|Tan Kim Hong|
Early Chinese temples in Malaysia which exhibited a pantheon of popular gods and deities were mostly established through the collective effort of immigrant-settlers and home-based sejourners. It was a gesture of thanks-giving for the success, prosperity and personal safety they had been blessed with Kong Hock Keong at Pitt Street which served as a community temple was founded in 1800 on a piece of land donated in perpetuity by the East India Company Government during the administration of Sir George Leith. In the colonial frontier settlement of early 19th century Penang where there was a discontinuity of traditional Chinese social order and a vacuum of strong indigenous superstructure, Kong Hock Keong was a natural outgrowth of Chinese sub-culture and religious beliefs in an emerging enclave economy.
The temple might have been built as a replica of Cheng Hoon Teng of Malacca (circa 1673) which was essentially the progenitor of all Chinese temples in this country. After 1795, Dutch Malacca was temporarily brought under the British jurisdiction at the beginning of the Napoleonic War thereby paving way to an exodus of Mataccan Chinese traders, sea-fearers and labourers to Penang. Necessitated by mutual economic needs and cultural predilections, the Fukienese and Cantonese of Malacca and Peanang jointly founded Kong Hock Keong with an initial sum of $3,700, with Chinese Kapitans Wu and Cai donating $200 each. The first two known directors were Huang Jinluan and Zeng Qinyun. With Boddhisattva Guanyin as the main goddess of worship and Mazu, or the Sacred Virgin of Heaven, as an associate deity. Kong Hock Keong, or the Temple of Fukienese and Cantonese, thus became a spiritual sanctuary of all Chinese on the island. It was formally included in the official map of Georgetown, 1803, and corrupted as a ‘Chinese church’. It was also in this year that Kapitan China Hu Shiming of the settlement donated a wooden tablet in honour of Boddhisatva Guanyin.
The first major renovation and redecoration of the temple was carried out in 1824 when the Fukienese directors of the year including the Tengchu of Cheng Hoon Teng. Liang Meiji, Lin Songpan, Qiu Mingshan, Gan Shiyu, Qiu Lingzhen, Xie Xue. He Dao and Xie Qingen successfully raised a sum of $7, 995 in Singapore. Malacca and Penang to built another new hall on a piece of ground donated by Hu Zhenlin, rightful heir of Kapitan China Hu Shiming and to add a living quarters for the resident monks by the side of the main temple. Images of new deities were enshrined in the new hall to meet with the requirements of the various segments of Chinese community. In June 1833, the Straits Settlements Government appointed a three-man committee comprising Mr. Salmud, Mr. Wright and Mr. Balhete to ascertain the total area of land possessed by the temple Subsequently, an E.I. grant numbered 2420 and 1838 indicating all that piece of land situated on the west side of Pitt Street in the District of Tanjong Penaigre. Penang which contained an area of 24,169 sq. ft. with the temple erected thereon was to form Lot 71 T.S. XIX, a perpectual property of the Chinese community for purposes of religious functions.
Orientated along the east-west direction. Kong Hock Keong exhibited the highest artistic skills of traditional Chinese architecture. The tilted and curved roof with its glazed tiles, the trusses with their ornate decorations based on the beam-frame system and cantilevering brackets and elegant dou gong all added to the grace and beauty of the temple. Decorative doors, carved column bases and granite drums as well as the terminating swallow tails and the dancing dragons on roof-tops were representative of unique Chinese craftsmanship.
In terms of practical efficacy, both Boddhisattva Guanyin and Mazu were common objects of communal and individual worship in return for wealth and health. They also served as the spiritual protectors of the immigrant Chinese in a new alienated environment. Popular local deities of Fukien and Guangdong also enjoyed active worship as symbols of communal unity and intangible links between the devotees and their homelands. Ethico-political cults of deified men and sages served the social function of encouraging local Chinese to practice civic morals of loyalty, bravery, righteousness and humaneness, besides being exemplary figures of human behaviour.
