For the Teochew community of Georgetown, it is difficult to imagine what to do in Penang without the Han Jiang Ancestral Temple. This graceful building is the only temple in the town built in Teochew architectural style, and provides an important cultural centre. For travellers interested in learning about Teochew history, Han Jiang Ancestral Temple is amongst the worthwhile things to do in Penang. It is situated along the famous Chulia Street renowned for its boutique and budget hotels on the Heritage buildings.
One of the reasons that this attraction draws the attention of tourists planning where to go in Malaysia is its fascinating past. The Teochew people (also known as the Chaozou) originate from the eastern section of the Guangdong (Kwangtung) province, which is located in China’s southeast, on the coast of the South China Sea. They speak a dialect of Southern Min Chinese named Teochew. These days, the majority of the population (which numbers about 10 million) lives outside of its historical home, inhabiting Southeast Asia, as well as Europe, particularly France, and the US.
Penang received its first wave of Teochew immigrants during the 1850s. In order to create a supportive network, six of them formed the Penang Teochew Association in 1855. Initially, they constructed a boarding house, which provided a kind of safe haven for new arrivals, and twelve years later, the Association acquired land. It took three years to build the Han Jiang Ancestral Temple, which received its current name in 1935.
Deterioration and Visions for Restoration
By the end of the millennium, the then 130-year old temple had started to show disturbing signs of deterioration. The roof even started leaking.
Unwilling to watch their beloved temple fall into ruin, the Penang Teochew Association decided to undertake a restoration project, under the direction of heritage architect Ms. Lim Gaik Siang. They wanted, not only to restore the physical structure of the building, but also to re-establish its cultural and social significance. They hoped that the temple would become one of the important places to visit in Malaysia, for both locals and travellers.
As a result of their efforts, the Han Jiang Ancestral Temple is now a crucial vehicle for the celebration of Teochew culture and frequently hosts live performance events, including music, dance, opera, puppetry and rituals. It certainly features in many travel guides and books recommending where to go in Malaysia and is one of the most interesting things to do in Penang.
The Restoration Process
In its original manifestation, the temple was built as a quadrangle, with the outer building housing a central courtyard. Twenty years later, the Association decided to add an elaborate gate to the external structure.
When the decision was made to restore the temple, hours of time were devoted to researching the most appropriate techniques – the aim was to bring the building back to life, at the same time maintaining architectural and historical integrity. With insufficient skill available in Penang, expert craftsmen were invited from China to help. The restoration was completed in March 2005.
God of the North
Travellers looking for what to do in Penang will be interested to know that the Han Jiang Ancestral Temple is home to the altar of the Taoist God of the North, who is actually the Teochews’ patron deity. The building’s three pairs of doors are testament to this. Most temples have just one pair. Furthermore, the ancestral tablets of Teochew people who have passed away can be found inside the building.
Visitors will enjoy exploring the ‘Hall of Respect’ and investigating the sign representing brotherhood. There are also many exquisite, finely crafted sculptures, including dragons and helmet-wearing gods, which are brought to life by the temple’s new fibre optics lighting system.
The temple is located at 127 Chulia Street, George Town, 10200. It is possible to walk there from the Weld Quay Bus Terminal. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. As winner of a 2006 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Culture Heritage Conservation, it is one of the most popular places to visit in Malaysia.