I’m fascinated by the Sino-Portuguese architecture that dominates the Old Town area of Phuket. There are basically two types to these old homes – the ang mo lau, or “detached” houses of the extremely wealthy mining families – and the row houses – tiem chu – which had their origin in Malacca. The European-style row house was introduced by Portuguese traders and executed by Chinese workers who decorated them with frescoes representing their traditional beliefs. When these Baba, or Straits Chinese, migrated from Malacca to other cities (including Singapore, Penang, and Phuket), they took their unique architecture with them. Later, elements were added from Dutch and British colonial influences making the architecture of Phuket a fascinating area to study.
While a few of the ang mo lau survive scattered around Old Town, the rowhouses still line such roads as Thalang, Deebuk, Yaowarat, etc. These are long and narrow, reflecting the fact that the colonial property tax imposed by the Dutch was calculated from the width of a house’s façade. A typical front entrance features carved-in foliage motifs and inlaid with oval mirrors, one of the eight Chinese good luck symbols; above the door hangs a sign bearing the owner’s family name or the name of their hometown, flanked by windows and vents carved with Chinese motifs. The buildings are also characterized by a series of arches on the façade that create a covered passageway arcade – the so-called five-foot way. or ngorkhakee.
In Phuket, there are four distinct periods to the designs of these houses. The earliest were constructed during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (known as Rama V in the West) in the late 19th century. These homes are strongly influenced by Chinese architecture but are simple in form with minimal decoration and are one or two floors high. Good examples of this type are No. 122-128 on the south side of Th. Thalang. The second period of houses date from the early twentieth century to about 1920 and begin to show some Western characteristics including Greek columns on the façade, arch floor-length windows and decorative frescoes over door and window frames. By the early 1920’s the ornamental façade was replaced with balconies on the upper floors and a covered walkway on the lower floor. Finally, the fourth period of houses were built during the late Rama VII years (late 1920’s-early 1930’s) and put the frescoes and glass ornaments back on the façade of buildings, adding railings to conceal the roof shape.
I believe the only other place that I have lived that has a similar variety to the doors one sees on houses would have to be Albuquerque, New Mexico. Many of the photos I take in Phuket Town tend to be the doors, windows, and other details on the buildings rather than the entire buildings themselves. This second edition of “Friday Photos” focuses exclusively on the doors; well, sometimes a bit of what surrounds the door…
One of my favorite roads to stroll along is Th. Deebuk which tends to be a lot less busy than nearby Thalang. It’s a quiet residential street dotted with homes to the heirs of Phuket’s wealthy mining families which earns it the nickname “street of moneyed folk.” It is also known as sin lo or “new road” owing to the fact that it was the last public road built during the governorship of Phraya Ratsadanupradit. It was actually built through a coconut plantation owned by Pao Lao Nua and was once lined with coconut trees. Adjacent houses often look alike as they belonged to the same family.
A prime example are the row of houses from No. 79 to 87 on Deebuk near its intersection with Th. Satun which are known locally as the “mining bosses’ homes.” No. 79 and 81 are still owned by the Tantivit family, No. 83 and 85 by Khun Wiset Nukulhit and No. 87 is owned by the Ekvanich family. The front entrance of each feature Chinese-carved doors flanked by a pair of windows crowned with intricately-carved vents.
The Chinese sign above the main entrance to No. 81 reads Pin Chuan, the name of a town in China’s Hokkien province. Chuan is also a variation of the family name of Tan.
The entrance features double doors. The outer door is usually carved to boost ventilation while the inner door is normally made of solid panels that are kept open during the day. This photo shows the exquisitely-sculpted door to No. 83 Th. Deebuk.
The porcelain tiles on the wall crowning the doors at No. 83 and 85 Th. Deebuk were imported from Penang. Supply lines between Penang and Phuket were much faster and more reliable than those from Bangkok.
