Penang’s Disappearing Thai Heritage

Penang Island has traditionally been called Koh Maak (or “Number One Island”) by the Thais, not surprising given that Penang was at one time part of a Siamese vassal state together with Kedah which was also known as Saiburi. In a letter to the Government of India in Bengal in 1793 (seven years after the establishment of Penang as an East India Company settlement), Captain Francis Light described the main communities in Penang and noted the presence of 100 Burmese and Thais. The 1828 census of Penang reported a total population of 22,503, out of which 1,117 were Thais and Burmese, mostly living in Teluk Ayer Raja, now Pulau Tikus, (665 people) and  Kuala Muda (256 people).

Besides the mass migration of the Eurasian community from southern Siam to Penang during Light’s time, the Thai community in Penang was   attracted by the abundant opportunities and grew constantly over the years under the auspices of the British.  In 1845, the community sought a piece of land and Queen Victoria granted them a five-acre site in Pulau Tikus as a gesture to promote trade with Siam. The land grant was presented by W.L. Butterworth, Governor of the Straits Settlements (1843–1855). It is interesting to note that a British-Siam boundary stone was erected at Pinang Tunggal, north of Province Wellesley, in the 1800s to mark the official border between Siam and Penang. The stone still stands in the same spot today.

In the eyes of the Thais, Penang by the turn of the 20th century was an advanced state and well managed by the British authorities. Penang was and still is a favourite place for Thais to seek an English education and hence was nicknamed “the other London”.  King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V), taught by the British governess Anna Leonowens (whose husband is buried in Penang) was the first Western-educated Siamese king. He paid an official visit to Penang in 1890 to study the government administration. In 1897, when he visited Europe, he stopped over at Chakrabongse House where he was received by the household of the Sultan of Kedah, at that time still a vassal state of Siam. When King Prajadhipok (King Rama VI) visited Penang in 1929, he stayed at Asdang House on Northam Road. Asdang House and Chakrabongse House were built by Phya Rasada Nupradit of Ranong, better known as Khaw Sim Bee, of the legendary Sino-Thai family whose illustrious members were appointed by King Chulalongkorn as governors of the southern west-coast provinces of Siam, stretching from Ranong, Phuket to Trang.  To enhance the prestige of Siam, Khaw donated a piece of prime real estate at the Esplanade to the public. Called Ranong Ground, the football-size field was meant for public recreation. It has completely disappeared and today is the site of Dewan Sri Pinang.

Chakrabongse House and Asdang House were the venue of numerous parties and receptions especially for visiting dignitaries from Bangkok. Named after the sons of King Chulalongkorn, the two houses were built back to back, with Chakrabongse facing the sea and Asdang House facing the road. Asdang House was sold and later became the Metropole Hotel. Unfortunately, it was illegally demolished on Christmas Day in 1993 and the Mayfair condominium was built on the site. After being fined RM50,000 and instructed by the MPPP to reconstruct the entrance hall, the developer erected a mock-up façade of the original Asdang House. Chakrabongse met a similar fate in the 1970s when it was demolished to build a multi-storey family apartment.

Chakrabongse House

Chakrabongse House was described in glowing terms by the Penang Gazette at its house warming by Prince Chakrabongse in 1904:

“Mr Khaw Sim Bee has taste and very thorough notions of comfort. Standing on the brink of the sea, with its verandahs opening on lovely view of the harbour and purple heights of Kedah beyond, the position of the new house could scarcely be surpassed in Penang.

“Its snowy whiteness backed by the dark green of palms and flanked with tennis courts will render it the home beautiful indeed. The floors have marble in the halls and on the verandahs. The dinning and drawing rooms are large enough for huge gatherings, and the latter might easily accommodate four or five sets of Lancers.”

During the Japanese occupation, the houses were appropriated by the Japanese military forces. After the war they were returned to Khaw Sim Bee’s only son in Penang, Khaw Joo Chye, who inherited Chakrabongse House and had other properties including 20 Pykett Avenue. Sadly, the Pykett Avenue property met the same fate as Asdang House. It was illegally demolished on 26th July 2010, a few days ahead of a heritage building assessment to be conducted by MPPP.

In the 1930s, a new group of Thai royal dignitaries and politicians resided in Penang. Political turmoil in Bangkok caused by the failure of democratic reform and a coup d’état in 1932 forced the first elected Thai Prime Minister Phaya Manopakorn Nititada and Prince Damrong Rajanubhab and Prince Svasti Sophon, both sons of King Rama V, to flee to Penang and seek refuge. They took up residence at Burmah Lane, Kelawai Road and Burmah Road and lived a conspicuous lifestyle. Their exchange of letters with their Bangkok counterparts and family members as well as the documented visits from their friends vividly describe their life in Penang during those years. Prince Damrong Rajanubhab’s memoirs of his residence at “Cinnamon Hall”, 15 Kelawai Road , became a famous classic reading book for all Thais. Cinnamon Hall was demolished long ago but many Thais who visit Penang are curious about this building and try to locate its whereabouts.

Praya Manopakorn never returned to Thailand and died in Penang in 1947. Two streets off Jalan Bagan Jermal were named after him, Jalan Mano and Solok Mano. Prince Svasti Sophon died in Penang in 1935 and his funeral at Wat Pinbang Onn on Green Lane witnessed a gathering of VIPs from Thailand and local officials. He was formerly the Minister of Defence and his daughter was married to King Rama VII. In 1942 Prince Damrong Rajanubuab was allowed to return to Bangkok where he died the following year. Prince Damrong was credited with founding the modern Thai education system and the modern provincial administration. From his books on Thai literature, culture and art works grew the National Library, as well as the National Museum. On the centenary of his birth in 1962, he became the first Thai included in the UNESCO list of the world’s most distinguished persons.  In April 2011, a group of historians from Bangkok interviewed the 92-year-old sister-in-law of Praya Mano, Prabandh Sanasen, who has lived in Penang for 80 years following her brother-in-law’s exile to Penang. Her recorded memories fill a gap in the history of Thailand and Penang.

On the evening of 20th October, 2011, one of the bungalows at Burmah Lane where the Thai royal dignitaries used to live was demolished and reduced to a heap of rubble to make way for a yet-to-be approved high-rise development. It is understood that MPPP gave a conservation order only for the second bungalow on the spurious grounds that there was no need to conserve all bungalows of similar appearance — a case of “heritage tokenism”!

To everyone — especially tourists — the charms of Penang lie in its rich historic and cultural heritage. If the old buildings that witnessed these historic events are not valued and kept, there will not be anything left as physical evidence to relate to our past.

By Clement Liang 

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