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  • Spencer Low

How a distinctive Southeast Asian architectural style started with the Portuguese in Phuket

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

I had the pleasure of spending last weekend in Phuket, Thailand. Reading about things to do, I came across the fact that Old Phuket Town, which predates today's tourist complexes, is famous for its Sino-Portuguese architecture.

Looking at the iconic townhouses, I quickly realized that this Sino-Portuguese style was essentially the same as the Peranakan architecture famous in Singapore and Malaysia and even brought to Amoy (Xiamen) in Fujian, China where they're known as 骑楼 (qí lóu). I had always thought this particular blend of Asian and European building design originated in the British Straits Settlements, especially given the colloquial name of lima kaki ('five feet' in Malay) for the covered five-foot wide passage that connects the storefronts of shophouses built in this style.

As it turns out, it was the Portuguese who contributed the European elements, in particular the building structure. Starting from the 16th century, Portuguese settlers in Malacca and Phuket employed Chinese workers to build their houses and establishments. These structures naturally mixed Portuguese and Chinese art styles together, and when some of the Chinese and Peranakan in Phuket became wealthy in the 1900s from tin-mining, they had their houses built in the same style.

Particularly well-preserved in Singapore, this architectural heritage is today highly valued, but the Portuguese contribution is not well known anymore.

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