Rak is a slightly-built man in his late 40s. He has a large protruding mouth which always carries a broad smile. His thin hands are constantly moving behind a large buzzing hair clipper – a classic 76′ Oster model. In front of a large mirror is a shinny barber couch; it’s a place where motor repairmen, shopkeepers, policemen, electronic junkman, gangsters, and gamblers come to get their ears cleaned and their hair trimmed. It is a place where the entire community of canal squatters could come and get their Freudian couch counseling – plus the hair cut.
“I manage more than 10 heads a day,” Rak smiles as he sharpens his shaving knife. People enter his shop with myriad of hair styles, but they could only make a passable exit with a single style – the 1960s American GI crew cut.
His barbershop is also serving as a recruiting office for the community saving co-op. There are now 77 households that have joined his co-op. They pitched in 500 to 1000 baht a month, hoping that one day they could make improvement to their dilapidated tin shacks. But there’re always problems.
“Brazil should have won,” says the electronic junkman as he hammers his fist on the couch’s arm rest.
“So you’ve lost a bet again,” says Rak as he calmly cleans out the junkman’s ear with a long needle-like metal tweezers; picking out the wax one by one.
“How much do I owe you?” asks the junkman
“Enough to buy me a new motorcycle,” smiles Rak.
Next to his barber shop is the office of the community co-op; it has a large paper model of what the community would look like after the new improvement. Everyone would have an equal-sized shophouse – 4×8 meters – that will replace their existing shacks. The electronic junkman currently occupies a mere 2×4 meter hole with a tin roof over his junks which include old cell phones, TV, and DVD players. “I would very much like a new 4×8 meter shophouse,” stresses the junkman. But Rak’s other customers didn’t see it that way. Even though they have a stake in the saving co-op, they do not want all their houses to be equal.
“Rak only knows how to cut one type of hair style,” says a fat lady, the owner of a large restaurant nearby. She shakes her round curly head. “I for one do not want to get a crew cut, and so do many other people here. Why do we need to have the same type of houses?”
Rak’s position remains unchanged. He argues that since everyone puts in equal money in the saving pool, they should end up with the same type of houses regardless of what their existing shacks look like. “People with large houses are still squatters like everyone else; it’s very fortunate that the Treasury Department didn’t evict us all,” says Rak. “We should make a move quickly to ensure that we improve the physical appearance of our community.”
Rak is concerned because the 917,500 sq.meters Government Center – the “Death Star”- across the street is almost finished. And when that happens, the pressure would be on the Treasury Department to eradicate the entire community of canal squatters, including his own family.
“We need to make improvement fast,” says Rak; his hand trembles along with the buzzing sound of his old hair clipper. I ask him why can’t he allow each resident to keep the same amount of shop area – the way it is right now. He replies that it would be unfair for the other squatters who are now living in a 2×4 meter holes. “We want to change the social structure here as well,” he says.
Rak reveals to me that there is a large methane gas shop that welded great influence on a small section of the community; making them unwilling to compromise on the issue of the newly proposed living area. “They have their own vested interest, and technically, it’s not even legal to have a methane gas shop in this zone,” he sighs. “It will not even make it pass the building department’s review board.”
Each family in this squatter community opens a business in their existing shack. So there’s no room to improve the smallest shophouses to a minimum standard without having to expropriate a chunk of area from tenants with larger shacks. As long as there’s this deadlock among community members, there will be no improvement by the time the Government Center is finished.
“There’s a saying among barbers,” says Rak. “When you’re about to get your head chopped off, you shouldn’t be worrying about your beard!”
Rak and his co-op committee members had proposed to CODI that they should be able to construct a new housing complex with 205,000 baht per house. Their co-op would save up to 10% of the total amount and only 50% of the existing families here would need the housing loan from CODI. So Rak presented his case to CODI’s community committee; they didn’t approve his proposal however. The veteran community organizers – the ex-squatters – felt that Rak needs more time to get his member together. He shouldn’t just propose a project when only 50% of the members in the community have agreed to it. Even though everyone in this canal community wants new improvement, not everyone wants a monotonous design – the crew cut – as proposed by Rak.
CODI has proposed that their architects be sent to the squatter community to map out what the real needs are in this community. They even proposed new ways to generate income for the current residents – like cross-subsidy schemes where outside commercial stores could lease out spaces from the squatter’s co-op. This way, the community would get free cash each month. Rak and the other leaders immediately shot down the idea. They fear that the newcomers could take away their business income, since they are shopkeepers themselves. “Imagine if Tesco-Express store (a British-owned giant chain) leases out a space here; we would be out of work!” he shakes his head.
Rak and the co-op committee leaders want to create a retro river market with wooden shophouses, small restaurants lined with old lampposts and mom & pop stores. It is a rather romantic vision considering that the canal water is now pitch-black with sewer from upstream industrial plants. Cleaning up the river is not within the realm of their control. But Rak and the co-op leaders still cling to this golden vision of the past.
The community co-op even has a training course on traditional palace dance – the Rum Thai. It’s the place where young kids could come and learn to dance to the tunes of Ramayana plays. Not all kids join this nostalgic activity. Most of them prefer shopping malls with broad walkways and air-conditioned showrooms completed with ice-cooled CocaCola drinks. Rak and the co-op leaders have successfully prevent the specter of globalization from entering their community, but they fail to prevent the youngsters from joining globalization elsewhere.
In the meantime, the spaceship-like Government Center is only months away from its final completion and will be fully operational shortly after. The pressure would be high on Rak and the Treasury Department to do something about the dilapidated squatter shacks that are now occupying the entry to the Government Center where judges, state officials, and foreign diplomats come and go. The Thai government could be very unforgiving when it comes to appearance.