Guilds that Built Penang

loading The 82nd anniversary of Kim Tin Seah.

Penang became a regional entrepot in the early nineteenth century and with it, various kinds of constructions sprung up to meet the needs of public development and the large influx of immigrants. To cater for practitioners in the industry, various builders’ associations were formed to provide working opportunities and welfare.

Penang Monthly looks at two of the myriad guilds that, while playing different roles, contributed significantly to Penang’s development.

Kim Tin Seah

The rebuilding of Master Lu Ban Temple.

Formed in the mid-nineteenth century, Kim Tin Seah was initially an association for house builders in Penang. Registered in 1893, its inception was to commemorate Tan Kim Tin, a nineteenth-century contractor who solved the flooding problem at Esplanade by building an embankment.1 By 1904, it already had 291 members.2

As a reward, a piece of land on Trusan Road was endowed to him by the colonial government – this later became a gathering place for builders; and the spot where Lu Ban, the patron saint of builders and contractors, and other gods could be worshipped. Unlike its counterparts such as Loo Pun Hong, which consisted mainly of Cantonese-speaking members, Kim Tin Seah very likely consisted mainly of Hokkien members.

Post-Second World War Penang witnessed Kim Tin Seah’s active role in securing the interests of the construction industry. With significant population growth, Penang in the early 1950s suffered an urgent lack of houses, especially in the suburbs – it was recorded that a minimum of 450 houses a year was needed.3

While prospects seemed good for the industry, there were financial constraints to build houses. In 1958 the George Town Municipal Council resorted to increasing house taxes on various post-war housing – from bungalows and shophouses to attap houses.4 Fearing the impending negative impact on the construction industry, Kim Tin Seah came to the frontline to publicly oppose the decision.5 This proved successful, and the taxes were eventually revoked.

The association was also dedicated to improving the general construction environment of Penang, and also Malaysia. In 1958 Kim Tin Seah, along with the Loo Pun Hong and Kin Cho Hong associations, invited an international expert from the UN to discuss viable training programmes to support the needs of industrial development in post-war Malaysia.6

During this time, in aiming to include more members from the industry, Kim Tin Seah officially changed its name to become the Penang Master Builders & Building Materials Dealers Association. It retains its original name as a commemoration; and membership is not limited to ethnicity.7 Till today, the association embraces individuals and companies involved in various levels of the construction and material industry, from those dealing in timber and flooring to large scale construction companies.

Members participating in the completion ceremony of the temple.

Hokkien influence in the association was strong, and until the 1980s, its successive presidents were prominent Hokkiens in the industry, within Penang and without. For example, Datuk Choong Han Leong, who served as president in the early 1960s, was famous in the materials industry; he also contributed widely to the Chinese community and held many important positions in Chinese associations and schools, including chairperson of Chinese Town Hall from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s.8 Other core members of the association were also actively involved in large public and private projects, such as Penang Bridge, Komtar, Rasa Sayang Hotel and Gurney Hotel.

Today, the Penang Master Builders & Building Materials Dealers Association (Kim Tin Seah) continues the tradition of voicing out on various issues regarding the industry. It also works closely with the Penang state government and other related industry players and government agencies to embrace and promote the Fourth Industrial Revolution, industrialised building systems (IBS), automation and 3D printing for construction, which will hopefully benefit the construction industry as a whole.9

Kin Cho Hong

Kin Cho Hong Penang. The bat on top of every branch's plaque symbolises luck.

Founded in Selangor and KL in 1917, Kin Cho Hong, or Builder’s Guild, is an association for relatively small-scale Chinese builders, such as carpenters, plumbers and handymen.

With Lu Ban as patron saint as well, the association aimed to forge relations and improve common welfare. Although initially composed mainly of Cantonese-speaking members, it was generally open to all Chinese-speaking groups.10

Kin Cho Hong Penang was established in 1926 by a builder, Yen, from Sungai Petani. During a visit to Penang, he suggested the formation of a Penang branch to unite builders, which would benefit the then-prosperous industry.

With consent from the other builders, its first meeting was held at the construction site of one builder, Cheung, at the current police headquarters on Penang Road.11 That same year, the association took residence in a shophouse along Rope Walk, receiving approval from the Registrar of Society a few months later.

