A walk down Thalang Road, bathed in the early evening sun, is a journey into the past.
Every few metres you walk beneath arches looming over the side walk, and you can imagine you’ve been transported to l8th century Lisbon or Verona. The street has a distinctly European feel to it, but closer inspection will reveal a very different cultural influence. You’ll see Chinese writing above some of the doors – sometimes vivid, as though freshly painted, but more often the writing is faded with age and difficult to decipher.
It’s hard to provide a blanket characterization of this style of architecture but, in general terms, it’s fair to say that while the columns, roofs and walls are distinctly European in design; with flamboyant Corinthian, Ionic and Doric embellishments, the doors and windows display finer Chinese characteristics with their carved teak louvres and inlaid doors. The merchants’ houses in the centre of Phuket traditionally have Chinese writing above or just inside the entrance, giving the family name and occasionally the names of the family gods. Almost all the houses have a small altar in a place of prominence, many displaying memorials to deceased family members. Both mansions and town-houses share other similarities, the centre of the house is usually open to the elements, allowing the breeze to circulate within.
In some cases this has been transformed into a covered skylight that still manages to bring sunlight and a sense of space into an otherwise fairly dark abode, but with the darkness and gloom comes the cool. Inside most Sino-Portuguese houses the air is usually five to ten degrees cooler than the blanket of tropical heat on the outside.
With a bit of imagination you can see how the front archways of these two-storey dwellings must have covered once the sidewalks on both sides of the road. Some of them still remain, but most have been demolished or cemented in and now serve either as private garages for cars and motorcycles or extensions for a variety of shops. Perhaps, too, the people have changed. There’s a greater demand for individual privacy and less willingness to socialize and live in a communal atmosphere. But, despite the changes, Thalang Road offers a glimpse at the early Chinese middle class.