Chinese and Muslim societies as natural allies

loading A boria troupe

The old port of Penang, being cosmopolitan and frontier territory, naturally exhibited a wide range of societies formed for various reasons to deal with internal welfare issues, with other societies and with the government. Cooperation between them commonly transcended racial boundaries. Their history can bring insights into how Malaysian and Penang society became the way it is today.

VERY LITTLE HAS BEEN written on the existence of two Muslim secret societies in Penang, namely the Red and the White Flags, and their association with the Chinese secret societies, the Toa Peh Kong and Ghee Hin. Their symbiotic association was responsible for the outbreak of the Penang Riots in 1867. The close cooperation between Muslims (also including Hindus) and Chinese despite religious and cultural differences was a cause of concern for the government of the day. The British were convinced that the alliances had criminal intent and therefore, had to be controlled before public peace and safety were harmed.

Before the riots, Chinese organisations such as Ghee Hin, Hai San and Toa Peh Kong were not considered secret societies by the government. Based on the nature of their operation and network, these were merely regarded as a general club or hui. A hui which was based on clan or dialect was meant for the protection and assistance of distressed brethrens in an alien and often hostile environment. New arrivals had no choice but to join these associations, and very often by force. However, these hui soon became mutually antagonistic. A series of serious outbreaks caused by these associations occurred in Penang, Malacca and Singapore in 1846 but without the Straits government taking it seriously.

On the Malay side, the Red and White Flag societies were formed in the 1830s by the Indian-Muslim and Jawi Pekan (a hybrid community which resulted from the marriage of Malays and Indians) communities. Initially they were meant for religious purposes, and in response to the lack of organisations that could look after the welfare of Penang Muslims. Rapid population growth and the increase of crime-related problems forced Muslims to form “jumaah” (a group or congregation) or village-based organisations to carry out various religious and social functions including organising the Muharram festivals that became an important celebration among Indian-Muslims and Jawi Pekan. These contributed towards funeral expenses of fellow members, wedding ceremonies and so forth. Later it was modelled after Chinese hui in providing protection to its members and their properties. The jumaah was able to recruit large membership, with a branch appearing in every village under the patronage of a larger jumaah operating in urban and suburban areas. In the early days, very strict rules were imposed, and membership was open only to those with exemplary behaviour.

However, cosmopolitan Penang saw considerable openness in economic and racial relations. Chinese hui leaders also had business dealings with influential leaders of the flag societies. This economic intermingling sometimes often led to intermarriages, which strengthened not only business links but also the alliance between societies. Syed Mohamed Alatas, for example, was a wealthy black pepper merchant and leader of the Red Flag. He married the daughter of Khoo Thean Poh, a wealthy merchant and influential leader of the Toa Peh Kong.

Hutton Lane.

The clash of business interests and competition for control and the right to protect a certain area prompted leaders of the Chinese hui and the Red and White Flag societies to mobilise their members to start the 1867 riots. The Ghee Hin worked closely with the White Flag while the Toa Peh Kong was in liaison with the Red Flag. Prior to the Penang Riots, leaders of the Muslim and Chinese secret societies managed to find ways to allow their members to “develop good relations”. This was not hard to do; when the leaders joined forces, other gang members simply followed suit. The existing environment also contributed to the liaisons. These people lived in the same area. Members of the White Flag and Ghee Hin, for instance, lived at Hutton Lane, Tanjung Tokong, Macalister Road, Lorong Takia, the Kapitan Kling mosque neighbourhood and Pintal Tali. The members of the Red Flag and the Toa Peh Kong inhabited Acheen Street and Kampung Jawa. As they lived in the same area, daily dealings with each other were unavoidable. The Chinese (including members of the societies) owned sundry shops, rice godowns and so forth. Many Muslims (including members of the flag societies) worked in shops owned by Chinese. It is very likely that during the riots, many who were not involved in these societies but who were helping relatives, co-workers or their employer were unwittingly drawn into their activities.

At times, Muslims would join Chinese hui because the benefits far exceeded what the police could offer. In fact the recruitment of Muslims as members of Chinese hui was not unusual in the Straits Settlements although it was denied by leaders of these societies. There was another reason behind this denial. The Muslims were of paramount importance to Chinese hui in dealing with the local police which was made up mainly of Muslims. They would also run certain types of errands that did not suit Chinese members. Through their Muslim members, Chinese hui could bribe or otherwise engage the police when the need arose.

