by Ong Li Ling
Several site excursions were organised as part of the Georgetown Heritage Celebrations 2019. I was fortunate enough to join the tour of the Nam Hooi Wooi Koon Cantonese Clan Association. Mr Adrian Pak (President of the Association) and Mr Johnny Yee (Honorary Secretary) led the informative tour and also provided the background information for this blog piece.
Our guides explained to us that Nanhai District is located in Foshan City China and has a history of 2,000 years. In 214 BC this place in Guangdong China was known as Nanhai County and, in 1992 it was renamed Nanhai District. The Nam Hooi Wooi Koon is a Cantonese Clan Association with members comprising of immigrants from Nanhai. It has been estimated that there are around 400,000 Nanhai Chinese living outside China and they are scattered around the world.
Some famous Nanhai figures that you may have heard of are revolutionary leader Kang Youwei, reformer Kang Tongbi, martial artist Wong FeiHung, martial artist Ip Man, actor Leung Ka-Fei and father of Engineering Zhan Tianyou. During the 1890s, Nanhai immigrants, Chen Yuqin and Zhou Xingyang, controlled the Penang opium market. They were the founding members of the Kwangtung Association, Nam Wah Ee Hospital, Chinese Town Hall and the Ng Fook Tong School in Penang.
Nam Hooi Wooi Koon was established in 1828, which means it will celebrate its 192nd anniversary come October 2019. Nam Hooi Wooi Koon is the oldest Overseas Establishment certified by the Nanhai Association in China. Within 77 years after its establishment, Nam Hooi Wooi Koon occupied its own building and it also operated 4 other shop houses and a funeral parlour. Coincidentally, the 1st (Bai Yupei), 11th (Bai Yuzhan), and the 21st President who is also the sitting President (BaiYubin) are from the Bai (Pak) family.
To make it easier for members to stay informed, Nam Hooi Wooi Koon started a Facebook Page and an official website in 2002. They also established a brotherhood Association with 2 other clan associations namely the PunYue (Panyu District) and Soon Tuck (Shunde, District).
Georgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with more than 5000 buildings of interest. Nam Hooi Wooi Koon is one of 82 Category 1 buildings, reflecting the authenticity of its cultural landscape. The length of this building is 200 feet, which is rare in Penang. The front faces Chulia Street and the back faces Kampung Malabar.
We started our tour at the front door. The words Nam Hooi Wooi Koon (in Cantonese) is solidly moulded on a concrete style signboard above the door. Instead of using gold coloured paint, “gold leaves” were stuck onto the letterings to make the words stand out. You can see with a pair of 7 lettered Chinese couplets on either side of the door. It reads Nan Yu De Zhi Peng Cheng Yuan and Hai Guo Tong Xin Yan Hui Zhang. This phrase was composed by Lingnan calligrapher Lin Qihan in 1904. The roofing and engraving on the exterior beams has a unique wooden flowery architectural design and showcases the expert craftsmanship of the artisan.
Once you enter the front door, you will see a Tai Pak Kong (Fu De Zheng Shen) on your left. It is also known as Tudi Gong (Diety of the Earth). Everything except the deity was repainted in early 2019. A specialist was hired to do the repainting and lacquering and he replicated the same colouring style as indicated in the archived photos. You will notice that this is the typical style adopted from Southern China. Tudi Gong is the Main Protector of the Community and Land.
Moving on, we were shown the United Nam Hoi Association Affiliates plaque on the left wall. This initiative was launched in Oct 2017. Members can establish trade with China via the Malaysia Nam Hoi Commercial Division.
We noticed the black tablets behind the counter on the right. In the 30th Year of Emperor Guangxu many enthusiastic members donated to the building fund, and their names were engraved in white lettering against a black background stone tablet. Carving a list of names onto a stone is a common practice in clan houses and kongsi. If you look carefully you may find the names of your great-great-grandfathers, great grandfathers or grandfathers engraved on the tablets. Members contributed not more than a few ringgit but it meant a lot to the association, as the value of money was big back then.
We looked up to admire the Golden Congratulatory Plaque. The previous plaque which was put up in 1905 collapsed in 2000 due to termites and a replica was put in its place .The board is engraved with the 4 letters of ‘Wei An Le Guo’.
