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Phuket’s Peranakan Community
Thailand’s Historic "Straits Chinese"
Text by Andrew Forbes and David Henley
“Peranakan” is a Malay term that, literally translated, means “of mixed race”. Over the centuries it has become used to identify the descendants of the first Chinese settlers in southern Thailand and peninsular Malaysia and their locally-born wives. The great majority of these Chinese migrants came from southern Fujian Province and spoke Hokkien dialect. Hard-working and ambitious, they were commercially successful, gradually developing and expanding both local and regional trade. Before too long many were rich – but since few Chinese women made the long and adventurous journey south, they lacked Chinese wives. The solution was close at hand – intermarriage with local Malay and Thai women. In this way the Peranakan community was born, with the descendants of the original hardy and adventurous Chinese migrants adopting many facets of local culture, while retaining their commercial links with home and with each other.
Baba Yaya Culture & Way of Life
The best-known areas of Peranakan culture are Melaka, Penang and Singapore, where Hokkien customs and language have melded with the local Malay tradition. Phuket is also a part of this Peranakan world, but with the important distinction that the original Hokkien settlers integrated with Thai culture and tradition rather than with Malay, making Phuket's position as a Peranakan centre both distinctive and unique.
In the Malay world the Peranakan style themselves “Baba Nyonya”, referring respectively to male and female members of their community, but in Phuket the term used is “Baba Yaya”. Today Phuket's Baba-Yaya are proudly reasserting their distinctive culture. But what does it mean to be Peranakan? An old adage has it that: “The test of a true Baba is to eat chilli without flinching.” Yet beyond this Phuket's Baba-Yaya really are peranakan or “mixed” in the fullest cultural sense of the term.
The first language of the Baba Yaya community is central Thai, the lingua franca of the Thai Kingdom. Yet they also have their own patois, based on a mix of southern Thai, Hokkien, Malay and English. They retain their original devotion to Mahayana Buddhism as evinced in the island's Chinese temples, but they are also practicing Theravada Buddhists – with a touch of local spirit worship thrown in. They maintain the Chinese tradition of ancestor veneration, but were the first people in the region to openly and enthusiastically embrace Western innovations, from architecture to automobiles and the English language.
At most times Baba Yaya dress just like other southern Thais, but they have preserved their own traditional clothing style which may be worn on important occasions such as weddings and festivals. Generally speaking, Baba men have long eschewed Chinese-style clothing in favour of the most fashionable modern suits. Yaya women, by contrast, have preserved a modern variant of the traditional sarong wrap-around tube skirt and the elegant kebaya blouse, tapering at the waist and flaring over the hips. There is even a specific Phuket style of kebaya, noticeably laceier than those worn by Nyonya women in Singapore and Malaysia.
Yaya cuisine, too, is as distinctive as it is delicious. Spicier and less sweet than the Malay Peranakan cuisine, it employs more chilli, coconut milk, lemon grass and coriander. Pork dishes, too, are popular – a meat quite alien to the Muslim element of the Malay Nyonya tradition. In celebration of this cultural distinctiveness, a Thai Peranakan Association was established in Phuket in 2006.
Experiencing Baba Yaya Phuket
Phuket's Baba Yaya community is decidedly urban, as befits a society based on trade and commerce. Downtown Thalang Road, with its ‘five foot way' arcaded pavements is reminiscent of Penang or Melaka, but the elaborately decorated Baba Yaya facades, many of which have been lovingly restored, bear testament to the community's long residence in this area. The same is true of the grand mansions in and around Deebuk Road. Although called “Sino-Portuguese”, the first and grandest of these were built by Baba businessmen on the profits of tin and rubber at the end of the 19th century, and the architectural style represents a judicious blend of Peranakan Chinese tradition with the Baba Yaya nouveau riche fascination for European classical style.
Thalang Road, too, is the best place to seek out Baba Yaya food and fashions. In addition to colourful sarong kebaya, shops offer Nyonyaware ceramic tea sets and tiffin carriers, often decorated with the red phoenix which is an old symbol of the Baba Yaya community. Genuine and reproduction Peranakan furniture, lanterns and dolls are for sale, together with a wide selection of tasty coconut-based kueh cakes and other Yaya sweets.
Baba men and Yaya women have been marrying each other in unique style for as long as the community has existed. Traditionally, the ceremonies extend over 12 days and involve elaborate costumes and lavish displays of wealth, as well as offerings to venerated ancestors. In recent years “Phuket Baba Yaya Weddings” have become increasingly popular for visitors to Phuket, both from other parts of Thailand and abroad. The ceremony generally takes place in a Sino-Portuguese mansion, with traditional clothing, food and music. Even if you're not visiting Phuket to get married, attending a Peranakan wedding is a great way to experience many aspects of this vibrant, confident and unique community first hand.
Text by Andrew Forbes and David Henley
© CPA Media, July 2016