The door at No. 87 Th. Thalang is adorned with beautiful wood carving in a striking gold-and-deep-brown color scheme typical of Baba residential architecture in Phuket and Penang.
Of course, the most elaborate carvings to be found are on the doors of the various buildings in the Buddhist temples, which are called wat.
The building at No. 20 Th. Thalang, next door to a Hainanese shrine, stands out from other row houses thanks to a beautiful façade fully decorated in the Chinese style and in perfect overall condition. Currently the China Inn Café and Restaurant, it was formerly the home of Ong Buntiam, the father-in-law of one of Phuket’s most famous mining barons – Phra Pitak Chinpracha. The house once occupied two connecting units that stretched back all the way to Phang Nga Road. No. 20 housed the office of the family foreign-exchange business which specialized in Malaysian ringgit needed when traveling or conducting business in Penang. Phra Pitak Chinpracha lived here for a time before moving to a grand new mansion at the end of Th. Krabi which is currently a museum. Locals called this row house Ban Lad or the “House in Market” as Thalang was the main market street.
The half-moon sign over the windows advertise the business. This one says that the company offers money transfers to the town of Zia Men in China’s Hokkien-speaking Fujian province.
The sign over the door spells out the name of the currency-exchange office, Hab Long Huat.
The entrance has two sets of Chinese-style carved doors flanked by a pair of windows. The inner doors at No. 20 Th. Thalang bear Chinese letters saying “may the business prosper.”
The outer door panels are carved with puttan flowers (Hibiscus mutabilis Linn.), a Chinese good luck sign.
This old mining baron’s mansion is hidden behind the buildings lining Th. Yaowarat and is only accessible via a tunnel near the intersection with Th. Phang Nga. The grounds are quite overgrown and the many loud dogs patrolling the weeds prevented me from obtaining clear shots of the door…
This pretty yellow house sits on Soi Rommanee, a red-light district for visiting sailors during the early part of the twentieth century. It is now home to some interesting cafes and coffee shops as well as a guesthouse or two.
Neo-classical art is as much a part of Phuket’s architecture as the Portuguese, Dutch and British influences. The European revival of Greco-Roman arts was transported to Phuket and the rest of Southeast Asia by colonists. Neo-classical or Renaissance styles are characterized by equilateral gables and arch windows supported by Greek columns in one of three styles: Doric (simple and unadorned), Ionic (decorated with scroll volutes) and Corinthian (ornate carved leafs on the capitol) as seen flanking this door on Soi Rommanee.
This door featuring Chinese-influence grillwork on a house in Soi Soon Utis is a bit more modern but striking nonetheless.
Wooden panel-type doors were often fitted on carriage houses, garages and small warehouses.
The rear entrances to homes are usually much less elaborate than those that front the streets.
Sometimes, the sheer simplicity of a door is what makes it interesting….
Sinprasert Phanich’s door at No. 108 Th. Thalong features Chinese script wishing visitors “Good Luck” and “Great Prosperity.”
Many of the old rowhouses, especially along Th. Thalang, have been converted to cafes and boutique guesthouses while retaining most of their exterior architectural elements.
Interior doorways are often interesting as well, this one at the bar of the Blue Elephant Restaurant, housed in Phuket’s largest remaining ang mo lau.
Many of the houses along Th. Deebuk have their walkways barred for reasons of privacy and the street also boasts the largest concentration of barred balconies. When taking photographs, please remember to respect the privacy of the residents and shop-keepers.
I hope you have enjoyed this stroll along the doorways of Old Phuket. For next week’s edition of “Friday Photos”, I’ll take a look at some interesting aspect of my neighborhood…
2 thoughts on “Friday Photos #2: The Doors of Old Phuket Town”
Love this part of the island, I often find myself wandering around the streets down there – so many people have no idea that such a gem of a place exists in Phuket but in fact this is the original heart and soul of the island! I’ve got a fair few pictures of these doorways on my blog too – love it!
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