Walk around the pre-war houses around Penang's Kuan Yin Temple in the morning and chances are, you might come across a senior gentleman hard at work on a stool – mixing and kneading aromatic ingredients into dough, before painstakingly moulding the mixture by hand onto bamboo sticks. By afternoon, these sticks are left under the sun to dry and eventually become what we recognise as joss sticks, a fragrant incense used for religious and ritual purposes.
No 1 Lorong Muda is the home and workshop of Lee Beng Chuan, who has been making joss sticks for over 70 years. One of the last few people who make joss sticks by hand in Malaysia today, Lee has been featured in newspapers, magazines and international documentaries over the years. Famous for his thick handmade joss sticks – as these last longer than the regular thinner versions – Lee is recognised as a living heritage of Penang. Chuckling, he reveals his age this way: "Malaysia’s Prime Minister Tun M (who is 93) is older than me by a year, so I consider him my brother."
Lee’s father used to sell joss sticks until his death in 1935. At the age of 12, Lee followed in his father’s footsteps and began selling joss sticks. Then when he was in his 20s, he decided to make his own joss sticks. "I would sit in a temple and watch the masters at work. Nobody taught me."
A few years later, he tried his hand at making the more complex dragon joss stick, as it fetched a higher price. “I bought other people’s dragon joss sticks and disassembled them, then made it part by part (by reassembling the pieces together). It was not easy to shape it. I had to use different tools to make the snout, the eyes, the whiskers, and so on.” The year 2009 saw the crowning achievement of his career when he produced a nine-metre-tall pillar of gigantic dragon joss sticks for the Lunar New Year celebration, entirely by hand.
Since then, he has stopped making dragon joss sticks, citing old age, and instead, concentrates on making joss sticks that are very popular with foreigners. Unlike commercially produced joss sticks made up of sawdust, Lee uses sandalwood powder imported from Australia, which is known to be healthier, burns longer and produces an aromatic smell. His joss sticks are also noticeably thicker than of those made in factories.
The only drawback is that it costs more to produce, but for Lee it’s not about the money. His continuous involvement despite his advanced age is driven by passion, and a promise he made to his late wife, Chong Chon Chiew, who used to help him run the business and make joss sticks by his side.
In an interview with a local paper, he revealed the heartfelt wish his wife expressed before passing away in May 2015. "She told me, ‘My time is up. Since you make joss sticks, you must make good joss sticks and give it to people so that they can use it for blessings, to give them good, happy and long lives.”
Moved by her words, he vowed to continue making joss sticks to give to people as blessings. Not long after, his son, Lee Chin Poh, quit his job to keep him company and to learn the trade from him. "My father was quite depressed after my mother passed on. You have to understand, they were together for 60 years."
These days, Lee seems to be back to his cheerful, affable self. He is chatty and happy to share tips on joss stick-making, anecdotes about his life during World War II, as well as a growing passion for writing Chinese couplets and calligraphy. "Despite his advanced age, my father is quite innovative. He is like an engineer of joss sticks," the younger Lee shares proudly.
Mrs Lee would have been pleased.
Lee Beng Chuan
1, Lorong Muda,
Tel: +604-262 7325
Opens 9 am-5 pm daily, including public holidays.
To witness Mr. Lee making joss sticks, come between 9 am-11 am daily.