No one really has had permission to live there. Not even from the beginning. Nearly 70 years ago, it wasn’t that important. What was important was coolie labour in the Klong Toey Port and butchers in the slaughter house.
Let them live as they may: Helter-skelter. So they built clap-trap wooden shacks. Pirated municipal water and electricity. And last week, all these years later, those wooden shacks caught fire.
But those shacks are home. Babies born there, old folks have died there. Children grew up in, lived above and around the pig, cattle holding pens. Poor but beloved. Sacred.
Twelve days ago today, it burned to the ground. Nothing left.
Two city blocks wide & long: 51 old wood shacks & 76 families. Our homes. Yes, as squatters: no legal right to the land, except we have butchered pork and cattle for the city – 3,500 a night, and carried produce on our backs, up and down ship gang-planks now for 60 plus years. We fought for municipal water at normal prices and finally ‘won the battle of meters’ (to have our own meter) but still have one big water meter to share Bangkok city water.
We won’t leave; where would we go – This is home. And we are re-building as fast as we can. We have cleared most of the burnt scrap. We have sifted through the burnt to find our sacred statues.
WE are doing most of the clearing burnt scrap and re-building ourselves. We aren’t the best carpenters, but the work has to be done.
With strings of different colors and a single piece of paper with your name on it – that’s how to mark the spot where your shack once stood – slum style. And every neighbor respects that, understands what these basic symbols imply.
Some have been extra lucky and got a tent – a tent on top of burned wood and unsafe ground – gives you protection and you claim your turf.
We are using your money for that. Plus school uniforms for 41 school children, plus pots and pans, plus houses for a couple of our teachers who lost everything, plus shacks for elderly ladies with no source of income and certainly no money to re-build. And on and on. Time is of the essence and we won’t rest before everyone is back in the community.
Plus the rains are coming – the rainy monsoon season.
The ‘new houses’ might not look like much high class, but they are solid and liveable.
And everyone is participating, everyone is involved. The women take care of the donation box (so every coin is counted) another group prepare the food. The men take turns at guard duty at night, so that no stranger comes to wander around. The teachers come each morning to collect the children for school.
Thank you - Prayers as always fr. joe.
By Father Joe Maier
It's not one of Klong Toey's finest hours. In fact, it's an ugly moment -- a monster moment. Stray dogs attacked and almost killed a two-year-old child. This all began at midnight in a particularly dark alley of Klong Toey in Bangkok. Auntie Dang, a 62-year-old grandmum, got the call to go to work. "Come quickly," the voice on the mobile phone demanded. "The game is about to start. We need a dhon tang."
"Dhon tang" in slum slang is a "lookout lady". Dhon tangs are paid by gaCSmblers to watch for police or, worse, for gangsters who trash gambling pits and steal the money.
Auntie Dang is the head of a dysfunctional Klong Toey shack with no table, no chairs -- only a refrigerator, one fan and a single lightbulb over a squat toilet. This is where she lives and sleeps on the floor with her three grandchildren. The middle grandchild is Master Jai, the dog-mauled two-year-old. Also in the shack is Auntie's younger alcoholic sister. She has two of her own small children. Lastly, Auntie's own adult daughter crowds into the place every now and again. She does nightly service at a local karaoke joint that serves every need of its customers. A grog shop, they call it.
On the night in question, Aunty Dang hurried down the dark alleyway outside her shack next to the Slaughter House Flats. She told a neighbour that she'd gone out at midnight to buy a bowl of noodles. That's her story.
A nasty pack of dogs were there, gathered near the Slaughter House Flats. Auntie always carries a walking stick and she whacked the nearest dog -- just for good measure. Sent the dog howling.
Two-year-old Jai had watched her leave the shack. She swore later that she hadn't noticed him. Or maybe she didn't want to notice. No matter.
He was supposed to be asleep and stay asleep while she was gone. If he woke up, the blaring telly would keep him occupied. Or would it? He wet the bed and woke up soaking wet, smelly, hungry and, like every two-year-old everywhere, afraid of the dark. He chased after Auntie.
He cried out to her in the alleyway. She didn't notice, or maybe didn't want to notice. No matter. The gamblers phoned again, told her to hurry, hurry. They needed a lookout.
Jai couldn't catch up. She disappeared around a corner. He lost track of her, fell and began crying louder. Maybe he startled the dogs. No one knows. All we know is that a pack of seven or eight dogs savagely mauled a terrified boy. He was too young to holler "Help me, help me", so he screamed only "Ma, Ma, Ma".
