Bangkok's Chinatown Revival
Community-minded art galleries, restaurants and bars are turning up the volume in Bangkok's Chinatown. BY RON GLUCKMAN. PHOTOGRAPHED BY CEDRIC ARNOLD.
Published on Jul 21, 2016
"CHINATOWN IS ALWAYS CHANGING," says Victor Hierro, who runs Spanish tapas bar El Chiringuito with his Thai wife, Sudaporn Sae-ia. The formerly shuttered old shophouses near Hua Lamphong Station have begun reopening as some of the city's coolest art galleries, pubs and shops, giving the Nana neighborhood new cachet.
Not to be confused with the nefarious Nana red-light area off lower Sukhumvit, this Nana is the blossoming rose of Bangkok's Chinatown, a collection of architecturally intriguing buildings that feature a blend of Chinese gabled roofs with striking colonialtropical deco lines. While the majority of residents are Thai-Chinese who were born and raised here, the multicultural buzz is bundled in three shorts blocks, bookended by an old Chinese Baptist church and cheap-eats diner Lad-na Heng Yod Pak. Many establishments are run by collectives, which eschew the term "business," and avoid websites, regular hours or other trappings of the conformist norm, reflecting the artistic inclinations of Nana's "other-preneurs."
Soi Nana Craft+Jumble Trail.
The result is a charmingly progressive district with loads of local character. Hierro is something of a senior statesman here. A longtime trader in Thai goods, he recently launched a guesthouse in a shophouse he remodeled. He was also involved with Cho Why, the seminal gallery, a passion project founded by fellow Spaniard David Fernandez, and eight other friends with eclectic backgrounds typical of Nana's newer residents. Fernandez was working for an arts magazine and organizing cultural activities for the embassy, and now he uses those skills to run the gallery and throw avant-garde events for the neighborhood. "We just do things we like, that are interesting," says Fernandez. "That's how Nana works."
Will it last? So many districts regentrifying get derailed by factors that include rising rents, disparate development and, ironically, success: the hype brings tourist traffic and commerce but can alter the very components that make hip 'hoods so charming. Architect Pornpas Siricururatana, a lecturer at Bangkok's Kasetsart University who studies local neighborhoods, thinks Nana can persevere. One of the area's strongest assets, she says, is its layout. After a fire a century ago, the upper Chinatown district was rebuilt in a fan style structured around a central hub. The Nana blade is configured like a Parisian neighborhood, with walkways but no major throughway for cars. Besides bequeathing a blissful lack of traffic, this curtails commercial pressures. Also, the entire area has remained the property of a single landlord for generations, so there is less danger of willy-nilly, profit-driven, one-off developments. Then, there is the social factor: many of the new businesses are run by like-minded friends. "Most of them have been in Nana for years," Pornpas says, including the expats. "They aren't here for commercial reasons, but because they like the qualities. That makes it more of a neighborhood."
Argentine photographer Walter Astrada during an exhibition of his work, The Journey, at Cho Why.
Nana is evolving beyond just a neighborhood, and into one of the city's closest-knit communities. "What makes Nana special is the way it is changing. Everywhere else, they come and destroy things. We came here because we love the houses. This is the past life of the place," Hierro says. "We are all here because we love it, and want to make it special."
The name of edgy gallery NACC (presently open for events only) is a purposeful play on the National Anti-Corruption Commission, but partner Jeff Gompertz, of New York City, notes that it could also be Nana Arts & Cultural Center. Together with Frenchman François Langella, the two artists run an experimental performance space with projections and multimedia. + Original Nana gallery Cho Why (17 Soi Nana), hosts shows and events, with no schedule or purpose in mind, beyond artistic endeavors. + Soi Nana Craft+Jumble Trail, organized by Cho Why, is a street celebration held every few months that introduces crowds of new visitors to Nana. + If you think a florist doesn't belong under "arts," you haven't seen the displays by Nana Wallflowers (31-33 Soi Nana; +66 94 661 7997; Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-8 p.m.). The colorful creations of Nattaphat Suriyakumphol, who had a small shop of the same name on Sukhumvit Soi 26, are exquisite. He's expanded with a giant 24-square-meter icebox of exotic foliage in a tastefully restored shophouse compound, and is already booking lots of photo shoots and events.
Designer bouquets at Wallflower.
Bangkok DJ and artist Mongkol Sanla created an infectious vibe at beloved Bar 23, which was born on Sukhumvit 23, then moved to a little dive on Sukhumvit Soi 16, and when he opened his 23 Bar & Gallery (92 Soi Nana; +66 80 264 4471; 7 p.m.- 1 a.m., closed Mondays) in its incarnation in Chinatown, he didn't bother with details like decoration, focusing instead on instilling the same bedazzling sounds. A proponent of 1990s Brit rock, he also ranges back to the 60s-70s. There are art shows upstairs and funky furnishings and graffiti throughout. + Easily the most beautiful bar in Nana, Teens of Thailand (76 Soi Nana; +66 81 443 3784), is a gem of a gin bar with speakeasy atmosphere, complete with piano. Owner Niks Anuman-Rajadhon turned Vice Versa Cocktail into the leading local drink catering service, and brings a wealth of mixology to this classy establishment. + While most of Nana is Bohemian-artsy, Tep Bar (69-71 Soi Nana; +66 98 467 2944; closed Mondays, open Tuesday-Thursday from 5 p.m. to midnight, and to 1 a.m. Friday to Sunday) is more of a Thai-hipster gastropub with walls lined by jars of their house-infused yadong, wood tables on two floors and spirited live music played on Thai instruments by bands in traditional costumes.
Ambidextrous mixology at Teens of Thailand.
Slurp cheap noodles at Lad-na Heng Yod Pak (97-99-101 Soi Nana) huddled over bright yellow and orange tables offset by green walls. + Order the pincho tortilla (egg and potato pie) and a pitcher of sangria at El Chiringuito (221 Soi Nana; +66 85 126 0046).
T+L TIP El Chiringuito has opened a guesthouse next door where funky rooms are kitted out with cool antiques, and the location is ideal for when you've had too many of their dangerous G&Ts, made with Spanish gin and lemonade.
Third-generation food vendors stir fry noodles with soy sauce.
+ Nahim Café (78 Soi Nana) is a lot like Alice in Wonderland, if Alice were dropped into a Mangaland of tea and ice cream. Stuffed animals fill the shelves, and customers sit on fruitshaped pillows, or on actual swings. Besides a huge menu of snacks like hotdogs and waffles, owner Chalocha "Pim" Ninthummachart offers school items, stickers and other crafts handmade by her staff.
Pim Ninthummachart, the owner of Nahim Cafe.
Nana has only a handful of rooms, but greater Chinatown abounds with options. The splurge is Shanghai Mansion: 76 rooms done up to resemble swinging Shanghai circa 1930s, boasting poster beds and red lanterns.