Chinese Kongsi Clan | International Relations Dissertations

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Chapter 1


The Chinese of South China came to Malaya in the great numbers. Today, they comprise about the Hokkien dialect, and they quickly established their clan houses or kongsi, in Georgetown. These kongsi are actually clan temples for ancestor worship. They are set like jewels in courtyards, guarded by great stone lions. However, the role of the Chinese kongsi changes very rapid in Malaya since the late 1900s, and hence their impact on the Chinese community was very significance.

The Chinese kongsi were district associations was organized on a district (of China) or clan (surname) basis. Chinese kongsi also were mutual-benefit societies whose membership was drawn from particular village and prefectures in China. In China they were originally religious or benevolent “self help” associations, which assumed a political or anti-dynastic character at the time of the Manchu conquest, and later degenerated into organizations of criminals for exploiting and intimidating the community.

Their rivalries, especially regarding control and limits of the “protection areas” into which they parceled towns and districts, brought them into collision. Their objects were to help needy members carry out various religious rites, and help in settling disputes among their members or between their members and others.

Chinese kongsi are organizations of popular origin found among overseas Chinese communities for individuals with the same surname in Malaya. In the opinion of contemporary Europeans, kongsi was quite distinct from the hui or secret society, but the fact is that kongsi was the inclusive term including the benevolent associations, pure and simple, and the hui that was both “self-help” and criminal in its scope. When the hui were finally suppressed, the kongsi survived and they continue their work of benevolence and mutual assistance.But the maritime province of China from which the Straits Chinese were drawn was notorious in Chinese history for their turbulence and for generations various districts had carried on bloody feuds. When the natives of these districts came to Malaya they brought their feuds with them.

To understand how British colonialism affected the Chinese community in Penang to form an association or Chinese kongsi, we have to look into the implications of the colonization of the island by Francis Light an English country trader.

1.1 Background

Pulau Pinang or Penang is name of an island in the Straits Malacca and also is a small mountainous island off the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, 15 miles long by nine miles wide. The east coast of the island is the site of Penang’s harbor, formed by the narrow channel that separates the island from the mainland. The name of Penang as called by Chinese as Binlang Xu (means island of Penang) in navigational drawings used by the maritime voyages of Imperial (Ming dynasty China) envoy Admiral Cheng Ho.

Penang was already identified in the chart of Cheng Ho's voyage to the South Sea in the 15th century. However, the urban development of Penang only started when Francis Light established the trading base of the East India Company in 1786, for the voyage between China and India. All the varied flavours of both worlds- in the faces, languages, customs and costumer- are blended, yet distinct. Penang was founded for trade, and trade remains the hearts of its economy.

In time Penang earned a reputation for having “the sweetest water in the east”. Similarly, the Chinese settlement in Tanjong Tokong pre-dates the English settlement by several decades. There were also Chinese planters living in Krian and along the Kedah coast, opposite the island. The main urban settlement on the island, George Town, sits close to this harbor on the northeastern promontory of the island. George Town was named by Francis Light on August 10th 1786, and is thus as old as the Settlement itself. Light had occupied the island on (July 17th) that clearing the jungle on Penaga Point and going on to mark out what are still the central thoroughfares viz. Having named the island after the Prince of Wales, Light evidently made amends by naming the town after George III, quickly adding name to commemorate and conciliate the Primer Minister (William Pitt), and the Governor-General (Cornwallis).

1.1.1 Founding Penang

Penang was part of the sultanate Kedah until it became a British possession in 1786, gaining independence as part of the Federation of Malaya in 1957. In 1786, Captain Francis Light established Penang to serve as an English trading emporium in the Straits of Malacca, an area strategically located between India and China. At that time, the British had no port between Calcutta and Canton, a matter for concern when monsoon storms drove British ship to seek supplies or repair.

These scenario had changed dramatically on 17 July 1786 when Lieutenant Gray, under the command of Captain Francis Light, led a pioneer landing party and proceeded to supervise an orderly disembarkation. Captain Light, who was on board the Eliza, had chosen Penaga Point, a cover on the northeast finger of the island, to set-up his headquarters. The Eliza, accompanied by the Prince Henry and the Speed well, had left Kedah port on the 14th of July after having reached an understanding with the Sultan to establish a trading port on behalf of the English East India Company.

After Francis Light introduced the idea of a free port, which in sharp contrast to the established practice in the area. The result was dramatic. Small trades who had been sailing to several small Malayan and Dutch ports turned more and more toward Penang. Soon a steady stream of permanent Asian settlers followed. At the same time, Penang also attracted Chinese traders and merited from India subcontinent and the neighboring Malay States. Light reported to the East India Company that trades came from as far as Arabia in the West and Makasaar in the East.

Light successfully negotiated an agreement with the Sultan of Kedah that Penang would be ceded to the East India Company in exchange for £6,000 per annum and the promise that the company would station an armed vessel in the Straits to guard Penang and the Kedah coast. They agreed that free trade would be allowed, and that anyone could trade on the Kedah coast without restriction. Despite having written reports to his superiors in Calcutta about the helpfulness of the natives on the island, Captain Francis Light and subsequent East India Company officers considered the island “virtually uninhabited” .Thus Light went on to claim the island for the English Crown and christened it Princes of Wales Island. Its capital was Georgetown, named after George III while the fort itself was named after the Governor-General of India, Charles, Marrquis Cornwallis.

