Living Heritage: 10 Traditional Artisans in Penang

All who have made their way to Penang will know very well about what the state has to offer. More often than not, the takeaway point which most visitors bring with them is the plethora of food choices available within every turn of a corner to please their hunger pangs (because in Penang, you are always hungry). For history buffs, the old colonial buildings will stand out the most as they symbolise a nostalgic era that has had its feature in world history.

But apart from these attractions, Penang is also the thriving grounds to a variety of traditional artisans working to prolong the lifespan of their trades. As charming and unique as these trades are, many of them are at risk of fading out as artisans age on without a successor to inherit the craft.

To draw focus onto the fading crafts of Penang, here are some of the state’s traditional trades and their artisans that should be given due attention alongside its rich culture and history.

Book fun activities and local experiences in Penang.

1. Lilian Tong, the Peranakan Beaded Shoe Maker

Learn the art of Peranakan Beaded Shoe Making with Nyonya Lilian.

Lilian Tong working on a Peranakan Kasut Manek
Lilian Tong working on a Peranakan Kasut Manek

Trust that the Baba Nyonyas will not spare any effort into dressing up and stealing the show, and you can bet on it off each bead stitched to their shoes. The Kasut Manek is a Peranakan footwear with its muka kasut (shoe cover) made entirely of handstitched beads. Usually paired with the colourful Nyonya Kebaya, the combination of the two makes for an elegant display of the Nyonya artistry.

What use to be a cultural norm is now unfortunately being replaced by this generation’s preference of hip and modern sneakers (think Yeezys and Converse), and the Kasut Manek is now only occasionally worn on traditional festivities and weddings. Thankfully, beaded shoe-makers like Nyonya Lilian Tong are striving to keep their heritage alive through a variety of authentic Nyonya experiences, including kasut manek workshops that will teach travellers how to bead their own Nyonya shoes.

Who needs off-the-rack commercialized shoes when you can bead your own and rock a pair of Nyonya heritage? 

2. Siong Huat, Traditional Bedak Sejuk Maker

Learn how to make Bedak Sejuk with Yeoh on LokaLocal.

Yeoh Siong Huat with pales of Bedak Sejuk
Yeoh Siong Huat with pales of Bedak Sejuk

Before the time of modern skincare routines, the bedak sejuk (or cooling powder) used to be the go-to solutions for skin-related horrors. Made from fermented rice and used mostly as face powder, the entire process of turning the rice into the end product takes a whopping 45 days. While it is still sought after by some loyal users, the ease of access to modern beauty products has put the trade at a risk of dying out.

Read also: Beauty Beads: Last Bedak Sejuk Maker of Penang

In Penang, however, a band of brothers are fighting to keep the traditional bedak sejuk alive. Taking over their father, Siong Huat, Seong Chin, and Seong Heng are still in the business of making cooling powder the way their father had done so – with their bare hands. In recent years, their traditional methods have gained recognition from the media with news outlets such as The Star and Borneo Post writing about them.

They have also opened their working space for tours that will show travellers the process of making bedak sejuk by hand.

3. Seang Hin Leong, The Rattan Weaver

Learn the tricks of the trade of rattan weaving at LokaLocal.

Seang Hin Leong with his rattan and bamboo creations
Seang Hin Leong with his rattan and bamboo creations
Picture from Gvado

Years before plastic and metal became such pervasive materials, rattan was the go-to resource for furniture and household items. Sturdy and mendable, these items are still sought-after even today, although it is no longer as widespread as it once was.

In Penang, there are only a handful of rattan weavers left in the city, the most notable of the few being Seang Hin Leong, which still operates today and has a large array of rattan and bamboo products for sale. Kept running by already the fifth generation of store owner, the shop has the ‘Living Heritage of Penang 2009’ title to boast thanks to the work of third generation owner, Sim Buck Teik.

Located in Beach Street, a stop at Seang Hin Leong is a must for any traveller searching for souvenirs that are authentically Penang. Alternatively, you could join their weaving workshops and learn how to make your very own rattan creation!