The Penang Riots started as a clash between the White and Red Flags during the Muharram celebrations in May 1867. The Ghee Hin and Toa Peh Kong came to the scene when they saw the fighting as a possible way to vanquish one other. They financed the riots, supplied the necessary weapons and even provided bonus and pension to gang members who were injured and to the next of kin of those killed. The later riots that started on August 3, 1867 went on for 10 days. They brought immense losses to civilians when their houses were looted. The worst affected area was where the Ghee Hin, Toa Peh Kong, White Flag and Red Flag had their strongholds, at the junctions of Beach Street and Chulia Street, Ujong Pasir, Prangin Road, Acheen Street and Armenian Street. Financial assistance and arms also came from Province Wellesley (Seberang Perai) and Phuket. The combined forces of the Ghee Hin and White Flag totalled 28,000 while the Toa Peh Kong and the Red Flag had 7,500 men. Even though the Toa Peh Kong membership was much smaller, most of its leaders and members were successful and influential businessmen who controlled the opium and arms trade. This benefited the coalition of the Toa Peh Kong and Red Flag as they had a huge cache of arms supplied by arms dealers, the majority of whom were gang members.

The riots forced the Penang government to erect barricades around the affected areas to contain the riots. With inadequate military and police resources, a small defence unit comprising European and Eurasian civilians was set up to guard the entire town area. Reinforcements were brought in from Province Wellesley. However, this could not prevent the riots from spreading to outer suburbs like Jelutong, Tanjung Tokong, Batu Lancang or even Balik Pulau.

The riots ended when leaders of the secret societies agreed to observe the government’s call to stop the fighting and to pay fines imposed on their members. The money collected was used to build police stations in George Town, notably in the areas affected by the riots. The damage caused compelled the government to take serious action to curb the activities of the societies involved and to prevent a possible revival of Chinese, Malay and Kling coalitions through such organisations. An inquiry revealed sufficient evidence about the involvement of these societies. From then on, the Chinese hui were branded as secret societies and several measures were put in place to control them. The government also introduced ordinances like the 1869 Ordinance that demanded that all societies with more than 10 members must register with the police. The 1882 Ordinance outlawed both the White Flag and the Red Flag while the Banishment Ordinance of 1888 allowed the government to banish secret society members. On the other hand, these measures can be seen as efforts by the government to consolidate its control on the locals and to ensure smooth colonial rule in the Straits Settlements.

Jalan Pintal Tali.

On the Muslim side, religious leaders were used to curb their community’s involvement in secret societies. Sheikh Omar Basheer, the most respected local Muslim in Penang, was ordered to produce a fatwa (religious ruling) prohibiting Muslims from joining secret societies. This ruling forced many Muslims to swear before Sheikh Omar that they were not members of any secret society or had left them.

Despite efforts taken by the government, both Malay and Chinese secret societies remained active in Penang and Province Wellesley until the break of Second World War. Muslim secret societies continued their rivalry in a new form under the guise of culture, religion, sports and hooliganism. Boria performances, for example, were used as a cover, and were actually contests of influence between the White Flag and the Red Flag. New members were recruited during performances and by the 1920s there were between 40 and 50 boria troupes in Penang. At times, these troupes were sponsored by Chinese towkays who once had affiliation with the Flag societies. In the 1920s, a vigorous campaign was undertaken by religious leaders and individuals against the boria, convinced that it was responsible for splitting the Muslims into factions. The enmity between these two Malay secret societies was also revived through football clubs. The White Flag and the Red Flag made established football teams to hide their activities in the wake of Societies Ordinance 1889 which only allow clubs for purposes of recreation, charity, religion and literature.

Apart from boria and football clubs, old members of the societies who were quite adept at illegal work for Chinese societies now redirected their interests towards gangsterism, including extortion. Some joined Chinese gangsters, targeting businesses, hawkers and trishaw pullers who traversed the area they claimed as their territory. They were also involved in burglary and petty theft . These gangsters had influential leaders or “big clubs” (which had connection with the Flag societies) as patrons. Until the 1930s, gangster activities were still rampant in George Town with Burma Road and Penang Road being the new focus. Many alcohol and spirits wholesalers were located in that area. Connections with the old factions were cleverly hidden through new forms of identification like carrying canes and wearing colourful hats.

Their activities, however, were interrupted during the Japanese Occupation. The fear of the Japanese and hardship during the Occupation made it impossible for these societies to continue their activities. The existence of those societies for two centuries must be seen as part of the failure of the government of the day to give serious attention to marginalised groups within the evolving cosmopolitan society of Penang.

Mahani Musa is a lecturer in History at the School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia, her current research interest is Malaysian social history. She is the author of Malay Secret Societies in the Northern Malay States, 1821-1940s.



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