- By Amber
- In: Tales From The Track
- 02 Nov 2007
The Khoo Clan House, Georgetown, Malaysia
Khoo Kongsi looks like a temple, and in the sense that it is intended to house family gods, it is. A kongsi is a Chinese clan house, built to honour the achievements, and provide succor to the members of a very large extended family, or clan, as well as housing the family gods - but it is not a regular temple...
This very beautiful example of a kongsi is not built on Chinese land, but in the city of Georgetown, Penang in Malaysia. Khoo Kongsi was first built in 1902 (the clan had been planning its construction for nearly 70 years and had owned the land for over 50) but the original (said to be even more elaborate than the one pictured here), was "mysteriously" razed by fire during the Chinese New Year celebration only a few months after completion. The Khoos believed the splendour of their kongsi was an affront to heaven, so they were a little less ostentatious the second time around. It took them 8 years to rebuild it.
All the carvings, pillars and cut and paste work (chien nien) were created by the finest artisans from Fujian in China and all of the granite slabs had to be imported. Many of the decorative elements of temples and similar buildings in South East Asia are made using concrete or certain kinds of plaster but all you see of Khoo Kongsi is carved from solid stone.
The Khoos who built the kongsi could trace their ancestry back 107 generations. They fled persecution by the Manchu government long before the founding of Penang, but they arrived there in great numbers in the early years of settlement. The ancestral rooms in the wings of the upper story contain plaques (sin choo pai) honouring all the major achievements of members of the clan, right up to lawyers, judges and doctors living in Malaysia today. The kongsi provides help to clan members who find themselves in trouble, covers medical expenses and helps foster the careers and ambitions of the living family, as well as carefully preserving the unique history of the Khoos.
The kongsi enshrines the ashes of "the Great Duke" and "the Noble", the deified patron saints of the Khoos, who with an army of 80,000 defeated 1 million enemy troops at the battle of the Fei river.
There are so many fascinating stories relating to the placement and design of elements of the kongsi and the history of the Khoo family, but I'll save those for their visitors – they are all related in the remarkable downstairs museum (funded by the clan and by entry fees). Khoo Kongsi is a wonderfully preserved architectural and historic marvel and it's only one of the amazing clan houses and temples you can see in a quick walk around Georgetown, Penang. I cannot recommend a visit highly enough.