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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


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 1/11
Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang

the gentlemen. I found out that there was something called research which could help clear my head of all these confusions. There were other gangs. little zero-. Penang.who distributed among themselves streets like jee tiau lor. with the gangsters. When I got older. The City Bayview Hotel. or zero eight gang. Two Dollars. on our bicycles. Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic 2/11 Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang . and haven't stopped since. my friends and I were both fascinated and intimidated by what the locals call samseng. As a boy.the gangsters or the policemen. No. it also involved numbers. and so on. twa khong. in the first place. There was. The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002. gentlemen playing golf and racing horses at the Penang Turf Club. a mysticism of numbers associated with them -. When we got a bit older. When I went to university. So I started to confuse them. sar tiau lor. or lane two. Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications Introduction When I was a schoolboy in Penang. There was the khong peh. and didn't like them quite so much anymore. rather. lane three. it seemed to me that gangsters were the rulers of society. Someone could stop you while you were cycling on the street and say: hey. or gangsters. Then there was the intimidation part. And so on. my little brother says you beat him up last week.sam meaning three in Cantonese. what do you want to do about it? Fifty cents. we would steal into those streets. seh khong --big zero. I thus started to confuse gangsters with policemen. They were. so I started doing research. Engseng Ho. what the British called the Triad society. for instance. I was told that the people who ran the town really weren't the ones ruling the streets -.

Penang Literary Association (1890's)." (Vaughan 1971: 2-3) Here.. were both Babas and sinkehs. The Khoo Kongsi for instance. and the Khoo Kongsi. The easiest place to find them was in the clubs they frequented. were open to all who shared the surname. nothing they rejoice in more than being British subjects. and drink brandy and soda ad libitum. Chinese Cycling Club (1894). a white man. and distinguished themselves from recent arrivals from China. identified themselves with British rule. In these groupings.. The oldest of these were founded in the decade of the 1890's: the Chinese Recreation Club (1892).They have social clubs of their own to which they will admit no native of China. Penang. The kongsi's extensive landholdings in Air Itam. 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.. His name was Khoo Thean Teik. Vaughan says they did not share the same clubs. The City Bayview Hotel. for example. I am a British subject. the sinkeh. whether you call them clubs or kongsis. Indeed. The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002. and he was leader of both the Toh Pek Kong or Kien Tek Society. and one of the founders was Khoo Wat Seng. 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. I started tracing the gentlemen to when they first appeared. especially before the 1890's. 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. In the mid-1800's the most prominent leader of the Khoo Kongsi was also the leader of one of the main secret societies. out of Engseng Ho. we see that Babas did share other clubs with sinkehs. we have some clues as to who the gentlemen in the clubs were. Young Men's Association (1896). are named in his honour. and are still involved with the kongsi. Surname clan associations. Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic 3/11 Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang . Old Xaverians' Association (1906). an orang putih. dating from these days. At these clubs they play billiards. whose descendants were Baba leaders of Penang society. bowls and other European games.' literally. in 1867. They were Babas. But who were their members? Around 1880. Yet if we broaden our view of what a club is. OK. so we know when the clubs were started. was started in 1835.

Penang. Engseng Ho.000 belonged to either the Kien Tek society or its secret society rival. such as native-place associations. This problem was dealt with by having secret societies organize that labour. Abroad in the Hokkien diaspora. That was the business of the Chinese tin miners. But they were more than that. arose in places where mobile Hokkiens congregated. nor were they interested in doing so. In its investigations. such as the Red and White Flags. the commission identified Hokkien Babas as leaders of the Kien Tek. and their problem. Maurice Freedman thought of them as an alternative to state and local structures of authority. tin was discovered in Perak on the mainland. The Chinese financiers. the Ghee Hin. and even dying for. economic enterprises. Even the Amoy dialect was a compound of what was spoken in Chiang Chew and Chuan Chew. The City Bayview Hotel. We have these numbers because a major riot broke out between the Kien Tek and the Ghee Hin in Penang in 1867. The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002. and these numbers and much other useful information were generated as a result. Their rivals. communication and sanction were involved in anti-Manchu agitation. friendships. Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic 4/11 Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang . Ng Chin Keong has shown us that new forms of social organization. which dealt with them as a police problem. in Larut and Klian Bahru. people socialized and had obligations and loyalties towards each other not on the old bases of common land or lineage. the Ghee Hin. The commission further observed that both the Kien Tek and Ghee Hin were allied with rival non- Chinese groupings as well. Malay chiefs who controlled those areas would have direct arrangements with rich Chinese financiers.000. A commission of inquiry was set up after the fact. Rather. or present-day Kamunting. in turn. secret societies. all became good reasons for dealing with. Much of what has been written comes from colonial sources. My view is that their origins are not as important as what they became. and were allied with Hakkas of the Hai San society. which included sinkehs. the Malay chiefs would allow the Chinese financiers to exploit the tin deposits. Neither the Malay nor the British authorities at that time had a police force to control that large labour pool. What secret societies are is murky. or what Ng calls the Amoy Network. In return for large sums of money. Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications a total Penang Chinese population of about 36. starting with Amoy or Xiamen itself. In China. older and subsidiary ports up-river of Amoy. 30. What were these rivalries and alliances about? In the 1840's. had to gather a large labour force to work the mines. were mainly Cantonese recently arrived from China. sworn brotherhoods having special rituals of initiation and codes of behaviour. each other. a shared language. which included Malays and Indian-Muslims.

