When you think of Penang, glorious food often comes to mind. But the thing about this Pearl of the Orient is it actually holds many intriguing secrets that formed the island to what it is today. And for foodies like myself, the historical lesson that I learned actually made me forget about all the sumptuous delicacies around me.
For starters, I fell in love with Khoo Kongsi and I’m not one who professes love easily. Never have I seen anything like it! I would’ve never guessed that the glazed dragon scales on the roof that told tales of ancient Chinese tales of fealty were all made with recycled broken bowls, crafted from the “chien-nian” cut-and-paste technique; or how for 200 years, Leong San Tong (Dragon Mountain Hall) has been the heart of the 2-acre wide mini city of Khoo Kongsi. I was happily lost under the carved and gilded roof for a good few hours just taking in all the well documented history of the place.
The Khoo Kongsi is the largest clan house among many that was set up to ensure the safety and betterment of the first few settlers to the island. The sheer size and grandeur of the clan house is testament to their wealth, and the Khoo’s remain one of the wealthiest clans in Penang. Up till this day Khoo Kongsi, Cheah Kongsi, Yap Kongsi, Tan Kongsi as well as many others still run and document the births, achievements and deaths of every clan member.
Did you know that back in the day, bearing the surname, Khoo, had its perks? In 1907, a clan school called the Sin Kang School was built to provide free education, but was only open to clan members. It was later opened to non-Khoo students in 1954. Clan members received medical care, were rewarded for their achievements and budding entrepreneurs were even able to take loans.
One of my favourite features of the Khoo Kongsi clan house was the Tua Pek Kong Hall, named after the deity on the altar. In this hall, my mind was blown away by the numerous gold plaques carved with names, degrees and universities that cover both sides of the walls to document the Khoo’s educational achievements. Parents would bring young Khoo’s to Tua Pek Kong Hall to show them the achievements of their predecessors as motivation! In 1914, Khoo Heng Kok graduated in law from Gray’s Inn, University of London, becoming the first Khoo to graduate from an overseas institution.
Touring the clan houses just opened up my appetite for more history as I walked down the Street of Harmony (or Cannon Street). On this street alone, I found at least seven different houses of worship (churches, mosques and temples) that represent the harmony that exists throughout the island. Also, a cross-culture idol rests at the foot of a giant tree that’s actually a beautiful merger of the banyan, bodhi and neem trees, representing the unity of the Malay, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups in Malaysia.
But the amazement of historical Georgetown doesn’t end at those UNESCO World Heritage sites. Another favourite is the beautiful Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion; the electric blue of the walls simply captured my curiosity and wouldn’t let go! Upon paying the entrance fee, everyone gets a bookmark that includes a brief look of the mansion’s founder Cheong Fatt Tze (the Rockefeller of the East), as well as his innate skill of combining eastern and western influences in a single structure.
The courtyard, for instance, is admired for its massive Scottish steel pillars that adorn a feng-shui oriented pool cooling system, said to provide balance of the five elements (earth, fire, wood, water and metal). It not only collects rain water to cool the house but also emits the best “chi” energy. Throughout the years many feng-shui masters visit this mansion to learn its secrets.
Meanwhile, the blue walls are not of a modern invention, but actually a mixture of lime paint and natural indigo powder. Lime paint is popular not only for its cost effectiveness but the pure slaked lime once absorbed also cools and strengthens the structure. Not just functional, but gorgeous to look at too. Now that’s the way an entrepreneur thinks! The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion tour is worth sparing an afternoon for a first-hand look at the secrets behind its architecture, stories about his favoured 7th wife and his untimely death in 1916.
Though my curiosity was well fulfilled, I was hungry for more best kept secrets of Penang. But that’s another story for another post in which I discover delightful little gems unbeknownst to most Penang visitors and even locals.