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THAI PERANAKANS : PHUKET & SOUTH THAILAND
As mentioned earlier the Phuket Thai Peranakans are descendents from Singapore, Malaysian and to a lesser extent Indonesian Peranakans. Peranakans from all over the different colonies in South East Asia came to settle in Phuket Town when it was first opened to tin mining & became an important trading port of call for ships coming in from British Burma & British India before going to Penang. Anyone who has read about the history of Phuket, knows of the large influx of Chinese peoples during the tin mining booms, and for those of you who have spent a day strolling around the ‘Old Town’ of Phuket, you will have seen much evidence of the Peranakan Chinese heritage which has been past down through the generations. In fact modern day Phuket town looks exactly just like old Malacca, Penang & Singapore did in the past. What many people don’t realize however is the complexity of culture, which has evolved through an intricate web of migrations, and mixed marriages, far more tangled than most guidebooks care to dwell on.
In fact, many ‘Chinese-Thais’ of Phuket are neither Chinese, nor Thai. Or rather, they are both Chinese and Thai together, but also with a good splash of Malay and a little Portuguese thrown into the mix as well. They are known as Peranakan and over the generations, have evolved a distinct and unique culture of their own which has adapted, merged, and modified the cultures of their ancestors. Peranakan culture is found throughout much of South-east Asia, with large communities in Malaysia, Singapore, and most in Indonesia. It all began in the 15th century, when many Chinese traders came to South-east Asia; as an Imperial decree of the time forbade them to bring their womenfolk, the traders chose to marry with local Thai & Malay girls.
The mixed-blood children of these marriages were referred to as Peranakan, which in Indonesian and Malay means ‘locally born’. The children of mixed marriages between immigrant Indian and European settlers were also called Peranakan, although strict differences in religion often kept the communities separated. Due to changing times and the furious march of modern western culture into the east, many aspects of traditional cultures are being lost in the race to ‘advance’. When you add to this the additional pressure of conforming to the culture of your ‘host’ country, it’s not hard to imagine the hurdles that are faced by the older generations, who wish to pass their traditions onto their descendants.
In an effort to preserve the various Peranakan traditions, six Peranakan Associations have been set up, in Penang, Malacca, 2 within Singapore, Phuket, and the newest one in Kuala Lumpur. Many Peranakan Chinese of Phuket are descended from Peranakan communities of Penang and Malaysia, and also, later, directly from China. They share many similarities in culture with their southern cousins, although certain differences do exist. For example, the original Hokkien Chinese language of the first generation settlers has merged into Thai instead of Malay, and the original religions of Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism were converted to the Theravada Buddhism practiced in Thailand, although many Phuket Peranakans incorporate aspects of Chinese belief into their practices, and still pray to southern Chinese deities. The natives of South Thailand like in neighbouring Indonesia, Malaysia & Singapore are the Malays who are mostly muslim. In Thailand the terms "Baba" are used to refer to the men and "Yaya" to refer to the women folk. In the Thai language the word Nonya is not pronounceable so it is refered to instead as "Yaya".
Dr. Kosol, President of the Phuket Peranakan Association, explained some of the difficulties faced in preserving the Peranakan culture in Phuket. He sgoes to say: “Actually, about 70% of Phuket’s total population is descended from Peranakan roots. However, the younger generations are showing less and less interest in certain aspects of the culture. The language and dress are especially challenging; the young people want only to wear the latest fashions, and they are not interested in learning the Hokkien Chinese language of their ancestors, when Thai is the language used both at home and at work. The food and the architecture have had more success, and are still very prevalent. The Peranakan Straits Chinese architecture of the Old Town is very distinctive; it is popular with the visitors, and the residents are proud of the beautiful style not found in other parts of Thailand.
And of course, the local Phuket Nonya food has remained popular because everybody likes to eat, and the Peranakan dishes are really delicious!” The association began as a small group of 10 members, who travelled to Malacca to attend a convention held by the Peranakan Association of Malacca. They decided to host a convention in Phuket to help spread interest in the local community, and the association was officially registered in 2004. Meetings, called ‘Tiam-Sim’, are held every 2-3 months where guests and members can enjoy a high tea social event with lectures about Peranakan culture and history. This month will host a symposium on the ‘Relationship Between Thai and Penang Peranakans’, with many guest lecturers coming from Penang to give talks.
A recent trip to Singapore has inspired the Phuket Association, as Dr. Kosol described: “It is our hope to set up a Peranakan museum in Phuket to show the local residents and visitors interesting artefacts from the rich Peranakan history of Phuket. Many people don’t realize that there are many differences between Chinese culture and Peranakan culture. For example, the colour red features strongly in Chinese cultural beliefs, but our Peranakan culture is much more colourful. There are even differences in dress between Phuket Peranakans and Malaysian ,Singapore, Indoensian Peranakans, especially in the blouse worn by the ladies, which in Phuket is made of a lacy material. Many of our members have kindly offered to donate many of their old family antiques from their own homes; however, the buildings in Phuket are very expensive. We only charge 400 for lifetime membership to the association so we do not have the funds to set up a museum at present. We are also publishing books, and lead student activities so the younger generations can learn about the past and keep the colourful culture alive. We have organized a big concert, The concert is in honour of Local Phuket Baba: Khun Narong Hongyok – he is a song writer and composer, with many songs released in the 60s and 70s - and it will help to raise funds for the association.” Although the local Phuket Peranakan culture may be facing tough times, with dedicated people making new efforts to learn, teach and preserve the traditions, the vibrant mix of cultures that has been symbolic of Phuket throughout her history, should remain for many generations yet to come.
Most of the Phuket Peranakans have set up shops and businesses on Thalang Road selling traditional Phuket Nonya Food, Kuehs, Nonya Kebaya, sarungs, kerosangs and even local Phuket Peranakan antiques ! There is also a Phuket Peranakan Museum in the vicinity. So if you ever happen to go to Phuket for a holiday as most of us do don’t forget to visit the old Peranakan areas of Phuket Town to get a taste of the local Thai Peranakan culture !
There is also a very large Peranakan Heritage and Culture privately run museum in Phuket called Chinpracha House which is housed in an old 15 room Phuket Peranakan mansion. For local Phuket Peranakan food we would recommend the Thai Raya Restaurant & China Inn Restaurant which is a restored and refurbished Phuket Peranakan shophouses like the ones found in Singapore & Malaysia. There are also many other Thai towns & cities that have large populations of Thai Peranakans besides Phuket all over the country.