Monday, May 20, 2013

Penang's Vanishing Heritage Trades

Penang's UNESCO World Heritage Site in George Town is not simply the colonial era structures that make up the area. It is also the confluence of people that go about daily life in this town. Tucked in among the crowds are aging tradesmen practicing their craft just as it's been done for generations -- heritage trades to go with this heritage site. Making joss sticks, songkoks, chops, baskets and signboards the traditional way is a vanishing art. In a the next decade or two, will these still be practiced in the real world or will they be relegated to mere demonstrations in a cultural village set up for tourists?

Last month, my friend and I joined Spiral Synergy's Trishaw Trades Trail for a tour of Penang's endangered trades. Both of us squeezed into one trishaw (a bicycle-powered, three-wheeled rickshaws) and followed the caravan throughout George Town.

Riding trishaws through (top) Little India,
 (bottom) past Chinese temples and in front of shophouses.

The Joss Stick Maker
Joss sticks, also called incense, are an important part of Chinese culture

Joss sticks (incense) burning with their aromatic smoke rising up to the sky are a ubiquitous part of Penang's Chinese culture. These smoke signals convey people's wishes for Good Luck, Prosperity, Fortune and other longings to the gods above. You see them in front of temples but also at the small shrines found everywhere throughout the city in homes, at the back of a shop or restaurant, next to buildings, or even in parking lots.  I imagine that the market for joss sticks must be huge. However, they're now mostly imported from China where they're mass produced and made of inferior materials.

One man, Lee Beng Chuan, who is well into his 80s still makes joss sticks the traditional way as he's been doing for decades since he left school after World War II. Back then, he taught himself this trade by observing workers in Penang's joss stick factories. Using a paste of fragrant Australian sandalwood and sticky terja tree powder from Kuantan, he molds each one by hand around a bright stick then leaves them out to dry in the sun for two days. The work is slow and doesn't pay much. No one is in line to take his place, so when Mr. Lee is done, that will be the end of making joss sticks by hand in historic George Town.

Penang's last Traditional Joss Stick Maker

Watch this video for a look at the making of one of Mr. Lee's last big creations, a 12-foot-tall, magenta Dragon Joss Stick pillar crafted for a Chinese New Year celebration.

Chop Me
You'll often hear Malays use the word "chop" to mean "stamp." So when someone holds out a receipt and asks you to "Chop me" what he really wants is your official stamp or seal. Don't pull out an axe for goodness sakes! For the Chinese, a chop is an official personal seal that stands in place of a signature.

Custom made chops or stamps and a tin of cinnabar ink paste

Penang's chop maker imports his decorative stone chops from China. Pick one out and flip through his display book to pick out what character style you would like for him to carve on to the bottom. Don't have a Chinese name? He can help you figure out one that sounds like your Western one. This is laborious, precision work requiring a magnifying glass and small tools. Nowadays, most people seem to instead opt for easy rubber stamps from an office supply company.

The Chop Maker and his densely cluttered shop

Looking for a Sign
Like the rest of the world, Penang is going modern with printed signs or even high-tech, flashing LED ones. Hand-carved signboards, a tradition brought over from China, are slowly becoming part of the past. Most are painted with gold characters on a typically black but occasionally red or green background.

Signboard Shop

Spiral Synergy is holding a signboard carving  class on June 18, 2013 if you want to try your hand at this age old craft.

One signboard in the works

Weaving Baskets
Seang Hin Leong is a living part of Penang's UNESCO World Heritage and has a big banner from the city honoring the patriarch heading this shop to prove it.

Taking a mid-morning break from the work of weaving baskets

Wandering through the shophouse packed with goods, I am reminded of Cost Plus World Market or Pier 1 in the USA. The difference is that these pieces are made by hand by the very people staffing the store.  There's everything from giant baskets big enough to hold bushels of durian on the back of a motorbike to decorative boxes perfect for dressing up a box of facial tissue. Spiral Synergy also organizes basket weaving classes here sometimes.

The Songkok Maker
Songkoks are a type of Islamic male headwear similar to a pillbox-style hat or a squat fez minus the tassel. Sadly, the songkok maker, Haja Mohidin, was not at his shop when our group of trishaws pulled up. However, his neighbor who has a key was kind enough to open this store tucked into the side of the Nagore Shrine.

A songkok sits next to a manual sewing machine.

The retro sewing machine is what caught my eye immediately. I couldn't believe that this is what he uses to make about five songkoks by hand each day. Haja Mohidin first learned the skill from his father, a Mamak or Muslim Tamil, when he was only 12 years old and has been doing it for almost 50 years. The hats we saw were velvety on the outside with a colorful satin lining the inside. Newspaper or cardboard provide the internal structure to stiffen the sides of the hat. Malay men can buy ready-made songkoks from many stores now, but those who want a custom fit go to Mr. Mohidin. They sell for 10 to 30 ringgits (US$3.30 to US$10) each.

His uncle used to own another songkok making store next door but has since closed. He is now training his son-in-law to take over, so this trade will perhaps continue in Penang for at least another generation.

Going Back
I thoroughly enjoyed this tour of the living heritage of George Town. It also included a visit to Penang's Warehouse Row which I covered in a previous post. My only regret is that I did not have enough room in the trishaw for large purchases. So, I'll be heading back to some of these places when I have more time to browse at my leisure and also a car to carry everything home in.

Related Posts:
Glimpsing the Past along Penang's Warehouse Row
Ramadan and Penang's Kapitan Keling Mosque
The Street of Religious Harmony

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox and "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. I love traditional markets and traditional crafts, so thank you for taking me on this tour in George Town through Travel Photo Thursday. If I ever go back to Penang it will be on my list.
    Have a wonderful week.

  2. As always, I'm captivated by your images.

  3. What a great post! I loved learning more about the city and culture of Penang! At first glance, I thought the joss sticks were fireworks.

    1. Fireworks are technically illegal, but people shoot them off all the time. I have no idea where they buy them. Penang certainly doesn't have the Fireworks stands I see on the outskirts of Texas towns.

  4. What an amazing tour; I love things like this. Your photos beautifully illustrated the narrative.

  5. Hi Michelle, what an interesting tour. There's nothing like handmade crafts and knowing who and where they were made. In this age of mass production, I come appreciate them more. It's sad to think that some of this tradition will imminently come to end.

  6. Thanks for telling us about Lee Beng Chuan. Fancy moulding and making the joss sticks by hand. Having done it for so many years it must be second nature to him. Joss Stick smoke spiralling up to fill a temple is a surreal experience. It is good also that he has his joss stick craft to keep him young. Does he have an apprentice I wonder?
    I would love to be let loose in Seang Hin Leong cane ware shop!

    1. There's no apprentice at the Joss Stick shop. He's proud that his own children are off at better jobs instead of one that pays mere pennies a day. It must be so strange for him to know that he is the last of a kind.

  7. I visited Georgetown in 1983 - it looks as if it's probably changed hugely. Your lovely photos brought back some lovely memories - thanks for the mind trip :)

  8. What a great tour! The last time I was in Penang I had a map that had all of these shops marked. I visited many of them. I do remember the Joss Stick Shop.

  9. Very interesting glimpse into Penang's cuture, thanks :)

  10. Wow nice article, I'm a Penangite and all these trades had never crossed my mind till I came across this (I'm from the younger generation of course). Got to go back and do some exploring..

  11. It is sad when these special trades/crafts get so limited...I loved my visit to Penang a few years ago and traveling around the island, thanks for sharing these


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