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Figure 1. Illustration of an initiation ceremony ground for admission into a secret society with the empty spaces on the page filled with recorded chants used during the ceremony. Early 20th century, Straits Settlements. 105.4 x 84cm. The Stirling Collection. The National Museum of Singapore.

There is a provocative observation floating around the Internet that “Malaysia is a place where everyone exists in a state of racist harmony.” A less cynical way of putting this is that while daily interactions between different migrant groups are both complex and generally friendly, there is no escaping the ways that the ideology of race structures the social reality of all Malaysians. Street names like Chulia, Swatow, Hokkien, Amoy, Trang, Rangoon, Irrawadi, Acheh, Armenian, etc. suggest both the more expansive regional networks of trade, labor, and exploitation in which the city was situated as well as a more sophisticated genealogy than these official racial designations of Malaysia today: “Malay,” “Indian,” and “Chinese.”

Racialized identities began to develop in mid-19th -century Penang that sought to consolidate diverse migrant groups into racial categories that could be more easily controlled and manipulated by the colonial state (and which the post-Merdeka government inherited and exploited). Architecture became a
key instrument in the racialization of urban space and the built environment but it also expressed ambivalence towards official categories of race. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the history of the “Straits Chinese” or Baba-Nyonya in Penang.

The term Baba-Nyonya or Peranakan or Straits Chinese has been used liberally to refer to the early Hokkien migrants to the region who settled in the Straits Settlements of Melaka, Singapore, and Penang, intermarried with local Malay or Thai populations, spoke a Hokkien-Malay patois, and acquired characteristics that drew on both Malay and Chinese culture. However, the ways this community developed in each of these cities is markedly different. In Penang, the establishment of the East India Company’s trading factory interrupted this growing identification with local culture as it attracted immigrants from across the region. The Straits Chinese shifted their business dealings from the local Malay world to British traders from India.

Unlike in Singapore, the influence of the Penang Babas within the new immigrant Chinese community was much weaker. A new generation of Hokkien migrants came to the Settlements as merchants and lived among the older generation of Babas, given their shared language. Those new migrants, or sinkeh, who chose to stay permanently entered into polygamous unions with Baba families while maintaining their first family in China. The Cantonese, largely artisans and planters, lived apart from the Babas in towns, organized themselves into various trade guilds and maintained very close ties with their families in China.

With few notable exceptions, there was little intermarriage between the Cantonese and the Baba. By 1820, a new fourth community of migrants began to grow into a powerful force in Penang. The Hakkas established a secret society, the Hai San (海山) society, that were rivals to the Cantonese Ghee Hin (義興) society (Figure 1). The Babas and Hokkiens joined both. In 1824, Khoo Teng Pang (邱肇邦), a member of the powerful Khoo clan, established a secret society to protect Hokkien interests, the Kian Teik Tong (建德堂 ) known in colonial records as the Tua Pek Kong (大伯公), after their patron deity.1

In the summer months of 1867, a quarrel between rival secret societies in George Town erupted at a Muharram procession. Assaults followed and a Malay diamond merchant was murdered by Bendera Merah members in the Tua Pek Kong district of the city. Tensions simmered until finally igniting into a riot at the beginning of July that would paralyze the city for ten days. The tension continued to simmer until about the 1 st or 2 nd of July when a Tua Pek Kong member was looking through the palings that bound the home of a Bendera Putih member in Pitt Street. The commission formed by the colonial administration to investigate the riots reported (figure 2):

Figure 2. A page from the Report of the Commissioners Appointed under Act XXI of 1867 to Enquire into “The Penang Riots.

“The Malay threw a Rambutan (a Malayan Fruit) skin at the Chinaman, and called him a thief. The Chinaman went away, but returned with ten or twelve Toh Peh Kong (Tua Pek Kong) friends. The Malay’s friends then turned out and a fight with stones and clubs ensured. The Malays drove back the Toh Peh Kongs, as far as their Congsee house, and then the stones thrown by the former, struck the Toh Peh Kong signboard, upon which the Toh Peh Kongs turned out in great numbers, and fire-arms are said to have been used. The Police interfered, and succeeded in putting a stop to the disturbance for the time.”2

Although the language of the report suggests the conflict unfolding as a race riot, the 1867 upheavals revealed fault lines in Penang that did not occur along clear racialized categories. Membership in 19th -century secret societies in Penang crossed racial, religious, and linguistic boundaries.3 The Bendera Merah (Red Flag) and Bendera Putih (White Flag) allied themselves with the Tua Pek Kong and the Ghee Hin respectively. These inter-racial alliances were further reinforced by the close proximity of mosques and temples associated with the respective societies. For example, the Masjid Pintal Tali of the Bendera Putih is still adjacent to the Meng Eng Soo Temple of the Ghee Hin Society (figure 3).

Figure 3. Masjid Pintal Tali and the former Ghee Hin headquarters on Rope Walk. Photo by Lawrence Chua.

