At the top of Rang Hill sits a monument to Khaw Sim Bee Na-Ranong, allowing the legendary High Commissioner of Phuket to eternally survey the city and province he built.
Every day locals bring flowers to the monument paying respect to this wise and stern politician.
He is honoured as no other ruler in the history of the province and his portrait can still be found adorning shrines in many shophouses, restaurants and homes throughout Phuket.
From rags to riches
First off, it is worth mentioning that most Phuketians know Governor Khaw Sim Bee under a different name, or more correctly, a title.
Locals know him as Phraya Rassada. His original Chinese family name Khaw is more recognised on the island of Penang, where Khaw Sim Bee’s father Khaw Soo Cheang emigrated to from Fujian, China, in 1822.
Though being a poor Hokkien Chinese emigrant, Khaw Soo Cheang had a strong businesses mind and a knack for making a profit.
This side of his character lead him to Southern Thailand where tin mining was booming.
Starting from scratch Khaw’s business grew and grew and soon he was appointed Royal Collector of tin royalties and then granted the governorship of Ranong – one of very few foreigners to climb so high in the Siamese administration.
Khaw’s clan enjoyed respect and influence in Siam, Malaysia and on the island of Penang, which was a British colony in those days.
Khaw Sim Bee Na-Ranong was the youngest of his father’s six sons. Like his elder brothers, he inherited Khaw Soo Cheang’s administrative talent, which fully emerged in 1900 when the Siamese Government decided to merge several Andaman provinces into the so-called Monthon Phuket District and appointed Khaw Sim Bee to be the High Commissioner, bestowing upon him the lordly title of Phraya Rassada.
In the early 1900s Phuket did not look like a picture from a glamorous tourist brochure. Numerous tin mines were the only “destinations” on the island, a thick green canopy covered what is now Phuket Town and tigers still roamed freely in the jungle.
Phuket’s economy relied solely on the mining industry and mining was still being carried out with rudimentary sluice techniques that needed large amounts of labour but minimal technology.
Na-Ranong family’s wealth and power were directly linked with the that fortunes of the province and Phraya Rassada knew it well.
So the newly appointed head of Monthon Phuket started to make some sweeping reforms. He worked hard to build infrastructure on the island and specifically Phuket Town, which in those days was nothing more than a bunch of ramshackle buildings.
A single look at Phuket Old Town is enough to tell that Phraya Rassada used Penang’s George Town as a model of what he wanted his town to look like.
Phraya Rassada oversaw the construction of island’s first modern roads, hospitals, schools and even a cinema (the latest word in entertainment straight from Europe).
The Na-Ranong family also contributed greatly to developing the logistical connection between Phuket and Penang, the latter being the main regional trading hub.
Throughout his rule, Phraya Rassada had to balance people’s expectations, goals set by the Siamese Crown and the interest of foreign businesses that never ceased their attempts to enter and make profit in Phuket.
Ironically, the latter turned out to be non-voluntarily contributors to Phuket’s development, receiving the right to operate in the province only in exchange for investing in the island’s infrastructure.
Phraya Rassada is also often referred to as “The Father of Thai latex”. Being an acute businessman and politician, he was keenly aware of the dangers that Phuket’s tin-reliant economy was facing.
In the 1900s the tin market was as unstable as the oil market is today, so he came up with an alternative that would save the local economy – rubber.
Rubber tree planting was entirely new to Siam in those days and at first the idea faced strong opposition from the local population and officials alike.
Phraya Rassada had to use all of the Na-Ranong family influence to make his seed of an idea bear fruit, in every sense of the word.
Phraya Rassada almost single handedly created this new industry, so by the time the tin market collapsed Phuket had already been shipping growing amounts of rubber to George Town in Penang.
The tin ships then returned with furniture, cloths, pieces of art and luxury items all ending up for sale on Thalang Road in Phuket Town.
A shot rings out
Phraya Rassada Na-Ranong was a powerful, and in a sense, autocratic ruler and thus had many rivals and even enemies, including prominent foreign business figures.
It is not clear whether any of these players wished to actively dispose of the venerable Phraya Rassada, but one way or another his death came through violence.
Phraya Rassada was shot on Trang pier by a local man who suspected that the governor was having an affair with his wife.
The critically injured Phraya Rassada was transported back to Penang, where he died in May 1913. A street in George Town still bears the name of this legendary ruler of Phuket.
Adapted with permission from “A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region” by Colin Mackay. Available from local bookshops, Amazon.com and www.historyofphuket.com