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The International Writers Magazine:Thailand

Shop House Culture
Steve Tothill
Phuket’s Shophuse Architectural Masterpieces

Away from the sandy beaches and sometimes seedy nightlife of Phuket's tourist hotspots, it’s well worth spending an hour or two wading through the wok smoke and dodging a few speeding mopeds to discover a refreshingly non-pretentious un-preserved architectural gem - even if you’re not into architecture.

Park yourself down on one of the few benches in Phuket Town centre and you’ll notice one thing. It’s hot! Morning, noon or night – it’s hot! It’s noisy too. Fast and furious. Like all over Thailand, mopeds partake, in what to outsiders might seem, a magical two wheeled version of dodge ball, carrying their poker faced riders (sometimes 4 to a machine), ghost like, as they weave through endless cues of menacing pick up trucks, blacked out windows, overloaded with anything from the contents of a house to a team of construction workers or playful children and solitary buddhist monks, all seemingly oblivious to each-others existence! Maybe it’s to get out of the heat or just good manners but no ones wasting time on road rage or insulting hand gestures here!

Add to the heat, a few street cafes, the chilli fumes (still lethal at 40 yards), literally taking your breath away and making you hungry at the same time, ‘woks-a-flying’, ‘steam-a-rising’, ‘voices-a-shouting’ - and your sort of feeling the pace of Phuket Town.

The people are nice, but everyone says that about the Thai's. Walk into the epicentre of the town and the architecture is even nicer. Rows of Sino Portuguese Shop Houses sell their wares or leave doors open inviting you in - in to what? Sure tourism has created a demand for cafes, gift shops, art galleries, but the more traditional traders are also here, textiles, sewing, more food, Thai, Chinese, Muslim, Farang (local word for foreigner) everyone is here and everyone seems to get along.

The concept of the Shop House is as relevant and practical today as in the 18th century, a place for work and a place to live. And if your open until 10pm every night it makes perfect sense!

A closer look at the Shop House will reveal mostly tired and dirty ornate plaster work (blackened by the exhaust fumes) and you will see basic structures, corrugated roofs, no side windows, shuttered frontages. Look inside and you will find courtyards, wells (yes inside the house), ornate carved wood, windowless windows. Reminiscent of a wild west saloon town most of it is tired, bare and dirty, people live simply here and that’s what makes it so special. It’s like you’re the first to stumble across it, the first to have seen it for 100 years, a secret that you’ve discovered, a magic garden without the flowers and concreted over!

Alleyways reveal disused villas, buzzing overhead cables reveal you should wear rubber souled shoes, renovated mansions sit alongside art galleries and old ladies make children's school wear with a sewing machine my Gran had in 1955. Some people smile at you interested, some just ignore you as though you are an everyday item. One friendly café owner, on leaving his café, gave me a banana (not bad seeing the meal cost less than a £1 including a coke), well I guess they're used to foreigners here or at least the buildings certainly are.

The designs stem from the Asian tin mining immigrants from Malaysia. Penang is the same and that's where the Portugese plaster work comes in as well as British influence. You can thank the Dutch for the shape where your shop would be taxed on its frontage width. So these are small on the outside and big on the inside (some being up to 50 meters deep)! But hey, this isn't Dutch or British, Portuguese, Malaysian or Thai come to that - it's Phuket - 'Phuketish', and it’s somehow managed to create it’s own look and feel in a small tightly cropped area. Which is another thing what makes it so special, there’s not to much to walk around yet plenty to keep you interested.
It’s a culture shock away from the corporate logos of ‘normal’ high streets. It’s cool, no it’s hot, it’s different, it’s the best of Barcelona, it’s the best of Bath, it’s the best of Paris, but 20 years ago, smaller and a bit shitty – in a good way.
© Steve Tothill May 2008

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