There are many ways to get to Ban Khrua, a dense thicket of low-rise houses in the heart of the Thai capital, Bangkok. But none is as satisfying, or as steeped in the city's lore, as walking the back alleys from ultramodern Siam Square to the canal that forms the community's southern flank. As you cross a footbridge, motorised ferry boats slice through the murky waters, and a sour tang rises from the waves that slap the railed concrete banks.
On the opposite side, a jumble of two- and three-storey houses squat under a blistering sun. Some have seen better days: their tin roofs are flaking rust and their walls are missing wooden slats. Slimy refuse clings to the side of open sewers that drain into the canal. The walkways are so narrow that passers-by can reach out and touch the houses on either side with both hands.
To call this a slum would be a mistake, however, as its original settlers were granted royal title to the land. It would also ignore the remarkable history and enduring resilience of those who live and work along its lanes.
A FAMILY TRADE
Inside his workshop, Nipon Manuthas holds out a spool of bottle-green thread. 'We choose all the dye, to get the right colour,' he says, gesturing at a stack of folded silks behind his desk. His voice is muffled by the constant thudding and clacking of three wooden handlooms operated by his female weavers. Their bare feet pump the pedals that alternate the vertical threads, while a wooden rocket holding the coloured spools is passed by hand horizontally across the loom. The resulting lengths of woven silk are sold to bespoke tailors all over Bangkok who cut them into dresses, shirts and suits.
Nipon inherited the business from his mother, Suree, who died in 1997, aged 84. In 1947, she was one of the weavers whose chequered sarongs caught the attention of James Thompson, a US spy turned entrepreneur. At the time, Ban Khrua was the only place in Bangkok where silk was still woven by hand. Thompson was excited by the lustrous cloth and by the discovery of an intact weaving community.' Jim saw the silk in the market and asked, "Where does this all come from?" I told him, and off he went,' recalls William Warren, a friend and biographer of Thompson.
At the time, Thailand's silk industry was in a state of decline owing to changing tastes and competition from imported, man-made textiles. Many silk weavers had been forced to give up the trade.
The secret to Ban Khrua's enduring tradition, it turned out, was its unusual history. Its founders were ethnic Cham Muslims from Cambodia and Vietnam who fought for the Thai crown during the late 18th century. In return, they were given a plot of land east of the new capital, Bangkok, where they built a mosque and dug a canal that connected them to the river. Muslim prisoners taken from wars with rival kingdoms in Southeast Asia were also packed off to Ban Khrua, whose name translates as 'Muslim family village'.
By the early 20th century, the city had swallowed the village, but it remained a Muslim enclave in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country. This isolation bound its residents to their community and its traditions, including silk weaving.
Seizing on the post-war demand for luxury goods, Thompson set off for New York with samples from Ban Khrua. The revival of Thailand's silk trade had begun, and with it the legend of the spy-turned-businessman. Thirty years later, Thompson, then aged 61, went for a walk in the jungle while on holiday in Malaysia. He never returned.
Thompson's disappearance in 1967 ended a bull run for the Muslim weavers of Ban Khrua. Over the next decade, his company switched silk production to other locations and eventually opened a modern factory in northeast Thailand that today produces 1.5 million metres of silk a year, much of it for home furnishings. Many of the old weaving families sold their looms or moved on, convinced that the glory days were over. …