi-contintental  existence. During the summer months she lives near us with her American husband in Eugene, Oregon. When it starts to rain there in December, she flies to Thailand to spend time with her parents. Jeed, who is 65, earned this retirement by working as an accountant for three decades while mastering a simple, thrifty lifestyle. She is petite, with short white hair and cheerful eyes. When we met in Bangkok, she invited us to join her on a day trip with her parents to the provincial city of Ang Thong, where she grew up—in its quieter, smaller Thai Chinatown.

Jeed and her parents are Thailand-born ethnic Chinese. Like many Thai-Chinese of their time, the parents retained Chinese citizenship in the hope that they’d someday return. Since Thai law forbid foreigners from owning farmland, they became, like most Thai-Chinese in rural areas, merchants in Chinese market communities. Jeed had not been back in many years and couldn’t remember the way. She first directed the driver down a side street to the north of the highway, but that didn’t look right. We returned to the highway and peered down side streets to the south. We drove past a temple. Then it hit Jeed that she went to school inside this temple. The driver pulled over to the shoulder and, as the traffic whizzed ahead, backed the van a hundred yards down to make the turn.

We stopped at a sign hung from a covered archway over a narrow alley: “San Jow Thong Market.” The Thai letters were rendered in a Chinese-like script, similar to the way a Chinese America restaurant might write “chop suey.” Jeed’s mother, 82, struggled out of the van with the help of her nurse. Jeed’s father, 88, moved even slower with the help of a walker. Father Kim wanted to impress his old neighbors so he chose the fanciest of his three walkers for the occasion. He also wore a hugely oversized imitation sapphire ring. Jeed told us she’d never seen her father wear this ring before and guessed he put it on today to show everyone how rich he now is.

Our first stop was a noodle shop that has been making wonton and noodles every day for 40 years. Jeed said the food here was so good that parents used to give kids a bowl of noodles—along with a glass of sweet Chinese coffee—as a birthday present. Evidently, the noodles are still good; we got there at 1:30 but they were sold out. We headed to another place and ordered plates of chicken stir-fried in sweet basil, with fried duck egg on top.

After lunch, we found Jeed’s old house, a narrow two story building made of wood that had blackened with age. Jeed remembered sleeping upstairs with her three young brothers, all together under a mosquito net. In front of the house was a bare patch of asphalt. From age 12, Jeed would lay out a mat on the asphalt to sell snacks like grilled corn and cut mango. “I’d sell anything I could find and make money to buy shoes.” She stood in the empty square. “It seems so small now.”

In a shop across from her house, Jeed saw a woman about her own age and recognized her as a childhood friend. She was now a seamstress. She sat in her cluttered workshop surrounded by bolts of fabric and paper pattern pieces. I guessed this women to be over 60. I marveled that she had likely spent 60 years in that same place: working downstairs,  sleeping upstairs. The imaginary line of her life’s travels filled in a narrow space.

Jeed remembered when they used to go to the lot next door to watch movies. In the early days, movies were shown in the open air. Later, a roof was added and walls built to prevent those who didn’t pay from seeing the movie. Fortunately, one wall joined the wall to Jeed’s own house. So Jeed could invite her friend over to look out the window and watch for free. The movie theater also served as the site for another of Jeed’s enterprises. Near the theater entrance, she set out her library of comic books. She rented the comic books to the boys (she said it was always boys) who came to the movies. The boys were not allowed to take the books home; she made them read in front of her, before the movie started. But she set her prices so that boys who didn’t have the money for a movie ticket could afford to rent a comic book.

We walked to the eastern border of the market, where what is left of the Noi River flowed. Jeed said the river was much wider when she was a kid; she used to fish and swim there. This was before the dams were built upstream. It was also before the highways were built, when the fastest way to Bangkok was aboard the Noi River boat. Jeed told us about the overnight journeys she took with her mother: The boat departed in the evening. The lower deck held cargo—tamarind, cucumbers, mangos, corn, chickens. Passengers sat and slept on the upper deck. Jeed would lie down and gaze at the full moon while her mother talked with other women, who invariably chewed betel nut. The best part of the trip was at the confluence with the Chao Praya; the rivers joined and an expanse of water opened before her in the darkness. These excursions to Bangkok, however, were not all play. Jeed had business in the big city; she had to restock her comic book library with the latest editions.

The river also brought Jeed the memory of the time her father had to go briefly into hiding. Her father ran a shop selling and fixing watches. He was a bold young man, as Jeed put it, “a pretty macho guy.” One of his neighbors, a tailor, was also a tough guy. The two didn’t get along. One day the rivalry escalated to shouting and pushing. There was a terrible accident: the tailor fell, hit his head and didn’t get up. Jeed’s father fled to avoid retaliation. At the time, nobody explained what happened to Jeed and her brothers. They only knew that father was away and they now had extra chores. Jeed’s chore was to feed the pigs her father kept at a pigpen on the far bank of the river. She remembered cooking broken rice, mixing in chopped swamp weed, then riding with her bucket on a small ferry boat over to slop the pigs.

While Jeed recounted these memories, her mother and father kept up surprisingly well. They seemed energized by meeting old friends. One woman, about Mother Ta’s age, recognized her then pointed to Jeed and said, “I used to carry you around.” The woman sat in front of a shop stocked with plastic necklaces, bug spray and lottery tickets. For Mother Ta, today was an auspicious day, therefore a good day to play the lottery. Our little crowd blocked the alley as she purchased tickets.

At another shop that sold wicker goods—baskets, fish traps, baby cribs—Mother Ta found a fruit picker she wanted to buy. But no one was minding the shop. Jeed called out. An ancient-looking man shuffled out from the back. He wore baggy shorts, but his feet and boney chest were bare. As he approached, he understood that an old friend was visiting. His shuffle quickened and he muttered Father Kim’s name in surprise.

“Kimsiu? Kimsiu?”

Father Kim inched toward him on the walker. “Yes, it’s me. Are you Hagow?”

“Yes.”

The old man grasped Father Kim by the wrist, above his giant ring, and hung on. He beamed a mostly toothless smile: “Ooooo. We were such friends!”

Visiting a place you lived long ago can bring powerful memories, but it’s nothing like seeing the face of an old friend. I heard Father Kim and the old man were friends as teenagers, before they were married. I also heard Father Kim was a handsome fellow who liked to play snooker. Handsome guys who hang out in Thai pool halls tend toward the wild side. As Father Kim leaned on his walker and his old friend clung to his wrist, I bet the two old men were remembering some wild times, memories that made Father Kim’s silly ring seem perfectly in character.

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Jourdan Arenson writes in Eugene, Oregon about science, technology and the environment.