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Tin and Colonization

The island of Phuket has been well known amongst sea farers since 1800 years ago in the name of Junk Ceylon. In the era of Ayuddhaya, the Siamese (Thai) authority called this island Thalang. The name Phuket first appeared in the official documentation in Year 1785.

In the past, ships from many nations such as Persia and India travelled in and out of this island due to the hospitable geography of the island which has a mountain range to protect the island from monsoons and flourished forests full of wild fruits.

It is evidenced that 400 years ago, in the middle of the Ayuddhaya era, tin mining began having its importance over the lives of the people of Thalang.

Tin was a commodity highly sought after by contemporary Europeans. They mixed it with copper to create bronze. They then used bronze to mint coins, jewels and statues. Thanks to the European demand on tin, tin mining in the region became booming. The villagers traded the tin for various goods such as Camphor oil, opium, weapons and tools from the European traders – according to a 300 year old record of Mr Veret, a French merchant.

In Year 1583, Portugal was the first nation to have a major role in tin trading. It used its political clout and military prowess to try to monopolize the tin trading business. Yet, it eventually failed.

40 years after that the Dutch, having an intimate relationship with the Siamese authority during the reign of Prachao Songtham of Ayuddhaya, were given the rights to use the government’s inventories and monopolize the tin trading business on Thalang island. During that time, everybody in Thalang had no choice but sell tin to the Dutch East India Company. Later, the Dutch merchants had conflicts with the villagers which escalated into battles. Eventually, in 1671, the Dutch merchants decided to leave Thalang Island.

During the reign of Narai the Great of Ayuddhaya, Siam had a good diplomatic relationship with France. The king of France during that time was Louise XIV. France came in to balance the influence of the Netherlands, which had been expanding her influence throughout South East Asia. A Frenchman by the name Mr Rene Chabonno was appointed the mayor of Thalang and dubbed “Phraya Surintharacha” by the king. Chabonno then began making an attempt to let the French monopolize the tin trading business in the island.

However, the attempt was stalled by the change in the regime. After King Narai passed away and King Phra Phetracha succeeded in 1698, King Phra Phetracha did not favor the French as did his predecessor, so he did not allow such monopolization. After making some more failed attempts, the French eventually conceded and backed off

The Chinese changed the face of Phuket

The cultures of Phuket that we experience nowadays, including the architecture, cuisine, costumes, lifestyle and traditions, are all dominated by the Chinese culture.

The question is “When did the Chinese begin their influx into Phuket?”

To answer this question, we have to look back into the mid of the 19th century when some scientists discovered that tin can be used to coat iron to prevent rusting. Since then, the demand of tin coated iron for food canning surged in Europe. At that time, Britain established the Asian headquarter of English East India in Penang – making Penang the center of tin trading in Asia. This boosted the tin trading business of the whole region to the next level. This change in the market coupled with the fact that the Thai authority no longer monopolized the tin trading business and allowed ordinary people to mine and sell tin freely, the tin production surged.

The surge in the demand of tin during that time caused a severe labor shortage in Phuket. As a result, the mayor of Phuket at that time began sourcing 300 Chinese laborers from Bangkok and a large number of Chinese from Penang. Most of the Chinese who came to Phuket spoke Hokkien as their mother tongue.

These Chinese then asked their friends and families to join them, and that caused the influx of Chinese into the island.

A vast number of Chinese from the South of China, e.g. those from Fujian (Hokkien), Guangdong and Hainan, who had access to the sea, migrated to South East Asia.

These overseas Chinese migrants fled from their homeland due to the stagnant economy, civil war and natural catastrophes for better opportunities in life. These Chinese migrants could be categorized into two categories – freewill migrants and indentured laborers (coolies).

Many of these Chinese coolies were sent from China to Penang before being distributed to other places such as Phuket and Medan, Indonesia. These Chinese were registered and marked on their body in order to prevent absconding.

The Chinese Protectorate Report Of 1881, indicated the severity of labor condition. Chinese coolies usually worked for 360 days a year with wages varying from $30 to $40. For new immigrants or sinkeh, the cost of passage was first deducted from their wages.

The land rich of tin provided opportunities to the dwellers of Phuket to stably accumulate wealth, especially to the Chinese migrants who were already hardworking and business-minded. Many Chinese coolies changed their statuses from coolie to entrepreneur. Many became millionaires. Some of them came from Penang and some directly from China. Most of them are Hokkien.

What’s the scope of Phuket Old Town community?

The Chinese community in Phuket Old Town covers many streets. The center of the town is Thalang Road and Krabi Road. The town has expanded to cover Dibuk Road, Ranong Road, Yaowarach Road, Rasada Road, Satul Road, Phuket Road and part of Thepkasatri Road.

Altars are often found in front of houses in these streets.

If you go a bit into the house, you’ll find an even bigger altar which has the Buddha statue and Taoist divine statues on it.

On the left of the altar, you’ll find signs representing the spirits of the ancestors of the family.

The front door is often engraved with beautiful patterns which imply good meanings such as.

Many houses in the old town have interesting history which attracts visitors to take photos as souvenirs on their trips to Phuket

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