The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia Organisers

: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic Conglomerates and The Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang Engseng Ho Department of Anthropology, William James Hall, Harvard University Cambridge, MA 02138 Email ho@wjh.harvard.edu

ABSTRACT This paper will discuss how leaders of Penang Chinese society came to be vilified as gangsters by colonial officialdom in the late nineteenth century, and how they reinvented themselves as Anglophone Straits Chinese Babas in the twentieth. In this story of the changing representations of an ethnic elite lies also the story of how multiethnic conglomerates were destroyed in the creation of British Malaya. In the late nineteenth century, powerful multiethnic alliances of Penang Chinese financier-gangsters, Indian Muslim societies and Malay nobles competed with each other over tin mines in the peninsula. From the Penang Riots of 1867 to the Pangkor Treaty of 1874 to the Societies Ordinance of 1890, the establishment of colonial rule over the Malay peninsula entailed the dismantling of combined multiethnic power, and the creation of racially separate administrative categories and interests. One curious result was the self-creation of an elite class of Malay, Indian and Chinese Anglophone gentlemen who became increasingly divorced from political life, now understood in racial terms, and reconvened over drinks at the clubhouse instead.

Engseng Ho, Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang

1/11

The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

Introduction When I was a schoolboy in Penang, my friends and I were both fascinated and intimidated by what the locals call samseng, or gangsters. There was, for instance, a mysticism of numbers associated with them -- sam meaning three in Cantonese, in the first place, what the British called the Triad society. There was the khong peh, or zero eight gang. There were other gangs, twa khong, seh khong --big zero, little zero-- who distributed among themselves streets like jee tiau lor, sar tiau lor, or lane two, lane three, and so on. When we got a bit older, we would steal into those streets, on our bicycles. As a boy, it seemed to me that gangsters were the rulers of society. Then there was the intimidation part; it also involved numbers. Someone could stop you while you were cycling on the street and say: hey, my little brother says you beat him up last week, what do you want to do about it? Fifty cents. No, Two Dollars. And so on. I thus started to confuse gangsters with policemen, and didn't like them quite so much anymore. When I got older, I was told that the people who ran the town really weren't the ones ruling the streets -- the gangsters or the policemen. They were, rather, gentlemen playing golf and racing horses at the Penang Turf Club. So I started to confuse them, the gentlemen, with the gangsters. When I went to university, I found out that there was something called research which could help clear my head of all these confusions, so I started doing research, and haven't stopped since.

Engseng Ho, Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang

2/11

The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic Conglomerates and The Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang In my research, I started tracing the gentlemen to when they first appeared. The easiest place to find them was in the clubs they frequented. The oldest of these were founded in the decade of the 1890's: the Chinese Recreation Club (1892), Chinese Cycling Club (1894), Young Men's Association (1896), Penang Literary Association (1890's), Old Xaverians' Association (1906). OK, so we know when the clubs were started. But who were their members? Around 1880, the British official JD Vaughan wrote: Strange to say that although the Babas adhere so loyally to the customs of their progenitors they despise the real Chinaman and are exclusive fellows indeed; nothing they rejoice in more than being British subjects. The writer has seen Babas on being asked if they were Chinamen bristle up and say in an offended tone 'I am not a Chinaman, I am a British subject, an orang putih,' literally, a white man...They have social clubs of their own to which they will admit no native of China. At these clubs they play billiards, bowls and other European games, and drink brandy and soda ad libitum.." (Vaughan 1971: 2-3) Here, we have some clues as to who the gentlemen in the clubs were. They were Babas, identified themselves with British rule, and distinguished themselves from recent arrivals from China, the sinkeh. Vaughan says they did not share the same clubs. Yet if we broaden our view of what a club is, we see that Babas did share other clubs with sinkehs, especially before the 1890's. Surname clan associations, for example, were open to all who shared the surname. The Khoo Kongsi for instance, was started in 1835, and one of the founders was Khoo Wat Seng, whose descendants were Baba leaders of Penang society, and are still involved with the kongsi. In the mid-1800's the most prominent leader of the Khoo Kongsi was also the leader of one of the main secret societies. His name was Khoo Thean Teik, and he was leader of both the Toh Pek Kong or Kien Tek Society, and the Khoo Kongsi. The kongsi's extensive landholdings in Air Itam, dating from these days, are named in his honour. In these groupings, whether you call them clubs or kongsis, were both Babas and sinkehs. Indeed, in 1867, out of
Engseng Ho, Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang 3/11

