Eleven Fingers knows exactly what people think of his hometown. "Poor. Bad. Wicked. Criminals: This is the way people talk about us!" he raps on his song "Klong Toey, My City."
Klong Toey is Bangkok's most-notorious slum, a densely populated patchwork of illegal and semi-legal settlements that rose up in the space between Sukhumvit Road and the Chao Phraya River more than 60 years ago. It's home to an estimated 80,000 people and more representative of the Thai capital than most people would like to admit. As much as 20 percent of Bangkok's 8.3 million people live in slums like Klong Toey, which makes streets like the ones Eleven Fingers and his friend 19Tyger grew up on more common than the glitzy malls of Pathum Wan—only six kilometers away down Sukhumvit Road.
Still, the public perception of Klong Toey has long been associated with crime, poverty, and drug abuse. The slum began as a home for rural Thais who moved to the capital to look for work, most of them finding it at the nearby Klong Toey port. The port authority actually owned most the land where the slum currently sits, and a community of poor port workers soon sprung up on the port's peripheries.
In the decades that followed, the slum earned a reputation for crime and rampant drug use. It was ground zero for Bangkok's methamphetamine crisis and during the dark years of Thaksin Shinawatra's war on drugs, it was the site of more than 45 shootings by the police.
But it's so much more than just drugs, crime, and poverty, said Eleven Fingers. The 17-year-old rapper, and his friend 19Tyger, who is two years older, are trying to show the rest of the country the other side of their neighborhood, the tight sense of community that comes with living on top of each other for so long.
"People have such a negative perception of where we come from,” Eleven Fingers told VICE. “I can’t even get a taxi to take me home at night. When the drivers hear I live near the port, they won’t take me."
19Tyger nodded in agreement: “They think it’s too dangerous, or that they might get cheated.”
He told me a story about a young woman who took a cab to Klong Toey, then jumped out and disappeared into the slum without paying. When the angry driver got out to look for her, local residents apologized for her behavior and paid him out of their own pockets. It's more than just a story about a woman cheated a cabbie for her fare, it's a metaphor for how the neighborhood pulls together and takes care of its own, 19Tyger explained.
It's the kind of stuff 19Tyger likes to rap about in his catchy YouTube hit "I’m Klong Toey"—which, as I'm writing this, had more than 1.3 million views. In the music video, 19Tyger bounces around Klong Toey, rapping about community spirit and slamming outsiders who look down on people just because of where they live.
In their videos, both 19Tyger and Eleven Fingers wear Supreme knockoffs that read "Klong Toey," turning the stigma of the slum into an emblem of pride. Turning negatives into positives isn’t new to Eleven Fingers (real name: Thanayut Na Ayutthaya). He chose his rap name because he literally has eleven fingers—a little extra thumb juts out from his left hand that was never removed.
“The other kids made fun of me when I was young,” he told me. “They called me ‘eleven fingers’ and it hurt a lot. But when I started rapping, I took it as my name. I’m not ashamed anymore, it’s who I am.”
19Tyger (real name: Kasidech Sangjan) took his name from Tiger Woods, a reference to the one thing the pro-golfer and the young rapper have in common—the fact that he too was born to a Thai mother and an African-American father. Without going into details, he tells me his parents were “involved in some bad stuff” and he hasn’t seen them since he was five. He was raised by his maternal grandmother instead.
“Most people here treat me with respect because they know me, and they know I can give as good as I get,” he laughs. “But people do make [racist] comments, especially outside my community.”
The two rappers offered to show me around their neighborhood. Eleven Fingers thinks a lot of the negative stereotypes about Klong Toey are outdated. He proudly pointed out the modern-looking community gym, the basketball courts, playgrounds, and football pitches. The majority of the homes now have electricity and running water, something you couldn't have said in years' past. And the old, worn down wooden walkways of Klong Toey have been replaced by proper concrete sidewalks.
The men were also clearly the stars of the neighborhood. Young fans repeatedly approached them as we walked the streets of Klong Toey, asking for selfies or just offering words of support. "Wow! MC, MC!” one woman shouted as we walked by. "I’m your supporter!” another called out, in English, from her balcony before shyly disappearing behind her laundry.
Eleven Fingers credits 19Tyger as being his inspiration. He was the first Klong Toey kid to take rap seriously. It’s an intriguing mash-up of rap culture’s "giving props" and the Thai tradition of respecting your seniors.
In turn, the older kids have a sense of duty to those below them. I saw an example of this when the two performed together at a recent gig. In the middle of the show, 19Tyger noticed Eleven Fingers struggling with a faulty microphone and he selflessly gave the younger rapper his own.
Eleven Fingers also takes his mentor role seriously. He's still in high school, but he also organizes local events for other, younger, Klong Toey rappers. He showed me his school and introduced me to one of his protégés, a 13-year-old kid named Non who goes by the name CrazyKid who was recently featured on a national news channel. There's so much attention swirling around Klong Toey's small hip-hop scene that it's not a stretch to imagine that they are on the verge of something much, much bigger.
I finished my tour of Klong Toey at Eleven Finger’s home. It was small, but clean and dignified—not much different from how a lot of lower-income Thais live. His bedroom was sparsely decorated, but it was also a clear reflection of who he is. A pair of spotless sneakers sat neatly on the linoleum floor. A trophy from a recent rap battle was proudly displayed in an old cabinet, and a poster for a Thai hip-hop festival brightened up what was an otherwise dreary-looking green wall.
He told me that he was performing at a trendy sushi joint the following night, in an upmarket part of central Bangkok.
“If you become rich and famous one day, will you leave Klong Toey?” I ask.
“No, I’ll stay here and open up a music school for young people,” he replied.
And, honestly, I believe him.
James Buchanan is a Senior Research Associate and PhD Candidate at the Department of Asian and International Studies, at the City University of Hong Kong.