Polynucleation and Houseboat Communities in 19th Century Bangkok

     ‘There it was, spread out largely on both banks, the Oriental capital which had yet suffered no white conqueror; an expanse of brown houses of bamboo, of mats, of leaves, of a vegetable-matter style of architecture, sprung out of the brown soil on the banks of the muddy river (…) Some of these houses of sticks and grass, like the nests of an aquatic race, clung to the shores, others seemed to grow out of the water; others again floated in long anchored rows in the very middle of the stream.’[1]

Such was the view that greeted Joseph Conrad as he ascended the central prang of the Temple of Dawn in Thonburi, the royal district of 19th century Bangkok. Located on the Chao Phraya river, 35 km north of the Gulf of Siam, this city, apocryphally dubbed the ‘Venice of the East’, captured Western imaginations with its unique spatial hierarchy between the land and the water. For the first 50 years of its existence, beginning with the movement of the capital to Thonburi under Rama II in 1782, the right to reside on land was almost exclusively granted to nobles or to Buddhist institutions. Accordingly, by the mid-19th century, 350,000 members of the rapidly growing city lived in semi-permanent rows of houseboats, anchored several layers deep on the Chao Phraya’s riverbanks.[2]

This arrangement, unlike any other in SE Asia, allowed a fluid, impermanent version of urban life to dominate. Houseboats were multipurpose dwellings, incorporating verandas which functioned both as commercial shopfronts during the day, as well as social spaces during the evening, when wooden frontages could be put up. Houses hence formed ‘streets’ and communities roughly corresponding to trade and/or ethnicity, albeit with the added advantage of mobility. George Earl, writing in the 1820s and 30s, wryly noted indeed the advantages that such an arrangement had for avoiding the flooding caused by seasonal monsoon rains, as well as the added benefit of being able to eject troublesome neighbours or move away from commercial competitors.[3]

Such a fluid, decentralised urban layout, bears a striking resemblance to the utopian vision of cities famously articulated by Lewis Mumford. Rather than focusing on urban spaces as purely physical, essentially static entities, Mumford’s view of the city was primarily as a social institution; an organic, fluctuating entity that functioned as ‘a theatre for social action’.[4] He moreover argued that in order to counter the social disconnections caused by modern cities becoming ever more massive and chaotic, it would soon be necessary to build ‘polynucleated’ cities, with multiple social and commercial focal points enabling all to participate in the drama of local social networks.[5] This vision of cities as encompassing multiple independent systems of social, economic and cultural exchange, with opportunities for fluidity created by an ever changing urban layout, is illustrated well by the dynamism of early Bangkok. This is both due to the strength of local associations found in the many polynucleated ethnic and commercial communities, as well as the ever-changing spatial layout of the city permitted by movement of living and commercial spaces.

The Bangkok witnessed by Conrad was gone in a fleeting instant. The Bowring treaty, and the onset of large scale commercial shipping, largely sounded the death knell for mass floating communities, with almost all houseboats cleared by municipal authorities by the 1920s. One observer indeed remarked that by the 1890s, the so called ‘Venice of the East’ had become merely an ‘Eastern Rotterdam’, of factories and wharves.[6] Traces of the old ethos still survive in Bangkok’s layout however. Even today, the lack of any single commercial or historical centre demonstrates the cities postmodern characteristics, with skyscrapers haphazardly scattered randomly across the city. In the brief history of Bangkok’s houseboat communities therefore, it is possible to see an accidental forerunner in many ways of Mumford’s influential ideas on polynucleation, with streets of boats forming urban communities in microcosm, characterised by fluid social dynamics and ephemerality.


[1] Joseph Conrad, ‘The Shadow Line’ (1917), in Maryvelma O’Neil, Bangkok: A Cultural History, (Oxford University Press, 2008), p.78

[2] Ibid., p.8

[3] George Windsor Earl, ‘The Eastern Seas of Voyages and Adventures in the Indian Archipelago in 1823, 1833 and 1834, in Ibid., p.79

[4] Lewis Mumford, ‘What is a city?’, in Richard LeGates and Frederic Stout (Eds.), The City Reader, (Routledge, 2003), p.94

[5] Ibid., p.96

[6] O’Neil, Bangkok, p.26