Thoughts After Taking the New Gen to China

Two weeks ago, I wrote an entry on the even of my departure for a week-long trip to China with a client, bringing a group of “New Generation” (Gen X / Gen Y) leaders from a Thai multinational on a learning trip to Shanghai and Beijing. The trip was a big success.

2014-06-09

We started in Shanghai, the world’s largest city (as measured by population in the official city limits) – 25 million people! There we did a walking tour of the French Concession to taste local dumplings and practice making them. We went to a innovation consultancy that helps companies think differently about their customers, especially in the China market.

2014-06-05

We had two separate informal sessions, one over dinner and another in the morning, sitting down with young professionals from different countries and industries, to learn about their experiences within China and elsewhere.

2014-06-07

We took many opportunities to debrief, reflecting on our learning and understanding how it relates to our day-to-day work. One of the most interesting debrief sessions began on the bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing (300 km/h or 185 mph) and continued that evening in the hotel. During this time, I noticed that the participants’ thinking was starting to shift. They were moving from a very linear way of thinking to a more lateral way. I enjoyed watching as the lightbulbs started to illuminate!

2014-06-10

Beijing was an altogether different city from Shanghai. While almost as large (21 million people), it is much more congested despite having incredibly large, wide roads and big buildings. Everything seems to be on a monumental scale. It was certainly more “Chinese” in character than Shanghai, which is much more international.

2014-06-06

One of the most powerful exercises was an afternoon in which we paired the participants up with Chinese university students, all of whom were reasonably proficient at English. They showed us around the city in small groups, giving everyone a chance to learn about each other and gather a diversity of first-hand experiences. In the subsequent debrief, it was interesting to hear how different participants’ “buddies” had wildly different perspectives, illustrating just how diverse and fragmented a market China is.

2014-06-03

Of course, no trip to Beijing is complete without seeing the Great Wall. After an evening of rain and wind which had scrubbed the polluted skies almost clean, we found a bright and sunny morning along a relatively quiet stretch of the wall.

2014-06-02

On our final morning in Beijing, we stopped by the 798 Art Zone, a former industrial area that was taken over by artists and subsequently converted into a proper arts district. Despite my initial fears, it was actually a very cool and happening place, with a vibe that doesn’t feel at all contrived.

2014-06-11

We headed to the majestic Beijing Capital Airport to board a flight home. There was a characteristic delay of about two hours due to weather, but we arrived in Bangkok around midnight.

The six days with these New Gen leaders was an exciting experience for me. Exciting both to spend time with a smart, interesting group of people, but also exciting to see them grow and learn. The final morning, I interviewed each of them about what had changed over the previous six days. Each participant had very thoughtful, reflective responses that made me realize just how much one can change in less than a week’s time.

 

Terminal 21 Nears Completion

In November 2009 I first wrote about the construction of a new mall at the northwest corner of Sukhumvit and Asoke roads called Terminal 21.  I visited the subject again in February of this year as part of an entry about the profusion of malls being built along Sukhumvit Road.  In the weeks since, I’ve stopped by the site, which is easily visible from the outbound platform of the Asoke BTS Skytrain station, to view the last steps of construction.

Since the mall is literally right next to both the Skytrain station (elevated) and the subway station, it should benefit from easy access.  But, in a city with strong sunlight, heavy rain showers, and lots of traffic, the more convenient and enclosed you can make that connection, the better.

P1100342

Because of that, one of the things I’ve been observing and thinking about is how the main entry area (shown above) will connect with the two rail stations.  You can see the long concrete deck that will be the main entry area, wrapped in green construction netting.  One entrance is on the left, outlined in red metal beams, and the other is at the right end where there is a bit of a canopy being constructed.

P1100343

On the west end of the deck, I can easily see how a bridge might be built to connect to the Skytrain station, which has blue-covered stairs seen on the left of the picture.  In this picture, taken a few weeks ago, I anticipated the potential bridge with orange lines.

