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Live on! Kantang

“Kantang is dead!”

The words of a local teacher reflect the current state of Kantang. It is hard to believe that this place was once the most vibrant port city of Southern Thailand.

The death of Kantang comes not through abandonment. Instead, it’s the decline in economic activities, culture, and ways of life that has reduced this once-thriving abode to a more-than-somber, little corner.

 

Kantang in the Old Days

Sutee Trangkineenart, chairman of Young Entrepreneur Chamber of Commerce (YEC) of Trang Province recalled the days of his youth, around 30 year ago, when Kantang was still vibrant. Rubber farmers surrounding the area would bring batches into the city to be sold. Things have changed now thatbuying sources are everywhere.

“Decreased fishing activities also contributed to the situation. Kantang used to be teeming with fishing boats. The boats would travel far out into the sea before returning to Kantang. The crew would come down from their boats to buy goods. They sailed for two or three months, amassed money, then returned to spend those money in Kangtang.”

 

Kantang’s prosperity did not stop there. Ferries used to carry tourists from Kantang all the way to Langkawi Island in Malaysia. Locals also recalled seeing large oil ships bringing in oils to be stored in the city’s oil depot, before being transportedto other destinationsby trucks. Not to mention trade boats carrying coal, lignite, and gypsum that used to flock city’s waters.

Kantang Train Station and train tracks are other remnants of Kantang’s heyday. Sutee said that the tracks used to extend all the way to the port, so that goods could be easily transported. Kantang was truly a commerce and industrial port city.

 All good things must come to an end. After a while, a big shift occurred……

“Because the channels at Kantang’s port were quite shallow, and there was not enough space for expansions, plans to expand ports eventually went to other provinces. The city’s importance gradually decreased. People began to buy rubber and fish from other places. Train tracks moved back into the inner cities. Transportation changed.”

 

Reviving Kantang

Though there are many factors that contributed to the downturn of Kantang, Sutee believes that there remains potential for Kantang to draw tourists. It is truly fortunate that Kantang still has its old buildings, faces, and foodscape. Tourist buses still drop by, but few come here on their own, due to poor infrastructure. Perhaps, in an age where people are nostalgic for the past, Kangtang’s allure may have resulted from being a city frozen in time. Now, Kantang is sitting in silence, waiting for its potential to be untapped.

Assistance Professor Parinya Chukaew, an instructor at the Faculty of Architecture, King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL) and an expert in old architectural styles, examines the changes in Kantang in relation to the declined use of the city’s train station.

Today, traveling by airplanes has become more affordable than it was in the past. In an age where everyone can fly, trains slowly lose their popularity as a major form of transportation. Cities that used to rely on trains to bring in people and investments like Kantang became stunted.

Kantang’s train station is known for being the last stop on the Andaman Railway and is renowned for its beauty. That, however, did not stop it from nearly being demolished when plans to develop double-track railways were approved. It was the station’s protected status as a national heritage that saved it from being torn to pieces.
 

 


Kantang may have survived the tides of time, but that doesn’t mean that it is thriving. If one could put a finger under Kantang’s nose, one would certainly feel the city’s breath slowly fading away.

“In the past, no one thought of Kantang as a tourist spot because it was primarily a commercial and industrial city. But now I think we need to depend on tourism to survive. The government said that our GDP has increased by 4.5-4.8 per cent and that we are exporting more, but the people do not feel these changes. The reason is because growth is concentrated at the level of large, exporting, industrial businesses, while income distribution remains low. Tourism is the only industry that has the highest income distribution.”

Modernization is not always necessary for promoting tourism. Kantang’s appeal is its “old town” quality. Imagine if Kantang’s train station was to be remodeled into a concrete structure. In an age where all buildings are made from concrete and steel, who on Earth would want to travel all their way to visit another concrete structure? Thus, Sutee’s concept ofpreserving Kantang does not only entail “keeping the past”, but also “building a future” for the city.

