The 1867 Penang riots

In 1867 riots erupted in Penang between coalitions of secret societies. A Commission of Inquiry was established with Lieutenant-Governor A.E.H. Anson presiding over nine other Commissioners. In the process, the story of what became known as the Penang Riots slowly unfolded.

Volunteers manning a barricade.

FORTY-YEAR-OLD Lieutenant-Governor A.E.H. Anson, a veteran of the Crimean War, had just arrived in Penang to take up the appointment in early June, about two months after Sir Harry Ord from the Corps of Royal Engineers became Governor of the Straits Settlements.

Both understood too little to differentiate between "benevolent" and "secret" societies and left the antagonism between conflicting secret societies unattended. This state of affairs continued to simmer until it reached a boiling point.

The Hokkien-based Kien Tek (also called "Tua Pek Kong") Society was led by Khoo Thean Teik and the Cantonese-based Ghee Hin Society was headed by Lee Kok Yeng (more commonly referred to in history books as Lee Coyn).

The riots were the result of a tussle for monopoly over opium and arak farms, smuggling activities and territorial control. Malay secret societies — Bendera Merah (Red Flag) and Bendera Putih (White Flag) — took sides; Bendera Merah was Kien Tek Society's ally while Bendera Putih was that of Ghee Hin's. The riots started when a fight broke out between members of Bendera Merah and Bendera Putih during the annual Muharram procession and it was capitalised on by Kien Tek and Ghee Hin. Skirmishes continued and a diamond merchant from Hutton Lane was murdered at Armenian Street, the territory of the Kien Tek and Red Flags. Citizen arbitrators were engaged to settle the dispute several times but each peace agreement was blatantly violated by fresh fighting.

There were rumours that secret societies were planning to blow up the civil powder magazine at Magazine Circus to divert the authorities' attention. Gama now stands on its site.

In July, the situation reached a tipping point when a Kien Tek Chinese was caught looking through a fence into the compound of the house of a White Flag Malay at Jalan Takia (now Ah Quee Street). The man was called a "thief" and had a rambutan skin thrown at him. The man went away and later returned with a gang to avenge the insult. A fight broke out and the Chinese were driven back to the Kien Tek's Armenian Street headquarters (now occupied by Poh Hock Seah Tua Pek Kong Temple). A stone was thrown which hit the Kien Tek signboard. This infuriated its members who then turned up in full force with firearms. The police arrived and a fight was temporarily averted. This started what was later known as the "Early Riots".

The so-called "Later Riots" lasted 10 days, and began with a major clash on August 3, after Kien Tek members alleged that the Ghee Hins and the White Flags had stolen some cloths belonging to their dyers. Two days later, Kien Tek members attacked the Ghee Hins and this led to a spate of raids on both sides.

Amid the chaos of the riots, there were rumours that the Chinese were planning to blow up the civil powder magazine at Simpang Enam (Magazine Circus) and attack some other public buildings. Troops were deployed to guard these places.

At that point in time, the battery of artillery which was normally stationed at Fort Cornwallis had departed for Rangoon, Burma and the relief troops had yet to arrive. To make matters worse, soldiers from the Madras Sepoy Regiment normally stationed in Penang had sailed off in two men-of-war for the Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean. Their mission was to rescue the widow of a sea captain held captive after being ship-wrecked.

Back in Penang, Anson was still struggling to comprehend the complexity of the crisis made worse by what he described as a "maze of Malay, Chinese and Hindu names" brought before his attention. He was unprepared for the rapid metamorphosis of quiet-living, conservative citizens into volatile, urban guerrilla fighters. His Crimean War experiences were of little help in dealing with the current situation.

Of the Soo riflemen and 40 gunners normally stationed on the island, only 170 remained. This forced Anson to withdraw all police and military garrisons from the outlying areas to concentrate his remaining battalion, including every able-bodied European and Eurasian resident, to guard the areas with heaviest fighting. Barricades were set up and volunteers assigned to man them. It was obvious that this ragtag battalion was not enough to contain the activities of the rioters.

On August 4, the Penang Gazette carried the declaration (translated into English) by a religious teacher named Shaikh Omar Basheer, forbidding all Muslims to get involved in secret society activities. After the riots, Penang Malays were made to swear before him that they did not belong to any secret society. The original document in Jawi was found by W. William, a lecturer at the Malayan Teachers' College in Penang, while doing research on mosques and kramats (Muslim saints) in Penang in 1962.

The secret doorway that was discovered during the restoration of the temple. This doorway leads into a house in Khoo Kongsi.

Sporadic fighting took place all over the island, most heavily around Ujong Pasir (Prangin Road, formerly Sia Boey wholesale market area), Acheen Street and Armenian Street. Reinforcements from secret societies arrived in junks flying their respective flags from Province Wellesley (Seberang Perai) and from as far away as Junk Ceylon (Phuket). Shamoo, a witness in the Commission of Inquiry, even claimed that there were secret society members in the police force.

Anson sent a message to Ord in Singapore who immediately held an emergency meeting on August 12 with the Legislative Council before departing for Penang that afternoon. Ord arrived in Penang with a detachment of Sepoys on Elms Rifleman, coinciding with the return of HMS Wasp from the Nicobars. HMS Satellite sailed in a day later. By then the riot had reduced considerably in intensity.

Leaders of the secret societies agreed to the government's call to cease fighting. Anson imposed a $5,000 fine (in Straits Settlement dollars) on each of the feuding secret societies and with the money collected, he built five police stations: the old Dato' Kramat Police Station, Pitt Street Police Station, Prangin Road/Beach Street Police Station, old Hutton Lane Police Station and Magazine Circus Police Station. The police force was also revamped.

The riots were one of the reasons for the amendment made to the Ordinance of 1869 that empowered the Registrar of Societies to refuse to register any secret society at his discretion. Dangerous Secret Societies Ordinance of 1882 was reviewed in 1885 to ban Straits-born Chinese from joining such associations. The final blow to the secret societies came on January 1, 1890 when the Societies Ordinance stipulated that any society would be deemed illegal until its application was approved by the Registrar of Societies.

A cannon was claimed to have fired from the minaret of the Acheen Street mosque's circular window at attackers storming the Bendera Merah's headquarters.

The plaques on the Penang Hospital monument also bears the names of secret societies that contributed to the establishment of a public hospital.

Indeed the Penang Riots of 1867 altered the history of Penang as well as the country, forcing the authorities to develop a better understanding of secret societies. Interestingly many secret society leaders such as Khoo Thean Teik were known to be generous donors to charities. A monument at the Penang Hospital lists the names of "Ghee Hing Kongsee" and "Toa Peh Kong Kongsee" as donors to the construction of the original hospital. In fact the first hospital in Penang, then called the Paupers' Hospital, was erected in 1854 by Ghee Hin leader Mun Ah Foo. Even gangsters had a heart in the "good old days".

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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