As its membership rapidly expanded – to more than 500 – the existing space became insufficient.12 In 1927 the guild was moved to 36, Kampung Malabar and later in the 1950s, through crowdfunding initiatives among its members, it was relocated to a double-storey shophouse on Jalan Sri Bahari, where it remains today.

While the late 1920s witnessed the rapid growth of its branches throughout Malaya – as many as seven altogether13 – it was not until 1946 that the United Malaysia Kin Cho Hong Association was formed. It served as an important platform to promote construction skills and knowledge, and for voicing out concerns pertinent to the industry.

In the 1970s, when the construction industry began to develop along ethnic lines because of the New Economic Policy, the association advocated for equality in the tender system.14 Other issues of concern included the price volatility of construction materials, foreign labour policy, certifications from the Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB), etc.15

Throughout the decades, Kin Cho Hong Penang connected its members with related jobs, or contractors from elsewhere with suitable local workers. Many of the members were involved in fundamental levels of construction such as carpentry, furniture, cement and paint, and some of them later became middle-scale contractors.

The branches also share similarities in decorative symbols. A bat, which signifies luck in Chinese,16 is a recurring symbol in the plaque and emblem; the shield at the bottom of the emblem represents strong foundations; the globe, masonic square and compass in the shield signify the strong survivability of fellow builders all over the world; and the lifebuoy signifies the spirit of mutual aid.17

It also had close relations with other similar associations, such as Loo Pun Hong and Loo Seng Hong. Apart from construction matters, Kin Cho Hong Penang also backed the community through activities such as organising night schools for young dropouts in post-war Penang, as well as fundraisers for the Lam Wah Ee Hospital buildings, Penang Chinese Town Hall and some Chinese schools.

A wooden altar in Kin Cho Hong dedicated to Lu Ban.

In recent decades, Kin Cho Hong Penang has seen a decline in young members, which is sadly common for many Chinese associations in the state. It has had to resort to renting out its ground floor to sustain its administrative expenses.18 What remains is that Kin Cho Hong and other such associations mark an age when toilsome builders laid the foundations of Penang, and paved the direction of its urban culture.

Lee Cheah Ni is an art practitioner, independent curator and cultural researcher based in Penang. She is actively involved in societal art and several cultural research projects, such as documenting local oral history.

1141st Anniversary of Penang Master Builders & Building Materials Dealers Association, 2018, p.19; html

2Based on the Supplement to the Straits Settlements Government Gazette, 17th June 1904, p.29, the majority of members were probably Hokkien labourers.

3Penang Past and Present 1786-1963, The City Council of George Town, Penang, 1966, p.84-88.

4“市議會今特別會議商討重估戰後興建住屋年值”, Kwong Wah Yit Poh, 12th September 1958.

5“金鎮社暨旅業公會聯合召開抗議大會”, Kwong Wah Yit Poh, 9th December 1958.

6“金鎮社等四建築業團體設茶敘歡迎衛理氏”, Kwong Wah Yit Poh, 17th December 1958.

7141st Anniversary, Penang Master Builders & Building Materials Dealers Association, p.19


9Interview with Datuk Lim Chee Tong, current president of the Penang Master Builders & Building Materials Dealers Association.

10“Kin Cho Hong Selangor 62nd. Anniversary 1918-1980, p.3.

11“槟华建造行创办史”, Sin Ping Jit Pao, 10 Oct 1951.

12“槟华建造行创办史”, Sin Ping Jit Pao, 10 Oct 1951.

13Kin Cho Hong Selangor 62nd. Anniversary 1918-1980, p.101.

14Kin Cho Hong Selangor 75th. Anniversary 1918-1993, p.30 & 48.

15Interview with Leong Kien Keong, Chairman of Kin Cho Hong Selangor, 12 December 2018.

16“Bat” in Chinese sounds identical to the word for "luck" (fu, Chinese: 福), which is a pair of homophones-implied linguistic symbolism. Interview with Leong Kien Keong, Chairman of Kin Cho Hong Selangor, 12 December 2018.

17Kin Cho Hong Selangor’s article of association, p.1

18Interview with Mr Ho, chairman of Kin Cho Hong Penang, 2017.

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