" (Tan 1979: 11) In other words.. and did not see the composite nature of the phenomenon. Penang. the richest capitalist.. And there were always rivals for that role. The City Bayview Hotel. and the term applies as well to a 'capture' of the joint Malay-Chinese political economy of Penang- Perak in the mid-nineteenth century. and large doses of physical coercion. riots and secret socities from that period will usually come up with rival but equivalent conglomerates combining the same elements of the equation. was licensed to receive the largest number of coolies. any analysis of Penang. indenture and debt. the main market for tin Engseng Ho. British accounts of secret society warfare usually reduced to single factors such as language or primeval hatreds. Tan Pek Leng has shown a direct correlation between labour control and secret society power. It was part of an old Southeast Asian pattern. and the products were sold to Chinese for export to China. As such. The sources of capital and labour in this case were Chinese. Chop Kim Ho. Chinese secret societies were secret because Malay. they did not see --or show-.. Carl Trocki has succinctly identified what he calls a European 'capture' of Chinese economy in the 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. 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. Working with pepper and gambier at the southern end of the Malay peninsula. With the invention of tin cans to provision soldiers in the American civil war. contract. and eventually as both producer and market for tin.His depot. In the middle of the nineteenth century. the political economy of tin mining was a joint Malay-Chinese affair. British supplantation of Chinese as controller of the labour force. as shaper of Chinese organizational life. and collectively kept their machinations secret from their respective foot soldiers. tin mining. by farming out monopoly rights to foreign bidders. Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications Thus for a mixture of reasons including linguistic commonality.. ownership of capital. Indeed. partnership with Malay chiefs.their own roles in the making of trouble. The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002. and the opening of the Suez canal in 1869. Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic 5/11 Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang . secret societies became involved in labour recruitment and control for the new tin mines. in which indigenous chiefs acquired a regular tax base without the burden of administration. Chinese and British elites were endlessly dealing with and playing each other out. shared interests in an enterprise. She says that. Khoon Thean Teik and the most powerful secret society headman was one and the same. ".

while the Toh Pek Kongs were with the Red Flags. Baba financiers represented by the Toh Pek Kong/Kien Teik society. the Ghee Hin was allied with the White Flag society. busied themselves travelling up and down the rivers towards these ends. were historically more powerful and captured more revenue than hulu or upriver chiefs. on all sides. while the latter were alternately tempted and threatened by the British. Malayan share of world output jumped from 10% to 55%. sitting astride larger volumes of traffic. Both had proven incapable of ruling themselves --or each other. the earliest British officials there. as Penang Baba Hokkien financiers moved into Perak. Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications shifted decisively from China to the West in the second half of the nineteenth century. 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. The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002. over the long run. The issue is not simply one of comparison. which connects Singapore and Penang. The fortunes of Chinese capitalists were increasingly tied to those of their Malay chiefly allies. At the same time. The Ghee Hin and White Flag Engseng Ho. In urban Georgetown. Penang. In the colonial view of Malayan history. over that of the Cantonese Ghee Hins. A period of unusually fluid political maneuvering ensued among Malay chiefs. for that matter-. the appearance of tin in the interior began to upset settled political arrangements. This provided the opening for the British to take sides. As I understand it. This dramatic process of British capture was thus going on while civil disorder was laid at the doorstep of Chinese secret society conflicts. The City Bayview the British were forced t o step in. the British meddled on both the Malay and Chinese sides before 1874. I haven't studied the matter as closely. Professor Khoo Kay Kim has written extensively on this. Whereas downstream or hilir chiefs. but I think a similar alliance was in the making. the discovery of the tin mines in the 1840's changed the geography of power and competition in Perak. In Penang. Let us look at a number of places on the Malay peninsula. James Birch and Frank Swettenham. This political instability created heightened risks for Chinese capital invested in tin mining. it appears that the British favoured Penang Hokkien. the British were forced to intervene in 1874 because Chinese secret society conflict and Malay succession disputes had become too disruptive of social order. Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic 6/11 Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang . On the Malay side. each Chinese-Malay/Indian-Muslim faction shared jurisdiction over the same part of town. but connection.