4. Haja Mohideen, Traditional Songkok Designer

Haja Mohideen with the UNESCO Living Heritage Treasure plaque
Haja Mohideen with the UNESCO Living Heritage Treasure plaque
Picture from The Star

Operating since 1936, Haja Mohideen Mohammed Shariff is continuing his father’s legacy as a songkok maker. Despite most songkok providers now opting for modern machinery and choosing the profitable path of mass production, Haji Mohideen still keeps everything handmade. From trimming the velvet to stitching the base together, this popular songkok artisan provides what no machine can – passion and care – into each songkok.

So highly looked upon are his headgear that even royalty has turned to him to deliver the best. Among them are the Raja of Perlis Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin and the former prime minister of Malaysia Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. After over five decades of persistent work, he was finally awarded the Living Heritage Treasure of Awards of Penang by the Penang Heritage Trust in 2017.

The 71-year-old has admitted that he has slowed down compared to his younger days. Time will only tell if Haji Mohideen will announce a curtain call on his legacy, but while he is still in business, it is well worth a visit to drop by and pick up a songkok or two just for the archives.

5. Lee Beng Chuan, Joss stick maker

Learn to make joss sticks with Mr Lee on LokaLocal.

Lee Beng Chuan in action
Lee Beng Chuan in action

Joss sticks remain as a prominent religious item evident in temples and prayer altars. While most joss sticks are produced in huge masses in factories, Lee Beng Chuan from Penang still makes each stick by hand. Starting in his 20’s, this traditional joss stick maker has been mastering this craft for over a good 70 years. Such is his reputation that he has been featured in a wide range of media outlets, from newspapers to magazines, and even on the Discovery Channel!

Read also: Penang’s Joss Stick Maker: A Love Story

Despite being well into his golden years, Lee has no intentions of slowing down. “I may be 90, but my mind and fingers work like someone half my age, and age is only a number,” he said. To continue his legacy, his fourth son, Chin Poh, is learning from his father in hopes to carry his family’s heritage for years to come.

Whether or not traditional joss sick making will prolong over the years, Lee Beng Chuan already has his place in Penang’s archive of traditional trade gems.

6. Lee Chee Cheng, Traditional Signboard carver

Lee Chee Cheng putting the finishing touches to his signboard
Lee Chee Cheng putting the finishing touches to his signboard
Picture by Sam Fong/The Edge

When it comes to signboard carving, one Mr. Lee Chee Cheng stands out. Often seen at the entrance of shops and houses, these traditional signboards are often carved in Chinese calligraphy mentioning the surnames of the shop owner or families, or auspicious Chinese verses.

Made from Jelutong wood and gold leaf imported from China, Lee Chee Cheng usually sells one plaque at a price of up to RM2000. But the hefty price tag does not guarantee steady earnings. Machine technology has very much affected the traditional methods of carving, and according to Mr. Lee, machine-carved signboards from China will only cost RM600 – RM700, which is what many people now opt for. “If a person does this for money, he can’t survive. You cannot make big money,” he said.

Till today, Lee Chee Cheng keeps the traditional method from deteriorating by hand-making his signboard carving to preserve its human touch.

7. Khor Ewe Hock, Dough Figurine artist

Khor Ewe Hock displaying his figurines
Khor Ewe Hock displaying his figurines
Picture by Chin Yoon Ken

Impressed by a group of Shanghainese artist many years ago, Khor Ewe Hock picked up the skill of making dough figurines at a young age. Today, this 73-year old still practices this trade and has no qualms delving into the world of kiddy cartoon characters as inspiration for his dough figurines. From the child-favoured characters of ninja turtles and Doraemon, to the more adult fitting figures of the God of Prosperity, God of War, and the legendary Eight Immortals, Khor’s work is catered to a wide demographic of fascinated buyers.

Already into his fifth decade of figurines making, Khor Ewe Hock had previously took on apprentices but many of them had dropped out since then. He says that he is willing to share with others his hobby, but unfortunately interest in dough figurine making isn’t too popular, “I am prepared to teach young people although many are not keen it on it,” he said.

