BANGKOK — A shrine built by the Thai-Chinese immigrants is facing a demolition on the order of Chulalongkorn University to make way for new buildings.
But the community around Chao Mae Tabtim Saphan Luang Shrine are rallying to thwart the redevelopment plan and save their place of spiritual worship, which dates back the reign of King Rama V, years before the university was founded.
“I won’t allow them. No way,” shrine keeper Penprapah Suansom said.
Under the development announced by Chulalongkorn University, the site where the shrine is located will be used for three new buildings including a student dormitory. The university’s asset office issued a final eviction notice to the shrine keepers on May 27, informing them that they have until June 15.
“The office would like to inform you that time for relocation has passed considerably,” part of the letter said. “So we would like to remove your belongings and dependents from the area by June 15, 2020.”
Although the place of worship’s current building is a 60-year-old renovated structure, its history began under the reign of King Rama V. It was already moved once when King Rama VI donated its piece of land to establish a school for training royal pages in 1899. The school eventually became Chulalongkorn University in 1917.
Chulalongkorn has since grown into a huge complex with a wide swath of downtown land under its ownership, including the shrine’s property and the lucrative Siam area. In recent years, the university has been redeveloping the old Sam Yan neighborhood, and renegotiating contracts with existing tenants.
Scala, a beloved independent cinema, is also threatened with an eviction after the university reportedly refused to renew its contract, set to expire this month.
Penprapah, the Chao Mae Tubtim shrine overseer, said the university initially planned to start the demolition on Monday after the three wooden deities are to be relocated on Sunday, though no action has been taken.
A PR staff member at the university who introduced herself as May said the university has been giving the shrine time to move for two years. The structure will be rebuilt at a new location, according to the university.
May, who declined to give her full name because she was not authorized to speak to reporters on record, said others involved with the shrine have agreed to move out except Penprapah, despite the university offering her and her two sons cheap alternative accommodation.
Currently, Penprapah is living at a quarter attached to the shrine as it has been the case for most Chinese shrines for decades. The new shrine will not allow any on-site boarding.
Asked if the university will forcibly evict Penprapah if she refuses to budge, May said: “We hope we won’t have to resort to that.”
The shrine was built by the Teochew immigrants from south China and dedicated to a Thai version of two local Chinese goddesses: Mazu and Shui Wei Sheng Niang. The figure is widely revered among the Teochew diaspora in Thailand.
Many worshippers flocked to the shrine on Tuesday after news of the imminent eviction spreads in the community. A Thai-Chinese man who introduced himself as Chian was among the worshippers, and he said it’s wrong to demolish the site.
“This is a sacred site, it shouldn’t be relocated,” he said. “Our voices are small so I don’t think it can counter that of the university’s administrators. They may think this matter is not important.”
Reflecting the deeply rooted belief in feng shui among Thai-Chinese community, Chian also warns that turning a sacred site into a dorm and commercial space won’t be a good omen for the university and the students who will occupy the space.
“Call me old fashioned if you will but are they not afraid? This land belongs to the deity. It may not be a mausoleum but how can you occupy a sacred place? It’s inappropriate,” Chian said.
But May, the university’s PR official, dismissed the threat of bad mojo. She said a feng shui master was already contracted to find a suitable relocation site, which sits in front of the university’s picturesque centenary park.
Chulalongkorn University student activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal said he will write to the university administrator on Friday in a last-ditch effort to save the shrine from demolition.
“I am really against it. Students and residents in the area have not been consulted about the matter,” Netiwit said on Tuesday. “It should be left there. It has sentimental value.”