By Andrew Biggs
There is movement at the end of my soi.
It started a week ago and now the changes are swift. A sign goes down, a sign goes up. Old wooden planks, serving as roofs and walls, get prised apart. Tables and chairs and cookers are being gathered up and moved across the road.
It was the duck noodle shop on Monday; then the fried chicken stall the next. And last night, as I returned home from a late-night meditation class at my local temple, it was Jeck, owner of Bangkok’s best grilled chicken and somtam side-of-the-road stall, scraping away at his giant half-barrel, from where I have purchased a nation of fried chicken over two decades, getting ready to move on too.
This week I have a story for you that is so microcosmic of Thailand, I hardly need to even point that out to you. Everything in this column is true, bar the pathetic stab at respectability just then about coming home from meditation class.
It began 20 years ago when I first moved into the neighborhood.
I live in a small soi off busy Srinakharin Road, not far from the Bearing intersection, which the Prime Minister visited in May since it floods there regularly. I was upcountry at the time, so I didn’t get to don my phrarathapattan suit and stand solemnly amid the onlookers. One of my neighbors claimed the visit caused traffic to be jammed on Srinakharin Road; she said that shaking her head and frowning, and I of course shook my head and frowned as well just to be polite. But she is being unfair. Srinakharin is permanently jammed. Blaming the PM for Srinkaharin traffic is a bit like me blaming that meditation course on my stumbling into an errant tree on the way from my gate to the front door.
When I first moved here, the eastern side of the soi entrance had a brand new building housing a supermarket.
On the western side was a vacant block, and upon it were five makeshift restaurants, side by side. One featured duck noodles; another was kai yang run by a skinny young man called Jeck.
The other three had khao man kai, khao moo daeng and one of those anything-you-want-to-order makeshift restaurants with Mama noodles hanging out the front. Of all the mysteries this country holds, one of them is why anybody, with all the choices available, would want to point at a packet of instant noodles and demand they be fried up in front of you for dinner.
That was the little community, or chumchon in Thai. Five little shops, wooden and quaint, with toilet rolls on rickety tables and bent spoons and forks.
One day this little chumchon started dismantling itself. They moved from the western to the eastern side of the soi, right in front of the supermarket on the main road.
“Somebody’s leased the land, so we have to get off it,” Jeck said.
The east side was vacant for a month. Then a new, nicer-looking wooden structure went up. A painted wooden sign said: SRINAKHARIN SEAFOOD.
Suddenly scruffy looking young men wearing bum bags and with permanent cigarettes dangling from their mouths stood outside the restaurant, and anybody who parked on that side of the road were being charged 10 baht. This upset everybody who parked there to run in to buy groceries from the supermarket, including myself, but I was spared the extortion. Scruffy looking men in bum bags smoking cigarettes may be fluent in fleecing innocents, but they are not so fluent in English. They took one look at me and ran a mile.
Their standover tactics didn’t work with the likes of other Srinkaharin folks either. They were gone within a week, as was the seafood restaurant not long after. And when it did, those five little restaurants drifted back, slowly, across the road to where they had been originally.
The supermarket went bankrupt. This heralded a few more makeshift shops. The Rohingya refugee crisis precipitated the arrival of a Rohingyan woman selling delicious rotis. The end of my soi was not only a bustling market of delicious take-home food; it was cosmopolitan as well.
Then … a chumchon catastrophe.
Someone purchased the land on the western side. “They’re going to build an apartment block,” Jeck told me. He packed up and moved back in front of the bankrupt supermarket, but wait – there were now new shops there. So Jeck and his pals moved to the side of the supermarket, meaning the abandoned building now had a bustling market on two of its four sides.
The apartment block never got built to the west. Meanwhile to the east, a new supermarket opened and the entranceway had to be cleared. Those shops took the opportunity to move back to western side.
This yo-yoing continued for two decades. I have watched the duck noodles ladies grow old (as they, no doubt, have watched me). Jeck is now married with two daughters. Every day they are up at dawn, selling their specialties, day in and day out. And now and again they pack up and move.
Something weird happened just last year. The second supermarket also went bust, but inexplicably a wall was built along one side of the footpath right outside the building. It cut right through where all the makeshift shops, including Jeck’s, had been situated, as if it was deliberately built to stop them taking up footpath space. Was it an act of revenge? Did the landlord get a dodgy plate of duck noodles? Whatever the intention, it caused those stalls to pack up and cross the road once again.
There was movement again this week. The front of the abandoned supermarket facing the main road has been cleared.
Overnight the duck noodles returned to its original place to the west. So did the khao man kai and the fried chicken stalls. They have completed a 20-year circle.
My biggest fear has been Jeck.
I watched from my car as he and his wife scraped out the half-barrel late at night, ready to move their shop yet again. But today he is not on the western side of the road. Could it be that my beloved kai yang vendor has finally gone someplace else?
We are born, we grow old, we suffer pain, and we die. Such are the fundamental tenets of Buddhism. It is true of grilled chicken shops, too. Luckily we pass through this process at different times, so that a chumchon can continue to remain a community.
Jeck may be gone, but for the rest of that community, it is life as normal.
How resilient they are. There may be great torrents of rain and gridlocked traffic. There may be a new landlord that boots them to the kerb, then another who boots them back, then another who builds a wall just to spite them.
They are a community tennis ball, lobbed back and forth across the net of commerce and greed, powerless to the mood swings or morality of those in power. They just want to get along with the job of raising their families and making a living. For that I am grateful of them, and even proud, though I wish sometimes they would collectively get together and make a stand, for despite their impoverished state, together they hold power. They are, after all, feeding society.
Now if I can just find where Jeck went.