Khoo Kongsi

This post has been long overdue. I saved my first draft in December last year. It is not an easy subject. It is not the same as writing my experiences on food, recipes and holiday trips. This subject has a rich context in my heritage background. I had to research on other writers and historian accounts of the “Khoo Kongsi”.

I don’t remember I was ever taught the history of Khoo Kongsi when I was growing up. It is an important culture of mine. But, unfortunately I know very little of it. Thus, my passion and desire to know more of my ancestors.

I did a bit of research to write this post. It is a slow process. I will probably revisit this post when I discover more about my ancestors and heritage background. For now, I have my ten fingers on my MacBook’s keypad. My fingers are not typing freely. I just stared at the screen and wondering what I should be typing next. My mind is struggling to write. But, I really want to journal this subject in my blog. Hopefully you will find this post interesting.

First, I need to explain the meaning of the word “Kongsi”. I grew up hearing the word “Kongsi” from my parents. Depending on how you pronounce it, it sounds different in Hokkien, Cantonese and Mandarin “pinyin”. In Hokkien – my ancestral background and my native spoken language – I pronounced the word as “Kongsi”. “Kongsi” or clan house is a conglomerate organisation of families with the same surname. It is a society or company in modern term, for social and economic support of a family who shares the same surname. It is originated from China many centuries ago. The principle, philosophy and ideals of forming a “Kongsi” was widely adopted in many parts of South East Asia by the early Chinese settlements.

The word, “Khoo” before Kongsi refers to the family surname. If you are ever in Penang or visiting Penang, you will find five well preserved “Kongsi” still standing in George Town. Among them, the grandest and largest is the “Khoo Kongsi”. A typical “Kongsi” has a central courtyard surrounded by buildings – a prayer temple, a performance hall, an administration building and other buildings to house the families. The Chinese communities in Penang perceive the largest and grandest Kongsi as the wealthiest and most respectable families in the local community.

A map of Khoo Kongsi.

Khoo Kongsi or it’s full name, Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, is one of the most distinctive Chinese clan associations in Malaysia. It is well known worldwide for its extensive lineage that can be traced back 650 years, as well as its closely-knit and defensive congregation of buildings and a magnificent clan house.

Khoo Kongsi, together with Cheah, Yeoh, Lim and Tan Kongsi, were known as the Five Big Clans (Goh Tai Seh) that formed the backbone of the Hokkien community in early Penang. Since mid-19th century, these kongsi demarcated their territories with their own terrace houses on three or four sides of the perimeters of the heritage enclave area of George Town.

The Khoo Kongsi complex consists of the clanhouse Leong San Tong Temple, an administrative building with a meeting hall and offices, an opera stage, and 62 units of terrace houses and shophouses. There are three entrances to the complex: the main entrance is at Cannon Street: the rear entrance, with a decorative archway, faces Beach Street; and the side entrance leads to Armenian Street. It is a closely-knitted building complex to protect the solidarity of the Khoos in the past, and safeguard against the inadequate public security during the British rule in the 19th century.

One of the entrance taken from the temple ground.

The Khoos are very proud of their ancestors and background, and what they have achieved in their community. This tradition continues in modern Penang. The values are still upheld by the new and older generations, providing support for families who require social and economic support, including donations and scholarships for the well deserved children from poorer family to further their higher education, and rewarding those that have achieved a higher education and university degrees.

I believe most of us have little or no knowledge of our ancestors and heritage background. I vaguely remember where my ancestors came from. The focus was mostly on my education, my homework and my tuition. I knew more about my mother’s side and where her parents came from, than my father’s side. I contributed that to my time growing up and spending more time with my mother, than my father. As I grew older and having lived abroad for half of my life, I become more interested to know about my heritage background. Thus, my yearly visit to Penang. Each time I go back to Penang, I visits the Khoo Kongsi. On my last trip in June 2010, my brother took me to the Administration Building to register my achievements in higher education. Little did I know that I get a reward for achieving a degree at a university. It comes with a plague which is permanently displayed at the Kongsi, a small monetary reward, and an annual dinner award recognition with my own table for my family.

Prior to my last trip in June 2010, I was back in Penang in December 2009. During that trip, I went to the Khoo Kongsi. I spent 3 hours there, going through the main temple halls and a recently opened museum. I was fortunate to be guided by one of the caretaker. She took me round and explained some of the intricately crafted artwork – wood, stone, etching, painting, ancestral tablets. Each of the artwork has a story to tell. The museum is new, well setup providing a well documented history on the early Chinese settlers in Penang and South East Asia.

The main administration building on the left

Stone stairway to the main temple hall

Ancestral tablets in one of the ancestor prayer hall

Stone carving of a female tiger and her pup symbolises future and hope for future generation

Stonewall carving of a dragon that symbolises strength and foundation setup by the past generation

I was told that each of the six stone columns supporting the roof structure of the temple was crafted underneath the water. They were intricately crafted with Chinese motifs and  a dragon swirling around the column.

