Suchada Chanchuwanichkul or ‘Khun Su’ is renowned as one of the best Baba cultural-style dressed Phuketians. She receives a lot of compliments for her charming and tasteful style of dressing. Here, she talks about her enthusiasm for traditional Baba dress code and her role in continuing this tradition through to future generations.
How did you become interested in local Baba attire?
It all started when I was young, when I saw my auntie dressed in batik sarongs and lace blouses. In my mind it was very beautiful and I wanted to look like her. And again when I grew up one of my friend’s moms really impressed me with her Baba-style clothes so I made my mind to dress the same way when the time came, so to speak. So in about 2001, I decided to open our motorcycle outlet ‘Namsang’ here in the Phuket Old Town and I used to dress in this way on some occasions but not every day. My neighbours got so used to my traditional look that when I didn’t, they’d ask why I wasn’t wearing Baba clothes! I then got the feeling that the Baba traditional style might suit me best and that wearing this combination became the reason that I loved to shop around batik shops in Phuket Town and to dress in Baba style from then on.
The special of Baba costume
The charm of the high collared gathered-in shirts is the result of blending between three cultures. Its high collar or mandarin collar is from the Chinese culture, while the gathered cuffs is an influence from India, while batik sarongs are from Malaysia so the combination looks dignified and polite. Nowadays, this Baba style high-collar cuffed gathered-in shirts interests both Thais and foreigners. It’s a good opportunity for visitors to experience dressing up in Baba style to enjoy photo shots in the Old Town of Phuket.
About Baba Dress
Traditional Baba style dress can be categorized into three to four styles. The first is to wear a high collared gathered-in shirt with a batik sarong. The next is to wear a Nyonya-style kebaya with a batik sarong. Nyonya’s kebayas can also be subdivided into three types; some of them are embellished lace, some of them are adorned with special cutworks and some of them show the beauty of their flower embroidery or of auspicious animals. During World War II, some 70 years ago, imported fabrics were difficult to find. Kebaya’s popular subsequently dropped and lace fabric started to replace them. Local Babas therefore turned to customized lace blouses with necklines tailored to wearer‘s favourites whether they be V-necks, round-necks or square-necks.
Apart from beautiful dresses, traditional Baba accessories are also important. Baba ladies in Phuket or nearby Takuapa in adjacent Phang Nga Province wear accessories from head to toe. Ladies from wealthy families put their hair up with ornate hairpins when they go out and brides wear a special flowered crown called a hwa kuan along with necklaces which locals call lan te pai. Baba ladies also wear earrings and diamond-shape rings called bayeh. For special or important events, ladies put rings on eight fingers or even more. Some also wear anklets. Kim toon are buttons made from foreign coins fashioned into pendants in phoenix or dragon shapes over the traditional high-collared shirt. There is also a coffee-bean like necklace which was quite popular for Baba ladies for a while. Pin tang takes a round shape with the rays of the sun used as a kebaya broach or pendant.
How do you help promote Baba style dressing?
Whenever I wear them, everyone who meets me loves it! I also encourage my friends to wear this style too. I give them advice about which and what colours match; how to choose the colour of the shirts or kebayas according to the batik sarongs and how to make the most of the combinations. If I happen to meet tourists or anyone interested in our traditional costumes, I explain it all to them and tell them where to buy the best products along with as much advice as I can.
How do you expect to see Baba costumes in the future?
I hope to see more Baba locals or those who residing in Phuket start wearing Baba costumes… either the shirt or kebaya with a batik sarong. The traditional costume is actually easy to wear and it’s beautiful. If we wear them more, it can help attract tourists and stimulate the local economy.
For those interested in dressing in traditional costumes, where can they buy them?
If anyone is interested in traditional costumes, whether they be shirts, kebayas or lace blouses I’d definitely recommend a visit to Thalang Road in Phuket Old Town. There are many shops that sell ready-to-wear dresses, blouses and sarongs. You can also order tailor-made clothes there. Different shops have their own specialties and sell different styles of batik sarongs. Some shops import batik from Indonesia and Malaysia which both have their own unique styles. Please make sure you buy batiks made from 100% cotton which cost around 300 baht or more. Those at lower prices usually mix cotton with polyester that are sometimes difficult to wear and not as beautiful as they claim to be.
Suchada Chanchuwanichkul is currently the Managing Director of Phuket Namsang Co., Ltd, with seven branches of Honda bike shops in Phuket. She is also a subcommittee member of Pracharath Rak Samakkee Phuket (Social Enterprise) Co., Ltd. and a former president of the Old Phuket Foundation.
‘Baba’ is a term to designate males born with Chinese and Malayan mixed blood in Malaysia and Indonesia together with ‘Nyonya’ – half-Chinese Malaysian females. However, for Phuket locals we usually call half Chinese – both males and females – ‘Baba’ or ‘Peranakan’.
***Thank you VR.Phuket and Torakan, two of the best fabric shops in Phuket for beautiful shot.
VR. Phuket – ID line: vrphuket102
Trakan – ID line: Torakan+66843053960