P1100849

Sure enough, by last week they were pouring the concrete reinforcements for the bridge and I imagine in another week or so they will be laying the beams for the bridge.  This will lead directly to the entrance of the Skytrain station, which I fear is a bit small to deal with the amount of passengers that may be passing through the space.

P1100345

The more uncertain question is what they will do with the other entrance to the mall.  In the picture shown above, taken a few weeks ago, they were demolishing the sales office for the mall and I anticipated (in orange lines) that maybe a bridge would be built connecting to the escalators that descend to the subway.  The escalators are in the building with the bright blue roof that has one red segment.  While some re-jiggering of the wheelchair ramp in that area would be necessary, it seemed to be an easy way to get people directly to the subway, short of a tunnel leading into the station itself.

P1100732

After they demolished the former sales office and finished off the edge of the entry deck, it is no more clear what they will be doing.  Certainly it will be some sort of bridge, but how it connects to anything else remains a mystery.  Complicating matters further, there is a narrow alley you see in the photo above.  This space contains a small shrine that belongs to the Asoke fresh market, located in the building with the dingy white-washed wall.  Any bridge connecting to the escalators to the subway would have to cross over this alley.  I guess there is little to do but wait and see. 

P1100852

One other thing that caught my eye: there seems to be a “moat” built around the edge of the mall.  The other day there was quite a bit of water flowing down it.  Not sure if this is part of the drainage system and will be covered with grilles or what.

P1100857

The other night while waiting for the train after my Thai lesson, I noticed they had the interior lights on for the first time.  It may be a bit hard to tell, but the interior is largely finished.  They are laying the tiles on the main floor and most of the shop entrances are decorated already.  I think they will be open in the next few months.

Central Plaza Rama 9 March 2011

Not that far away from Terminal 21 – in fact, just two subway stops north along Asoke/Ratchadapisek Road – There is another mall being built.  This is Central Plaza Rama 9.  There is an additional development that is supposed to happen behind it – a large four-tower condo complex.  In fact, the developer was floating the idea of building a monorail that would go down Ratchadapisek Road (to the right in the picture above) and connect with the Airport Rail Link terminal at Makkasan. 

The view above is looking east from atop Fortune Town IT Mall, with the Thailand Cultural Center off to the left and Rama IX road following the bridge on the right.  Pardon the inexpert job done stitching three photos together to create this faux fisheye lens effect.

 

Curbing Our Walking Space

After writing about some potentially good news for pedestrians in Bangkok, I have to strive for some karmic balance by writing about something else what is currently underway that is impinging on the foot-friendliness of a soi in my neighborhood.

“Soi” is a word in Thai that is often translated into English as “alley”.  It means a smaller street, often not connecting, that branches off a major road.  The neighborhood I live in is in the midst of a veritable maze of sois, some of which have footpaths (sidewalks) and others of which don’t.  One main soi on which I regularly have to walk has undergone some road construction this past week that ended up with a pedestrian unfriendly result.

P1100247

This particular soi is called Thong Lor Soi 9, indicating it is the ninth soi off a larger street called Thong Lor – which is itself a soi of Sukhumvit Road, Sukhumvit Soi 55, to be precise.  (Confused yet?)  Soi 9 parallels a small khlong (canal) that is really more of a drainage ditch with some stagnant water in it.  There isn’t much space and when you walk along it you have to be careful of passing traffic.  Thankfully, though, there is a wide dirt shoulder that you can step onto if you become concerned about the passing vehicles.

Two weeks ago when I saw workers shoveling gravel along the khlong side of the soi, I was optimistic that perhaps they would widen it just a bit, making a little more room for the many pedestrians who walk this soi from the residential area to the main street where all the shops and markets are.

P1100249

Unfortunately, the plan was not to widen the street but instead to add a curb along the side of the existing street.  Not that I’ve seen it happen, but perhaps they are suddenly concerned about vehicles ending up in the ditch like some pilot of a South African 737.  Or, more likely, they are trying to channel rain water into the storm drains (concrete rectangles with metal grates in them in the picture below) instead of into the khlong. 

P1100431

The net effect for pedestrians is that now you really have to walk in the street.  An easy step off the street now involves stepping over a curb and onto uneven ground, increasing the risk of tripping or ending up on your butt in the khlong.

