threat to the thai temple temptation

by lucy yu

In light of the recent threats to close down the 25-year long Sunday brunch tradition, we have to consider—what is the lure of Berkeley’s Thai Temple?

The lines are ridiculously long, the food not the best in town (perhaps because it is mass produced), and the atmosphere not the most pleasant. Food is served in what resembles a militant assembly line. So, what is the lure of the overpriced, below-average Thai food? I sure didn’t go eat at the weekly Sunday brunch to help fundraise for the Berkeley Thai Buddhist Temple, and I doubt that most people did either.

The Facebook group named “Save the Thai Temple!” already boasts 600+ members and I doubt that number will decrease as the impending Dec. 11 date nears.

That is the date Wat Mongkolratanaram, the official name for the Thai Temple, will seek approval in a hearing from the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board to continue its 25 year-old Sunday Food Offering tradition. Every Sunday, the Temple serves cafeteria-style food to patrons who give a suggested donation in exchange for tokens to buy a variety of Thai cuisine.

Part of the problem is that Thai Temple is located a few blocks away from where Adeline and Shattuck split in a typical Berkeley residential neighborhood. According to Doug Coffee, one of the Thai Temple’s long-running volunteers, the tradition has been threatened essentially because neighbors around the temple filed complaints about the strong smell of the food, the parking congestion, the excess trash, and the long hours of operation.

Neighbors during the last hearing in September said they counted 1,352 guests for brunch on one Sunday . This amounts to about $10,000 in revenue for the temple each week at the average cost of $7 per person. This hefty amount is good news for the temple, which needs to pay its utilities, fund its cultural and language center expenditures (including paying summer teachers from Thailand), and fund its Sunday school.

But since customers do not even realize their Pad Thai costs go toward the many items detailed above, there is no way to unite the people and fundraise without the food incentives. The brunch has become an experience that is a part of Berkeley culture (whether hyped up or not), a sort of “must-do in Berkeley” activity.

Shouldn’t Thai Temple avoid such antagonistic feelings from the neighbors who should really be their number one supporters? By natural social laws, if ones’ habits are causing a disruption to an entire community, one ceases to continue these acts, or does so somewhere else.

This leaves a dilemma that calls for a compromise, which is what the Thai Temple has turned around to do. According to Coffee, the Thai Temple has compromised the height of the Buddha shrine, found alternative parking for their hungry supporters at Any Mountain (which is providing 32 extra parking spots) and posted “no parking” signs in certain areas. They’ve put out trash and recycling bins where necessary, and adjusted hours to be a more reasonable three-hour block between 10 am to 1 pm (when it was 9 am -3 pm before), which is within the city ordinance’s allotted time for noise of 8am -8pm.

This only leaves benefits to the donations to the Sunday Food Offering and the brunch in general:

1. Funds a temple and supports the practice of religious freedom.

2. The food may taste below average for my liking, but they should not discontinue providing food for college students of unrefined tastes and less-than deep pockets when they are willing to spend such prices for whatever reason.

3. The Thai Temple is old and for pure sentimental values I would hate to see this particular temple receive insufficient funds. It speaks for an entire community as the first Thai Temple of the Bay Area.

4. Funding language classes is crucial as Thai language instruction is scarce. Their language program has “evolved to involve mixed and multicultural families” now in addition to those of Thai descent, according to another Temple volunteer, showing the progress Thai Temple is making with its funds.

Berkeley’s Thai Temple has provided a cultural learning center that the Thai community would not have otherwise and this is thanks to the continuous support from Berkeley students. Whatever may be the lure for students—whether the communal atmosphere or the must-see attraction quality of the brunch—the Thai Temple deserves to stay because it has successfully created an attractive spot and most importantly, compromised with its neighbors.

And by natural social laws, we always look more kindly upon those who have compromised.

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