Sense of place in Bangkok: “Where is the Flower Market?”
ผู้ช่วยศาสตราจารย์ ดร.สุพิชชา โตวิวิชญ์
Bangkok Flower Market (or Pak Khlong Talad) was not only one of the biggest flower markets in Thailand, accommodating more than a thousand local vendors per day, but also a 24-hour genuinely lively place which most tourists who come to Thailand must check out. In 2016, the government launched a city beautification programme in the area, which prohibited all street vendors from selling their products on the sidewalks. Thus, its sense of place has dramatically changed from organically vigorous to ordered and empty. Many tourists went there and asked the local vendors “where is the flower market (the one which they once knew)?” and the locals were unenthusiastic to say that it is (or was) here. Thus, with teams from the Faculty of Architecture, Silpakorn University, I have been collaborating with the local vendors and young designers since 2016, exploring fresh visions of the place by catalysing various art exhibitions, flower installations, walking tours, and flower workshops led by the local vendors.
Image 1: Bangkok Flower Market (Source: Supitcha Tovivich)
The first project was initiated in 2016 by the students from the MA. and Ph.D. in Vernacular Architecture Programme, Silpakorn University. During the enforcement of the displacement, the students interviewed various groups of locals, including the flower street vendors, the shop owners, restaurants, other informal related occupations, Thai tourists, and foreigners. The findings show that there is a socio-ecosystem and interconnection amongst the locals. Their relationships are more mutually beneficial than taking advantage of others. Our findings are presented via a Facebook Page: Humans of Flower Market.
Image 2: Facebook Page: Humans of Flower Market
After the enforcement of the displacement was done, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) renovated the pedestrian walkway. Finally, the new pavement was finished and pleasant, yet empty, because many people thought the market had vanished. In fact, the formal street vendors just moved to other markets adjacent to the walkways. Its unique sense of place was significantly altered and that affected the local economy immensely.
In 2017, as the chairperson of the Community Act Network under the Association of Siamese Architects (ASA-CAN), my team organized a workshop with young architects and students. They proposed and implemented the idea of utilising an abandoned space in the flower market as the “Flower Lab,” where local flower vendors transformed into workshop trainers teaching the public how to make garlands and other flower arrangements. The aim was to explore hidden potentials and experiment capacity building with local vendors.
Image 3: The Flower Lab Project (Source: Supitcha Tovivich)
Later in 2017, with a fund from the National Innovation Agency (NIA), a team from my faculty and I launched a pilot website named flowerhub.space to introduce online merchandise for the flower market. The website contains information (GPS location, Facebook Page, Instagram, Line, website, mobile phone, working hours, etc.) on approximately 130 shops. It also includes Chatbot which uses AI to interact and respond to different enquiries from the website visitors. All orders and transactions are forwarded directly to an individual shop without being charged any fee. However, it is important to note that few vendors were interested in the online market.
Image 4: flowerhub.space (Source: Supitcha Tovivich)
I was a TEDxBangkok speaker in 2018. It was the year the organiser had the theme “Idea to Action,” in which all speakers would have to do something in practice with TEDx attendees, as well as giving the talk to the public. Thus, I used this opportunity to organize a walking tour, in which the local vendors were local guides. I also invited my designer friends to voluntarily design art installations working with the local flower shops. The event was titled “The Flower Market Is Here” and it was a catalyst for my forthcoming projects in 2020-2021.
Image 5: Walking Tour and Art Installation, TEDxBangkok 2018 (Source: Supitcha Tovivich)
During the COVID-19 pandemic, our website was much more popular amongst local vendors and customers. A dozen local flower shops who were not interested to be a part of the website in 2017 approached us and enquired about being on the website, because the lockdowns and healthcare restrictions had discouraged people from going to the market. Some shops mentioned that before the COVID-19 pandemic, their online orders were about 10-30%, but now (at the end of 2021 with the Delta variant) they accounted for 90%. The rise is not entirely from our website at all. The local flower shops – affluent and small businesses – had tried to survive the economic crisis by converting to be more online by themselves – creating a Facebook Page, Instagram account, and Line Official. Also, they started to focus more on retail sale than wholesale. If our first project in 2016 showed that the market is indeed a socio-ecosystem, it is clear in 2021 that the market is resembling a wild forest, where all plants – tall and small – are trying their best to survive by different strategies.
Our team conducted a 2-week event titled “Pak Khlong Strike Back!” in 2020 to coincide with the younger generation’s sensitivity. We created an online Flower Quiz on smartphones to match people to ten flowers selling in the flower market. Then, we distributed a map (with digital and hardcopy versions) which enabled the visitors to play hide-and-seek trying to find ten QR Codes to access interactive Instagram filters that allow you to see the empty spaces of the market filled with virtual flowers, using the Augmented Reality (AR) technology, designed by Splendor Solis. Moreover, Pak Khlong Strike Back! featuring street art / photographs taken by Sasamon Rattanalangkarn captured the humans of the flower market. Their varying roles encouraged visitors to look for the “humans of the flower market” hidden throughout various parts of the market. Ultimately, the event wasn’t merely about exploring new senses of place, of what the flower market could be, but emphasizing the importance of ‘humans’ as the heart that propels the market’s future direction and existence.
Image 6: Online Quiz and AR Interactive Instagram Filters, Pak Khlong Strike Back! (Source: Humans of Flower Market)
Image 7: Street Photo Exhibition, Pak Khlong Strike Back! (Source: Supitcha Tovivich)
In 2021, our team, which is a collaboration of the Faculty of Architecture, Silpakorn University, HUI Team Design, and Saturate Designs, organised a flower installation called “Form of Feeling @ Flower Market” on the abandoned mezzanine floor of the flower market in order to, first, explore how flowers evoke different emotions in all of us; second, to highlight the potential of hidden spaces including the mezzanine floor of the market that most people do not know exists; third, to show the public that inexpensive Thai flowers, such as marigolds, orchids, and local roses can be made to be spectacular and inspirational art installations. It was free admission, but visitors were encouraged to buy flowers from one of the shops at the market and present them as “tickets” at the entrance. Then, the flowers were left as a part of the installation for other visitors to appreciate. Throughout nine days of the event, there were a total of 4,305 visitors. From 2,525 questionnaires (58.65% of all visitors), they noted that they spent 173,182 THB for the “flower tickets”. Also, 21.82% of them visited the market for the first time because of our event.
Image 8: Form of Feeling @ Flower Market (Source: Supitcha Tovivich)
In conclusion, what our team have been trying to do is to explore the different sense of place of the flower market and to use our event as a platform to inspire and foster future creative collaborations with local vendors, neglected flowers, and abandoned spaces in the flower market. Our process focuses on discovering local assets and experimenting with them with creativity as a catalyst force to achieve participatory placemaking. Our previous projects have been published in countless media platforms and invited a great number of new visitors, especially the younger generation, to the neighbourhood. However, the subject which we have not achieved yet and would like to focus on in the future is to explore how this creative placemaking can improve local economy in a longer term.