The Edge: Love and Death in Penang – George Town city’s Dying Heritage Trades

“Take the future away from a man and you have done something worse than killing him.”

– John Berger, A Painter of Our Time, 1958

“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.”

– Ayn Rand

“No buy no problem, you happy I happy.”

– A sign made by Lee Beng Chuan, Penang’s last joss stick maker

On a muggy night in April 2016, Narrow Marrow Café overflowed with attendees for Ryan Anderson’s long-awaited talk, ‘The Death of George Town’. Anderson, an ex-lobbyist turned film-maker based in Songkhla, Thailand, planned to unleash his thoughts on George Town’s development. The crowds of people congregating around buckets of Tiger beer were there to catch what Anderson had to say before he travelled south to finish his series of talks in Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, Johor and, finally, Singapore. They were also there to experience the relative novelty of listening to an intensely sincere Westerner like Anderson vocalise local angst over worrying signs of Death amid George Town’s gentrification.

‘Is George Town losing its soul?’ Anderson’s question has as much relevance now as it did a year ago. In his film documentary, Anderson was merciless in his portrayal of George Town’s gentrification hijacked for investment opportunities by an unashamedly progressive State government and its many tentacles. Anderson even presented a letter written by the Chief Minister’s office explaining why it was imperative the CM spend over RM500,000 on a new Mercedes-Benz – paid for by State coffers – in order to apparently look the part when negotiating with big business. Anderson’s point, however – irrelevant of the quirks that may ail any political office – was that the cost of a Penang State sanctioned clean-up job preparing the city for an influx of tourists, expatriates and multinational businesses had, regrettably, resulted in demolitions, evictions and a general feeling of the little man being stomped on by a grinning clique of rich, Establishment types. Or, as one of George Town’s disgruntled lifetime inhabitants said in the documentary, ‘You are using me!’

Penang’s industry of traditional crafts – or the increasing lack of it – is just a fractal of Anderson’s vitriolic assessment over George Town’s mushrooming problem at large; of the city losing not only its soul, but losing the same unique aspects of culture and heritage the State has relied on so heavily in making it a ‘destination’. There are many ways to describe a process such as this, but words like ‘sustainable’, ‘longevity’ and ‘rational’ tend not to feature in these descriptions.

For over two hundred years – from a period of time when the world had not yet invented the telephone, lightbulb or brail – Penang has attracted craftsmen, and their expert skills, from China, India and Southeast Asia. As Dato Koh Wee Khian noted in his historical summary of the Penang Art Society, ‘Display of works… at public areas were common cultural activities regarded as an early form of exhibition.’ Not only exhibited, craft-filled a niche for things not yet taken up by mass production: shoes, joss sticks, baskets, signboards, stone masonry… the list goes on. In every case, craft tradesmen became defining aspects of George Town’s eclectic identity.

* * *

One of the tradesmen I originally planned to feature in this article was Yeoh Choon Seng, the last person to make fishing nets by hand in George Town. However, I was too late. After talking to the proprietors of HLF Fishing Supplies on Lebuh Pantai, I learnt that he had already retired with nobody to take his place. Apart from modifications to manufactured nets, there are no more handcrafted fishing nets made in the city.

George Town’s heritage trades have problems that are multi-faceted and, sometimes, hard to predict. In general, however, they are as obvious as high-rises and Coca-Cola. Across the board, heritage trades are feeling the inevitable squeeze of gentrification, globalisation and world economics. The problems find their roots in the grand mechanics of a world at large and spiral down into the pinpoint realities of death and decay.

Mr Lee making joss sticks. Photo credit: Sam Fong.

As most of the trades were born in a time that relied on natural rather than synthetic materials, Malaysia’s weakening ringgit has presented the tradesmen with a future horizon barren of potential profitability – of any future at all. The joss stick maker, Lee Beng Chuan, takes pride in the fact that he imports his sandalwood from Australia. However, as I learnt from his son ‘Lee Jr.’, a brace of middlemen and economic woes have meant an almost impossible profit margin. “You see, they always give the excuse, ‘Oh, you know Malaysian money goes down, now we have GST, so the cost goes up.’ But, we don’t increase our price by fifteen or twenty ringgit. No – we only increase one ringgit. We don’t want to take advantage of the customers, but an additional one ringgit cannot make us rich.”

