The pride of Penang
The Khoo Kongsi is the jewel in the crown of Penang’s clan houses, if you see no other, join the throngs here.
Penang’s early Chinese immigrants found strength by forming clan associations with members of extended family sharing a common surname. “Kongsi” or clan houses were established as a place to honour ancestral spirits, provided welfare and education for members as well as promoting and strengthening business interests. Certain Kongsi welded considerable influence in Penang’s early history, often controlling somewhat shady businesses, essentially the Triads of the day.
The Khoo Kongsi was established by one of Penang’s five major Hokkien communities, among their ranks, some of the wealthiest and most powerful merchant pioneers. The 19th century complex takes the form of a traditional feudal village with the grand Chinese baroque-style temple taking pride of place within a paved courtyard and fortress-like surrounding offices and houses, accessed via three narrow laneways (two no longer in use). The lavish temple building or Leong San Tong, was not only for the benefit of the ancestral spirits, but also a very public display of wealth and power.
The magnificent structure you see today was completed in 1906, replacing a reputedly even more opulent edifice. The original made from wood took some eight years to build and just three weeks after completion burnt to the ground. Superstitions abound that the clan house was destroyed due to jealousy from the Gods as the house was too grandiose, rivalling the temple of heaven.
In 2001 a multi-million ringgit restoration project was undertaken and today the double-storey temple sits resplendent with its extensive gold-leaf and tile shard work, perhaps again taunting the divine. The elaborately embellish roof top caked in chien nien (cut-and-paste ceramic work) appears to shimmer, reminiscent of the ornate crowns worn by young Straits Chinese brides, and under the eves the gold, paintings and carved stonework are something to behold, every surface a work of mastercraftsmanship.
The two levels are divided into three main halls, with the principal area for worship upstairs—the ornate central hall dedicated to the main deities, Ong Soon Yah (the Great Duke) and Tua Sai Yah (the Noble), the tiny figures all but disappear among golden filigree. The side walls are covered in fine ink paintings from Chinese mythology of 36 fierce looking folk riding a menagerie of animals including zebras, rhinos, bears and other more fanciful beasts. The two smaller annexes hold altars, one amassed with ancestral tablets and the other enshrines a small red-faced Tua Pek Kong, the God of Prosperity. These two rooms display plaques expounding academic achievements of members of the Khoo clan with doctorates and degrees from universities around the world. If your name was Khoo, it would certainly make you feel puffy chested.
The lower level of the building is given over to a small, but well presented and interesting museum with a recreation of the traditional kitchen and an informative history of the Khoo clan and the Kongsi. The temple is mirrored across the courtyard by a single level open opera stage.
The entrance on Medan Cannon is easily missed, look for a narrow gateway and a black and gold signboard carved “Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi”. An elaborate, and more conspicuous entrance gate on Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street) is no longer in use (but worth seeking out to see the beautiful craftsmanship). Khoo Kongsi is especially worth visiting for their occasional “An Evening of Lights” events, when as well as being illuminated in a spectacular sparkling display, the courtyard comes alive with performances and food stalls. Check their website for dates.
Khoo Kongsi is open daily to visitors 09:00-18:00, and is the only of Penang’s Kongsi’s we encountered that charges an entry fee, (we guess all those carved surfaces need a bit of dusting), but it is well worth forking out the ten ringgit.
If you have time, visit nearby Hokkien Cheah Kongsi on Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street) and the Teochew Han Jiang Ancestral Temple on Lebuh Chulia for other outstanding examples of Chinese heritage temple architecture.
Address: 18 Medan Cannon, Georgetown
Coordinates (for GPS): 100º20'12.3" E, 5º24'53.94" N
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Admission: 5 ringgit
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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