Genealogical Records of Penang, Malaysia

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Genealogical Records[edit | edit source]

Not all genealogical records in Penang, Malaysia, are found in books. Unlike many records in the United States or Great Britain, Canada, or European countries, some very valuable records found in Malaysia are unusual by comparison. They are not records which can be digitized. Rather they must be extracted or photographed. Two of these unusual records can be found in more detail in other Wiki postings for Penang: “The Ancestral Tablets of Penang Malaysia” and “Columbariums in Penang, Malaysia.” Both of these sources may have, and often do have, valuable information that is not contained in written records.

Genealogical Information From Photos of the Deceased—Many photos of ancestors have genealogical information written on the photo itself or on a mat that surrounds the photo. This photo was found inside a case for ancestral tablets in the temple of Balik Pulau, Penang, Malaysia. It has full genealogical data, in that it records on the mat the following information:

A Photo Showing Full Genealogical Infomation on Its Mat

This woman’s name is Peng Lian Xiang; she was born in about 1869; she died on the 30th of November 1935 at 66 years old, and she was born in China. Even though the image is badly damaged, the Chinese characters are still visible. In this same temple in Balik Pulau, there were additional photos hanging on the wall, which also had genealogical data written on the photo or mat. If one does not read Chinese characters, one must enlist the help of a translator.

Cemetery Stones in Chinese Cemeteries—If you are fortunate to find a gravestone for your deceased ancestor, happy you will be, as gravestones can yield a host of genealogical data. The wording for most gravestones is written in Mandarin characters or Roman letters. Sometimes, the stone is for the husband or wife, but at other times, they occur together on the same stone. Often, the gravestones are separated in the cemetery by location as to whether they are single or double stones.

One of the ways you can locate a gravestone is by querying relatives. Usually someone has been going to that gravestone you seek every year during “Tomb Sweepings” since they were a boy or girl. They may know the location, but when you arrive at the stone, they may not be able to tell you the name of their ancestor, other than a relationship, nor can they read the Chinese characters on the stone. On one occasion, we found Thai characters written on a gravestone, as well as Chinese characters. Taking a photograph and then searching out an expert in reading the characters is then necessary.

One thing to remember is this: The names on the gravestone, which may include spouse, children and grand-children, are those who were still living at the time of the death of your ancestor. It may not include all children, and certainly not all grandchildren. So if you already have a complete list of children, and you do not find two of the children’s names on the stone, you will know that they predeceased their parent and you will be able to put as a death date “died before 1946,” which was the year that the parent died. If you know of other grandchildren of the deceased, and their names are not on the stone of the grandparent, you can deduce that these grandchildren were born after their grandparent died.

A Chinese Urn With Full Genealogical Information

Some Details Concerning the Origin of Columbarium Urns—Columbarium urns may contain the ashes of persons who were buried elsewhere, but for some reason, have been dug up and re-interned in one of the columbariums in Penang. Private cemeteries have a secure life of 100 years, but beyond that on the island of Penang, the Government has the right to use the land for other building projects, in which case, remains of persons buried in the private cemetery are moved to a columbarium. I know of one case in which a family could not prove title to the land they had held for many years. Several graves were on the property, so when the government took over the land, they moved the remains to a columbarium. When this was done, not all of the pertinent genealogical data was moved and documented with the remains. This is a sad loss.

Additional Detail Regarding Columbarium Boxes—In addition, some of the urns in a columbarium, are behind clear glass or some kind of plastic. Over a period of years, the clarity of the glass or plastic breaks down, and the original owner of the niche who once had a key has died; therefore, taking a photograph through this smoky covering does not result in a translation. The characters written on the urn are unreadable. However, I have been told, that during “Tomb Sweepings,” the boxes are opened and the glass cleaned. It would be at this time, that you should plan to photograph the characters on the urn. It would be advisable to make prior arrangements with the facility. “Tomb Sweepings” takes place in the early part of April of each year.

Donor Listings—Often donor lists are published in a wall mount that is available in a temple or kongsi. I have also seen them posted at cemeteries. Sometimes, a note is provided as to when the donations were made, as well as by whom. A notation of this kind can be valuable in tracing what association your ancestor subscribed to. It may also lead to a written donor receipt. I have seen donor receipts that listed the donor as well as his father and grandfather on the record.

Memorial Plaques in Temples—When a Kongsi learns of some significant contribution that one of their subscribers has made, they will place a large memorial on the wall with their subscribers name and contribution, such as a title or occupation. This information can alert a genealogist to search for additional information in that temple or regarding the contribution that their ancestor has made.

When pursuing genealogical information in Penang, Malaysia, a researcher should keep an open mind and be attuned to genealogical resources that are not traditional, ones that require a camera or a notepad, ones that can not be digitized or indexed, but nonetheless, are very valuable. I found this to be the case when helping patrons search for their roots in Penang.

Submitted October 28, 2013