The amazing skill set of George Town artisans | Keeping Penang’s heritage alive

Brainy and cheeky. Witty and inventive. Always smoking hot.

From joss-sticks to beaded slippers to rattan chair repairs … ancient trades are part of the warp and weft of Penang’s heritage George Town

Lee Beng Chuan is perched on a low orange stool in a cluttered workshop in George Town’s Muda Lane. Next to him is a yellow bucket containing a lump of brown dough the shape of an oversized baroque pearl. It is, in fact, a paste of ground sandalwood mixed with sticky teja tree powder, water and sawdust, and Lee nips into it before stretching and pushing it out along a 30cm bamboo stick.


Lee Beng Chuan at work in Muda Lane, George Town

Mr Lee’s eyes are as blue as his T shirt. The nonagenarian has been making joss-sticks for more than six decades. In a town rich with temples, mosques, churches and shrines, there can never be enough worship paraphernalia.

Not far away, in Little India, garland-makers deftly twist and weave yellow marigolds, jasmine and dahlias into festive pendulums that will decorate temples and augment celebrations.

A peek into the nooks and crannies of George Town – a popular port for cruiseships – reveals a swathe of specialist skills. Not surprising given that Penang, one of 13 Malaysian states, has over time blended Malay, Chinese, Indian, Arabic, Indonesian and British culture and tradition.

Weaving marigolds into garlands in George Town, Penang

Wooden signboard makers and tombstone engravers are hard at work, as are Chinese calligraphers, Indian goldsmiths, Islamic book publishers, spice merchants, and perfumers. Craftsmen and women are filling mattresses with kapok, roasting coffee beans, selling Hindu kitchenwares and Chinese medicines.

Where to stay in George Town

The town was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2008. The escalation in the restoration of temples, mosques, churches, shophouses, mansions, clan halls and government buildings meant a renewed love affair with the old trades to ensure authenticity.


The former Carpenters’ Guild in Love Lane, George Town, now teaching lion dancing

George Town can be explored on foot, by bicycle, or in a trishaw. There’s a free bus, too. At just 2.5 square kilometres, the Core Zone covers 109 hectares, encompassing more than 1700 historic buildings. A Buffer Zone of 150ha protects it.

Most hotels suggest walking itineraries that incorporate key heritage sites and skills. George Town World Heritage Incorporation, which oversees the town’s architecture and cultural assets, has a Traditional Trades Discovery Walk on the second Saturday of each month.

Ernest Zacharevic’s much-loved street art in George Town

Haja Mohideen Mohd Sharif (157 Lebuh King) makes the signature velvet Malay cap, the songkok. In his 70s, the craftsman was in 2017 awarded the Living Heritage Treasure Award, established to acknowledge the skills and traditions that define Penang. It came with a stipend to ensure he can continue to make the bespoke headwear for as long as he is able.

Sim Buck Teik, of Seang Hin Leong (393 Lebuh Pantai), is saving antique rattan chairs from the scrapheap. A second-generation rattan weaver, he learned his craft from his father, who came from Teochew in China. The shop also sells rattan baskets, lampshades, canes, chairs, tables and decorative fittings.

At Tian Hua Arts & Antiques (85 Lebuh Carnarvon), Ng Chai Tiam works on Chinese seals and calligraphy as he has been doing for four decades. In a way that is similar to hot metal printing presses, the Chinese name is written on the durable stone surface in reverse.

For Lee Chee Cheng and his team, wood is the preferred medium. Sung Dynasty Wood Carving (77 Lebuh Carnarvon) is working through commissions for signs, ancestral tablets and Chinese deities.

Tan Kok Oo (4 Lebuh Armenian) takes orders for intricately beaded shoes that can take three months to complete. These are traditionally worn with the Nyonya kebaya and sarong which themselves are a wonderful memento of a George Town visit.

Some of the fine furniture on display at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion

Peranakan, Straits Chinese and Baba-Nyonya are terms used for descendants of the 15th– and 16th-century immigrants. One of the best places to see the fine beading that is a feature of Malay fashion through the centuries is at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion (29 Lebuh Gereja). An opulent tribute to Baba-Nyonya affluence, it also contains a Straits Chinese jewellery museum showcasing gold filigree embellished minaudières, brooches, jade bangles and even an emerald tiara. Feast on dazzling beading as applied to wedding gowns, slippers, and headdresses. Nyonya jewellery was a mix of Indian and Sri Lankan styles, adorned with Chinese symbols of prosperity.

M. Badjenid & Son (184-186 Lebuh Pantai), established in George Town in 1917, is the country’s oldest manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of perfume compounds, essential oils, oud and bakhoor (agarwoodchips made fragrant by soaking in jasmine and sandalwood or amber and citrus essential oils).

Even fish balls are an art form in Penang, whose hawker markets are famous. See them take shape at the Campbell Street wet markets, where flesh from the fish of the day is scooped out and molded into ping pong-sized balls ready for the wok.

Claypot frog porridge, a delicacy at the Red Garden Food Paradise

Custard tarts are made at Leong How Keng’s tiny bakery shop (C8 People’s Court, Lebuh Cintra) where you have to get in early as he bakes just 300 per day. Ditto Tho Yuen Restaurant (92 Lebuh Campbell), which serves Penang’s renowned BBQ pork steamed buns and quadruple yolk mooncake.

Back at Mr Lee’s “atelier” it’s time to select a limited-edition pack of six incense sticks, wrapped in gold foil. On each is written a different promise: harmony, good luck, prosperity, happiness, good health … and longevity to burn.

Aspirational artwork at joss-stick maker Lee Beng Chaun’s little store in George Town

Photos by Susan Skelly, Alan Deans and Rhonda Preston-Jones




Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab.

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Copyright © Susan Skelly 2020.