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The shrines of Chinatown

The upcoming Chinese New Year is a good time to see how the Sino-Thai communities keep their old traditions

Story & photos by SUTHON SUKPHISIT

One of Bangkok's oldest Chinese shrines, the Kuan Yu Shrine dates back to the Ayutthaya period.
Wall decorations inside the Kuan Yu Shrine, depicting a group of Buddhist pilgrims from China heading to India.
The Kuan-Yin Shrine is the most well-preserved old Chinese shrine in Bangkok.
Entrance to the shrine of Chao Mae Tubtim, goddess of the Hainanese.
Walking around Bangkok's Chinatown, especially along Charoen Krung and Yaowarat roads, you'll often come across gold shops and shark fin restaurants. Gold is auspicious material while shark fin is expensive food, compared with most. But if you walk into smaller streets and sois as Ratchawong, Songwad and Sampheng and Isranuparb, one of the most common sights is a shrine.

Shrines are the symbol of belief. The gold shops, shark fin restaurants and shrines are among the establishments that make Chinese communities unique.

Gold shops and shark fin restaurants are not really tourist attractions. But anyone can visit a shrine, and without paying any money. During next week's Chinese New Year celebration, they will be full of activities. If you want to learn more about the beliefs and cultures of the Chinese people, join them at their shrines.

According to Chinese belief, shrines are where the deities reside. Believers say the world has both good and bad, white and black _ what they call yin and yang. In human nature, we don't want the bad and unfortunate things, so we have to depend on the gods and goddesses to help bring the goodness and filter the bad luck. Such a belief system took deep root among Chinese people many centuries ago.

Many Chinese people in Thailand continue to hold the old beliefs. The Chinese-Thais come from various parts of China. The majority are Taechiew, from an area along the southern coast. There are also Hainanese, Cantonese, Hakka, and Khae. Each provincial or language group pays homage to different gods but they are similar. For example, the Hainanese respect the goddess Chao Mae Tubtim, who they believe will protect them on their water transportation, and generally bring them good fortune. The reason Chao Mae Tubtim is popular with Hainanese is because they are originally from an island.

Meanwhile, Taechiew people respect Pun Tao Mah, or Ah Mah, a goddess of water. The Taechiew are seagoing people in China and in history, and the goddess is merely a continuation of that tradition, even though Taechiew in Bangkok are well away from the sea.

When the Taechiew began to migrate from China to Thailand by ship, they carried ashes from burning incense with them as a protection from accident. This worked of course, and so when they arrived safely in Thailand, they created a shrine to house their deities.

Taechiew deities include a god for business prosperity and safety in life, called Pun Tao Gong. Shrines dedicated to this highly-revered god can be seen everywhere in commercial districts and in every community in Chinatowns in Thailand. Pun Tao Gong almost become a universal god for the Chinese of Thailand because most of them are merchants. The oldest Pun Tao Gong shrine is on Songward Road.

The interior of the Kuan Yu Shrine reflects the strong nature of the warrior god.
Incense pot in front of the shrine's entrance.
Paintings on the doors depict guardians of the shrine.
Every Chinese group has a shrine for each its deities. In olden times in Bangkok, these groups of Chinese lived separately, each in their own community. This has changed over the years. Bangkok has become more crowded, and Chinese have to mix with one another.

This means respect for deities is not separated by community as before. For example, the Zhou Zi Gong at Talad Noi was once the place where Hakka people lived. Now it is occupied mainly by Taechiew, who also pay respect to this god.

Most of the old Chinese shrines are located on the riverbank, because that was where most Chinese communities originally settled. All trade and transportation back then were on the river and klongs. Most of the shrines along the road are around 100 years old or less. They did not come into existence until construction of the city's main roads began during the reign of King Rama IV.

Like other old Chinese shrines, the Kuan Yu Shrine is on the bank of the Chao Phraya River.

It stands near the Suan Somdet Ya, a park dedicated to HRH Princess Mother, and next to Wat Anongkharam. Getting to this shrine from the Bangkok side, you need to drive to the Pra Pokklao Bridge (the one next to the Memorial Bridge) and turn left, passing Wat Anongkharam on the left-hand side, then go through the Princess Mother Park to the river bank and you'll find the Kuan Yu Shrine.

This shrine is believed to have been built during Ayutthaya period by Hokkien people. Old timers claim the area around this shrine was once the horse stable of King Taksin, and when the King was to join any battle, he would have to come to ask for blessing from Kuan Yu.

General Kuan Yu was a warlord in the Three Kingdoms epic. He is known for strength, honesty and fairness. After he died, the Chinese respected him as a god of honesty, and a warrior who helped protect the country. Therefore, the statue of Kuan Yu can take on two different styles. In one he is dressed as a nobleman, with one hand holding a book; in the other he is dressed as a warrior with a curved-blade pike in hand.

