Lufthansa Highlights Bangkok: "Life flows like silk "
The clatter of the looms can be heard from afar, unless momentarily drowned out by the sound of one of the city’s bus boats chugging noisily down the Khlong-Saen-Saep canal and interrupting the laid-back activity of the weavers.
The idyllic scene is deceptive. Depending on the time of day, the color of the water in the canal changes from dark gray to black; the tiny teak huts huddled along the banks are old and dilapidated; ragged clothes hang on lines between bird cages and climbing plants on rickety-looking metal contraptions. Hidden in the heart of Bangkok, not far from the bustle on Rama I Street, the busy mega malls around Siam Square and the imposing National Stadium, this tiny residential and working district has scarcely changed over the past 50 years. It’s a fascinating little area exuding a very distinct charm.
In Niphon Manuthas’ workshop, three barefoot women tread the pedals of their wooden looms, tossing jewel-colored spools of silk between the warp and weft without missing a beat of their animated chatter. Khun Malai is working on a piece of bright turquoise silk. It will take a week of hard work before she can deliver the 15 meters that a customer has ordered from Baan Krua Thai Silk.
Khun Malai comes from the northeast. Her mother taught her how to weave: In Isan, a rural part of Thailand, practically every family has a few mulberry trees and a weaving loom. Looking for work, she moved to the big city. In those days, Baan Krua was the prosperous district of the silk weavers, and Niphon Manuthas’ mother gave the young girl a place to sleep and a job. She has lived here since, in the city’s oldest Muslim enclave. Although the shopping malls of Siam, Chidlom or Asoke are only a short train trip away from Baan Krua, she has never seen them.
Nothing has changed in Baan Krua: The wooden huts and the narrow pathways that crisscross between them, the 60-year-old looms, the archaic wheels used to wind the silk onto the bobbins, the hanks of brightly colored silks piled up in large wicker baskets, the heat, the stray cats, the dust.
Baan Krua is a district with a very proud and rich history: In the late 18th century, King Rama I gifted it to a community of Cham Muslims from Cambodia and Vietnam who had fought in his army. In those days, this land lay to the east of the young capital city; the new inhabitants built a mosque and dug a canal down to the wide river of Chao Phraya. They brought with them their culture and their traditions, including silk weaving.
Niphon Manuthas fetches an old silk sarong from his glass-fronted cabinet. It is a wonderful piece of material, as light as a feather and woven in delicate shades of green, yellow and orange. His mother made it for his father, who wore it at his wedding. "See how superb the quality is?," the son asks proudly. Amongst others, the checked sarongs made by Niphon Manuthas’ mother, Suree, caught the attention of Jim Thompson in 1947. The American, who was living in Bangkok at the time, discovered the incredibly finely woven silks at one of the local markets.
Thompson was so impressed that he took a few samples to New York, where they were received with equal enthusiasm. He returned to Bangkok and in 1948 set up the Thai Silk Company. Niphon Manuthas’ mother and other Baan Krua weaving families were given a share of the company, explains William Booth, who joined Thompson’s business in the 1960s and still works for the company as managing director. "My friend Jim was an idealist. He wanted to let as many people as possible participate in his success."
To this day, Niphon Manuthas receives a comfortable annual dividend from the shares in the company, which have increased significantly in value since he inherited them from his mother. These shares have enabled him to bridge the difficult years that all the silk weavers in Baan Krua experienced. In the beginning, they could sell their fabrics for hard dollars to the big boss who lived on the other side of the canal in a fabulous house, celebrating loud parties with his friends every evening. But this era came to an abrupt end in 1967 when Thompson disappeared in the Malaysian jungle without a trace.
"One by one, all the weaving families moved away," explains Niphon Manuthas, "without Jim Thompson they saw no future in their craft." He stayed put and today has plenty of work. His materials can be found on cushions, around windows and covering furniture in Bangkok’s luxury hotels, including the Oriental and Shangri-La; they are purchased by wealthy Thais for their wedding gowns and are sold as far a field as Italy, Holland and the United States. Customers can choose a length of fabric straight from the hundreds of bales in the workshop; for this quality, the prices - ranging up to 600 bath (around 12 euros) per meter - are unrivalled anywhere else in the world.
Right next door is the workshop of Uncle Aood. A relative newcomer to Baan Krua, he and his family have been here for over 50 years. Uncle Aood started working in his family’s dyeing factory when he was 11. Today, the taciturn chain-smoker employs only five people, including two female weavers who produce the traditional checked silk material. The two women have lived in the district for years, and can remember the days when the looms clattered in every house and hanks of freshly dyed silk hung to dry in bundles from bamboo sticks suspended over the canal.
Uncle Aood’s son helps his father in the factory, but doesn’t want to take it over. "Too much hard work, too little money," he says laconically. "You just have to be more innovative," says Pattramas Manuthas, who discusses all the dye colors with him and who occasionally will come in with a special request. She loves to experiment with bold color combinations, like orange and pink or apple green and aquamarine. "We have to work even harder," she says, "and go with the times if we want to survive." Then she says goodbye and speeds off to meet friends at nearby Siam Square. Unlike her weavers, she knows exactly where the city’s pulse beats - and just how important it is to feel it.
Fotos: Cedric Arnold (6), getty image