 

Building the City through Art

To “wake up” a slumbering city full of old people and children, the middle generation has to take on the initiative, using art.

The desire to raise awareness of Kantang’s value through art, architecture, and local ways of life led to a project called “Our Home: Kantang”, under the cooperation of Kantang Municipality; Kantang Train Station; Faculty of Architecture, Trang Univerity;  Faculty of Industrial Education, Department of Architecture, KMITL;Old Town Kantang Civic Sector Group; and TRANG+ (Trang Positive).

The project started out as an idea from TRANG +, led by Yingyot Kaewmee and his team, to help Kantang and Trang Province. “Our Home: Kantang” tells the story of Kantang through art, architecture, and local lifestyle. Examples of the event’s highlights include the Kantang Vernadoc, a survey of architectural plans to preserve Kantang’s old building, and Kantang Sketcher, sketches around the city organized by students from Faculty Industrial Education, KMITL and Faculty of Architecture, Prince of Songkla University Trang Campus.


 


Prof. Parinya said that there were projects like this one before.

“Trang has been hosting this type of event for 2-3 years now. There are seminars, art activities, dessert cooking classes, etc. They’re all small events. The thing is, Trang keeps on organizing these events, while no one is having a dialogue about their hometowns. Then, people from Kantang told me that we should start talking about Kantang. I asked them what they wanted to do. A seminar, walking street, or what? They told me that they wanted something small. They’d close the road near the Old Town’s plaza, organize some events, and have a public discussion on how to move Kantang forward.”

Most residents of Kantang and Trang are wealthy and independent. This may not seem like an issue; however, well-being can mean that change is stagnant. There is also no need for younger generations to return home to help with family finances. This is where things become problematic. 

“People here have always been self-reliant. They just wanted to do something to preserve the old community. They’re not against thesocial wave of preservation. This is a city of rich folks. Even if the people here did nothing, they’ll still have the money. It’s not like other places where you’re chased out of your own community. The context is different.”

“The question is: What should we do?When you’re wealthy, your children and grandchildren move to inner-city Trang or somewhere else. The city [Kantang] is left alone to slowly dry up. That’s why we’ve invited people to come help this city.”

It was through this realization that TRANG + seeks torefine old architectural structures in Kantang. Five buildings, including the Kantang Train Station, a Hainanese shrine, a Hokkien shrine, the Pan Seng Hin tenement building, and a Chinese-styled tenement building, were chosen as models of Kantang architecture. A survey was then conducted on approximately 60 students from 2 institutions. The results were showcased to locals and tourists at the “Our Home: Kantang” fair in order to raise awareness on architectural preservation.

Yingyot said that his team came together with a mission to fill the void within the Trang community. He once asked Kantang’s locals whether or not life in their hometown has become harder. Most of them said yes, but when asked if they are willing to move away, they said “No!”

He also said that he believes in four powers that drive the Earth’s momentum: food, art, culture, and tourism. He believes that these forces provides happiness to humanity.

“Those who are skilled in cooking use culinary arts as driving force, while those with other skills help out as best as they could in their own ways”

Even Russian graphic designer Ludmila Letnikova or “Luda”, who once created an artwork for old town Phuket, is joining the effort to revive Kantang.

Her artwork, which portrays the culture of overseas Chinese through a modern twist, is proudly displayed on a timeworn wall of an old Kantang house. The blend of the old and new gave off a strangely irresistible charm.

The owner of the house asked local translators to tell Luda, “Tell her that if she ever need to use the restroom or wanted a drink, just walk right into the house. Please tell her that for me.”

It looks like Kantang’s pulse is beginning to beat again. Nonetheless, Yingyot said that “The solution must lie with the city. Sometimes we force art ona city and ended up stigmatizing locals who do not like it.  

I think it’s better to show them what to do and let them pick it up from there.”

 

Source: This is a translation of the article by Parinya Chaosamun published in Krungthep Thurakit, 25 July 2018

 

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