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Phuket Old Town, A Striking Resemblance to Penang

It has been four months since I quit my role as a teacher from the Ministry of Education, I have been living on another sunny Island which is in many ways quite an opposite to my beloved Singapore. While my wife and I are preparing for the grand opening of Mai Nam Shophouse (this 1920’s shophouse requires more time than expected to restore), we could have squeezed out some time and chill at the beach overlooking the Andaman Sea. That has however never really happened for there have been endless things to do daily for our shop and our residential place (second level of the shophouse).

The one actual travelling that actually happened was our road trip up North. As we admittedly overestimated ourselves and went on a drive from Phuket to Chiang Rai (2200 km), amidst the daily 4-5 hours spent in the car, we chanced upon a YouTube video of an interview by two Caucasian men talking about Phuket. It was such an elaborate recount of the history of Phuket spanning all the way back since the 18th century; the interviewed had to include bits of Thailand’s history to help us understand the bigger picture.

The whole clip was an insightful and meaningful one. I realised that the man, Colin Mackay is a historian who has been in Phuket for many years and also the author of “A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Regions”. After some difficulty finding the book, we were fortunate to grab the last copy from the Oriental Living store in Cherngtalay.

The book helped answered a question that I always had. Why is there such similar resemblance of shophouses in Phuket Old Town to those in Penang, Malacca and Singapore?

Back in the 'Tales of the two Chinamen’, I mentioned that my Hainan grandparents sailed from China to Singapore in the early quarter of 20th century. They were one of the later arrivals of Chinese emigrants as opposed to the Hokkien community,

In fact, 1860-1910 was the boom period in Chinese emigration. By around 1890, there were approx. 45,000 Chinese and 1,000 Siamese and Malays on the Phuket Island. Phuket, like Penang, had huge tin lands and tin mining was the primary economic existence.

So what connects Penang with Phuket?

  • In early 19th century, a number of Penang-based Chinese moved to Southern Thailand as they saw opportunities for more profitable mining works. They brought their expertise, capital and more labour from their China-related family clans.

  • The mines generated huge profits for the new Chinese immigrants. One of such families was the Tan (陳) clan. Early shophouses were more rustic and different from the ones built in first quarter of 20th century. The more ornate ones just like those we see in lanes of Thalang and Dibuk Road were designed and constructed by a Penang architect hired by a Tan Clan towkay (boss). The style is what is commonly understood as “Sino-Portuguese” in Thailand or Perenakan house in Singapore and Malaysia. In fact, I read that Sir Stamford Raffles (founder of Modern Singapore) actually designed this form of shophouse - five metres wide, very long, with an interior open courtyard and a covered public walkway in front of the shop.

Dibuk (Tin) Road

  • In early 20th century, wealthy Chinese families would send their children to Penang schools. Penang attracted many across the borders with their modern shopping malls, cinemas and fashion trends. Vice-versa, you would see Thai influences across Penang Island such as several Theravada Buddhist Temples and the commemoration of Nine Emperor Gods festival which was originated from Phuket.

It is a pity many people in Phuket can no longer speak their native tongue as their Prime Minister back then encouraged a one united Thai and enforced that Chinese take up Thai names. My wife’s family name is Wangkiat which originally came from 王 (Wang).

I am constantly trying to search for any links to their ancestral past and ever so wonder if the new generations of Thai would actually be interested in their roots and forebears.

The book helped answer my question. Now, my better understanding of the history of Phuket, makes walking down the streets of Thalang and the connecting Thanons (roads) a more enriching one.




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