Ma wasn't within earshot. She was already on patrol for the gamblers.
After midnight in the slums, residents turn an ear towards commotion. It jerks you awake, pulls you from your bed. There were screams as though from a baby -- "Ma! Ma! Ma!" -- and dogs barking, snarling, fighting. People emerged from their shacks and ran towards the commotion. They swung sticks, legs, anything to chase the dogs away. There was silence. Later, doctors would count more than 100 punctures on Jai from toothmarks and scratches too many to count. Jai's skin had ripped off him like peelings from an orange. Intestines were exposed.
The locals knew the boy and they began to shout for his auntie: "Dang! Dang! Dang!"
Through the din of gamblers she heard them. She arrived at the scene to find a crowd gathered around her tiny grandson. Her neighbours screamed at her, cursed her; some women even hit and kicked her.
Jai remained unconscious in the alleyway. Auntie Dang gathered up his body and looked around for help. A motorcycle taxi driver said he would take her for free to a hospital seven minutes away. Arriving at the hospital, she said she didn't have any money. The hospital treated the boy for free.
Miraculously, Jai didn't die.
UNIVERSAL SLUM RULES
Today Auntie Dang must wear her shame. Everyone from around the alleyway and the adjoining Slaughter House Flats knows what happened that night. Auntie Dang broke the rules. The universal slum rules on proper ethics and etiquette. Gambling scams and drugs are bad, but criminal neglect of two-year-olds? That's lower than the lowest -- the rock bottom rule to break.
Jai survived, yes, but we still don't know how his body will recover from more than 100 infectious bites. Some of the bites barely missed puncturing his left eye. He will see again, doctors say, but the eye will forever be scarred. As will Jai. No telling what nightmares await or how the vicious attack will affect his psyche.
So, this story is one to be told and retold. Mistakes become lessons in that way.
As for Auntie Dang, she's not yet divulged her role in the story. Her version of events goes like this: She took the expected call on her mobile phone. There were a couple of new players at the table, strangers flashing money. At the same time, there were rumours that that night's game could maybe expect to be interrupted by cops or gangsters.
The voice on the other end of Auntie Dang's mobile promised to charge the strangers a fee to join the game and that fee would become the dhon tang stipend. She sees nothing wrong with taking the job. In her mind, the consequences that followed are not her fault.
"Stupid brat." That's how she later referred to her two-year-old grandson. She says the mauling he endured was "his own karma" -- bad luck inherited from his bargirl mum and long-gone slum father. A neighbour recorded her saying it.
In interviews with police she skipped that part and said only that most nights Jai would sleep through all the noise of the slum and the loud TV. This would allow her to leave in the middle of the night and scare up some income as a dhon tang.
The fact Jai was mauled by a pack of dogs, blame the mother, she said. Her daughter should have been home watching Jai instead of working in a slum pub until the wee hours of the morning.
As a general rule, slum grandmothers who have lived all their lives on the far side of the law do not tell the truth. It can complicate life; make a mess of things. Usually, when you are responsible for this, that or the other, recounting the story exactly the way it happened would bring only more problems -- such as questions about gambling dens. That's the Klong Toey mentality. So grandmothers lie to avoid responsibility.
The morning after Jai's mauling, the Bangkok municipality collected 51 (yes, 51) stray dogs from the immediate area. But that is only a beginning; there are many left. People are now afraid to go out at night without a big stick for protection.
In the slums everyone knows who's responsible and who's at fault for Jai's near death. But in finer quarters of Bangkok, people only know what they saw in the papers and online: news of a dog attack and horrid photos of a child's face posted on Facebook.
Today, if you could see Auntie Dang at the hospital, you might not recognise her as the slum's dhon tang guilty of child neglect. In her new role as Jai's doting grandmum, she looks all cleaned up with hair freshly combed. You'd think she'd won the lottery. And, in a way, I guess she did.
The other day a well-dressed lady in high heels came into the hospital and asked where this poor granny was who had cared for the dog-mauled two-year-old boy. The pretty lady had seen the news and grim photos of the boy on Facebook.
She found Auntie Dang and handed her an envelope -- a well-endowed envelope intended to help Jai. Then the lady pulled out her camera phone and took a "selfie" to show her friends that she had actually delivered the donation for the dog-mauled boy.
