City scope: bless the babas
Nick Walker in Phuket
Peranakan, baba and nyonya are terms used to describe the descendants of male Chinese immigrants to Southeast Asia - from Java, Indonesia, to Phuket, Thailand - who arrived between the 16th and 19th centuries, married local women and started new lives, spawning a unique hybrid culture.
The word " baba" is derived from Hindi (it's an honorific to address a respected elder) and came to refer to ethnic Chinese and mixed-race men born in these communities. Women of this provenance were dubbed "nyonya", a Malay word (derived from the Portuguese for "grandmother") and originally used for non-Malay women of high social standing.
The most conspicuous Peranakan communities took root in Singapore and parts of present-day Malaysia, such as Malacca and Penang. However, Peranakan settlers inhabited other parts of Southeast Asia, including Phuket, where the 19th-century "tin-rush" attracted Chinese and baba adventurers and fortune-seekers in their thousands.
The Peranakan community here is dubbed "Phuket Baba" - and now their enduring roots in Phuket island's only city (as Phuket Town is, in size and official designation) will be honoured with a museum.
The Old Town is the heart of the city's Phuket Baba community, as evidenced by its well-restored shophouse architecture. Enriched by tin, the local Peranakan community became one of the wealthiest in Southeast Asia, and most of the elegant Sino-colonial buildings in the Old Town were the original homes of well-to-do Peranakan families. The Old Town is now an attractive tourism draw and an elegant 103-year-old, two-storey structure - originally the Standard Chartered Bank, and once used as a police station - located at a key intersection in the district will house the museum. Unused for years, the structure was taken over by the Phuket City Municipality, which authorised its use as a museum in 2010.
The 50 million baht (HK$12 million) undertaking is being overseen by the Thai Peranakan Association. On display will be artefacts, apparel, furniture, art and traditional Phuket Baba garments. The museum will also be a repository for Phuket Baba historical records.
Peranakan food is one of the culture's most unique features - being a mix of Chinese, Malay, Thai, Javanese and even colonial British ingredients and cooking techniques. Duly, the museum will feature many gadgets that were used for creating such fare.
The museum is expected to open later this year or early next - Phuket time being notoriously vague - and will be called the Phuket Provincial Baba Museum.