Bangkok Utopia

Lawrence Chua

In the early twentieth century, sometimes-competing and sometimes-complementary visions of utopia emerged in Bangkok. The nascent architectural profession in the Thai capital was confronted with both the development of a new urban and the exponential growth of the city through an influx of migrant labor. Rather than create mass housing and public spaces in which the new urban classes could exercise political power, the Architecture exercise focused on producing isolated leisure sites within a city based on the model of a leisure park. Two diagrams that circulated at that time reflect these utopian ideals—sometimes antagonists, sometimes affines.

idMAG_0014_LC_01

Alain Manesson Mallet: ‘Iudia ou Siam [Thailand or Bankok],’ in Description de L’Univers, c. 1663–1686. Johann David Zunners, Frankfurt am Main

In the early twentieth century, sometimes-competing and sometimes-complementary visions of utopia emerged in Bangkok. The nascent architectural profession in the Thai capital was confronted with both the development of a new economy and the exponential growth of the city through an influx of migrant labor. Rather than create mass housing and public spaces in which the new urban classes could exercise political power, the Architecture exercise focused on producing isolated leisure cities within a metropolis based on the model of a leisure park. Two diagrams that circulated at that time reflect these utopian ideals—sometimes antagonists, sometimes affines. One is a diagram from a manual of secret society literature and the other a map of a miniature city built in the grounds of Dusit Palace by King Rama VI.

idMAG_0014_LC_02

Portrait of a Chinese family of Bangkok, c. 1900. The National Library of Thailand: National Archives, Bangkok

idMAG_0014_LC_03

Chao khun Phitak Thepthani, 1911. The National Library of Thailand: National Archives, Bangkok

The first one is part of a collection of documents compiled by Chao Khun Phitak Thepthani in 1911. The documents are poetic forms coming from the Bureau for Inspecting Chinese Workers in the Municipal Government. In verse and diagram, they offer a glimpse into the life of the secret societies of early Chinese-language migrant workers in the Siamese capital detailing their rules and regulations, secret symbols, language, codes, tools, rituals, and hierarchies of the many Chinese-language speaking groups that had migrated to Bangkok in the late nineteenth century after the abolition of slavery and corvée labor. The diagrams, many hand-painted in strong colors, might be read as a form of utopian literature or a mapping of ideals into an image that could be easily apprehended in the new world of turn of the century Bangkok.

By 1910, the migrant workers from the southeastern coast of China that flooded into Bangkok, dominated important sectors of the flourishing urban economy: dockworkers, rickshaw pullers, shop owners, fishermen, workers in rice mills, electric power plants, or State Railway workshops. This nascent proletariat asserted their agency in a general strike in 1910, which brought the city to a standstill. In this context, the diagram—that might be read as an image of the utopian city that the secret societies sought to create, was of great interest to the municipal authorities of the capital, who were concerned with how to discipline the new migrant population.

idMAG_0014_LC_04

Coronation of King Vajiravudth, Rama VI King of Siam, 1911. Ewing Galloway Agency, New York

idMAG_0014_LC_05

‘Map of Dusit Thani,’ in Dust thani muang prachathiptai kong phra bat somdet phra mongkut klao chao yu hua, 1970. The National Library of Thailand, Bangkok

The second referred diagram is a 1918 map of Dusit Thani, the miniature city created by King Rama VI on the grounds of Dusit Palace. The 1910 general strike haunted King Rama VI, who began his reign the following year. The strike was an indication of the growing political power of the new urban classes that were a by-product of Bangkok’s economic and spatial growth had grown in both population and wealth as it became a nodal point in the world capitalist economy. The king’s miniature city can be read as an effort to reimagine the future of the one over which he ruled.

Known as the ‘Muang prachatiptai [Democratic City],’ Dusit Thani was an experiment—with nearly one acre and almost the shape of a square, was comprised of about one thousand built structures, of which more than three hundred were private homes. At its height, it had its own constitution, a bi-cameral parliament, newspapers, and convened regular political assemblies to make municipal decisions. Yet, the city was conceived of as a leisure pursuit on the part of the king and the favorite members of his inner court. Although it had banks and a tax system, it lacked a clear economic system. As can be seen in the plan—which is attentive to the existing topography of the gardens of Dusit Palace, there is an abundance of lots marked ‘suan,’ which might be translated variously as ‘orchard,’ ‘garden,’ or ‘park’ and suggest some cultivated form of greenery. Notably absent, however, were the farms of the peasants that might tend these orchards. So too were factories, markets, and worker’s housing missing from King Rama VI’s utopian plan. Unlike industrial cities, Dusit Thani didn’t produce wealth, but drained it from the country for an unproductive ruling class. In fact, the effect is more of an isolated leisure garden than that of an organized city. The service sector was meant to disappear into the margins of the city once their work was completed for the day.

Bangkok view from the tallest building in Thailand, the Baiyoke Sky Hotel

These diagrams open up a way to understand the contradictory histories of urban planning in global cities like Bangkok, which today seek to reconcile the dreams of labor with the dreams of corporations. Reading these two diagrams as forms of utopian literature can reveal the ways in which the early twentieth century imagination drew on similarly diverse ideals in confronting the bricks, mortar, unpaved streets, back lanes and marginal zones of a growing city to produce a sprawling playground in which the dreams of migrant labor and the dreams of a corporate state merge into an endless nightmare.