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Penang’s Traditional Joss Stick Maker PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator II   
Sunday, 06 September 2009 22:18


Penang’s Traditional Joss Stick Maker – the vanishing craftsman


Penang was in the limelight again when Discovery Channel featured a story of a traditional joss stick maker in George Town and his unique handmade joss sticks. The documentary episode, “The Joss Stick Maker” was filmed by Chew Han Tan (director) and Kang Ming Sze (producer) whose desire was to capture this artistic craftsmanship legacy before it disappear.

The documentary broadcast on Astro Channel 551 at 6pm on 29th August 2009 focuses on the life of 81 year old Lee Beng Chuan, who has been making joss sticks since he left school. Together with his wife they made the joss sticks at their rented pre war shop house located near to the Kuan Yin Temple (Temple of the Goddess of Mercy), right in the heart of heritage George Town.


Nowadays, most if not all the sold joss sticks are made in the factories using machines, thus handmade ones are practically difficult to find. Not many are keen to pick up this traditional craftsmanship as their livelihood because the returns are not attractive. For Mr Lee “his work doesn’t bring him fame or financial promise. To him, it is a way of living. Lee is highly regarded, a heritage and a legacy” explained the director. He does not rely on this trade to earn a living anymore but more to exhibit skills to visitors and to keep the tradition alive.  His desire (together with his wife) for the meantime is to continue making joss sticks as long as time permit.


Joss stick, sometime known as incense burners are commonly burn by the Chinese during religious festival and extensively use in East Asia and South East Asia. The idea behind this practice is to send a smoke signal to the gods that offerings have been made. Different type of joss stick is used for different occasions. Those slender and coloured pale yellow ones are use for regular ceremonies whereas the spiral ones which are capable of burning longer are usually found in temples ceilings. During major festivals like the Festival of the Hungry Ghost and the elaborate and grand celebration worship of the Jade Emperor (Sky God) at Chew Jetty, joss sticks of large pillar size with affixed colourful carved dragons and phoenix motifs are offer to the gods.


On a normal day, Lee makes joss sticks that are used for more special Chinese prayers. He does not make those thin ones that are used daily as he is unable to compete with the mass producers. He continues with the tradition of using sandalwood powder unlike those mass produce ones which uses sawdust. The quality sandalwood powder that he uses is imported from Western Australia and India. Sandalwood are healthier, burns longer and produces an aromatic smell but would cost much more to produce. On the other hand, those made from sawdust are harmful to the lungs, produces suffocating smoke and quick to blacken the walls and ceiling.
For the joss sticks, he would first knell a paste consisting of sandalwood and sticky powder made from terja tree. Once the paste is ready, he will tediously mould the paste onto long bamboo sticks one at a time. He only covers three quarter of the stick with the paste whereas the other quarter is left empty for easy handling. The joss sticks are then left to harden on a rack for a few hours. Once harden, a roller board is use to remove the uneven part of the joss stick and make them smooth all rounded. The joss sticks are then left to dry completely in the sun for two to three days, much depending on the weather.

This year was the most rewarding for Mr Lee in his entire career when he was commission to make a 12 foot tall pillar joss stick with dragon sculptures all around. The Penang Teochew Association requested for it to celebrate the Chinese New Year and at the same time sharing the craftsmanship and the skill of Lee’s handmade joss sticks with the world. Against all odds, Lee accepted the task as it was a way of giving something back to his old school (part of the Han Jiang Teochew Ancestral Temple used to function as the Han Jiang School) and an opportunity to contribute to George Town’s achievement being listed by UNESCO as world heritage site in July 2008. It was truly his proudest and an emotional moment which he will forever cherish when he witness his prized hand work lit up during the Penang’s Chinese New Year Cultural & Heritage Celebration.


Beside the normal joss stick, he also made other incense burners, small cone joss burner and decorative souvenir made from sandalwood for tourist. There are only a few living heritage craftsmen like Lee left around who are proud of their skills and still clinging to their craftsmanship, but they are fast disappearing due to technology and mass production method. Both Mr Lee, his wife and many other skilful craftsmen have made Penang proud.

Address of Mr Lee Shop House
No. 1 Lorong Muda
(Off Steward Lane)

Operations hours: 8.00am - 11.00am (weekdays)

Last Updated on Sunday, 06 September 2009 22:41

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