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Phuket is a multicultural island with a large ethnic Chinese community. The Thai Hua Museum chronicles the journey of Chinese migrants to Phuket during the 1800s tin-mining era and their subsequent influence on the region’s culture and commerce.
Housed in a former Chinese school built in 1934, the museum’s exhibitions are a mix of old photographs, illustrations and descriptions in Thai and English. The original immigration papers of some of the island’s migrants are also on display.
Attractively laid out and informative, the museum also doesn’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of Phuket’s history including bits about the Angyee, or secret Chinese mafia groups who helped orchestrate workers’ rebellions in the late 1800s, and the opium trade, complete with a life-sized statue of a pipe-smoking addict.
There are a few puzzling omissions here, like a display about the school’s history, with a paragraph that reads, “With regards to political reasons in 1941, all Chinese Language Schools’ licenses were revoked and the building was neglected for 6 years.” No further elaboration on these “political reasons” is provided.
This was, of course, during World War II when Phuket was occupied by the Japanese for a time, but there is no mention of this at Thai Hua Museum. Insight into this forced school closure and what went on in Phuket during wartime now seem lost to history.
Other rooms provide a good overview of the Chinese cultural influences, including one that features locally known artists of puppet theatre, calligraphy and sculpting. Another display is all about clothing, and how Phuket attire blended Thai and Chinese fashions, as well as the Baba (Straits Chinese) style seen across Southeast Asia. The infamous Phuket Vegetarian Festival is explained, as well as the Por Tor festival and various Phuket-Chinese beliefs and ceremonies including marriage and death rituals.
One large room focuses on the origins and contents of Phuket cuisine including its famed khanom jeen noodles. We’d highly recommend visiting this display before venturing out to the Phuket streets, where you’ll find all of these dishes still being served at many local shops.
Given that the museum is funded by private foundations run by some of Phuket’s most prominent Chinese descendants, it’s understandable that one section, the “Patronage Room”, is devoted entirely to the history of eight families who are still major players in business and politics in Phuket and the Andaman region.
The descriptions of the men who arrived from China and built their wealth in Phuket are rather hagiographic (two are described as being the “God of Tin” and “Creator of Palm Kingdom”, for example), but they do give you a good idea about how the show’s run here on the island.
Thai Hua Museum offers an enlightening, if not complete, place to learn more about Phuket history and how it’s been shaped by its Chinese migrants. And, unlike most museums we’ve seen in Phuket, which exude a certain dusty neglect, it’s well maintained and modern.
With a lot of panels to read and few interactive displays, young children may not get much out of this museum. If travelling with kids, you might prefer to just wander the Old Town streets nearby to experience the thriving Chinese culture still evident in the mansions, shrines, shops and restaurants of the area.
By Lana Willocks
Last updated on 1st February, 2015.