PHUKET, THAILAND - As evidenced by all the Chinatowns dotted around the globe, over the centuries China has seen many of its people seek new lives in other parts of the world. And from about 1400, Southeast Asia was especially popular for Chinese emigrants who had a yearning for foreign shores.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, tens of thousands of Chinese men made their way to various parts of the tropics seeking economic opportunities. But because an imperial decree at the time forbade them to take Chinese women with them, these immigrants, far from home, often married local women once they had settled.
In time, these mixed-blood marriages spawned a hybrid ethnicity, called Peranakan, that are also referred to as Baba-Nyonya.
Singapore and Malaysia are considered the core Peranakan heartlands. And Peranakan culture is distinguished by its elaborate architecture and “fusion cuisine” that incorporates elements of Chinese and Southeast Asian cooking techniques and ingredients.
However, it was only when I visited the southern Thai city of Hat Yai three years ago that I realized Thailand was also home to a Peranakan community.
This realization came when I noticed some shophouses in the Peranakan architectural style, elegantly crumbling close to the city’s railway station.
Two years later, I found myself back in Hat Yai, and saw to my dismay that these shophouses had been freshly painted in distinctly non-Peranakan day-glo colors. It was a heartbreaking sight. Hat Yai is evidently not doing much to preserve its Peranakan heritage, but Phuket — Thailand’s premier Peranakan hub — is being rather more proactive.
City-sized despite its name, Phuket has strong but comparatively recent Peranakan roots. And its Peranakan Association estimates that around 70 percent of Phuket’s population has Peranakan ancestral ties.
Phuket’s Peranakan core is centered around its Thalang, Krabi and Phang Nga roads, and within these, the Romanee Soi. “Soi” means lane in Thai, and this lane used to be the town’s red-light district. Today it’s a lane packed with hip cafes and art galleries rather than bordellos.
This centrally located and attractive part of town is called “the Old Town” and is a tourist magnet, although business owners do complain that visitors tend to simply take photos of the well-restored shops than buy any of the wares inside.
At night, these streets are delightfully lit up with alternating blue, mauve and red lighting. And on Sundays, Thalang Road becomes entirely traffic-free to facilitate a weekly market, which always has a palpably festive feel.
The oldest Peranakan business still thriving in Phuket is Thalang Road’s Nguan Choon Tong, a Chinese medicinal herbal shop that opened in 1905 and is run by a descendent of the herbalist who founded it.
Peranakan food — a great passion of the Peranakan diaspora — can be found in a number of places around these photogenic streets. One of the best places to sample Peranakan fare is at the China Inn, also located on Thalang Road.
In common with other parts of the Peranakan world, this community’s food culture has been adapted to local tastes, evidenced in the the much-loved “Lo Ba” — a hearty Peranakan-Thai-tasting mix of prawns, tofu, sausages, offal and pig’s ears dipped in a tamarind-chilli sauce. The best place in town to sample this is at Yak Siam restaurant on Dibuk Street, one block north of Thalang Road.
Relative latecomers on the Peranakan timeline, Phuket’s Peranakan population are descendants of Peranakan in Malaysia, Singapore, and, to a lesser extent, Indonesian Baba-Nyonya.
The great Peranakan immigrant wave to Phuket from these other parts of Southeast Asia was triggered by Phuket Island’s 19th-century tin-mining boom. Another factor was that the island was a port of call for vessels sailing between British-ruled India and Burma (now Myanmar) and Penang.
These days, Thai Peranakan speak Thai instead of Hokkien or Malay, and Thai Peranakan women’s clothes are noticeably “lacier” than those of Straits Peranakan.
In most other respects though, Phuket’s Peranakan community is very similar to those of Malaysia, and are having just as hard a time maintaining their heritage in the face of modernity and 21st century change.
Phuket’s Peranakan community is simply dubbed “Phuket Baba,” as the word “nyonya” is difficult to pronounce in the Thai language. And now the Phuket Baba’s enduring roots in Phuket will be honored with a new museum.
An elegant 103-year-old, two-story structure — originally the town’s Standard Chartered Bank, later used as a police station — located at a key intersection in Phuket’s Old Town, will house the heritage museum.
Unused for years, the structure was, some years ago, taken over by the Phuket City Municipality.
In 2010, the municipality authorized its use as a museum, and the 50-million-baht (¥158 million) undertaking for the museum itself is being overseen by the Thai Peranakan Association.
On display will be artifacts, apparel, furniture, art and traditional Phuket Baba garments. The museum will also be a repository for Phuket Baba historical records.
The building is currently being transformed into this museum, and is expected to open later this year or early next — Phuket time being notoriously vague. The attraction’s official moniker will be the “Phuket Provincial Baba Museum.”
From their involvement in the island’s tin-mining industry, Phuket’s Peranakan community became one of the wealthiest in Southeast Asia, and most of the elegant historical buildings in the Old Town were the original homes of well-to-do Peranakan families.
Already a tourism draw, soon the Old Town will become even more beguiling and rewarding for the visitor, thanks to the addition of the museum.
When it opens, visitors to Phuket’s atmospheric and historically rich Old Town will be able to visit a facility that will put their experience into a clear and fascinating historical context.
This is a welcome development, and one that Hat Yai might want to emulate. However, in the case of the largest city in southern Thailand (and the nation’s third biggest), it may already be too late.