Get to Know the Creative Districts Ahead of BKKDW2024: Yaowarat

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Get to Know the Creative Districts Ahead of BKKDW2024: Yaowarat

True to its legacy as a world-renowned street food district, Yaowarat is brimming with a generational Chinese cultural identity.

Today, Yaowarat is not only the largest Chinatown in Thailand, overflowing with Chinese culture from various eras, but also known the world over as a must-visit evening food district. Additionally, it is deeply ingrained in the hearts of many Thais as both a trendy area where new businesses can spring up at any moment and an attractive destination for people of all ages and lifestyles wishing to change their fortunes after an unfavorable year.

It may seem daunting working with a district viewed by many as ‘already perfect,’ and when it comes to Bangkok, this description perhaps most aptly applies to Yaowarat due to its reputation as one of the liveliest tourism hotspots in the city, constantly bustling with visitors, foodies, and shoppers almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In such a busy and celebrated district, one might think design isn’t necessarily the solution it needs. Certainly this has been the challenge facing Wipawee “Aum” Kittitian, CEO of SATARANA and Co-Host of this year’s Bangkok Design Week in Yaowarat for a second year. Today, she will share with us what she learned from last year’s experience, as well as her new strategies for 2024.

Yaowarat: A Land of Dynamism and Unceasing Opportunities

When discussing Yaowarat, Khun Aum recalls how last year’s decision by the SATARANA team to work in the district started with their recent relocation from the Sao Chingcha area. As newcomers, they noticed issues which many locals might have overlooked due to their familiarity with the district.

“Being new to the area, we could recognize the city’s gaps more clearly than local residents. Given that Yaowarat is a highly active and bustling economic district, it was evident that some of the facilities were not up to standard. There are needs when it comes to various public utilities that can be addressed through design processes or creative thinking. That’s why we chose this place as our challenge for the design week.”

However, besides the infrastructural issues the team sees as areas for improvement in the district, they also recognize the potential and charm of Yaowarat, especially in terms of its diversity and dynamic economy that is constantly evolving.

“The allure of Chinatown is that it’s a district where Chinese people have gathered to live, but the ‘Chinese-ness’ we speak of encompasses many eras and periods, from the old to the modern community that continues evolving to this day. We find this dynamism quite fascinating.

“From an economic perspective, we feel Yaowarat is like the birthplace of Thai tycoons, with many people having stories or origins tied to this district. There are residents in the area who may appear to be small business owners, but in reality a single shophouse could be distributing products all across Thailand. At the same time, new businesses are constantly emerging with the potential for incredible growth. We therefore find that Yaowarat has many interesting dimensions in that respect.”

Festivals May Not Be the Dream Solution for Everyone

An important lesson learned by the SATARANA team from organizing Bangkok Design Week in Yaowarat last year is that designing solutions to fit the restless lifestyles and livelihoods of the Yaowarat community can be quite challenging, and holding festivals may not always be the best answer.

“As we’ve mentioned, market people tend to be very busy and have little time for us. Yaowarat is also an area that frequently hosts events, including annual festivals like Chinese New Year and the Vegetarian Festival. There’s not much space left for us to insert our own event as a result, and so we’re more of an added element at a time when they would already be very busy. But we must analyze and innovate further. Having gone through the process, we now better understand the gaps involved. Aligning our work with the Yaowarat way of life was nevertheless probably the biggest challenge we faced last year.

“This year, we’re learning and building upon what we learned last year when we tried to cover as many areas as possible in exploring the culture of Yaowarat. We’ve since found sharper ways to tell our story by collaborating with locals who’ve provided their input as part of a more satisfying partnership that avoids disrupting their daily lives.”

Same Old Life, but Better

With such a goal in mind, the mission of the SATARANA team this year has shifted from being idea-rich designers to ‘supporters.’ Rather than looking to alter the lifestyles or internal dynamics of the district, they instead aim to support and enhance the work already undertaken by locals, while simultaneously opening up new possibilities.

“Our integration this time around does not involve changing or adding anything new to their lifestyles. Instead, we seek to support what they are already doing. They can then take these elements to help beautify the city where necessary, adding aesthetic value and bringing their existing stories to other areas. This doesn’t disturb their work but nevertheless helps to consolidate the district’s branding and establish a clearer identity.”

Introducing new people to urban and design work is another area Khun Aum sees as successful and wishes to carry over from the previous year.

“Last year, we started under an academic program in collaboration with the CEA. We wanted the city to pose a challenge and not have Design Week be just about showcasing the work of each institution in an open house format. We wanted various academic subjects to be able to ‘hack’ the city as well. This was the hypothetical we put forth before launching the project last year. To that end, we invited various academic departments that we never thought would participate in Design Week to work with us, including scientific, archaeological, and engineering groups.

“This turned out to be very effective and yielded solutions that were quite interesting. They were also things that people in Yaowarat already do as part of their daily routines. One example that we feel had a significant impact was the “Eco-friendly Incense” project initiated by the Faculty of Arts at Silpakorn University, which researched how lighting incense could help reduce pollution. They convened with temple authorities and determined that because so many people were visiting a local temple, there was less available room for incense. They therefore created incense that only burned at the tips, with incense factories following suit and the temple abbot agreeing to utilize them. This year, we want to continue with the same concept of fresh and fun solutions while adding new groups of people.”

A New Journey in Bangkok Design Week 2024

Building on the original idea of connecting people and new disciplines to help tackle urban problems, Khun Aum shares how the team wants to expand the story of Chinese culture and Yaowarat this year to a more diverse generation by targeting early high schoolers. They hope to achieve this through the medium of comics and comic books.

“One area the team is focusing particularly on this year is the comic segment, which we want everyone to look forward to. We realize the comic market has grown more than we previously anticipated. We’re also familiarizing ourselves with the ‘webtoon’ format and want to support more Thai artists. 

Most prominent webtoon artists are Korean or Japanese, but we want to emphasize that our approach to the district this year is not just about admiring the community event, as we also want to entertain people through these stories. It’s an area in which the team is really focusing a lot of its efforts, so we would like to invite everyone to stay tuned.

“The comics will be published on a platform, but the event’s first episode will start with us organizing an exhibition where everyone can read these stories for themselves. Five artists are currently involved in the project, which will be developed from scripts of traditional Chinese state opera (Ngiew), connecting various stories.”

Another highlight of SATARANA’s work is the “Street Art” activity in the theme of the mat and pillow business on Song Wat Road.

“As the area encompasses Song Wat Road, an old trading district, we will have activities that speak to the stories of the historical mat and pillow business. While making preparations, the team discovered the logos and trademarks of each store, which Illustrators found very exciting. These included the logo of crispy jelly and the dragon logo of a sago factory. There are also many unsightly spots along Song Wat Road, as well as unused areas and bare walls. We want to transform those walls into enlarged trademarks of each store, like adding street art that connects with a respective location. We want people to come and see these symbols, as they can say a lot about the district, from the thought process involved to the selection of various auspicious animals. We will also narrate the stories of each store’s logo.

“The intention is to create street art on the walls, but there will be separate content to explain where each piece comes from. Most were made possible by interviewing the stores, and while there might be some inconsistencies, overall it’s just good fun. These pieces will be scattered around the alleyways as some stores might not have walls next to their properties. Nevertheless, we intend to spread them out to make walking around Yaowarat more enjoyable. The experience is not only about taking photos of the walls, but also learning their stories. Thus, the name of this year’s Yaowarat event is “The City that Prospers and Flourishes More and More.”

From the legend of opening a dance floor in the heart of the old market area to transforming the traditional Chinese stage opera theater with Thai narration, how will a walk around Yaowarat during this year’s Bangkok Design Week feel different from before, and what new discoveries await? Don’t forget to come and find the answers for yourself!

Get to know Yaowarat District more through the neighborhood’s recommended programs:

Chinese Opera story books and exhibitions 

Yunnan Arts University-School Local Cooperative Creative Series Activities 

Waste Life สายมู Workshop 

Local Gallery of local shop 

Click to see all the programs of Yaowarat here:

Bangkok Design Week 2024

Livable Scape

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27 Jan – 4 Feb 2024