Ngee Heng Kongsi's story
By Peggy Loh | email@example.com
INSIGHT: Find out about the secret society-turned community benefactor in the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum exhibition
JOHOR BAHRU: THERE was a time when Ngee Heng Kongsi was mentioned in whispers because this Teochew brotherhood was once a powerful secret society here.
Clouded by clandestine activities, the workings of this kongsi (society) remained largely misunderstood until recently.
After comprehensive research on more than 70 years of the Ngee Heng Kongsi's history, the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum is presenting its findings for the first time in a special exhibition until Sept 10.
It took the research team over a year to collect information about the society's activities, including those in mainland China, Singapore, Penang and Riau island in Indonesia.
From documents and ancient artifacts, researchers were able to piece together a picture of how secret societies operated in the 1800s.
Even though the society started as a revolutionary quasi-military brotherhood that was opposed to China's Ching dynasty, its activities in Johor Baru gradually evolved into valuable social, political and administrative work which contributed to Johor's early economic growth.
In 1844, when Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim, the father of Sultan Abu Bakar, invited the Chinese from Singapore and Riau to open up land in Johor for pepper and gambier cultivation, the society's leader, Tan Kee Soon, led his followers to settle in Tanjung Puteri (now Johor Baru).
The Teochew clan was the dominant Chinese group who made Johor their new home. They cultivated pepper and gambier plantations according to the kangchu system.
When Sultan Abu Bakar recognised the strength and solidarity of a brotherhood like the Ngee Heng society, he legalised it as an association in 1873 with membership opened to all Chinese clans so that it can take charge of Chinese community affairs.
Visitors to the exhibition showcased on the top floor of the museum, will have to walk up the stairway with steps that have been covered with red cloth as a replica of the entrance to the society's headquarters.
Inspiring couplets painted on the cloths hint of the obscure origins of the Ngee Heng society that can be traced back to Shaolin monks who were loyal to the Ming emperor.
After invading Ching armies forced them out from their monastery, the monks reverted to civilian life and vowed to defend their patriotic cause.
As revolutionaries, their activities were largely underground with a tradition of covert activities that used secret codes and languages.
When you step into the exhibition hall, you will see a towering pair of giant mythical birds that the Ngee Heng society adopted as its symbol.
These are believed to be the da peng niao -- mythical giant creatures that are likened to the Javanese garuda.
It is interesting to note that as far back as 1400, the Chinese emperor of the Ming Dynasty was the first to use the word peng as an adjective to describe his army.
On a mock altar, there is a host of paraphernalia used for the rituals to swear in members into the brotherhood.
You can have a better insight into blood oaths taken in front of an altar by viewing movie snippets in a documentary screened in a section of the exhibition.
"The sworn brothers take this oath very seriously," said Eric Ku, the deputy general manager of the JB Tiong Hua Association, referring to the list of 36 oaths of the Ngee Heng Kongsi displayed on the wall.
A chart outlined the hierarchy in the brotherhood, listing da ke (big brother) overseeing members several ranks below him with ma zai (little horse) at the bottom of the rung.
"Members of the brotherhood are so close that each member considers another member's problem as his own," he added.
When Johor became part of the non-federated Malay States under British colonial authority in 1914, the kangchu system was abolished, and the Ngee Heng Kongsi disbanded. The society's assets were distributed to charities, with a sum set aside to build a tomb for the burial of all their ritual and sacred objects as well as ancestral tablets.
As a mark of respect, JB's Chinese community leaders perform ancestor worship rituals twice a year at this tomb, which is close to Jalan Abdul Rahman Andak.
It is simply adorned by two Chinese characters: ming mu (Ming Tomb).
The legacy of Ngee Heng Kongsi and its renowned leaders live on in JB with it honoured in street, school and neighbourhood names (Jalan Ngee Heng, Kampong Ngee Heng, Ngee Heng Primary School, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and Jalan Ah Siang).
After being united with other Chinese clans as a legal society in JB, it built the Johor Ancient Chinese Temple, established a common cemetery it called Kongsi San, and started the Foon Yew School.
The unity among the five Chinese clans in the city marked the birth of an organisation that eventually developed into the Johor Baru Tiong Hua Association of today.
The Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museumis at 42, Jalan Ibrahim, Johor Baru.
It is open daily from 9am to 5pm and closed on Mondays. Entrance fees are RM5 for adults and RM2 for students, children and senior citizens.
For details, call 07-224 9633, fax 07-224 9635 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Johor Baruís Chinese community leaders paying their respects at the Ming Tomb. Pix by Peggy Loh