Migrating Beliefs: Chinese Buddhism in Penang, Malaysia
Penang State in Malaysia is probably the most religiously diverse place I have ever visited. Walking around George Town, the capital city of Penang, I was completely enchanted by the density of different religious architectures. In the morning, Hindu deities at Sri Mahamariamman Temple are awakened in a puja ritual. Throughout the day, the sound of adhan, the call to prayer, can be heard from the minaret of Kapitan Keling Mosque. By the afternoon, I am overlooking the grand sea view from Kek Lok Si (極樂寺) on Penang Hill—the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.
As early as the beginning of the Common Era, Buddhism was introduced to the Malay Archipelago through Indian influence. However, Chinese Buddhism did not arrive until the second half of the 17th century, well after Islam had become the majority faith. When Chinese immigrants, mainly from Fujian and Guangdong provinces in southeast China, came looking for work and business opportunities, they also brought their beliefs and practices. The temple of Kong Hock Keong (Guang Fu Gong, 廣福宮) in central George Town is a telling example. The name “Guang” refers to immigrants from Guangdong, while “Fu” refers to those from Fujian as the temple was funded by 454 individuals and companies from the two Chinese communities. Since its construction in 1800, Kong Hock Keong has been one of the most important places in Penang for worshippers of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, which is why the temple is better known as Kuan Yin Teng (Guanyin Ting, 觀音亭).
The entrance to Kong Hock Keong. Photo by the author
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