Malaysia is hot. Malaysia is humid. Malaysia is also a newly built, petrodollar driven – moving to petro yuan driven, fast growing, steel and glass megastructure filled, automobile centric, multi cultural, pluralistic-islamic country of 3 million people. However, this relatively newly minted country, with its glitzy buildings and ritzy lifestyle is also home to a few UNESCO world heritage sites. And in continuing our love affair with historical excursions, we headed on to Georgetown, Penang. One of the finest examples of the splendor of Chinese merchants in Malaysia is the Khoo Kongsi Clan temple, Penang.
Through the years, Penang and Malaysia have always been exposed to outside conquerors as it is on one of the the world’s busiest sea routes – the Strait of Malacca. It was a part of Malaysian archipelago in the Indian ocean conquered firstly by Southern Indian sea farers, followed by the Dutch and lastly by the British East India Company. Its important geographical location meant that many ethnic groups emigrating here and created the cultural diversity that exists in Penang today.
The Khoo Kongsi Temple, Penang traces its origins back to 1835 when Khoo Businessmen came together to celebrate their patron saint’s anniversary and contributed a sum to build a temple based on the existing Kongsi of their home village in China. Members of this community were those with the Khoo surnames who trace their lineage to the Sin Kang village in Xiamen, China. However, this original temple was rebuilt in 1902, in the wake of mysterious fire that burnt the older temple down on Chinese new year eve in 1901.
About the Khoos of Xiamen
Xiamen being on the shore of China sea, Khoos were great seafarers and migration had been natural. The revoke of the ban by Ming Dynasty on the maritime trade with the rise of British power in the cities of Siam, Singapore, Kedah and Penang also helped the Khoos. As the British Empire grew, the resulting trade opportunity saw rise in clans population as they were enterprising traders.
The Khoo clan of the Khoo Kongsi Clan temple, Penang traces back its lineage to nearly 650 years. Just like the Khoo, other clans like Cheah, Yeoh, Lim and Tan kongsi make a big community named Hokkien. Each clan demarcated their residential areas but congregated, worked together and prospered during the colonial era. These five clans are known as ‘The Big Five’, owing to the fact that they dominated the business. Their business ethics can be traced back to their cultural traits that include Confucian ethic , personal trust, personal connection, frugality and their risk taking ability. Further, these communities intermarried and formed closed ties with Siamese nobility to gain capital and power. Along with tin and rice import-export trade, the Khoos were actively involved in selling and distribution of Indian opium imported by Britishers, and made huge profits. Coolies who worked on their plantations and mines were the consumers of that opium. They were ingeniously controlling input and output of the business. Even today, the Khoo community has many leading businessman in the worldmost notably, Khoo Teck Phuat who is the founder of Maybank in Malaysia.