The Last of His Kind

The story of the famous traditional joss stick maker in Penang.

Penang, or the Pearl of the Orient, is a world-renowned exotic holiday destination. Listed as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2008, the paradise offers diversity of culture, blend of historical heritage, and modern urban city life. Of course, Penang is also known to be the home for many few-known heritage craftsmen, struggling to survive in today’s world where technology beats almost everything.

Then again, nothing beats quality. Last week, in collaboration with Big Blue Holidays, we took a trip to Penang with the aim of experiencing first-hand the beauty of the island surrounded by natural charms and above all, to discover its hidden gems. On our first morning walk in George Town, we met an old man and oh, believe me, he was no ordinary old man but a legend.

Meet Mr. Lee Beng Chuan, George Town’s Living Heritage

Mr. Lee, the living heritage of Penang. [Source: Vivek Chatrath’s Instagram]
Born in Penang, the humble and friendly 90-year-old man is said to be the only joss stick maker in Penang who still continues to make this ancient Chinese incense by hand for more than 70 years. Today, Mr. Lee lives in a rented shophouse with his fourth son at Muda Lane, a street next to Stewart Lane where he was born. He always welcomes tourists and locals who stop by to chat with him. He gladly shares his stories of the good (and not so good) ol’days of the pre-war time when the British and Japanese came to Malaya.

Mr. Lee shares his stories with the crowd that stops by his house.

Mr. Lee started to make joss sticks in his 20s. Having no master, he used to sit in a temple and watch people making the sticks. A few years later, he decided to step ahead of the game by starting to make a dragon joss stick. He claimed that it wasn’t easy and the fact that he had to self-teach himself how to make it from the tiny scratch, it was certainly a big challenge for him.

“I bought other people’s dragon joss sticks and disassembled them. Then, I learned to make it part by part (by re-assembling the pieces together). I had to shape it and use different tools to make the snout, the eyes, the whiskers.”

In 2009, he made an epic comeback when he agreed to take on a challenge he had not attempted in decades; to craft – solely by hand – a 12-foot tall pillar of gigantic dragon joss stick for the Chinese New Year celebration. It certainly was one of his biggest creations of all time and indeed, a rewarding year in his entire career.

Of Detailed Craftsmanship and Quality Ingredient

Mr. Lee’s son showing the drying process of the sandalwood.

According to Mr. Lee, he has his own ways of making joss sticks that are different from the ones sold on the street. His joss sticks are noticeably thicker than of those made in the factory. He also uses sandalwood powder imported from Western Australia and India which is of a higher quality compared to the sawdust.

Sandalwood is known to be healthier, burns longer and produces an aromatic smell. The only drawback is that it would cost much more to produce. “All these are expensive ingredients especially now with GST. It takes me two days to make a batch of 130 joss sticks. I sell these at RM1 each but my costs are already up to RM50 so my profit is only RM80.”

Passion and Perseverance to Preserve the Endangered Trade

Despite the costly production to make his own version of sticks, for Mr. Lee, it’s not about the money. He has been making joss sticks for decades purely out of his passion and good intentions to wish happiness and blessings for other people. Until today, you would still be able to see Mr. Lee moulding, rolling, and drying his sticks by hand.

For him, this precious heritage craftsmanship should be valued by today’s generation and preserved from dying out. And for us, we are definitely amazed by the determination of this proud living heritage and his commitment to the craftsmanship, especially in today’s modern day where mass production dominates the industry.

With the recent heart-breaking flood that has affected most of the districts in Penang, it is certainly not easy for the locals to persist in the situation, Mr. Lee included. Some people may prefer leaving such a devastated town behind and move to a better place. However, I personally have witnessed the spirit of Penangites who still stand strong despite the rain and storm they’ve encountered. To us the outsiders, we may see it as just another old town but to the locals, it is home.

*This trip is sponsored by Big Blue Holidays, an online travel portal that offers you a wide range of exciting experiences that cater to the young and the young-at-heart, be it adventurous or leisure. Check out more about them at www.bigblueholidays.com

Random Instagram shots with the hashtag #jossstickmaker:

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For more on Penang, follow us at UPPRE Penang, a carefully curated page featuring all things Penang.

 

Basir Zainuddin

Basir Zainuddin

Starbucks junkie. Mee rebus and kimbap rolls. Asian drama devotee.
Basir Zainuddin

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