Many of the atmospheric heritage shophouses of Penang’s George Town are still home to long-standing craftsmen, who have been plying their trades for decades. These artisans are a bastion of the past in a rapidly changing city, pursuing their crafts – from rattan weaving to calligraphy – in the same way that generations before them have done.
Enter Lee Beng Chuan, who is the last remaining traditional incense maker in the UNESCO-listed town. For the past six decades, Lee – whose sprightly demeanour belies his 90 years of age – has been running his shop on Lorong Muda, where he painstakingly creates thick, enormous joss sticks by hand. He starts his day at 6am, spending most of the morning kneading dough made from sandalwood, teja tree powder, sawdust and water. Then, he moulds the dough on bamboo rods, before laying them out to dry in the sun. The resulting sticks of incense, which are sold for RM1 (S$0.33) each, are chiefly used in homes and temples across the city.
Running the business can be an exacting task, but Lee has no plans to roll down the shutters just yet. Instead, he continues to lovingly craft his joss sticks by hand – not so much as a means of income, but as a way of keeping an age-old tradition alive.
This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.