BANGKOK, ALL GROWN UP AND TRENDY
By Andrew Biggs
It has been a while since I donned designer clothes and made my presence apparent at an inner-city PurchaseSpace, but that is exactly what I did earlier this week when I met a close acquaintance for savoury delicacies and wistful repartee at EmQuartier.
Oh god did you manage to get through that lead paragraph? I nearly didn’t. Writing it felt like wading through quicksand; it’s as if I’d given birth to a thesaurus mid-sentence. And yet apparently this is de rigueur for modern-day Bangkok and don’t blame me for quoting French; blame EmQuartier.
What on earth has happened to the nerdy, pimple-faced Bangkok I knew and loved for a quarter of a century?
Sometime over the last five years I blinked, and in that millisecond entire blocks of clunky shophouses and seedy cinemas were obliterated.
It is the fault of the BTS. When that strip of train stations opened in 1999, this gridlocked city suddenly opened up. No longer did we have to sit in a car for five hours to get to and from a single appointment. No longer did we have to endure 2 Unlimited and Technotronic Featuring Felly on car stereos for two hours to reach our favorite discotheque. Sorry, I meant nightclub.
The BTS came, and the wrecking ball followed.
There used to be a really lovely hotel called Siam Intercontinental next to the double-mall of Siam Discovery and Siam Centre. In 2002 the hotel got knocked down for Siam Paragon, because shopping malls, like death, come in threes.
The rest of Sukhumvit toppled like dominos.
There will be a time soon when you will be able to walk from Siam BTS all the way to Onnuj without your feet ever touching Sukhumvit Road. Make sure you have your French phrasebook on hand when you get to Phromphong.
I used to know the Emporium inside out. I used to work there when I was with Channel 3.
I look back nostalgically on those days. Imagine having an office above a mall that sold everything from Cartier to Vegemite. This was back in the days we had bookshops and music stores, and both those were almost next to each other, separated by a travel agent called TV Air where three young ladies sat churning out travel itineraries with brisk efficiency. In the 15 years I frequented The Emporium those three ladies never, ever changed positions. There was something reassuring about walking out of Kinokuniya with the latest Dean Koontz and seeing them tapping away at their computers.
The Emporium was elegant, with its nose slightly towards the sky but not to the point of being pretentious. It spawned a sibling, namely Paragon, that dwarfed it in size but as we keep being told, size isn’t everything. It’s what you do with it that counts.
Paragon also took a lot of the Emporium’s customers which was why, early in 2015, Emporium started getting boarded up. It purchased the other side of Phromphong BTS. It appeared as though the Emporium was doing an Alec Baldwin, namely, doubling in size.
Well this week I finally got to see the place after the facelift and oh my goodness.
The Emporium has gone from guarded sophisticate to ostentatiously slick. There are now three stark-white complexes and a food hall — probably called something like LeGastronomique — which requires you to walk uphill in a circular motion for half a kilometer. The views are spectacular, or should I say, spectaculaire.
I received an invitation to the grand opening of the new Emporium two months ago, only it didn’t say grand opening. It said WORLD EXTRAORDINAIRE which led me to think, for an instant, that Marcel Marceau was coming to town.
I was wrong. The new place has a French theme. It’s not the Emporium Quarter as I was led to believe … it is EmQuartier. In these modern times it is no longer fashionable to have spaces between words. The original side has gone so far upmarket, the three TV Air girls have vanished and the security guards at the Cartier store now wear white gloves – how do they eat their somtam and kai yang on lunch break?
As for the French name, I dare not pronounce it for fear of being humiliated; am I supposed to render it in bastardized English (“quart” sounding like, well, a quart of vodka, for example) or am I to act like the French and say “cart”, followed by a sound as if I am to spit phlegm onto Sukhumvit Road?
I have saved that invitation as a souvenir. I reproduce the evening events exactly as they were printed:
QUARTIER AVENUE FEST – BALLOON AERIAL ACROBATIC
MAGNIFIQUE QUARTIER WATERFALL
MAGIQUE D’AMOURS AT MIRROR ATRIUM
THE ENCHANTED QUARTIER WATER GARDEN
THE HELIX EXTRAVAGANT RAINFOREST CHANDELIER SHOW
GLOBAL FASHION VIBRATION
QUARTIER CINEART RED CARPET
EMPRIVE CINECLUB GOLD CARPET
You know what? I’m a fairly well-educated person. I may appear to be a buffoon but that’s just my Australian exterior. I ask you; do you have any idea what any of that list means? Even sober I have none.
What, for instance, is a “Quartier Waterfall”? One quarter of a waterfall? How do they stop the water mid-air — did they hire David Copperfield?
I am confused as to how a rainforest can be extravagant; perhaps they dangled gold chains from the trees. As for the “Global Fashion Vibration”, I can’t think what could vibrate owing to fashion, other than a substandard makeshift center stage. But on a global level?
I did smirk at the carpets, though.
It’s like the old Don Meuang Airport where there was a waiting room for VIPs and a separate one for VVIPs. In Thailand it’s not enough just to be elite. A red carpet is plebian if you’re super-rich; we now require a gold carpet. You watch; we’ll have platinum carpets soon.
I don’t mind them separating the elite; this is French, after all. But this is also Bangkok, a city that has always balanced its age-old traditions with modernity. And while spirituality runs deep, it is clear consumerism is now neck-and-neck.
So my old familiar Emporium has gone, replaced by a sprawling white PurchaseSpace featuring more French letters than a Saphan Khwai brothel. Add EmQuartier to the line of malls all the way down Sukhumvit – the CentralWorld, Central Chidlom, Central Embassy, Terminal 21, Gateway … just how many more do we need?
Not only that, but how much more of Bangkok’s personality do we want to chip away at for the sake of more malls? Pratunam used to be a joyous excursion through rabbit warrens of small shop owners, until they knocked half of it down to build Pratunam Plaza, populated with more ghosts than there ever were customers.
Meanwhile areas of Chatuchak Market, famous for its unique collection of small outdoor shops, are being torn apart and replaced by multi-level malls such as the faceless JJ Mall and empty JJ Outlet. Who will fly in to visit those?
I drive past the Bangna intersection every day, which is almost at the end of the BTS line. Guess what they are building on a 100-rai tract of land there.
A park? A museum? A complex to enhance spiritual development regardless of one’s religion?
Come on. This is Bangkok. It’s going to be THE BANGKOK MALL, priding itself on being the “Best Ideal Strategic Location.”
This project surprises me, and not just because I had no idea one could have degrees of “ideal”. The Bangkok Mall is going to be, according to the sign, the largest retail space in South-East Asia.
Yes, of course. Because that’s what Bangkok sorely lacks. Retail space.
And the theme? French? Non. Just non. S’il vous plait.