Thursday, 25 May 2017

Digging into Swee Cheok Tong's past

It has been a long while since I wrote anything about the history of the Swee Cheok Tong (瑞鵲堂) because, well, with my superficial understanding of the history of the Quah Kongsi to which I belong, there was hardly anything that I considered worthwhile enough to add.

But in the past few days, I have uncovered some historical information that has astounded and made me feel all excited. What happened was that I had opened a wooden safe in the premises and instantly felt very curious about several packages there which were wrapped in newspapers. Among them was a stack of very old legal documents: poll deeds, trust deeds, indentures, conveyances, etc.

I decided to look closely into these documents. Clearly, they were all related one way or another to the properties that the Kongsi was holding. But the problem was that the documents were in very delicate condition. Some was almost brittle with old age and threatening to fall apart in my hands. (No great surprise here, seeing that this was very similar to the condition of the old books and magazines in the Archives of the Penang Free School when I was investigating the school's history some two to three years back.)

Coming back to the matter at hand, I checked that in November 2013, I had written this about the Kongsi:
All I know about our Penang Swee Cheok Tong Quah Kongsi (檳城瑞鵲堂柯公司) comes from the official Rules and Regulations of the Kongsi, which states that the clan house in Penang, Swee Cheok Tong (瑞鵲堂), was established in 1846 (Pia Gor year in the reign of Emperor Toh Kong (道光帝)) by the Ow Quah clansmen that originated from Tia Boay (village), Tung Uahn Kuan (district), Chuan Chew Hoo (prefecture), Hock Kian Seng (province), China.
In these Rules and Regulations, which were dated 5 Dec 1941, it was acknowledged that the Ow-Quah clansmen that had established the Penang Swee Cheok Tong Quah Kongsi were members of the family of the Hye Inn Tong (海印堂) ancestral worship hall in Tia Boay.
So far, the only physical evidence I could find about the Swee Cheok Tong's link to the Hye Inn Tong was the prominent plague above our main altar in the Kongsi House.

But none of the elders in our Kongsi, myself included, had any clue at all about how this had come about. Hardly surprising again, because we are from the generation that were born in the mid-1950s and only came to be involved with the Kongsi some 40 years the mid-1990s. Some snippets of the Kongsi's unsubstantiated history were heard only verbally from our own elders. But it is true that there is a Hye Inn Tong temple back in our ancestral village in China. However, we have hardly any contact at all with the temple there.

I am happy to say now that after looking through some of the legal documents in our possession, I may have established the connection between the Swee Cheok Tong and the Hye Inn Tong.

This image below formed part of a document I uncovered: an Indenture made on the 31st of December 1913(!). Yes, the year was Nineteen Thirteen, more than a century ago. The particular sentence that caught my eye was:
" Trustees of the said Swee Cheok Tong Kongsee (which previous to the year 1868 was known as Hai In Tong Kongsee) are now..." 
Spellings aside, which I believe is no big deal since spellings do change through time, including the spelling of my own surname, this sentence not only affirmed that the Quah Kongsi had existed well before 1868 (established in 1846), but that the Swee Cheok Tong and the Hai In Tong (or Hye Inn Tong) are one and the same entity. A breath-taking discovery indeed.

Actually, Swee Cheok Tong and Hye Inn Tong are not the only names adopted by the Quah Kongsi in the past. When our ancestors arrived from China in the early or mid-18th Century, they had brought over a joss-stick urn of the Poh Seng Tai Tay (保生大帝) , also known as the Tai Tay Eah (大帝爷社) deity, for worship in the Nanyang.

The worship of Tai Tay Eah would be one of the few spiritual ties that the immigrants kept with their home village.

In some another documents I saw, there were constant references to a Tai Tay Eah Society, formed and established in and around 1846, and which later became the Swee Cheok Tong in 1868. See, for example, the image above from a Trust Deed dated 1898, which read: ".... in trust for the Tai Teh Yah Society otherwise called the Swee Cheok Tong Kongsee or the Seh Kwah Kongsee ...."

So we know as a certainty from these legal documents that at various periods in the past, the present Swee Cheok Tong was known as both the Tai Tay Eah Society (or Tai Ta Yah Society) and the Hye Inn Tong (or Hai In Tong).

But when did the name transition take place? When did the Tai Tay Eah Society become first the Hye Inn Tong and later the Swee Cheok Tong?

For that I've to refer to yet another document in which someone had scribbled in the margin a very long time ago. The scribbling said that the Tai Tay Eah Society was renamed as the Hai In Tong in 1864 and four years later in 1868, it assumed its present name of Swee Cheok Tong. Unfortunately, I haven't seen any other document that can confirm the 1864 date.


Sean said...

Very interesting. I may have an ancestral village to share with my Quah friends here in Sydney.

Quah said...