Penang: Old Trades

Thursday Travels is a new weekly column featuring sights and sounds from my wanderlust adventures. Come, fly with me, and we’ll explore strange cultures, exotic eats and everything in-between.

Penang, one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is known for preserving historical architectures, as well as traditional old trades. But the thing is, most of these trades aren’t open everyday, so the ideal time to visit would be on weekdays before noon (some of them close early too, good life aye?)

Sunbathing above are handmade joss sticks. Nowadays, joss sticks are mostly mass-produced in China, after all, they’re cheaper and faster.

At 84 years old, Mr Lee (above) is probably the last joss stick maker in Penang. He works for a few hours per day — not for the money, but just to keep the trade alive.

Besides sculpting joss sticks individually by hand, Mr Lee also insists on using sandalwood powder instead of sawdust, which is more fragrant when lit and kinder to our lungs.

These small joss cones are left outside the shophouse to dry for hours, and Mr Lee recalled a few instances where snatch-thieves would run away with his tray of hard work. He doesn’t understand why anyone would want to do that; they aren’t worth much money, but they mean much to him.

Watching these joss sticks hang out to dry, I start to understand how tedious it was to make everything by hand, back in those days before machines were invented. These days, it’s so easy to mass produce almost anything, that we become used to instant gratification, that we forget what it is like to get your hands dirty and wait patiently.

Currently, Mr Lee has no plans for a successor: “No one wants to do this anymore.”

Along Chowrasta Road, a popiah skin maker rhythmically slaps dough onto a hot plate to make popiah skin, one slice at a time. Having tried popiah with handmade skin, I think they’re usually thinner, but gives better texture and bite.

Lastly, we met with a signboard engraver, who carves traditional plaques and signboards rarely seen today. Most shops now opt for printed signboards or neon-flashing ones.

Mr Koh Ah Wah (above) inherited the trade from his father who came from Guangzhou to Penang many decades back. Although advanced in years, he gladly showed us around his workplace and demonstrated his craft.

The process of engraving a signboard is a tedious one that calls for precise accuracy. I’ve always thought that the gold color on signboards were painted on, but Mr Koh said they’re real gold rubbed onto the boards using thin gold sheets.

Luckily for Mr Koh, his son will be taking over the family business, preserving this endangered traditional trade.

We didn’t manage to capture the other old trades in Penang, but from what we saw, these are indeed dying trades that may no longer be around very soon. So if you’re interested, do pay them a visit, pronto.

You may have heard me say this several times now. Recently, a growing realization has been taking root in me: there is something precious and endearing about handmade products that machines can never replace. This painstaking process of making elevates handmade products into somewhat a form of art.

Mr Lee’s Joss Sticks
No. 1, Lorong Muda (off Steward Lane), George Town, Penang
Open weekdays 8am-11am

Handmade Popiah Skin
No. 5, Chowrasta Bazaar, Chowrasta Road, George Town, Penang
Open daily 7am-12pm

Signboard Engraver
No. 41, Queen Street, George Town, Penang
Open weekdays 11am-5pm

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One thought on “Penang: Old Trades

  1. Pingback: Penang: Hawker Food | the lazy afternoon

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