Through this second treaty signed in 1800, the English gained control of the coastline stretching from Kuala Kedah in the north to the Krian estuary in the south. This was named Province Wellesley, after Richard, Earl of Mornington, later Marquis of Wellesley, Governor-General of India. Once the agreement was concluded, the British boats landed. The next day, a Chinese from Kedah, together with some Indian Christians, brought Light a welcoming gift of fishing nets. Most agree that this man was Koh Lay Huan, a Chinese from Fujian province whom Light described as “the most respectable member of the Chinese,” and whom he appointed as Penang’s first Chinese community leader or kapitan (a word borrowed from Dutch into English, Chinese and Malay to refer to the appointed leaders of ethnic groups). Penang quickly became a cosmopolitan commercial center, and among the many who flocked to Penang to seek the “protection of the British flag” were “Europeans, Chooliahs (Tamils), Bengalis, Chinese, Burmese, Arabs, Malays and Portugese”. By 1789, there were ten thousand residents, and this number doubled by 1795.

1.1.2 Founding Chinese Kongsi

As the majority of Chinese immigrants came from the southern maritime provinces of China (Fukien, Kwangtung and Kwangsi) where the Triad Society had prospered, it is not surprising to find therefore that many of them were in fact Triad members who had brought the secret organization with them to Singapore and Malaya. The available evidence suggests that the Triad was firmly established in the Straits Settlements by the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was first recorded in Penang in 1799 as a source of trouble to the local government.

By 1825 there were at least four secret societies- the Ghee Hin, the Ho Seng, the Hai San and the Wah Sang- firmly entrenched on the island. When waves of Chinese immigrants deluged Malaya during the second half of the nineteenth century, they had no intentions of making the country their permanent home. They were hua chiao who left China to find their fortune and having found it, and then they intended to return to the motherland. While the Chinese immigrants lived in Malaya, they wanted Chinese social to comforts for their “home-away-from-home”.

As they increased in number their need for closer identification and security drove to set up associations and societies similar to hose in China. So, while the kongsi administration in Penang at defiance as early as 1799: in 1825 they actually plotted an insurrection in league with the Siamese to overthrow the Government; in 1826 Newbold notes the Triad Society in Malacca as being 4,000 strong.

In the meantime, the Chinese immigrant also established the association (or hui kuan) which formed on a provincial basis, there were the Hokkien (Fukien) and Kwangtung Associations. The principal functions of this hui kuan were to keep alive links with their home provinces by making available to members reading materials on their home regions, and to provide mutual aid such as subsidies for funerals of members, education aid include scholarships and loans. While the organizations of the nineteenth century catered primarily to the socio-economic needs of the overseas Chinese, during the twentieth century, as the latter became increasingly politically conscious, these organizations also sought to generate concern for motherland among their members. There were also fully aware that China’s future depended rot on caring for regional interest alone but for those of the whole nation.

Socially, the dialect associations offered opportunities for sharing news and reminiscences about the home districts as well as for recreation. However, the mains functions of the associations were to provide social welfare services and protection to the new immigrants and those who needed material help when they first come to Malaya. Basically, the immigrant will join the associations as a member to make sure they get the protection and the rich merchants were usually elected as the leaders of their respective dialect groups. They contributed large sums of money to keep the association going, and in return, they commanded respect in their own dialect groups. Through the dialect associations or even hui kuan, many Chinese leaders were able to influence the attitudes of the members towards practically any matter. Thus, as well be seen later, both the revolutionaries and the reformists competed for the support of the leaders of the dialect groups.

In a period of about forty years (1846-89), a series of riots, twelve of which were serious, had occurred in the Straits Settlements. Most of these involved heavy loss of life and property, and were serious threats to public security. The Penang riot of 1867, for example, involved some 30,000 Chinese and 4,000 Malays (about a quarter of the total population of Penang and Province Wellesley) in a bloody fight which lasted for about a month, and damage was estimated at $ 60,000 (Spanish).

Like the dialect groups and the clan organizations, the secret societies formed an important part of the social fabric of the Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaya in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before their suppression in 1890, the secret societies constituted a semi-legal of self-government in the Chinese communities, protecting life and property, allocating jobs and settling disputes among their members. Because of the lenient policy of the government of the Straits Settlements, the secret societies came to assume considerable control over the Chinese by intimidation, blackmail and violence. They sometimes recruited newly-arrived immigrants by force and protected opium and gambling houses and brothels. Personal feuds and factional quarrels over spheres of influence frequently led to armed clashes which affected the safety of all the Chinese, and threatened public security as a whole.

  • Significant of study
  • Rational, significance, or need for the study

The topic of the Chinese kongsi of Penang has been the basis of many studies. It has also formed part of wider studies encompassing British Malaya and Southeast Asia. Most of these studies, however, are concerned with the origin of kongsi and limited studies have been made on the major role and role reversal of the Chinese kongsi in Penang. The present study represents an attempt to fill this gap.

Penang became a centre of regional trade in the early 19th century. Its status as an entrepot was over-shadowed after 1819 by Singapore, which also took over as the administrative centre of the Straits Settlements in 1832. Nevertheless its economic base was strengthened from the second half of the 19th century by the growth of the tin and later rubber industries in the Malay Peninsula. Then Penang became part of the global political economy of colonial capitalism.

The newly-immigrant Chinese, who were legally ‘aliens’ and whose ties to their ancestral homeland remained strong. Leaders of both groups sometimes came together in the Chinese Town Hall and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce as well as various organizations, based on clan, district, and occupation, which were the main channels of Chinese social and political life, but the English and Chinese-educated Chinese were ‘virtually separate communities’.

