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Hokkien Merchants and the Kian Teik Tong: Economic and Political Influence in Nineteenth-Century Penang and Its Region

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This article explores nineteenth-century Penang’s Hokkkien merchants and their secret society or hui—the Kian Teik Tong (Jiande Tang)—which had a variety of roles and an extensive network. It contextualizes the merchants’ secret society as a transnational socioeconomic and political organization rather than as an overseas Chinese criminal group in the wider Penang area. By recovering Kian Teik Tong and its network, it can be shown how these merchants secured and mobilized labour, capital, and allies in a way that cut across linguistic, ethnic, class and state boundaries in order to establish control of coolies and the lucrative opium, tin, and rice businesses, in order to exert political influence in the colonial and indigenous milieus of the nineteenth-century Penang region. They established a social contract through their Kian Teik Tong relief activities and initiation rituals, and thus were able to recruit thousands of members who were mainly labourers. With such a substantial social force, the merchants launched organized violence against their rivals to attain dominance in opium revenue farming and tin mining businesses in Penang, Krabi, and Perak. The widespread and strategic location of the Kian Teik Tong in Burma also enabled the same merchants to monopolize the Penang-Burma rice trade. The versatility of the Kian Teik Tong’s functions allowed them to operate as an alternative political order vis-a-vis the colonial and indigenous powers. This arrangement allowed the Hokkien merchants to gain significant political clout in confronting the Siamese and Dutch authorities.

Affiliations: 1: History Studies Section, Penang Institute


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