I wonder if the young boy knows the story. Or perhaps his grandfather knew mine. After all, Grandpa grew up eating at the café, though I only came with him once. The memory stuck out like an indelible imprint on my mind. But more on that later.
After fighting to deconstruct the elite establishment, Great-Grandpa wound up being a part of it himself by working with the crown—a task both necessary to rebuild the country and useful politically. (The irony is not lost on me, I swear.) Grandpa was raised in the Old Town as the sixth or seventh child of many, in a house opposite the Chitralada Royal Palace, not far from the Democracy Monument his father helped construct. I spent my childhood playing in the property’s expansive gardens, climbing trees and picking mangosteens, Thailand’s national queen of fruits. Atop its branches, I’d squint curiously across the street, trying to see over the palace walls. Somewhere within, Mom had attended the Chitralada School, an exclusive establishment for children of the royal family and palace staff, a privilege accessible due to Great-Grandpa’s work with the constitutional monarchy. Its proximity filled the neighborhood with an intoxicating air of simultaneous safety and mystery.
Once, Mom told me that as a kid, she had heard a commotion outside the house. Peering around the front gate, she’d spotted streams of people—university students, dressed in their distinctive black-and-white uniforms—crossing the palace moat and climbing the walls. In a literal and metaphorical sense, she closed the gate and went back inside. It wasn’t until much later in adulthood that she pieced together the events as part of October 6, 1976, or the Thammasat University Massacre, a violent crackdown by Thai police upon student activists. While protesting the return of an exiled former dictator, the students were accused of lèse majesté. The collision resulted in public lynchings and atrocities unseen before in a presumedly peaceful kingdom. The students were seeking royal protection, she told me ruefully, years too late to help. But she was just a kid—roughly the age of the young boy.
I can’t help but wonder when the new generation will first hear about it. Black October is a repressed memory, a dark shadow upon the Thai psyche rarely taught in schools and one that has only resurfaced in modern discourse due to recent pro-democracy movements. Will it challenge how they feel about the kingdom? The nationalistic pride of what it means to be Thai?
Perhaps it will alter the way they see our city. It took me over twenty years to look at Bangkok—truly look—and see it for the first time. Behind every soi is a story, every alleyway is history.
And still there were so many questions I wish I’d asked: about 1932; about the café; about Great-Grandpa’s diaries during those times, the ones kept in the safe that towered over me as a kid. But I was so young, so unaware.
Instead, I rely on tidbits of history and imagination. When recounting my maternal family’s history, Dad always said that despite rising to the head of a business empire, my mother’s father had a taste for simple street food and frequented the café. I assumed it let him feel closer to his own father—to sit where he sat and planned, served by the same family who had served him. He had a fondness for the deep-fried bacon, though the high sodium was bad for his heart.
And still there were so many questions I wish I’d asked
I’m not sure how Dad knew about Grandpa’s relationship with the café. They weren’t what you would call particularly close. After all, Dad was the reason Grandpa’s daughter, my mother, had run away from home at twenty-seven.
Born into high society (courtesy of Great-Grandpa’s work with the crown), Mom spent half her lifetime trying to escape the constricting hi-so world. Dad, on the other hand, was a country boy. An artistic dreamer who moved to Bangkok to chase his vision of becoming something—what, precisely, we never found out. He was a romantic at heart, with a deep love for stories and history, leading to a degree from Thammasat University followed by a job at one of the nation’s top newspapers renowned for its political radicalism—one that had emerged from none other than the October 6 Massacre at his alma mater. It was through the newspaper that Dad met Mom.
But journalism was a difficult path, especially in a country where lèse majesté laws meant any perceived criticism of the royal family could lead to imprisonment. How does one report freely when there is no freedom of speech? That was a question I still faced when covering the 2021 protests. Police were shooting at students. Tear gas was deployed. I’ll be safe, I promised Mom, who knew I had too much of Dad’s journalist blood to stop me. But after the debris had settled, it was impossible to publish most of the images: The mere act of sharing a photograph of a sign that denounced Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code was enough to subject the photographer to lèse majesté itself.
After my parents’ divorce, Dad and I would frequent the café. It became our spot, and he was the one to tell me about Grandpa, Great-Grandpa, and my maternal family’s connection to the place. He always seemed proud to be a degree or two removed from the history of the café, though the story was never quite his.
He was never fully accepted into Mom’s family, but there was one time when Dad, Grandpa, and I all went to the café together. We sat at one of the booths and Grandpa signaled to a young boy roughly my age at the time, ordering the usual with a side of bacon, turning to me with a conspiratorial whisper. I’m not sure what we discussed that day, but even then, it felt different. The son of a Thai revolutionary turned tycoon, an idealistic country dreamer who had found his way into Bangkok—the City of Angels—and me.
It was the only time we went together. I never went to the café with Mom and Grandpa, and to this day I have never gone with Mom and Dad either—it’s difficult to even imagine the two of them were ever in love. A few years later, Grandpa suffered a stroke that left him bedbound and speechless for a decade before his ultimate passing. I was Stateside—living in another City of Angels—when he died, and I couldn’t come home due to the pandemic.
Days after turning twenty-seven, I sit on the café’s second floor, the windows opening to a tangle of electrical cables and wires above the city streets. The past year, Bangkok has boiled with protests and uprisings. Violent clashes between police and civilians, royalists and socialists, military and monarchy, all compounded by the stressors of a global pandemic. While coups happen every so often, this felt different. Members of the establishment were getting involved, and not on the side expected. The population of foreign-educated Thais has increased over the past century. Upper-class kids were questioning their aristocracy. Facebook and Twitter became common platforms to organize and track revolts.
A group of student activists have dubbed themselves the new Khana Ratsadon. I join the fray, visiting parts of my history for what feels like the first time: Thammasat, Ratchadamnoen, the Democracy Monument. In Thailand’s unforgiving sun, it was as much a physical battle as a mental one—the cognitive dissonance between the part I played in upholding the system and an insatiable need to expose and escape it.
But inside the café, time stills. Chinese New Year is fast approaching, and preparation is underway for an annual weeklong closing. Religious offerings pile a nearby table alongside candles and incense sticks. A young boy stands in the wings—waiting to take orders.
It’s been a couple months since Grandpa died, a few years since Dad and I have become estranged, and it’s my first time here alone. As I people-watch the neighboring tables, my mind wanders to past parallels and revolving histories, the weight of unspoken stories lingering in the air. I wonder if the regular customers are aware of how much the walls have seen and breathed over the years. If only they knew what lurked behind each panel; if only we paid a little more attention. If only we chose to be more than mere observers and became active participants in our own unfurling narratives.
The café has persisted through countless coups and political movements, numerous regimes and rulers. It has been a part of my family’s history for generations and will likely be for more to come.
It’s my turn at the table. I signal to the young boy and ask for the usual.
Pier Nirandara is an author, film producer, and underwater photographer. She began her career as Thailand’s youngest author of three #1 bestselling novels with 200,000 copies sold in multiple languages.
Pier has represented literary clients at ICM Partners, served as Director of Development at Sony’s Columbia Pictures, and was VP of Film & TV at A-Major Media, Hollywood’s first Asian-American driven production company. She was shortlisted for the ASEAN Young Writers Award and leads expeditions as a PADI AmbassaDiver™. She is currently working on a new novel and can be found @piersgreatperhaps.