Behind the modern-day success story of the Thai-Chinese lies a saga of heroes who changed the course of history
Though their ancestors’ importance to Siamese history can hardly be overstated, few ethnic Chinese in Thailand today can trace their ancestry beyond the Bangkok period.
Among these ancestors are the great heroes of Thonburi, who ousted the Burmese invaders and reclaimed Ayudhya for Siam. Yet their descendants have largely disappeared without a trace.
For almost 250 years, King Taksin, the man who founded the Thonburi Kingdom after avenging Ayudhya’s destruction by the Burmese in 1767, has been a revered household icon in Thailand.
Yet although more monuments and words have been lavished on Taksin than on many other Siamese kings, the life and times of this great ruler and his peerless comrades-in-arms remain shrouded in mystery.
Most deserving of mention are the legendary exploits of the stalwart fighters who fought shoulder to shoulder with the mercurial half-Chinese general Taksin, in his quest for supremacy and legitimacy over his rivals to the throne.
Humble beginnings to Ayudhya triumph
According to Zhen Rui, a Chinese officer sent from Canton to report on the fall of Ayudhya in 1768, King Taksin was born Tae Sin (Zheng Xin) of no renowned lineage in Ayudhya. His father Tae Yong was a Teochew immigrant from Chenghai County in Guangdong Province.
After reclaiming Ayudhya, King Taksin sent several tribute missions to China seeking royal investiture. In his letter to the Qianlong Emperor, Taksin called himself Zheng Zhao, using his Chinese clan name Zheng and Zhao for the Thai word “chao”, meaning ruler.
According to Zhen Rui’s report to the Viceroy of Canton, Taksin had several Chinese aides, including Chen Lian, Chen Wu, Huang Qian, Su Si and Lan Lai, who was his finance minister.
In matching these names with the Thai chronicles, Chen Lian and Lan Lai were probably Phraya Phipit and Phraya Phichai respectively. These were the generals who commanded the king’s Chinese troops that stormed the Burmese camp at Pho Sam Ton. The battle brought the final victory for Taksin at Ayudhya, before he moved the capital of Siam down to Thonburi, over the river from present-day Bangkok.
Following the collapse of Ayudhya, anarchy prevailed. Bandits and pirates roamed the forests and waterways. The economy and fertile lands had been laid waste by sustained warfare and the population of the Central Plain was depleted.
Above all, famine threatened.
Taksin’s immediate priority was to find food for the populace, curb banditry, piracy and restore law and order so that people could resume their livelihoods.
In 1769 an outbreak of famine and disease decimated the population of the emergent kingdom of Thonburi. French missionaries reported that more Siamese died from starvation that year than during the Burmese invasion.
In Thonburi, Catholic priest M Corre wrote that local residents, both Thai and Chinese, plundered abandoned temples.
Meanwhile, concessions were being handed out to hunt for hidden treasure among the ruins of Ayudhya.
A Chinese treasure hunter found three shiploads of gold at Wat Phutthai Sawan while others at Wat Pradu found five buried caches of silver. The precious metals were put back into circulation by the temple raiders, who also melted down numerous Buddha images looted from temples.
Building a kingdom
The once unitary state of Ayudhya had fragmented into a tapestry of fiefdoms.
The daunting task facing Taksin was to unify these competing and conflicting centres of power. His eventual success came thanks to personal courage, but also his shrewd economic instincts.
The strategy of controlling all the important Siamese ports in the gulf, along with a push to form alliances with regional warlords, contributed to Taksin’s early military and economic success. A case in point was the story of Hao Yiang (Wu Rang), the patriarch of the Na Songkhla clan.
Hao Yiang, a native of Zhangzhou, arrived in Songkhla in 1750 at the age of 34. He was engaged in farming and fishing and by the time of King Taksin’s Nakhon Si Thammarat campaign in 1769, he was already a prosperous man, known in Songkhla as the Great Elder.
Hao Yiang sought out Taksin to bestow on the king a gift of 50 boxes of tobacco. The meeting went well and Hao was granted the lucrative concession to collect bird’s nests on Koh Si and Koh Ha.
His sons were sent to Thonburi for education and Hao visited the king to pay his obeisance in person every year. As the leader of the local community commanding substantial manpower, he was eventually appointed governor of Songkhla in 1775.
Seven successive members of the Na Songkhla clan succeeded Hao Yiang as governor till the death of Phraya Vichienkhiri (Chom na Songkhla) in 1901.
The new-found wealth generated by the interplay of Chinese, opportunism, China trade and mercantilism on Siam’s eastern and southern frontiers helped King Taksin finance Thonburi’s many wars. Serving the economic interests of the merchant class in turn fuelled the economic resurgence of the Siamese state.
My research of more than 10 years shows that, apart from the King’s descendants, fewer than 10 modern-day Chinese clans can trace their ancestry back to the Thonburi era.
Pridi Banomyong among descendants
Among these, the most touching story came from the Teochew family of Pridi Banomyong, the seventh prime minister of Thailand, who traced his ancestry to Thonburi.
According to Pridi, who spent time living in exile in China, his forefather Chen Xing was in fact King Taksin’s first cousin. Chen Xing’s mother was a sister of Zheng Yong, Taksin’s father. Driven by poverty, Chen Xing decided leave his wife and son in China and join his maternal uncle.
During the Thonburi-period wars, Chen Xing joined his cousin’s regiment and subsequently died in the service of King Taksin. The family in China was not informed of his death until Taksin responded to his mother’s enquiry about her missing son.
Subsequently, King Taksin sent money as compensation to Chen Xing’s family in China.
