Nightingale-Olympic: Bangkok nostalgia and back-breaking relics
The heart of Chinatown is one of the few places in Bangkok that truly evokes nostalgia, as it still manages to retain an accessible link with its past. Walk the streets, and it’s possible to imagine what the burgeoning city might have been like as it accepted its new mantle as the capital.
Whilst Siam Square and Chid Lom have their Gucci stores and Masarati concessions, the city’s most consistent economic engine is the streets and markets west of Hua Lamphong railway station.
Be it cuts of leather, plastic sleeves, reams of fabric or spare parts for outmoded machinery, you’ll stumble upon it here eventually. Some of Chinatown's best kept secrets, though, still remain hidden.
One of these is in the inner recesses of the Nightingale-Olympic store, just opposite the Old Siam shopping centre on Triphet Road.
Also on CNNGo: The Bangkok department store that time forgot
Judging from the brutalist external architecture, this department store must have cut quite a contrast to its surroundings when it first opened in the early 1960s. It was the Central Chidlom of its day, and in a way symbolic of Bangkok’s rising post-war fortunes. It’s also a place that has refused to concede to any sort of change since then.
The ground floor is marked out with glass cabinets displaying yellowing Puma tennis shorts, Fred Perry shirts, sealed Monopoly sets, and Hohner melodicas, all in their original packaging from a colossal backlog of unsold stock. It’s like a shot of uncut déja vu.
The store’s overall focus was to sell foreign imports, and it succeeded in becoming sole agents for many of the rising brands from Europe and America. As a contrast, Wiboon’s shop in Klong Lod, which I recently explored for CNNGo, had specifically sold Japanese goods, mostly because the desirable Western products were often beyond the financial reach of many Thais.
A blanket refusal to acknowledge change
At Nightingale, fellow Paradise Bangkok DJ Maft Sai and I clamber into a rickety lift with the 80-something owner Aroon Niyomvanich, (her brother Matti was the original founder of the store) and she opens up a room on the third floor, which turns out to be a fully decked-out Merle Norman beauty parlor, with all its original fittings.
Since opening her first store in the 1930s in California, the enterprising Ms. Norman set up a beauty and make-up franchise that still exists today. Aroon had to travel to Los Angeles to receive the prerequisite training on Norman’s philosophy.
Strange charts detailing this in Thai adorn the walls. A line of mirrors reflects back hair dryers and a row of disembodied wig dummies. In addition to the old hair care and make-up equipment, a rack of curious massage machines line up against one wall.
Astonishingly they are all in working order, and Aroon lets us try them out (check out the video evidence below). One has moving panels that zip up and down, pummeling your buttocks. Another, features stirrups that recall an old gynecology couch.
After the switch is thrown, my legs whirl round in circles. I can’t figure out the benefit of this.
"Good for exercise," offers Aroon. "And losing weight."
The most shocking, though, is a flat bed that bumps up and down repeatedly, juddering my spine. I stop after a few seconds, scared I might slip a disc. What was once state of the art, maybe even considered beneficial to one’s health, is now an object of humor.
DJs Chris Menist and Maft Sai, best known for standing nonchalantly behind a
pair of decks, take Nightingale's exercise machines for a spin in this comical clip.
Other beautifying ephemera from times past are dotted around the room such as a “sauna box,” a pod-like structure with a small seat inside it, where you could presumably sweat away a few pounds whilst thumbing leisurely through a copy of "Life" magazine or similar.
All these are once-modern goods that have forcibly ridden the cycle from passé through to vintage, whilst their immediate surroundings have remained unaltered.
In a way, the overall effect is stultifying, in another defiant. It’s like a blanket refusal to acknowledge that anything has altered outside. It’s unlikely people still come here for treatment, but change still isn’t on the cards.
Even judging by the age of the staff, there has been little employee turnover since Nightingale first opened. Downstairs one can still browse through a boxing manual priced at "one shilling and sixpence" -- Britain's pre-decimal currency -- equal to about four baht.
It’s an attitude I’ve encountered elsewhere also, most notably in the music store owners, who stubbornly stay open, presumably until the last vinyl record is sold.
As here, the option to clear the shelves with a sale and update the stock is not apparently considered. This generates an undeniable quirky charm, a reminder of the passing of time.
It acts as a benign version of Dorian Gray’s portrait, reflecting back the fading and decay of the epoch’s smiling optimism, visible also in the sepia-tinted photos on billboards you see dotted around town.
Whilst the store operates like this for sheer lack of a need to do anything different, it presents us with a conundrum -- adapt or hang on to that which was once dear. After all, how dangerous can a little nostalgia be?
Nightingale-Olympic is located at 70 Triphet Khwang Wang Road, just off of Pahurat Road. Chao Phraya Express Pier: Saphan Phut