Without doubt, one of the most atmospheric and photogenic parts of Georgetown is the area centred around Lebuh Armenian, where the narrow streets still conjure a sense of old Penang. Tucked away beyond the rows of shophouses, this is also where you will find some of the town’s most stunning and best-renowned kongsi, or clan houses, which have borne witness to Penang’s violent past and have played an integral role in shaping the story of the city. Here’s one way to cover most of them on foot.
The kongsi are, to all intents and purposes, temples founded by the members of a particular clan. Many of them were built in Georgetown during the 19th century in the traditional southern Chinese temple style, and they represent some of the most fascinating architecture in Penang, with their priceless gilding, intricate carvings, frescoes and roof sculptures.
Established by men sharing the same surname, the kongsi were built in order to honour the ancestral spirits, and on the altars within these spectacular buildings you will see the carved wooden tablets that bear the names of generations of deceased family members.
The descendants of those people still come to the clan houses today to leave offerings of food, light incense sticks and pray for the protection and guidance of their forebears, whose spirits are believed to reside in the kongsi.
Start at the serene and beautifully restored Han Jiang Teochew Ancestral Temple on Lebuh Chulia, between Lorong Pitt and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. Its leafy, contemplative courtyards, impressive gold-helmeted door gods and simple, but expertly crafted, decorations and carvings make this one of the most understated yet most beautiful of Georgetown’s clan houses.
Turn right out of the temple back onto Lebuh Chulia, and take the first turning right down Lorong Pitt. At the end, on Lebuh Ah Quee, you will see the red pillared gates of the Lim Kongsi. Unfortunately it is not generally open to the public but if one of the clan members is present, they will usually be happy to let you look around this small but sumptuously decorated temple.
Turn left down Lebuh Ah Quee and right onto Lebuh Pantai. A little further up on the right, a row of shophouses has been demolished to give a view from the street of the recently restored Cheah Kongsi, whose wide facade, extensive ceramic roof decorations, and richly furnished first-floor altar room make this one of the grandest clan houses in Penang.
The money lavished on such kongsi during the 19th century was not only for the benefit of the ancestral spirits, but also a very public display of wealth and power. The Chinese community at this time was made up of a big mixture of different dialect groups and clans, and there was huge competition for business, including shipping and banking, as well as for control of tobacco, alcohol, opium, prostitution and gambling.
The Chinese found strength by grouping together in their clans to further common business interests and establish their supremacy, and certain clan houses, including the Khoo, Lim and Cheah kongsi, had considerable influence. As one of the dominant clans in Penang, it is no surprise that the Cheahs also built one of the grandest buildings to act as its headquarters.
Exit the Cheah Kongsi compound via the narrow passageway to the side of the temple entrance, turn right onto Lebuh Armenian, and walk towards the Hock Tiek Cheng Sin Kongsi, situated on the left just before the junction with Lebuh Cannon. This joint-surname clan house, serving the members of four different families and hidden away in a small courtyard, is more modestly sized than the Cheah Kongsi, but no less resplendent, with its elaborate red-and-gold wood carvings and roof festooned with protective ceramic-mosaic dragons.
Back on Lebuh Armenian, turn left and walk the short distance to the junction with Lebuh Cannon. It is worth making a detour over the road to look at the tiny Ciji Temple, whose pillars are carved from green stone, and the attached Yap Kongsi, which is distinguished by a very different architectural style and is reminiscent of some of Penang’s later shophouses. Then turn left down Lebuh Cannon and look for an entrance on the left to Cannon Square and the Khoo Kongsi.
This is, quite deservedly, the most celebrated of all Georgetown’s clan houses, and the power and influence of its founders is reflected in a building on which no expense has been spared. It is well worth paying the 10 ringgit entrance fee in order to marvel at the astonishing embellishment and decoration, which covers just about every inch of the temple.
The houses that surround the Khoo Kongsi form an enclave that was once occupied exclusively by the Khoo families. The position of the temple, secreted away down a covered passageway and concealed entirely from the road, suggests another, darker function of the clan houses, which was to act as a refuge, both figurative and literal, for its members.
During the 19th century, when there was such heated competition for commercial opportunities in Penang’s Chinese community, gang rivalry between the various clans became commonplace as a means of asserting control over lucrative business contracts. In 1867, when a 10-day riot broke out between the various factions, there was full-scale war on the streets of Georgetown and at this time, the kongsi became strongholds for their clan members. It is said that Cannon Square earned its name because this is the place from which the Khoos fired cannons at their enemies, across Georgetown’s rooftops.
These days, the Khoo Kongsi bears no obvious scars from those violent days, but it is fascinating to think of the role that Georgetown’s clan houses played in the Chinese community at that time, and really helps to bring these buildings to life.
If you still have the energy after your walk, this area is a good place to join the Penang Street Art Trail, or else head south over Pengkalan Weld to explore the clan jetties. For nearby refreshments, check out the excellent China House on Lebuh Pantai, opposite the Cheah Kongsi, for coffees, cakes and bistro-style Western cuisine.