A short history of the Khoo Kongsi

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The Khoo Kongsi building complex is one of Penang’s major iconic structures. Despite that, its history is not widely known. Yong Check Yoon provides us with a brief history of this majestic place.

The name Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi (LSTKK) means Dragon Mountain Hall Khoo Clan Association. As with most of the early clan associations, the kongsi building is surrounded by rows of houses – 24 of them on four sides – which belong to the clan. It has three passageways leading to its temple, an administrative building and a stage within Cannon Square. Hokkiens refer to Cannon Square as Leong San Tong Lai, which means “Within Leong San Tong”. Cannon Square derived its name from the cannon that was fired from the place during the 10 days of secret society riots known as the Penang Riots of 1867.

Cannon Square’s main gateway faces the narrow Cannon Street with a side alley leading to an equally narrow Armenian Street while its back entrance is located at Beach Street. In the past, gharries (horse carriages) used the main gateway because it does not have a raised threshold as is the case with the other two.

LSTKK’s origins can be traced to mid-1835 when, during an anniversary celebration of their patron saint, Tua Sai Eah, a group of the clansmen raised the subject of acquiring a proper venue to foster better relationships.

The idea of establishing LSTKK took shape three days later when 102 Khoo businessmen met to plan a clan associa-tion (kongsi) and contributed a princely sum of $528 towards its foundation. They decided that the organisational set-up would be based on the existing kongsi of their home village in China. The Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi would only admit Hokkiens with the Khoo surname who could trace their origins to the Sin Kang village in Xiamen, China.

The Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi would only admit Hokkiens with the Khoo surname who could trace their origins to the Sin Kang village in Xiamen, China.

Some of the objectives of a typical kongsi are to care for its needy members, provide education to its members, conduct ceremonies for its members to honour their ancestors, instil pride in its genealogy by allocating hall space for ancestral tablets, and encourage the worship of the clan’s patron god/saint enshrined in its main hall. LSTKK is no exception.

In 1850, a trading company located on a 90,146-square metre piece of land was acquired and converted into a temple for ancestral worship. Later, the bungalow was demolished and a temple of great splendour took its place. There is no picture of this building as it was “mysteriously” razed on the night of Chinese New Year eve in 1901.

 

Two statuett es of deities and a pair of bamboo couplets (teik lien) were the only relics that escaped the inferno. These items escaped unscathed because they were housed in a temporary shed, scheduled to be shifted into the new temple on an auspicious day.

The Khoos rebuilt their kongsi from scratch in 1902. Master craftsmen, artists, artisans and sculptors were employed from China to embark on the third kongsi building that survived till today. This was finally completed in 1906. With the completion of the kongsi building, the Khoos finally had an official venue for their activities. The cost of building the temple eventually reached $100,000.

Each of the three buildings within the nucleus of Cannon Square serves an important purpose: the temple provides a venue for clansmen to congregate for religious or cultural events, the stage is for performances and the administrative building provides office space for the administrators and clerical staff of the kongsi. The Khoos observe four major festivals: Phor Thor (Hungry Ghost Festival), Cheng Beng (Chinese equivalent of “All Souls Day”), the Ancestors Death Anniversary and Tung Chek (Winter Solstice).

Every day, the well which is located close to the Kongsi’s administrative building within Cannon Square serves the clansmen living around the area with fresh water and a place for social interaction.

World War II reached the shores of Penang in December 1941 and the island fell into the hands of the Japanese forces. Cannon Square was bombed during the Japanese Occupation, and some houses and a portion of the temple’s roof were damaged.

It was only 10 years after the war that an organising committee was set up to conduct extensive repairs and renovations. Workers and craft smen took four years to complete restoring the roof, walls, pillars and plaques at a cost of $60,000. LSTKK then held a three-day “rebirth” celebration beginning November 23, 1959.

On their own initiative, LSTKK trustees engaged Laurence Loh Akitek to restore its stage in 1995, which resulted in the prestigious National Architectural Award 2000 for historical conservation by the Malaysian Institute of Architects. The trustees again engaged Laurence Loh Akitek who appointed Syarikat Success Construction Sendirian Berhad as the main contractor to restore the temple in 1999. The project took 18 months to complete, and can be considered one of the most ambitious and complex restoration projects ever undertaken in Penang.

Today, LSTKK appears as a tourist icon in travel brochures, but behind that façade is a rich story about how the clan managed to preserve its heritage by creating an urban “village” for its members and by looking after their welfare and needs for more than 170 years. The building complex is a clear reflection of the multiethnic community that settled around the Armenian Street in the early years.

Yong Check Yoon is a former journalist who is now an editor for Universiti Sains Malaysia alumni magazine The Leader. He has been researching and contributing articles on Penang culture and history since the 1980s.



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