Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Fighting to Remain

An artisan in the Pom Mahakan community varnishes a fancy bird cage in front of his home. Tourists buy the cages as mementos of Thailand. Thais buy them to house their songbirds. 

Pom Mahakan is a community in one of the old forts that used to protect Bangkok. The fort was built early in the 19th century on what was then the eastern edge of Bangkok. The city very quickly expanded and by the middle of the 19th century the fort was swallowed up by Bangkok and was militarily unnecessary. 

The military abandoned the fort and squatters moved in. 
The fort's ramparts still stand with a nonfunctioning cannon overlooking the street. 

Over time, a real community of a couple of hundred families took root in the fort. The community became a center for fireworks dealers (for safety reasons the fireworks factories moved out decades ago), cockfighting, songbirds, Likay (Thai traditional opera) and artisans like birdcage makers and musical instrument makers. 

The city took over the land in the fort in the mid 1960s and has been trying to evict the residents ever since.
A woman brings in her daughter's plush toy after she washed it and hung it out to dry. 

The city's eviction plans gathered steam this spring and I started going down to the old fort on a regular basis. I didn't photograph every time I went down there, but I always carried my cameras. Now people recognize me and they stop to greet me and try to chat with me. The first deadline for the evictions came in late April but people didn't move out and the city didn't move in, so a weird stasis set in. Since April, several deadlines have come and gone. 
An artisan crafts earthenware figurines in his home in Pom Mahakan....
...While his son watches TV. 

I enjoy my little sojourns down to Pom Mahakan. Slipping behind the walls of the old fort is like leaving Bangkok and getting into a rural Thai village. The people in the fort like showing visitors their community. If you take time to visit with people you'll have a chance to see a side of Bangkok life that most people don't see anymore. 
A child plays on a metal frame in the old fort. 

The fort's residents seem determined to stay. And the city is determined to move them out. The city wants to build a park on the land. The community's latest plan is turn the community into a "living history" museum. I don't know if the city will go along with this idea, but it seems to me be a nice compromise. There's a lot of history in the old fort and it would be a shame to lose it. 

The city's plan calls for moving the residents out to new housing far from the fort and central Bangkok. For the artisans, who sell their goods to tourists, this could kill their business. One man said to me, while he made his earthenware figurines, that he couldn't move because his customers wouldn't find him. 

For the people who live in the fort but work in Bangkok, it would be a financial blow. A teacher who lives in the fort (her family has lived behind the walls of the fort since the late 1800s) told me the school she teaches at was a just a short walk from the fort. If she moved she would have to take a bus or train everyday to get to work. 
A noodle soup vendor who lives in the fort pushes his cart out to the street to start his daily sales round. 

The latest rumored deadline is mid-August, probably around the 15th of the month. The fort's residents are working furiously to get the "living history" museum idea off the ground. There are supposed to be cultural events in the fort every weekend and they've scheduled meetings with national politicians to express their concerns. 
The community's unofficial historian (right) shows members of the National Legislative Assembly (parliment) around the fort. The yellow and blue flags are the flags of the King and Queen respectively, the striped flag is the Thai flag.

The NLA members seemed to be impressed with the residents' plans for a living history museum but they were noncommittal about stopping the evictions, because it is a city matter. 
A woman cooks on the sidewalk in front of her home. Kitchens are frequently outside the home in Thailand, even in the expensive homes of the elite. There are a couple of reasons for this; it helps keep homes a little cooler because the heat is generated outside and it keeps the smells (Thai cooking uses a lot of garlic and chilies) outside the home. 

I am not very optimistic that the community will be able to stay in the fort. I've been covering evictions in Bangkok for a little over a year now. So far every community I've photographed has been forced to move. What's different about this eviction is that the residents are dealing with a government entity (the other evictions were all carried out by private landowners) and it's possible that city officials will be more willing to compromise with residents than private landowners were. Possible but not likely. 
A resident of the fort listens to one of his songbirds. 


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