Other trades deal in resources infinitely more susceptible to dangerous fluctuations in world value. Lee Chee Cheng, who affectionately introduced himself as ‘Bruce’ Lee, makes and engraves signboards from Jelutong wood and gold leaf. After he hand carves the characters into the wooden board, gold leaf squares are placed over the engravings and smeared into them with a stiff brush – much like painting. “Deflation has made the price of materials go up very fast,” he said in his airless workspace, the fan switched off to stop the gold leaf blowing away. “Every year we have to increase our price. Our gold leaf is imported from China, and exchange rates… My cost used to be 30% of the final price of a signboard. Now, it is 50-50.” He showed me a board around four foot by three foot in size. “Sometimes the local wood is spoilt with holes and things like that. But, to import from China is very costly.” Much like Mr. Lee and his son in the joss stick trade, Bruce also highlighted the struggle of handcrafted goods competing with their machine-made counterparts. “Even in China, they don’t go for this hand carved; they go for machine made. If I were to carve this one, it would cost you about RM2,000. If you were to import from China, machine carved, you could buy it for RM600-RM700. If a person does this for money, they can’t survive. You cannot make big money.”

Bruce Lee making a signboard. Photo credit: Sam Fong.

Gim Huat Yeah the stonemason and Ng Chai Tiam who makes ‘chop me’ (traditional Chinese stamps) are also at the behest of rising prices from imported goods. They both use stone imported from China for its quality at the compromise of higher prices. Even on the other end of the scale, from the bulk heaviness of granite and marble to the light and delicate needle and thread, tradesmen seem to suffer. May Lim, ‘Mrs. May’, George Town’s last Peranakan kasut manek beader, has felt the hammer of increased prices on quality materials. Her preferred thread of choice, which she used in her younger days and swears by even now, is DMC, a French thread valued for its strength. “When I started learning, a wheel of the thread cost me about RM3.50. Now, it’s twenty-over ringgit. I can’t even get my needles from the UK they are so precious, so now I use Japanese. Even those cost me RM3 a needle.”

Haja Mohideen, who operates from a sewing machine on the side of Keramat Nagore Dargha Sheriff Mosque on Lebuh Chulia making songkoks, complains that the cost of his velvet imported from Korea “increases every year.” Another reason for Mr Mohideen’s declining profitability, however, also bleeds into a modernising culture, as well as fiscal realities. “People are looking for cheap ones. People don’t wear songkoks all the time like before. Now, they seldom wear. Sometimes they don’t even wear to the mosque. So, they buy the cheaper one.” In a situation like this, where not only tradesman have lower profit margins than machine competitors but also service a dwindling traditional market, the possibility of the trade dying completely is very real indeed.

Haja Mohideen making a songkok. Photo credit: Sam Fong.

Difficult profit margins even extend to those materials sourced from Malaysia, which are free of import taxes. Those trades in Penang that rely on wood from Malaysia are also ensnared by increasing costs. George Town’s famous rattan weaver Sim Buck Teik, and his family, are struggling to find the rattan crucial in their trade at a reasonable price because, put simply, it is running out. After generations of rattan weaving in Malaysia, the wood is becoming increasingly difficult to harvest because it was not replanted after being cut down in the past. To put this into perspective, the trade once boomed with China because rattan does not grow naturally there. In fact, as Mr Sim’s daughter told me, rattan baskets exported to China were actually deconstructed and sold piecemeal due to the value of rattan, rather than the basket itself. The paper effigy maker Mr Loh Ah Ban uses a dwindling supply of kayu patam wood to make the frames for his models, and even Bruce Lee can’t find Jelutong wood the right size to make bigger signboards, having instead to join two pieces together, therefore increasing labour and, eventually, cost.

The knock on effect of this issue of profitability leads to what could be called a lack of glamour to tradecrafts in George Town. Understandably, this has turned interest in tradecrafts into a veneer held together by those who would like to see the trades continue but would never take them on themselves as careers, or even vocations.

