The intangible heritage of George Town is not only a vital contributing factor to the significance of the World Heritage Site. There are so many traditional craftsmanships in Penang you should check out as most of these trades are vanishing.
- Traditional bedak sejuk maker
Bedak sejuk, which is also known as cooling powder, is a traditional beauty product made from fermented rice. The main ingredient of bedak sejuk is rice. It has nutrients and antioxidants that help to relieve acne and brighten skin. The entire process of making the bedak sejuk takes approximately 45 days. Some people use this white, teardrop-shaped beads as face masks and rinse it off after half an hour. Meanwhile, some people rub the paste over their face and leave it on overnight.
In Balik Pulau, Penang, the Yeoh’s brothers are still making the powder in a traditional way as they are fighting to keep the tradition alive. Lean Seng, which is currently run by Yeoh Siong Huat is the best known brand of bedak sejuk. Lean Seng bedak sejuk is now sold in four countries, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United States.
- The rattan weaver
One of the most remarkable rattan weavers left in Penang is Seang Hin Leong Rattan and Bamboo Crafts. Seang Hin Leong is located at Beach Street. It offers rattan baskets, handicrafts, rattan furniture, and even bird cage and toys. The weaving of rattan has been around for decades now and these furnitures are long-lasting.
Each product is carefully hand woven by Sim Buck Teik and Sim Chew Poh. Sim Buck Teik is the third generation owner and was awarded the Living Heritage Treasure of Penang 2009 for his life-long efforts in maintaining this beautiful craftsmanship in Penang. Meanwhile, the shop is currently in its 4th generation of ownership under Sim Chew Poh.
- The Nyonya beaded shoe maker
The Kasut Manek is a Peranakan footwear with its shoe cover made entirely of hand stitched beads. The beaded shoes are traditionally worn with the Nyonya kebaya and sarong. These custom-made Nyonya beaded shoes are necessities to the traditional Nyonyas. In addition, they are compliments to weddings and important occasions. This fine workmanship is very time-consuming because of the tiny-sized plastic beads that have to be sewn together to create the designs. Creating a pair can take up to at least 3 months.
Tan Kok Oo is one of a few artisans in Penang making traditional handmade Nyonya beaded shoes. His shophouse is located at Armenian Street and has been making the kasut manek since the 1970s. On the other hand, Nyonya Lilian Tong is also a beaded shoe-makers. She even offers kasut manek workshops that will teach the travellers how to bead their own Nyonya shoes.
- Traditional songkok maker
Songkok is a traditional headwear worn by Muslim men during important religious and festive occasions in Malaysia. For instance, Hari Raya, weddings, official functions and weekly prayers to the mosque. The only songkok maker left in the city is Haja Mohideen Mohammed Shariff. The 73-year-old Haja is continuing his father’s legacy as a songkok maker since 1962. His songkok shop is located at King Street. Despite most songkok providers having adopted modern machinery for mass production, Haja still keeps everything handmade with the sewing machine.
Making a beautiful songkok is complicated. Hence, Haja is lucky to have his one and only son-in-law who is interested in songkok making and willing to help him in the business. Raja of Perlis Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Syed Putra Jamalullail, former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and several cabinet ministers are among those who have ordered his songkok.
- Traditional signboard carver
The traditional signboards are often seen at traditional Chinese businesses. These signboards can be found at the entrance or inside of the shops and houses. The tradition has been brought over from China. The Chinese characters on the board are typically gold in color and the boards will either be black, red or green. The process requires good carving and calligraphy skills as well as precision.
Kok Ah Wah is a master in traditional carved signboards. He is the last of his generation to continue the family trade. However, he has eagerly passed on his skills to local and foreign students, hoping that his craft will continue to survive in the 21st century. Meanwhile, Lee Chee Cheng is also one of the traditional signboard carvers that stands out in this era. Both cravers keep the traditional method by hand-making signboards carving to preserve its human touch.
- Ancient seal engraver
Before the modern methods of stamping, the Chinese seal engraving stamps were used by businessmen, traders, and calligraphy artists as a form of signature. Stampings on artworks and official documents with engraved stones had been practiced in China for almost 3000 years. It is now a prominent tradition, arts and culture among the Chinese.
Ng Chai Tiam is a master in personalising seal engravings using cut-out stone. He would carve out the bottom of the stone chops that have been imported from China with precision. The process requires a magnifying glass to make sure the stamp is as detailed as possible. Chai Tiam’s handmade seals proved to be a cultural preservation of a thousand-year-old practice. In 2009, the Art of Chinese Seal Engraving was inscribed on the United Nations Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
- Joss stick maker
Joss stick is a type of incense. It is a thin wooden stick covered in a substance that is burned to produce a pleasant smell. In Chinese tradition, burning joss sticks in temples is a ritual to pray for blessings. Lee Beng Chuan is one of the last few joss stick makers in Penang although most joss sticks are mass-produced in factories now.
Starting in his 20’s, Lee Beng Chuan has been mastering the craft of handmade joss sticks for over 70 years. Beng Chuan learned joss stick-making on his own as he observed how the joss sticks were made in factories. As one of George Town’s famous living heritage, Beng Chuan makes his joss sticks at the pre-war shophouse located near to the Goddess of Mercy Temple. He is currently passing down his knowledge and skills to his son and daughter-in-law to ensure the tradition remains alive.
- Wooden clogs maker
Wooden clogs used to be a common item in many households in the 1970s, especially before the rubber slippers took over. It is a very old type of footwear. These clogs are known as ‘kah kiah’ in Hokkien. They were worn by Baba Nyonyas, Chinese, Indians and Malays. The wooden clogs are unisex and there is no left or right side. They are usually painted in red enhanced with flowers, thus, they are used as decorations during Chinese weddings to represent good fortune.
There are only two clog makers left in Penang. Tan Yang Ling is a professional clog maker from Bukit Mertajam. Yang Ling started to learn making clogs at the age of 12. With over 55 years of experience, he is able to produce 40 to 50 clogs per day. Besides, Eng Ai Tee is another experienced clog maker at Siam Road. She started making clogs after a trip to the Netherlands to visit her daughter in 2008. Hence, most of her crafts are not ordinary footwear but they are mini clogs for decoration.
- Stonemason and tombstone engraver
Before the emergence of technology, stonemason and tombstone engravers struggled with simple tools such as hammers and chisels to shape the huge granite stones into the desired tombstone size. Back in the day, craving a tombstone will require at least seven to eight carvers. Now, it can be carried out by a single skilled carver.
Today, Yeoh Gim Huat may be the last man standing in the traditional stone engraving community. He carves a range of Chinese, Muslim and Christian tombstones seven days a week. He now uses modern machines to cut the stones while a computerised sandblasting system engraves the words. Though the process is being done with technology, Gim Huat manually paints the carved characters with paint. In short, the finishing details are still done by hand.
- The paper oblation craftsman
According to Chinese tradition, miniature paper replicas of houses, servants and worldly possessions are burnt as offerings to the newly deceased to accompany them on their new life in the afterworld. Besides, the paper oblation craftsman also makes giant paper effigies of Chinese gods which are used to commemorate deities’ birthdays and religious festivals.
Penang has a number of oblation makers. Loh Ah Ban and Gary Lee Bok Guan are among the skilled craftsmen who continue to earn a living the same way that generations before them have done. The process of making these paper effigies is long and requires extreme attention to details. Though the process is dull and tiring, Ah Ban and Gary continue to deliver top quality in every piece of their product with their hand.