Khaw Sim Bee and the NaRanong family: a shared history of Penang and southern Thailand

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Back in the days when political boundaries were fluid, business and family ties lived a life that crossed borders, enriching both sides. Bloodlines were crossed as well, as were cultural and language barriers. For the social economy of Penang and Phuket, the Khaw clan was a central player.

Penangites may recall catching a glimpse of a road sign bearing the name “Jalan Khaw Sim Bee” while passing Perak Road. This may very well be the only landmark in Penang reminding us of the Khaw family who once commanded a business empire of tin mining, rubber and shipping which straddled Penang and southern Siam.

The Khaw family history began with the emergence of one patriarch – Khaw Soo Cheang – who migrated to Penang from Zhangzhou, Fujian in 1822. Khaw started a vegetable farm in Sungai Tiram, near Bayan Lepas, but after several years of unfruitful endeavours on the island, he decided to venture into southern Siam to explore other opportunities such as tin mining as well as shipping and supplying workers to the west coast of Siam down to Penang. His business began to flourish and soon he was appointed the Royal Collector of tin royalties in the Ranong area. He was awarded the title “Luang Ratanasethi” for his honesty and loyalty to the King and made governor of Ranong, the first non-Thai to be granted such a high position in the Kingdom’s history.

Khaw Soo Cheang had six sons. The eldest, Khaw Sim Cheng, died long before his father passed away in 1882. The second son, Khaw Sim Kong succeeded him as the next governor before becoming Commissioner of the Monthon of Chumphon in 1896. The third son, Khaw Sim Chuah passed away in 1880 and was reportedly buried in Penang.

His fourth son, Sim Khim, became the governor of Kraburi and the fifth, Sim Teik, became governor of Langsuan. Khaw Sim Bee (1857-1913), the youngest and the most well-known among the siblings, was knighted as “Phraya Ratsadanupradit Mahisorn Phakdi” or “The Grand Cross of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant”, and became governor of Trang, and in 1900, Commissioner of Monthon Phuket or “greater Phuket circle” which included seven provinces: Phuket, Thalang, Ranong, Phang-Nga, Takuapa, Krabi and Satun.

Khaw Sim Bee almost single-handedly saved the economy of southern Siam by introducing rubber plantations at a time when the tin industry was hit by dwindling supplies and falling prices in the early 20th century. He started rubber tree planting in Trang and persuaded local officials to distribute rubber seeds to more farmers. Chinese immigrants who arrived in Phuket to work the tin mines switched to rubber tapping and in turn helped expand the local rubber industry. The rubber was exported through Penang’s port to meet the industrial demands of Britain. Khaw Sim Bee is remembered as the Father of the Rubber Industry in Thailand.

The Khaw family thus contributed to the development of the economy and the modernisation of the administration of southern Siam by introducing talent, technology and institutional innovations from Penang while resisting British political and economic encroachments into the southern hinterland. Their efforts did not go unnoticed, and the clan was given the noble title “Na Ranong” by the King of Siam after the death of Khaw Sim Bee.

In Penang, Khaw Soo Cheang founded Koe Guan Co. Ltd which grew to be one of the biggest shipping companies during the British Malaya era, plying between Penang and southern Siam. The family also pioneered the insurance industry in Malaya by founding the Khean Guan Insurance Company while holding interest in Tongkah Harbour Tin Dredging Co Ltd and Eastern Shipping Co Ltd.

The Khaw family left a legacy of beautiful mansions and landmarks in Penang. They owned two grand mansions which used to stand along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, i.e. Asdang House (site of current Mayfair condominium) and the sea-fronting Chakrabong House. Both were named after sons of King Chulalongkorn and became favourite venues for Siamese dignitaries and socialite activities.

In the eyes of the Thais, Penang at the turn of the 20th century was an advanced state administered well by the British authorities. To enhance the reputation of Siam, the Khaws donated a piece of prime real estate at the Esplanade to the people of Penang for public recreational purposes. Named Ranong Ground, it was the site of today’s Dewan Sri Pinang.

To commemorate the centenary of the death of Khaw Sim Bee who passed away in Penang on April 10, 1913, Penang Heritage Trust in collaboration with Think City, the Royal Thai Embassy and the Royal Thai Consulate- General Penang plans to organise the Penang Story Symposium on May 11 at E&O Hotel, with special focus on the Khaw Na Ranong family and the shared history of Malaysia and Thailand. A number of prominent speakers will be invited from both countries, including the main speaker, current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance of Thailand Kittirat Na Ranong, a direct descendant of Khaw Sim Kong. To continue the legacy of the Khaw Na Ranong family in promoting trade between Malaysia and Thailand, the Royal Thai Embassy will organise a Thailand- Malaysia Business Networking Forum on the same day and it will be officiated by Kittirat Na Ranong, with a panel of business associates and high ranking officials to promote and explore trade opportunities between both nations.


REFERENCES:

1. Cushman, J.W., The Khaw Group: Chinese Business in Early Twentieth-century Penang, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies/Volume 17/Issue 01/March 1986.
2. www.naranong.net
3. Khoo Su Nin, Streets of George Town Penang, Janus Print & Resources, 1994.

Clement Liang is an ardent researcher in the history of ethnic minorities in Penang. He has presented papers on the pre-war Japanese community, designed the German Heritage Trail and organised a Siamese Heritage Forum in 2012. He was featured in the war documentary “1941 – The Fall of Penang” by the History Channel recently. He holds positions in several NGOs including Penang Heritage Trust.



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