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 jumble 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 light bulbs, 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 US $1,500), and prior to that as a consultant to a plant that produces electronic parts for export.
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. 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.
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.
— WITCHAYA PRUECKSAMARS
This story is part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Informal City Dialogues, a year-long collaboration with Next City exploring stories and insights from six rapidly urbanizing cities around the world.