Friday, June 10, 2011

Koh Seang Tat had talk about burial ground in 1887

The century-old family cemetery of Penang’s first ‘Kapitan Cina’ Koh Lay Huan in Batu Lanchang has been dug up to make way for a property development project in a move that has alarmed heritage enthusiasts. The Kohs were famous among the local Chinese community and are a part of Penang’s history and heritage. Heritage enthusiasts learned that the MPPP had given approval to dig up the tombs without looking into the historical significance – and 78 tombs were said to have been removed on this site and neigbouring areas. The MPPP had reportedly received an application by a Koh Chong Poh to remove 33 graves from this site but only approved 23. (Koh later told the Sun that the tomb of Koh Lay Huan and his wife would not be disturbed and would instead be turned into a small memorial park.)

The plot is behind the Lintang Gangsa Apartment (next to the market) off Green Lane (lot number 1560, section 5, DTL. The housing project, reportedly undertaken by developer Kemuning Setia Sdn Bhd covers 11.5 acres of the 27-acre site, was approved by the MPPP in December 2009.

Koh family is not only early pioneer in Penang; the family is a significant family not only for Penang; but also Kedah, Singapore, Siam, Taiwan,and China. One of the family members, Gu Hong Ming (辜鴻銘, b 1857 – d 1928), was world famous scholars, not only in China but also the western world. If you included the relationship of Koh family with David Brown family, then the history also linked to Scotland, UK where Gu Hong Ming once live with Brown family. It will be of tourism value if properly developed....

Despite having attained the status of Heritage City, the heritage protection law in the state is still weak, and the state government is still concentrate their effort on the historical buildings and heritage in the city. The definition of heritage was not comprehensive to include all possibilities of heritage items. There was no list of heritage sites outside the city compiled by the state.

On approving of any building plan or removal of any tombstone/burial ground, I wonder did the approving official conduct a site visit and Heritage Impact Assessment Report produced; have the MPPP have an heritage assessment department who have knowledge of local culture and heritage law?. But even without the statutory law, did MPPP has the common sense to decide if the building or the burial ground is of heritage value?.... I was wondering something went wrong somewhere, as incidents similar to this had happen in Pykett Avenue sometime ago, did MPPP learn their lesson?.....

Did MPPP know Kapitan China Koh Lay Huan?

Koh Lay Huan, who was appointed by Francis Light as the the first Kapitan Cina of Penang in 1787. One of Koh’s sons even accompanied Stamford Raffles to Singapore in 1819. Please refer to

Did MPPP know Koh Seang Tatt?

The tomb of a philanthropist tycoon from the 1800s, Koh Seang Tatt, had been broken into at the Batu Lanchang Hokkien cemetery in Penang. The bones of both Koh and his wife had been removed. This is a sad story, and approval was given by MPPP, it seems that MPPP did not know who is Koh Seang Tatt....

The grave of Seang Tatt’s brother Koh Seang Teik, which has a road in Penang named after him, was also exhumed...

The tombstones damaged included those of prominent businessmen Koh Seang Tatt, Tan Gim Leong, Tan Gim Kheng and philantropist Lim Ko Seng.

Others graves and tombstones belonging to Penang Chinese Town Hall founder Tan Hup Chui and Penang’s first Kapitan Cina Koh Lay Huan remain intact.

Koh Seng Tat & Balik Pulau

Prior to 1880, Balik Pulau was under the jurisdiction of an adviser to the British colonial government, Koh Seang Tatt, a local magnate who took up law studies in England.

Apart from being the district magistrate, he was also given the authority to bring in labourers from China to open up the forested hilly areas at Air Puteh. Most of the cleared areas became Koh's property.

There were already Malay villagers in the various kampung, most of whom had migrated from Kedah and Perlis after the Siamese attack on Kedah in 1821.

Koh had administrative authority not only of Balik Pulau but also Air Itam and Tanjung Tokong.

There was no proper road in Balik Pulau then. Neither was there any horse carriage. Koh stayed in Air Itam and only visited Balik Pulau occasionally. He usually made the trip along the hilly path on a sedan chair carried by four coolies, escorted by two constables.

Balik Pulau was also called "Kongsi" because of the longhouse (in front of the Indian temple) built to accommodate 300 to 400 labourers from China. Among the areas cleared by these labourers were Air Putih which was planted with rubber.

A courthouse was built here but it later became the living quarters for estate workers after a new courthouse was built.

(source: extract from article of NST,

You know what was Koh Seng Tat's view on Chinese burial ground; when a conflict arise with the colonial administration to built a district magistrate's house on the elected area of Chinese burial ground at Balik Pulau? That was in 1887....

Conflict arose between British and Chinese in 1887, when British attempted to enact a burial ordinance that would have restricted the areas where the Chinese could established the burial grounds and would have forced them to disinter previous burial so that a district magistrate’s house could be built on a scenic elevation in Balik Pulau. Colliding here were Chinese geomantic notions that led them to site graveyards in elevated areas with a pleasant view and British notions of sanitation and appropriate land use. In the debate that followed , Kapitan Koh Lay Huan’s great grandson Koh Seang Tat(d 1833), one of Penang most prominent Strait Chinese, cited Roman Law to argue that Penang Chinese burial grounds should remain sacrosamct in perpetuity(Koh, 14, OCT 1887). (source: Rites of belonging: memory, modernity, and identity in a Malaysian Chinese community, by Jean Elizabeth DeBernardi, Stanford University Press, 2004)

The late Koh Seng Tat is telling MPPP, and Penang langs about his view not on Balik Pulau burial ground; but his won burial ground....

The solution of the mistake, relocation. Ten graves belonging to prominent personalities at the private Chinese cemetery in Batu Lanchang will be relocated to the United Hokkien Cemeteries (UHC) sited across the road.(source: The Star, March 18, 2011)

It is sad, Penang lang, MPPP do not know history....may be there is no more Penang lang in the city(or in MPPP?)that know the history of the state?....

I wonder, Penang lang, a declining living heritage now, person still around, who was born in Penang; the original Penang lang of many generations....that still cherish the history of Penang....the strait born ....the Peranakan...will one day face the same fate as Koh's family burial ground.....

There are many heritage buildings and burial grounds still waiting for their days....and no action have taken....just waiting for the nature to take its place...

Shi Chung Goh Chan Lau; Captain Francis Light Tomb; Mission House; Khaw Boo Aun's residence at Bukit Tambun(許武安故居)....there are still many....buildings or burial grounds....

Tears for Penang....tears for Penang lang, a living heritage...


  1. Hi Raymund,
    Thank you for the research you did on this historic cemetery site. Where exactly are these graves, as I know the new housing project by Kemuning Setia just started clearing the land. Are the new houses going to sit on these ex-graves?

  2. Jerry, I did not really follow up on the property development. I think MPPP should monitor the situation. I do not know the exact location, it is behind Greenlane, near the Batu Lanchang cemetry.

  3. Hi, My name is Dr Jon Lim. Do you have have photos of Koh Seang Tat or a group photo of Him in the company of others during the 1860s?

    Im writing my 2nd volume of the Penang House and wish to secure a photo of him for illustrations. Would appreciate any possible help. Thk you. My email: