The Middle-Class Vendors Shaking Up Bangkok’s Street Trade

Bangkok | 01/08/2013 12:00am
Witchaya Pruecksamars | Informal City Dialogues

“You don’t have to pretend to be doing a research,” says the street vendor when I ask him how much he pays each month for his spot on the sidewalk. “If you want to rent this space from me, you can just say it.”

With his crisply ironed shirt, skinny jeans, spiky black hair and lanky frame, P’ Ae looks more like a K-pop boy-band member than a vendor working in Bangkok’s bustling Siam Square. Thirty-one years old, he wasn’t even born when this neighborhood first developed as a modern shopping district in the ’70s. He knows it only as it is today: a barrage of local boutiques, tutoring schools, trendy restaurants, and randomly scattered vendors. Positioned near the bottom of an escalator that leads to the Skytrain platform and illuminated by two naked lightbults, his shop is a self-assembled stall where passersby linger over his collection of earrings, neatly displayed on a vertical wire grill and laid out on a table top.

“I’m willing to tell you anything, as long as you don’t ask me where I sourced my products from or how much they cost,” he says. “That’d be like asking for the recipe of my noodle.”

Such skepticism is to be expected from a Bangkok street trader wary of competition. Less expected is P’ Ae’s business pedigree — he holds a master’s degree in management from Brunel University in London. Before becoming a vendor, he worked as a manager at an insurance company making 45,000 Baht per month (around $1,500 U.S.) and prior to that, as a consultant to a plant that produced electronic parts for export. (He quit before the mega-flood that inundated Thailand in 2011 closed the factory). It wasn’t until half a year ago that he set aside his managerial career to pursue a living in retail, doing so for the same reason cubicle drones the world over decide to strike out on their own. “I was bored,” he says with a shrug. “In the end, the company doesn’t really care who you are or what you do.”

At first, P’ Ae rented out space for his store at shopping centers, most recently at an air-conditioned mall called Bonanza. One retail space at the mall costs 30,000 Baht per month, and at a discount, he was renting two for 55,000 Baht. But with the high rent, he found it impossible to turn a profit. So a few weeks ago, after only three months at the mall, he broke his one-year lease, sacrificing his two-month deposit worth 110,000 Baht (about $3,600 U.S.) and hit the streets.

He got himself a stall and moved to the sidewalk space where we now stand — a stone’s throw away from Bonanza — for which he pays less than a quarter of what the mall charged him. Since moving to the street, he says, his sales have tripled. And the flexibility of street vending keeps his business nimble. “The good thing about street trading is that you don’t need to sign a contract,” he says. “You can rent out your space [to other vendors] on certain days, you can set up your shop at multiple locations if you can afford to, and you don’t need to come if you feel sick.” Most significantly, he says, “It is a system that allows for trial and error.”

The business acumen P’ Ae brings to his street-vending operation may be unusual, but it isn’t unheard of. “These vendors are not only the poor, but also the well-to-do,” he explains — a phenomenon that’s becoming more common. Over the past couple of decades, the socio-economic profile of Bangkok’s street vendors has gone from uniformly poor to surprisingly diverse, with people from all walks of life. Former bankers, bureaucrats, pharmacists, and others from middle-class backgrounds, like P’ Ae, have been making the leap into the informal fray, some by choice, others after losing their office jobs.

These well-educated entrepreneurs with prior experience in the white-collar world have been called Bangkok’s “new generation” of vendors, and they’re shaking up the social dynamics of the street trade. “Some of these guys come from [lower] social strata,” says P’ Ae of his fellow vendors in Siam Square. “They will mess around or even try to bully you.” Hence his fashion-forward outfit and styled hair. By dressing sharply, he says, you let “the guys know that you are not from the same background as them,” and therefore not to be taken lightly. “That guy over there, for example,” says P’ Ae, pointing at a boyish figure in a stained baseball cap, “he’s 38 but he calls me ‘P,’” a prefix for “older brother” and a sign of deference. “Sometimes he runs errands for me. Last time I asked him to get me a pen and I tipped him 20 Baht. It’s not a lot [but] …you will get their respect.”

The errand runner also sets up stalls for the area’s vendors, who pay him 40 Baht apiece, or about $1 U.S. “Say he sets up ten stands per day,” says P’ Ae. “That’s 400 Baht already” — not bad for a low-skill part-time job in a city where the average starting salary for a public servant with a master’s degree is as low as 12,000 Baht per month. “There’s also storage service, because you can’t afford to drive a pickup truck here every day.” According to P’ Ae, “all of the markets in Thailand have similar arrangements.”

P’ Ae has no intention of remaining a modest vendor hawking earrings — at least not one at a time. According to his business plan, he’ll use his time on the street to analyze the market, figuring out which items or styles are most in demand. Once he’s confident he’s got a read on it, he’ll expand into more locations, hiring a small staff to run the new stalls. “Say you make 30,000 [Baht] of profit per month, per stall. What would you get if you can set up four stalls?” he asks, as if to say: you do the math.

VIDEO: Two Street Vendors in Bangkok