The sprawling Kek Lok Si temple complex was completed in 1905.
The sprawling Kek Lok Si temple complex was completed in 1905.

“Du m m . . . d u m m . . . d u m m . . . ” The series of strong raps on the stout wooden door startles the young doctor. He was just about to get ready for bed when the sudden commotion alerts him to his unexpected visitor. The physician reaches for his coat and is almost at the door when he hears a man calling out frantically from the other side.

“Doctor! This is an emergency. Your services are needed urgently,” the man shouts at the top of his voice. The doctor hurriedly unlatches the door and pushes it open, coming face to face with a young monk, terror written all over his face.

The novice monk implores the doctor to attend to his revered master who’s said to be bleeding profusely at the Kek Lok Si temple. After collecting the necessary, the doctor embarks on a horse-drawn carriage ride with the monk. Along the way, the doctor is taken aback to learn that the patient seeking his services is none other than abbot, Beow Lean, who hails from the same city in China as his wife.

How a monk's sacrifice saved Kek Lok Si's good name | Free Malaysia Today  (FMT)

An hour later, the duo finally arrive at the hill temple. From there, it’s a steep climb up some hundred steps to the abbot’s inner sanctum. There, the doctor discovers the startling cause of the haemorrhage. The abbot had, in a moment of desperation caused by years of abuse and slander about the establishment of his beloved Kek Lok Si, found no other way out of his misery than to perform the supreme sacrifice which, according to Chinese religious traditions, was more worthy of honour than merely taking his own life!

While cleaning the wound, the doctor mentally reenacts the gruesome act. Driven to desperation, the abbot must have got hold of a large vegetable chopper from the kitchen and returned to his room. There, the holy man used his left hand to grasp the entire group of his most intimate organs, parts with a single determined stroke!

Dr Wu’s autobiography tells about how he treated Beow Lean’s injury back in 1907.
Dr Wu’s autobiography tells about how he treated Beow Lean’s injury back in 1907.


Looking at the text in Dr Wu Lien Teh’s autobiography fills me with unbridled astonishment. Although I’d heard about the world renowned Kek Lok Si Temple ever since I was a child, it never crossed my mind that there was such an interesting albeit gory act that took place there sometime in early 1907. I’m glad my friend passed me Dr Wu’s book when he heard that I was making a trip to the temple more than a fortnight ago.

I still remember his words vividly: “You must try the famous laksa at the Ayer Itam market. Read the story starting from page 250 in the book while you savour the thick spicy and sour broth and I’m sure you’ll see Kek Lok Si in a totally different light!”

The laksa at the market is definitely among the best I’ve tasted. It’s so good that I unabashedly order a second helping as soon as my first bowl is bone dry. While waiting, I return my focus to the book to find out what drove the abbot to such extremity.

Kek Lok Si is one of the most photographed sites in Penang.
Kek Lok Si is one of the most photographed sites in Penang.

Beow Lean was a scholarly and devout Buddhist who arrived in Penang at the end of the 19th century from Foochow, China. Noticing that Penang had a large community of elderly wealthy women who were interested in religion, Beow Lean knew that this was the perfect opportunity for him to raise funds for the construction of an immense temple amidst the lush green hills of Ayer Itam.

A target sum of $500,000 was set and Beow Lean’s followers began forming committees to collect subscriptions. Donations started pouring in and construction work commenced when the half way mark was achieved. Over a period of five years, the temple steadily took shape, spreading over the thickly wooded slopes and arousing admiration in those who happened to cast their eyes on it.

Not long after that, vicious rumours, originating from jealous owners of less popular places of worship, began to spread about rampant orgies and secret underground tunnels being used for these illicit sexual pleasures. These wicked slanders reached their zenith in 1905 when the temple was completed. It took a further two years of ruthless onslaught to finally bring the abbot’s seemingly endless patience to its knees.

“RM4.50 please,” announces the petite girl as she plonks the red plastic bowl on my table. She casts an eye at my book, curious about what it is that’s consuming my attention so, before leaving me to my own devices. I pull the bowl close and start slurping away while scanning the pages to reach the part where I’d stopped earlier.

A 1906 picture postcard showing an early view of Kek Lok Si.
A 1906 picture postcard showing an early view of Kek Lok Si.

Dr Wu stuck to his ethics and upheld his Hippocratic Oath by not judging Beow Lean for his act. The skilled physician focused his attention on stopping the bleeding, relieving the excruciating pain and preventing urine retention. He was so meticulous that it was already daybreak by the time he left the sacred precincts of the temple.

