In modern Chinese, kongsi simply means “a company”, but in former times each was more like a clan or regional association providing help and protection for nineteenth-century immigrants, who naturally tended to band together according to the district in China from which they came. Formerly a focus for community rivalry, the kongsis have now reverted to their supportive role, helping with the education of members’ children, settling disputes between clan members, or advancing loans.

Many of the kongsi buildings in Penang are excellent examples of traditional southern Chinese architecture: there is generally a spacious courtyard in front of the clan house, opposite which is a stage for theatrical performances, and two halls in the main building itself, one for the shrine of the clan deity, the other for the display of the ancestral tablets (the equivalent of gravestones).

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