The Chinese secret societies, they began as self-help Chinese associations that provided protection and assistance to members.Chinese do want to remain culturally distinguishable, and hat they are drawn in this century both towards nationalism in China and towards embracing local loyalties by the same forces, that is by he pressures of modernization and the erosion of traditional values. Nevertheless, this study has not tried to evaluate the quality of Chinese political life in Penang. The significance of this study is to prove that the role of the Chinese kongsi have been changed between the period of the study.

The subject of Chinese amalgamations-kongsi or hui kuan and secret societies which are such an outstanding feature of Chinese life in the Straits-has not been fully dealt with here because it is thought of enough importance to merit a separate chapter, but now that references has been made to the policing of the Chinese in the first decades of Penang’s story, mention of them cannot be avoided if only in a bare reference.

This study has been chosen to discuss the problems in terms of politics because politics can be more volatile and more susceptible to radical change. It may not be as deep as social and culture change, nor as fundamental as economic innovation, but I hope to show that similar questions are worth asking about social and economic change and that the answers these produce would provide a sound basis for evaluating the role of the Chinese kongsi in Penang.

Statement of the problem

The term for secret society and hui, is often interchangeable with the terms like kongsi or Chinese clan (hui kuan), all roughly translating to the meaning of “brotherhood”. The term kongsi is more widely know in Southeast Asia, whereas in Penang, the secret societies were simply known as hui or tong. Kongsi or “clan halls”, are benevolent organizations of popular origin found among overseas Chinese communities for individuals with the same surname. This type of social practice arose, it is held in Penang since 19th century. The term of kongsi is synonymous with the contemporary Chinese word for a commercial firm or business enterprise.

The kongsi resembled a miniature Chinese village, with its own self-government as well as educational, financial, welfare and social organizations. However, the establishments of the Chinese kongsi not only cause tenseness among the Chinese communities but also with other group including the Malay and India. This is because of Chinese kongsi only help the member with the same surname but not all Chinese community or other race. Like the Penang Riots of 1867 which were nine days of heavy street fighting and bloodshed among the secret societies of Penang which spiraled out of the British control. However, Chinese kongsi still play a very important role as a benevolent organization of Chinese community in Penang. But, the role of the Chinese kongsi in Penang also changing slowly just as a symbolic of the Chinese culture after 1960. Meanwhile, Chinese kongsi also make distinction between secret societies with Chinese kongsi. That will has to be subject of more detailed in this study.

Elements, hypotheses, or research questions to be investigated

Chinese community is the second-largest ethnic group in Malaysia, where Chinese groups are allowed to maintain their own cultures, which then fit into a large dominant Malay national pattern. Associational activities had always been an integral part of Chinese life necessitated by economic needs and cultural predilections. Exactly how were these Chinese kongsi originally formed? How did they function? To what extent did these kongsi reflect to the social organization and patterns of the Chinese community? I decide to seek the answer for two questions.

The first was how Penang Chinese kongsi attitudes towards the region did and local people change over time, and how this might has influenced their perspective and play the important role on the Chinese groups in Penang? What are their present roles and functions regarding nation-building? In addition, what factors reflected in the general process change of Chinese kongsi’s role? My second question and the more difficult one was whether the alleged similarities between the Chinese secret societies and Chinese kongsi were the result of contact and mutual influence between them in the colonial period. Has the raison d’être of the Chinese kongsi changed? None of the answers for these questions are self-evident nor could they be adduced from mere observation. I think that such questions should be best subjected to empirical inquiry (as far as is attainable) and treated dispassionately rather than on conjectural or speculative bases.

Definition of terms

Having thus obtained a general view of the subject matter of this and the following study, it is necessary trace as far as possible from time of its foundation in each Settlement in the Straits, up to year 1867, the history and fortune of each chapter of the local Chinese secret societies and kongsi which collectively are known as the Triad society and upon that evidence to attempt to separate the several societies into the two rival camps of Triad-Hui (secret societies) and Kongsi (benevolent societies).

The use of the term “Chinese kongsi” naturally raises the question: what is a Chinese kongsi and what different between hui(secret society) and kongsi? To prevent conceptual confusion, I shall make a preliminary hypothesis of what a Chinese kongsi is? The word kongsi so frequently made use in the evidence, means “company”, and the word hui or hoeys means “Brotherhood”, “Society””, or “Association”. A hui is a secret society. But the word kongsi is frequently made use of to denote a hui.

In Chinese the term kongsi conveys the meaning of secret and illegal society, only when used after the name such illegal society e.g. Ghee Hin Kongsi. While the word kongsi in Malay terms means a partnership or association of any sort, or a barrack or house occupied by Chinese laborers. But when the word kongsi used in conjunction with the Malay word “gelap”, it means secret society (kongsi gelap).

While Barbara Ward defines Chinese kongsi as “the large political groups in the mining districts”, which seems rather vague. J.C. Jackson’s points are much more specific because he uses the term kongsi to signify alliances of mining unions and their farming and mining members. Wang Tai Peng defines it neither simply as partnership or brotherhood, nor a combination of both. Rather, definition of kongsi is that it was a form of open government, based on an enlarged partnership and brotherhood. Its purpose was to protect economic gains as well as to resist outside powers. This new political organization provided a foundation for the social and economic life of the overseas Chinese. As Wang Tai Peng made a definition of Chinese kongsi in his study:

Kongsi is a Chinese world which indicates a firm partnership or society in a very broad sense. The word has been commonly used in the archipelago over centuries and has become current in both Dutch and various native languages. Literally it means government by a general public or administration of public affairs. The world, kongsi, is derived from the dialect of the Hokkien people who have established themselves throughout Java and commercial ports of the outer islands. In the Hakka dialect, it reads as kung-sze. In Riouw and Jawa, administrations of a firm are customarily addressed and referred to as kongsi. Chinese officials also used this title.

