Friday, February 10, 2006

Khoo Kongsi (Khoo clanhouse in Penang)

Chinese immigrants moved to Penang in waves. As anyone would do on arriving in a new and strange city they sought familiar, friendly, faces. This process was formalised by the creation of clan houses, based around families, hometown or trade. When a new member of the family (or from the same hometown, etc) arrived in town they looked up the relevant clanhouse and plugged themselves into the local network.

We saw similar houses in Hoi An (Vietnam) based mainly around profession. The ones in Penang are mainly based on region or family, and one of the most impressive houses is the Khoo family house.

The original house burned to the ground when it was struck by lightning and this was taken as a sign of the anger of the gods. The house was then rebuilt in a less ostentatious style so as not to arouse the gods' jealousy. If you ask me it's still pretty plush (if this is 'plainer' than the original, the original must have been quite a sight), but it hasn't been struck again, so they must have got the balance right.

Inside there are shrines to the ancestors, plaques citing members of the family with university degrees and a genealogy that traces the family back to the original Mr Khoo. One interesting touch is that there is a fifty word family poem and each the children (sons?) of each generation get the next word in the poem as their middle name (ie. people from the 3rd generation have the 3rd word of the poem). A nice idea, but probably works much better in Chinese than in English since I don't think they have (m)any prepositions (so nobody called 'the', 'a' or 'of').

Various statues look out from the house.

If this is less grand than the original, with its gold leaf and floor-to-ceiling murals, I can only imagine what the first one looked like...


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