The Phuket News Novosti Phuket Khao Phuket

Tin fever, opium and sin: Early life in Phuket Town

By around 1890 Chinese immigration into Phuket had peaked, with the Chinese population on the island probably reaching nearly 50,000 and dwarfing the Thai and Malay population of perhaps 1,000-2,000. The island, and particularly Phuket Town, therefore, had become almost entirely Chinese.

By Colin Mackay

Thursday 20 April 2017, 11:38AM

Tin mining remained the primary raison d’etre for Phuket Town’s economic existence. Charles Kynnersley on his 1903 visit tells us, “The site of the present town is all tin land. The mines absorb all labour. Cultivation does not seem to be encouraged, no one cares to plant so long as mining pays so much better. Rice, fruit and provisions of all kind are imported. Fruit and vegetables come from Penang. Everybody is hard at work making money at the mines.”

He tells us there was even “a new mine parallel to the principal shop street.” Land clearing for new mines was going on all around the town: “jungle fires are still frequent and there is no timber to speak of near Toungkah... the principal road to the landing place has also been diverted to allow a mine to be opened. Borings are being taken by the Government Offices and if tin is found the site will be sold and new offices built elsewhere. Everything is sacrificed to the mines.”


As these mines generated huge profits for the dominant Tan clan families and the more successful new Chinese immigrants. Shops, offices and houses which had previously been mainly just one-storey shacks made from atap and wood were replaced by more substantial, often two-storey shophouses built of timber planks and bricks and mortar with clay tile roofs.

These early shophouses were much more rustic than the ornate ones that can still be seen today. They were made with thick walls to keep the interior cool. The best examples of these early shophouses can still be seen in old Takuapa town, one of the last places where this historic architecture remains in Southern Thailand.

The more ornate shophouses one sees in Phuket Town today were mainly built in the first quarter of the 20th century. Some of the first of these type of shophouses were built on Dibuk Rd by the Tan clan towkay (leader) Tan Engkee, who took the Thai name Wisetnukoonkij and became the biggest shophouse landlord in town.

He used a Penang architect to design them in a style now often referred to today as “Sino-Portuguese”. However this is a bit of a common misnomer. “Sino-European” is closer to the truth, or even “Sino-British”, since this form of regimented shophouse was actually introduced in 1819 by Stamford Raffles, a man from Hampshire in England, when he established Singapore. He based property taxes on the width of the shop frontage, so these shop-houses are invariably narrow, usually only five meters wide, but very long, often with an open courtyard inside.

Raffles also decreed that a covered public walkway be built along the front of the ground floors of the shop, so that people could walk along the street without exposure to the tropical sun and rain. Unfortunately, unlike the French colonial city planners, he neglected to enforce the planting of trees. This omission left the enclosed streets of Phuket Town, like those of the other Straits Settlements towns, almost like furnaces in the summer, exposed all day to the baking tropical sun. In 1890, when King Chulalongkorn visited Phuket Town on his tour of Southern Thailand, observers counted 685 shophouses in town, 318 built of brick and 367 of wood.

Baba and Nyonya

The local-born, often mixed-blood offspring of the Chinese towkays in Phuket became known as Baba (male) or Nyonya (women) and together as “Peranakan”, or local-born Chinese. To this day they still uphold and thrive on their distinctive culture, dress and food. Their daughters and sons were usually married to relatives, often just outside the limit of incest taboos. Others married into powerful Siamese or Malay families in the region, giving these nouveau-riche Chinese more influence and the local Siamese and Malay families more access to money.

These wealthier Phuket-born “Baba” families looked down on what they called the “one mat, one pillow crowd” – the poor Chinese-born coolies arriving off the boats. They tried, as they still tend to do today, to keep marriage among their own kind, just as the old Chinese saying goes, “The dragon marries the dragon. The phoenix marries the phoenix. The hunchback marries the hunchback.”


By the early 20th century these wealthy Chinese in Phuket Town began to build offices and ornate shrines, temples and some larger Penang or “Straits-style” houses just outside town. Several of these can still be seen today dotted around in Phuket Town, which has now expanded around them. The wealthy also helped the community to build Chinese schools, hospitals and halfway houses (homes for the destitute).

But let’s not paint too romantic a picture here. Most houses around Phuket Town at the time were still simple, rather shoddy, shacks of wood with thatched or corrugated tin roofs. The town was, by all accounts, hot, filthy, squalid and unsanitary, with no proper water supply, unpaved roads that regularly flooded or became mud baths in the rainy season and little in the way of garbage removal or proper sanitation and drainage.

The nostrils of any visitor would have been assailed by a congregation of foul and pungent smells – garbage, frying tofu, un-refrigerated meat markets, rotting seafood waste, open sewers, buffalo dung, shops with fish drying in the sun and shrimp paste manufacturing and the like. The Penang Gazette referred to Phuket Town in the last years of the 19th century as “a most rotten and unhealthy place... a collection of Chinese huts and hovels”.

Sin and Distractions

The main entertainment for these traders and the mine coolies after sweating out in the mines all day was gambling. Sir Francis Light, when he was Governor of Penang, had noted, “The Chinese are excessively fond of gaming, there is no restraining them from it. This invariably leads them into many distresses and frequently ends in ruin.”

During his visit to Kathu in 1903 Kynnersley described Get Ho town as “a long street where hundreds of coolies were assembled and the Gambling Farm was densely packed. Only Chinese are allowed to gamble, not the Siamese.”

The Chinese also smoked copious amounts of opium. In 1869, for example, 109.5 chests of opium – about seven tons – were officially imported into Phuket. At least double that amount would probably have been smuggled in undeclared, to avoid the onerous taxes of up to 20% on sales and another 11% on cooking it. That represents an intake of well over one kilogram of opium for every man on the island that year.

A highlight for a miner would have been his occasional trip to one of the comparatively high-class brothels in Soi Romanee (allegedly named after a famous Romanian mamasan who worked there) for a night of arrack, opium, sex and gambling. Dr Landon, a 19th century writer about the Straits Chinese, noted that in Penang, “Of late years many [Chinese] women have come chiefly as prostitutes who are bought by brothel keepers to carry on their trade here. The writer knows no instance of a respectable [Chinese] woman emigrating with their husband.”

Many brothels in Penang and some in Phuket were run by Japanese women. Though the majority of the prostitutes were Chinese, there were also Japanese and Siamese girls and even some Europeans. In Penang and Singapore, the press was regularly outraged when white women, usually Eastern European or Russian, were discovered in Chinese brothels. “It is quite disgraceful,” puffed the Malay Mail on one such occasion. Several European prostitutes were deported from Penang for working in such Chinese brothels. One suspects some of them may have made their way north to less priggish – but also affluent – Phuket to ply their lucrative trade.

Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Or order it directly at:


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