Penang’s last living joss sticks maker tells his tale

Penang is a world-renowned exotic holiday destination, known by many as the Pearl of the Orient.

Listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2008, the island paradise continues to fascinate with its thrilling and unique blend of cultural diversity, history, and urban city life.

Penang is also home to a handful of craftsmen, who have kept to the old ways of creating daily items by hand despite living in a world driven by technology.

One such craftsman is Lee Beng Chuan, now regarded by many as George Town’s very own living icon, for his craft of making joss sticks by hand.

Lee Beng Chuan makes joss sticks by hand, a dying craft in modern day George Town. (Vivek Chatrath pic)

Born in Penang, the humble and friendly 90-year-old is said to be the last living joss stick maker on the island, who still creates this ancient Chinese incense by hand.

Making joss sticks for over 70 years now, Lee lives in a rented shophouse in Muda Lane, with his fourth son.

No stranger to tourists and locals, Lee welcomes anyone who stops by to chat with him about this dying craft and happily shares stories of the good old pre-war days as well as the time when the Japanese and British came to Malaya.

A great storyteller, Lee entertains crowds that stop by his house.

Lee began making joss sticks in his 20s. Having no master, he used to sit in a temple and intently watch others hard at work, hoping he too could pick up the trade of making the incense and sandalwood sticks someday.

A few years later, he began making his very own dragon joss sticks. He says it wasn’t easy going at first, especially since he had to learn the ins and outs of the craft without supervision. All the same, he was determined to meet the challenge head-on.

“I bought other people’s dragon joss sticks and dismantled them. Then, I painstakingly re-assembled the joss sticks, piece by piece. I had to carefully shape it and use different tools to make the snout, the eyes, the whiskers.”

In 2009, Lee 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 dragon joss stick for the coming Chinese New Year celebrations.

It was one of his biggest ever creations and turned out to be the most rewarding in his career.

Of detailed craftsmanship and quality ingredients

Lee’s son with trays of sandalwood blocks drying in the sun.

Lee explained that his method of making joss sticks by hand rendered a different end-product as his were noticeably thicker than the factory-made version.

He also used sandalwood powder imported from Western Australia and India, which he said was of a higher quality compared to the sawdust used in mass-produced ones.

Sandalwood is believed to be healthier, burns longer and is more aromatic although this has made Lee’s joss sticks costlier than those of his competitors.

“All these are expensive ingredients. 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 patience to preserve an endangered trade

Despite the costly raw ingredients, Lee maintains he is not about the money. He explained he had been making joss sticks for decades purely out of his passion and good intentions to wish happiness and blessings on other people.

Lee said that as long as he was physically able, he would continue to mould, roll, and dry his joss sticks by hand, determined as he was to preserve this craft for the sake of the present generation.

This article first appeared in uppre.com