Baba Nyonya culture in Penang and Phuket


In maritime trading areas, cultural and family ties tend to spread along coastlines and concentrate at townships and ports. The evident similarities in language and cultural practices in Penang and Phuket are a case in point. Khoo Salma Nasution explores the rapport between Malaysia’s north-western coast and Thailand’s south-western coast which stretches beyond national borders and political time.

When I First walked down Thalang Road in Tongkah, the old town of Phuket, several years ago, I was reminded of the streets of Penang. Thalang Road is lined with shop houses, fronted by five-footways, in a style which the Thais call “Sino-Portuguese” but which we know to have originated in the British Straits Settlements.

The women in the short blouses and sarongs resembled the Penang Nyonya. When I peeked into the shop houses and ang-moh lau (mansions), I saw the grandma and grandpa portraits hanging high up on the screens of the front halls. The women in those portraits were attired like Penang Nyonya – mid-length long-sleeved blouse (tng sar, baju panjang) fastened with a set of brooches (kerosang).

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