First published in Going Places by Malaysia Airlines, October 2019.
As you wander in the countryside of Balik Pulau, you may come across trays of dainty, teardrop-like beads drying under the scorching sun. These are called bedak sejuk or cooling powder, a traditional beauty product made from fermented rice. Since the 1970s, it has been the main source of income for the Yeoh family.
Yeoh Sing Huat took over his father’s business in 2016, barely a year before the latter passed away. The bedak sejuk maker explains that what we consider a traditional trade now, was very common back in the day.
“In the past, most people could make bedak sejuk on their own. The older generation would have the resources, so they would have the knowledge. When all the families can make it, it is hard to turn it into a business.”– Yeoh Sing Huat
Apart from making bedak sejuk, his father supported the family by making belacan and rearing pigs. Eventually it became more convenient for people to buy the cooling powder instead of making it, and Yeoh’s family was the only one left standing.
The main ingredient of bedak sejuk is rice, known for having nutrients and antioxidants that help to relieve acne and brighten skin. Seems like Japan and Korea aren’t the only one to make use of this beauty secret – Penang has its own version too!
To make the powder, Yeoh washes broken rice and soaks it in water for at least one month to ferment. He then blends the fermented rice into a paste, which is later filtered and hung out to dry.
When he is ready to make the powder, Yeoh mixes it with water to form a viscous paste. His family used to pipe them out one by one with piping bags, but have since switched to handmade moulds to speed up the process. Scooping a ladle each time, he drags a slab across the mould, letting the paste drip through. Too fast or too slow, he adds, and it can result in uneven or broken beads.
The beads are dried under the sun for several days before they are packed in glass bottles, ready to be sold.
Yeoh estimates that he can make up to 20kg per day, the equivalent of around 100 bottles. His customers are mostly old-timers who swear by its benefits, but many people interested in homemade, natural products have started looking for bedak sejuk.
Some people, especially teenagers, use it as a face mask and rinse it off after half an hour. Others rub the paste over their face and leave it on overnight.
While he has two brothers who assist him when they are home, Yeoh is the only one running this full time. “To be honest, this is not a lucrative business. Now you can’t even find these glass bottles in Penang. I have to source them from KL.”
His determination to continue the family business is largely driven by the love for his father. Yeoh stepped up to the mantel when he saw how backbreaking it was for his parents to continue the business in their golden years. To share their story and legacy, he and his brothers also welcome visitors into the home to experience the making process, giving them an insight into a traditional trade still surviving on Penang island.
“It still has a better pay than if I were to work for someone. Sure, the work itself is more laborious and tiring. But if I don’t do it, no one would.”– Yeoh Sing Huat
For information on the bedak sejuk experience in Penang, book a session with Yeoh on LokaLocal.