Owing to the untiring pursuit of the Chinese of the means to raise capital, the Chinese kongsi is numerous not only in our colony but also in the Malay Peninsula, in the outer islands of Indonesia and in the Philippines. The significance of the kongsi for the flowering and development of Chinese industry, commerce and navigation is hard to underestimate. The kongsi were entirely established to hold people of the same home countries and clans in closer tie or relationship.

In the family kongsi, no one, because of the tradition, could have private fortune so long as their father lived. All the family capital were at the disposal of the patriarch. Undoubtedly, if under closer examination, many kongsi would no longer be family kongsi as they at first seem to be. The Chinese kongsi have, however, become more and more divorced from the above-mentioned origins over time, more especially recently. (Beknopte Encyclopaedië van Nederlandsche Oost-Indië)

In fact, almost every Chinese institution during the early nineteenth century was called kongsi. A temple patron god, a clan society or a provincial club of the Chinese overseas was often named kongsi on foundation. Nevertheless, during the later part of the nineteenth century, they became better know as hui-kuan, a name that was actually much older than kongsi, appearing in the sixteenth century.

On the other hand, what exactly is meant by the term secret societies? It does not apply to all groups forced into clandestine activities. Rather, it designates associations whose policies are characterized by a particular kind of religious, political, and social dissent from the established order, such as the White Lotus Sect and the Triad Society. And indeed such present-day terms for secret society as mi-mi hsieh-hui and mi-mi she-hui are neologisms, literal translations of the Western term “secret society” used from the mid-nineteenth century on by such men as Schlegel, Gützlaff, and Wylie in describing these Chinese groups as analogous to the Freemasons, the Carbonari and Sainte-Vehme.

The groups known in the West as secret societies were classified by the literal of imperial China as hsieh-chiao (perverse, aberrant, or heterodox sects), yin-chiao (depraved sects), mo-chiao (demoniac sects), fei-chiao (rebel sects), yao-chiao (witchcraft sects), etc. Worth noting is the fact that each of these Chinese terms contain an allusion to the religious character of the secret societies, a character discernible in all these groups whether one speaks of the chiao-men, religious sects in the strict sense that propagated a special religious doctrine, or the hui-t’ang, seditious associations or bands in which the religious elements were restricted to the rites of initiation, to the sacred area called Mu-yang Ch’eng (City of Willows), to the oaths of fidelity made by invoking the gods, and to other Para religious acts.

The Chinese language at that time had no accepted term for secret society. The modern term pi-mi she-hui was apparently introduced by the Japanese. Of two authors writing in the same period about the corporation between the Republicans and the secret societies around 1910, the Japanese, Hirayama Amane, spoke of pi-mi she-hui, whereas the Chinese, T’ao Ch’eng-chang, retained the traditional distinction between chiao-men and hui-tang.

However, other scholar also called Chinese kongsi as secret societies. This had caused much of confusion in the mind of the colonial authorities. The British administration in the Straits Settlements, for example, had been confusing hui-kuan with hui or “secret” societies until 1892 when it began to draw a clear-cut line between them. Hui or brotherhood is more proper a term to the vehicle of Chinese self-government as it was then the term secret society. The term secret society” is all the more misleading for the objection raised by Purcell, whatever the precise implication of secrecy may have been:

“All Chinese social organization was necessarily “secret” whilst it was not recognized or was banned by the Government. The Chinese municipal organizations in Borneo, the kongsis, were, and are, referred to as “secret societies”, as are all Chinese political organization in Siam where they are illegal.”

Some of the Chinese kongsi in Southeast Asia may have carried over the ritual oath-taking ceremony and even the name of T’ien-Ti Hui, they generally evolved from a small partnership, either in commerce or mining. On foundation, they were called hui or union, after which was commonly misused in early colonial days to mean a “secret society”. Later, when they grew into large organizations with hundreds or thousands of members, they were known as kongsi. The T’ien- Ti Hui in Penang was a partnership in origin.

In this study, it should be mentioned here that a distinction should be made between the bona fide kongsi which were, and are, benevolent associations, and the dangerous secret societies whose object was extortion and opposition to the law but in these early days it is debatable whether all the associations did not in some measure adopts similar lines of behavior. Europeans have made a distinction between the huis (as the secret societies were called) and the Chinese kongsi, or district or clan associations, labeling the former as secret and subversive, and the latter as open and beneficial. Even thought hui (secret society) is different with kongsi from perceptive of term, but from the social aspects, both associations are formed by overseas Chinese based on dialect group or same family names to look after their member’s affairs and welfare. As what Blythe mentioned, who writers as follows:

“This attempt to distinguish between kongsi and hui is quite arbitrary-based, I imagine, on the uninformed writings of early Europeans. For example, the Ghee Hin Society was normally known as the Ghee Hin Kung Si. On the other side, most purely benevolent societies are know as hui, even down to the Tontine type of monthly subscription and monthly draw (Cantonese Ngan Wui). In 1928, I was in charge of Cantonese secret societies work in Singapore, and although these were not of the caliber of the old Triad Societies (we could only average one murder a day), quite a number of these societies (descended from branches of the Triad) were XX kongsi. And, as we know, the normal term for a business partnership or for a coolie-lines is “kongsi”, The Clan kongsi of Penang are quite unique. They do not exist elsewhere in Malaya.”

In Chinese usage, Mr. Blythe has concluded that the kongsi are includes hui because this both of the Chinese associations are no distinction is made between good and bad. Blythe also defines kongsi as any partnership or group with a common interest.

