The father of Phuket

Located in the northern part of Phuket Town, Rang Hill is one of the favorite places for locals looking for a reclusive hideaway to enjoy a cup of coffee with a view of the city under their feet. And this is where a monument dedicated to Kaw Sim Bee Na-Ranong is set, giving the legendary governor of Phuket a view of the city and the province that he played a significant role in establishing.

Every day, locals bring flowers to the monument to pay their respects to this wise and stern politician, who is honored like no other ruler in the history of the province.

From Rags to Riches

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First off, it’s worth mentioning that most Phuketians know governor Kaw Sim Bee under a different name, or rather a title. Locals prefer calling him Phraya Rassada Na-Ranong. This Chinese name is more common on the island of Penang, where Kaw Sim Bee’s father, Kaw Soo Cheang, moved from Fujian (China) in 1822. Though he was a poor Hokkien Chinese emmigrant, Khaw Soo Cheang had a strong businesses head. His entrepreneurial character lead him to Southern Thailand during the tin mining boom. Kaw’s business grew and soon he was appointed Royal Collector of tin royalties, and then granted governorship of Ranong, becoming the first foreigner to hold such a high position. Kaw’s clan enjoyed respect and influence in Siam and Malaysia, especially Penang, which was a British colony in those days. Kaw Sim Bee Na-Ranong was the youngest of Khaw Soo Cheang’s six sons, and like his older brothers, he inherited his father’s talent for business, which blossomed in 1900, when the Siamese government decided to merge several Andaman provinces into the so-called ‘Monthon Phuket’ district and Kaw Sim Bee was appointed Commissioner of the new administrative unit.

The Tin Rush

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In the early 1900s, Phuket was far from being the tropical paradise now pictured in glamorous tourist booklets. The only ‘destinations’ on the island were the numerous tin mines. What is now Phuket Town was then just jungle and there were just a few inhabited areas. Phuket’s economy relied solely on the mining industry and people of the time had little exposure to twentieth century technology. Na-Ranong family’s wealth and power we directly linked to the prosperity of the province, so the newly appointed head of Monthon Phuket began reforms. Phraya Rassada worked hard to modernize the island, specifically Phuket Town, which in those days was nothing more than a bunch of ramshackle buildings. It’s easy to see from the architecture of Old Phuket Town that Kaw Sim Bee drew on George Town in Penang as inspiration for developing Phuket’s commercial centre. As governor, Kaw Sim Bee oversaw the construction of island’s first modern roads, hospitals, schools and even a cinema, which at the time was a brand new entertainment experience straight from Europe. The Na-Ranong family also contributed greatly to developing logistic connections between Phuket and Penang, the latter being the region’s main trade hub. Throughout his governorship, Kaw Sim Bee had to strike a balance between people’s expectations, goals set by the Siamese Crown, and the foreign businesses interests eager to profit from Phuket. Ironically, the latter turned out to be involuntarily contributors to Phuket’s development, only earning their right to operate in the province in exchange for investing in the island.

The Rubber Revolution

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Governor Kaw Sim Bee is often referred to as “The Father of Thai latex”. Being an acute businessman and politician, Phraya Rassada foresaw the demise of the island’s tin-industry. By the 1900s, the world’s tin market was as unstable as the oil market is now, so the visionary governor began focusing on developing Phuket’s rubber industry; saving local economy. Rubber tree planting was a completely new concept to Siam in those days and Kaw Sim Bee faced strong opposition from local citizens and officials. He had to use all the Na-Ranong’s family power to make literally seed the fruits of the island’s future economy. In fact, he almost single-handedly created the new rubber industry so by the time the tin market collapsed, Phuket was already shipping increasing amounts of rubber to George Town. The tin ships were now returning with furniture, cloth, art and luxury items, which all ended up on Talang Road in Phuket Town.

And Then a Shot Rang Out

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As a powerful individual, the autocratic leadership of Governor Kaw Sim Be Na-Ranong naturally attracted foes and enemies, including prominent foreign business figures. It is not clear whether any of these players wished to get rid of Phraya Rassada but his life came to a violent end in 1913, when he was shot at Trang Pier by a local who suspected the governor was having an affair with his wife. Phraya Rassada died in Penang in May of that year, and one of the streets in George Town was named after the legendary ruler of Phuket.

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