Thailand's tin: Mining our real history
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Thailand's tin: Mining our real history

This photo shows a decommissioned tin mine in Ngao district of Ranong province. (Photo: Weerapol Singnoi)
This photo shows a decommissioned tin mine in Ngao district of Ranong province. (Photo: Weerapol Singnoi)

Long before Thailand became a hub for industries like auto manufacturing, tourism and healthcare, it was a global hub for tin. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the mining of tin along the Andaman Sea coastline created wealth for Siam.

Tin became a key commodity as the world industrialised, bringing Chinese workers and British engineers to southern Thailand. The tin industry closed down here decades ago. It left an imprint, however, on local culture in the South. Ranong province, for example, still has valuable "industrial heritage" like mining architecture and artefacts.

But tin has been forgotten in Thailand. Our real local histories and communities sometimes get overlooked because our national heritage institutions do not have the legal authority to conserve industrial heritage. And the government's tourism strategies often neglect the value of well-preserved heritage.

The story of tin mining and migrants' impact on local architecture, cuisine, and way of life can appeal to visitors while also bringing local communities together.

A few years ago, some colleagues and I began to take a close look at Ranong, where the Siamese Tin Syndicate Ltd, established by H G Scott, an engineer from Cornwall, set up operations in 1910 in the seaside district of Ngao, close to Myanmar, which soon developed into a bustling town.

Last year, my colleagues and I formed a team of 18 researchers from Thailand, China, Malaysia and Taiwan. The group included historians, curators, architects, social scientists, a mining engineer and other experts, all of whom generously donated their hard work. Society for the Conservation of National Treasure and Environment were joined by some 200 enthusiastic people from Ranong and other provinces.

Together, we discovered a wealth of interesting sites, documents, stories, photographs, artefacts and buildings. We were fortunate to obtain 3 million baht in public funding from the National Research Council to record and assess our findings and to develop walking maps and exhibition material for a special tourism project, a "living museum" that will open this weekend, on Oct 1-2. Come join us in Ngao!

What will you learn? Since prehistoric times, people in Southeast Asia had smelted tin with copper to make bronze drums, weapons, tools and jewellery. Tin was easily accessible throughout the Malay Peninsula, and Chinese settlers had mined in the region since the 14th century or earlier. For centuries it was produced using the traditional method of panning and later pit mines. Chinese settlers also operated kilns to make charcoal which fuelled tin production.

Tin became a hot global commodity after 1810 when a British merchant patented the tin can, which preserved perishable food for transport. The British East India Company began sourcing tin from Southeast Asia.

Most of the world's tin production since 1800 has come from a belt stretching some 2,800 kilometres from China to Myanmar and Thailand to Malaysia and Indonesia. This zone holds an estimated 54% of the world's tin.

Siam's mining industry was modernised during the reign of King Rama V, who set up the Royal Minerals Department, which employed British engineers with Cornish roots. A few of these men were invited to set up companies to mine tin in Siam.

In Phuket, Edward Thomas Miles, an engineer from Australia, developed the world's first dredge that could be used to work tin deposits. This method made tin mining much more efficient and allowed Siam to become one of the world's leading exporters.

An important part of the heritage of this industry was architecture: the mansions of tin tycoons, merchants' shophouses, tin mining offices, factory buildings, warehouses, and barracks for miners and engineers. Most of these structures have disappeared because the seaside areas where mining took place have since the 1980s been redeveloped for hotels. For example, Phuket's Laguna destination resort, the site of the luxurious Banyan Tree Hotel, used to be a tin mine.

In Ranong, a few of the old buildings and sites remain, providing a window today into Thailand's past. This industrial heritage is not what government officials usually get excited about when they think about promoting mass tours to beaches and theme parks. The view used to be that a floating dredge simply destroyed the environment, so let's forget about it.

And indeed, tin mining was not a pretty business. A tin dredger was like a floating factory, each the size of a football field. It scooped up gravel and sand from the sea so that the tin ore could be separated and sent for smelting. But it's a fact of history we should understand.

After the mining industry was shut down in the 1980s, these contraptions, including their steam engines and other machinery, were broken up and sold for scrap. Most of the office buildings, worker bungalows and charcoal kilns were demolished.

But it is important to preserve what we can and learn from it. This is the "cultural landscape" that gives local people a sense of belonging and that also appeals to visitors. Sustainable tourism respects the lives of people in a place, how they got there, and what their ancestors did. Locals can be custodians of their culture, telling their own stories and sharing their wisdom.

Good heritage conservation makes tourism sustainable because it encourages local people to support their own communities. It's better than a top-down project like a skywalk. Chinese tourists already have skywalks at home. They will enjoy learning what their ancestors contributed to Thailand.

If you look around Thailand, Malaysia and nearby countries, many descendants of Chinese tin miners have collected artefacts of their family heritage in their homes. Many of these people urged the government to support our project. They are proud to present the intelligence of their ancestors, who helped pioneer the Industrial Revolution here. They want the government to tell tourists about more than just the beautiful architecture, or delicious food. They want us to know why and how the Chinese came.

We and our foreign guests will benefit if we connect the historical dots across our region. Thailand's tin towns are cousins of mining towns in Malaysia, for example. We need a cultural route, a tin heritage trail, to let people discover this interconnected story in Ranong, Phang Nga, Phuket, Trang, Satun, Songkhla, Yala and Pattani in Thailand. And in Malaysia: Penang, Taiping, Kuala Kubu Bharu, Ipoh, Gopeng, Kampar, Negiri Selembam, Sungai Lembing and Kajang.

Beyond tin, Thailand has 77 provinces and thousands of towns and villages, each with their own stories to tell. We need a national, holistic heritage plan that will help experts and local communities inventory all our heritage, study it, take good care of it and share it.

That's an investment that will pay dividends not only in terms of tourism but in learning, knowledge, creativity, participation and pride.

Rungsima Kullapat, PhD, is a researcher at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Heritage Matters is a monthly column presented by The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage to promote public awareness and discussion on sustaining the architectural and cultural heritage of Thailand and the region. Each column is written by a different contributor. The views expressed here are those of the author.

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