1.3 Objective

Social and linguistic background and the nature of Chinese immigration determined the form of early Chinese social organizations. The surname differences and a strong sense of regional identity encouraged Chinese immigrants to form their respective surname associations or kongsi. The Chinese kongsi had played a major role in socials and economy in Malaya since the early days of British. However, the role of Chinese kongsi has being change after Penang Riots 1867.

The objectives of this study have been first, to describe and analyses the Chinese kongsi activities in Penang between 1820 and 1957 to show how the movement grew and developed in these areas, and later became one mainstreams of the Chinese associations; second, to analyses the responses of various social groups among Chinese community in Penang to the Chinese kongsi, and third, to estimate the importance role of the Chinese kongsi in Penang.

This study has been chosen to discuss the problems in terms of politics because politics can be more volatile and more susceptible to radical change. It may not be as deep as social and culture change, nor as fundamental as economic innovation, but I hope to show that similar questions are worth asking about social and economic change and that the answers these produce would provide a sound basis for evaluating the role of the Chinese kongsi in Penang.Nevertheless, this study has not tried to evaluate the quality of Chinese political life in Penang. The significance of this study is to prove and report the role of the Chinese kongsi have been changed between the period of the study.

1.4 Literature review

The existing studies cover a wide range of themes including administration, the economy as well as social and political aspects. Even thought many scholar show that various kinds of overseas Chinese organizations set up for purpose of trade, protection and management were not merely copies of earlier form in China, but some have been given much attention; others remain neglected or have not been subjected to fresh critical inquiry. While most historians concentrated on the controlling forces of Chinese secret societies during and after the pre-war period. Although secret societies were not politically inclined and tended to maintain their traditional roles in running protection and extortion rackets.

Secret societies, on the other hand, recruited across such barriers and members were bound together by the rituals of sworn brotherhood around a charismatic and semi-mystical head. Being tightly knit and glorifying martial prowess, they were particularly well suited to the task of colonization and self-protection demanded of a pioneering community. Mak Lau Fong observes in his sociological study of secret societies in Peninsular Malaysia: “When sworn brotherhood binds Triad membership together, dialect differences are naturally de-emphasized, and the clan system is consigned to a secondary position”. For the aspect of the Chinese kongsi origins, the study by M.L Wynne, Wang Tai Peng and W. Blythe is the most comprehensive, and the best account to date.

Wang Tai Peng’s study, original part of a Ph.D. dissertation, depends heavily on Chinese and Japanese materials in both the Menzies Library and the National Library. The question also led him to consider the historical place of the kongsi, and original political structure based on ideals of brotherhood and partnership, as a Chinese contribution on political practice. Wang Tai Peng’s research explaining many obscure aspects of 18th and 19th century history but had developed out of vestiges of social practice which served to meet the alien conditions outside. Wang’s study demonstrates that kongsi is the most ingenious type of brotherhood-partnership structure to be used as a system of government anywhere in the world.

While Cheng Lim Keak in his study, “Reflection on the Changing Roles of Chinese Clan Association in Singapore” have discussed the traditional roles of clan associations and the impact of the accelerated social change and the future roles of the associations. However Cheng’s study is more pay attention to the formation of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA) and less discuss role of the Chinese kongsi.

This is not to say studies of the Chinese kongsi by local researchers have not been up to the mark. Cheah See Kian, one of the earliest local scholars to publish his research on the Chinese politic and history from Chinese aspect, for instance, has looked at the period in terms of the divisive nature of wartime policies and their impact on Chinese community during wartime and the immediate postwar period. Even through Cheah studies is directly link with Chinese history in Penang, but he not really point out relationship and the role between Chinese secret societies and Chinese kongsi. Other studies by local scholars are less comprehensive, more focused in their geographical coverage and the kinds of documents consulted. Several falls more within the realm of local history or regional studies.

Lim Gaik Siang in her paper, “Khoo Kongsi Clanhouse and Community: Transformation of Social and Spatial Relationships”, discussed the implementation of the Rent Control Act to Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi after the Second World War. Lim have point out that with the repeal of Rent Control Act, the tenants are moving out willingly or unwillingly, leaving Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi enclave as a dead heritage. As the living quality was decreasing, many of the Khoo offspring moved out from the shop houses originally built for them, leaving the kinship community to disintegration. With the moving in of people of other surnames, the community was able to sustain its stability, despite its being no longer an exclusive Khoo clan community.

The Khoo Kongsi was started in 1835 is most popular Chinese kongsi in Penang, was founders by Khoo Wat Seng, whose descendants were Baba leaders of Penang society, and are still involved with the kongsi. In the mid-1800 the most prominent leader of the Khoo Kongsi was also the leader (Baba) of one of the main secret societies. His name was Khoo Thean Teik, and he was leader of both the Toh Pek Kong or Kien Tek Society, and the Khoo Kongsi. The kongsi's extensive landholdings in Air Itam, dating from these days, are named in his honour. In these groupings, whether you call them clubs or kongsi, were both Babas and sinkehs. In 1867, out of a total Penang Chinese population of about 36,000-30,000 belong with either the Kien Tek society or its secret society rival, the Ghee Hin.

Meanwhile, Thomas Tan Tsu Wee’s study has present to reader’s portraiture of huaqiao (overseas Chinese) life. A few selected part of his study, principally on Singapore, is based on his Ph.D. dissertation. In his book, Your Chinese Roots: The Overseas Chinese Story also struggles against discrimination in the early years, the growth of Chinatowns, and of the many associations like clans and hui kuan that were formed-bringing together fellow Chinese who speak the same dialect, originate from the same district, and who have same dialect.