The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

a total Penang Chinese population of about 36,000, 30,000 belonged to either the Kien Tek society or its secret society rival, the Ghee Hin. We have these numbers because a major riot broke out between the Kien Tek and the Ghee Hin in Penang in 1867. A commission of inquiry was set up after the fact, and these numbers and much other useful information were generated as a result. In its investigations, the commission identified Hokkien Babas as leaders of the Kien Tek, which included sinkehs, and were allied with Hakkas of the Hai San society. Their rivals, the Ghee Hin, were mainly Cantonese recently arrived from China. The commission further observed that both the Kien Tek and Ghee Hin were allied with rival nonChinese groupings as well, such as the Red and White Flags, which included Malays and Indian-Muslims. What were these rivalries and alliances about? In the 1840's, tin was discovered in Perak on the mainland, in Larut and Klian Bahru, or present-day Kamunting. Malay chiefs who controlled those areas would have direct arrangements with rich Chinese financiers. In return for large sums of money, the Malay chiefs would allow the Chinese financiers to exploit the tin deposits. The Chinese financiers, in turn, had to gather a large labour force to work the mines. Neither the Malay nor the British authorities at that time had a police force to control that large labour pool, nor were they interested in doing so. That was the business of the Chinese tin miners, and their problem. This problem was dealt with by having secret societies organize that labour. What secret societies are is murky. Much of what has been written comes from colonial sources, which dealt with them as a police problem. But they were more than that. In China, sworn brotherhoods having special rituals of initiation and codes of behaviour, communication and sanction were involved in anti-Manchu agitation. Maurice Freedman thought of them as an alternative to state and local structures of authority. My view is that their origins are not as important as what they became. Ng Chin Keong has shown us that new forms of social organization, such as native-place associations, arose in places where mobile Hokkiens congregated, starting with Amoy or Xiamen itself. Even the Amoy dialect was a compound of what was spoken in Chiang Chew and Chuan Chew, older and subsidiary ports up-river of Amoy. Abroad in the Hokkien diaspora, or what Ng calls the Amoy Network, people socialized and had obligations and loyalties towards each other not on the old bases of common land or lineage. Rather, economic enterprises, secret societies, friendships, a shared language, all became good reasons for dealing with, and even dying for, each other.
Engseng Ho, Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang 4/11

The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

Thus for a mixture of reasons including linguistic commonality, indenture and debt, contract, shared interests in an enterprise, and large doses of physical coercion, secret societies became involved in labour recruitment and control for the new tin mines. Tan Pek Leng has shown a direct correlation between labour control and secret society power. She says that, "...in Penang, the richest capitalist, Khoon Thean Teik and the most powerful secret society headman was one and the same...His depot, Chop Kim Ho, was licensed to receive the largest number of coolies." (Tan 1979: 11) In other words, ownership of capital, tin mining, partnership with Malay chiefs, secret society leadership and labour control were all necessary elements of what it took to be a leader of Chinese society in this period -- and probably beyond. And there were always rivals for that role. As such, any analysis of conflicts, riots and secret socities from that period will usually come up with rival but equivalent conglomerates combining the same elements of the equation. British accounts of secret society warfare usually reduced to single factors such as language or primeval hatreds, and did not see the composite nature of the phenomenon. Indeed, they did not see --or show-- their own roles in the making of trouble. Chinese secret societies were secret because Malay, Chinese and British elites were endlessly dealing with and playing each other out, and collectively kept their machinations secret from their respective foot soldiers. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the political economy of tin mining was a joint Malay-Chinese affair. It was part of an old Southeast Asian pattern, in which indigenous chiefs acquired a regular tax base without the burden of administration, by farming out monopoly rights to foreign bidders. The sources of capital and labour in this case were Chinese, and the products were sold to Chinese for export to China. Working with pepper and gambier at the southern end of the Malay peninsula, Carl Trocki has succinctly identified what he calls a European 'capture' of Chinese economy in the nineteenth century, and the term applies as well to a 'capture' of the joint Malay-Chinese political economy of PenangPerak in the mid-nineteenth century. The end-result of that capture was evident by the beginning of the twentieth century: British supplantation of Malay chiefs as the predominant military force and beneficiary of monopoly farm revenues; British supplantation of Chinese as controller of the labour force, as shaper of Chinese organizational life, and eventually as both producer and market for tin. With the invention of tin cans to provision soldiers in the American civil war, and the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, the main market for tin
Engseng Ho, Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang 5/11

