Lee Beng Chuan is one of Malaysia’s last joss stick makers, and this is his love story – not just for the craft but also his wife, the main reason he keeps the flame of this heritage alive to this day.
If you walk by the Kuan Yin Temple in Penang, you might come across a curious pre-war shop house. Every morning, the 89-year-old would be seen mixing sandalwood powder and other ingredients into dough, before shaping the dough onto sticks. By afternoon, there would be rows of joss sticks or cones left under the sun to dry.
This is the humble home of Mr Lee, who has been working on this traditional trade for over 70 years.
Born in 1928, Mr Lee’s father used to sell joss sticks until his death in 1935. He was only seven years old then. It was not until the age of 12 that the young boy followed in his father’s footsteps. He later learnt joss-stick making on his own by observing a joss stick maker from China. Despite being refused an apprenticeship countless times, Mr Lee watched him make joss sticks every day for six months.
Today Mr Lee is considered a living legacy of the Northern State. To the friendly, happy-go-lucky man, joss-stick making is not a business to sustain his livelihood. His continuous involvement despite his age is purely passion over profit – and a promise to his beloved wife.
A Promise and Tribute of Love
Mr Lee’s love for his late wife, Chong Chon Chiew, is clear to see. Prior to her passing, she would help him run the business and make joss sticks by his side. She passed away in May 2015.
“My wife spent 60 years together with me.” Mr Lee said, “Mentioning her makes me sad. If I show you her photos, you will feel sad together with me as well. My wife was so pretty when she was young.”
And yet, her kindness and spirit has not stopped inspiring him. In an interview with The Malay Mail Online in 2015, he revealed the heartfelt wish his wife had for him.
Just before she ‘left’, 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. – Lee Beng Chuan
Touched by her words, he vowed to make joss sticks and give them to people as blessings. This, he has done ever since. And this, he intends to do for the rest of his life.
Vanishing Art in a Changing World
Joss sticks are a crucial part of Chinese culture, used in temples and homes to worship ancestors and for blessings. Back in the past, these joss sticks were made by craftsmen. Nowadays, the art of joss stick making has been taken over by machinery. Mr Lee is the only traditional joss stick maker in Penang, who still makes them by hand.
Mr Lee used to make dragon joss sticks as well, which can take days or even months to complete. His most recent and final creation is a 12-feet tall handmade Dragon Joss Stick, which he proudly made for a local temple during the Chinese New Year celebrations. This significant moment has been featured in a documentary on his life, broadcasted on Astro in 2009.
Due to his age, he only makes simple joss sticks and cone-shaped incense now. However, he still has a steady pool of customers who appreciate the quality of his work. Unlike joss sticks you find elsewhere, Mr Lee makes them with ingredients like sandalwood, which are imported from Australia and teja tree powder from Kuantan. This supposedly gives them a better fragrance when burnt.
With no one to take his place, Mr Lee knows that his retirement might signal the end of handmade joss stick making in Georgetown, so he is determined not to stop. Apart from selling his joss sticks to dedicated customers, he shares his skills and knowledge with willing students and tourists who come to his shop.
In his class, he demonstrates how he has been making joss sticks throughout his life, and lets his students try it out themselves. Staying true to his promise to his wife, Mr Lee lets them bring these home. This is his blessing, to give people around him good, happy and long lives.
If you would like to meet the master and learn this vanishing art with him, you can join Mr Lee’s joss stick making workshops in Penang on LokaLocal.