This was the third such envelope of the day delivered to Auntie Dang. She'd received two other well-endowed envelopes the previous evening, but that money was gone. Lost them playing Hi-Lo.
Usually, when old ladies gamble, they do not play Hi-Lo. It's too risky a game for elderly blood pressure. They prefer a more mundane, genteel form of gambling. But Auntie Dang was feeling heady and lucky with her newfound "wealth". For a day she was a "player" -- not a slum dhon tang.
No matter, the money had been donated with singular intent: to help Jai. Naturally, Auntie Dang says her intention was to win and turn the donation into even greater wealth. But it's anyone's guess whether or not the money would have ever benefited Jai.
So, what of tomorrow? Well, Master Jai shall fully recover. Hopefully. Meanwhile, we can make sure all of the children crowded into Auntie Dang's shack go to school. This will inject a bit of regularity and food into their lives.
As for Auntie Dang, the police asked enough questions of enough people that they were able to stop the gambling. For now.
They also gave Auntie Dang a stern lecture about childcare versus child neglect. Will she listen and learn? She swears she will -- even swore in front of her Sacred Statues to love Jai with all her heart.
Do we believe her? No matter. For now she remains Jai's primary caregiver despite the obvious gamble.
Last Friday night our beloved slum beside the slaughter house burned down. Nobody lite a match, it doesn’t happen that way. However, Seventy year old wooden shacks – seventy year old wiring – over-loaded circuits. Lights left on in an abandoned shack. It was horrible. An area the size of two city blocks completely devastated. Nothing was left standing.
But our kids – now fire victims - are okay. All of them. No one hurt. No one had to go to the hospital emergency room. Some scratches, burns and bruises, but nothing worse. There won’t be any scars, except the fear, the horror and lasting night mares of the children.
It was near midnight. The electricity went out, and the only light was from the flames. This fire ‘hurt’ me, Fr. Joe, more than most. This slum is my home; where I grew up as a young slaughter house priest.
Those over 45 years ago, we all started with nothing, really. Our first make-shift chapel under a bridge next to a railroad track, then in a wooden, tin roof slum house, finally the second floor above an illegal school. In those days, our slaughter house kids were too poor and too much laughed at because they lived literally above and beside the pig holding pens in the slaughter house. No school wanted them, and those who did, our kids dropped out in weeks because all the other kids bullied them, scorned them. So we began our own kindergarten in a non-used pig pen, - anything to ‘get started.’
Yes, that was years ago, but these memories flashed through my mind, as I stood there, watching the flames. And the original community, with and wooden shack homes haven’t changed that much.
Those kids, now adults, educated, send their own kids, even grandkids to our kindergarten, escaped with their lives and little more.
Forty five shacks/ homes, and seventy three families – over twenty children.
The house I ‘grew up in’ in the slums as a young priest – trashed…. The 2nd floor completely burned out, roof caved in, windows all broken.
Slum Fire is ugly. Not nice to anyone– doesn’t care: just burns and burns, till there is nothing left. And the wind –fickle: blows the fire this way and that. No favourites. Doesn’t really care how much you plead nor beg. After 3 hours, the wind switched back on itself, and the burning didn’t spread any further. But the damage was done; forty six wooden shacks and seventy six families.
I was there, a few steps away, in safety, holding a couple of six years old by the hand – to dry their tears. A boy was holding a charred statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary which he and his sister had run back into the flames of their burning shack to rescue. No mum to stop them as she is in prison.
I kept telling the kids: Don’t worry; we can build a new house, and in the morning, buy you some new school clothes so you can go back to school on Monday. And then they started to console me, as I ‘choked up a bit.’ They said … Don’t worry, fr. Joe, we will take care of you.
And as you know we NEVER close our schools. Our slaughter house kindergarten of course has moved out from that un-used pig pen of years ago to another part of the slum - small child walking distance, but safe from the fire area. Two of the fire victim families with no place to stay, came and ‘set up camp.’ A couple days in the school.
Now, they are with relatives near-by.
Together, in partnership, with district office, local police, army and hospitals and the temple and the schools our community will bounce back, that’s what we do here in the slum. The slum might look weak and fragile from the outside, houses made of rotten wood and families poorly dressed. But we are stronger that some might think – we have (unfortunately) many years of experience with fires and accidents and tragedies – HOWEVER we always come back and we will this time too.