Old world charm of a goddess’ temple

ANIMATED: Hu Ye (Tiger God) is among the deities placed in the temple.  

IT IS neither the biggest nor the prettiest Chinese temple in Penang but the historical Kong Hock Ke Ong (popularly referred to as Kuan Im Teng or Goddess of Mercy Temple) in Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling sure has its own charm. 

Well known among heritage lovers and devotees, the ancient temple never lacks visitors even on normal days. 

Located on a piece of land presented by the East India Company to the early Chinese settlers, Kong Hock Keong was once the most magnificent Chinese building in the northern Malayan peninsula during the 1800s. 

According to “The Kong Hock Keong”, an article written by historian Ong Seng Huat in July 1999, Kong Hock Keong literally means “Kwangtung Hokkien Temple”. 

In the early years when the temple was first set up, the committee comprised equal numbers of the two dialect groups, the Cantonese and Hokkien.  

Although the temple’s primary deity now is Kuan Im (Goddess of Mercy), it was believed that the temple was originally dedicated to Ma Chor Po, a goddess worshipped by seafarers to protect them from dangers at sea.  

Ma Chor Po originated from Fujian province in China and, according to Chinese folk belief, she was the incarnation of a drop of Kuan Im’s blood. 

In 1824, after the renovation and ex-pansion of the inner hall, more deities were brought into the temple, reflecting the formation and development of the multi-dialect Chinese community in Penang.  

In the temple are statues of many deities, including the premier Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Kong (outstanding general and patriot of the Three Kingdoms), Tua Pek Kong (God of Prosperity), Kshitagarbha Buddha, Hu Ye (Tiger God), Tai Suey (Grand Deity) and Boddhisattva Wei Tuo. 

Temple committee executive secretary Toh Kim Kang said the temple was well known in South-East Asia and devotees would visit the temple on the 19th day of the second, sixth and ninth months of the Chinese lunar calendar. 

“These three days are the birthdays of the Goddess of Mercy and the temple will be jam-packed with devotees from Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and In-donesia,” he said. 

During the birthday celebrations, Chinese opera groups would be engaged to perform for the deities for several days, with the money coming from sponsors who have had their wishes granted. 

“Devotees come with all kinds of different wishes; they pray for health, prosperity, academic achievement and all sorts of things,” he said. 

He said some people would visit the temple for both the “red” (auspicious) and “white” (inauspicious) happenings. 

“A ‘red’ happening, in Mandarin, means a wedding or a child’s full moon celebration while ‘white’ refers to a funeral. After both ceremonies, most people would come to pay homage to the goddess and pray for good luck,” he said. 

After more than two centuries standing as one of the significant buildings in Pe-nang, the temple still sports its original look.  

The roof of the temple is adorned with some interesting three-dimension fine decorations made of ceramic bowls and plates arranged into various designs. 

For heritage lovers, exploring the 206-year-old temple is a “treasure hunt”.  

Apart from the roof decorations, there are some ancient giant bells, two steel carved dragon pillars and two stone lions, among many other features.  

Built according to feng shui principles, the temple has three wells – one on the right side of the main shrine, another outside the temple and the third hidden under the main altar of the Goddess of Mercy. 

“There are many legends about the temple. Some old people used to say that water from the hidden well could cure all types of illnesses. Whether it is true, I don’t know,” Toh said. 

Penangite Tony Teh, 47, said many locals, especially the older generation, be-lieved in the Goddess of Mercy as the temple had miraculously “saved” many people during the Japanese Occupation. 

“My dad used to tell me a story about the locals hiding in the temple when the Japanese invaded Penang; although there were bombings everywhere, the temple was left untouched,” he said. 

The temple is open to the public from 6am to 8pm daily.