Spend any amount of time in Penang, and you will discover that the island’s Chinese heritage is as diverse as it is fascinating. During the 19th century, dialect groups from across southern China converged here, each community bringing its own traditions, language and cuisine to add to Georgetown’s melting pot. The Hainanese Temple on Muntri Street represents the spiritual centre for one of those communities, and as well as containing some of Georgetown’s best stone carvings, it also provides an insight into the history of the people who built it.
The Hainanese Temple, also known as the Thean Hock Kong or Temple of the Heavenly Queen, is one of the most compelling in Penang, and even before you enter, the quality of the carving and craftsmanship is apparent. The jian nian roof decorations, created in the traditional manner from colourful broken ceramic bowls, are extensive, as is the stone carving. It seems almost unbelievable, but the pillars that support the main entrance gate, encircled by imposing dragons, are fashioned out of single blocks of stone. The intricacy and attention to detail — down to every last dragon scale, leaf or hair — is continued across the entire facade of the building itself, where each panel tells a story taken from traditional Chinese folklore in magnificent three-dimensional relief.
These decorations look as though they have existed here since the temple was built at the end of the 19th century, but are in fact relatively recent, added in 1995 in celebration of the building’s centenary. The original temple was much plainer and the photos inside, on the wall to the left of the main entrance, illustrate its 20th-century facelift.
The temple and surrounding buildings reveal much about the heritage of the Hainanese, and the dedication of the temple to Ma Chor Po, Goddess of the Sea, points to the community’s close affinity with the ocean. Back on their home island of Hainan, fishing was a major source of income for many of the early settlers, and it was also Ma Chor Po who delivered them to the shores of Penang. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that she is worshipped as the temple’s principal deity.
The nearby Province Welleseley Cafe Association, set up by the Hainanese a few doors up on the same side as the temple, is another clue to the community’s history in Penang. When the first settlers from Hainan arrived here in the later 19th century, there were not many jobs available to them and they had to work hard to make a living and find their niche.
They did this by becoming expert cooks and cafe proprietors, and still today their food is celebrated throughout the island. It is not unusual for Hainanese restaurants to serve traditional fare from south China alongside Western-influenced dishes, including chicken pie, ‘chicken chop’ (breaded chicken with sweet and sour sauce) and roast lamb, which cooks used to prepare for their colonial employers.
Meanwhile, the Aik Hua School just next to the temple began life as an intellectual and political association, the Aik Chee Reading Room, which was founded at 48 Muntri Street by the Hainanese in the early 20th century. The members of the association were staunch supporters of Sun Yat Sen, the father of the Chinese revolution who launched his final campaign from here in Penang. The reading room raised funds to support the revolution, as well as providing education for the local Hainanese community, and moved to its current location in 1955.
Back at the temple there are many more references to the heritage and history of the Hainanese and, in particular, the sea. The main altar is dedicated to Ma Chor Po, who is flanked on either side by two demi-gods, or water spirits. It is their job to keep their respective eyes and ears open – look closely and you will see which one is which – in order to report back to her on the latest conditions on the oceans.
At the front of the altar is a container of fortune sticks, and by posing a question, choosing a stick and cross-referencing against the numbered cards on the wall to the left, devotees can seek advice and guidance from the goddess about anything to do with the sea. If you are planning to take the ferry over to Langkawi, it might be well worth giving this a try before you book tickets, in order to avoid a bumpy crossing.
To the left of Ma Chor is another altar dedicated as a memorial to 108 Brothers (or Hainanese kinsmen) who lost their lives on the voyage to Penang in the 19th century. Meanwhile, on the altar on the right sits the Goddess of the Waterfront, who originated on Hainan island itself and is closely connected with local folklore, protecting rivers, lakes and the sea shore.
However, perhaps the most unusual reference to the sea is to be found in the roof decorations above the inner courtyard. Look up and you will see the traditional protective image of the dragon, but with the tail of a fish. In Chinese mythology, dragons are strongly connected with water, so perhaps it is no surprise that these ‘sea dragons’ guard the temple of Ma Chor Po from evil spirits.
It is impossible to be unimpressed by this building on an aesthetic level. However, armed with a bit of knowledge about its background and the story of its founding community, the Hainanese Temple becomes even more intriguing, and is a lesser-known Penang highlight that really shouldn’t be missed.
The temple is located on Lebuh Muntri, conveniently close to many of Georgetown’s most fashionable hostels, including Guest Inn Muntri, Ryokan and Syok @ Chulia. For great coffees, frappes and juices, wander down to the nearby Mews Cafe and for more temple culture and photo opportunities, follow Lebuh Muntri and Lorong Stewart to check out the Goddess of Mercy Temple.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 15th October, 2014.