Daily Phuket #8: 3 March 2021 – Ngo Ka Ki on Thalang Road

One of the most heard descriptions of Old Phuket Town revolves around its Sino-Portuguese architecture. However, the buildings. warehouses and homes reflect a blend of different colonial influences modified to suit local tastes, characterized by a series of arches on the façade that create a covered passageway or arcade known as ngo ka ki and by the use of Greco-Roman ornamentation that had earlier experienced a revival in many European countries.

The Sino-Portuguese rowhouses called tiem chu in the local dialect (as well as the detached houses called ang mo lau) have their origins in Malacca, a port where merchant marine fleets from as far as India, Arabia and China spent time waiting for the wind to change. Malacca was successively colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, all of whom left their stamp on the town’s architecture. Before the Portuguese took Malacca, the Chinese made up the first wave of immigrants there. They married local Malay women and gave birth to generations of mixed-race sons (baba) and daughters (yaya). The younger generations later moved to other towns on the Straits of Malacca, becoming known as Straits Chinese.

Penang was the town which had the closest trading relationship with early Phuket. The oldest remaining stucco buildings in Phuket Town were built during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in the late nineteenth century. The tiem chu is a style of housing which originated in Penang, following Chinese conventions in structural and space design. The exterior of the oldest one- to two-storey rowhouses are simple in form with minimal ornamentation while those built in the latter part of Rama V’s reign and the early years of Rama VI show some Western characteristics, most notably in the use of classical ornamental motifs — Greek columns on the façade, arch floor-length windows and decorative frescoes over the door and window frames.

The third-generation of architecture, dating to the early years of King Rama VII (1920’s), replaces the ornamental façade with balconies on the upper storeys and a covered walkway on the lower floor. Those homes built during the late Rama VII years (late 1920’s to early 1930’s) put the frescoes and glass ornaments back on the façade of buildings and added railings to conceal the roof slope.

The British influence is seen in the five-foot way as pictured in today’s photo, taken on Thalang Road in Phuket Town early this morning. British law in colonial Singapore required that sidewalks be five feet wide, The British had been in Penang since 1786 while their colonial rule of Malacca and Singapore both began in the 1820’s. The five-foot rule spread up the Straits and has become the norm throughout the region over the years.

Known in Malay/Indonesian as Kaki Lima. and translated into Hokkien as ngo-ka-ki (五脚基) and ting-a-kah (亭子脚), the five-foot way is a roofed continuous walkway that offers protection from the elements as well as giving extra space for commercial activity. The overhanging canopy, roof extension or projected upper floor on top of the five-foot ways provides a cover to shield pedestrians from the sun and the rain. As the ground floor of what were once homes but are now mostly commercial buildings, the ngo ka ki is often occupied by shops or eating places; some also function as corridors for people to window-shop or look for refreshment. As the name implies, five-foot ways may have a minimum width of five feet, but the guideline has not been applied universally, as many five-foot ways are wider or narrower depending on the age, size and function of the building.

Interestingly, the requirement for arcades in urban plans may be found as early as 1573 in the Royal Ordinances by Philip II of Spain.

In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore, and it was there that the five-foot way became firmly established as an architectural feature of the region, when Raffles included this and other details in his Town Plan of 1822. Raffles issued a set of instructions on how the new colony may be organized in his plan for Singapore in 1822. He stipulated that the buildings in the newly established colony should be uniform, and should be built of brick and tiles to reduce fire risks. He added that:

… a still further accommodation will be afforded to the public by requiring that each house should have a verandah of certain depth, open at all times as a continued and covered passage on each side of the street.

This became the five-foot way, and this feature of shophouses in Singapore was observable by the 1840s from the drawings of Singapore John Turnbull Thomson. The land leaseholder had to provide public walkways of certain width in front of their shops and houses. As they constructed the second floor above the public walkways, it formed roofed continuous walkways along the street. Although it was planned as a public walkway, the five-foot way would also become a place for hawkers to trade, and it was used as retail, storage, and even living spaces. Attempts in Singapore to clear the walkways of hawkers who were obstructing the walkway in the 1880s led to the so-called “Verandah Riots”.

Here in Phuket, most of the five-foot archways along Thalang Road and nearby thoroughfares such as Yaoworat, Phang Nga, Krabi, and Deebuk roads were blocked, either by having been bricked-in or covered in wooden planks. Most shophouses prevented public access to the space between the arches. Shortly after I moved here a little more than 15 years ago, the long-governing madam mayor of Phuket Town began a campaign to clear the ngo ka ki. Nowadays, it is possible to walk through some of the archways but the five-foot space between them is generally clear in the mornings and many tourists (and a fair amount of locals), will happily use them as photo backdrops. On afternoons and during Thalang Road’s weekly Lard Yai walking street, most of the ngo ka ki become extensions of the shop within the building or entirely separate stalls to purchase drinks, food or souvenirs. Right now, it is the liveliest part of Phuket on any given afternoon and Sunday evenings.

One thought on “Daily Phuket #8: 3 March 2021 – Ngo Ka Ki on Thalang Road

  1. Pingback: Daily Phuket #13: 8 March 2021 – Noodle Art – Asian Meanderings

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