Back in business
An historic Bangkok steamboat dock restocks its warehouses with modern goods and a brace of restaurants
THE FRUITS have begun to ripen in a Chinese-Thai family’s efforts to revitalise Bangkok’s historic Huo Chuan Laung pier, once a hub of commerce but forgotten for most of a century.
Lhong 1919 – as the new mixed-use development is called – opened last month and continues to draw fresh tenants as well as hordes of customers and the curious.
Huo Chuan Laung, on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River, was where Chinese traders began docking their steamboats laden with goods back in 1850, after Siam opened up to overseas merchants. Today it’s a shuttle boat tying up to the pier to collect and discharge tourists, shoppers and diners.
The buildings of Lhong 1919 are arranged in the traditional Chinese style known as San He Yuan, forming a semicircle around a large courtyard.
The Wanglee family, which has long owned the property, has lovingly restored the dock area, which includes three attached, two-storey former warehouses arranged in a semicircle facing the river and a shrine to the Chinese sea goddesss Mazu.
The old storage facilities that once held mountains of goods from Singapore, Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland now house restaurants and cafes, arts-and-crafts shops and an events hall.
Rujiraporn Wanglee, founder of interior-design firm PIA, which oversaw the site’s redevelopment, sought to preserve as much authenticity as possible. Teak fittings were repaired with wood from other sections of the buildings. Where moss was growing on the exterior walls, it was left alone.
The historical pier, shrine and warehouses on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River have been restored to their original glory.
“It was the right time to wake the place up from its long sleep,” says Rujiraporn. “The traditional parts represent valuable heritage that should be preserved.”
Phraya Phisansuppaphol built Huo Chuan Laung – the name simply means “steamer pier” – in 1850 for the city’s Chinese community. European and Japanese merchants had their own piers elsewhere, as did the Siamese royal family.
The old warehouses are stocked once more with goods, this time with appealing arts and crafts.
The advent of the Port Authority of Thailand greatly reduced traffic at Huo Chuan Laung, and in 1919 Tun Lip Buey – a Wanglee family forebear – bought the site for storing the clan’s agricultural produce. There were also living quarters for the employees and other labourers.
The renovated Mazu shrine
The Mazu shrine gave Chinese merchants and immigrants a spiritual anchor in Bangkok. The wooden statue of the goddess, known to Thais as Chao Mae Tubtim, can still be revered on the second floor of the main central edifice.
“I used to come here years ago when the buildings were still in a bad state,” says a Thai-Chinese visitor. “I came to worship Chao Mae Tubtim as a goddess of the sea because I have a water element in my zodiac birth sign. I’m really delighted to see the shrine and the buildings so carefully restored.”
Ceramics shop Poungphet by BPC is the first retail outlet for a Lampang manufacturer.
Crafts shops ringing the ground floor of the conjoined former warehouses include Poungphet by BPC, which sells hand-made ceramic tableware and decorative items made by Poungphet Aungsuthorn. It’s the only retail outlet for BPC Ceramics, which has a factory in Lampang and makes pieces for international brands such as Habitat.
Brand manager Thidarat Pakchanakorn, Poungphet’s niece, says firing at high temperature makes the ceramics extra durable, and they have textures and colours that invoke Mother Earth.
“I also run a film-production house and used to visit Lhong when I was scouting for locations,” she says. “The buildings were in bad condition, but I loved the Chinese-style architecture, which is so rarely seen these days.
“When the site was fully restored and I found out there was space for an art shop, I didn’t hesitate to rent an area to sell my aunt’s ceramics.”
Room5D offers a wide variety artsy items created by a collective of designers plus a painter.
In Room5D next door, a painter and fashion, interior and product designers are showing what they’ve created in apparel, jewellery, home decor, furniture and artwork.
Pravit Sawadviphachai, the clothing guy in the crowd, has glittering evening dresses in metallic spandex and silk satin, handbags woven from paper fibres and cotton thread, and outlandish costume jewellery made of beads, silver, crystals and precious stones. Everything is one of a kind.
“This old building, with its unpainted brick walls and cracks here and there, is a great place to show my luxurious dresses and jewellery,” he says. “It makes for a wonderful contrast – and it makes my pieces that much more beautiful!”
Mine Crafteria sells leather accessories and hosts workshops in the craft.
Mine Crafteria is Ussana Sintanawewong’s first shop selling her leather handbags, totes, shoulder bags and wallets, all rendered in premium calf and sheepskin. She also conducts workshops where you can learn to make your own passport holder (for a Bt900 fee that covers all materials) or a nametag (Bt700).
“I’ve been a freelancer for years, but this is my first venture into retail,” says the Silpakorn University graduate. “What I’m offering at the moment will appeal to people 30 years old or more, but the next collection will target the younger generation with embroidered canvas bags.”
Silver pieces adorned with gemstones are available for both men and women at Nine Accessories.
At Nine Accessories, Anut Wattanaruj – who lost his salaried job in the economic crisis 20 years ago and switched to crafting jewellery, has great silver-gemstone accessories, particularly rings, for both men and women.
“I opened a small kiosk just two months after I lost my job in 1997 and my silver pieces for men sold very well among foreigners,” he says.
He also has shops at creative space ChangChui and at Siam Discovery, all venues also offering the accessories for women created by his daughter Kotchakorn, who learned the trade at Bangkok’s Golden Jubilee Royal Goldsmith College.
“Lots of people these days have good taste and can mix and match items,” Anut says. “They love unconventional designs too, so you should be able to wear any jewellery piece in different ways.”
Rong Si serves Thai classic dishes and seafood.
One of the old warehouses that used to be stocked with rice is now a restaurant called Rong Si (“rice mill”) run by Atchara Burarak, who also owns popular outlets iBeery and Kub Kao Kub Pla.
A chilli dip with crab roe
Rong Si honours its origins by retaining some of the rustic old roof tiles in the interior and rice sacks on the ceiling. It’s a spacious place, with seating for 300, and specialises in Thai cuisine and seafood such as charcoal-grilled river prawns and a chilli dip with crab roe.
Next door is another restaurant, Nai Harng (“big boss”). Pravesvudhi Raiva of the S&P Syndicate chose the name in memory of his late father, business tycoon Suriyont Raiva, whose employees called him that.
Nai Harng is decked out reminiscent of the street stalls in Chinatown.
Inspired by the street-food stalls in Bangkok’s Chinatown, Nai Harng has an open kitchen, signs in glowing red neon, mismatched chairs and tables, and portraits of Suriyont on sheets of corrugated iron. There are scenes of botan blooms too, believed to signify prosperity and happiness.
A five-spice egg with duck thigh and foie gras
The menu at Nai Harng leans to Thai and Chinese dishes and includes a terrific pad thai with crabmeat and five-spice egg with duck thigh and foie gras.
BY LAND OR BY WATER
Lhong 1919 is on Soi Wat Thong Thammachart, off Chiangmai Road and opposite Thonburi Polytechnic College.
The Mazu shrine and arts-and-crafts zone are open daily from 10 to 8. The restaurants stay open until 10.
The free shuttle boat leaves Taksin Pier near the Taksin BTS station every hour every day from 10am to 8pm. Find out more at (091) 187 1919 and the “Lhong 1919” page on Facebook.