Away from the beaches and nightlife of the west coast of Phuket, the pace of life is different. This is especially true of the island’s capital, Phuket City, the center of commerce and of much of the islanders’ culture.
A delightful slice of that culture will be on show on June 20 and 21 when the local Peranakan Association organises its seventh annual Baba mass wedding.
The Peranakan culture has its roots in the Chinese who began migrating to the Malay Peninsula 600 years ago. Over the centuries, Phuket was one of five cities (the others being Singapore, Melaka, Medan and Penang) where the immigrants assimilated the local Malay culture – in many cases marrying into it – creating a unique Sino-Malay culture of their own.
Peranakans speak of themselves and their culture as “Baba-Nyonya” – Baba being the men and Nyonya the women – or simply as “Baba”.
They form a powerful grouping in Southeast Asia, with commercial and family links giving them regional influence. In Phuket, many of the major trading houses are Perenakan. So are Somjai Suwansupana, the Mayor of Phuket City Municipality, and her deputy, Dr Kosol Taengutai.
Dr Kosol was one of the founders of the Peranakan Association and is heavily involved in the Baba mass wedding, the biggest public display of Peranakan culture.
“It’s a freshening-up of an old tradition,” he explains. “The objective of this association is not [primarily to boost] tourism. Primarily it is to conserve our culture.
“The Baba community is one of many communities in Phuket. Phuket is, of course, an island and people came (and still come) from many places to visit or to stay. So we have a good mix here in Phuket – everyone here is of mixed blood.”
He explains that the physical preparations of the mass wedding take about two weeks, which includes design and decoration of the brides’ and grooms’ “houses”, and especially the food. “For this ceremony,” he says, “We need to have special food to create harmony.”
At the center of the ceremonies, of course, are the couples who will “marry”. There is a limit of 10 couples chosen on a first-come-first-served basis. Most come from Peranakan backgrounds in one or other of the five cities, but past Baba mass weddings have also seen Mainland Chinese, Japanese and European couples taking part.
It’s not free – each couple must pay B39,900, but this includes the ornate wedding costumes, hairdressing and make-up, the banquets, transport and three nights’ romantic luxury accommodation.
On the first day (June 20 this year) the couples all meet for orientation at the Sukko Spa, just south of town, and also meet their um lang.
In the old days the um lang, all women, were the matchmakers, but for the Baba wedding the matches have already been made, so the um lang serve as guides and advisers to the couples.
“Each couple will be assigned two um Lang,” Dr Kosol explains. “Normally we select them from among the elders in our community.
“At the Sukko Spa everything is explained to them, what will happen and when. After the orientation, which takes around two hours, we take the couples to Wat Chalong to pay their respects to [the revered 19th Century monk] Luang Pho Chaem.
“After that we normally go to the famous Phromthep Cape, for beautiful sunset group pictures before returning to Sukko Spa and from there to the couples’ resort.”
Day two begins right after breakfast with the couples being dressed. The clothing is traditional, with the styles worn by local wealthy Chinese in the 19th Century. For the brides, the dressing, hairdressing and make-up can take as long as two hours.
The grooms, meanwhile, are taken to their “house” where they wait for word of the brides being ready in theirs.
When the word comes, the grooms make their way in a colorful procession through the streets of the old town, usually starting at about 1pm.
They are accompanied by hundreds of local people dressed to impress in their finest silks and traditional gold jewellery, by children carrying flowers and by musicians playing traditional Chinese music.
“At the brides’ house,” Dr Kosol says, “the grooms escort the brides outside to tables where they play board games and then escort them back into the house for the most important marriage ceremony, known as Phang Teh – the traditional tea ceremony where the couples serve tea to their elders and close family members.
“At this time all their relatives and friends have the opportunity to give the couples the red envelopes that represent prosperity and normally contain money, gold or small pieces of jewellery.”
After the tea ceremony is over, the couples go in procession through the streets of the old town, with locals handing them bouquets of flowers or showering them with petals from balconies above. It’s a big, noisy, colorful procession, and attracts thousands of onlookers and well-wishers.
“The Baba wedding, of course, also belongs to the public,” Dr Kosol explains, “so it needs to be shared with all inhabitants. After the procession, everyone stops at the Thai Hua Museum [on Krabi Rd] for photographs and video.”
The final event of the two-day festival is a gala dinner for the couples, their relatives and the organizers at 75 Wichitsongkram Rd , one of the city’s big Sino-Colonial mansions. This is a private house, the Baba Wedding being the only occasion in the year when the house is open to members of the public. After dinner everyone is entertained with traditional shows.
After that, the couples are taken to their resort to enjoy the rest of their time as they see fit. The Baba Wedding is over for another year.
The Baba Wedding is a popular event, Mayor Somjai says. “We have the local community’s full support. The older people, especially, love this event and support us a lot,” she says. “We couldn’t do it without their help.”
The Phuket Peranakan Association is currently renovating the old Standard Chartered Bank building on Phang Nga Rd, which will become a Baba museum including, of course, a display of traditional Baba clothing.
The Baba Wedding ensures that Phuket’s Peranakan culture will not be confined to the museum, but will remain a living and vibrant part of the island’s character.