There is no place for tradecrafts in Malaysia’s modernising, consumerist, progressive society, it seems. In every instance, tradesmen refer to their work as “hard”, “long” and “difficult”, not to mention devoid of money. Any bright, young Malaysian would be loath to take up a career that does not require snappy clothes, the latest technological accessories and a foot in the door to global markets, through shares in a multi-national employer. Tradecrafts do not provide pension schemes, consistent paychecks every month or any financial stability to speak of. In a modernising society where you can make money from the relative comfort of an air-conditioned office filled with co-workers and stable, mindless work, the very existence of tradecrafts is a sweaty, lonely and uncomfortable reminder of days better left behind. To Malaysia’s young, who covet modern, Western markets as the exciting and expected future owed to them, tradecrafts resemble a sector lacking in fashion and trendiness, so far behind the front lines of modernisation and globalisation that any future success will inevitably come without glory or recognition.

How do you convince a fresh graduate to spend a life dedicated to a heritage craft when their future status in society is destined to end in obscurity? Last year in the United Kingdom, Hector Cole MBE and Lisa Hammond MBE joined the growing list of craftspeople honoured by the Crown for services in their field; Cole for his expertise in making historic arrowheads by using ancient blacksmith techniques, and Hammond for pottery and ceramics. These are just two examples, but they prove the point that tradecrafts linked with national recognition are infinitely more attractive to the youth of today – the youth of any generation, for that matter.

In George Town’s case, the trades come with little State or Federal recognition. Of all the tradesmen I interviewed, only the rattan weaver Sim Buck Teik had anything to show for his lifetime of effort – a faux-gold plaque on a wooden board given by the Penang Heritage Trust, ‘In recognition of invaluable contributions to the intangible cultural heritage of Penang.’ The others had either not received any awards or did not think it was important to show me. While on the surface Sim Buck Teik’s award seems like a sincere act of gratitude, it very quickly becomes as ‘intangible’ as Penang’s cultural heritage when compared to Malaysia’s current list of Federal honour awards available. Anything – whether it be a trade, business, sport or belief – is under threat when young generations cannot find in it idols worthy of emulating. It will remain as impotent and unappetising as food without flavour. As Bruce Lee, the signboard maker told me: “You must have status, only then will people go for it. But we don’t have. The honours only go to big businessmen. I feel we sacrifice ourselves.”

And yet, the root causes for Penang’s heritage trades dying out are as introspective as they are based on exterior forces. In the same way that the work itself does not conform to the style of modern society, thinking behind the trades – by the tradesmen themselves – often has little bearing on what modern society would consider right and true. George Town’s tradesmen are mentally and physically built for patience, mastery and principles – very different to current obsessions over speed, instant gratification and fickle, ever-changing thoughts and allegiances.

Mr Lee makes his joss sticks by hand, every single day, using a process unchanged since having learnt it on leaving school after World War II. He starts by kneading the ingredients into a dough, which is then pulled over bamboo sticks or shaped into conical mounds that look like witch’s hats.  After making them smooth, Mr Lee then dries the joss sticks in the sun for two days. It is a simple yet time-consuming process, but one that he will never change. “My dad works three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Even on Chinese New Year, he works. It involves a lot of work,” explained Lee Jr. He described his father’s work as an “obsession” numerous times, work that drew most of its existence from a love of craft over anything else. “Lots of people say, ‘Oh, when it comes to the mixture, why don’t you get a machine’, like making a cake,” said Lee Jr. “But, don’t overlook that the machine does not have senses. When we mix the powder, we need to do it hands on so we have the feel for proper distribution of ingredients. To make it equal, you see.”

Despite his efforts, however, Mr Lee – like other tradesmen – maintains that he does not do his work for profit. “His mind is not thinking of making profit,” said Lee Jr. Where the addition of a machine, chemicals or even sales could off-set the issue of not making a profit, Mr Lee sees these ideas as impossibilities rather than considerations. “You see all these dragons,” said Lee Jr., pointing to three display cases holding ornately painted Chinese dragons. “These are all handmade by my Dad. There is a Singaporean that offered RM5,000 for one of these. But, he said no. Should we stop this trade, we will take all these dragons and give it to our Penang State Museum… There is even a person from Kuala Lumpur that invited us to do a demonstration and willing to pay. But, as long as we are comfortable and can cover expenses, we are quite happy.”