Because of this book in particular examines the major overseas Chinese communities in the Nanyang, and countries a field likes America, Australia, New Zealand and Britain, most of these are insufficient specialized material and country. Thus topics on Chinese emigration, Chinese kongsi, principal institutions and interest of the Chinese kongsi’s roles have not much pay attention in his study.

Barbara E. Ward’s study of Hakka kongsi in Borneo is another significant contribution to the history of Chinese kongsi. Meanwhile, not much attention has been paid to East Malaysia, although the works of Ooi Keat Gin on Sarawak have looked at this period from the perspective of both colonizers and the colonized, while others have focused on the Kinabalu guerrillas of Sabah. In China the Hakka people form a distinct linguistic group, speaking a dialect which may be described as about mid-way between Cantonese and Mandarin. It is generally held that they originated in Central China and gradually traveled southwards in a series of movements as a result of pressure from the north.

Many Hakkas originally moved into Sarawak from Dutch Borneo during the troubled period in the mid-nineteenth century. There they had been agriculturalists and gold-miners, members of self-governing kongsi. The kongsi type of organization existed also in the districts around Bau in Sarawak, but was more elaborately developed on the Dutch side, for which also there exists fuller documentation. As an understanding of present-day social organization demands not only contemporary buy also historical treatment, it has been considered useful to analyses here the kongsi organization as it is described for the gold districts in Dutch West Borneo.

The mutual aid organizations of Chinese migrants known as kongsi were also investigated by scholar such as J. J. M. de Groot (1854-1921) and Simon Hartwich Schaank, in particular in relative to the question of their relationship to secret societies. De Groot succeeded G. A. Wilken (1847-91), a former colonial civil servant, as Professor of Anthropology in Leiden, and eventually became Professor of Chinese as Schlegel’s successor in 1904.

He had carried out research in southern China, and had been adviser on Chinese affairs to the government of the Dutch Indies, concerned in particular with Chinese immigrants labourers in Borneo. De Groot’s theory, the autonomous Chinese village institution embodies the western principle of democracy by a general election of the village head. It also argues that most of the Chinese in the west Borneo came from the countryside of China, and only an insignificant umber of them were from the cities.

At the present time the total number of Hakka-speaking Chinese is estimated at something over 16 million concentrated mainly on the borders of Kiangsi, Fukien, and Kwantung. Actually ten hsiens in Kiangsi, eight in Fukien, and 15 in Kwangtung are purely Hakka-speaking. Besides this, Hakkas are to be found living side by side with speakers of different dialects in a hundred and five other oher hsiens, in Kiangsi, Fukien, Kwangtung (including Hainan Island), Kwangsi, Szechwan, Hunan, and Farmosa. In the passed, the cultural and linguistic different between the Hakkas and their neighbors, especially in the mixed areas, led to frequent strife.

Hakka-speaking people have migrated overseas in large numbers, particularly to the Nan Yang, which is the Chinese term for the Malay Archipelago. The overseas Hakka come almost exclusively from Fukien and Kwantung, in which province they are to be found mainly in mountainous areas where there is a considerable shortage of land. It is estimated that there are more than two million Hakkas in the Nan Yang. According to the Census Report of 1947 there are 437,407 Hakkas (out of a total of 2,614,667 Chinese) in the Federation of Malaya and the Colony of Singapore.

Yen Ching Hwang traces the beginning of large-scale migration of the Chinese into Malaya and describes the social organizations that provided support to the early immigrants in their environment. Dialect and province associations assumed far greater significance in Malaya than they did in China. New leadership emerged in the migrant community. These leaders came from the class of mine-owners, planters, and merchants. Eventually as Yen argues, the nearly Chinese came to be drawn to China-linked nationalism. The arrival of reformists and revolutionaries from China stirred political consciousness among the Chinese in Malaya. This nationalism strengthened the desire of the Chinese in Malaya to preserve their cultural identity. It came at a time too when there was concern at the growing “westernization” and “barbarization” of the local Chinese.

While V. Purcell’s, “The Chinese in Malaya” (London, Oxford University Press, 1948, Reprinted 1967) is comprehensive in its survey of Chinese life in Malaya. Purcell’s study also is an attempt to give a consecutive account of the Chinese in Malaya and discuss their social politic problem. Similar in nature are Chinese-language studies on the hua chiao in Malaya. There is still no in-depth study of the Chinese kongsi in Penang.

Scope of study

The period from the 1820 to the 1957 was chosen as the period in these studies for some reason. By 1790, colonial records reflect that the Hung League manifested itself as the Ghee Hin society (kongsi) whiles the Hakka-controlled Hai San society (kongsi) of their own. Hokiens were members of both camps at least until 1840s. It can be suggested that between 1790 till 1820, the Ghee Hin was the main secret society in Penang. But after the establishment of the Hai San, their position was challenged.

The 1820s were crucial years as rivalry between the secret societies intensified over their control of labors recruitment. So, the year 1820s were marked a new era of Chinese immigration to Penang. The year 1957 marks the end of the period being studied because after the Japanese occupation the role of the Chinese kongsi in Penang became less important. At the same time, Chinese kongsi faced the biggest challenge when they failed to attracted young generation members.

This study focus on the Chinese community in Penang, as the historical subject of the Penang Chinese kongsi, is understandable and legitimate given the following factors that distinguish Penang from many of the other states of Malaysia. Penang was originally part of Kedah, the oldest of all the Malay states. But, after becoming a colony directly ruled by the British, Penang’s history is also different from that of the other two Straits Settlements, though all three shared a common political and administrative system for almost a hundred years.

