I’d like you to meet Chai Yo.
The 19 year-old grew up surrounded by drugs, gangs and poverty in Klong Toey, Bangkok’s largest slum. It’s home to about 100,000 people, all crammed together in a pile of ramshackle constructions near the city’s main port.
“I didn’t really have any opportunities,” he tells me.
“I wasn’t very brave to try anything new or go anywhere for work. I was pretty much limited to what could happen inside the slum.”
But unlike the majority of residents in the illegal shantytown, Chai Yo is trying to get out. He’s traded the life of addiction and crime (that many of his neighbours are trapped in) for a chance at something meaningful.
“I want to find some job for the slum people and I want to give a change for the slum people,” he says.
“I want to see the teenagers have more confidence to go outside to work, to have friends, to have another life.”
Munjai Cafe, Bangkok
We’re meeting at a new restaurant called the Munjai Cafe on the fringe of Klong Toey. It’s only been open for a few weeks and Chai Yo is one of the managers here.
The cafe has been set up by a charity group called Helping Hands to give people in the slum an opportunity to get work experience and be part of running a business. Employers (and even schools) often have a bias against people from Klong Toey and so they can never get a first job, perpetuating the cycle of hopelessness.
One of the social workers who runs Helping Hands in Bangkok is Australian Anji Barker.
“When young people from the slum want to get a job outside they’re very nervous, they lack the confidence and they’re looked down on by the broader community,” she explains.
“So what we’re trying to provide is a place where they can learn behaviours and also a way they can explore what they’re gifted at that no one has ever encouraged them about.”
Inside Klong Toey slum, Bangkok
Anji moved into the slum herself about a decade ago and is still living there today with her family. She’s seen the horrors of Klong Toey firsthand – the murders, the abuse, the crime. And she’s seen the despair – the lives wasted by addiction, the generations of unemployment, and the mental surrender of the downtrodden.
“When you get up in the morning it often feels like a village, and you can smell washing powder and children are getting dressed in white shirts and going to school.”
“Then by about eleven o’clock it gets really hot, it’s smelly, there’s sewage and rubbish everywhere. And you can just see the depressed looks on the elderly people. There are a lot of disabled and sick people sitting outside their houses.”
“Then by the evening there’s a lot of fighting and violence, and in our area certainly there’s a lot of screaming and yelling and people hitting tin walls that you can hear.”
But Anji has also seen the potential in the people of the slum and she’s seen the changes in those she has helped. And one of the most sustainable ways she’s been helping them is with the assistance to essentially start their own small businesses. Handiwork projects, clothes stalls, cooking schools, a catering company and now the Munjai Cafe. They’re all examples of a leg-up, not a handout.
“The slum sort of crushes the hope out of you by the time you’re six years old and so you grow up with no dreams and no vision – just a survival mentality – and this is a way to create dreams and vision in young people.”
I spend a bit of time walking through the Klong Toey slum myself. I’m struck straight away with how different it is to what I had imagined and the images I had after speaking to Anji. It’s certainly dirty and haphazard. Homes have been constructed out of anything and garbage fills the streets. There is very little open space and unpleasant smells linger in the pathways.
But I don’t, on the surface at least, get the sense of hostility and hopelessness. People smile at me as I walk through, some even wave and shout a greeting. A few times I ask permission to take someone’s photo and there’s always a cheery nod and a slightly cheeky pose.
This is the side of the residents that Helping Hands has seen and is trying to foster.
The organisation runs a secondhand goods store on the main road opposite the slum… and I pop in to see it firsthand. It’s called Second Chance, a name that’s clearly referring more to the people than the donated clothes (which generally come from foreigners living and working in the city). An item of clothing normally sells for about 10 or 20 baht, which is about 30 or 60 cents.
One of the people running it today is Oi, a clear-spoken Bangkok local who was born and grew up in Klong Toey and is trying to give something back to her neighbourhood.
“Second Chance is a place that is like a centre for most of the people in the slum,” she tells me, “and I can look at them and talk to them and can learn more about their different backgrounds and the thing that makes me happy is understanding these people.”
“And I’m so proud I can tell them that I too live in the slum, don’t be shy to come here.”
As we sit on small plastic stools in the middle of the shop for a chat, there’s a frenetic energy all around us. Women are rifling through plastic bags of clothes, trying to find something they can use; children are running around playing with toys; some girls are pulling shirts off shelves; and a man is drinking a cup of coffee at a table to the back.
Oi tells me this is pretty quiet. First thing in the morning there’s a group of women who pretty much push the door down to get in. They’ve all made a business out of buying cheap clothes here then selling them for a profit in the wealthier areas of Bangkok.
“They buy for 20 baht and they can sell at 90 and support the family, help their family, to have money to buy lunch or dinner,” she explains.
“I think that is the purpose of this Second Chance.”
As Oi says, this is considered to be a success. These women are taking control of their own destinies and rejecting the alternative of meaninglessness.
Cooking With Poo
The biggest success story, though, is Poo.
Ten years ago Poo (that’s her nickname) was serving food from the front of her home in Klong Toey. She would work from 5am till 9pm and earned about 200 baht (less than 7 dollars) a day. As fate would have it, though, her path crossed with Anji Barker and she encouraged Poo to start her own cooking school.
It’s become so popular these days (partly because of her cookbook, interestingly called ‘Cooking with Poo’) that the class is currently booked out a month in advance. She’s been able to expand the business, look at new opportunities, and even have the ability to move out of Klong Toey.
“I am very happy and my staff and the people living in the slum working with me, everyone happy too,” Poo says.
We’re sitting at a small table at a street food stall. She seems radiant and full of energy. It’s not what you would expect from someone who spent 24 years living in the slum. I guess that’s what having a career, purpose and recognition does for your character.
And, like all of the other slum residents working in these small businesses I’ve spoken to, Poo constantly refers to the people living in Klong Toey and how she hopes her example will be an inspiration. I ask her what she wants to be doing in a few years and her answer just demonstrates this selflessness.
“I love cooking and I love teaching and I want my staff and the people in the slum to have a job.”
Things are certainly heading in that direction. Many of these businesses are aimed at foreigners and at tourists and they seem to be embracing the idea. Perhaps it’s something for you to consider next time you are in Bangkok.
* For more information on Helping Hands and its projects, you can head to the official website here.
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