Beautiful carved stone temple
Published/Last edited or updated: 2nd October, 2017
Thean Hou Kong or the Temple of the Heavenly Queen is the spiritual centre for Penang’s Hainanese community and as well as displaying some of Georgetown’s best stone carvings, it also provides an insight into the history of the people who built it.
Resplendent on Lebuh Muntri, amidst a row of somewhat ordinary urban architecture, the temples’s quality of the carving and craftsmanship is compelling. The ornamentations look as though they have existed 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. Created in the traditional manner from colourful broken ceramic bowls, the chien nien roof embellishments 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.
The interior of the temple reveals an open central courtyard supported by towering red columns and is festooned with lanterns, flags and flowers, although much of the decorations seems a gaudy contrast to the refined exterior. Revealing much about the heritage of the Hainanese, the temple is dedicated to Ma Chor Po (also known as Mazu), Goddess of the Sea and 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. Propped up on the main altar, the rather matronly pink-faced goddess is flanked 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.
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.
Towing pyramids of stacked tiny illuminated Buddhas as well as Guanyin (the Goddess of Mercy) and other deities throughout the temple bear witness to the Taoist-Buddhist-Confucianist tradition of the Chinese religious beliefs. 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 drawers below, 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.
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.
Despite their seafaring heritage, and continued acknowledgement of such, many of Penang’s Hainanese community became involved in the food industry, working as servants for the British or opening restaurants and this legacy can be enjoyed in Penang today. Famous dishes include Hainanese chicken rice, and surprising Western style dishes learnt for the early colonialist, notably “chicken chop”, a sort of chicken schnitzel and toast, ubiquitous staples in coffee shops throughout Malaysia and Singapore.
It is impossible to be unimpressed by the Hainanese Temple’s exterior, however, armed with a bit of knowledge about its background and the story of its founding community, it becomes even more intriguing, and is a lesser-known Penang site that is well worth a quick detour. The Hainanese Temple is located on Lebuh Muntri and free to enter, conveniently between the comparatively more popular sites, the Goddess of Mercy Temple and Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion.
Address: 93 Lebuh Muntri, Georgetown
T: (0426) 23 752; (0426) 12 599;
Coordinates (for GPS): 100º20'3.08" E, 5º25'13.1" N
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These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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