Monday, August 19th, 2013
The Old Road called New Road
For centuries, Bangkok was a network of canals and rivers. Houses floated on water or perched on stilts above it. Thais paddled boats laden with cargo and passengers between distant points. Muddy paths were the only byways through a welter of low-rise houses and shops.
By the mid-19th century, however, Bangkok was beginning to modernize. Businessmen complained that the waterways failed to convey commerce at the fast-pace that suited their entrepreneurial needs. Bangkok needed proper roads.
King Mongkut (1851-1868) responded by decreeing the construction of the city’s first paved street. King Mongkut gave it the grand title of Charoenkrung, (Flourishing City) in the hopes that the name would promote its progress. Foreigners knew it by a more prosaic name: New Road. In 1863, the first carts and carriages ventured tentatively onto its macadamized surface.
King Mongkut’s hopes were not unwarranted and commerce began to flow away from the river and onto the city.
New Road began at the walls of the Grand Palace and headed in a straight line into the rising sun, crossing Khlong Lawd, a canal whose name “Drinking Straw Canal” identified it as a source of drinking water. It continued through a residential neighborhood until it reached the eastern city wall. Here, it passed through the massive Pratu Sam Yot (three-spire gate) and passed over Khlong Ong Ang (Earthenware Jar Canal, named for the clay pots sold along its banks).
It then angled 45 degrees to the right. There is speculation that the pronounced curvature was to deny enemy cannons a direct line of fire on the Palace beyond but it is more likely that it was designed to serve the city’s most populous areas and these lay along the banks of the Chao Phraya River.
From this point, it entered Yaowaraj, popularly known as Chinatown, gradually curving to the south, hugging the riverbanks. Threading its way through the European district now occupied by O.P. Place, it reached Bang Kho Laem, the city’s most elite neighbourhood. Some 6.7 km. from the Palace wall, it ended at Thanon Tok (literally “the road drops”) where it was intersected by a river bend which halted its further progress.
New Road was more than a mere ribbon of concrete. It literally linked the key districts of the city, uniting Bangkok’s administrative (the Palace), religious (Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), and commercial sectors. Its role was cemented in 1883 when rails were laid along it for horse-drawn trams to carry passengers along its entire length. In 1893, Bangkok acquired electricity and, with it, an electrified tram, the first in Asia, and a decade before Tokyo or Copenhagen gained theirs. Although the tram ceased operations in 1968, portions of the track are still visible on New Road a half-kilometer north of here.
Yaowarat (Chinatown) was a hive of commercial activity. Goods unloaded from ships moored mid-river were brought ashore to enter Bangkok’s commercial mainstream. The activities in this quarter bonded Siam (as it was then known) with the markets of the East.
In similar fashion, the European borough linked Siam with trading houses in the distant West. The colonial-style buildings that dominate this historic area are testament both to the robustness of trade and to its prosperity.
Most of its buildings were built within two short decades after New Road’s creation. O.P. Place, the anchor of this European enclave was erected in 1878 as Falck and Beidek, known locally as “Hang Sing Toh” for the stone lions that guarded its entrance. It was the city’s first major department store. The antique building has seen incarnations as several malls. For a period, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand resided here.
Adjacent to it was the city’s first full-fledged hotel, The Mandarin Oriental. Next to this hostelry was one of the city’s most successful commercial enterprises, The East Asiatic Company, an innovative trading company which would later open a branch in Copenhagen that would become Denmark’s largest mercantile corporation.
Just behind it, Assumption Cathedral was erected by Catholics in 1821 (and rebuilt as a Romanesque edifice in 1910) to become Thailand’s leading Catholic institution. Here, in 1855, Catholic fathers established a school (later a college), that has provided quality education for thousands of students, many of whom became Thailand’s business and political leaders.
To serve the district’s trading requirements, a handsome Customs House (now a fire station) was built just upriver. Augmenting it were Post Office No. 2, and the Harbourmaster’s Office. Also located here were the city’s leading financial institutions: the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, Banque de l’Indochine, and the Chartered Bank. Just upstream at Talad Noi was the nation’s first Thai bank, the Siam Commercial Bank, established in 1907.
To link their interests with those of the home country, numerous nations established diplomatic missions in the neighbourhood. Strung along the riverbank were the French Embassy, the American Legation, the British Embassy, and the Portuguese Embassy. They were joined by the Danish, German, and Austro-Hungarian Consulates, and the Japanese Legation. The British Embassy would later locate to Ploenchit Road and, on the land it had vacated, Thailand’s vast General Post Office building would be erected.
Just north on New Road was the British Dispensary which provided Western medicines and a staff of doctors to tend to health needs.
For entertainment, residents dined in numerous local restaurants and bars, or relaxed in the family-oriented United Club. The latter was unique in that its membership was universal, not limited to a single nationality as were most of Bangkok’s recreational clubs. Just up the street were the British Club and the German Club, social and sporting venues in which businessmen and their families could relax after a hard day.
This portion of New Road was multi-denominational, representing three religions. In addition to the Assumption Cathedral, there were two Buddhist monasteries, Wat Muang Khae and Wat Suan Plu, located at either end of the area defined by Soi 36 and 40, and the Haroun Mosque with its ancient cemetery.
Thriving, bustling, the hub of European activity until the mid-20th century, this quarter today is filled with colonial-style buildings that invite the photographer to roam through the city’s history, an island of Europe in one of Asia’s most fabled realms.