13 Dec 2015: Penang Chinese Commerce in the 19th Century

The study of the five clans of Penang represents a major breakthrough in the study of the Malayan Chinese. It weaves together the various strands of overseas Chinese life not only in Malaya, but also in the Netherland Indies, Siam and China and shows the process by which the Chinese leaders gained political, economic and social power as well as the way by which these powers were lost.
-Carl A. Trocki, Queensland University of Technology, Australia

Penang Chinese CommerceDoesn’t history become more interesting, for the reader, when there is an element of attachment and kinship with the subject matter? Our book-of-the-week, Penang Chinese Commerce in the 19th Century—The Rise & Fall of the Big Five, is the story of the aptly-named ‘Big Five’ Hokkien families—the Khoo, the Cheah, the Yeoh, the Lim and the Tan. These are surnames which countless Chinese Penangites, and elsewhere too, have direct connections with. The story of Penang would be incomplete without the ‘Big Five’—it was they who played a preponderant role not only in transforming Penang into a regional entrepôt and a business and financial base, but also in reconfiguring maritime trading patterns and the business orientation of the region in the nineteenth century, according to author Wong Yee Tuan.

The idea for the book came into being after the author, a Hakka born and raised in Perak, took notice of five temple-like kongsihouses standing magnificently in the middle of George Town. A little research revealed that a group of wealthy merchants from five Hokkien families founded these kongsis in the nineteenth century. But who were they and what roles did they play in Penang? How important were they? It was questions like these which stimulated the writer to ponder the two-century-old relationship between those hitherto little-known Hokkiens vis à vis Penang’s past, and to embark on researching the story about them. Even more perplexing to Wong was that despite their significance, no one had ever seen fit to place them under scholarly examination!

PC4Here at last, in a slim volume, is their story. The seven chapters cover, among other topics, the historical and entrepreneurial context of the ‘Big Five’ for a better understanding of their contributions towards the shaping of Penang. They range from regional networking; dimensions of ethnic interaction; range of business activities (shipping, entrepôt trade, revenue farming, coolie trading, opium farming and tin mining); extensive business connections with the surrounding states, and the growing Western business challenge to the Big Five.

About the author: Wong Yee Tuan obtained a PhD in history from the Australian National University. He is a Fellow and the Head of the History and Research Group, Penang Institute, Malaysia. His main research interest is in the area of the Chinese business history of Southeast Asia, on which he has published several articles in Asian Culture, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and Archipel.