Get to Know the Creative District Ahead of BKKDW2024: Hua Lamphong

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Get to Know the Creative District Ahead of BKKDW2024: Hua Lamphong

Painting a future from the unwritten history of the train station creative district.

It’s often said that the 24 hours within a train station go by faster than the outside world, a comment on the bustle and frantic pace of rail hubs, where novice travelers stand in the way of seasoned merchants and wide-eyed arrivals trade places with tearful locals departing for work far away. Hua Lamphong has sped through many hours over the course of its more than 100 years serving as Bangkok’s central train station and the rail hub of the entire nation.  

What happens when the place once tasked with seeing so many people on their way has to set off on its own journey into a new context? We find out from Ms. Yanin “Miw” Thunkijjanukij and Mr. Pakornwit “Jabik” Wiangsripanawan of ReThink Urban Spaces (RTUS), Co-Host of Bangkok Design Week 2024 in Hua Lamphong District.

A New Journey for the ‘Former Travel Hub’

Hua Lamphong and Soi Phraya Singhaseni comprise a neighborhood that played a crucial role when Bangkok Train Station was in operation. Ms. Miw explained that the district served weary and hungry travelers, with customers from all over the country frequenting the shops and services of the neighborhood throughout the day and night.

“Travelers from the deep south would spread word of the delicious halal food in this one alley, or one hotel would emerge as a dependable place of rest for people who had to continue on to other business. These hotels would often have popular restaurants, like one place people called ‘Short Guy, Tall Guy Char Siu Pork.’ It disappeared with the coming of the expressway and the station’s move.”

Ms. Miw and Mr. Jabik pointed out that there are two main factors behind Hua Lamphong’s major shift. The first was Bangkok’s expansion, which led to changes in its topography and a dispersion of Hua Lamphong’s users. The second was the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit at a time when the train station was at its most vulnerable.

“Hua Lamphong has experienced a lot of change. One of the biggest was the expressway cutting through the center of its community, carving its very heart out. That had a major impact. Then COVID-19 happened and the neighborhood was further distressed.

“COVID-19 made this neighborhood a ghost town, and then the station was moved, taking away all its shops. With trains running to Bang Sue, staff and travelers all disappeared, two large groups of people who were important to livelihoods here.

“We saw that delicious halal restaurant close down with our own eyes after the southern train stopped coming. Where it once saw 50 customers a day, it only saw five, until eventually it couldn’t stay open and its owners had to move away. Even with fewer shops now, the ones that have remained aren’t making a lot.”

Despite all these changes and setbacks however, Ms. Miw and Mr. Jabik don’t think Hua Lamphong has come to an end, rather, it has begun a new journey.

The Immense Value of ‘Unwritten History’

With just a slight change of viewpoint, re-centering on what Hua Lamphong really is now that the train station has left, Ms. Miw and Mr. Jabik discovered its real value: a wealth of stories that have yet to be recorded and told to the world.

“If you move past the train station and analyze the district scientifically, you’ll see it has a wonderful location. It has the MRT, which connects the Chulalongkorn University area with the city’s historic quarter to places like Talat Noi, Charoenkrung, or even Yaowarat. In terms of the neighborhood’s position, it has a lot of potential.

“We found that its communities are full of stories. People here make Chinese buttons, joss paper, and red lanterns, all items with rich history. They are surrounded by craft welders who attract buyers from all over the world with their distinct patterns. There is much to say about Hua Lamphong that goes beyond its train station and the people it brought.”

Ms. Miw and Mr. Jabik note that this discovery came with a challenge in the form of time. Many of the stories they wish to collect are fading into only vague memories.

“After discussions and forming a Hua Lamphong network, we want to quickly collect information from this generation because a lot of the stories we’ve been hearing end with, ‘The person doing that has passed.’ We’re missing out on a generation who now only exist as memories in their elderly successors. Their stories were not recorded and photos from that time are very rare, due to most not being able to afford a camera. Nonetheless, from what we’ve heard, these memories are worth keeping and form cultural capital for the neighborhood. We have to make a database of the generation still here as soon as possible.”

Shining a Light on Self-Worth using Creativity

Realizing the opportunity in sharing untold stories, Ms. Miw and Mr. Jabik started local, shining a light on people in Hua Lamphong so they could see the cultural value in their stories and belongings, believing that once they understood their worth, new conversations and opportunities in the neighborhood would emerge.

“A sense of belonging was missing from the neighborhood, but once we started placemaking and talking about the past, we started to see conversations on how this district differed from its counterparts in Bangkok. People began to realize that this community also has a long history and cultural capital and began to question why this wasn’t mentioned. Most references to Hua Lamphong only focus on its central train station. We want to keep this energy going and foster a sense of belonging here; we want to push the community even further.

“It started with a single group but a snowball effect has begun as the sentiment has been shared to the smallest unit of the community, its people. We hope this will lead to a major change over the next three years. With community members now aware, we’re waiting to see if we can use their cultural capital to make an impression beyond this neighborhood, to establish that Hua Lamphong is more than its train station and is full of people and culture. We want to start a new conversation on what more Hua Lamphong has to offer.”

Of course, this Bangkok Design Week marks an important time for showing the value of the district.

“Looking to revitalize the neighborhood, we have to open it to new groups in light of the changing functions here. We are proposing a creative economy and using creativity to spur new activities and exchanges between the previous and current generation, as well as young people who may not know about the district. Once we strengthen the people here, they can actualize their potential and enliven the neighborhood again.”

Discover Hua Lamphong like never before at BKKDW 2024

For Bangkok Design Week this year, a simple theme has been chosen for Hua Lamphong. ‘Open House’ was made the district’s concept because, on top of referring to opening the neighborhood to new people and opportunities, it alludes to the community members opening up to one another through discussion and communal spaces.

“Our intention is to stage the neighborhood’s first open house after the turmoil of COVID-19. This year’s festival comes after the district underwent many changes and we wanted to take this opportunity to allow everyone to show what they’ve got. Whether it’s newly introduced hostels, cafes, or studios that might have engaged in the week as individual entities in prior years, this year will have them come together for the first time in an open house presenting their fresh takes on the neighborhood. They will collectively be representing Hua Lamphong.

“The event area will extend from MRT Exit 3 across from Hong Kong Noodle through Soi Phraya Singhaseni along the inbound expressway to Hua Lamphong until it crosses underneath towards the wall next to the rail line on Rong Mueang Road and ends in a square in front of Wat Duang Khae with Hua Lamphong train station to its right.    

“Joining us will be organizations such as the Foundation for Child Development, which has been in the neighborhood for over 40 years. The foundation holds an event every year but moved its function this year to be a part of BKKDW. Showcasing works from four communities in the district, the foundation’s exhibition encompasses community crafts and photographs as well as interactive activities run by resident young people, such as those in the Rong Mueang Ruang Yim group, a collective of young active citizens who are taking action and relating the stories of the four communities by highlighting their unique identities.

“‘Made in Hua Lamphong’ is a collaboration between six distinct shops that have long stood in Hua Lamphong and designers from five studios. Together, they are sharing stories from the neighborhood while underlining the strength of Hua Lamphong businesses.

“Other participating groups are focusing on opening up the houses of businesses in the neighborhood. Play Space Café is tapping into its network of photographers to stage Nice Photo Walk. C’HOUSE Bangkok, a new accommodation built into a renovated mosquito screen factory by the railway, is hosting an exhibition on Bazi and Num Eiang astrology, a major part of Trok Salak Hin, inviting people away from the main avenue to learn about the long-practiced Chinese belief system and empower their inner elements by visiting an installation of interactive art in the alley.

“Across C’HOUSE is a studio by American artist Coby. Working with metal, he first arrived in Thailand with his family before becoming intrigued by the metal works here and opening his own studio by renting a home. Usually, the house is closed while Coby welds, but during BKKDW, it will be open to visitors.

“At Taiban café, a workshop on canvas painting is scheduled along with an EcoWalk to collect leaves for Eco Printing and incense making. The venue is also hosting an Artist in Residency with works from the Philippines and Russia. Mami papercraft and Piti Studio, opening in January, will hold their first workshops, highlighting two artists in a single building.

Finally, under the expressway, RTUS will be holding an exhibition through which it will collect information on the community. Eight artists have been invited to use the space and they will be speaking with residents to learn about them through their different lenses, such as in terms of beliefs, or how they feel about the stone door that was demolished to make way for the expressway.”

How will this new journey for the district of travelers turn out? Find out at Bangkok Design Week 2024 in Hua Lamphong District.

Explore Hua Lamphong in greater detail through the neighborhood’s recommended programs:

Made in Hua Lamphong 

Taste of Hua Lamphong 

Arising Hua Lamphong 

Photo Frame Papercraft Workshop 

Click to view all programs of Hua Lamphong here:

Bangkok Design Week 2024

Livable Scape

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27 Jan – 4 Feb 2024