Penang Clan Houses

Penang Clan Houses

Elaborate and ornate, the clan houses of Penang served as community centres for the Chinese as they settled in a far away land.

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One of Georgetown's most unique attractions are the Chinese clan houses scattered throughout what are now known as heritage areas of the city. Known as kongsi, these clan houses were organisations established by Chinese immigrants who settled in Penang and acted as community centres. Each Chinese community would establish a clan house, usually based on their surname, and this clan house would offer assistance to fellow kinsmen in need of help. In Penang, the five major Hokkien clan houses belong to the Cheah, Khoo, Yeoh, Lim, Tan clans.

The clan house system was instrumental in the settlement of Chinese in Penang, and many immigrants rose to become wealthy and successful businessmen in the region. These businessmen, however, did not forget their humble origins and the clan houses that supported them, and many of them contributed to the expansion of the clan houses, becoming patrons and gaining influence amongst their kinfolk. The streets of Georgetown today bear the names of these illustrious people, a recognition of the part they played in the growth of the city.

Although each clan house is distinct, they bear certain key common characteristics. They are built conforming to traditional Chinese design, often mimicking a Chinese palace with a courtyard in front of the building. The main entrance is a set of double doors, flanked with two smaller doors by each side. A mural of an imposing guardian deity is drawn on each panel of these doors, and are believed to guard the building from any harm. The clan house's primary deity occupies the centre of the hall, occupying an alcove that is elaboratedly carved or gilded, overlooking an altar. Some clan houses have inner courtyards and a dedicated area where ancestral tablets of kinsmen are kept. Not surprisingly, many visitors unfamiliar to clan houses often mistake them for temples dedicated to Chinese deities. While it is inaccurate, this assumption is not completely wrong, as the deities in the clan houses are worshipped and revered by the community, and celebrations are held during certain days of the year to honour them.

The clan houses are elaborately decorated, with stone and marble carvings adorning nearly every wall and pillar along with statues of guardian creatures in the courtyard. Many statues from Chinese myths perch from the rooftops, along with Chinese dragons. Scenes from Chinese fables and myths are also depicted on the walls, along with the Eight Immortals of Taoist lore. While some of these decorations are recent additions, most if not all materials used are finely crafted and imported directly from China. Some clan houses go to the extent of using highly sought after specialist craftsmen.

Chinese communities have centred around these clan houses in the past, but with the progress of time, the clan houses' social influence has faded. The clan houses and their storied past have undeniably contributed to the city's UNESCO Heritage City listing and while many still continue traditions passed down through generations, there has been debate regarding the clan houses role in the future.

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