A narrow set of stairs squeezed between shops selling funereal goods off a narrow alley in Bangkok’s Chinatown leads you to the Charoen Chai Community Preservation Project. The first thing you see as you mount the stair are the rafters, exposed and blackened as if by fire. At the top of the stairs a mannequin dressed in full Chinese ceremonial regalia has features more occidental than Asian.
Part of the charm of the museum is that nothing has been done to beautify the rooms. The pale turquoise and green painted walls are leprous with peeling paint, exposing plaster and layers of ancient colour below. This is how it was, a small shophouse on a corner of an alleyway in a bustling community. Considering how close we are to the racket on Charoeng Krung Road, apart from the occasional putter of a motor-scooter threading its way through the crowded alley below, the sound is a bubble of conversation and woks being scraped at the food stalls, probably the same as it was a century ago – minus the motor-scooters, of course.
A narrow set of stairs lead up to what would probably have been a bedroom or storeroom and another door opening, this one locked. The internal walls of the once-tiny rooms have been removed to create display space.
I sit at a small round table to make notes and after a few minutes I hear the unmistakable sound of photos being taken on a smart phone coming from below. An ancient Chinese man – the word should probably be ‘venerable’ – appears at the top of the stairs, completely unaware of my presence. In his left hand he holds a metallic-shiny red Nokia phone; with his right forefinger he carefully pushes the button to take photos. His steps are the short, splay-footed movement we have come to recognise from movies as the iconic signifier of his age and nationality.
He turns into the room and sees me; with a surprised smile he bows slightly and says something in Thai while pointing downstairs with his button-pushing right forefinger. Obviously I don’t understand a word, so I smile and return the bow. He continues to take photos with his Nokia, barely stopping to read any of the information about the displays or taking any interest in the contents of the museum. It’s the photo that counts, along with the thousands of others he’s probably taken that will never get seen.
A lady in a grubby pinafore chats with two other elderly ladies at the market stall where I’m taking coffee in Chiang Mai. From the pouch on the front of her apron she takes a well-worn white plastic shopping bag and begins shaking it thoroughly, mixing up whatever is inside. One of the ladies puts her hand into the bag and pulls out a small rolled piece of white paper, which she unravels and I see is marked with the number ‘5’ in black marker pen. She obviously hasn’t won anything this time and without a second glance she hands it back to the lady in the apron, who re-rolls it and drops it into the plastic bag.
The second lady, elegantly dressed, takes a 500 baht note from her purse, hands it over and receives 350 baht change and a dip into the bag. At no point during either transaction did the conversation appear to change from anything but a chat between friends, and no other movement than a quick glance to check the number and the notes for payment and change. Chat and (probably illegal) lottery draw finished, they separate and go their different ways.