Assoc. Prof. Varaporn Suravadee died yesterday at the age of 81 after an accident in her home. The retired professor was at the center of one of 2016’s most inspirational stories. After learning that an eight-story building would be constructed next to Bangkokian Museum, a compound of century-old wooden houses she gifted to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) in 2004, she donated B30 million and called on the public to come up with another B10 million to purchase the adjacent plot of land. Despite a tight two-month deadline, the campaign achieved its goal in only three weeks. We spoke to Varaporn earlier this month, prior to her hospitalization on Jan 15, when she opened up about her hopes for the future of the museum.
What compelled you to buy the land?
The old owner had already contacted me to buy the land—approximately 400 sq. meters—and we’d agreed a sum of B30 million. Perhaps there was some sort of miscommunication, but they eventually decided to sell it to someone else. I didn’t realize until the contractor started preparing for work that it would be an eight-story building. I tracked down the new owners and it turned out they were actually a business family who lived in the same neighborhood. They wanted to build a permanent home as previously they had been renting. I offered to buy the land back as I personally felt that the lengthy construction process and height of the project would be detrimental to the museum. They told me they would only sell for B70 million.
What did you do?
I refused, of course. I don’t have that kind of money. I begged them to reduce the price. They showed some understanding and agreed to reduce the asking price to B50 million, including a donation of B10 million. So that meant we had to pay B40 million. Our foundation, In-Sart-Sa-ang and Francis, only had B30 million so we decided to ask the public for help. I was confident we could hit the target if we asked 100,000 people to donate B100 each. I was only afraid that we would run out of time. Then social media took over.
Did you ask for help from the BMA?
Of course. I gave them this house to be a museum. But all they could help me with was writing up letters of complaint about the construction, not to actually stop it. I asked them to help buy the land, but bureaucracy meant they weren’t able to assist.
Do you think the success of this campaign proved anything?
It shows that people understand and care about conservation, but not so much the BMA.
Why did you decide to give the house to the BMA in the first place?
I was a government officer all my life so I felt I owed the country. I was a biological scientist, so I learned it’s better to learn through real experience. I have no kids, no family, so I wanted to allow the public to learn about how middle-class Bangkokians lived in the old days. I thought the BMA would be more knowledgeable about running a museum than me, but now I realize they’re not experts either. Anyway, the law clearly states that once you give something to the administration, you can’t take it back, so I just hope I can live here happily until I die.
What are you going to do with the new plot?
As the new land comes under our foundation’s proprietary rights, we will build a two-story building where the rooftop will be a sky garden while the ground floor will be a small parking lot which can be transformed into an activity area for flea markets or small events. We’re currently calling for new donations as we need B6 million to complete the project. We’re still B3 million short but there’s no rush.