Phuket's Old Town Movement
& photographs by Khoo Salma Nasution
Asian Public Intellectual (API) Fellow, Nippon Foundation
'pearl of the Andaman' is more than a beach resort. It has a rich
history as tin-mining country peopled by Siamese, Chinese, Malays,
Indians, Eurasians and sea gypsies. A unique community in Phuket
are the 'Baba', with its own way of life, language, dress and
food. The core of this community was formed by early unions between
Hokkien tin-miners and Siamese women. This distinctive Baba heritage
can be seen in old Phuket town.
the 16th century, the Europeans have been interested in the tin trade of
Phuket. The called the island 'Junk Ceylon' (Ujong Thalang). The Burmese
invasion of 1809 devastated the old settlement of Thalang, sparking an exodus
of the original inhabitants. From the 1820s onwards, mining in Phuket was
in the hands of Chinese adventurers from the British Straits Settlements,
particularly Penang. During this period, fossicking spread from the interior
at Kathu to the bay of Tongkah, and around 1850, the town of 'Tongkah' was
formed. This settlement forms the historic core of Phuket town today.
Early Phuket town was linked by a few roads and
a network of canals and waterways leading to Tongkah Bay. Coastal vessels
transported tin from Phuket to Penang, and returned with foodstuffs and hardware.
In the past, workers flocked to 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. Soi Romanee was the red light district.
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 their families, especially those from Penang, settled down in
Phuket. With greater prosperity, more schools and temples were endowed.
the frontier settlement of Phuket was smelted and exported at Penang, the
nearest major seaport, Penang. Sea travel to Penang was faster and safer
than land travel to Bangkok. Once communications were improved, Phuket gradaully
changed its orientation towards Bangkok, especially after the Second World
War. But by that time, Phuket had developed its distinctive local character.
the inauguration of direct flights between Europe and Bangkok in the early
1970s, Phuket started to become a tourist destination. Ten years later, the
tin market collapsed but fortunately the economy was rescued by the growth
of tourism. Many former tin mines were converted into luxury resorts. The
old town, on the other hand, has been largely bypassed by the tourism industry
The cultural built heritage of
Phuket is a reflection of the settlement's prosperity during the tin boom
days. The townscape is unique in Thailand, but resembles that of the British
Striats Settlements, which comprised, Penang, Malacca and Singapore. The
architecture is usually called 'Sino-Portuguese' by the Bangkok architects
today. However, any Portuguese influence would have been rather indirect,
via Malacca's historic influence on Straits Settlements architecture. Although
Phuket had early contacts with the Portuguese, most evidence of European
settlement was destroyed during the Burmese invasion.
Phuket town was really modelled after British colonial
Penang, and that was the origin of any European influence on its architecture.
Upon close examination, it is evident that Phuket's shophouses and villas
resemble those in Penang in form, materials and design, although the occasional
Thai motif reminds us that we are in Thailand. Phuket oral tradition in several
cases claim that Penang architects, builders and materials were brought to
Phuket for its best mansions. We are waiting for old building plans to be
revealed to prove that this was indeed so. Thai architects entered the scene
no later than 1930, and from then on, Phuket architecture began to diverge
from Penang style.
the Siamese Architects Association recognized this historic area with a
conservation award given collectively to 'Shop and houses of Phuket city
centre (Ancient Rowhouses)' on Thalang, Krabi, Dibuk, Phangnga, Rasada, Ranong,
Yaowarat and Phuket Roads. These eight roads, plus two lanes, namely Soi
Romanee and Soi Sun Uthit, form the pre-Second World War town.
Phuket town has modernised with
the rest of the island. In the historic centre, the narrow streets have to
accommodate motorised traffic, while the five-footways are impenetrable in
some parts. The streetscapes are largely intact, though broken up in some
places by blockish modern infill and oversized plastic signage. On the whole,
the character of old Phuket town is distinctive and charming enough to attract
both Thai and foreign visitors.
the old town is no longer the commercial hub of Phuket, most of the shophouses
are still functioning as shops and residences. Eating places abound in Phuket
and the old town is no exception. The main street, Thalang Road is still
known for certain trades, especially batik textiles. While the older businesses
tend to be provisioners, wholesalers, tin dealers, hardware shops and machinery
suppliers, today there is a slow but sure gentrification as antique shops,
cafes and European restaurants are making their appearance.