Probably one of the more under-the-radar skills to have, Khor may just be only one of a handful of dough making artists in Penang.

8. Mohd Jufry, Master Shadow Puppeteer

Explore the theatrical performance of the Wayang Kulit with a Tok Dalang in Penang.

Mohd Jufry crafting a Wayang Kulit piece
Mohd Jufry crafting a Wayang Kulit piece

Accompanied by traditional musical instruments such as the serunai, gedombak, gendang, and the canang, the ‘Wayang Kulit’ comes to life. Also known as the ‘Shadow Puppet’ performance, this is an ancient form of entertainment where cut-out figures would be silhouetted through a screen to depict stories, often mythical and folk tales.

While mostly famous in Kelantan, this trait has found itself popular in other states. In Penang, Kelantan-born Mohd Jufry Yusoff is continuing his family’s legacy of shadow puppetry. Today, apart from being a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Mohd Jufry is a Tok Dalang, the main player in a Wayang Kulit show. His task as the master puppeteer involves controlling up to 10 characters of the play, alternating between each voice, all while narrating the storyline of the play.

Jufry’s hopes for Wayang Kulit in Penang is that there will be a designated area specifically for Wayang Kulit performances. He cited that Vietnam is already having this initiative, but Penang has yet to follow. A dedicated space for Shadow Puppetry would certainly catch the public eye and aid in its preservation as a cultural art.

Did you know that you can have a Wayang Kulit Workshop for your next team building, school function or private event? Request a quotation today!

9. Wong Heng Mun, Traditional Shoemaker

Bring out your inner Jimmy Choo with our shoemaking workshop

Wong Heng Mun with his collection of shoes
Wong Heng Mun with his collection of shoes

Established around 1956 by Wong Sung Choy, the Hong Kong Shoe Store in Penang is known not just for their shoes, but also as being the grounds where acclaimed shoe designer Jimmy Choo practiced his craft as a young boy.

Now a family-run business, the store is managed by the son of Master Wong, Wong Heng Mun, who has been in the business since he was 16 years old. Like his father, Heng Mun is also a skilled shoemaker since learning the trade from his father at 10 years of age, while his mother, Koe Ah Mooi, is also a shoe designer.

Operating for already 60 over years, the Hong Kong Shoe Store still uses traditional methods and materials such as leather, wood, and canvas. In efforts to prevent this form of shoe-making from vanishing completely, they offer shoe-making workshops to the public where they can learn from the Master Heng Mun himself.

10. Ng Chai Tiam, ancient Seal Engraver

Ng Chai Tiam engraving one of his seals
Ng Chai Tiam engraving one of his seals
Picture from Georgetown World Heritage Incorporated

Back in the past, before the modern methods of stamping, businessman, traders, and calligraphers relied on seal engravers such as Ng Chai Tiam to produce signatures. Marking official documents with engraved stones had been practiced in China for a good 3000 years and is proven to be a tradition prominent among the Chinese.

Today, Chai Tiam is still practicing his craft of personalizing seal engravings using cut-out stone. Studying art in Hong Kong from 1962 to 1965, he applies his knowledge of calligraphy and stone-carving to create his seals. With already up to 6000 talismans and seals to boast in his repertoire, many of his creations are shaped not just in words, but are also ornate with animals and auspicious objects.

Chai Tiam’s handmade seals prove to be a cultural preservation of a thousand-year-old practice and merits himself as an important craftsman in Penang’s traditional trade heritage.

These artisans contributes to the authenticity and historic fabric of Penang. Unfortunately, many of these trades are dwindling down as not many of the current generation look towards them as a profitable way of life. If these trades are not preserved, Penang will eventually lose an irreplaceable component of its heritage and the neglect of the craft will signal an end of a rich, artistic era. For now, we can only hope that more efforts will be placed into prolonging the lifespan of these trades, and experience them while we still have the chance.

Interested to learn about some of Penang’s traditional trades? LokaLocal offers experiences for travellers to learn about some of these trades, by the artists themselves who are working to keep their life’s work alive! Look us up now on LokaLocal to see where you can get started.

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