Like the Fukienese Choon Ghee Seah. Tong Kheng Seah and Cheng Hoe Seah which staged religious processions to commemorate the birthdays of their respective folk deities, Kong Hock Keong held elaborate rituals and wayangs in the 1850s to mark the birthdays of Boddhisattva Guanyin and Mazu. Ceremonies were also conducted on Chinese festive days. In the fanfare of drums, cymbals and gongs, thousands of Chinese thronged the temple amid a thick fog of incense and fire crackers either to offer prayers or to watch public theatrical performance. It nevertheless courted the attention of the government as a nuisance to public peace. Official restrictive measures were enforced in 1852 by the Penang Government vis-a-vis the mode of communal worship, and the performance of wayangs and Chingay processions. It culminated in the passing of the Police Act and Conservancy Act in June 1856 which by and large was the underlying cause of a riot in the front courtyard of Kong Hock Keong on 14 March 1857 when the period of police license to perform wayang expired. This unfortunate incident had inevitably deepened the contradiction between sections of the Chinese community and the authority.
In the 1850s attempts of rival secret societies and antogonistic dialect groups to control revenue farms and other economic resources had much disrupted the internal cohesion of the Chinese in Penang. Regional segmental sentiment strengthened with the proliferation of the various dialect and dialect-kinship organization. Deterioration of the weak religious and institutional links between the Fukiense and Cantonese pangs eventually resulted in the unsatisfactory maintenance of Kong Hock Keong. Major restoration work was carried out in 1862 by the Board of Directors comprising representatives of the Fukiense Big Fives, namely Yang Yiqian, Qiu Shiquan, Xie Zhaopan, Lin Chijun and Chen Yumao of Sandu Bao and another Du Hongmo. The Cantonese directors were Huang Kingde, Mei Yuanzhan, Huang Bailing and Mei Yaoguang of Xin Ning District, Feng Denggui of Zeng Cheng District and Lin Qifa of Xiang Shan District. Reconstruction work was completed in a year with a total cost of $1,1507.50. Xu Shizhang, a native of Longqu District in Fukien Province who later became the Governor of Ranong, and Wu Jihe, the Xin Ning philan-thropist of Penang, were the two main donors towards the project. With the two granite lions donated by Huang Xun in 1829 and the pair of dragon columns by Xu Shizhang in 1866 as sentinels of the temple, the newly renovated Kong Hock Keong stood majestically on the same site as the centre of religious activities. It had also assumed its noble function as the apex arbitration body of the Chinese in social matters, especially in the quarrels between the Ghee Hin and Tua Peh Kong Societies shortly before the 1867 Riots.
However, at the height of the Third Larut War (1872 - 1874) Kong Hock Keong once again lost its influence to mediate between rival Straits financiers in their struggle for paramouncy in the Perak tinfields. This had in turn weakned the cohesive forces of the community in Penang as the secret societies involved were mostly operative along regional or dialect group tines. There were needs to liberate the Chinese from the parochialism and clanship to mould a reunified community. On the other hand, the Straits Settlements Government had since 1879 been excercising great caution in dealing with Chinese affairs. Moderation and appeasement were necessary to bring about a better understanding of the Chinese sentiments and wishes.The establishment of the Penang Chinese Town Hall in 1881 was essentially a reflection of such requirements. Pounded against the brackdrop of mid-19th century civil strife, it was meant to replace Kong Hock Keong as the centripetal supra-segmental organisation of all Chinese.
As a forerunner of intra-communal unity and co-operation, the organizing principles of Kong Hock Keong were adopted by the Penang Chinese Town Hall, with seven Fukienese and seven Cantonese community leaders voted into its first Board of Directors. The same principles were also emulated by the Lam Wah Ee Hospital in 1886 to maintain a balance of power between the two pangs. In point of fact, both Kong Hock Keong and the Penang Chinese Town Hall were under the supervision of an interlocked leadership and power structure. Since July 1888, the Fukienese representatives in Kong Hock Keong were nominated by five kongsis, two each from Kew Leong Tong Lim Kongsi, Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi. Sit Teik Tong Yeoh Kongsi, Eng Chuan Tong Tan Kongsi and Hock Haw Kong Cheah Kongsi. The Cantonese members were drawn from the various voluntary associations as before. This system of life directorship was continued into the 20th century. It became institutionalised as the Board of Trustees with the Guangdong representatives nominated by Kwangtung and Tengchew Association when the Rules of Kong Hock Keong and its Allied Temples were enforced on 31.1.1952. A new leadership came into power in August 1895 to oversee the management of the temple and the Chinese Town Hall. It was further agreed upon in September 1897 that Huang Jingcong of Guangdong Pang and Ling Huazhan of Fukien Pang would respectively safekeep grants of the Chinese Town Hall and Kong Hock Keong.
