Everywhere we look these days it seems like old shophouses and old family homes are being knocked down and replaced with shiny monoliths to urban living. Sure we all yearn to live in state-of-the-art condominiums but at what cost? Condo living may suit our modern lifestyles but it also has a major impact on the local community. Condo-dwellers don’t sit out front of their shop, chatting to passers by, they don’t even necessarily know who their neighbors are. They leave for work in the morning, come home at night after dinner, maybe spend an hour in their air-con gym before hitting the sack. Condo-dwellers don’t get their clothes fixed at the local street tailor, don’t buy their new brush from the guy with the hand cart—they drive to the nearest community mall and buy everything from their brandname store and supermarket.
And if there’s no one buying your brush or dropping by your mom and pop shop then what is a small shop owner you do—especially when faced with rising rent? Pack up the business, look for alternate employment and another place to live. Taken to the logical extreme it means a day will come when you step into your soi and all you find is a row of fancy condos but nowhere to shop, eat or get your watch fixed. Before that sorry day arrives we headed out to the streets and talked to the people still making a living out on your soi before they disappear for good.
A Dying Art?
Spotting Khon Yom Pah Suwanchai Sae-tang, 48, is like catching a bygone scene from Bangkok’s past. He travels the streets with his stove and dyeing gear strapped to his bicycle alerting potential customers with a unique jingle performed on a Thai folk toy called a pong pang. If you want to bring your favorite outfit back to life then you can usually find him cycling around Thonburi, from Daokanong to Prapadaeng.
How long have you been doing this job? For 15-16 years. I was trained by my brother-in-law who also does this. I still do everything as it used to be in the old days.
How have things changed? Well people definitely used to dye their clothes more. These days it’s easier to just buy new clothes.
What’s your working day like? I cycle from my home along Suksawas Road to Prachauthit or sometimes as far as Samut Prakan. I cycle about 20-30 kilometers a day. Sometimes I leave my bicycle where I end up because it’s too late to cycle back. I then take a bus back in the morning then head back the way I came. I buy my dye at Klong Toei or Hua Lamphong. The complete set is about B1,000-1,500. I use the premium grade dye because it lasts much longer.
Are there a lot of customers? Not as much as there used to be but I still make OK money. Sometimes I can earn about B500 per day but it varies.
Have you ever tried any other kind of work? I used to do odd jobs but after learning this skill, I’ve never done anything else.
What about your family? My two children are still young. I still have to do this job to pay for them to go to school.
What would you do if you couldn’t do this anymore? I don’t know, I don’t have anyone to teach these skills to.
A short walk from Saphan Khwai BTS station, in an old avenue filled with amulet shops, you’ll find numerous street craftsmen patiently waiting for customers to stop by and get their not-so-precious jewelry gilded in gold or sulver. We talk to experienced gilder, Kriengsak Kueprasertkul, 58, who’s been doing this job for over half his life.
How long have you been here? More than 30 years. My family opened a gold shop in Ban Mor and Nakornchaisri (in Nakorn Pathom province) so I learned from them. I moved to Saphan Khwai after one of my friends asked me to join him. I now sit next to his shop. I have regular customers who bring their precious things like accessories or brooches. I gild them to make them look brand new again.
How has business changed over the years? I used to have many more customers. I think it’s partly because my customers are old or have died or moved elsewhere.
What’s your working day like? I catch the bus from Putthamonthon to open my stall from 10.30am-6.00pm every day. I never stop. Now we have a problem with the high price of gold, but I still use only real gold because I am honest to the customers as they are my regular clients. Also, some customers are allergic to fake gold.
What would you do if you couldn’t do this anymore? I don’t know. I’ve never done anything else. This is my family’s profession.
A brush with success
It’s a question that you’ve probably asked yourself when seeing one of these traders pushing their cart full of brooms along the road in Sukhumvit or Silom: Who buys their brushes and what’s business like these days? Wisit Poltien, 43, tells us about plying his trade in Bangkok.
How long have you been doing this job? About 3-4 years. I used to work in a jeans factory, but it was quite low-paid and it was hard to support my family. My brother suggested this, so I decided to give it a try. I thought if it doesn’t go well I still can go back to work in the factory. But this job is much better than my old one. I can take a holiday whenever I want and there’s no one to tell me off or criticize what I do.
How has business changed? People used to spend more and now it’s all about saving. Some say it’s because the economy isn’t as good. Even when their brooms are really worn out, people still use them because they don’t want to spend the money.
What’s your working day like? I cycle from my home in Soi Inthamara 29 (Suttisan) in the morning to business areas like Pratunam, Ratchada, Sukhumvit or Silom. I then spend the day going up and down the streets looking for customers, heading home in the evening.
Who are your customers? It depends. Some are housewives, some work as cleaners in offices.
How much do you earn per day or month? It depends but I average more than B10,000 per month. That’s compared to my old job where I only got B6,000-7,000.
What does your family think about your job? They are fine with it because I can earn a living and send money back home to them in Roi Et province. One of my children has already graduated from vocational school but another is just in third grade.
What would you do if you couldn’t do this anymore? Well I actually plan on building up this business by hiring others to sell the brooms for me. I know a guy who built an empire by selling brooms just like me.