Endangered Bangkok shrine’s caretaker, supporters unimpressed by replacement

Penprapa Ploysrisuay isn’t budging. Locked in a long eviction battle with one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, she vowed this morning not to leave the 19th century Chinese shrine she calls home in downtown Bangkok.

Penprapa, caretaker of the Chao Mae Tubtim Saphan Luang Shrine, joined activists and worshipers who say Chulalongkorn University failed to live up to its promise of building a replacement shrine worthy of the original.

The old shrine is located on prime land where the school wants to build condos. The new one, located at a nearby park, is being criticized for not meeting the original’s aesthetic standards or respecting its Chinese identity.

“They had Thai Buddhist monks perform the consecration ceremony yesterday, plus the Thai desserts like thong yip and thong yod, which is very wrong,” said Penprapa, whose late husband was the third in his family to tend the small structure built in the 1880s.

Penprapa Ploysrisuay in front of a statue of Chinese goddess she calls ‘Ama’ (grandmother, to the Thai-Chinese) on Thursday at the old shrine.

With the support of members of the community and student activists, Penprapa has stood her ground in an eviction battle going back years. 

“Nothing about the new shrine looks like the same old shrine I’ve known,” she added. 

Fished from Bangkok canal and sanctified by king, stubborn goddess defied fate for decades

Chief among her complaints, the new shrine’s glass roof, its smaller alcove for god and goddess statues, and its “European style.”

“Having Thai Buddhist monks perform a ceremony for a Chinese goddess? Please do your homework,” someone captioned a Wednesday photo.

Penprapa isn’t alone. A visitor yesterday posted pictures of the new shrine’s central statue, said to be temporary, surrounded by Thai spirit dolls and a tiered umbrella, none of which is Chinese. After the post went viral, the dolls and umbrella are gone as of today.

The shrine sits in what was once a densely packed community that counted many Chinese residents. Over the decades, the university bulldozed most of the community for development, and the shrine is one of the last holdouts.

Thursday photos of the new Tubtim Shrine on the edge of the CU Centenary Park.

Asked what would be ideal for her, Penprapa said the university’s property management should incorporate the old shrine into the design of the future condos and malls it wants to build. 

“Landscape improvements could have blended the old shrine in with the new buildings,” she said. “We just want this tiny, but sacred space, to live on.”

On Thursday, a few security guards were visible outside the new shrine built on the edge of CU Centenary Park.

A few security guards Thursday in front of the newly built shrine.

The student activists who have campaigned against the eviction said they were not welcome at yesterday’s dedication ceremony. 

“I was pushed and told that I could not get in,” Chulalongkorn student president Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal told Coconuts

Netiwit said preserving the shrine by working it into future projects would be a “great opportunity” for Chulalongkorn University to rehabilitate its image as destroyers of cultural heritage.

The Tubtim shrine is engulfed by a construction site for development by Chulalongkorn University’s Property Management office.

The university, which has given over its large tracts of land to commercial development over the years, was already in the preservationist doghouse for letting Bangkok’s last great movie palace be scrapped.

It opted not to take the costlier route of relocating the existing structure. But while the new building includes architectural and decorative elements that reference the original, they are pale imitations. 

Slide the images left and right to compare the old and new shrine.

Slide the images left and right to compare the old and new shrine.

Over a year after the issue last surfaced, #SaveTubtimShrine has resurfaced on Twitter, where some are calling for the university to explain what it was thinking.

The university’s property management office has said that the lease agreement under which the shrine survived expired about seven years ago. A representative previously told Coconuts that it was intent on demolishing the shrine and had served its occupants an eviction notice back in 2018. Someone answering the phone at its office Thursday said no one was available to discuss the matter.

Penprapa insisted this morning that she would stand guard until “better terms” were provided. Those include an agreement that she and her two children will be able to live near the new shrine with affordable rent.

“So far I have not seen a fair contract, and I have pleaded with the court for sympathy,” she said.

Student activists raise placards Wednesday to protest the demolition of the old Tubtim Shrine. Photo: Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal / Courtesy
The old Tubtim shrine, at top, and the new Tubtim shrine, at bottom.

A wall sculpture at the old Tubtim shrine, at left, and its counterpart at the new Tubtim shrine, at right.

Related

Tubtim shrine gets reprieve as Chula blinks on demolition threat

Fished from Bangkok canal and sanctified by king, stubborn goddess defied fate for decades

Chula still set on demolishing historic shrine – once it evicts caretakers

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