The history of Phuket in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is quite interesting and one name keeps popping up: Khaw Sim Bee who is better known by his lordly title of Phraya Rassada. It was this latter sobriquet that was given to him after Siam’s provincial government structure was reorganized in 1896 and Phuket Town made the center of a new super-province called Monton Phuket. This included all of the surrounding west coast provinces from Kraburi and Ranong in the north to Trang in the south. Khaw Sim Bee had been the governor of Trang for a few years and so was appointed the new high-commissioner of Monton Phuket in 1900.
He had already made a name for himself during his governorship of Kraburi and Trang provinces, had a large mansion in the British colony of Penang of the Straits Settlements, and even went to Sumatra where he obtained rubber tree seeds becoming the first to promote rubber plantations in Siam. His family owned the Koe Guan shipping company in Penang which gave them a monopoly over the movement of tin ore, coolies, and trade items as well as the opium monopoly over all the western seaboard states.
During his 16 years of governance, Phraya Rassada turned Phuket into a flourishing provincial town. Paved roads with drains were built and running water and some sanitation arranged. Several schools were built as was a quarantine station next to the harbor to inspect immigrant coolies for communicable diseases. There had been a serious outbreak of the plague in 1899 and all of Phuket had to be quarantined for two months which resulted in quite a bit of damage to the local economy. Following a bad tuberculosis outbreak, hospitals were added to the local infrastructure.
Until 1907, there were no international banking facilities in Phuket. Phraya Rassada invited the Standard Chartered Bank in Penang to built a branch in Phuket Town that year on the condition that they also build a police station opposite it. This is the building with the clock tower seen in today’s featured photo and is considered the iconic symbol of the community. The Talat Yai police station was intended mainly for the protection of the bank but the rest of the town benefitted as well. In addition to the police station, the bank also paid for a bridge to be built over the adjacent Klong Bang Yai (canal).
The old police station looks very fine these days after a recent restoration. For many years, it was quite an eyesore with its faded greyish white stucco ringed by decades of unsightly black streaks caused by rain. The restoration not only brightened the building with a pastel yellow but also replaced the long-broken clock with one that worked for a few years. I believe it’s been repaired recently but a year ago all four clock faces showed completely different times at which they’d stopped working. The building has had a long history of clock problems including the round holes remaining empty for many years when when the ship bringing them from Penang sank en route. Currently, the building houses a history museum but I have yet to visit.
As for the Monton Phuket High Commissioner, he was shot while visiting Trang in early February 1913. He was returning by steamer from Satun to Phuket with his nephew, Khaw Joo Keat, the new governor of Trang. While Phraya Rassada was disembarking from the S.S. Damrong Raat, a hospital dresser in his fifties approached, pulled out a revolver, and shot him. He stumbled and fell upon the planks of the wooden pier (which, like the local hospital, he had built). His nephew was the first to react and bent towards his fallen uncle but was shot as well with the bullet hitting in the spine, severing it which killed him fairly quickly. Khaw Sim Bee remained alive with a bullet lodged in his back but lying on the pier in an expanding pool of his blood while the assassin walked off the pier and headed toward town where he eventually went into the new post office building and sat down to await the local police to arrest him. Phraya Rassada was soon carefully loaded back on his steamer which set sail for Penang and the best hospital in the region. After the bullet was removed there, he fell into a coma and died a month later. A statue of the High Commissioner can still be seen at the summit of Kao Rang north of the downtown area.
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