Sunday was an exceptionally gusty day, an odd day really, with strong winds whipping down from the north cooling the usual heat of Southern Thailand to a mild and extremely comfortable 72 degrees. It allowed me the opportunity to take my daily walk mid-day and not worry about coming home drenched. By the time I got back home, wheezing a bit from a bout of bronchitis, my landlords were at the spirit houses in my yard giving offerings and lighting incense and candles. The offerings this day were more generous, more elaborate and more edible than the usual weekly offerings. Besides the customary presentation of fruits and coconut water there was a platter with a whole cooked duck and many Chinese sweet treats. In a tree opposite the spirit houses they hung a 4 foot strip of red paper containing firecrackers.
It was Chinese New Year’s Eve day and the noise started early as the sun was coming up and went on until long after the sun had set somewhere over the mountains into the Andaman Sea. Firecrackers were being set off all through the village, short 10- to 30-second bursts. Every few minutes, it seemed, some house was scaring the dogs, and the evil spirits, by setting off an explosion of sharp pops. Pow. Powpowpowpow. Powpowpowpow. Pow. Pow. Bark. Barkbarkbarkbark. Bark. Pow.
The school in my village was closed Monday, Chinese New Year, and I had to ask myself why. The Georgian calendar’s New Year had just been celebrated all around the world, including here, on January 1 and the Thai New Year was coming up April 13-15. Why were we celebrating the Chinese New Year just as fervently?
This part of Southern Thailand is very rugged, mountainous and jungly, not readily suited to agriculture and farming, so was late in being settled. This southern peninsula had been under Malay rule until Thailand’s Ayutthaya Period (1350-1767) when the Thais took over. At the end of this grand Ayutthaya Period tin was discovered in the mountains here and things were soon to change, a new economy was to be extracted. At the time it is said that only 17 families lived in Ranong.
Khaw Soo Cheang was a Hokkein Chinese from Xiamen across the strait from Taiwan, who had emigrated to the west coast of Malaysia when he was 25 in 1822 along with many other diaspora because of economic hardships prior to the Opium Wars with the British. Khaw Soo Cheang started a business in trade. He bought local products in Malaysia and with a sail boat sold them in markets along the west coast of Malaysia and into Thailand. Over the years he gained wealth and leapfrogged his way up the Malay peninsula eventually settling himself in Ranong. Tin mining was new and Khaw Soo Cheang saw an opportunity. He went to Bangkok to apply for work as a contractor with the Ministry of Defense. He was prompt in delivering his tax money to the King (Rama III) and in 1844 applied to to be the Royal Collector of Taxes for all of the Ranong region.
As the story goes, while he was awaiting his application’s approval Khaw Soo Cheang walked along the Chao Praya River in Bangkok and noticed a huge gathering of people and many of the King’s guards around an elaborately decorated boat in the river. The King’s two sons were going out for a trip. Suddenly smoke and flames came pouring out of the boat and no one moved. Everyone watched in horror as the King’s sons cried and screamed from the river. At the time it was a punishable crime to come near or to touch the royal family. But despite this Khaw Soo Cheang risked his life, pushed people aside and rushed onto the boat to save the two small boys. The King quickly ran to the pier upon hearing of the disaster and was told of Khaw Soo Cheang’s efforts. The King took notice and quickly approved Khaw Soo Cheang’s request and bestowed on him many royal titles. The guards who stood by and did nothing were punished.
In 1854 King Rama IV (King Mongkut) appointed Khaw Soo Cheang, Governor of Ranong. Over the years until his death in 1882, the Governor’s title became more and more auspicious and respected because of Khaw Soo Cheang’s loyalty and dedication to the crown. Throughout those years he continued to build up and improve the mining operations of Ranong Province with Chinese laborers, indentured workers who populated the region. He was commended by the King for turning the “forest” of Ranong into a prosperous, well-populated center of commerce, adding to the government’s revenues.
Through Khaw Soo Cheang’s efforts and the efforts of hundreds of Chinese immigrants who worked the early tin mines here, Chinese heritage remains strong and prominent. Wikipedia reports that Thailand has the largest overseas Chinese community in the world accounting for 14% of the population here. Thai-Chinese dominate the business world and have been well-represented in Thai government, including quite a few Prime Ministers.
My landlord shared no fewer than 6 dishes of food with me that Sunday in honor of Chinese New Year. One minute when I retreated into the house to get a spoon and chopsticks he lit the firecrackers without me seeing. Even though I’d been hearing these blasts all day long, this explosion so close spooked me. But then again the short rat-a-tat blast of firecrackers was meant to protect me so that I could enjoy my plate of longevity noodles, and the New Year, in peace.