There was a time when you would catch a glimpse of someone in passing via car mirror or window and think, “Who’s that?” but in a good way that made you want to look at them again. The shocking realization that the reflection was yours was a nice feeling.
But there comes a time when the sudden reflection is shocking in a bad way, like the realization that you’ve signed onto an expensive dinner where you are starving, there are only three courses to be served and that one of them will be chicken. You catch a reflection of yourself while riding on a motorcycle taxi where the mirrors are angled in just that way to showcase the growing dumpling underneath your chin and the impressive bags under your eyes. The thought that springs to mind is not “Who’s that?” Instead it is “Oh shit.”
This is the theme of what is commonly known as “middle age.” The Starks have the direwolf and the house words “Winter is Coming.” If “middle age” had a house sigil and words, it would be a bathroom scale, placed inside an hourglass, the number creeping inexorably higher as the sand accumulates on top, the words OH SHIT lettered neatly underneath. OH SHIT indeed.
I used to judge people who posted very old photos of themselves in their lost youths, but now I am one of them. My friend Trude, who should work for the IRS or FBI, ferreted out this old video after I mentioned that my first commercial involved Vaseline lotion and a floating umbrella over my head. And lo and behold, here it is….
That was the year I was 24, and the golden age of me, oblivious of the hourglass and inevitable shifting of the sands. Just like Bangkok’s street food, poised on the threshold from which there will be no return. (Oh, the lengths I will go to just to post an old commercial! Sad!)
I recently spoke with Vallop Suwandee, the architect of the street food cleanup in Bangkok, who was quite candid about how much of it was precipitated by the complaints of real estate developers anxious about their property values. Ultimately, he was aiming for the Singapore model, but added that sub-sois — like Convent Road and even Ari — would be left alone. Next on the chopping block: Klong Toey, which is interesting, given that vendor protests have roiled the market before.
All the while, Chinatown (the birthplace of Thai street food) and Khao Sarn Road (home of mediocre pad thai and cold fried egg rolls) are said to be left untouched because of their reputations as a tourist draw. But once the subway stop to Chinatown opens up, who is to say that property values won’t change, and the temptation to “clean up” take root? BMA officials are currently positioning the street food drama as a struggle between agricultural workers using street food as a way to make extra money in the city after the harvest season, like toddlers setting up lemonade stands on their front lawns. Meanwhile, upright, tax-paying Bangkokians simply want to be able to walk on their sidewalks. But simple observation would suggest that this is not completely true. Bangkokians are also making street food, year-round, and eating it to survive.
Jek Pui (25 Charoen Krung, 19 Soi Mangkorn, 02-222-5229) is a textbook example of the Bangkok boogeyman, the vendor blithely clogging up the sidewalk. This curry rice vendor, which sells from a cart placed at the corner of Charoen Krung and Mangkorn Roads on the edge of Chinatown, forgoes tables in favor of more plastic red stools in order to seat more people at a time. Because of this, it has earned the nickname of “Musical Chairs Curry”.
But it’s been around for 70 years, set up by the grandfather, who immigrated to Thailand from China and made his way by selling curries from a bamboo pole. When his daughter turned 13, she, too, helped sell her father’s curries, walking the streets for so long she eventually developed a hump in her back.
Today, “Jay Chia” does the bulk of the cooking, but the business is run by her children. The cart-and-stools setup started over 20 years ago, for which they have obtained full permits from the government. The specialty of the house, however, remains the one that Jek Pui (aka “Uncle Chubby”) toted around all those years ago: gaeng garii moo, or mild Chinese-style pork curry, topped with a healthy sprinkle of sliced, deep-fried gun chieng, or Chinese-style sweet sausage.
As with all things in the waning days of their golden age, it is best to sample this street food as soon as possible, for as long as it is available. Who knows when the next time you accidentally find yourself in Chinatown will be, scouring the streets for a bite to eat that does not come from Starbucks, KFC or a tourist restaurant? OH SHIT indeed.