In this study have the three political groups will be includes in the research as mentioned by Wang Gungwu. The three political groups are, firstly, Group A which maintains links with the politics of China, either directly or indirectly, and is concerned always to identify with the destiny of China. Group B that consists of the hardheaded and realistic majority of the Chinese who are more concerned with the low-posture and indirect politics of trade and community associations. The vast majority, after all, were already full-fledged Malaysian Citizens. As one Malaysian Chinese writer (Goh Cheng Teik) suggested, the bulk to Chinese in Malaysia were “hua yi” rather than “hua chiao”. Their population had stabilized and the born-local component had increased significantly,

“At the 1947 Census, 62.5% of the Chinese population were tabulated as born in Malaya, compared with 31.2% in 1931. By 1957, the figure had risen to 74.5%. In 1970, it rose further to 86.9%. The most salient fact is that as a result of the abrupt end to immigrant from China in 1942, the generation which was 35 and under 1977, the twentieth year of Merdeka, is virtually 100% local-born.”

For the Hua Yi, then, normalization of Malaysia-China ties merely formalized an already de facto situation. Its effect in the long run could only be salutary from their point of views since China’s apparent rejection of them means that allegiance to their country of adoption or birth would by that token become less a matter for public questioning, particularly by groups suspicious of their loyalty to Malaysia.

On the other hand, they tend to be smug in their belief that money and organization are the roots of all politics and they have both. As for the third group, Group C, it is a small group often uncertain of itself because it is uncertain of its own identity, but generally committed to some sort of Malayan loyalty. It is a mixed group, consisting of several layers of members ranging from Babas, British Straits Chinese and Malayan nationalists to other with motives of different degrees of dubiousness.


Most of the official documents are in English or Malay, and series is long and continual, while most of the community’s own materials in Chinese became sizeable only since the 1920s. Sadly, materials directly to Penang and the activities of the Chinese before World War II were destroyed when the Penang Secretariat building was bombed in 1945. Individual records of the pre-war committee members were similarly lost either because the families did not keep them or they were destroyed during the war. Luckily published colonial record lodged in the Universiti Sains Malaysia, University of Malaya Library and the National Archives in Kuala Lumpur held annual reports of the Chinese Protectorate.

Through interviews with the upper and middle-echelon leaders in the various Chinese-based political parties and some members of the leaders of Chinese kongsi in Penang, I attempt to elicit their views on a range of topics centering on the research questions. Drawing on interviews with important pressmen and politicians from all the Chinese-based political parties and a survey of primary as well as secondary documents, the study will attempt to discuss the phenomena of increasing ethnic Chinese consciousness in the 1900s by focusing on the issue of Chinese kongsi and to a lesser extent Chinese social and culture.

The period under survey covers the before and after post-war period. It is specifically related to the resurgence of secret societies at a time when the absence of law and order, the fluidity of the political situation, economic shortages, inflationary prices and low wages provided a fertile environment for the resurgence not only of secret societies but also political parties that were both radical and moderate in nature. In addition, I have try to examine the Chinese vernacular press in its reporting and representation of new and issues of interest and significance to the Chinese kongsi and local Chinese community with the belief that it has considerable influence on Chinese public opinion or at minimum reflects it.

Thus the major thrust of my effort is to tap elite perceptions of their own community and its interests in the context of Chinese kongsi and consider the manner this affects Chinese orientations. In this study, I believe that is not more than an exploratory report of the issue since the data collection and interviews have not been as extensive as we had wished. Nevertheless, I hope that it will provide an impetus for further research into this important area of study. This introductory study does not attempt to answer these queries in any comprehensive way. Nor does it intend to respond to the queries directly.

Data collection

The data will be collected including the mailing of questionnaires, gathering of specimens, and the scheduling of interviews, the research for documents in libraries in specified locations, as well as the recording of differences between two groups of subjects. Beside that, the advances in computer technology now make feasible the first hand collection and analysis of many kinds of data involving events and behavior. A laptop computer will be used to collect and store data and then to generate a variety of tables and reports.

Chapter outline

In first chapter of this study, I overviewed and acquaint the reader with the topic. In the introduction, I discussed what is the study about the significant of the studies. In addition, five sources of literature review will be taken. For instance, search: journal, major books on the subject, monographs, relevant collection of images or objects, and dissertation. Besides that, I will brief and ought to concentrate on a statement of what the researcher wants to do, why, and how.

On top of that, I will add analysis the researches opinion and outcome of their research. Since the structure and organization are geared to the purposes and aims of the Chinese kongsi, any understanding or analysis of the first aspect would be impossible without knowledge of the Chinese kongsi’s background.

In chapter 2, the background of the Chinese kongsi in Penang from the years 1820-1860s will be discussed. Then, I will examine the development of the heterogeneous Penang Chinese community, along with the conjuncture between the British and Chinese communities whose leaders competed for control of this urban settlement. I will discuss about the kapitan system in this chapter. With immigrants coming from all over the region and from India and China, by the mid-19th century Penang had a mixed and fluctuating population, over which the authorities could exert little control. In the meantime, I will explore the revitalization of Penang Chinese kongsi system but also investigate the continuities and enduring structures that make kongsi an important vehicle for identity maintenance. Besides that, I also focus on events of the Chinese kongsi that draw the community together. The political of Penang Chinese kongsi system as a structure cosmology, a form of Chinese social status, and a social process will be considered.

In chapter 3, I will investigate the dialogue between these two communities-both seeking to localize their own nations of propriety, authority, and sociality through the analysis of the 1867 Penang Riots, Ordinance 1869, 1882 and 1890. In chapter 4 and 5, I will attempt equally to show how much the role of the Chinese kongsi in Penang have changed and are changing before and after the Japanese occupation. While I also will discuss in deep about the challenge of Chinese kongsi until the years 1957 in this chapter. The last chapter (chapter 6) will be my conclusion.

