To view photos of the food and people of Trang Province, click here.
If the century-old chairs in the Yu Chiang coffee shop could talk, they would have so many stories to tell.
Those chairs, made of teak cut from the jungles of Trang Province, are twisted from age. So are many customers that sit in them. The shop's cool marble tabletops, slowly polished by commerce, lean this way and that. Look up, and the entire structure looks like it might fall upon you, mid-sip. But the ceiling fans still spin, and the tiny woodstove in the corner cranks out pots of lightening-strong raan kopi--coffee so thick and rich it looks like topsoil in a glass.
The Chinese-ness of Trang has mixed with the easy spirituality and social grace of Thailand, so much that it is now difficult to separate the two.
Over those hundred-odd years, this shophouse in Thailand's south has helped kick-start Chinese lives. Immigrants began to arrive in Trang in large numbers in the mid-nineteenth century: the Hokkien miners, the Hakka bankers, and the merchants from Teochew (Chaozhou). Mostly male, those first Chinese trafficked in whatever they could gather from this spur of fertile earth.
As I sat in that shop, I thought about how I'd chased the Chinese diaspora across Southeast Asia over the past year, by following a trail of food. At first it was unintentional--I was nudged along by simple interest, and guided by familiarity with that culture. But now it has become a focal point of many stories I write here, because the enduring traditions of these communities sheds light on a China nearly disappeared.
In Trang Province--a mountainous, mostly rural place that is closer to Kuala Lumpur than Bangkok--I came across striking examples of old China. Like in the town of Kan Tang, a faded port where Thailand's first rubber trees were planted in 1899. Facing the open sea there is a Chinese community center, and an engraving in its keystone reads: "Built in the twentieth year of The Republic of China."
The walls of that wood building are haunted by monochrome photographs of men, staring intensely into nowhere. Some wore slicked, parted hair and three-piece suits, while others sported the wispy beards and Mandarin collars of Ming Dynasty poets. Beneath those photos, Kan Tang locals spooned spicy Southern Thai curries onto rice, bought from a vendor who sets up there each day.
In this way, the Chinese-ness of Trang has mixed with the easy spirituality, social grace, and food culture of Thailand so much that it is now difficult to separate the two. And there is no better place to experience this phenomenon than in one of Trang's aging coffee shops.
Yu Chiang, mentioned above, was first opened to feed the large Hokkien population in Trang. Many migrated here from Penang and other parts of Malaysia, while others were shuttled south on trade ships from the Mainland. The shop has changed hands three times over the years, but according to the owner, Thanu, the food (along with the chairs and the tables) has remained just the same.
And because this is Chinese food, that means pork. Whole pigs, in fact, whose insides are scored and rubbed in a mixture of five spice, garlic, and sugar and then left to dry for a day in the sun. The spices take hold inside the pig, and then it is roasted, displayed, and chopped in front of the shop. Within, the meat is heavily spiced and sweet like a Chinese sausage, while the outer layer of meat and skin is simply salted.
This roast pork (moo yang) is the cornerstone of a Chinese-style breakfast in Trang, where it's usually eaten on toothpicks. It's a fitting meal for the miners and rubber tappers that once settled here, but a heavy one for a writer who eats all day.
The coffee that accompanies it is similar to that of Malaysia's kopi tiams. It's dark and dense with a chocolate malt character. When this locally-grown, mainly robusta brew is softened with sweet condensed milk, it tastes like a liquid Tootsie Roll. But the dim sum that's served in dozens of Trang coffee shops didn't come from the south--it's strictly Cantonese.
I visited one with Pete Panichgul, 65, who was born in Trang but spent the better part of three decades in America opening Thai restaurants in places like Clearwater and Omaha. Pete got his start cooking in a PX at the Udon Thani Air Base during the Vietnam War. His son, Thakoon Panichgul, is one of Michelle Obama's favorite designers, he proudly explained over breakfast.
That morning, our dim sum arrived in multitudes--plates of fried dough, fish balls, shrimp dumplings, crab claws, steamed rice cakes and sweet custard buns. You eat which ones you want, and the rest is collected and fed to someone else. Dim sum cookery is among the trickiest in the Chinese repertoire, and I'm afraid to report that over the years some of its delicacy may have been lost between Canton and Trang.
But my final Chinese breakfast there was nearly perfect. I ate a simple bowl of rice porridge (khaotom) in Trang's bustling morning market. This market spills over with shoppers just after sunrise buying fresh produce, chatting, and dutifully snacking. I ate at a three-stool stand operated by a second-generation Hokkien woman named Mrs. Fong, who even spoke some dusty Mandarin.
Mrs. Fong serves her steaming bowls of rice porridge with a colorful array of condiments: salted duck eggs, crunchy fried anchovies, sweetly pickled ginger, and braised tofu in a fermented soybean sauce. These are arranged in delicate porcelain cups. A thick iced coffee was slapped down next to me without asking, and I took a sip as I mixed the fresh ingredients into my soupy rice.
"Write down your name for me!" Mrs. Fong asked as I slowly ate, savoring each bite. She handed me a scrap of paper and a pencil. I obliged, and as she held my Chinese name up close to her face, she furrowed her brow under the fluorescent lights. She giggled and shook her head, unable to make out my scratchy, simplified Chinese script.
After all, the Communists had modified China's traditional writing system following the founding of the People's Republic. And that was in 1956.