After that, Dr Wu made daily trips to dress the abbot’s wound made sore by dripping urine and resulting sepsis. Fortunately, the injury granulated over time and by month’s end the pain had ceased completely. The formation of sufficient new skin allowed Dr Wu to finally cease attendance. He didn’t charge the abbot anything for his month’s work and merely revelled in the fact that he had helped save a life.

The abbot recovered completely. He spent the rest of his days making sure that Kek Lok Si served the needy and provided shelter to anyone who sought refuge under its roof. When he died, Beow Lean was cremated within the temple walls, allowing generations of worshippers to remember his meritorious deeds and selfless sacrifice.

An early picture postcard showing the half completed pagoda.
An early picture postcard showing the half completed pagoda.


Selfless sacrifice,” I mutter to myself while thinking how much our modern world lacks this exemplary virtue. Putting the book safely back into my backpack, I start my walk up to the temple. The steps leading up to Kek Lok Si today is a far cry from the time when Dr Wu treated the abbot more than a century ago. Now, it’s lined with make shift stalls selling things catered for tourists — from souvenirs to local Penang delicacies.

The temple with its imposing pagoda comes into view some 30 minutes later. The picturesque surroundings remind me why Kek Lok Si is widely regarded as one of the largest and most beautiful Chinese temples in Southeast Asia.

The main reason for my visit is to see the temple’s Chinese New Year decorations before they’re taken down in mere days. With word going around about the temple planning to discontinue this 40-year-old tradition due to escalating costs, this seems like an opportune time for me to visit. Many agree that RM800,000 is indeed a huge sum to spend on an event that lasts just over two months.

On top of this, novice monks have to spend up to three months to put up the decorations and make the necessary preparations. The current temple management feels that they should put the time to better use and concentrate on their own religious advancement.

I spend the next couple of hours visiting the many altar halls dedicated to the numerous deities in the Chinese pantheon. Looking at the many information boards, I learn that the entire Kek Lok Si temple, with the exception of the pagoda, was completed in 1904. Liang Pi Ju, the Chinese Consul of Penang at that time sent a report about Kek Lok Si to the Manchu Government and this led to the subsequent request for Beow Lean to be present in Peking (today Beijing).

Beow Lean must have impressed the Chinese Emperor as he returned with an imperial gift of 7,000 volumes of Buddhist sutras and scriptures, an insignia of office that recognised him as the Chief Priest of Penang and an Imperial Sanction for his beloved temple.

This year’s light up costs around RM800,000.
This year’s light up costs around RM800,000.

A grand procession, more than a mile long, was organised on Jan 13, 1905 to commemorate the completion of the Kek Lok Si and the installation of Beow Lean as the first Abbot and Chief Priest of Penang. Members of the public lined the streets of George Town to see the Imperial Sanction and gifts. The former was elaborately displayed on a sedan chair while the latter were conveyed in eight specially-decorated carriages drawn by Deli ponies.

Abbot Beow Lean, together with prominent citizens of Penang richly-clad in their Mandarin attires, escorted the precious artefacts all the way from the Chinese Town Hall back to the hills of Ayer Itam. There, the abbot was ceremoniously installed with the ringing of cymbals and tolling of the large temple bell. At the same time, about 20 priests dressed in elaborate garments chanted the Buddhist liturgy. The ceremony concluded with a sumptuous vegetarian dinner for everyone present.

I end my visit to Kek Lok Si at the sacred Tortoise Pond which was completed in 1905. Known also as the Liberation Pond, this is the place where Chinese devotees perform the meritorious act of releasing captive tortoises. This animal symbolises longevity, strength and endurance — the very qualities that the devotees seek for themselves. These firm believers are confident that they’d receive reciprocal heavenly blessings after performing such a meritorious act.

As for me, I prefer not to succumb to the temptation as that would be tantamount to supporting the unscrupulous wildlife traders making a fast buck at the expense of the helpless reptiles. Surely making a silent prayer with the hope that there will be continued peace, prosperity and bountiful blessings for all Malaysians will more than suffice.

blue and peach photograph of Dr. Wu-Lien Teh
Portrait of Dr. Wu Lien-Teh

Dr. Wu Lien-teh (Chinese: 伍連德; 10 March 1879 – 21 January 1960), (also known as Goh Lean Tuck and Ng Leen Tuck in Minnan and Cantonese transliteration respectively), was a Malayan physician renowned for his work in public health, particularly the Manchurian plague of 1910–11. He is the inventor of the Wu mask, which is the forerunner of today’s N95 respirator.

Wu was the first medical student of Chinese descent to study at the University of Cambridge. He was also the first Malayan nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, in 1935.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Alan Teh’s article was published in New Straits Times on 25th March 2018.

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Published: 8th December 2021.

Stories that inspire! By The Robrenism Principle.