Even Mrs May, probably one of the more active traders in George Town having travelled to Paris to promote shoe beading, holds true to the notion that she plies her trade for something other than money. Despite sharing her own story of a Singaporean asking to buy one of her products – a shoe beading design that took her three months to complete – her fundamental conclusion was that “my objective is not to make money. I don’t want it as a business. What do I need money for? I mean, I’m not rich but, as long as I’m healthy, I am happy.”

Mrs May, however, takes it even further than a question of making money. For her, part of the problem is the added stress that she would incur in keeping the trade alive. “I am one person that doesn’t like the limelight. Until today, the Chief Minister does not know that I am the one that went to Paris. I know the Governor and wife personally, but they don’t know I do shoe beading. They only know me as the Vice-president of the Senior Club,” she ended in mirthful laughter. Her current agreement with the Penang Heritage Trust is that: “Anything to do with admin or anything… I will not deal with it. Don’t expect me to attend meetings; I hate meetings. They send me students and I teach – that is all.”

The Penang Heritage Trust has also helped joss stick maker Mr Lee by designing a simple pamphlet to give out to tourists, but Lee Jr. complains that trying to expand the business is a stressful prospect. He has grand plans on how to reach the public – banners, business cards and other things that any modern entrepreneur would have made his first port of call – but in his own words: “We have all these local newspaper cuttings that we laminate and I hang up there. They may fly away. Previously, we had a guy who made two boxes of call cards for my Dad but we don’t know where he go. After, I go to the printer to do it again and they say I need a soft copy; I am not an I.T. guy.  Even the leaflets we cannot reprint. It is a bit stressful.”

These are stunting revelations. Riding on the back of crippling profitability is a cavalier shouting, ‘go slow, think small and don’t overextend yourself.’ Instead of turning tradecrafts into viable and attractive businesses capable of drawing young, enthusiastic and energetic men and women into the fold, tradesmen are at a loss as to not only how to do it, but why. After a lifetime of perfecting a trade and living the life required of it, they are wondering if allowing their life’s work to be swept up by capitalism is right or even fair.

By far the most self-destructive issue behind Penang’s dying trades is the worrying impression that the tradesmen do not want to pass the trade along at all, or at least not in its entirety. I had heard this idea before from previous researchers, but only until speaking with Mrs May did it become real. “This is more a typical Chinese character. When they teach, they don’t pass on 100% to you; they keep 20%. There are some people that do not teach at all, because of a ‘this is mine’ mentality. By nature, selfish.” It may sound like a damning and unbelievable proclamation but Lee Jr. shed some light on its legitimacy when he said: “My Dad does teach people but we don’t teach people completely. If you are a willing student, he will teach you provided that when you have mastered the thing it does not affect our business. We are not afraid of people knowing our trade; we are very open-minded people. Our phobia is of competition.” This sort of mentality would have Ayn Rand turning in her grave, appalled at the complete lack of capitalist egoism. Most people nowadays would not give it a second thought.

These problems reveal a way to look at heritage trades in George Town. The trades are caught in a stalemate with modern Malaysia by being unable to progress because of economic realities that will not change for them, and which will arguably get worse. They are protected by a demographic that have become used to a life with little money, technology and worldliness, and who do not need more. The trades themselves are hard modes of living and do not come with any recognition to make them attractive. On the other hand, the trades cannot die out; Penang State has too much riding on their heritage value to propel it into the future and retain its UNESCO listing. In this way, they are completely heritage concepts and cannot fall under the guise of sustainable businesses. What, then, can protect them sustainably, respectfully and with dignity?

