The vanishing traditional artisans of Georgetown, Penang

By Barbara Weibel

WITHIN the Kwan Yin Chinese Buddhist Temple, rivulets of smoke caressed vermillion globular lanterns strung from the ceiling before drifting through an opening in the roof. Worshipers streamed in and out, pouring oil into lanterns, lighting candles, and placing burning joss (incense) sticks into giant sand pots. Fascinated, I asked a temple worker about the significance of the incense. “It’s a kind of email to God,” he explained. “Only instead of a computer, the prayers are carried on smoke.” He suggested I visit Lee Beng Chuan, the only remaining traditional joss stick maker in Georgetown.

Lee Beng Chuan makes 18-inch joss sticks that burn for three hours. Pic: Barbara Weibel.

I found Lee, 84, squatting on a low stool in front of his tiny shop. He grabbed a handful of amber colored mixture from a plastic bucket and spread it expertly down a thin bamboo stick as he chatted in broken English.

This 18-inch joss stick, burn three hours.”

While he told me about the decline in his business he mixed another batch of Australian sandalwood powder with a sticky powder from the Teja tree, adding water and kneading until the “dough” was shiny and thick.

Lee can’t compete with mass-production factories that roll out incense sticks made of low quality sawdust, but specializes in joss sticks for special religious festivals, like the three-foot high variety that burn for four days and those decorated with specially carved dragons designed to send more powerful prayers.

Lee disappeared momentarily as I browsed through boxes of incense cones and joss sticks painted with Chinese characters for happiness, fortune and health, returning with a bright orange flier, which he shoved into my hand.

Many other traditional artist in Georgetown. You visit all,” he insisted.

I was only too happy to oblige.

Melting gold into ingots in preparation for necklaces at Thana’s Goldsmith. Pic: Barbara Weibel.

My next stop was at Thana’s Goldsmith, where every piece of hand made jewelry is custom designed. One goldsmith was crafting a gold necklace and the proprietor, Mr. Raju, demonstrated the process, from melting the gold, to pouring an ingot, and feeding it though a rolling mill until it was fine enough to be worked into an intricate chain.

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One block over I found Haja Mohideen OSM Mohd Shariff, Penang’s sole maker of Songkoks, the traditional round hats for Malaysian men.

Haja Mohideen, 67, graciously demonstrated how Songkoks are produced. Working an ancient black sewing machine, he pumped the foot pedal to sew a silky purple lining onto newsprint. After trimming one edge into a domed shape, he attached an oval top and sewed black velvet to the outside, finishing off the edges with tiny, precise stitches.

Haja Mohideen OSM Mohd Shariff finishes off a Songkok hat. Pic: Barbara Weibel.

Like the joss stick maker, Haja Mohideen’s business is declining. Though his songkoks sell for just RM 9-37 (US $3-12), a similar, lesser quality hat manufactured in a factory can be purchased for RM 8 (US $2.50). When he retires there is no one to take his place.

My last stop was Nyonya Beaded Shoes. Nyonya refers to descendants of late 15th and 16th-century ethnic Chinese who settled here. They brought with them superb embroidery and beadwork skills still used today to create purses, belts, phone pouches and the popular beaded slippers – the glass beads are sewn on individually.

A shoemaker attaches a beaded face to a slipper at Nyonya Beaded Shoes. Pic: Barbara Weibel.

Once complete, the finished shoe tops are attached to custom-built soles. These are made to order by Nyonya women in their homes, but the shops keep some on hand for walk-in customers. These cost RM 62 (US$20); the soles are RM 93-124 (US $30-40).

Unlike the other shops, demand for these shoes is increasing and schools have popped up around the Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca, and Singapore) to teach the craft.

I had not visited all the traditional artisans of Georgetown but on my next visit I will seek out the tombstone carver; the wooden and bamboo blind maker; and a variety of cooks and bakers. I only hope I won’t be too late.

Visit the above artisans here:

Mr. Lee Beng Chuan, Joss Stick Maker, No. 1 Lorong Muda (Off Steward Lane)
8-10am Mon-Fri

Mr. Raju, Thana’s Goldsmith, 38 Lebuh Queen, 10am-5pm

Haja Mohideen OSM Mohd Shariff (Songkok Maker), 157 Lebuh King, 10am-5pm

Rattan Weaver, Lebuh Chulia

Signboard Maker, 41 Lebuh Queen, 11am-5pm

Mr. Oo & Mr. Ng, Nyonya Beaded Shoes, 4 Lebuh Armenian

Wooden and Bamboo Blind Maker, 231 Lebuh Chulia

Tombstone Engraver, 77 Lebuh Acheh, 10am-12pm

“Poh Piah” Spring Roll Wraps, 5 Jalan Chowrasta, 8-11am

Roti Bengali Traditional Bread, 114 Jalan Transfer, 8am-6pm

“Yu Char Kuih” Crispy Dough Fritters, 76 Lebuh Cintra; 2C, People’s Court; or 17, Jalan Hutton

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Author Bio

Barbara Weibel (Perpetual World Traveler)
After years of working 70-80 hours per week at jobs that paid the bills but brought no joy, a serious illness made Barbara Weibel realize she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside. After recovering her health, she walked away from her successful but unfulfilling career, sold or gave away most of her material possessions, strapped on a backpack and began traveling around the world in pursuit of her true passions: travel, photography and writing. Stories about her adventures are published on her blog, Hole In The Donut Cultural Travel.