“Boy you’re in big trouble,” says an old man as he moves the cannon behind a pawn; preparing to launch an attack on the back column. “In Chinese chess, you can only defend yourself by attacking,” continues the old man. “You can’t stay still; otherwise you’ll lose.”
The boy ponders his position carefully; he moves his gaze slowly from piece to piece as he cannot read the Chinese characters that were written on them. It’s already remarkable that somehow he manages to remember how each piece moves.
“When I was your age – 14 or 15 – I could corner anyone in school using chess,” says the old man. “I gained the respect of the school bullies that way.”
“Check,” whispers the boy as he moves his castle against the machinery of the old man’s defense. The old man, who has long been anticipating the move, simply moves the king one square away from the check. The old man’s trembling hand retreats back to where it was on the table. The boy continues to ponder his moves.
“Coffee is ready my friend,” interrupts a muscular lady
as she walks over to see the game.
“Remember old Tek Seng, the blade maker?” asks the old
The old man sips his coffee as he pauses to look across the riverfront which lies just behind the coffee shop. He is thinking about the old days.
His memory transports him back to the day when Sam Chuk was a quiet riverfront town. There was a lush forest that ran parallel to the riverfront. His family lived next to a busy trading dock where merchants from all over the town came down the river to sell their goods.
Like New Orleans, the Supan province was the origin of many folk singers and has a long tradition of trade and plantation.
The now famous 100 Years Market - where the old man lives - emerged soon after the river dock had become popular among local traders. It was called the “China Dock” back in the days when the old man was a boy. He was born into a family of clock makers who had emigrated from China in 1911. Today he continues to sell and repair old mechanical clocks and watches. His eye sight is deteriorating but he has the boy as his technical assistance.
“Morning!” says Suree as she walks into the shop.
“I thought that the film is dead,” teases the old man as he pulls out a small digital camera from his pocket.
“Look at this; it could perform all the functions of your box-camera in a split second,” says the old man as he snaps a picture of her.
“Photography is an art of love. Is that how you make
love? In a split second?” Suree counters.
“And then you appear in the news headlines - dead,” laughs Suree.
“But not as dead as Lek’s herbal pharmacy though. She would have prospered had the blue pills were not so popular these days. Her herbal medicine had been known to do wonders on timid men," laughs the old man.
"But now... the herbal shop is loss; it might as well be a museum,” the old man moves his knight backwards; guarding the king.
“Those greedy politicians… They should have supported traditional herbal medicine instead of those foreign pharmaceutical companies, you know. These companies are now buying up Chinese herbs in bulks and patenting them as their own. It’s ridiculous!” says Suree.
“You can’t just blame the politicians. Everything here started to decline since the roadways were introduced in the 60s. Our entire market faced the waterfront; so when the roads came, no one passed by this way,” argues the old man as he ponders the chess board; the boy moves his knight forward; attacking his royal encampment.
“I’m most concerned about Tek Seng you know. He’s 73 this year. How the hell is he going to support himself? Selling 4 blades a month?” ponders the old man.
“Hammering blades is a fine art. Tek Seng has been at it since he was 15,” interrupts an old barber who just appears with his coffee. His head is shiny and fat and there are white whiskers sprouting all around his jaw.
“Well, Well! I thought you are busy these days with
your scissors,” asks the old man.
I remember when we were young; we used to collect all these futuristic
stuff like portable radios and Elvis Presley’s vinyl records,” recalls
the old man.
The barber, the old man, the coffee seller, and box-camera photographer continue their journey back into the past; recollecting lost memories over a slow game of chess with the boy. The morning passes by quickly – like any other morning – in this antique market town. Like New Orleans, it’s no longer the center of youthful delinquency; its jazz is preserved in barrels – like the musty smell of an old bar with stale beer and cigarette stench. It’s a living museum – a capsule of a more youthful age.
The entire market sits on a land belonging to the Treasury Department.
In the 1990s, the Treasury Department wanted to tear
down the entre market.
The community activists - calling themselves The Committee for the Development of Sam Chuk Market - set up a formal organizational structure. They have various formal positions; starting with the chairman, the secretary, the executive, and the advisors. It has its own development department, finance department, public relation department, and even its own tourist department. The market committee started to make surveys around the surrounding communities. They’d found that 14 communities urgently needed improvement to their living conditions. Their shacks were dilapidated and the sanitation was bad.* Old Tek Seng – the blade maker – lives in one of those shacks.
Suree and the old man both belong to the development committee. Their main strategy was to revitalize the market as some sort of tourist destination and hope that the money generated there would revive the local economy around the area.
“It’s 10:00 o’clock; I think you better open your shop soon, old man,” says Suree.
“Nah….A man who sells clocks has a special privilege in handling time,” says the old man.
“I’ll go open the shop,” says the boy.
“Not now. I haven’t finished with you yet my boy,” says the old man as he tries to move his king around within the confined squares; in Chinese chess, it's called "the palace.” It seems like he is neither winning nor losing the game. He just trying to keep his position the way it was.
it’s 10:00 o’clock!” the boy glances at his wrist watch on his right hand.
* The market committee had made contacts with other organization for support. Most notably was the Chomchon Thai Foundation. Dispersed squatters settlements - around the market - were organized together to form a new cooperative; they started their own saving group. Initially there were only 36 households, but it grew to 79 households.
The market committee also contacted
the Community Organization Development Institute (CODI). The new cooperative
consists of 79 households from scattered sites. CODI had given out 1,975,000
baht in infrastructure subsidy. It had also given out 1.17 million baht
in “land loan” so that the cooperative could use it to buy new land of
their own. In addition, CODI had also given the cooperative 2.6 million
baht in housing loan.