* * *

The benefits of heritage trades to George Town extend beyond cultural bait for potential tourists. There are numerous leaflets to be had explaining where they are and what they do – the most informative printed by George Town World Heritage Incorporated that lists thirty trades operating in the city, in their booklet ‘Heritage Traders of George Town’. From this perspective, the trades are integral to George Town and Penang as conduits for leaflets, booklets, maps, walking routes, tours and all the other things idle holidaymakers require. In a word, they are great publicity.

Yet, when treated as conduits for quality products, the trades take on a meaning far more important than being an ‘intangible cultural heritage of Penang’. For those who dream of a life gone by, of a time when products did not come with built-in expiry dates but were made to be the best they could be, heritage trades still fill that niche.

Due to strict business morals, tradesmen make products that last, have not cut corners and are made from the atavistic ideal of quality rather than profit – traditions that are simultaneously contributing to their death but also hold, I think, the key to their future.

Loh Ah Ban, the paper effigy maker hidden away on Lebuh Carnavon, works in an industry that will never die. His effigies that range from houses to table fans are made to honour the dead, used in funerals and festivals as offerings burnt for the deceased. Still, he and his son-in-law learning the trade believe in using the best products they can to serve their customers. “You see this colour,” Mr Loh’s son-in-law said while pointing to a pre-made mansion, “this colour depends on us. This one is printed just for us. It is glow in the dark, so it is more expensive. Other places use normal colours only.”

The unforgettable Mr Lee makes his joss sticks entirely from natural products and screws his face at the suggestion of adding chemicals or “yellow powder” to compromise his creations. His joss sticks are a mixture of Australian sandalwood, Tibetan holy grass and incense. “Our sandalwood can act like a therapy,” said Lee Jr. “We had feedback from a Scottish lady that complained of insomnia. After burning a few, she said she slept like a  baby!” which would have sounded like a tall tale if I were not holding her postcard in my hands at the time. “Our Tibetan holy grass can eradicate negativity,” Lee Jr. added. There is an added value to Mr Lee’s joss sticks – what young business minds would call a Unique Selling Point – in that he adds calligraphy to each of them that are big enough with a master hand.

When it comes to the carvers – the stone engraver Yeoh Gim Huat, signboard maker Bruce Lee and chop me maker Ng Chai Tiam – the handmade quality comes through as something exclusive. These trades guarantee originality in industries where being unique is not just preferred but required: a headstone, signboard or company chop can and should not be replicated in any way, for reasons of basic integrity. When I spoke with chop maker Ng Chai Tiam, the detail in figures carved at the top of the chops that act as handles is masterful, time-consuming work completed with great concentration under a magnifying glass. If that were not enough, he was excited to show me his personal paintings hanging on the walls of his cluttered shop. He studied Fine Art in Hong Kong and seems to have refined his skill with a brush as well as a chisel. His shop was messy because he had been evicted from his previous residence – next to Bruce Lee the signboard maker – due to rising rents.

Lastly, there is Mrs May, whose skill reflects best the heritage behind all trades in George Town. A third-generation Peranakan by birth, Mrs May has retained, above all things, an eagle eye when it comes to threading a needle or bead, a talent that she describes as “God’s gift”. Mrs May learnt to bead from her Grandmother, along with other female members of her family in her kampong home. Much like other tradesmen, she started young – around ten or twelve years old, threading needles and choosing beads for her Grandmother – which translates to over 60 years of experience beading. “My mother was very traditional,” she told me. “All us girls must learn how to cook; we had to knit, we had to crochê, we had to tat.” And the quality of her work begins from the European beads she uses all the way to the final shoe or handbag. “You see this stitching,” said Mrs May, showing me the reverse side of a shoe design. “There is no knotting. I don’t use knotting; it makes it very messy at the back.” I was amazed to see a clean back with none of the messy crisscross thread typical in woven products. When a beaded design is finally ready for a shoemaker, Mrs May uses the famous Wong Sam Chai, mentor to Dato Jimmy Choo. As products, Mrs May believes that using her beading techniques and shoe and bag makers will produce something that “can last a lifetime.”

Wong Sam Chai making a beaded shoe. Photo credit Sam Fong.