One of the many decorative wall stone carving, each telling a story and confucian teaching.

A replica of an old red bricks Chinese kitchen with open wood stoves

A replica of a traditional Chinese style open kitchen

A typical well in an open atrium of an old kitchen

The genealogical of the Khoo clan is difficult for me to understand. But, according to my mother, my father’s grandfather belongs to the Khoo’s branch, “Soo Pang” – 19th generation of the Khoo history. The only regret I had was that I have never asked my father about his family history. There is only that much I can learn from my mother. There are more that I need to learn and explore. That maybe can be my work when I have more time in Penang.

Read more on Khoo Kongsi.

8 responses to “Khoo Kongsi

  1. Victor, this is a very interesting post. I hope to read more about it when you get to go back to visit Penang. The temple is beautiful, you can tell that it’s rich in culture and tradition and I often wonder what it would feel like to live during that time.

    I know very little about my dad side of the family also, and he knew very little about his dad’s family. My grandfather came from China when he was a young man and he never taught my dad to speak Chinese. As for me, I don’t even know where to trace my ancestor to.

  2. I’ve just come across your blog site which is really a lucky find for me. Hobart is one very special place which I have enjoyed visiting so the stroll around Battery Point was great Salamanca Market with the fresh vegetables is probably the best market I’ve been to in Australia.

    Your other posts on Penang bring back happy memories for me. I’ve travelled to Malaysia five times and Penang was one of the best spots – even though the plane nearly ditched in the ocean on the way over! The sight of fire trucks around the airport waiting for us to land is forever etched in my memory. Still the experience hasn’t stopped my air travel.

    The wet market we visited in Penang was an eye-opener, as was the coconut pancake(?) we had just near the hotel we stayed at in Scott Road(?). Some memories of that trip are hazy but the overall good feel remains.

    The second time we visited Penang was with a food tour group and it was at the time of the Autumn Moon Festival. What a wonderful sight we had of a procession at night along the seawall near Gurney Drive.

    Agree with all you have said about Assam Laksa. Unforgettable. Last year I had the Assam Laksa at Pengang Coffee House in Melbourne which seemed to surprise the owners – they didn’t think older Australians would have even known about it, let alone liking it!

    Glad to make your acquaintance, Victor.

    • Emily – glad you stumbled on my blog and thanks for sharing your experiences on Hobart and Penang. That must be quite an unpleasant landing flight to Penang! But, glad it landed safely, and that had not deterred you from re visiting. 🙂

  3. Great article Victor. I’m sure you know it has been also referred to by an important local Pg info blog!

    We just returned from Pg this morning (departure at Pg airport at 06.00am – oh my! —-> but cheap thanks to AirAsia – so, not [too much] complaining!)
    Already missing at this very moment my Hokkien mee from Kedai Kopi Classic but we have brought along some CKT. Reheated in the micro wave and yes it still was very good. Next: reheating some Ayam satay from my favourite satay shop. I hope the taste will still be good. I’m just wondering if I could get the right herbs and stuff to marinate because then I would be able to prepare those special satays here in HK. (HK Satay is not comparable: too big and differently marinated. It doesn’t come close to the good Pg ones).
    BTW: we’ll be back beginning January. Just FYI.
    Cheers,
    JP

    • Hi Jay-P, Thanks! I didn’t know about the local Pg blog. Do you have the blog address?

      It’s great that you and your wife get to travel to Pg so very often, with good fare with Air Asia. It’s a bit harder for us, as we have to fly to Melbourne first. We are really looking forward to our trip, which is 26 days to go!
      I can’t believe you have already plan your next trip in Jan 2011! Why not during CNY? Unfortunately, we have no plan for the next trip. I will start a new project and probably unable to take time off until mid-2011. Will keep an eye out for some special fares.

      Good that there is no food restriction to take back to HK. It’s very strict with our quarantine here. Will be nice to bring back several packets of my favourite hawker food. 🙂

      Have you try Little India for satay pre-packed ingredients? I may check it out on my coming trip and let you know.

  4. Hi Victor, this is an excellent post. I like the great details you wrote for this heritage site. I used to be one of the children playing at the courtyard of Khoo Kongsi, only to be scared by the statues of Bangladeshi soldiers at nightfall. I still remember that a photo of mine sitting at the door was taken by a Caucasian tourist in 1998- I was six then. Really wish to see that photo! as I ran away after the photo was taken:D

    • Hi Jane, glad you enjoy reading the post on Khoo Kongsi. That sounds awful that someone would have taken your photo (B&W?). A memorabilia to take home probably.

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