The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

shifted decisively from China to the West in the second half of the nineteenth century. Malayan share of world output jumped from 10% to 55%. This dramatic process of British capture was thus going on while civil disorder was laid at the doorstep of Chinese secret society conflicts. In the colonial view of Malayan history, the British were forced to intervene in 1874 because Chinese secret society conflict and Malay succession disputes had become too disruptive of social order. Both had proven incapable of ruling themselves --or each other, for that matter-- so the British were forced t o step in. As I understand it, the British meddled on both the Malay and Chinese sides before 1874. Professor Khoo Kay Kim has written extensively on this. On the Malay side, the discovery of the tin mines in the 1840's changed the geography of power and competition in Perak. Whereas downstream or hilir chiefs, sitting astride larger volumes of traffic, were historically more powerful and captured more revenue than hulu or upriver chiefs, the appearance of tin in the interior began to upset settled political arrangements. A period of unusually fluid political maneuvering ensued among Malay chiefs. This provided the opening for the British to take sides. James Birch and Frank Swettenham, the earliest British officials there, busied themselves travelling up and down the rivers towards these ends. This political instability created heightened risks for Chinese capital invested in tin mining, on all sides. The fortunes of Chinese capitalists were increasingly tied to those of their Malay chiefly allies, while the latter were alternately tempted and threatened by the British. At the same time, over the long run, it appears that the British favoured Penang Hokkien, Baba financiers represented by the Toh Pek Kong/Kien Teik society, over that of the Cantonese Ghee Hins. Trocki has argued that the Melaka and Singapore Baba Hokkiens made inroads into the Johor-Singapore-Riau pepper and gambier economy in the 19th century with British support. I haven't studied the matter as closely, but I think a similar alliance was in the making, as Penang Baba Hokkien financiers moved into Perak. The issue is not simply one of comparison, but connection. Let us look at a number of places on the Malay peninsula, which connects Singapore and Penang. In Penang, the Ghee Hin was allied with the White Flag society, while the Toh Pek Kongs were with the Red Flags. In urban Georgetown, each Chinese-Malay/Indian-Muslim faction shared jurisdiction over the same part of town. The Ghee Hin and White Flag
Engseng Ho, Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang 6/11

The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

societies were numerically superior, counting 25,000 and 3,000 members respectively. The Toh Pek Kong and Red Flag could field only 6,000 and 1,000. However, disadvantage in numbers was balanced by an advantage of arms in favour of the Toh Pek Kong and Red Flag. According to the commission of inquiry into the Penang riots of 1867, the Toh Pek Kongs were mainly Hokkiens, headed by local-born Babas. They ...number amongst their members most of the wealthy merchants and shopkeepers of Beach Street and include also the maufacturers and sellers of firearms and ammunition. These proprieters of firearms are bound, in times of distrubance, t o supply the members of their society with muskets, and it was in this manner, that so many of the Toh Pek Kongs were armed during the late riots (The Penang Riots, 1867: 6). Distribution of firearms was a standard British technique for getting desirable outcomes. That the Babas were the ones entrusted with the arms trade makes it clear whom the British were supporting. On the other hand, the "...Ghee Hins of Penang consist chiefly of the labouring and artisan class, and are principally men from Canton." (The Penang Riots, 1867: 5, article 12). Down the peninsula, a similar pattern of polarization was occurring. The Toh Pek Kong society embraced the Kien Tek in Penang, Hai San in Perak and Selangor, and Ghee Hock in Singapore. In Purcell's reckoning, The Tokong society (Toh Pek Kong), rival to the Ghee Hin, appears in Singapore from 1830 to 1890 as the Ghee Hock, in Penang from 1844 to 1867 as the Toh Pek Kong, in Larut as the Hai San and throughout Malaya from 1890 to the present day as the Sa Tiam Hui (Sam Tim Wui) or Three Dot Society (Purcell 1978: 157). The Ghee Hin group went by the same name all over, with dialect variations in procouncement. As in Penang, a parallel division occurred amongst Malays and Indian Mulims in Perak, Malacca and Singapore. The White flags allied with the Ghee Hins, while the Red Flags supported the Tokongs.