Considering these examples of heritage trades, buying from the tradesmen as opposed to manufacturers will not only furnish the customer with a quality product but could also be the best way to bring heritage trades back into a fast-paced and growing economy. Help from the State government and heritage organisations in George Town exists but in a fickle and symptomatic way. Sim Buck Teik’s family of rattan weavers reiterated what I learnt from nearly all the traders: “Sometimes they [heritage organisations] give two thousand a year – only sometimes. Our state government supplies some money to people. But not all the years. For us, they only give one time… Sometimes we wait for big companies to sponsor us,” said Mr Sim’s daughter, standing directly in front of the award plaque. When I asked why they do not receive a regular stipend, her answer was to the point: “Lim Guan Eng also no money! Federal government got money but not in Penang.” It must be a perplexing reality to live on an island actually growing with land reclamations yet unable to furnish a heritage icon with a regular subsidy to make ends meet.

Talk of an initiative that spread over the heritage trade grapevine was the plan to relocate all of the tradesmen to Kimberly Street in George Town, lumping them all together in a neat package for the tourist crowd. Presumably, this would come with subsidised rents… but little else, except a push to turn George Town into a heritage zoo, each aspect of culture grouped together in separate enclosures. Without a doubt, this initiative is paved with good intentions. But one only need look at heritage sites around the world to notice the real effect of this type to thinking; high streets lined with shops selling tourist brick-a-brack, traditional trades presented as if on stage, and a feeling of being so removed from reality that the essence of a site dissipates completely. In fact, Armenian Street in George Town reflects this dilution of culture worryingly close to home.

What is, then, the best way to save the heritage trades of George Town? Despite their time-consuming work, the tradesmen are all imparting the knowledge of their trade to younger generations, irrespective of what they hold back. Whether by keeping the trade knowledge in the family – like with Lee Jr. taking up the joss stick trade or Loh Ah Ban’s son-in-law continuing the paper effigy business – or running a constant series of successful courses – as with Mrs May or even songkok making classes on the mainland – the knowledge is being shared to many.

The problem is how unattractive the trades are themselves. These are not viable businesses anymore, merely nostalgic baubles to exist as fantasies from a bygone era. In order to change that perspective, they need to have buying power behind them. If they are to remain local entities, then the local population of George Town, Penang State, or even Malaysia, need to support them by buying and using the products, not just out of principle but also as a sincere appreciation of what heritage trade products have to offer. The result would be a backlog of orders, a profit by volume income and a resurgence of public value in heritage products. Couple this with Federal and State recognition of the tradesmen, to recognise what their livelihoods do for not only the State but the country as well, and suddenly the trades become a viable proposition to young adults thinking of dedicating their lives to a purpose.

Make no mistake, the heritage trades of George Town are under threat of extinction; if not wiped from society completely then set to lead an unnatural existence, monitored by umbrella institutions and charged each day with putting on a show for people to ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ over their unique ‘nature’. To keep them in their complete form, as not only cultural inspirations but normal parts of George Town’s city machinery that runs deep with heritage, they need to be treated as such; normal. They started as businesses and should continue so, used by consumers for quality and taken on by new practitioners as lifelong pursuits, continued with an ideal voiced in 1897 by Joseph Conrad: “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.”

Buy the tradecraft products yourself, and meet those behind them:

  • Kasut Manek (Traditional Beader), May Lim, 66 Lebuh Acheh George Town, 016-4543075
  • Stone Engraver, Teah Gim Huat, 34 Gat Lebuh Acheh George Town, 016-4557706
  • Songkok Maker, Haja Mohideen, 157 Lebuh King George Town, 04-2631290
  • Joss Stick Maker, Lee Beng Chuan, Lorong Muda George Town
  • Signboard Maker, Lee Chee Cheng, 77 Lebuh Carnavon George Town, 018-4634008
  • Paper Effigy Maker, Loh Ah Ban, 198 Lebuh Carnavon George Town, 04-2615292
  • Chop Me Maker, Ng Chai Tiam, 371 Lebuh Pantai George Town, 017-4782878
  • Rattan Weaver, Sim Buck Teik, 393 Lebuh Pantai George Town, 016-4545686

Originally published in The Edge, “By George” Edition, August 2017

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