1.7.1 Chapter outline

Chapter 1: Introduction

  • Significant of study
  • Objectives
  • Literature Reviews
  • Scope of study
  • Methodology
  • Chapter Outline
  • Conclusion

Chapter 2: The Genesis of the Chinese Kongsi Movement

2.1 Distribution of Chinese Population in Penang after 1820

2.2 Kapitan and Kongsi System

2.3 The Emergence of the Chinese Kongsi in Penang

2.4 The Competition among Chinese Groups in Penang, 1830s-1860s

2.5 Conclusion

Chapter 3: A Period of Change

3.1 The Penang Riots 1867

3.2 Societies Ordinance and the Significance/Effect to the Kongsi Movement

3.2.1 The XIX 1869 Ordinance

3.2.2 Ordinance IV 1882

3.2.3 Societies Ordinance 1889

3.3 Conclusion

Chapter 4: The Chinese Kongsi before the Japanese Occupation

4.1 Religion

4.2 Charity

4.3 Literature

4.4 Conclusion

Chapter 5: The New Chinese Kongsi after the Japanese Occupation

5.1 New Chinese Kongsi systems

5.2 The Socioeconomic Position of the Chinese Kongsi

5.3 Education and Culture

5.4 The impact of the Chinese Kongsi

5.4.1 Ownership, Control, and Participation in the Corporate Sector

5.4.2 The Socio-economic Position of Chinese Kongsi

5.4.3 The Depression and its Impact

5.5 Conclusion

Chapter 6: Conclusion


The Chinese, being the largest ethnic group in the city since 1788, was, like other immigrant communities, allowed to administer their own affairs through their headmen in the first 25 years of the colony’s history. By 1867, after countless riots fuelled by the Chinese secret societies, the colonial administration felt that it was necessary, among the other entire problem, to curtail the abuse of newly arrived immigrants. This was achieved by setting up the office of a Chinese Protector.

A society was often virtually synonymous with a kongsi, and most hui were wealthy because the members included successful businessmen. Because of the recruitment, sometimes forcible, of all new arrivals into one of the secret societies, they gained a dominant position in most areas where Chinese settled. While they could provide the migrant with assistance in a strange land, they could equally demand his services in any capacity, particularly in the recurring conflicts with rival societies.

During the colonial era, the Chinese in Penang were largely left to their own devices. In a situation where Chinese society was divided along the lines of bang, the need for social control, mediation, religious worship and welfare services was largely met by voluntary organizations within each bang. Chinese voluntary organizations are of many types and each type bang. Broadly, the Chinese associations can be classified into six main types, namely, locally/dialect; clan / surname; trade/ occupational; mutual help; recreational/ cultural/ athletic/ alumni; and religious.

During the major part of the nineteenth century, Chinese social life was under the strong influence of the secret societies. It is believed that the bang leaders were then often associated with the secret societies, a situation which had long hampered the proper functioning of the voluntary associations. After the outlawing of the secret societies in 1890, there was a mushrooming of voluntary associations which continued until 1941. During the Japanese Occupation (1942-45), all the Chinese associations either ceased operation or were dissolved. After the war, most of the associations resumed their functions, while new associations were formed.

All Chinese associations are in a state of rapid transformation. Different associations have different problems of survival. However, much of their future will depend on their ability to adapt to change which, in turn, depends on two variables, namely, government policy, and the financial position and leadership of the association concerned. Social changes over the years have prompted the government to make repeated calls to the Chinese associations to change and extend their roles so as to meet the changing challenges.

In Penang, Chinese with the surnames of Khoo, Cheah, Lim, Tan and Yeoh, the five predominant surnames there, unite to form the Fuchien Kong See (Company). As for the pang society of men from Kuang-tung, they compose large group of fellow provincials, such as Huin-ning Association, Kuang-chao Associations and Kuang-tung Associations. These organizations of fellow provincials and “jee she” (surname) societies have cemeteries, school, hospital, clubs and recreational and amusement facilities.

In summary, there is no doubt about the significance of the emergence of the Chinese kongsi and its impact on clan association movement. Whereas the kongsihas been emerged to be the prime mover for Chinese culture and traditions, many clan associations have in turn responded positively to the kongsi’scall or invitations to participate in large-scale celebrations. In this respect, the kongsihas played the important coordinating role.

Despite the new developments, most of the clan associations still remain inactive. In the face of continuing rapid social change, clan associations are still adjusting themselves so that they may remain relevant. The Chinese kongsi continued to survive, albeit this time with new challenges, pressures from the government policy, for examples, became one of the reasons why Chinese kongsi in Penang were active in religion and intellectually.

I will try to argue that it is the particular aspects of Penang’s history from Chinese secret societies to Chinese kongsi that have made Penang a unique interstice of socio-cultural transformations. An important role of the Chinese kongsi in Penang, that uniqueness lies in the diversity of ways the people of Penang have lived out their lives. Recovering the past it is a process of contestations. But, recovering the past, in all its fractious diversity, through the different voices of those who have lived in Penang throughout its history, is a necessary route through which those living in Penang today can re-establish their links with the material, as well as living, heritage of earlier generations in Penang.

In the end of the research, I believe that it will represents no more than an exploratory report of the issue since the data collection and interviews have not been as extensive as I had wished. Nevertheless, I hope that it will provide an impetus for further research into this important area of study.

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Chinese Kongsi Clan | International Relations Dissertations. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved February 22, 2024 , from

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