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Monday, June 11, 2012

Penang: The Khoo Clan Association

I am so very glad we came to Penang. There is here a strangest sense of homecoming. Georgetown in Penang is Joo Chiat in Singapore as I remember it from my childhood. It has the same vibrance, the same smells, the same sense of decayed wealth and opulence. There are trishaws here to save an old Grandma and her young GrandDaughter from too far a walk. My Grandma was a tough old bird. She wouldn't have wasted 50 cents on a trishaw ride if she were going to the market alone. But since I, the wee one, was with her, she indulged my short legs... and handed over the gleaming 50 cents coin to the trishaw man. 

It's hard to describe the feeling one has of seeing the past so present.

We visited the Khoo Clan Association compound today. The British ruled Penang with a laissez-faire live and let live attitude. Clan associations with strong centripetal forces binding families and extended families together sprang up. These clan associations provided all manner of social services that only members of the clan related by blood and marriage could enjoy. The compound provided housing in prewar shop houses. The clan started schools. The central feature of the clan compound was an opulent temple decorated with fine paintings, intricate wood carvings and gold paint. There was even an opera house - the equivalent of a cinema I suppose in times past. The clan looked after its own very well indeed and still does. At present, the clan owns more than 200 prewar shophouses in Penang. These used to go for a song - RM$400,000 each and now the cost RM$4 million. 

Ummmm... it is a very rich clan indeed!

The history of the clan included both peace and violence. It provided schools. It filled religious needs. It also meted out justice. The Penang government provided as little central governance as it could, leaving the commonfolk to seek their own justice and protect their own. As such, clan fights did break out and blood spilled in the name of clan justice. This is the problem with over decentralising power. You force people to bring in their own brand of justice. I do wonder if our MOE is going that way... providing precious little school governance... and thus forcing families, private institutes and charities to look after theirs and their own - and of course, the inevitable cat fights and competition for turf. Some win. Many lose. The survival of the fittest it is.

Hmmmm... the problem of weak governance.

The most interesting thing about today's visit was to see how practices from feudalistic China (before communism) have been passed down through generations of Penangites. The Khoo Clan Association compound is in use. People go there to worship the Gods... a small room houses names engraved on copper plates of the illustrious sons of the Khoo clan who had graduated from universities all over the world. In 2010, 2 plates commemorated clan sons with degrees from Cambridge university. The temple we visited was not a dead temple... or dying. There was no decay about the place. The clan had money enough to keep the place looking absolutely new.... 

It was the past in the present.

Black and white ink murals on the walls. This one was entitled 100 sons and 1000 grandsons... and speaks of the Chinese fascination with male progeniture.

Clearly, the dragons atop the temple roofs have been kept in a state of stellar repair. They look more stunning than those I saw at the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Intricate painted woodwork under the eaves.

To see how necessary the clan association was to well-being and success of clan members, see the contrast in living quarters between the lodgings inside the clan compound and those outside. The buildings to the left of the photo are from the same pre-war period but are now modern-day slums.

I was so charmed by this barred window. It provided light and ventilation but kept out intruders with bamboo simulacra... decorated with dragonflies and flowers.

There was a museum on the premises and I remember a larder just like this in my Grandma's kitchen. It kept insects away from leftover food and the ventilated doors kept food cool.

Look at that man who has rolled up his shirt. Ohhhh... how often I saw that when I was a wee one!

1 comment:

Blur Ting said...

Fascinating write up, as usual!