counting 25. Engseng Ho. Malacca and Singapore. a similar pattern of polarization was occurring. The Ghee Hin group went by the same name all over. That the Babas were the ones entrusted with the arms trade makes it clear whom the British were supporting. headed by local-born Babas. The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002. rival to the Ghee Hin. The City Bayview Hotel. They . t o supply the members of their society with muskets. and Ghee Hock in Singapore. article 12).Ghee Hins of Penang consist chiefly of the labouring and artisan class. Hai San in Perak and Selangor.. disadvantage in numbers was balanced by an advantage of arms in favour of the Toh Pek Kong and Red Flag. The White flags allied with the Ghee Hins. As in Penang. appears in Singapore from 1830 to 1890 as the Ghee Hock. and it was in this manner. and are principally men from Canton. while the Red Flags supported the Tokongs. with dialect variations in procouncement.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. The Toh Pek Kong society embraced the Kien Tek in Penang.. However. 1867: 6). Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications societies were numerically superior." (The Penang Riots.000 and 3. Penang. the Toh Pek Kongs were mainly Hokkiens. in times of distrubance. the ". In Purcell's reckoning.000 and 1. 1867: 5. Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic 7/11 Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang . Distribution of firearms was a standard British technique for getting desirable outcomes. On the other hand.. that so many of the Toh Pek Kongs were armed during the late riots (The Penang Riots. 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 Toh Pek Kong and Red Flag could field only 6. According to the commission of inquiry into the Penang riots of 1867. a parallel division occurred amongst Malays and Indian Mulims in Perak.000. These proprieters of firearms are bound.000 members respectively.. in Penang from 1844 to 1867 as the Toh Pek Kong. Down the peninsula. The Tokong society (Toh Pek Kong).

as James Rush has shown for opium in Dutch Java. civic associations were all guilty until proven innocent. -. Ghee Hin and Ghee Hock in Singapore in 1863. it would help us explain why the period of the Larut wars in Perak also witnessed riots in Penang and Singapore. and Carl Trocki in British Engseng Ho.. In other words. The City Bayview Hotel. Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic 8/11 Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang . In this sense.." -. While this legislative outcome of the secret society wars withdrew the civic rights of everyone.. the colonial concept of a secret society became generalized beyond Chinese society. the Penang Baba Hokkien financiers came out of the events with specific restrict any named society to China-born persons. Essentially. The story past this point is well known. By the end.This was further modified in 1885 ".This was amended to the Dangerous Societies Ordinance of 1882." -. with constant fights between the Ghee Hin and Hai San in Perak. -. when all societies were assumed illegal until approved for registration. Penang. for former were British subjects by birth and could not be banished. Ghee Hin and Kien Tek in Penang in 1867.The logical conclusion to this series of moves was the Societies Ordinance of 1890. Monopoly farms provided the bulk of government revenue.." This was an attempt to prise away the Straits-born from the China-born.for the registration of certain societies and the prevention of unlawful assemblies. The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002. all of society becomes a potential secret society.. 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. suppression of secret societies did not mean suppression of its leaders.empower the Registrar of Societies to refuse to register any Triad or Tokong which made itself particularly obnoxious to him. to ". 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. The British introduce a series of increasingly restrictive laws of increasingly wide scope over all civic associations.The Commision of Inquiry on the Penang Riots of 1867 recommended Ordinance XIX of 1869 ". The conflicts were particularly sharp in the 1860's.. All social organizations were secret societies unless their books were open to the government. The boat had to be turned around but not rocked.

