10 things about: Lee Beng Chuan, the joss stick maker

Lee is one of the last few joss stick makers in Penang today. — Picture by KE Ooi
Lee is one of the last few joss stick makers in Penang today. — Picture by KE Ooi

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GEORGE TOWN, May 1 — He is one of George Town’s famous living heritage but Lee Beng Chuan has remained humble and gladly opens up to anyone who stops by to chat with him.

The 88-year-old was born in a pre-war shophouse on Stewart Lane, a street next to Muda Lane where he now lives.

Though he complains of some minor aches, the sprightly man continues to make sandalwood joss sticks for local customers and visitors.

One of the last few joss stick makers in Penang today, Lee has been featured in newspapers, magazines and even on the Discovery Channel over the years. He is famous for his thick handmade joss sticks that are often used on special occasions at temples as these last longer than the regular, thin joss sticks.

Lee’s wife used to help him out at his rented shop and home on Muda Lane but she died last year so now his son helps him at the shop.

He is also training his son and daughter-in-law to take over the joss stick-making business.

Affable and cheerful, Lee has no qualms sharing tips on joss stick-making and stories about his life, the Japanese Occupation, World War II and his love for writing Chinese couplets.

Like most older generation Penangites, Lee speaks in fluent Penang Hokkien interspersed with Mandarin phrases.

His stories, in his own words, are translated here:

I started making joss sticks in my twenties... and that’s all I ever do till today. Of course I do other things to pass time like handicraft and my favourite, writing couplets. I do it out of interest. Others write and sell two for RM25, I do it for fun and give it to people as gifts.

During the British administration, we were not allowed to set up stalls by the roadside to sell things. Not even at the goh kaki (five foot way). If they caught you, they will fine you $10.50, at that time this amount is enough to sustain a whole family for a long time. When the Japanese came, they allowed us to set up stalls to sell joss sticks, they allowed us to do small businesses as long as we don’t go against them, we don’t steal. During that time, nobody steals. We can sleep at night without locking our doors.

So do you know how we sell our joss sticks during the British administration? We will push our stall to the goh kaki in front of the corner shop across from the temple. And when the British enforcement came, we will be running and pushing the stalls with us as fast as we can to escape, just like in those Hong Kong movies.

People always claimed there were bombings here in this area near the temple during the Japanese Occupation. I’ve lived here from the British to the Japanese occupation, no such thing ever happened. But I did go into hiding for a while because the Japanese wanted me to work for them. When I came back, I came back to this house, continued living here, continued selling joss sticks. When I was selling joss sticks at that time, I met Yeap Chor Ee... he used to come to the temple with his wife. She would be holding his arm tightly as they enter the temple. See? Not many people can claim they’ve seen Yeap Chor Ee, the Ban Hin Lee boss. This place I’m renting, it belonged to him, now it belongs to his grandchildren.

I’ve been living in this house for over 70 years. I was born in 37-A, Stewart Lane. When I was seven years old, my father passed away. My parents’ photos are here in this house, you can see it... there. I have five children. My fourth child, my son, is now helping me. I’m old, I need someone to take over so I’m training him and his wife now. Even if anyone wants to learn this trade, I can teach too but they have to pay me for the time and the materials.

I learned joss stick-making on my own. I don’t have a master. Last time, there were people making joss sticks inside the temple, inside a room. They made the fine joss sticks in the temple and they had to make it in a room because the fine powder will float everywhere at the slightest breeze. I went to observe and learnt to make it on my own. Nobody taught me.

A few years later, I started making dragon joss sticks. It is not very easy to make. I bought other people’s dragon joss sticks and disassembled it... then I learnt to make it part by part. The dragon on the joss stick used different materials, not sandalwood. I had to shape it and used different tools to make the snout, the eyes, the whiskers. But I’ve stopped making dragon joss sticks for almost 30 years already. I’m too old to do it now. Nowadays, those dragon joss sticks you see are made using moulds, you don’t see hand made ones anymore.

I don’t make the fine joss sticks. The tourists love my sandalwood incense sticks. To make my joss sticks, I need ingredients like sandalwood imported from Australia, sticky powder, sawdust and bamboo sticks. All these are expensive ingredients especially now with GST. It takes me two days to make a batch of 130 joss sticks. I sell these at RM1 each but my costs are already up to RM50 so my profit is only RM80.

I’ve been praying to Buddha and Guan Yin since young and they gave me blessings my whole life. You know, before I got married, I went to the temple and asked for blessings. My wife was a very good wife. Till the very end, she was very good. You know, I always wake up at 5am to pray to Thni Kong (Jade Emperor) and Buddha for their blessings.That’s why even after falling down a few times, I’m still fine.

You know, all my friends, my relatives, those who made joss sticks “left” (passed away) already. As long as we are good, no matter when we leave, all will be well. I don’t “pantang” over such things. When it’s time, it’s time. Like my wife, 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.” After hearing that, it touched me. So I give out a lot of my joss sticks to people. I give it to old people, to students, to my neighbour, a lot of people. It’s a promise I made to my wife. Not everything is about money.

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