The dominant urban form in the old
town is the 'shophouse', (from the Hokkien word tiam choo, literally, shop
+ house). Part of a row of houses, each unit has a narrow frontage on a long
plot. The side elevation can be described as several pitched roof sections,
alternating with internal courtyards (chhim chneh). These internal courtyards,
which let air and light into the long, narrow houses, are the focus for lovely
atrium spaces. Quite a few Phuket shophouses still have their original water
front portion is used as a shop, the ground facade is usually open to the
street, while the rest of the house could be used as a residence or storage
area. The more affluent families use the whole 'shophouse' as a residence.
In this case, the house would have an elegant facade concealing a private
living space with ornate screens and indoor gardens. The upper part of the
facade is often articulated with windows in three bays, surrounded by fancy
stucco decoration. Fine examples of this can be seen along Dibuk Road.
residential or commercial, the shophouses are linked by a continuous front
arcade known as a 'five-footway', which offer shade, shelter and safety to
pedestrians. The old town consists of a gridiron of streets, each flanked
by double-storey shophouse rows, producing a dense living pattern. With
criss-crossing lines of sight, this close-knit neighbourhood produced a high
level of public safety and community networking.
A dozen or so villas survive in
the core area, a few with their gardens intact, others with compounds encroached
by smaller buildings. Of these, the most attractive and accessible is the
Pithak Chinpracha house, maintained by a sprightly 76 year old owner, Khun
Pracha. The house is offered in the commercial cultural tours of Phuket.
Khun Pracha believes in the 'uniqueness of Phuket' and started showing 98
Krabi Road to visitors years ago, before most Phuket people had even heard
of the word 'heritage'.
last two decades, development agencies, academia and City Hall have slowly
but surely set the stage for the revitalization of the old town. The old
town has been declared 'conservation of cultural heritage zone' by the Office
of Environmental Policy and Planning (OEPP), of the National Environment
Board. In the Development Plan of Muang Phuket Municipality Area published
in 2004, the designated conservation area is 19 rai (about 0.5 square kilometres)
with a built-up area of 31,069 sq metres.
guidelines specify a 12-metre height limit in order to maintain the 2-3 storey
building scale of the shophouse neighbourhood. New infill buildings conforming
to architectural prescriptions are no longer required to set back for
road-widening. Guidelines are disseminated for appropriate signage. Traditional
activities which reflect Phuket's identity are encouraged. Physical restoration
is promoted, but as yet no financial incentives are available.
the 1980s, Phuket has been developing and modernising its local authority
with the support of GTZ's 'Urban Environmental Management at Local Level
Project'. The Municipality has prepared a budget allocation for the conservation
of the old town since 1994. Local authorities were strengthened when the
government was restructured and decentralised following the financial crisis
in Thailand in 1997.
conservation of old Phuket has been furthered through collaborations between
the Municipality, the academia and local leaders. A special impetus has been
provided since 1997 by the work of architecture lecturer Dr. Yongthanit
Pimonsathean and his students from Bangkok. With the full support of the
City Hall, Dr. Yongthanit's university team has developed an architectural
database, identifying heritage buildings, measuring and drawing them up.
They have also assisted the municipality in conducting surveys, providing
advice to house owners and sourcing appropriate materials and craftsmen.
Municipality and university team jointly organised exhibitions and facilitated
community forums about the future of the old town. A few house owners volunteered
or were persuaded to remove the obstructions to the five-footway sections
in front of their houses. In celebration of this cooperation between the
Municipality and residents, the first Old Phuket Town Festival was organised
in 1998. This event has been repeated annually since, with allocations from
the Phuket government. The festival showcases the Baba lifestyle, food, costumes,
performing arts and architectural heritage.
During the Old Phuket Town Festival,
Thalang Road has was closed off to cars and converted into a 'walking street',
bringing back the ambience when the old town bustled with pedestrians instead
of cars. An important exhibition and community meeting venue is the hall
of Thai Wah School, the oldest Chinese school in Thailand, conveniently located
at one end of the main street, on Krabi Road. As the school has moved out
to new premises in the town outskirts, Thai Wah's Alumni Association now
wants to convert their 1934 'Sino-Portuguese' building into a museum for
Phuket Baba culture.