P1100434

From a pedestrian perspective, the best solution would probably be to install a wide pipe in place of the khlong and pave over that area with a wide footpath.  They did this on part of Sukhumvit Soi 38 (above) and it is beautiful.  Yes, there isn’t as much greenery although that could be addressed in several different ways.  But you do have one of the widest, smoothest footpaths in the city, complete with ample curb cuts. 

I’m curious to see whether Thong Lo Soi 9 ever receives similar treatment.  For now, I’ll just have to be that much more careful when walking along the soi.

 

50km of Skywalks to be Built in Bangkok

Bangkok has a unique street-level culture.  Footpaths overflow with food vendors, hawkers, beggars, and motorbikes.  Sometimes there is even room for pedestrians.  This sidewalk chaos is simultaneously the charm of the city and the bane of its residents’ efforts to get from place to place.  The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has announced big plans to move the pedestrians above the crowd onto a 50-km network of skywalks.

Skywalk 2
In the future, it seems we will all be computer animated!

Dubbed the “Super Skywalk”, this network would connect existing Skytrain stations with nearby businesses, much in the way the Ratchaprasong shopping district is connected to both the Chidlom and Siam stations.  Ambitious in scope, the skywalks would not only follow all existing Skytrain lines, they would also trace new paths above busy streets like Thong Lo, Asoke, Ramkhamhaeng, and Whithayu (Wireless).

Skywalk
Map from the BMA showing the proposed Super Skywalk network.

The entire network is slated to be complete in four years, with the first portion, 16 km following the Sukhumvit line from Nana station to Soi Baring (Sukhumvit 107, end of the extension to the line that should open later in 2011), set to open within 18 months.  Interestingly, some of the sections such as Thong Lo and Ramkhamhaeng follow routes Bangkok’s governor has proposed for a monorail line.  There has been no explanation if those plans are still underway.

P1050837
The pedestrian bridge built under the Skytrain viaduct, heading east from the Asoke station.

I’ve written previously about various pedestrian bridges being built to connect to Skytrain stations and I’m certainly not the first person to think that a wider network of skywalks would encourage more use of the mass transit systems. 

There are many questions to consider, though.  Will these new skywalks be kept clear of vendors?  Some of the elevated footpaths near Siam Square often look like a repeat of the sidewalks down below, minus the motorbikes.  Also, will the skywalks result in diminished business for the vendors along the street or even for regular, fixed businesses?  Considering that the governor has also proposed creating designated spaces for the vendors similar to Singapore’s hawker centers, perhaps this is part of a larger plan.

It will be interesting to see if and when this project actually is built, what the effects are.  Original article in The Nation newspaper.

A Profusion of Malls along Sukhumvit Road

Is it perhaps some sort of sibling rivalry?  Listening to the leaders of Bangkok, one could be forgiven for thinking that they were feeling a little bit of envy of their better manicured regional sibling, Singapore.  Like listening to a youngster who both admires and despises his older brother, I chuckle each time an idea is mooted that seems to be chasing after Singapore: Let’s build a giant Ferris wheel by the Chao Phraya River!  Let’s relocate street vendors into clean, well lighted facilities!  Let’s build an endless chain of malls from Siam Square to Sukhumvit!

Not that there is anything wrong with these ideas – well, except the Ferris wheel – but it seems that our civic leaders should find the confidence to just say what we all know to be true: We’re not Singapore, we never will be, and that’s perfectly fine.  After all, if we were so much like Singapore, we would lose a large chunk of our tourists: the Singaporeans on holiday from their overly-staid city state.

Bangkok Mall Map

One area of the sibling rivalry in which we are making progress is the building of malls.  Singapore may well have its Orchard Road, but we have our (admittedly difficult for visitors to pronounce and often taken over by protesters) Ratchaprasong Shopping District, stretching roughly from MBK and Siam Square on the west to Central Childlom on the east. 