Engseng Ho, Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang

7/11

The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

If the existence of a rivalry between two multiethnic conglomerates down the length of the peninsula is true, it would help us explain why the period of the Larut wars in Perak also witnessed riots in Penang and Singapore. The conflicts were particularly sharp in the 1860's, with constant fights between the Ghee Hin and Hai San in Perak, Ghee Hin and Ghee Hock in Singapore in 1863, Ghee Hin and Kien Tek in Penang in 1867. The story past this point is well known. The British introduce a series of increasingly restrictive laws of increasingly wide scope over all civic associations. By the end, all of society becomes a potential secret society. -- The Commision of Inquiry on the Penang Riots of 1867 recommended Ordinance XIX of 1869 "...for the registration of certain societies and the prevention of unlawful assemblies." -- This was amended to the Dangerous Societies Ordinance of 1882, to "...empower the Registrar of Societies to refuse to register any Triad or Tokong which made itself particularly obnoxious to him." -- This was further modified in 1885 "...to restrict any named society to China-born persons." This was an attempt to prise away the Straits-born from the China-born, for former were British subjects by birth and could not be banished. -- The logical conclusion to this series of moves was the Societies Ordinance of 1890, when all societies were assumed illegal until approved for registration. In other words, civic associations were all guilty until proven innocent. In this sense, the colonial concept of a secret society became generalized beyond Chinese society. All social organizations were secret societies unless their books were open to the government. In this sense secret societies had less to do with the Chinese as such and more with the government as absolute sovereign over civic space. While this legislative outcome of the secret society wars withdrew the civic rights of everyone, the Penang Baba Hokkien financiers came out of the events with specific benefits. Essentially, suppression of secret societies did not mean suppression of its leaders. The boat had to be turned around but not rocked. Monopoly farms provided the bulk of government revenue, as James Rush has shown for opium in Dutch Java, and Carl Trocki in British
Engseng Ho, Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang 8/11

