Shanghai Mansion, the soul of Bangkok’s Chinatown


BANGKOK (eTN) It could just be another boutique hotel in Bangkok. But just the contrary, the Shanghai Mansion is more than just a place for tourists to stay. The hotel is a rare example of an exquisit boutique hotel property, which is deeply involved into the revival of one of Bangkok’s oldest districts, Yaowarat.

For almost 200 years, the district has been the heart of the Chinese community in Thailand’s capital city. Most of them were originally small traders who worked in the immediate vicinity of the Royal court, and it is considered one of the world’s oldest Chinatown communities. Today, despite the fact that Bangkok’s contemporary commercial life has mostly relocated to the Sukhumvit area – and its now famous Ratchaprasong Boulevard – Chinatown is still bustling with life.

The district has a total population of 50,000 inhabitants and one of the highest density per square kilometers in the capital. It still remains the center for textile, with numerous markets of spices, and it is a place where visitors can see woodcarving craftsmen, jewelers, and cooks. Chinatown is permanently busy, deliciously old fashioned, and polluted with its incessant traffic of cars and tuk tuks. It is probably one of the last areas in Bangkok where travelers might feel like they are going back in time.

In the midst of the district on Yaowarat Road 479, a trading property was established in 1892, which was later turned into a traditional Chinese Opera house and still later to Thailand’s stock exchange. In the fifties and sixties, the building then became a department store and housed various restaurants and a Chinese herbal medical outlet. It was only in 2005 that the ageing property was turned into a boutique hotel.

“I wanted to then give [it] the flavor of old China, and I realized that a style inspired by the mythical Shanghai 1930s would be an ideal combination with the history of the building,” explained Lily Udomkunnatum, managing director of the Burasari Group, which runs the hotel.

Mrs. Udomkunnatum incarnates this young generation of Thai business people who try to respect and nurture traditions and turn them into a profitable operation. “It is, of course, important to make our hotel a real success. But I hope that the Shanghai Mansion could be considerd as a model of how a historical building can be adapted to new purposes,” she explained.

The hotel offers 76 rooms, all offering a glimpse into Old Shanghai life. It is filled with bright colors, favored by Chinese in the old days; exquisite cushions and curtains made of silk; comfortable beds; and nostalgic stylish bathrooms. Some suites are also furnished with antique furniture, including old-style beds. All the rooms blend harmoniously antique furntiure with contemporary design. The lobby with its grand staircase and its dozens of silk lamps suspended over a water pond with fishes is an absolute must-see for any visitor of Yaowarat, along with the restaurant, which is rapidly becoming one of Bangkok’s most famous places for Chinese-Thai traditional food.

Lily Udomkunnatum recognizes that the property has suffered from the political troubles, which recently marred Bangkok. However, the managing director estimates that the unique profile of Shanghai Mansion will help the property to bounce back rapidly. “We want to be a kind of embassy of Yaowarat district, and I am very much involved in the promotion and revitalization of this historical area,” she said.

Shanghai Mansion supports open-door events in Yaowarat, as well as a festival. “We also organize historical tours for interested visitors to discover historical Chinatown, enjoy a traditional breakfast, or shop at some of the area’s most traditional outlets. And I have other ideas to further reinforce the attraction of Chinatown for foreign visitors. It is hard to change mentalities and having more local owners to participate to the revival of the area,” she told, “but I hope that we will succeed to be a model for other historical areas in Bangkok.”

Some initiatives to preserve Chinatown’s historical heritage have emerged over the past few years. In early 2009, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration opened the city’s largest local museum of history. The Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Centre is now located in a preivous school building of Wat Trai Mit Witthayaram on Yaowarat road, offering 3-D shows describing the life of Chinese migrants in the capital. Since 2008, fake nostalgic tramways have been plying the roads of Chinatown each weekend for tourists. The city has started to renovate some of the temples in the area, as well as some of the first row houses built in the early years of the 20th century.