There are lots of rosewood Ching Dynasty and Guangxu era antique furniture in the Hall. Rose wood is strong and free of termites. The more you sit on the chairs the more it shines and it will also cool you down when ambient temperatures are high.
There used to be 2 large Qing Dynasty vases on the stage. Unfortunately these priceless artefacts were stolen. The Association has since installed a CCTV to prevent future occurrence of theft.
We were brought to the inside section of the building where we admired the 2nd air well. As this air well has not been sealed, rainwater pours in when it rains.
Netting has been installed to prevent bats and swallows from coming in.
We looked up and noticed 5 red plaques hanging from the ceiling. These plaques are the pride of Association as they are given only to outstanding Chinese Scholars. These 5 pieces were originally from Nan Hai and they were bestowed to Nan Hai children who got into the Honorary List after sitting for the Qinghai Imperial Examination (example The Champion Zhuangyuan and The Flower Tanhua). These Scholars were eventually promoted to senior positions such as Ministers in the Imperial Palace.
At the end of the inner hall, there stood a high Chinese-style altar with numerous ancestral tablets. These tablets commemorate the dead. Their families often come to this alter during the Cheng Beng Festival instead of visiting the tomb.
The altar is more than 2 stories high. It is rare to find wooden structures of that height especially after the Communist rule in China. On the altar, we admired exquisite carvings of deities that told of Chinese folk tales. We also saw flowers, fishes and others of wooden frameworks with golden leaves stuck on. This altar is one of the prominent antique pieces in Nam Hooi Wooi Koon. Nanhai was famous for porcelain making and the vases at the front of the altar were imported many years ago to decorate the altar. The vases are made of single porcelain pieces and are deemed as priceless antiques.
Visitors can go to the praying area at the back of the building to ask for their blessings. There is a stone altar with the Sheji Zhi Shen (God of Society) and Bai Hu Ye (White Tiger God). If you make an offering to the God of Society/Community, you will be blessed with good weather and a good millet harvest. The White Tiger God is a Protector God. If you feel you are experiencing a bout of bad luck, you can pray to the White Tiger God for a smooth sailing year ahead. This God is said to open its mouth during certain times of the year. Devotees rub the mouth of the Tiger with a piece of lard for good luck.
This stone altar is visited by many Penangites and is open to the public throughout the year. There is no entrance fee and all are welcome to visit and pray for good luck. Many come at the start of the Chinese New Year. The Cantonese come in droves to ‘Ta Siew Yan’ (Da Xiao Ren) i.e. “Beat up the Villain”. Those who hinder your progress and growth, those who oppose you and are obstacles to your progress are deemed as ‘siew yan’ villains.
Some visitors will engage the services of the Resident Lady who is well versed in chanting poetic mantras, which get rid of bad luck. She will hit a red paper cutting representing the human shape of the villain. The ‘villain’ will be beaten up using a Chinese wooden clog while she chants the Mantras. An angpow can be given to the Lady as an appreciation for her services. You can also present an offering to the Tiger God.
We admired the side of building from the outside; 200 feet is considered long for a Penang building. The Association would like to commission a mural on this wall to depict Nanhai history and culture sometime in the near future.
We then walked upstairs to the 1st floor and admired the red staircase which is over 100 years old.
On the upper level, we saw 2 more altars with ancestral tablets. These tablets are exclusive to the Nan Hai people and they can purchase a tablet for nominal amount.
From the upper level, we can see a big ball on the rooftop, which represents a Pearl. This pearl radiates light in all directions. Next to the pearl are fishes, which symbolise abundance to fengshui believers.
We were then brought to the air-conditioned karaoke room, which is location at the back portion of the upper level. Initiated by the Association’s Past President, Mr. Lee GH, karaoke is an effective way to engage teachers and members alike. A competition is organised once a year to showcase budding talents.
We were treated to yummy Cantonese snacks whilst we enjoyed the Chinese opera karaoke performed on stage. Big thanks to Mr Adrian Yap, Mr Johnny Yee and the association members for the educational tour and warm hospitality.