You could logically extend the shopping district along the same street (which confusingly changes names from Rama I to Phloenchit to Sukhumvit along the way), bypassing the rather frightening Nana district and ending up at Asoke and Phrom Phong, which are seeing the development of their own new malls.

Let’s take a look at some of that development.

Phloenchit Area

Phloenchit Area Map

In the Phloenchit area, which stretches from the Chitlom to Phloen Chit Skytrain stations, there are three new developments.  In addition to these new developments, the reconstruction of Central World Plaza, which suffered severe fire damage in the wake of protests that were broken up on May 19 of last year, looks to be proceeding on pace for reopening by year’s end.

The largest new project, long discussed but finally announced this week, is Central Embassy, built by Central Retail Corporation, owners of the Central World Plaza and Central Chidlom properties, among others.

Central Embassy

Built between Chidlom and Phloen Chit stations on nine rai (14,400 square meters) of land bought from the British Embassy, this 37-story multi-use development will contain 70,000 square meters of retail on eight floors along with a 222-room luxury Park Hyatt hotel.  Its design will feature a unique “twisting ribbon” that should add another landmark to the city’s skyline.

P1090925

A view of the Central Embassy project property looking west towards Central Chidlom (white tower on the right and the shorter brown and green building to its left).  Buildings on the British Embassy grounds are in the lower right of the picture.  The angle showed here is equivalent to looking at the model in the previous picture from the far right side of that picture.

When it is complete in late 2013, the Central Embassy project will have an integrated facade with Central Chidlom, including a bridge connecting the two.  Central Chidlom will reportedly be renovated so the two properties have a consistent look, giving Central Retail Corporation a second large mall (along with Central World Plaza) in less than a one-kilometer stretch of Phloenchit Road.

P1090927 Stitch

Also in this neighborhood, not 100 meters to the east, is a large stretch of empty land next to Phloen Chit station.  (Pardon the poor job stitching two photos together.)  This property has undergone fitful attempts at development over the years, with constructions workers coming in from time to time to clear the land of vegetation and put up construction fencing, only to do no further work. 

This week the process started again with the clearing of an old building at the front of the property which had served as the sales office for whatever project had initially been started before the Asian economic crisis more than a decade ago.  No signage has been posted yet indicating what the development will contain, but based on the neighborhood and size of the property, it seems likely that a mixed-use building with retail, office, and possibly condominiums or hotel rooms will be built.

  DSC_3259

Directly across the Skytrain tracks from this property is the Park Ventures Ecoplex, a combination office building and 33-story hotel that will be finished this year.  Once all these properties are complete, all the free land at the Ploenchit-Witthayu (Wireless Road) junction will be developed, baring the demolition of any older properties.

Sukhumvit Area

New Emporium Map

Follow Ploenchit Road east a few Skytrain stops and you get to the middle  of Sukhumvit Road, an area populated with expats and well-heeled Thais.  Since 1997, The Emporium, owned by the Mall Group (part-owners of Siam Paragon), has been the main shopping center for this area.  In fact, it was the first mall to have a direct connection to a Skytrain station, something that has helped it continue to be popular even in the wake of the explosion of malls around Siam and Ratchaprasong.

P1090917

The Emporium’s retail monopoly of the mid-Sukhumvit neighborhood is set to end this year as the new Terminal 21 project (previous entry about it) finishes construction at the junction of Sukhumvit and Asoke Roads.  Featuring a nine-story mall including a cinema and 40,000 square meters of retail space, the project will also have 145,000 square meters of office space and a 20-story serviced apartment.

P1090290

In the last few weeks, another challenger to Emporium (and the Ratchaprasong-centrism of Bangkok’s retail scene) has appeared.  Directly across the Skytrain tracks from Emporium, construction has started on an extremely large property.  No signage has been posted indicating what will be built there, but given the location it is hard to imagine that it won’t include a large amount of retail along with either a hotel or condo, or both.  (Edit: I just heard today from two reputable sources that this will officially by an expansion of Emporium’s footprint, colloquially called “Emporium 2”.)

There is also another large project two stations to the east at Ekkamai.  Edit: this will reportedly be an IT mall.

