Kudee Jeen, A Window on the Past

ESCAPADE

Kudee Jeen,

A Window on the Past

Chloé Lagadou & CatherineVanesse

25 February 2017

The Portuguese district of Bangkok is one of the most distinctive areas of the Thai capital, offering strollers a glimpse in the Bangkok of times gone by. 

Overlooking the Eastern bank of the Chao Phraya, the pinkish dome of Santa Cruz Church stands out above the roofs of Thonburi. A significant landmark on the riverside, this religious building is one of the last remaining traces of Portugal’s historic influence over Siam since the 16th century. During this era, a military treaty allowed the Portuguese to settle, trade and practise their religion in the kingdom. The Portuguese settled on the left bank of the Chao Phraya at the end of the 18th century, following the fall of the Ayutthaya kingdom in 1767. After a bitter struggle against the Burmese, King Taksin (1734-1782) decided to found the new capital of the kingdom in Thonburi. As a token of his appreciation, he granted certain plots of land to the peoples who had helped with the war e ort. In this way, Lao, Khmers, Chinese and Portuguese became linked to the creation of the Kudee Jeen district — กุฎีจีน (sometimes spelt Kudi Jin, Kudee Chin or Kudijeen).

Largely unvisited by tourists, Kudee Jeen comprises a maze of alleys and colourful houses, where religious symbols appear alongside street art, depicting scenes of daily life and issuing messages of peace. Buddhist temples, Chinese shrines and mosques coexist alongside Santa Cruz Church, one of the oldest religious buildings still to be in use.

Initially built from wood in 1770, Santa Cruz Church was restored for the first time in 1835 by mainly Chinese workers which, according to historical sources, led to its nickname Kudee Jeen, which translates as ‘the Chinese church’. According to others, this name originated from the Kuan Yin shrine, one of the oldest Chinese cultural relics in Bangkok, built more than 200 years ago and devoted to the Goddess of Mercy. However, Santa Cruz took on its current appearance in 1913 as a result of the work of two renowned Italian architects: Annibale Rigotti and Mario Tamagno. A school and convent were also created around Santa Cruz, demonstrating the central role of the religious building in the education of the Kudee Jeen community.

Visible from the river, another building also stands out: an old wooden dwelling built in the form of a gingerbread house. Deriving from an ancient English architectural style which was very popular during the reign of King Rama VI, the house belongs to the Windsor family estate, former owners of the Windsor shop (Four Eyes Store) located in Kudee Jeen. Local people refer to it as ‘The blue house’ despite the fact that the paint has long worn off, revealing the rough wood concealed beneath it.

In order to understand the origins of this district and to learn more about the various communities which inhabit it, a visit to the local Baan Kudichin Museum is essential. The museum is located in the former home of a Catholic family, whose descendants decided to transform their family residence into a museum to preserve their legacy and to share the culture and traditions of this ancient Thai-Portuguese community.

A taste of these traditions can still be savoured along narrow, winding streets leading to the Thanusingha bakery with its blueish shopfront. The bakery specialises in producing Portuguese sweets known as kanom farang Kudee Jeen (ขนมฝรั่งกุฎีจีน), which translates literally as ‘the foreign dessert of Kudee Jeen’, containing wheat flour, duck eggs and sugar. Traditionally eaten the day after Christmas, these cakes which are similar in taste to sponge fingers are now handmade on a daily basis in the three bakeries in the district.

As in most of the trading posts where they settled, the Portuguese brought with them their expertise in creating desserts, with delicacies such as the kanom farang kudee Jeen and the famous custard tarts. Thai gastronomy is also indebted to Maria Guyomar de Pinha, who was considered the queen of Siamese desserts. Born in Ayutthaya in 1664, this woman of Portuguese, Japanese and Bengali origin left behind other specialities which can still be found on market stalls today, such as foï thong (ฝอยทอง) or fois des ovos in Portuguese (duck egg vermicelli dipped in white sugar syrup) or sangkhaya fak thong (สังขยาฟักทอง – pumpkin lled with coconut cream). Following the death of her husband, Greek adventurer Constantin Phaulkon, who was one of the closest advisors of Narai (King of Ayutthaya from 1656 to 1688 and the main instigator in developing closer ties with Louis XIV’s France
in the 17th century), she was caught up in the 1688 revolution and coup d’État led by Phetracha, and enslaved in the Court’s kitchens, where her desserts charmed the royal family.

KUDEE JEEN, A TYPICAL DISTRICT BEST DISCOVERED ON FOOT OR BY BIKE:
several stands offer bicycle hire by the day, providing an opportunity to venture still further into the alleyways of Thonburi or to visit other places of interest such as Wat Arun, Jam Factory or Lhong 1919.

While the district today offers true immersion in the capital’s historic past, the planned opening of an MRT line in the coming years leading right into the heart of Kudee Jeen could change the face of the neighbourhood forever, making a visit to the area still more pressing.

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