View Cart "Chinese Clans in Penang: A Concise History (Volume 1) / 槟州宗祠家庙简史 (上篇)" was successfully added to your cart.

Penang Chinese Commerce in the 19th Century


Wong Yee Tuan
2015. ISEAS Publishing
Softcover, 22.7 cm x 15.1 cm, 250 printed pages
ISBN No: 9789814515023

Out of stock

Product Description

The story of Penang would be incomplete without the Big Five Hokkien families (the Khoo, the Cheah, the Yeoh, the Lim and the Tan). It was the Big Five who played a preponderant role not only in transforming Penang into a regional entrepot and a business and financial base, but also in reconfiguring maritime trading patterns and the business orientation of the region in the nineteenth century. Departing from the colonial vantage point, this book examines a web of transnational, hybrid and fluid networks of the Big Five comprising of family relationship, sworn brotherhood, political alliance and business partnerships, which linked Penang and its surrounding states (western Malay states, southwestern Siam, southern Burma, and the north and eastern coasts of Sumatra) together to form one economically unified geographical region, having inextricable links to China and lndia. With these intertwining networks, the Big Five succeeded in establishing their dominance  in all the major enterprises (trade, shipping, cash crop planting, tin mining, opium revenue farms), which constituted the linchpin of Penang’s and its region’s economy. By disentangling and dissecting this intricate web of networks, this book reveals the rise and decline of the Hokkien mercantile families’ nearly century-long economic ascendancy in Penang and its region.



In Penang Chinese Commerce in the 19th Century, the author adopts a contextual and interactional approach to delineate and analyse the Big Five Hokkien families as a leading economic force in the transformation and development of Penang and its surrounding states from the nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. The economic landscape of the Penang region was characterized by a range of vibrant economic activities, such as revenue farming, cash-crop planting, tin-mining, and shipping and trading. It was in this setting that the Big Five established their sophisticated socioeconomic organizations and actively interacted with a kaleidoscope of Europeans and locals, exploiting all these economic opportunities and rose to become the dominant economic players.

  • Chapter 1 traces the Big Five’s regional business network, this study reveals new dimensions of ethnic interaction, economic cooperation and competition, state and family relationships that shaped Penang and the surrounding states.
  • Chapter 2 demonstrates that Penang was a flourishing regional entrepôt dominated by the enterprising Big Five Hokkien families, who dominated a wide range of business activities (shipping, entrepot trade, tin mining, revenue farming and coolie trading) and possessed extensive business connections with the surrounding states (southern Burma, southwestern Siam, western Malay states, and the northern and eastern Sumatra).
  • Chapter 3 explores the family networks centring on the Big Five. These were the secret of success for the Big Five in establishing their business domination in the Penang region. The family networks of blood and matrimonial ties not only cut across state, dialect, and ethnic boundaries, but also spanned the generations. With this flexible and interlocking family network, the Big Five could use or rely on a substantial number of relatives to manage, secure, and advance their business interests in the region.
  • Chapter 4 makes a close examination of the Big Five’s most profitable business—opium farming. The Big Five not only grouped themselves under the umbrella of a sworn brotherhood but also established alliances with others
  • Chapter 5 looks at tin mining—another lucrative business pursued by the Big Five in the nineteenth century.
  • Chapter 6 explores the growing Western business challenge to the Big Five and the response of the Big Five towards the rising Western business competition at the turn of the century. The Royal Dutch Packet Company (KPM) and the British Straits Steamship Company and Straits Trading Company expanded their shipping, tin-trading and smelting interests in the region. In response to Western competition, the Big Five formed the Eastern Shipping Company and the Penang Khean Guan Insurance Company.
About the author of Penang Chinese Commerce

Wong Yee Tuan obtained a PhD in history from the Australian National University. He is the Fellow & Head of History & Heritage 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.

For further reading, please see our newsletter.

Editorial reviews

Wong Yee Tuan’s study of the five clans of Penang represents a major breakthrough in the study of the Malayan Chinese. He documents an extremely important aspect of the nineteenth century Asian diaspora, exposing the intricate links between families, businesses, secret societies, revenue farms and public life of some of the key groups of Chinese in Penang and northern Malaya. The book weaves together the various strands of overseas Chinese life not only in Malaya, but also in the Netherland Indies, Siam and China. Most importantly, it 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,  Emeritus Professor, Asian Studies  Queensland University of Technology, Australia

This volume can be situated within a growing historiographical current whereby regional studies of connections, networks and interactions are gradually transcending national histories. Incorporating commercial, ethnic and social elements, the history presented can be concurrently seen as a business case study, a sociological exploration, a political economy treatise and an inquiry into Hokkien networking. Wong Yee Tuan is to be congratulated on this signal study in how local, national and broader regional histories can be integrated.—Geoffrey Wade,  ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

By aligning family, socio-political and business interests, the leading Penang Hokkien clans centralized their “home port” as a hub of regional commercial networks, thus successfully extending the trading colonies of Chinese diaspora westward to edge of the Indian Ocean. Wong has fastidiously researched and compellingly proven this, with a clear eye for relevant  cross-cultural collaborations with indigenous and international actors. The important legacy of the Big Five” clanhouses  is now firmly embedded in the George Town World Heritage Site, inciting further inquiry into the cultural formation of collective entrepreneurship in Southeast Asia.—Khoo Salma Nasutron  Heritage Advocate and Local Historian, Penang

Additional Information

Weight 400 g
Dimensions 22.7 x 15.1 x 1.1 cm