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.