These Chinese mine owners were often also the office bearers of the local triads, known as “Angyee” in Siam. The Chinese, who vastly outnumbered the Siamese police and natives in Phuket at that time, became increasingly aggressive towards the government and demanded a tax reduction.
A letter in the Thai national archives from the period shows that the Siamese Department of Defence foresaw trouble, warning that “Phaya Phuket is not able to follow through on governing, he cannot gain the respect of the Chinese … The Chinese often offend and insult the governor of Phuket. It is recommended that more troops and weapons be sent to Phuket.”
The Chinese miners in Ranong encountered similar problems. It is said that the coolies in Ranong were already so tightly squeezed that they referred to the town as “a great pit, easy to fall into but impossible to get out [of]. In 1876 these frustrated Ranong coolies started rioting and a Thai source tells us that in that year some “oppressed” miners, “primarily from China … rose up against the governor, other officials and mine operators.” It appears that some 600 miners, allegedly Hakkas from the Gee Hin triad, though other sources say they were Hokkien from the Kian Teck, went on a rampage.
They killed some Siamese army guards at the Burmese border and 21 people in the town, including government officials and other Chinese miners. The town was then ransacked and the outlying areas were also attacked and pillaged. Most locals resorted to their time-honoured response and fled off into the jungle. Things eventually calmed down when the Siamese naval gunboat the Murathavissawat, with a detachment of Siamese marines, arrived from Phuket.
Some of these Ranong rioters fleeing from potential punishment then went down to Phuket to seek support from the more numerous Hokkien Kien Teck triad members there. The military commissioner of Phuket at the time, Chum Bunnag, ordered a second Siamese gunboat to Phuket. When it arrived, some of the Siamese sailors, allegedly drunk, came ashore and got into a fight with some Chinese miners. The local British police chief of Phuket at the time, a Captain Webber, arrived with his men and arrested two of the Chinese miners. Soon around 300 choleric coolies gathered at the Phuket Town police station to demand the release of their two compatriots.
The duo was set free in an attempt to calm the angry mob, but the Chinese, with their blood now up, started attacking government offices and, by that evening, the riot had escalated to the point that some 2,000 coolies had joined in and were burning and looting all over Phuket Town. Some say over a hundred people were killed in these riots – mostly the victims of Chinese infighting – and most of the locals fled, many heading south with their valuables to the safety of Wat Chalong.
Phaya Wichitsongkran’s mansion in town was attacked and ransacked and the governor himself had had to flee off the island to Kao Te See in Phang Nga.
Southwest Siam was notably lawless because the often fractious and better-armed Chinese immigrants usually hopelessly outnumbered the police. Chum Bunnag, the military commissioner, eventually came to Phuket Town to meet the Chinese clan leaders there.
They had three main demands:
First, the government must suspend the heavy taxation, until the tin price rose. Secondly, the government must allow them to grow marijuana and export it for extra income. Thirdly, the government must grant an amnesty to the rioters.
Chum Bunnag agreed to these terms and promised to “improve living conditions to benefit the local people and ensure peace and prosperity for all.” The local Chinese leaders were either not convinced by the commissioner’s promises, or had no real control over the situation, as the riots and lawlessness went on for another month. Many more people, mainly Chinese, were killed and many of the remaining businesses and some homes in town were sacked and looted. The province was said, in one Siamese report, to be “lost to the government.”
This was of grave concern to Bangkok, not least because the government knew that such disorder could give the British a good pretext to move in and take over Phuket – Britain had just used the mining wars in Pahang in Malaysia as an excuse to advance their power into that state.
The military commissioner, Chum Bunnag, ordered more troops up from Keddah and from the southern division military headquarters at Nakorn Sri Thammarat. When these extra troops arrived, the fighting and rioting were suppressed. The head monk of Wat Chalong – Luang Pho Chaem – brokered a fragile peace. He had sheltered many of the terrified residents of the island and on one occasion had managed to hold off a cantankerous mob of Chinese coolies who wanted to attack the refugees in Wat Chalong to get at their riches and loot. He is held in the greatest esteem by the people of Phuket today.
All through 1876, however, rioting continued in sporadic outbreaks. Bangkok ceded to all the concessions demanded by the local Chinese towkays. They also gave sweeteners to some of the leading triad bosses, such as Tan Jao, Tan Gaik Tham’s son, who was the leader of the Hokkien triad. He was given a royal title and awarded the lucrative monopoly for the distribution of opium in Phuket.
In 1878, after the governor of Krabi was suspiciously assassinated, Tan Jao was also allowed to operate the Krabi province tax farm. An amnesty was also granted because, as one Siamese lord in Bangkok noted, “If the government wished to prosecute the rioters it would be difficult since they are so many in numbers. If the government became too forceful they may threaten another riot.” This restrained and conciliatory reaction, plus Siam’s beefed-up military presence, eventually restored order in Phuket. But this came at a cost, as Chum Bunnag later wrote: “Henceforward since the Thai government has no power to punish Chinese people, the Chinese are the most powerful people in the kingdom … please consider this carefully.”
Phaya Wichitsongkran eventually came back to Phuket but decided not to live among the Chinese any longer. He built a new fortified house in Tharua, further from the massed Chinese and nearer to his boat in Tharua Harbour, in effect living rather as the earlier European traders had lived – near an escape route to his boat. The remains of his great fortified house in Tharua, dating to the late 1870’s, is one of Phuket’s oldest extant buildings and is a public park and historical site today.
The Angyee riots of 1876 marked a turning point in the political power on the island, with power moving from the older hereditary Na Nakorn and other Siamese lordly families to the now richer and more numerous Chinese. This process was tempered and helped by later judicious intermarriages between the two groups. More on that in future issues.
Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Amazon.com. Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at: historyofphuket.com