Phuket old town probably isn’t the destination that springs to mind when visiting Thailand’s most popular resort island. However, far from the bustling beaches the old town is home to an amazing assortment of period structures and opulent villas dating from the time when emigrants, traders and tin miners settled the island. Inter-marriage between Chinese arrivals and locals – both Thai and Malay – gave rise to a peculiar way of life, the Peranakan culture, characterized by a taste for colour and ornamentation in houses and a mélange of regional cuisines.
Buildings on Dibuk, Thalang, Krabi, Romanee, Satun and Phang Nga Roads in Phuket old town all reflect the early 20th century urban planning influences of immigrants coming up from Penang, Malacca, Singapore and other Straits Settlements. They bear the same dimensional characteristics, and are often fronted by a covered walkway to allow pedestrians
to walk out of the sun and rain. On the other hand, they also bear distinctive identities thanks to different stucco motifs on their facades. These feature mostly stucco motifs on their facades. These feature mostly Chinese-style elements such as flowers, birds, and dragons, but also Corinthian columns and renaissance style arches.
While the rows of shop-houses were mainly occupied by labourers, Chinese merchants and Thai nobles built themselves imposing villas, taking their inspiration from the French renaissance or Italian baroque architecture. That said, there is a great deal of polemic regarding the correct term to describe the Peranakan architectural legacy of Phuket. Sino-
British, Sino-Malay or Sino-Portuguese? Thais use the term ‘Sino-Portuguese’. However, it is anything but justified because, although the Portuguese arrived in the late 16th century, they left no real architectural legacy in the town. Most houses described as Sino-Portuguese by guides were in fact built for Chinese or Thai merchants by architects from British-held
Penang. Hence the term ‘Sino-British’ is probably most accurate.
It is said that when King Chulalongkorn visited Phuket in 1890, he was impressed by the wealth of the town’s 680 shop-houses, including 300 made of brick. Unfortunately, many have disappeared over the last few decades because of neglect or the greed of developers. Today, however, local authorities, private owners, and architecture lovers are trying to save and protect the remaining heritage of Phuket old town, and to visit these streets is to recognize their valuable contribution to the island’s history.
The Phra Phitak Chinpracha Mansion, built in 1903 for a tin mining tycoon, reopened five years ago as the Blue Elephant Cooking School & Restaurant.
Baan Thai Hua Mansion. Today a museum, the beautiful European style building was constructed in 1911 as a school for the children of Chinese tin miners.
The 100 year old Luang Amnat Mansion, built in the Italianate style, still exhudes an air of magnificence despite its sorrowful state.
Soi Romanee has been carefully restored and many of its shophouses are now art galleries and small coffee shops popular with Phuket locals and visitors alike.
Situated at the Tun Ka-Bangkok Road junction, this mansion with its neo-classical portico has been closed for a couple of years. Some say because it is haunted…
Located in Phuket Old Town, the Sino-British style Tan Pek Huad Mansion built in 1917 is now home to the local Thai Airways office.
Detail on a house at Soi Romanee. The colour scheme – pink with golden stuccois a departure from the white, beige, cream and pale yellows used in the past.
Thalang Road is one of the best preserved streets in Phuket Old Town with rows of Sino-British, or Peranakan, shop houses. Note the covered walk-ways, now filled in.
This beautiful rounded corner used to serve as the headquarters of the Kian Nguan Mining Company. It now hosts an atmospheric coffee shop.
By Luc Citrinot