In the 1880s, there were complaints against the resident priests of Kong Hock Keong as regards their deviant behaviour in the temple. Widespread public wrath had finally forced the government to appoint in 1887 twenty of Penang’s leading citizens, including Hu Taixing. Xu Wuan, Qiu Tiande, Xie Desbun and Xu Senmei, as new trustees for the management of the temple. They were vested with power to appoint and remove priests’ Subsequently, the choice of the new trustees fell on Abbot Miao Lian from the Gushan Monastry, Fuzhou who had come to Penang to raise funds for the renovation of the Fa Tang. The old priests were dismissed when their protest to Governor Sir Cecil Clementi Smith was rejected. Unfortunately, the installation of Abbot Miao Lian and his colleagues. Ben Zhong and De Ru, had resulted in the interference of at least one secret society. When much trepidation was felt Abbot Miao Lian finally decided to erect a new Guanyin Temple at the foot of Crane Hill, Air Itam in 1891 thereby paving way to the founding of Kek Lok Si, the Temple of Paradise in 1904.
At the turn of the century. Kong Hock Keong continued to finance the administration of Chinese Town Hall in return for the many temple activities conducted through the latter organization. The first Chingay procession in honour of Boddhisattva Guanyin was held in 1900. Eleven years after, the second pageant was held partly to celebrate the coronation of King George V in June 1911. With Guanyin. Mazu, Shennung Shengdi. Baoshen Dati and Guansheng Dadi at the lead. 50 units of beautifully decorated cars called Ch’ng Peh strolled the geographical confines of George Town. After World War 1, in 1918 - 1919, influenza, smallpox and plague broke out in Penang. A third procession was decided upon with the blessing of the Goddess to rid the island of these epidemics and concurrently, to celebrate World Armistice Day in November. A total of 42 units took part in the processing. The fourth Chingay procession was aimed at restoring prosperity in the midst of an economic slowdown in 1928. As early as July, the Chinese Town Hall mobilised eleven of its directors to assist in its organization emphasizing the display of mainly colourful lanterns, Gi, or the triangular flags of different heights and sizes and Lai, or oblong pieces of elaborately wrought red silk carried on two bamboo poles. Nevertheless, the October-November procession was heightened as multi-coloured tableau floats moved past the devotees.
As a temple that catered for practical worldly needs. Kong Hock Keong was less enthusiastic in the propagation of Dharma. There were, however, knowledgeable priests who would conduct public lectures during their brief stop-overs in Penang in the 1920s. One of such examples was Rev. Yuan Ying from Zhejiang who attracted a big crowd in February 1923. The popularity of Dharma lectures among the local devotees subsequently led to the establishment of a Penang Pu Yi Dharma School. Among its founders were the Chief Abbot of Kek Lok Si Temple, Ben Zhong, the resident priest of Kong Hock Keong. Guang Tong, prominent citizens Dai Peiji and Xie Ziyou. Guang Tong had also carried out a minor project in the same year to repaint all the indistinguishable artifacts and paraphernalia. This could be the first restoration work undertaken since 1863 and among the benefactors were five Indians.
During the turbulent years of Japanese Occupation. 1941-1945, devotees patronised the temple to solicit the deities’ divine blessings in all afflictions. In the post-war period, attempts were made to strengthen the Board of Trustees with the election of important posts explicitly defined in the Rules of Kong Hock Keong. Trustees henceforth would be vested with the power to appoint high priest to take charge of the temple and its associated temples of Thni Kong Tnua of Ayer Itam Hill and Siew Thean Keong of Perak Road on such terms and conditions as may be deemed necessary. The term of office of the high priest would be three years. He would be responsible to the Board of Trustees for the proper conduct of the religious ceremonies in the temples and also for the proper care of the temples. By-laws were drawn up in 1955 to upkeep the public image of Kong Hock Keong. In 1964, the Board assumed the task of renovating the temple displaying its grandeur and beauty in the most manifested manner. Of late, the temple trustees have devoted themselves to charitable work, alms-giving and the financing of Buddhist education.
Kong Hock Keong is steeped in history and antiquity. To the many fervent believers of Boddhisattva Guanyin, it has spiritually sustained their confidence in life, widened their understanding of moral values and soothed their passions and desires. At the societal level, through the sacred and supernatural, it regularizes individual and group behaviour in accordance with the change in time. Kong Hock Keong will be forever a part of Penang.