Penang’s Clan Jetties

We have a master plan for exploring Penang. We made a long list of places we want to visit (sections of George Town we haven’t seen yet, museums, nature sites), and twice a week we’ll get up early, pick somewhere on the list, and explore it for a few hours before the day gets too hot.

We started this week with the clan jetties of George Town, miniature Chinese villages built on piers extending into Penang Harbor. The jetties, which date to the late 1800s, reflect the intersection of two Penang phenomena: the island’s role as a major maritime trading post, and the practice by Chinese immigrants of creating clan societies to help people from their hometown or their extended family adjust to life in a new place.

Imagine if everyone from a certain county in Ohio or everyone named Kuhnell who moved to Paris were eligible to join a benevolent society that would help them find work and housing and provide them with an instant community. That’s the role clan societies play around the world in places that Chinese people have moved to. The societies (called kongsi) also resolve disputes among members and maintain temples where clan ancestors and regional deities are honored.

Some clan societies built jetties in Penang Harbor—dense collections of low wooden houses built on stilts over the water, connected by wooden piers. They were constructed to house workers who were too poor to afford homes on land, especially people working as porters or boatmen in the harbor trade. At one time, clan jetties lined much of the eastern coast of George Town (Penang’s capital and main port). Today, only a handful remain, belonging to the Lim, Chew, Tan, Lee, and Yeoh clans. You no longer have to have the right surname to rent a house on one of the jetties, but you do have to be sponsored by someone from the clan.

The clan jetties have turned into tourist attractions, must-see stops for the Chinese tour groups that flood George Town. The morning we visited, we were early enough to beat the tour groups, so we got a chance to see daily life over the water: people having breakfast, watering their gardens of potted plants, feeding their pets.

On the Lim jetty, we fell into conversation with two residents working in front of their homes. One, a former tour guide at a local historic mansion, was very talkative. He invited us into the front room of his house and showed us photos of his grandparents, who had emigrated from China.

He told us a long, complex tale about how his grandfather came to Penang first, worked as a laborer, and sent back money to his wife in their home village each month. While in Penang, he fell in love with a Malay woman but still kept supporting his wife. After a few years, he went back to China, professed his continuing love for his wife, and, despite telling her about the other woman, persuaded her to join him in Penang.

There, Grandfather and his two spouses and their children all lived happily (or at least tolerantly) ever after, and Mr. Lim showed us the pictures hanging on the walls of his many Chinese and Malay aunts and uncles. It was the kind of story that novelist Amy Tan could turn into a wonderful book (though hers might be set on the Tan jetty just down the road). Even if we hadn’t been able to explore and photograph the clan jetties, the opportunity to talk to Mr. Lim would have been reason enough to get out of bed early.

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