A house of many stories

Chinatown's Sol Heng Tai mansion pays homage alike to family ancestors and the area's illustrious past

The funk of oil and grease from used car parts mingles with the tantalising scents of steaming food on vendors’ carts in Talad Noi, the small yet precious multicultural community in Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Nestled by the Chao Phraya River, the area was mainly populated by Portuguese, Vietnamese and Hokkien Chinese during the Ayutthaya Period. The chief trade was as blacksmiths, hammering out iron pans and horseshoes. Then the auto mechanics moved in, filling the tiny alleys with car-parts shops. 

In Soi Duangtawan is the Sol Heng Tai mansion, a hidden gem that testifies to Talad Noi’s long history and a far more glorious past. It’s easy to mistake the 200-year-old residence for a Chinese religious shrine at first, thanks to its large, red front gate bearing lanterns and auspicious phrases in Cantonese. The walls are decorated with porcelain ornaments.

One of the few remaining pre-Bangkok Chinese houses, this was home to the wealthy Sol clan, whose descendants comprise the influential Posayajinda and Chatikavanij families.

“The two-storey house was built by Chaosua [Tycoon] Jard, as Phraya Aphaivanich was called, during the reign of King Rama I, and is believed to have the longest history among the residences of wealthy ethnic-Chinese merchants,” says Duangtawan Posayajinda, 68, the building’s seventh owner and current inhabitant. Her late husband was Jenglong Posayajinda, Chaosua Jard’s great-great-grandson.

Ask young people in the community how to get to the Sol Heng Tai mansion and they probably won’t know, but they likely do know the place as baan Duangtawan. 

Chaosua Jard’s forebears, she says, apparently came to Siam during the late Ayutthaya Period and went into business as traders, selling silk and dried foods from China and shipping Thai rice back to their homeland. This is what a wooden tablet on the family altar seems to indicate. 

The family soon found financial security, Chaosua Jard earning a royal appointment in the 1840s to collect tariffs on the birds’ nests boiled for soup. He married a Thai about the same time. 

The clan grew wealthy as a landlord and moneylender. Its properties included a huge area extending from the present-day Harbour Department headquarters to Odeon Circle. Part of this was donated to the state during the reign of Rama IV for the construction of Charoen Krung Road. 

Chaosua Jard established a small trading port called Po Seng out front of his mansion. Duangtawan’s daughter has a house there now. 

“The mansion itself is a two-storey house on one rai,” says Duangtawan, “mainly made of teak timbers assembled by wedge connections, while the external walls and the entire first floor are made of brick. Influenced by Thai architecture, the first floor was the open space flowing under the house that Thais call tai thun and was designed to store the rice.”

The mansion has provided the backdrop for several Chinese-theme movies and television dramas, including “Tud Soo Foot” (“Kung Fu Tootsie”) and “Din Nam Lom Fai”. 

“It was built in the Hokkian architectural style called si tiam kim – ‘golden four points’ – in which four houses surround a large courtyard,” Duangtawan explains. 

“The left wing with several connecting rooms was for the female members of the family and the right for the males. The central building – where the family assembled – was built in steps like a traditional Thai house. It now houses the ancestors’ spirit tablets.”

The pillars and walls are beautifully decorated with carved wooden ornaments and Chinese porcelain. Images of auspicious animals and flowers abound, as rendered in Hokkien symbolism. The lion assures protection and blooms of pomegranate, mei hua and botan bring happiness.

A Chinese sign above the front gate reads “Heng Tai”, the name of the family business, and above that are stucco deities. The walls have painted porcelain depictions of China’s Eight Immortals. 

The mansion underwent a thorough Bt10-million renovation in 1982 for Bangkok’s 200th anniversary. Although recognised by the government’s Fine Arts Department for its distinguished conservation, the house garners no financial support from the state, says Duangtawan.

Decay has again set in, three decades on. Out of pragmatic necessity, Duangtawan’s eldest son has turned the courtyard into a pool for his diving school and part of the open-plan first floor into a breeding kennel for his beagles.

Duangtawan accommodates occasional visitors, making sure they see the first room in the left wing, where the fourth owner, Pook, lived. On one side was the room where the family stored fruit, and on the other the chamber where it kept its gold. One of the old iron safes can still be seen. 

“They kept gold bars in iron trunks that were so heavy they made the floor sink,” says Duangtawan. “The ceiling was covered with lead sheets to which small bells were attached. If anybody walked on the roof, the bells rang as a warning.” 

Just the same, more than 40 trunks were stolen from the gold room over the years. The thieves didn’t enter via the roof, though. Some tunnelled up, and in one astonishing heist, they applied acid or vinegar over the course of many days to a wall to gradually open a hole in the component seashells and sugarcane.

Most of the mansion’s other rooms are now merely storage for family members who have moved out. Duangtawan is staying put. “I’ll be here for the rest of my life, as per my husband’s will, which dedicated the place to our three children and directed that it not be sold.”

Talad Noi is rich with such historical attractions. The country’s first bank, Siam Commercial, had its birth there in 1906. You can still see the lovely colonial-style building designed by Italian architect Annibale Rigotti.

Nearby is Holy Rosary, one of the oldest Catholic churches in Thailand, built in 1787 on the site of the Portuguese Calvary Church. And next to that is the Cho Su Kong Shrine, dating to 1804, where Hokkien gods happily continue to greet visitors. 

Stroll in the past
Although the Sol Heng Tai Mansion on Soi Duangtawan in Samphanthawong district is a private residence, appointments to visit can be made with owner Duangtawan Posayajinda at (087) 927 2881.