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Friday, April 17, 2015, 09:40

Going wet and wild in Kowloon

By JENNIFER LO in Hong Kong

Welcoming summer

One of the largest and most celebrated annual festivals in Thailand, Songkran runs from April 13 to 15 to mark the onset of summer in the kingdom and wash away bad luck.

Songkran, which is derived from the Sanskrit word samkranti (astrological passage), or its variation is also observed in some parts of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and India as it coincides with the new year in many calendars across South and Southeast Asia.

Celebrating the water festival is not always a wild water fight. A less rambunctious way of observing Songkran is bathing images of the Buddha and sprinkling the hands of elders with scented water from silver bowls as a sign of blessing.

It was 11 years ago that the Songkran celebration spilled over to include the wider community in Kowloon City. The much-loved annual event usually generates a turnout of nearly a thousand comprising not only Thais but also locals and expats living in Hong Kong.

“The best part of it is that you can immerse yourself in a foreign culture without traveling abroad, and share the fun together,” says Michael Fong, who joined the Songkran festivities in Hong Kong.

“It’s a really different festival,” says Saara, 22, an exchange student from Finland, her long hair still dripping wet and her face smeared with white powder. 

But merrymakers attracted by the festival do not stick around for too long. What remains is a struggling neighborhood caught up between the old and the new, the modern and the traditional.

The wave of Thais migrating to Hong Kong dates back to the 1970s, when many of the residents sought work abroad to support their families back home.

The political instability in Thailand and the financial collapse of the Thai baht in the 1990s also brought many Thais to Hong Kong, particularly to Kowloon City.

The relative affordability and convenient location of Kowloon City made it an attractive destination. Over the years, the small Thai neighborhood has evolved into a self-contained community with its own restaurants, beauty salons, groceries and convenience stores. 

“In (a corner of) Kowloon City, the Thais feel like they are back home,” says organizer Tamasorn.

But little escapes the eye of developers for too long in Hong Kong.

Since the lifting of height restrictions after the relocation of the city’s airport from Kai Tak to Lantau Island in 1998, the sleepy old district of Kowloon City has slowly awakened to the incessant thumping of pile drivers.

High-rise apartments with hefty price tags have sprung up alongside active acquisitions to replace four-story historical buildings. Two years ago, the district was spruced up following the opening of a brand-new cruise terminal.

The government’s plan to develop a new business district at the old airport site as well as a metro line connecting Kowloon City with downtown areas continues to galvanize the area’s property market.

Yet this drastic transformation poses a threat to the bustling Thai community in Kowloon City. Rungrudee Chan, a Thai native who works at Ban Thai Thai, a handicraft store in the district, already feels the rental pressure.

Soaring rents

The rent tag for a small shop is now HK$60,000 ($7,725) or more each month. “It was just HK$25,000 a few years back,” laments Chan, who came to Hong Kong 25 years ago. “This is unsustainable.”

Skyscraper-high rents have already forced out a number of Thai businesses to more remote locations such as Yuen Long and Tuen Mun in the New Territories.

Although the rising rent is almost a citywide phenomenon in Hong Kong, Christine Chan Yee-on is sympathetic to the plight of the embattled Thai businesses and residents of Kowloon City.

“It will be a sad loss since ‘Little Thailand’ is such a close-knit community that has been here for many years,” says Chan, founder of Cultural Outings, a local group that promotes ethnic diversity and organizes cultural tours to Kowloon City.

The recent business closures have alarmed preservationists and Thai culture lovers, who say the fading away of the Thai community in Kowloon City requires the Hong Kong government’s urgent attention.

Proposals have been submitted to the city government in the hope of officially declaring the neighborhood as “Little Thailand”, similar to Little India in Singapore. 

But the numerous rounds of talks between representatives of the Thai community and the government have yet to yield a fruitful outcome. “We can’t do nothing,” laments Tamasorn.

By celebrating Thai festivals in Hong Kong, such as the revered Thai King’s birthday in December and Loi Krathong, the floating lantern festival in November, she still hopes to keep Thai traditions alive in the city.

Though no longer a Kowloon City resident herself, Tamasorn still goes the extra mile for her community. “Whenever we make appointments with our Thai friends, we don’t go anywhere but Kowloon City,” she says.


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