Such lit­tle con­cern for A VAN­ISH­ING PAST

A CONDO MIGHT SOON TOWER OVER BAN PLAINERN IN BANGKOK, HOME TO A GRAND­SON OF KING MONGKUT, BUT PUB­LIC SEN­TI­MENT RE­MAINS LUKE­WARM

The Nation - - OPINION -

In few other places in the world would the his­toric res­i­dence of a great artist of royal lin­eage be en­dan­gered in the rush to ur­ban mod­erni­sa­tion. The de­scen­dants of Prince Naris­ara Nuwat­ti­wong (1863-1947), a son of King Rama IV who is best re­mem­bered as Prince Naris, have in­ten­si­fied their cam­paign against the planned con­struc­tion of a con­do­minium project near the Bangkok home where he lived un­til his last days.

At Ban Plainern, more col­lo­qui­ally known as Wang Klong­toey, Prince Naris con­ceived countless works of art span­ning var­i­ous dis­ci­plines – paint­ing, lit­er­a­ture, the­atre, mu­sic (he com­posed the Royal An­them) and ar­chi­tec­ture (he de­signed Wat Ben­cham­abophit, the Mar­ble Tem­ple) – over the course of four reigns. To this day the res­i­dence boasts cul­tur­ally valu­able el­e­ments re­lated to him. But big-city Thais, as fiercely proud of their his­tory as they can be at times, seem less anx­ious about pre­serv­ing struc­tures of the past and tend to be ap­a­thetic to­wards the on­rush of com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment.

In most of Eu­rope, by con­trast, pub­lic sen­ti­ment en­sures that the au­thor­i­ties care­fully main­tain the res­i­dences of famed, long-dead artists, whether of royal blood or not. The homes of Mozart, Monet and Shake­speare are lov­ingly kept and evoca­tive of their for­mer ten­ants. In Cam­bo­dia, struc­tures as­so­ci­ated with the ab­horred Kh­mer Rouge are pre­served, if only to make sure no one is tempted to dis­pute the mass slaugh­ter of the 1970s.

Thais might point to the ves­tiges re­main­ing of the World War II “death rail­way” in Kan­chanaburi, but they’ve done lit­tle to im­prove on their ap­pear­ance be­yond tourism in­ter­ests. Bangkok’s finest 19th- and early-20th-cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture sur­vives be­cause of its con­tin­u­ing util­ity, not be­cause of its past.

MR Chakrarot Chi­tra­bongse, a grand­son of Prince Naris who lives in the same Klong Toei neigh­bour­hood, only learned of the condo plan when he was out for a walk one day and no­ticed the ad­vi­sory sign on the site.

The de­vel­oper planned to erect a 36storey con­do­minium quite close to Ban Plainern, but was per­suaded to move the pro­posed lo­ca­tion some­what fur­ther away. The de­scen­dants of Prince Naris re­main un­sat­is­fied. Other op­po­nents are wor­ried about the kind of equip­ment that will be used in con­struc­tion and pos­si­ble harm to the en­vi­ron­ment. There has been com­par­a­tively lit­tle wring­ing of hands over his­tor­i­cal preser­va­tion.

It seems to us that pro­tec­tion of the Prince Naris legacy su­per­sedes all other con­cerns, but per­haps more im­por­tantly, we won­der why the de­vel­oper failed to fully con­sult the fam­ily and why ap­proval was given ev­i­dently with­out ac­knowl­edge­ment of cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal loss.

Why, we must ask, has this be­come the norm in the rapidly com­mer­cial­is­ing cap­i­tal and other cities, this dis­re­gard for a past that we might not yet have even fully plumbed? The min­i­mal pub­lic out­cry when such losses are threat­ened can only sug­gest that Thais do not ad­e­quately ap­pre­ci­ate their his­tory and are un­able to con­nect the evo­lu­tion­ary dots link­ing past and present.

We wish Prince Naris’ de­scen­dants well in their ef­forts to make the de­vel­oper step away, but win or lose, their case will cer­tainly not be the last of its kind. No amount of ap­peals to city plan­ners or en­vi­ron­men­tal com­mit­tees will halt mod­erni­sa­tion un­til far more peo­ple value the con­cept of pre­serv­ing the past. Some­one who doesn’t ap­pre­ci­ate his­tory, so goes the wis­dom, is like a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.

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