Malaysia's hand-made in­cense craft­work a de­clin­ing art

Kuwait Times - - Lifestyle -

Thou­sands of gi­ant in­cense sticks, many dec­o­rated with dragon heads, line the walls at a Malaysian busi­ness where they are made by hand ahead of the Lu­nar New Year hol­i­day. In the ru­ral town of Kubang Semang, work­ers spend months us­ing a tra­di­tional method to craft the sticks-some as tall as two me­ters (6.5 feet) — be­fore send­ing them to stores. Busi­ness is brisk ahead of Lu­nar New Year cel­e­bra­tions to­wards the end of this month, when peo­ple of Chi­nese de­scent world­wide burn in­cense in tem­ples and at tra­di­tional cer­e­monies.

Malaysia is a Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­try but is home to a sub­stan­tial eth­nic Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion, and the hol­i­day is marked in many places. Ong Chin Chye, who runs the busi­ness in a series of wood and cor­ru­gated iron build­ings, said his col­or­ful hand-made sticks look a lot bet­ter than those churned out by ma­chines. “With ma­chines, can you make the dragon head like this?” the 60-year-old asked AFP, point­ing to his in­tri­cately carved cre­ations. Ong’s sticks are pri­mar­ily made from saw­dust, us­ing a mix of lo­cal­ly­grown “mer­anti” tim­ber-a com­mon hard­wood in South­east Asia-and aro­matic agar­wood. These are com­bined with water to make a sticky paste that forms the sticks.

The next 12 months will be the Year of the Rat-the first crea­ture in the Chi­nese zo­diac’s 12-year cy­cle but Ong said his buy­ers weren’t keen on de­pic­tions of the whiskered ro­dent. “Peo­ple don’t want rats. They steal food, and that’s not good,” he laughed. On the other hand, dragons-also one of the zo­diac an­i­mals are ever-pop­u­lar sym­bols of power, strength and good luck in Asian cul­ture. Ong said his sticks typ­i­cally sell for be­tween eight and 80 ring­git ($2 to $20) apiece, depend­ing on qual­ity and size. As well as Lu­nar New Year, he makes them for other ma­jor Chi­nese fes­tiv­i­ties.

He es­ti­mated there were at most 30 in­cense-mak­ing busi­nesses like his across Malaysia, adding the in­dus­try had been de­clin­ing in re­cent years. Young peo­ple “don’t want to work these jobs, it’s hard work... there is no air-con­di­tion­ing”, he said. Many in­cense sticks sold nowa­days in South­east Asia come from over­seas, par­tic­u­larly China. More than 60 per­cent of Malaysia’s 32 mil­lion peo­ple are eth­nic Malay Mus­lims while around a quar­ter are eth­nic Chi­nese, and the coun­try is also home to a size­able mi­nor­ity of peo­ple of In­dian de­scent.

A worker paint­ing gi­ant in­cense sticks at a fac­tory ahead of the Lu­nar New Year cel­e­bra­tions.

— AFP pho­tos

A man sell­ing gi­ant in­cense sticks and other dec­o­ra­tions ahead of the Lu­nar New Year cel­e­bra­tions.

A worker dec­o­rat­ing a gi­ant in­cense sticks at a fac­tory ahead of the Lu­nar New Year cel­e­bra­tions.

A worker pre­par­ing dragon fig­ure dec­o­ra­tions for gi­ant in­cense sticks at a fac­tory.

This pic­ture shows a worker dec­o­rat­ing a gi­ant in­cense sticks at a fac­tory ahead of the Lu­nar New Year cel­e­bra­tions in Kubang Semang, Malaysia’s north­ern vil­lage of Pe­nang.

A worker ar­rang­ing gi­ant in­cense sticks at a fac­tory.

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