By Kim Gooi – May 11, 2011, Malaysiakini
Author’s note: First published in Bangkok ‘The Sunday Nation’ – Sad Tale Of Beauty Felled – on May 28, 2000
They came like thieves to steal and rob with lightning speed in a well-planned move laced with political intrigue and cunning. Metropole Hotel, formerly Asdang House, was one of Penang’s most prominent historical-heritage buildings. It was knocked down and reduced to rubble on early Christmas 1993, while the city slept after a night of good cheers and celebration.
Within minutes, one of Malaysia’s finest heritage buildings with historical ties to Thailand was destroyed and with it a part of history of the region. The New Straits Times reported: “Many people are finding out that the building (after its demolition) has an interesting history and that the list of recent owners is also very interesting. Built at the turn of the century, it belonged to the Khaw (Na Ranong) clan. Here receptions were held for the King and Queen of Thailand. Members of the Thai Royal family also stayed at Asdang House”.
The building which stood on 6,581 square meters of land was symbolic of the Sino-Thai relationship during the early part of the century, the paper said.
Asdang House was more than a Thai embassy to British-held Malaya. Together with Chakrabongse house, it was an extension of the Thai Royal Palace to its southern-most zone of control at a time when the British colonialists were making inroads into the region, and eyeing Phuket’s rich mineral deposits. It was the symbol of Siam’s successful resistance against colonialism when the rest of the region had fallen victim.
In 1897, when King Chulalongkorn visited Europe, he stopped over at Chakrabongse House where he was received by the household of the Sultan of Kedah, at that time a vassal state of Siam. When King Prajadhipok visited Penang in 1929, he stayed at Asdang House.
Asdang House was built over a hundred years ago, together with Chakrabongse House, by Phya Rasadanupradit of Ranong, also known as Khaw Sim Bee, the legendary Sino-Thai appointed by King Chulalongkorn as governor of the southern west-coast provinces of Siam, stretching from Ranong to Trang.
Rasadanupradit was instrumental in developing the region and successfully thwarted British advances in the south. He outwitted the British by bringing the first rubber seed from British Malaya and planting it in Trang. Today the rubber association of Trang is not above throwing a dinner to members of the Penang-branch of the Na Ranong clan when they come a calling.
To speed up development he brought Chartered Bank to Phuket, the only foreign bank to be allowed there. Other than rubber, he also introduced cashew nut to the south. Born in Ranong, his father sent him to China for further education when he was a young boy. For his vision and loyalty to the King of Siam, he was the first civilian to be honoured with two statues that still stand today in Trang and Phuket.
The achievements of the clan were indeed outstanding and remarkable. The founding father Phya Damrong Sucharit Mahasomphakdi (Khaw Soo Chiang) was a headman and leader of the “Small Knife Society”, an anti-Manchu revolutionary group from Fujian province.
He came to Ranong via Penang during the time of King Rama IV. The area was under constant Burmese threat. Phya Damrong drove off the Burmese pirates and built a wall to protect Ranong, said his great, great grandson, Khaw Cheng Poon in Penang. He became the first Rajah of Ranong by appointment of the King of Siam.
On a subsequent visit to Ranong, King Chulalongkorn commented favorably on the development and praised the comfort and quality of the family mansion. Running a fleet of ships, he was able to bring in goods and coolies from British Penang and opened up the area for development.
In addition to being lord of the southern west-coast provinces of old Siam, the Khaw clan controlled a big chunk of mercantile, mining and shipping activities of the region from Penang. “They were the richest in the region, holding wealth and power,” said Khaw Cheng Poon, the great-grandson.
To enhance the prestige of Siam at a time when the British were treating everyone as second class citizens, Phya Rasadanupradit 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, added Khaw. Alas, Ranong Ground has completely disappeared. Few people now know it ever existed. Today it is the site of Dewan Sri Pinang (State Conference Hall).
As many prosperous Chinese immigrant families were to do, the Khaw family built large, European style houses and entertained lavishly. Clustered along the exclusive shoreline of Northam Road, with names reminiscent of baronial villas like Brooklodge, Nova Scotia (later renamed Asdang House), and the Exeter, the Khaw houses were a reflection of the family success and its place in the world.
Chakrabongse and Asdang house were the setting of numerous parties and receptions especially for visiting dignitaries from Bangkok. Named after sons of King Chulalongkorn, the two houses were built back to back, with Chakrabongse house facing the sea and Asdang House facing the road.
Chakrabongse House was described in glowing terms by Penang Gazette at its house warming by the 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 World War II, the houses were appropriated by the Japanese military forces. After the war they were returned. Phya Rasadanupradit’s only son in Penang, Khaw Joo Chye, inherited Chakrabongse House.
It was said that the widow of Joo Chye was tired of the sea, and sold the house for RM150,000 in 1960. She built another bungalow across the road so that she could watch the traffic in her old age, said the grandson. Soon, Chakrabongse House was demolished to make way for luxurious family flats.
The fate of Asdang House
Asdang House was inherited by Phya Rasada’s nephew, Khaw Joo Tok. After World War II Joo Tok sold it to a car dealer who resold it to a Hainanese restaurant owner who turned it into the Metropole Hotel. It was later sold to a group of politicians of the Gerakan Party controlling Penang.
In 1993 it was designated a heritage building by the Penang Municipal Council. Among the listed owners of the Metropole was the president of the Council who was also the chairman of the Penang Gerakan.
A series of shady deals unfolded: Metropole was allegedly declassified from category I to II, meaning it could be torn down as long as the facade was kept. It was then sold to a RM2 or 20-Baht (paid-up capital) company called Dolphin Square Private Limited for RM9.5 million. On Christmas day it was obliterated in a lightning operation and the debris carted away.
People smelled something fishy and a storm ensued. The hue and cry and the wrath of the people filled the papers, and provided live ammunition to the political opposition.
“How can a RM2 (20 baht) company buy a RM9.5 million house in a designated heritage area, if it is not assured that it could be knocked down for development?” asked opposition leader Lim Kit Siang. “Which bank is going to finance the deal if it is not assured of a quick return?”
The state government’s damage control went into full swing. On Jan 3, 1993, the city council ordered the owner to rebuild the house to its original form in six months. Failing to comply would result in a maximum fine of RM10,000 and an additional fine of RM500 for each day’s delay. The Chief Minister lauded the council for it’s swift action.
On Feb 14, the company was charged in court for demolishing a heritage house without permission and subsequently fined RM50,000. Today, seven years later, the storm has abated but nothing has been done to restore the house. What has happened to the fine accumulated – RM500 a day for each day of non compliance?
At the site where Asdang House once proudly stood, lies a half finished high-rise hotel, a pile of ugly grey concrete and rusty steel in a wasteland along Penang’s famous Millionaires’ Row. Ironically it was the economic crisis in 1997 that stopped the construction, not the law of the land nor the wishes of the people.