Phuket has been recounted mostly as the Andaman pearl paradise, but less so for its Sino-Colonial style architectures that deserves a chapter of its own. Considering that behind any building there are people and their personal tales, what would be Taj Mahal without the love tales of Shah Jahan and Noor, or the Roman Coloseum without the bloody tales of the gladiators? Phuketians are a melting pot of Siamese, Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian and the sea-gypsy ethnicities, mainly due to the island’s tin-mining past. From the early unions between Hokkien – an ethnic/cultural group originating from the province of Fujian, also called Hoklo in Taiwan – tin-miners and Siamese women a unique community was formed in Phuket with its own way of life, language, dress and food: the ‘Baba’ or Peranakan. It is thanks to this distinctive Baba heritage that today we can admire the Sino-Colonial architecture of old Phuket.
From the 1820s onwards, mining in Phuket was in the hands of Hokkien Chinese immigrants from the British Straits settlements, particularly Penang. Around 1850, this settlement formed the historic core of old Phuket town, Tongkah, which was linked by few roads and a network of canals and waterways leading to TongkahBay. Coastal vessels transported tin from Phuket to Penang, and returned with foodstuff and hardware. In the past, workers flocked to the town to sell their ore, to stock up on provisions, and to remit money. In order to forget their hardship and homesickness, they indulged in the four pleasures – wine, women, opium and gambling. Thalang Road was the main street where the big traders had their shops and Soi Romanee was the red light district. Nowadays Thalang Road and Soi Romanee concentrate a real architectural delight: a 2km easy to walk Sino-colonial trail that makes the core of old Phuket Town.
But how this architectural heritage made its appearance in the town? In the early 20th century, a measure of civilization was brought by Phraya Rassada Nupradit (Khaw Sim Bee na Ranong) during his term as High Commissioner of greater Phuket (1900-1913). He gave a large concession to an Australian-European mining company, Tongkah Harbour Dredging, in return for funds to develop the public infrastructure. Roads were built, canals were de-silted, and a number of public buildings were put up. With Phuket becoming safer, more traders and mineworkers and their families, especially those from Penang, settled down in Phuket. With greater prosperity, more schools, temples, mansions, shop-houses and official buildings were endowed blending largely Chinese and European architectural styles, with some elements from Indian and Islamic culture all borrowed from the Penang colonial influence, which lent a unique and distinctive brand of architecture.
A shining example of this historical heritage are the shop-houses that were the dwellings of Chinese owner-traders who literally lived where they worked; shop in the front, courtyard and garden behind and residence above. With their growing prosperity, thanks to a thriving trade with Penang, these multistoryed brick-wood building moved from their simple beginnings to a more elaborate decorative style with glazed tiles, stucco relief and intricate wooden tracery.
Later, western influence made their way to what is also referred as ‘Sino-Colonial style’ composed of the classic Renaissance and neo-European elements such as arches and elegant stucco edged pillars, door and windows. Visitors can now admire this legacy thanks to the fact that the descendants of these old buildings realize their importance and are trying to preserve their historical patrimony.