Squatter Commune under the Highway
Penang Market Community

11:00 AM, Klong Toey District

A crowd of people gathers anxiously near the underpass of the highway; they are waiting for the Grand Opening of their new homes next to it. More than ten years ago the same crowd of people also gathered at this very same spot; they were using their own bodies as human shields; preventing the police from entering the site and posting the court order of eviction. The land they stood on belonged to the Port Authority. The police were successfully prevented from entering the site, but then on March 7th 2008, there was the fire. It burned down the entire community so that the adjacent highway underpass became their new roof for the entire year. During this time, they have joined the ranks of the Kon Tai Sapan (Humans under the Bridge).

Today, we can see a long stretch of row houses standing defiantly against the ashes and other remains of the fire. The naked highway underpass looks on as government officials and delegates from India, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos, and Cambodia march jubilantly into the ceremonial ground amidst the sounds of drums and cymbals. They come to congratulate the squatters in building up their new houses – and more importantly – their new social organization.

The community leader, an old swarthy man in his 50s, appears before the microphone. His white hair glows silvery bright in the sun. The air is extremely hot and humid – even under the shade of tents - but the foreign delegates are being told to relax and think of it as a sauna. So they seem to be enjoying their time drenching in heat and sweat. It is amazing what hardship people could go through when their minds tell them that their plight is only going to last temporarily. It seems that the religious and social prophets had been telling people this same message - about life itself – for over 2000 years.

The delegates are old hands organizers, priests, NGOs, communists, agitators, and housewives; they come here by way of an organization called the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR). It is an international NGO that has been fighting against evictions for almost 3 decades. The old man says “We’d never thought that we will be selected as an example for the international communities.” He says thank you to all the government officials and foreign delegates.

The crowd starts to listen studiously as a translator simultaneously translates bits and pieces of the speech like an old foreign cinema - while the speaker continues speaking. His speech maps out an entire chronology of the Penang Market community; the old man speaks as he shifts gears between the emotionally charged melodrama and the dry clinical descriptions of the new houses.

The old man remembers the day after the fire, where he stood near the noodle shop listening to a handheld radio that he happened to carried along with him; it turned out to be the only possession he had left. A very old lady was sobbing next to him and across from her, a man was holding a crying child. They have lost everything and the police told them that they could not go back to their homes – nobody could go into the site - for fear that “someone might loot the private property in remaining homes that were still left standing.” The entire community was sealed off by the police after the fire.

“There are 28 households here in this community; we have formed a saving group long before the fire. But we did not initially thought of joining the Baan Mankong Collective Housing program because our financial and housing situation was not so bad,” says the old man.

“There were attempts to evict us many times - and we had lost the court battle to legally stay in our houses - but we continue to make do with what we have and continued with our life.”

He says that after the March 7th fire, they had lost everything; so they decide to join the collective housing program and rebuild the entire community together.

“In a way, our hardship did unite our community,” says the old man. “We spend 15 days and nights – after the fire - planning our new community. We negotiated with the Port Authority, we assisted each other in finding temporary shelters, and we drew up plans of our new houses.”

They have taken out a 2% housing loan in additional to the 20,000 baht grant per household from the Community Organization Development Institute (CODI). CODI provided them with free architectural services; translating what they want into building form, doing engineering calculations, and getting the required permits. CODI architects are mostly young idealistic professionals between the ages of 25 to 35.

“The architects showed up right after we called them,” says the old man. “They were very dedicated young people. Please give them applause!”

A loud applause follows and we can now see Billy, Kaze, and Ov – the architects – blushing under the shade of a tent. They are preparing a Powerpoint presentation for the international delegates; their laptop’s fan runs loudly under the hot shade.

“The entire footprint of the new row house is 10 meters by 108 meter,” says the old man. “The dimensions of the individual houses are 4 meters by 7 meters on the first floor; and 4 meters by 8 meters – including the balcony – on the second floor.”

The 2-story row houses cost 230,000 baht each. The community saving group – now officially registered as a cooperative - was in charge of finding all the building materials; and the people in the community did all the construction themselves. There were no outside contractors. The cost of the temporary shelters was 18,000 baht each; and the total amount of loan per household is 173,354 baht. The payment is 1,463 baht per month for each household; approximately 10% to 15% of the average income in the community.

The payback plan is being organized by the cooperative itself. Several large poster papers are being stretched over plywood boards; documenting every details and progress in paying back the loans. If a household has some difficulty in paying back the loan – like having a health problem - it will be written down for all to see.

Everything is transparent on the board so that the entire community could find ways to help each other in paying back the loans. The cooperative - along with CODI - is still in the process of negotiating with the Port Authority on the exact price of the 30 year renewable land lease. Typically, the monthly lease is about 1.25 baht per square meter.

“We take out the loan collectively in the name of the community saving group, and we will pay them back collectively,” says the old man with pride.

Applause follows.

“But the houses are so close to the elevated highway; don’t you guys get falling objects from the trucks?” asks Prachant Chatterjee, a delegate from Bombay.

There is a minute of silence as his question – rendered in perfect British accent – is being translated into a more comprehensible Thai.

“No, not here. The highway curves towards us, so the objects tend to fly off towards the other side,” says the old man in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Actually, the elevated highway was built much later,” he continues. “We use to live here as one community on both side of the highway. But now it cuts us up into two separate communities.”

“Are there still people living on the other side of the highway?” asks Prachant.

Again, there is a moment of silence as the translator whispers something in the old man’s ear.

“Yes, there are 49 households on the other side. Occasionally, they get the flying objects from the highway,” says the old man.

After a few minutes of questions and answers, the delegates are invited to stroll around and see the new row houses. We walk along a narrow pathway with the new row houses on our right-hand side. The row houses are architecturally rich with variations and styles, even though they all come from a similar blueprint plan.

Some houses have wooden balustrade on their balconies, some houses have concrete ones. Some houses are rented out as rooming houses; there are 7 households in the community who have been renting rooms in the area for over 20 years. These households did not join the saving group due to financial hardship. They are now moving into their new rental units that are now owned by the cooperative. The rooming houses have slightly different floor plans than the regular ones.

We can see people dancing to the pentatonic tunes of Mo Lum – the North Eastern Country music. It sounds like a fast Blues with a Cha Cha rhythm.

“My laptop fan is going crazy; this weather is killing it” says Kaze as I encounter her in one of the units.

“So are you going to do the presentation this afternoon at CODI?” I ask.

“Yeah, but it’s not ready yet. We’re still doing the presentation right now!”

“I’m not surprised at all,” I say.