The center of influence of the Tua Pek Kong and the Bendera Merah was Armenian Street, anchored by the Tua Pek Kong temple (today, the Hock Teik Cheng Sin temple 福德正神廟) (figure 4) and the homes of Bendera Merah leaders Syed Mohammed Alatas and Che Long. Khoo Salma has noted that “The whole area, intensively built with institutional bases surrounded by members’ houses, was turned into a Kian Teik-Red Flag stronghold.”4 But it is not clear how this stronghold was defined. What were its perimeters? Can it be conceived of as a territory, distinct from other enclaves within George Town. The historian Constance Turnbull has noted that “(i)n contrast to Singapore…where a town plan segregated various ethnic communities and social classes, George Town grew haphazardly with different migrant groups and classes living and worshipping side by side.”5

Figure 4. Façade of the Hock Teik Cheng Sin temple, former headquarters of the Tua Pek Kong or Kian Teik Tong. Photo by Lawrence Chua.

Anoma Pieris has described the map of the city created by the secret societies as “like a power grid with multiple points of intensification. To each community, the center was the Kongsi house, the temple, and the homes of the prominent clan members.”6 The riots of 1867 and the wars between the secret societies carved out this grid into large and small territories with embattled boundaries, areas of dispute, and spaces of infringement.

To better understand the ways that these early migrant populations inhabited and transformed the colonial gridiron, one of the projects I am currently working on is a “grosstopical” map that reads the space of the city against eyewitness testimonies recorded by the colonial commission to investigate the 1867 riots. Drawing on maps like Charles Booth’s maps of poverty in 19th-century London, I hope to reveal the multiple cities that existed in colonial George Town at the times.7

I am using several maps that were made in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Kelly Maps to create a baseline of streets and lots. These maps were undertaken by FW Kelly Superintendent of Surveys, between 1891 and 1893 and built on earlier surveys made by Messrs Laseron and Peters (figure 5). I hope to create a multi-layered image that not only identifies legal ownership of various parts of George Town that were directly affected by the riots, but also reveals the ways the city’s colonial infrastructure was occupied by and transformed by the urban violence of 1867.

Figure 5. Map of Armenian Street, George Town, Penang, ca. 1890. Alexander Kuhn.


Lawrence Chua (he, him, his 他) is a historian of the global modern built environment with an emphasis on Asian architecture and urban culture. He is an assistant professor at the School of Architecture, Syracuse University and was most recently a fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies in Leiden and a Marie S. Curie Junior Fellow of the European Union at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg. He has taught courses in the history and theory of architecture and urbanism as well as design studio courses at Hamilton College, New York University, and Chulalongkorn University. His writing has appeared in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, the Journal of Urban History, Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, and Senses and Society. He currently serves on the editorial board of Architectural Histories, the peer-reviewed journal of the European Architectural History Network. He received his PhD in the History of Architecture and Urban Development from Cornell University in 2012.

  1. Report of the Commissioners Appointed under Act XXI of 1867 to Enquire into “The Penang
    Riots,” Chinese Secret Societies: A collection of manuscripts and documents relating to secret
    societies in Penang, Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, level 11, National Library of Singapore
    manuscript 364.10609595113 CHI, (NL 18296), section 14, pp. 7-8. Neil Khor Jin Keong’s
    account diverges slightly from the colonial record. He points out that Khoo Teng Pang became the leader of an existing secret society, the Kien Teik Tong. “Economic Change and the Emergence
    of the Straits Chinese in Nineteenth-Century Penang,” JIMBRAS, 79:2 (291) (2006), 68. For an
    excellent introduction to Tua Pek Kong and his importance to Penang, see Jack Meng-Tat Chia,
    “Who is Tua Pek Kong? The cult of Grand Uncle in Malaysia and Singapore,” Archiv Orientální
    85, 2017.
  2. Report of the Commissioners Appointed under Act XXI of 1867 to Enquire into “The Penang
    Riots,” Chinese Secret Societies: A collection of manuscripts and documents relating to secret
    societies in Penang, Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, level 11, National Library of Singapore
    manuscript 364.10609595113 CHI, (NL 18296), section 38, pp. 13-14.
  3. Mervyn Llewelyn Wynne, Triad and Tabut: A Survey of the Origin and Diffusion of Chinese
    and Mohamedan Secret Societies in the Malay Peninsular, A.D. 1800-1935 (Singapore: W.T. Cherry, 1941), 248. Wilfred Blythe, the Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya (London:
    Oxford University Press, 1969), 130.
  4. Khoo Salma Nasution, Streets of Georgetown, Penang (Penang: Janus, 1994), 31.
  5. Constance M. Turnbull, “Penang’s Changing Role in the Straits Settlements, 1826-1946”
    Penang and Its Region: The Story of an Asian Entrepôt, edited by Yeoh Seng Guan, Loh Wei
    Leng, Khoo Salma Nasution, and Neil Khor (Singapore: NUS Press 2019), 36.
  6. Anoma Pieris, “Secret Histories of the Colonial City: Penang Viewed Through the 1867 Riots,”
    Penang and Its Networks of Knowledge (Penang: Areca Books, 2017), 220.
  7. I borrow the term “grosstopical” from the author China Miéville, who uses it to describe an
    approach to surveying the divided city in his novel, the City and the City (London and New
    York: Macmillan, 2009).