Left Under the helm of Aunt Wan, Fox is the only shop dedicated to tailored hospital gowns in Khon Kaen. (Photos: Thana Boonlert)

‘Chuka, chuka, chuka.” Gone are the days when people made their own garments, but sewing machines still hum from a narrow corner of an old shophouse. Stacks of different clothes and mannequins take up space on the ground floor. Staff cut fabric, engrave names and sew white uniforms in an assembly line. Aunt Wan graces them with buttonholes, producing hundreds of hospital gowns for doctors in Isan.

“I make a little profit, but the shop can still continue,” Raphatthawan Phonpirunrot, 60, said.

Fox, a shop dedicated to making tailored hospital gowns since the late 1970s, is one of last bastions of dressmaking outlets that has adapted to survive. Back in those days, Khon Kaen had more than 40 tailors and dressmaking shops, but that number is now down to five. A death knell came in the late 1990s, when manufactured clothes flooded in. In 1997, the financial crisis became the final nail in the coffin. Raphatthawan’s customers, especially nang gnam tou kra jock (women who sit behind glass partitions) at massage parlours, vanished.

Raphatthawan Phonpirunrot, aka Aunt Wan, is the last generation of dressmakers. 

“We had no jobs for three years. An aunt asked me why I didn’t make hospital gowns. ‘You will stay in business as long as hospitals don’t go bankrupt’, she said. A turning point came in 2001,” she recalled.

Since then, Fox has been the only shop dedicated to making tailored hospital gowns in the province. Staff have stuck together through thick and thin for up to 30 years. The oldest seamstress is 68, while the youngest is 38. Of course, there is no newcomer. Raphatthawan and her husband do not expect or want to force their son to inherit the business.

“I think we are the last generation,” she said.

The Chao Pho Khun Phakdi Community is nestled in Khon Kaen’s Srichan, an old quarter that is home to the city gate and other significant sites. In its heyday, Raphatthawan’s neighbourhood was a popular hangout spot for teenagers, much like Bangkok’s Siam Square. It had three cinemas, dressmaking shops and beauty salons. It was also a hub for tour buses providing interprovincial services to and from Bangkok.

“People passed by my house all day and night. I watched movies two or three times a month. Do you know Thang Suea Phan and Chum Phae? Each auditorium could accommodate up to 1,000 people. Tickets were sold at 10 and 12 baht. Sometimes, I got them for free from sales agents who were my customers,” Raphatthawan said.

Pornchai Kaewkulchai, president of the Chao Pho Khun Phakdi Community. 

Now, the cinemas have been demolished. Rows of shophouses are nearly empty. Her elderly neighbours have passed away. Their children have moved out, but refuse to sell old homes. Even if they were to be sold, nobody would buy them because properties in the downtown area are prohibitive. For example, a shophouse costs around 7.5 million baht. It is also expensive to rent a room or commercial space.

“It forces people to settle in mueang mai [new towns]. These suburban areas are cheaper and livelier,” she said. “Don’t think about the city. Some residents are well-off and don’t have to work any more. How can the city thrive? It is old, deserted and inhabited by the elderly.”

Pornchai Kaewkulchai, president of the Chao Pho Khun Phakdi Community, said his neighbourhood had been a market, but a fire in the late 1970s and delayed renovation dispersed residents. It was not until 2007 that the community was founded and named after a local civil servant. It is one of the early Chinese-Thai enclaves in Khon Kaen.

“I want to revive it as it was, but nothing attracts visitors. Shophouse owners just wait and see,” he said.

Graffiti at Chao Pho Khun Phakdi Community. (Photo courtesy of CEA)

Despite their unique history, many age-old neighbourhoods have declined. Exploring this old town, visitors can encounter banks, train stations, old houses, and an apothecary shop and printing house — remnants of a glorious past. Previous urban development projects just petered out, for example Centre Point in 2006.

“It was way ahead of its time to catch the public imagination,” said Jintana Choopromwong, senior strategic planning officer for the Creative Economy Agency.

The government’s main focus has been to revive Srichan, the once prosperous business district, to create new opportunities. At the Isan Creative Festival, it encouraged residents to bring their home back to life. For example, they showed rare business-related items tell the rich history of the neighbourhood. Portraits of people in striking outfits were placed on a walkway and colourful light installations illuminated at night.

“Srichan is gradually changing for the better,” said Khon Kaen Mayor Teerasak Teekayuphan, in an opening ceremony in April. “Urban development without public participation is futile, but co-operation and struggle for a better future are very powerful.”

Light installations at the Isan Creative Festival in April.

Portraits of elderly residents in striking outfits at the Isan Creative Festival in April.

An AR manhole at Chao Pho Khun Phakdi Community. 

Musicians perform at the Chao Pho Khun Phakdi Community as part of the Isan Creative Festival in April. (Photo courtesy of CEA)

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