In 1814, Chen Xing’s grandson Chen Chengyu, known in Thai as Nai Kok, emigrated to Siam and made his living selling Chinese and Thai sweets in Ayudhya. Nai Kok was the great grandfather of Pridi Banomyong, the founder of Thammasat University.
Known descendants of Taksin are quite numerous. Family names tracing their lineage to the king of Thonburi include Sinsuk, Indrayothin, Pongsin, Rungpairoj, Silanond, Indrakamhaeng and a branch of the Na Nakorn family. Those descended from King Taksin’s daughters include Issarasena, Dharmasaroja, Noppavong, Supradit, Srithawat, Watanavong, Ratanakot, Panumas and Kanchanavichai.
Apart from the king’s offspring the Teochew families that can trace their roots back to this period include the Sombatsiri and the Swasdibutra, who descended from Tan Teck Ngun and Lim Boon Ping respectively.
Two of the oldest Hokkien family tales are those of Su Xiang and Lim Riksh.
Su Xiang was a native of Zhangzhou, who came to live in Thonburi, where his son was born in 1776. His grandson made good and was appointed Luang Aphai Vanich (Chak) during the reign of King Rama III.
The Su clan (called So in Thai) later settled in Bangkok’s Talad Noi district. Talad Noi has been the symbolic centre of Hokkien culture in Bangkok since its formation. The district is home to a shrine of the Hokkien deity Cho Sue Kong (Qing Shui Zu Shi), which also houses the Hokkien Association.
Members of the Su clan lived in adjoining houses clustered near the Cho Su Kong shrine. Su Xiang was a forefather of Korn Chatikavanij, former finance minister, and of two-time former prime minister Anand Panyarachun.
According to the Krairiksh’s family history, their ancestor Lim Riksh was the Hokkien translator in King Taksin’s final tribute mission to Canton. The May 1781 mission of 11 ships was headed by Phraya Sunthorn Aphai, who was to fall ill and die in Beijing.
By the time the ships arrived back in Thonburi, King Rama I had already ascended the throne. Lim Riksh later worked for Rama I’s younger brother as the Phrakhlang of the Front Palace. During the reign of King Rama II, Lim Riksh’s son Thong Chin was appointed Phraya Choduk Rachasretthi, sheriff of the Chinese community in Bangkok.
The Chronicle of Bangkok tells us that Chin Kun, the Chinese patriarch of the Ratanakul family from the Mae Klong River, was counted among Rama I’s loyal friends. Kun was a military commander in the service of the King of Thonburi with the rank of Phra Rachprasith. Rama I later appointed him Phraya Phrakhlang and under King Rama II Kun eventually rose to the rank of Chao Phraya Ratanathibeth, the Samuhanayok.
Of the two brave Chinese generals who attacked the Pho Sam Ton camp, finance minister Lan Lai (Phraya Phichai Kosa) featured prominently in the early days of the reign. His assignments included building fortifications at Phrapadaeng, Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkhram. In 1769 Phraya Phichai was sent to attack Battambang while Phraya Anuchitracha (Boonma) attacked Siem Reap.
The unsuccessful campaign was a prelude to the 1771 war in which King Taksin led troops to Cambodia himself. In this campaign, Phraya Phichai subdued Kampot and led its Cham governor Phraya Panglima to pledge his loyalty to Taksin in Phnom Penh. Curiously, the Cambodian campaign marks the last time Phraya Phichai is mentioned in historical records. He probably passed away soon after. So far none of his descendants has been traced.
The Chinese general who outlived the king was Chen Lian, known in the early days as Phraya Phipit. In 1770 when Ha Tien attacked Chantabun while Taksin was on campaign in Nakhon Si Thammarat, the king sent Chen Lian to reinforce the defence of Chantabun. Although Chantabun fell under the onslaught of Ha Tien’s numerically superior forces, Phraya Phipit organised a successful counter-attack which eventually succeeded in forcing the invaders to withdraw.
In 1771 when Taksin attacked Ha Tien, Phraya Phipit commanded a fleet of 34 junks, 12 royal warships and four private ships with 1,431 men. When Taksin returned to Thonburi in 1772 he appointed Phraya Phipit (Chen Lian) as the Thai governor of Ha Tien with the new title of Phraya Rachasretthi-chin.
But peace did not last long. Shortly after, the city’s former ruler Mac Thien Tu attacked and took back his domain from the Siamese army.
Chen Lian retreated to Kampot where newly subdued Cham governor Phraya Panglima helped with reinforcements. After three days the Chinese army of Chen Lian attacked and retook Ha Tien, massacring Mac Thien Tu’s men on sight. Mac Thien Tu again fled to Vietnam.
A few months later, in February 1773, Mac Thien Tu sent a peace mission to Thonburi to negotiate the return of Ha Tien. King Taksin responded favourably and Chen Lian was recalled back to Thonburi. From a Burmese spy’s map we learn that Phraya Rachasretthi-chin lived in a Teochew enclave just across the river from the king’s palace.
After the death of King Taksin, he was responsible for effecting a smooth and peaceful relocation of the Teochew community to make way for the Grand Palace of the Chakri dynasty. Interestingly Chen Lian, the man who moved the Chinese out of the city and down to fields near Wat Sampheng – the present-day Chinatown – has faded from history, with no known ancestors.
However, at the end of his tumultuous life he stood vindicated. King Rama I
reappointed Chen Lian as the governor of Ha Tien, the town he and his followers
had bravely defended. Upon his death in 1787, Mac Thien Tu’s son succeeded him
Pimpraphai Bisalputra is the co-author of “A History of the Thai-Chinese”.