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 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.