But in order to finish. a descendant of the first Kapitan China of Penang at the Beach Street firm of Tye Sin Tat. set up by Company officials for their local friends." Here. The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002. Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications Malaya. to Khoo Thean Tek and Chang Keng Kwee. and the Babas in Singapore. gambling. together. the Indian Mutiny was a generalized revolt which threatened t o overthrow the British.. He was the only non-partisan Chinese at a ceasefire conference called by Lt. we need to go beyond the local context of Malaya. Governor Anson at the height of the Larut war. It was a defining event for British imperialism world wide. we are close to the end of our story. Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic 9/11 Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang . a private corporation which had carried on as a government. and the British government assumed rule over the colonies. may be taken as signs that the British were actively courting the Baba elite while repudiating their secret society affiliations.overtly and independent. settled Hokkien peranakan capitalist elite enjoyed the favour of colonial government: the Cabang Atas in Java. and the 1885 ordinance separating sinkehs from Babas in associational life. and was mired in publicly expressed moral anxieties over Engseng Ho. A transitional figure in this shift may be seen in the person of Foo Tye Sin. Government was more susceptible to British public opinion than the private East India Company. two of the three Chinese Justices of the Peace in 1874. They were. an old. educated at the Penang Free School. even though Foo Tye Sin was. ". on the model of Sarawak's James Brooke. the acclaimed builder of indirect rule in Perak. who between them represented the allied Kien Tek-Hai San group of Penang Hokkiens and Perak Hakkas. Thus Low's cultivation of the Penang Baba financiers. spirits. In 1857. The City Bayview Hotel. In both these places. He was one of three Chinese considered respectable enough to sit on the commission of inquiry into the 1867 Penang riots. The East India Company. the Larut and Kurau opium. he was a partner of Koh Seang Tat. The old system of revenue farming became suspect as a form of cronyism. A similar outcome prevailed in Penang-Perak. Born in Penang. These were the new public men of turn of the century Victorian Penang. We need to look at Indian history to understand British thinking in Malaya.. but covertly a Hai San sympathiser. Where James Birch had made British authority the laughing stock of Perak. Hugh Low showed them all how indirect rule could work brilliantly. was dissolved by act of Parliament. according to CS Wong. and as a result a new impetus was given to bureacratic control of the colonies. He was prototypical of the new type of Chinese leader elevated by the British. pawnbroking and tobacco farms were for the most part given over by Hugh Low. After the Pangkor settlement of 1874. Penang.

At the beginning of this talk. had stood by them during the mutiny. native public opinion became something officials started to take seriously. and our leaders not as grand. Persons of wealth. to my mind. they seem to have lost their will t o politics. The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002. A category of Indian 'public men' rose to the challenge. The City Bayview Hotel. Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic 10/11 Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang . led to the rise of new. and kept apart from John Chinaman. or honorary magistrates. and were concerned with archiving. it was more often than not with horses at the Turf Club. and so on. Gandhi was one of such men. The feeling was that the mutiny had happened because British officials had lost touch with native opinion. Macaulay's brainchild. documentation. they retreated into a narrow. colonial officials took care to consult with those they considered 'natural leaders of the people. others took the chance to compete with colonial government on their own terms. legalistic formulation of identities and rights. with the Societies Ordinance? The new direction of British policy in India. our history is not as dramatic. While many Indians assumed this enhanced status with gratitude. sports and school clubs where they imbibed brandy and soda ad libitum. In Penang. Direct colonial control over taxation became an unstoppable force. rather than expand to include a range of others. Engseng Ho. The gentlemen of the Penang clubs were. Having metamorphosed from gangsters into gentlemen. After the Mutiny. and finally beat his British tutors in the media wars. often lawyers who took care to record their associational and public activities. Did they have anything to do with the gangsters whose own clubs were finally wound up in 1890. redoubling their efforts in the study of English. at the new literary. I wondered at the rise of a group of gentlemen in the 1890's in Penang. and were now enlisted as Justices of the Peace. British public opinion became an important factor in colonial decision-making out in the bush.. especially propertied traders (Bayly 339). 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. and the validation of courts of law. Simultaneously.on expanded municipal boards' (Bayly 339). Anglophone 'public men' in India. When I interviewed Penang Babas about the an association called the SCBA. Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications opium. precedent. Penang. made in the mould of the Indian public men. If we competed with the British. in the press and other public venues. Yet unlike their Indian models.. directed at cultivating a local elite capable of shaping Indian public opinion favourably towards the British. These were the native classes who responded by building libraries and clocktowers. Thus the battle was now joined for the formation of local public opinion in the colonies.

We are left with less communal violence than the Indians. Engseng Ho. Gangsters Into Gentlemen: The Breakup of Multiethnic 11/11 Conglomerates and the Rise of A Straits Chinese Identity in Penang . In our continued warm association with the British. That strategy worked in Penang's sister island Singapore. Whether this was the right thing to do historically is hard to tell. The City Bayview Hotel. and better food than both. many weren't sure whether it was theStraits Chinese British Association or the Straits Chinese Baba Association. as the Babas had become so identified with the British. even to the extent of excluding other Chinese. in the gift of their language. more time on our hands than the Singaporeans. The Penang Story Ð International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002. Essentially it didn't matter. perhaps we will finally be able to widen our world and enlarge our hearts. Penang. Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications formed in the early 20th century. where the British handed power over to another Hokkien- Hakka alliance of peranakans.

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