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Chinese Kongsi Clan

5425 words (22 pages) Dissertation

12th Dec 2019 Dissertation Reference this

Tags: Cultural StudiesInternational Relations

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

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