1998 and 2002, the Municipality awarded more than 60 certificates of conservation
effort to house owners who have restored or maintained their houses. This
scheme speeded up the process of building local awareness and pride. In addition,
it helped ordinary people to differentiate between what was good conservation
practice and what was not.
approaches to conservation have been explored. A motorcycle business had
its new showroom, at the corner of Thalang and Phuket Roads, designed and
built in sympathetic scale and design. Two very recent examples are worth
mentioning. A 1950s shophouse has been adaptively reused with tasteful interior
design employing traditional materials. A historic shophouse has been conserved
and exquisitely interpreted as a cafe and gallery.
old town now faces the some of the same conservation issues as George Town
as its unofficial 'sister city', Penang. However, there are important
differences. The historic core of Phuket is perhaps one-fifth the size of
that in Penang. Most of the old shophouses in Penang were mainly tenanted
under the Rent Control Act, and the rift between the aspirations of owners
and tenants worked against the objectives of conservation. In contrast, the
majority of the old shophouses in Phuket owner-occupied, hence generally
better cared for, even though the number which are sadly falling into decay
is not negligible.
The special qualities of old Phuket
town have created an extraordinary sense of belonging for those who grew
up there. This is the impression I get from talking to a number of sons and
daughters of Thalang Road-Krabi Road, who in mid-2005 are now leading members
of the Phuket community. Collectively, they represent a phenomenon which
could be called the 'old town movement'. This flame burns brightly during
the annual Old Phuket Town Festival. The movement has several dimensions,
including that of cultural identity, but for the purpose of this article,
we will focus on the urban strategies pursued in the physical conservation
and economic revitalization of the site.
After the tsunami of December 2004, many Phuket people had to rethink the
way Phuket has developed. As the economy has temporarily slowed down, many
busy local leaders finally have the time to turn their attention to something
close to their heart - the revitalization of old Phuket.
the Old Phuket Foundation was established to spearhead initiatives that could
be jointly supported by government, business sector and community. The City
Hall appointed a committee of 15 civic leaders, each serving a four-year
term. Its objectives are to revive, restore and conserve the Phuket way of
life, arts, architecture and heritage; to raise awareness among Phuket people
about the importance of the old town, and to promote Phuket's cultural
Phuket Foundation chose the five-footway as its symbol. It represents the
old town, safety, access, and the middle ground between the private and the
public. For the same reasons, the recovery of the five-footway as public
space has great symbolic value for all those involved in the old town
revitalization. Currently, the street is streamlined to one-way traffic and
parking is allowed on right and left sides of the street on alternate days
of the week, while pedestrians walk on a narrow but nicely made pavement
covering the old drains.
Hall, in collaboration with the Foundation, plans to turn Thalang Road, with
its 141 units of shophouses, and the smaller Soi Romanee, into a permanent
'walking street' or pedestrianised zone, and to generally improve the street
infrastructure. The main objective is the revitalization of Thalang Road,
and as such, the authorities and stakeholders alike recognize that
pedestrianisation must work for and not against economic vitality. By starting
with the Old Phuket Town Festival and graduating to the weekend bazaar, it
is hoped that these experiments of closing of the street to traffic will
prove economically and not just aesthetically successful.
In preparation for this
pedestrianisation scheme, the City has already converted an adjacent city
block into a green city park and car park. A weekend bazaar is in the pipeline
for the later part of 2005 as part of the 'Walking Street' project. The leaders
of the Old Phuket Foundation have held public talks and also gone down to
the ground, by conducting a house-to-house survey along Thalang Road.
of the 'Walking Street' programme is to recreate a festive atmosphere in
the street, showcasing traditional Baba lifestyle, dress, food as well as
crafts and performing arts. The national government is also sponsoring cultural
activities to coincide with the street bazaar, with funds specially allocated
to boost to Phuket's recovering tourism sector.
of the revitalization campaign, Thalang Road will be portrayed to tourists
as the 'real Phuket'. To the government, the old town is mainly another selling
point for Phuket tourism, whereas the shopkeepers hope that the weekend bazaar
will be good for business. But those who grew up on Thalang Road dream of
bringing back the human bustle and the primacy of the main street. Whatever
the individual motivations, community ownership of the 'Walking Street' project
will be essential to its success, and the Old Phuket Town Foundation has
a key role to play in making this a reality.
the writer: Khoo Salma Nasution is a Penang-based author.
She conducted research in Phuket as a Nippon Foundation Asian
Public Intellectual (API) fellow in May to September 2005.
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