Penang Clan Jetties

Penang Clan Jetties

Extending 20 metres into the Straits of Malacca, these extraordinary villages are home to a community of simple ordinary folk.

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The clan jetties located at Weld Quay, just by the ferry terminal, are arguably Georgetown's most unique attraction. The jetties that survive today were once part of a much larger network of villages built entirely on stilts that extend as far as 20 metres into the sea. Each of the jetties were associated to a particular Chinese clan and were named after their shared surname, with the exception of the Mixed Surname Jetty, which as the name suggests, comprises of residents with different surnames.

While the houses that make up these jetties might not be impressive mansions of note, they offer a glimpse into a vastly different lifestyle that has evolved since the settlement of Penang. The jetties growth closely mirrored the development of Georgetown, in particular, the harbour. Most of its original inhabitants worked as labourers, and were vital in the loading and unloading of cargo at the docks of Weld Quay. The jetties originally served as docks for boats and other sea vessels, but as time passed, simple buildings were added to the jetties, allowing the workers, who were mainly Chinese immigrants, to stay near their place of work. These dwellings were simple and humble, as their inhabitants were not rich, but merely workers trying to eke out a decent living in a far away land. Those who achieved a measure of success and wealth decided to settle down, bringing over their families from China. Migrations such as these were the early foundations of the clan jetties communities.

Control over the jetties was vital to these workers, as the boats and ships that docked there provided their income. Workers would band together, usually relying on their kinsmen, and vie for control of the jetties. In time, the jetties fell under the control of certain clans, and became identified with them. Today, seven out of the eight remaining clan jetties are associated to a particular Chinese clan, namely Lim Jetty, Chew Jetty, Tan Jetty, Lee Jetty, Yeoh Jetty, Koay Jetty. The Koay and Lee Jetties, along with the non clan associated Mixed Surname Jetty, can be considered recent additions, having been built in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the older jetties were demolished as part of the development of the harbour area in the 20th century.

Development, especially during the middle of the 20th century, greatly affected the lifestyle of the clan jetties. In addition to the physical demolition of several jetties for the ferry terminal and other harbour facilities, economic and political changes such as the revocation of Penang's free port status, and a more organised port administration culminated in the shutting down of all cargo handling activities in the clan jetties. In the years that followed, the close knit communities began to dwindle as more inhabitants sought work opportunities elsewhere.

Georgetown's UNESCO Heritage City listing in 2008 has rekindled interest in the clan jetties. Today, the Chew Jetty offers certain homestay packages for visitors who want to experience life on the sea, and other jetties are open to visitors who want to explore their unique surroundings. While most of the other jetties have undergone changes in terms of its inhabitants, the Chew Jetty community has managed to retain much of its social fabric. This is most evident during its communal celebration of Chinese festivals, especially on the Ninth Day of Chinese New Year, when the Hokkien community offer prayers to the Jade Emperor. This particular event has become part of Penang's tourism calendar and is touted as an authentic cultural experience. The truth, perhaps, is much more simple, it is just how a community comes together in thanksgiving to mark the passing of another year.