Penang’s Cantonese temples
As you walk along Lebuh King, you won’t miss the row of large grey granite-faced Kongsi with a striking zig-zag roofline near Lebuh Gereja (Church Street), so much so that they almost overshadow the other two neighbouring temples.
This section of Georgetown was controlled by minor Cantonese and Hakka Kongsi as opposed to the five main Hokkien Kongsi to the south. The groups infamously fought a bloody battle in 1867, the nine-day skirmish known as the Penang Riots, ending with intervention from the British and the subsequent banning of “secret societies”.
The three adjoining buildings to the south are the Ng Kongsi (Ng See Kah Meow), the War Emperor’s Temple (Wu Ti Meow) in the centre, and Toi San Kongsi (Toi San Nin Yong Hui Kwon). These Cantonese-style temples were built in the 19th century and originally were different heights, but early 20th century renovations aligned the rooftops. According to our guide, the unusual and prominent gables represent the element of fire, easy to imagine dancing flames or a lightning strike. Also notice the fish roof adornment here, a symbol of abundance favoured by the Cantonese rather than the more commonly sighted dragons.
These kongsi are considerably more austere than the elaborate Hokkien style, but the (mostly) windowless double-height facade certainly has a street presence. Step into the darkened War Emperor’s Temple, illuminated by shafts of light from the two portholes and doorway, and enshrined amidst the clouds of incense smoke is a red-faced Guan Gong (also Kwan Kong). This folk deity is worshiped by Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians and although often referred to as the “God of War”, it is more in the sense of a brotherhood, as in the clan associations. Even though it also neighbours the Ng Kongsi, this temple is an adjunct of the Toi San Kongsi.
To the north, squeezed between the triple granite-faced group and a single facade Kongsi, is the diminutive red-roofed Tua Pek Kong Temple. This Taoist temple dedicated to the God of Prosperity, was established by the Cantonese and Hakka communities, but more closely resembles the Hokkien style with fanciful chien nien (cut-and-paste ceramic work) dragons dancing upon the roof. Tua Pek Kong Temple lends its name to the one of the early appellations of this section of Lebuh King “Kui Tang Tua Pek Kong Kai”.
The next building on the corner of Lebuh Gereja (Church Street), is Chong San Wooi Koon, another Cantonese Kongsi, named in honour of Dr. Sun Yat Sen (known as Sun Chong San in Cantonese), the globetrotting Chinese revolutionary who spent time in Penang. To find out more about his life and influence visit the Sun Yat Sen Museum Penang on Lebuh Armenian. This granite-faced temple is similar in style to the nearby cluster or three, although distinguished by lofty red doors embellished with bearded guardians.
This group are not the only Kongsi in Lebuh King although many of the others are difficult to distinguish from similar looking heritage shophouses. To compare with the Hokkien style of temple architecture, be sure to visit Khoo Kongsi in Medan Cannon.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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