The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

Malaya. In both these places, an old, settled Hokkien peranakan capitalist elite enjoyed the favour of colonial government: the Cabang Atas in Java, and the Babas in Singapore. A similar outcome prevailed in Penang-Perak. After the Pangkor settlement of 1874, the Larut and Kurau opium, gambling, spirits, pawnbroking and tobacco farms were for the most part given over by Hugh Low, the acclaimed builder of indirect rule in Perak, to Khoo Thean Tek and Chang Keng Kwee, who between them represented the allied Kien Tek-Hai San group of Penang Hokkiens and Perak Hakkas. Where James Birch had made British authority the laughing stock of Perak, Hugh Low showed them all how indirect rule could work brilliantly, on the model of Sarawak's James Brooke. Thus Low's cultivation of the Penang Baba financiers, and the 1885 ordinance separating sinkehs from Babas in associational life, may be taken as signs that the British were actively courting the Baba elite while repudiating their secret society affiliations. A transitional figure in this shift may be seen in the person of Foo Tye Sin. He was one of three Chinese considered respectable enough to sit on the commission of inquiry into the 1867 Penang riots. He was the only non-partisan Chinese at a ceasefire conference called by Lt. Governor Anson at the height of the Larut war. He was prototypical of the new type of Chinese leader elevated by the British. Born in Penang, educated at the Penang Free School, he was a partner of Koh Seang Tat, a descendant of the first Kapitan China of Penang at the Beach Street firm of Tye Sin Tat. They were, together, two of the three Chinese Justices of the Peace in 1874. These were the new public men of turn of the century Victorian Penang, even though Foo Tye Sin was, according to CS Wong, "...overtly and independent, but covertly a Hai San sympathiser." Here, we are close to the end of our story. But in order to finish, we need to go beyond the local context of Malaya. We need to look at Indian history to understand British thinking in Malaya. In 1857, the Indian Mutiny was a generalized revolt which threatened t o overthrow the British. It was a defining event for British imperialism world wide. The East India Company, a private corporation which had carried on as a government, was dissolved by act of Parliament, and the British government assumed rule over the colonies. Government was more susceptible to British public opinion than the private East India Company, and as a result a new impetus was given to bureacratic control of the colonies. The old system of revenue farming became suspect as a form of cronyism, set up by Company officials for their local friends, and was mired in publicly expressed moral anxieties over
Engseng Ho, Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang 9/11

The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

opium. Direct colonial control over taxation became an unstoppable force. British public opinion became an important factor in colonial decision-making out in the bush. Simultaneously, native public opinion became something officials started to take seriously. The feeling was that the mutiny had happened because British officials had lost touch with native opinion. After the Mutiny, colonial officials took care to consult with those they considered 'natural leaders of the people...on expanded municipal boards' (Bayly 339). Persons of wealth, especially propertied traders (Bayly 339), had stood by them during the mutiny, and were now enlisted as Justices of the Peace, or honorary magistrates. These were the native classes who responded by building libraries and clocktowers, redoubling their efforts in the study of English, and so on. Thus the battle was now joined for the formation of local public opinion in the colonies. A category of Indian 'public men' rose to the challenge, often lawyers who took care to record their associational and public activities, and were concerned with archiving, precedent, documentation, and the validation of courts of law. At the beginning of this talk, I wondered at the rise of a group of gentlemen in the 1890's in Penang, at the new literary, sports and school clubs where they imbibed brandy and soda ad libitum, and kept apart from John Chinaman. Did they have anything to do with the gangsters whose own clubs were finally wound up in 1890, with the Societies Ordinance? The new direction of British policy in India, Macaulay's brainchild, directed at cultivating a local elite capable of shaping Indian public opinion favourably towards the British, led to the rise of new, Anglophone 'public men' in India. While many Indians assumed this enhanced status with gratitude, others took the chance to compete with colonial government on their own terms, in the press and other public venues. Gandhi was one of such men, and finally beat his British tutors in the media wars. In Penang, our history is not as dramatic, and our leaders not as grand. We got a taste of that grandeur when the nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore laid the foundation stone for the Hu Yew Seah society in Madras Lane in the 1930's. If we competed with the British, it was more often than not with horses at the Turf Club. The gentlemen of the Penang clubs were, to my mind, made in the mould of the Indian public men. Yet unlike their Indian models, they seem to have lost their will t o politics. Having metamorphosed from gangsters into gentlemen, they retreated into a narrow, legalistic formulation of identities and rights, rather than expand to include a range of others. When I interviewed Penang Babas about the an association called the SCBA,
Engseng Ho, Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang 10/11

The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

formed in the early 20th century, many weren't sure whether it was theStraits Chinese British Association or the Straits Chinese Baba Association. Essentially it didn't matter, as the Babas had become so identified with the British, even to the extent of excluding other Chinese. Whether this was the right thing to do historically is hard to tell. That strategy worked in Penang's sister island Singapore, where the British handed power over to another HokkienHakka alliance of peranakans. We are left with less communal violence than the Indians, more time on our hands than the Singaporeans, and better food than both. In our continued warm association with the British, in the gift of their language, perhaps we will finally be able to widen our world and enlarge our hearts.

Engseng Ho, Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang

11/11

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful