Chinese temples abound in Penang from grand dedications to small roadside offerings, the kind we see on Indian streets all the time.
We first went to the YAP temple, dedicated to the Yap family which stands at the corner of Armenian and Canon Street. The official name of the Yap Temple is Choo Chay Keong. These temples that are dedicated to a particular family, are called Klan houses. So if you have the surname Yap, you are free to come to this temple and use it almost like a recreation centre. We saw people reading the newspaper, playing Mahgong and drinking cups of chinese tea. The forefathers of the Yap family came from the Fujian province of Southern China in the 19th century looking for greener pastures. They came as coolies and later became tradesman in the bustling port city of Penang
Unlike Indian temples which have a sanctimonious air, Chinese temples are not strict about who comes in and walks through the temple. We were allowed to enter with our shoes on, to walk around, take photos and it was free. We bought some incense sticks beautifully wrapped in a type of tissue with a chinese symbol in gold and thick red candles to take home. The incense we gave to the DH’s grandma.
We happened to be there on the day a TV serial or movie was being filmed so the place was crawling with the film crew, cast and equipment. One of the temple’s rooms was being used as a changing room by the star and starlet.
The architecture, the carvings and pillars were not unfamiliar to us. Although the motiffs and styles are different, we are so used to seeing temples and temple complexes in India that this was somehow familiar and yet intriguing at the same time. This temple has a green roof with dragons and pearls snaking across it.
Inside the main temple area, in the foreground are the large urns that hold probably years of incense ash. There are huge carved chests which hold candles and incense. At the back is the main alter to the dead members of the Yap family. Tiny figurines are places inside this alter area.
These lovely chairs we saw in many temples – wooden with a marble centre piece.
I was taken by these floor tiles. I saw them all over Penang’s buildings, even on some of the covered pavements.
Seeing that the DH is in to carpentary, we visited the Loo Pun Hong temple built in the 1880s (70, Love Lane) dedicated to Lo Pan, a man who invented a number of carpentry tools and is the oldest carpenters’ guild in Malaysia. In the stone courtyard is a huge bell and a drum, which is a rare feature in chinese temples. Incredible number of lanterns bedeck the ceiling which I’m sure looks spectacular at night.
Inside this temple are a few cabinets with Lo Pan’s original tools. Unfortunately, they are not well displayed, the tools are dusty and the cabinets are not lit which makes it difficult to see in. We did see these guys finishing up a game of Mahjong and refilling their cups of chinese tea.
Hot water for tea and Mahjong.
Considering that we are in the sea-faring business, we visited the Hainan Temple on Lebuh Muntri dedicated to the chinese patron saint of sea farers, Mar Chor. Completed in 1895, this temple is beautifully strung up with lanterns which and according to the writers of Lonely Planet looks like the final fight scene of Mortal Kombat.
We saw plenty of little roadside temples. I’m not sure who or what this one is dedicated to but it reminded us of the little gods tucked away in nooks of the pavements in Indian towns and cities. Someone’s looking after these as there was fresh incense burning.
The buddha on a pedastel with an elephant and a rat making offerings.
An even smaller roadside offering with a fresh pineapple.
Another impressive temple we visited was the Khoo Khongsi Clan House. It’s a popular tourist destination on Cannon Square (down the street from the Yap Temple) and it costs RM10 to get in. There’s a nice little curio shop at the entrance where you can pay in dollars or euros. The temple complex is very large with a stage/opera area facing the main temple. A midst all the grand carvings of dragons, tigers and scenes from Chinese mythology are two Sikh guards right up front guarding the temple. Apparently, in Chinese culture the Sikhs are considered strong and powerful and statues of Sikhs with shotguns are found in front of Hong Kong banks!
There’s a lovely little museum to the right of the temple which explains a lot of the artefacts and carvings in the temple. A very well designed and simply curated museum.
I loved this wall of lightboxes showing the symbols that represent the different Khoo generations.
The museum has a lovely picture of the temple lit up at night.
The lanterns at the entrance to the temple are beautifully painted, old and look very heavy. I recommend you visit in the evening when the lanterns are lit. The next time I visit Penang (and there will be a next time) we’ll be seeing these at night.
I’m sure there are many things common to all chinese temples but some of the things we noticed was this tiger. The tiger is considered very holy and powerful in chinese culture (probably why their parts are much valued).
Inside the temple are carved pillars and walls that depict the animals that are valued in chinese culture like the wild boar.
At the entrance to the temple is this lion with a granite ball in its mouth. This is common in most chinese temples. These guardians, called ShiShi are imperial guardian lions and found at the entrance to chinese temples, banks, restaurants, supermarkets and many other structures. The ones at this temple have a sign saying “Visitors are strictly not allowed to roll the granite balls in the lions’ mouth.”
The other common feature in chinese temples we saw are these men painted on the huge entrance doors called door gods. Qin Qiong has pale skin and facing him is Yuchi Gong who has dark skin, both carry batons. Apparently it is bad luck to place them back to back. Qin and Yuchi, in a Tang dynasty legend, were told by the emperor to guard the door because of a ghost harassing him, thus resulting in sleepless nights. When Qin and Yuchi guarded the emperor’s door he had a blissful sleep. The next day, the emperor, not wanting to trouble his two generals, called on men to hang portraits of the two men on either side of his door.
I found all the temples we visited to be very peaceful places, with very few people but always with someone straightening things, looking after everything. The Khoo Khongsi clan house is very popular but in the smaller temples we went to, we were the only tourists there with a few locals enjoying the temple facilities like a little recreation centre. A great way to spend the morning. But I recommend you visit in the evening when the lanterns are lit.