At the time, when local craftsmanship around the world is slowly disappearing under the pressure of cheap mass production technology, a few artists still hang to their craft. One of them is Mr. Lee, a living legend in Penang, who has been making traditional joss sticks for decades. Today, he is the only hand-made joss stick maker left in Georgetown.
Mr. Lee Beng Chuan is Penang’s living heritage. He is the only remaining traditional joss stick maker in Penang. Chinese temples can hardly be imagined without the smoke coming from burning joss sticks, or incense sticks, as an offering. But despite the high demand, similar to other crafts, joss sticks are now machine-produced making the hand-made joss sticks of Mr. Lee very unique.
We found Mr. Lee early in the morning squatting on a low stool in front of his old shop, which is also his home, right in the heart of heritage Georgetown on Penang Island. He has been featured in many magazines and newspapers, there is even a documentary produced about him, but he happily opens the doors of his shop to us.
The old man has just started preparing a paste using sticky powder made from Teja tree, sandalwood that he imports from Australia and water. “I only use quality sandalwood from Australia, not sawdust used for mass-produced joss sticks,” Mr. Lee proudly tells us in broken English. “That’s why my joss sticks produce a very fragrant smell, when burned”. Mr. Lee’s famous thick sandalwood-based joss sticks also burn longer than regular thin joss sticks. But they are more expensive to make.
Once the mixture is ready, he grabs a handful of the paste and rolls it by hand onto long and thin bamboo sticks. The joss sticks are then left out to dry on a wooden rack under the sun for a few days, depending on the weather. Once dried, a roller board is used to make them smooth.
Born in Penang from Chinese descendants and aged 89 now, Mr. Lee started making joss sticks in his twenties, and he has been making them for over 70 years by now. He had no teacher, and he learnt making joss sticks on his own by observing Chinese masters in the factories, where he asked permission to stay and watch.
When he was younger, he was famous for making large pillar-sized joss sticks with colourful dragons painted by his wife, that are used during special festivals such as the Jade Emperor’s celebration and the Hungry Ghost Festival. But today he is too old for making these intricate joss sticks. He prefers making a small number of regular ones for a loyal local clientele. He also makes joss sticks with Chinese characters in blue and red ink for good fortune, happiness, and health, popular as a gift.
“Come here,” he invites us inside the house and shows us the photos hanging on the walls – his mother, his father, who died when he was still a child, and his wife, who used to help him make joss sticks. But she died a few years ago. The new generation is not interested in making hand-made joss sticks as it does not pay much. His sons do not continue his craftsmanship but his Thai daughter-in-law regularly makes small cone-shaped incense burners.
Despite his advanced age, Mr. Lee is agile and plans to continue making joss sticks as long as he can. But there is no one to replace him putting his artistic craftsmanship under the risk of disappearing forever from Penang’s heritage scene.
Location: Mr. Lee Beng Chuan is making joss stick in the morning in front of his house at the following address: 1, Lorong Muda (off Steward Lane), Georgetown in Malaysian state of Penang.