The Kuan Yu shrine on the Chao Phraya bank is highly revered by local Chinese. This works against the original architecture of the shrine, because followers tend to renovate it whenever they feel the shrine doesn't "look good". The original walls, inside and out, have been replaced with polished marble, which was popular 50 years ago. Meanwhile, the carved wood decorations which used to be above the main entrance have been replaced by cement, and with rough craftsmanship at that.

In the Chinese architecture of old, most motifs would be wood because it was lightweight. They didn't like to put weight on top a building, apart from the roof tiles. The carved wood under the front roof on the Bangkok shrine is also new, created just 20 years ago.

The beautiful part of the Kuan Yu shrine is the Chinese sign carved from wood. It's believed to be original, and of a design and craftsmanship rarely seen these days.

Another interesting point is the house located outside the shrine. This old structure is a wonderfully rich presentation old Chinese architecture, also scarce nowadays. The house is uninhabited, and is actually a fish sauce storage of a Chon Buri factory _ so we can only see it from outside.

Another old Chinese shrine worth a visiting is the one for the popular goddess Kuan Yin. The Kuan Yin Shrine next to Wat Kalayanamit is the one of the oldest and most beautiful shrines in Thailand.

The easiest way to get to the Kuan Yin Shrine is to cross the Chao Phraya River by boat to Pak Klong Talad pier and walk to the temple. There is a walkway on the riverside leading directly to the Kuan Yin shrine and it is a very short walk.

But before going to the Kuan Yin Shrine, take a tour of Wat Kalayanamit.

This monastery also features interesting Chinese architecture. There's a small building in the temple grounds made entirely of granite, from the floor to the Chinese-style rooftop. The building originally had an entry gate but it is now closed. We don't know the purpose of this building. It is now completely abandoned and quite filthy. There are Chinese-style pagodas scattered around the area, also abandoned and broken.

The Kuan Yin temple was built during the reign of King Rama III, early Rattanakosin period, by imitating the Phananchoeng temple in Ayutthaya, site of the famous Sum Por Kong shrine.

Kalayanamit temple also has a Sum Por Kong shrine, also highly revered by Sino-Thais in Bangkok. Actually, there is more "real Chinese" architecture at this temple than in Ayutthaya, but sadly, it is all in poor condition.

The Kuan Yin Shrine is an old shrine and built at about the same time as Kalayanamit temple. Originally, it was named Kian Un Keng. The main, actual statue of Kuan Yin was taken from the Sae Hun Teng shrine in China during the reign of Emperor Guang of the Sheng dynasty (1833-1853).

The must-see item here is, of course, Kuan Yin goddess. The statue features a kind and quiet Chinese woman, unlike the more common statues sold these days.

The most important point of this shrine is that it never has been changed. Most of the items here are original _ the wooden pillar, the wooden motifs under the front roof and the overall structure of the shrine. A building on the left-hand side is used as a warehouse, and the old paper-burning chamber now is accommodation for the shrine's keepers, but all are the original Chinese architecture.

The altar that holds the statues of Kuan Yin and her followers is also original. Though it's old, it has been well-preserved and is very clean.

Why does this place remain unchanged?

It is explained that there have been several rich people who highly respect the goddess and want to renovate the shrine but Kuan Yin herself has never agreed. Normally, when one wants to do any sort of work on a shrine, they have to shake fortune sticks and ask questions to the goddess statue. However, every time renovation has been discussed, the fortune stick always point out the goddess doesn't need to change. So the Kuan Yin goddess here is quite smart and very modern. The abbot of Wat Kalayanamit should learn a few things about conservation of old architecture from this goddess of the shrine next door.

Another interesting old shrine is one of Chao Mae Tubtim at the foot of Saphan Sanghi, or Krung Thon bridge. To get to the Chao Mae Tubtim Shrine, which is highly revered by the Hainanese, go to Krung Thon Bridge from Samsen Road. Just before you reach the bridge, stay left and go under the bridge. The shrine is on the left-hand side. It's a huge shrine, and old, but has been renovated and completely changed from the original state.

What is interesting here is the structure of the shrine, which is separated into three different areas. From the first entrance, you'll find a multi-purpose ground used for preparing duck, chicken and goat after they are sacrificed to the goddess.

The second area has rooms on both sides. They are used to store documents. The goddess statue is situated at the last entry gate where the altar also is set.

This shrine is a centre of activity before Chinese New Year. Visitors have a chance to pay respect to the goddess, see Chinese opera and enjoy Hainanese food.

These are some of the most must-see Chinese shrines in Bangkok. Visitors will get to learn about Chinese belief, the Chinese communities in the old days and Chinese architecture that are rare in Bangkok these days. Best of all, it's free.

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