As Chinese immigrant merchants got rich on tin-mining profits so they started building homes. Though the very richest commissioned enormous mansions, a number of which survive in Phuket town today, the vast majority bought themselves eminently practical terraced shophouses at the heart of the merchant district. Phuket’s Old Town retains south Thailand’s finest examples, some of which are open to the public, but there are also intact, if less well-conserved, shophouse neighbourhoods in many other southern cities, including Ranong and Takua Pa.
Shophouse design followed a standard prototype favoured by the mixed-race Chinese–Malay (“Baba”, or “Straits Chinese”) immigrants from Melaka and other parts of the Malay Peninsula. It’s a style now widely dubbed Sino-Portuguese because Melakan architecture of the time was itself strongly influenced by the territory’s Portuguese former colonists, though it also incorporates traits from Dutch and Anglo-Indian colonial architecture. Although some features have evolved with changing fashions the basic look is still recognizably mid-nineteenth century.
Because streetside space was at a premium, shophouses were always long and thin, with narrow frontages, recessed entrances and connecting porches that linked up all the way down the block to make shady, arched colonnades known as five-foot walkways, ideal for pedestrians and shoppers. The front room was (and often still is) the business premises, leaving the rest of the two- or three-storey building for living. A light well behind the front room encouraged natural ventilation and sometimes fed a small courtyard garden at its base, and the household shrine would always occupy a prominent and auspicious position. Outside, the hallmark features that make the neighbourhoods so striking today include pastel-painted louvred windows that might be arched or rectangular and perhaps topped by a pretty glass fantail, lacquered and inlaid wooden doors, fancy gold-leaf fretwork, detailed stucco mouldings and perhaps Neoclassical pilasters.