The Han Jiang Ancestral Temple of the Penang Teochew Association – linking past and present

Teochew Temple © Adrian Cheah

You cannot miss the building. Nestled among rows of old Indian Muslim carpet stores, jewellers and eateries, the ancestral temple of the Teochew Chinese stands out with its pronounced Chinese architecture and imposing doors featuring twin larger-than-life Chinese warriors in full regalia. This silent and formidable pair with their red faces and weapons, frightening to foes yet welcoming to members and visitors, have been standing guard to the temple's peaceful interior for more than a century. Their presence recalls to mind a rather popular Chinese tercet: "Like the spring rain to a lotus blossom, thou art welcome; come, rest within".

Teochew Temple © Adrian Cheah

Welcome to the Han Jiang Ancestral Temple of the Penang Teochew Association, recipient of the prestigious Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Conservation Award 2006. Awarded in recognition of "the achievement of individuals and organisations within the private sector, and the public-private initiatives, in successfully restoring structures of heritage value in the region", this prize is another feather in the cap for Penang, but even more significant, it is a milestone and raison d'être for heritage conservation and spiritual pluralism.

Quick histories

The Teochews originated from the Chaoshan region in Guangdong Province of China. Like other Chinese communities at the time, the Teochews, carried forth by a sense of adventure, predetermination and vocation, soon found themselves strangers in strange lands, including Penang.

Family ties among the Chinese

The family tie in China is strong, according to a book published in 1869 on the Chinese peoples. The people are clannish, and you will frequently find the larger proportion of a small village bearing the same name from the family. Clan houses and associations are not merely patrilineal archivals, but also serve to help the less fortunate within the community, wherever they may be.

Penang's clan houses are a silent reminder of the humanitarian and benevolent spirit of the early wave of Chinese settlers, among members within the same surname, dialect groups or same family names. In short, the clan houses, associations and temples were primarily for these clans to look after their fellow members.

Sarnia Hoyt described clan associations and houses as where Chinese migrants of common background migrants sought help, protection and work. Each kongsi helped clan members educate children and pay for funerals, helped promote harmony among members by settling disputes and fostering solidarity.

The beginnings of the Ancestral Temple go back to 1855 when six pioneers of Teochew descent acquired a piece of property on Beach Street. In honour of their roots, the building was given the simple title of Teochew Kongsee. To accommodate the increasing population of the Teochew Chinese, these six founders then built what was to become the present temple.

The original structure, comprising two halls, was simple and adequate. A third hall was built some years later, effectively dividing the temple into three sections-courtyard, middle hall and rear hall.

During the early 20th century, the ancestral temple also served as a famous school – Han Chiang – which still exists today, but located on Ayer Itam Road.

As the Chinese have always played a major role in the early and latter days of Penang, it is not surprising to find several, still thriving clan houses established here.

Cultural influences and some famous Teochews

Teochew Temple © Adrian Cheah

Penang's cultural scene has definitely been enriched by the Teochew influence. Its pervasiveness has left a mark on several things often taken for granted-food, dialect, stitchery and needlework, ceramics, carving and music.

Some famous international Teochews include the actor Chow Yun-Fat and director John Woo. The 18th-century Siamese king Taksin was of Teochew origin too, and it was due to him that Bangkok has a fairly large (assimilated) Teochew community.

In Malaysia, the Teochew community is mostly found in Penang and Johor Bahru in the peninsular, and Sabah in the east. Although not well known on a global scale, Penang's Teochews played an important part in the nation's history.

The Ancestral Temple – a brief introduction

As it was when acquired by the six in 1867, the temple today is located on Chulia Street, facing Queen Street.

The building is divided into two sections, the temple and ancestral hall on the right, and a Western-styled office block on the left.

The temple's layout is, as mentioned earlier, a triality comprising the courtyard, middle hall and rear hall. Each section and feature of the temple has a purpose and an explanation behind it. Meticulously documented 'storyboards' hang numerously on just about every wall, each one explaining the minutiae of the different architectural features. The visitor can, if he so wishes, test his observation skills by trying to identify some of these features hidden among the myriad patterns and details.

Among some of the more unique characters are the 'foreigner lifting beam' and Taohua and the Ferryman.

In restoring the temple to its original glory, the people involved spared effort in their attempts to preserve authenticity. From the wealth of details on the painted doors to the proofreading of epithet stones and roof details, the results speak for themselves. It is inevitable however, that modern and practical conveniences were included, like fans and electric lights. These however, are quite unobtrusive and do not spoil the ambience.

A walk through the three sections

Teochew Temple © Adrian Cheah

Upon walking past the main doors, one is immediately greeted by a stone plaque inscribed with Chinese characters which say Han Jiang Ancestral Temple on one side, and on the other Mutual Prosperity for the Nine Beautiful Counties. The latter is a tribute of sorts to the original nine Teochew counties in China. A tenth county, the island of Nan-Ao was added later and is not included in the plaque. While here, pay attention to the beams and carvings, for they have a story to tell.

The next stop is a granite paved courtyard. The view of the sky above is almost unobstructed, but for the modern multi-storey neighbouring building on the right, if you are facing the middle hall. Plants significant to the Teochew Chinese, such as bamboo, lotuses and pomegranates are grown here. Epithets carved on marble slabs are mounted on the right wall. A moon-gate on the left leads to the office, where one can go for enquiries and information material.

The middle hall houses a major Taoist deity of the Teochews-the Supreme Lord of the North Pole, also known as Heavenly Father. Housed within a glass cage, this deity is particularly popular during Chap Goh Meh. Some of the deity's devotees light 'pyramid' or 'pagoda' joss stick pasted with a piece of red paper bearing the devotee's name.

The middle hall also features a plaque that features a blessing of the Heavenly Father upon the Teochew People. The plaque was a contribution from four of the temples aforementioned original six founders. The roof section of the middle hall is decorated with curved lintels depicting flowers, birds and human characters.

Teochew Temple © Adrian Cheah

To get to the rear hall, one must walk through the interestingly named Arched Doors of Etiquette, so named because the doors, two in all, are designated with the Confucian ethical principles of Etiquette and Righteousness. Significantly, these doors lead to what is the most important part of the building-the altars with rows of ancestral tablets. Surely, one who enters this hallowed hall should first be 'endowed' with admirable qualities such as Etiquette as well as Righteousness!

Ancestral worship is an important part of Taoist Chinese culture. From a theological perspective, ancestral worship is a ritualised appeasement and invocation of deceased relatives, based on the belief that their spirits influence the fate of the living. On a deeper level however, one could draw a parallel between ancestral worship with the acknowledgement of the importance of history in the role of shaping one's future. It is also on that very understanding that one recognises the significance of past cultures and structures. The reason for their preservation is not merely sentimental, ornamental for the sake of posterity, but that they are cherished and recognised as luminary monuments of inspiration and strength for future generations.

The Ancestral Temple today

Teochew Temple © Adrian Cheah

The temple has, since its inception, been thrice restored. The third restoration effort, which took nearly two years and at a cost of RM1.5 million, was given due recognition by UNESCO, which awarded the temple the Asia-Pacific Award in 2006. The accolade was made even more special by the fact that it was only the second historical structure to have been accorded the honour.

Importantly, funding for the project came from the Teochew people in an excellent example of community spirit – the very reason behind clan associations.

Penang Teochew Association
127 Chulia Street, 10200 Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +604-261 5629, 262 5629

Written by Raja Abdul Razak © All rights reserved
Photographs by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved