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Penang Hokkien People

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Penang Hokkien People forms the main dialect group of the ethnic Chinese people in Penang. They are also one of the oldest and earliest dialect groups in the state, having arrived and settled on the peninsula before Francis Light established George town and opened Penang as a British trading post. The Tua Pek Kong Temple of Tanjong Tokong, for example, is believed to be older than the British settlement on the island.

The Penang Hokkien people trace their origin to seafarers to left the province of Fujian in southern China since the 17th century for various reasons including to escape from poverty, to vote with their feet against the Manchu government, and also due to forced relocation from their hometown when the Manchu government depopulated the coastal villages of southern China. Whether or not they have been around when Admiral Zheng He sailed through the Straits of Malacca require further research, but the Sam Poh Footprint Temple of Batu Maung seems to suggest that they were.

As soon as Francis Light landed on Penang Island, a group of Hokkien Chinese was said to have come in his wake, led by their leader, Koh Lay Huan (?-1826, the grandfather of Koh Seang Tat, who donated the Municipal Fountain), who obtained permission from Light to settle on the island, and thereupon established their first kampung, or village, on what we know today as China Street. For the first hundred years of their mainstream arrival in Penang, that was where they lived, with their mother temple being the Goddess of Mercy Temple.

The Hokkien Chinese of Penang were the main investors in the tin mines of Taiping. Even though the mines were led by the Hakkas and the Cantonese, they helped the Hokkien Chinese attain prosperity like never before though the history of Penang until then. The new-found wealth enabled different Hokkien clans to build increasingly opulent temples for the worship and veneration of their ancestors and patron deities.

The hardship endured by the Penang Hokkien people until the discovery of tin has someone coloured their way of life and thinking. Penang Hokkien people, and Penang people in general, are often regarded as frugal and given to creative arts. This is seen in the architecture of their temples, the customs they observe, the willingness of their dialect to absorb and adopt borrowed words, their creative use of local ingredients to create their own distinctive cuisine.

The main dialect spoken in Penang is Penang Hokkien. It has been around from the time that Francis Light established George Town, and it became the lingua franca of the Chinese in this part of the world until the arrival of other dialect groups due to tin mining and other commercial interests. The use of Mandarin as a language of communication among the Chinese in Penang is by comparison a late development that only garnered strength following the fall of the Manchu government to Dr Sun Yat Sen, a development engineered in part from Penang.

Today Penang Hokkien is still widely spoken, albeit threatened by the increased use of Mandarin spoken by the younger generation. It is one of the intangible heritage of Penang that should be kept alive in the only way possible: learning and speaking it.

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