Recently, in an explosion of colourful fabrics, a firework display of wildly colourful outfits, the grandest generation of a very fancy culture threw a party for themselves in Phuket Town, and you were not invited. ‘The only true aristocracy of Phuket’ – the Baba ladies – were having their very posh and private annual shindig.
These grande dames are the descendants of the tin mining barons, many still living in the villas you see among the prettiest of the old Phuket Town streets, hidden by high walls, high trees and the scent of frangipani, the surviving line of those old moguls and of serious old money.
It was the visual splendour of the Baba ladies that was on display. Gathered annually by Ajarn Pranee, each year threatening to be the last, they show off their finery and applaud each other’s sparkly outfits, the basic one a batik sarong topped with a ‘yaya’ blouse. But there’s nothing basic about ’em, vividly coloured and embroidered at great expense.
The history of the Baba ladies in Phuket is a fascinating tale of cultural fusion, entrepreneurship and resilience. These women are descendants of Chinese immigrants who settled in Phuket during the 19th century and married local Thai women. Their unique heritage, combining Chinese, Thai and Malay influences, has shaped the cultural landscape of Phuket and left a lasting impact on the island.
The origins of the Baba community can be traced back to the Fujian province in southern China. In the 19th century, many Chinese immigrants from this region were drawn to Phuket due to the flourishing tin mining industry. These immigrants brought with them their traditions, customs and entrepreneurial spirit.
The Baba ladies, also known as Peranakan women, played a vital role in the development of Phuket’s economy. They were involved in various businesses, including trading, banking, and real estate. Their entrepreneurial skills and financial acumen contributed significantly to the growth and prosperity of Phuket.
One of the key industries that the Baba ladies were involved in was tin mining. Phuket was rich in tin deposits, and the mining industry provided abundant opportunities for economic growth.
The Baba ladies actively participated in this industry, managing mining operations and trade networks.
Apart from their business ventures, the Baba ladies also played a crucial role in preserving and promoting their cultural heritage. They maintained their unique customs, clothing, language, and cuisine, creating a distinctive identity that set them apart from both the Chinese and Thai communities.
The clothing of the Baba ladies is particularly noteworthy. They wear the traditional ‘Nyonya kebaya’, a tight-fitting blouse with intricate embroidery, paired with a sarong.
The Baba ladies take great pride in their attire, which reflects their cultural heritage and elegance. Their clothing is often adorned with accessories such as beaded slippers and jewelry.
Language is another essential aspect of the Baba culture.
The Baba ladies speak a unique language known as ‘Baba Malay’. This language is a fusion of Malay, Chinese Hokkien and Thai. Although it is gradually declining in usage, some community members still speak Baba Malay, preserving this linguistic treasure.
Cuisine is yet another significant element of the Baba culture. The Baba ladies are renowned for their culinary skills, which fuse Chinese and Thai flavours. Their food is a delightful mix of aromatic herbs, spices and ingredients that tantalize the taste buds. Some popular dishes include ‘Baba-Nyonya laksa’, a spicy noodle soup, ‘Peranakan chicken curry’, and ‘Kueh pie tee’, bite-sized pastry cups filled with a savoury mixture of vegetables and prawns.
As time went on, the Baba community faced challenges and changes. Modernisation, urbanisation, and globalisation brought new influences and opportunities to Phuket. The younger generation of Baba ladies began to embrace Western education, careers and lifestyles. This shift led to a gradual decline in the traditional Baba way of life.
However, the Baba ladies and their cultural heritage have not been forgotten. Efforts are being made to preserve and celebrate their unique legacy. Cultural organisations and associations have been established to promote Baba Peranakan traditions, language and cuisine.
Phuket also hosts various cultural events and festivals that showcase the Baba ladies’ customs and attire. These events attract visitors from around the world, allowing them to experience the vibrant Baba culture first hand.
Today, the Baba ladies continue to be an integral part of Phuket’s cultural diversity. They are proud custodians of their heritage and play an essential role in preserving and passing on their traditions to future generations.
The history of the Baba ladies in Phuket is a testament to the resilience, adaptability and entrepreneurial spirit of this community. Their fusion of Chinese, Thai and Malay influences has created a unique cultural heritage that is cherished and celebrated. The Baba ladies have left an indelible mark on Phuket’s history, economy and cultural landscape, and their legacy continues to be honoured and embraced.
Now in their 70s, they know that the next generation may well prefer ripped jeans.
But these ladies will be damned if their fine Baba Culture is going without a fight. And a party.