Rama IV / Sathorn

Lumpini Night Bazaar

The final development, retail-wise, is that the Lumpini Night Bazaar, a popular nighttime shopping area located across from Lumpini Park, has finally closed.  This property, owned by the Crown Property Bureau, is slated for a multi-use development by the Central Retail Corporation.  If you look on the first map in this entry, you will see that the Lumpini development is just down the street from the new Central Embassy project.

The closure and development of the Night Bazaar was tied up in legal action for the past two years, but after the calendar turned to 2011 its doors were finally shut and the bulldozers have moved in.  Look for another large mall project to appear along this stretch of Rama IV Road in the next two years or so.

Conclusions

What do all these developments mean?  It seems safe to say that the dominance of the Siam-Ratchaprasong area in the shopping scene will be challenged as development moves eastward on the Sukhumvit Skytrain line.  If anything, this should help ease congestion, both in terms of the number of people as well as the number of vehicles, that crowd that already crowded area. 

The real, and as yet unanswered, question is whether Bangkok needs so much retail space.  Tourism growth has slowed over the last few years thanks to political instability and other concerns.  It would seem that the local population’s buying power has limited ability to grow, too.  If that is the case, one can only imagine that we will be awash in a glut of malls and in that, we will be able to proudly hold our own against Singapore.

 

Land Use in Central Thailand

Why is traffic in Bangkok so bad?  This is a persistent question that has been at the back of my mind for the more than five years I’ve lived here.  As someone interested in urban design and land use, I always wonder: Is this traffic inevitable or could it have been avoided? 

P1090213
How does this…

While bicycling on the outskirts of the city last Sunday, I realized that part of the answer lies in looking at the historical land use patterns and how long, thin rice paddies that cut between canals have led to a network of roads that are insufficient to handle Bangkok’s more than six million residents.

P1090207
Turn into this…

While this realization is the result of consuming other people’s writing and observations and digesting them, it wasn’t until I was riding through an area that is actively undergoing the transformation from rice paddies to development that it became clear to me.

NG Bangkok Traffic
And, eventually, become this?

The result is this six-minute video project, which I hope you’ll find interesting.

 

Demolition of the Siam Theatre

Pent-up anger fueled the flames of arson when forty days of anti-government protests ended on May 19 with the surrender by protest leaders to the police.  The crowds that had blocked one of Bangkok’s main intersections for more than a month dispersed but before they did, violent elements in the crowd set fire to several buildings around the city in what appeared to be a deliberate and preplanned attack. 

In addition to more than 80 people killed and 2100 injured during the protests, one of the victims of the arson attack was the the 44-year old Siam Theatre, which was one of only two remaining single-screen first run cinemas in Thailand’s capital.

IMG_5279
Photo courtesy Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project

Opened in 1966 in Siam Square, one of the first shopping areas in what is now the nexus of Bangkok’s lively Ratchaprasong shopping district, the Siam Theatre along with its sister complex, the Scala, were a reminder of a bygone era.  Tickets were still paper and you chose your seats from a photocopied seating chart, which the ticket cashier then dutifully crossed out with a pen.  The ushers, uncles that seemed to have been working at the theatres since the very opening, dressed in black slacks, white shirts, and yellow jackets.

P1070339

In the aftermath of the fire, the bulldozers have moved in and started to demolish the burned out shell and surrounding shops.  The property owner, adjacent Chulalongkorn University, has long held a master plan to redevelop this area into a more modern shopping complex as they did just down the block a year ago.  Their good fortune, then, that this damage paved the way for the master plan to be implemented.

P1070406

One wonders why we need another mall in a neighborhood (and an entire city) that is teeming with them.  Siam Square and the Siam Theatre were unique elements of the city and were especially important to teenage and university life.  As I understand it from my friends who grew up in Bangkok, hanging out in Siam Square was a rite of passage in that period of life where you transition from childhood to adulthood.  Another few blocks of those memories have been razed.

Thankfully, the Scala Theatre and the nearby Lido three-plex, both operated and owned by the same family that owned the Siam Theatre, continue to operate.