As Malaysia battled the pandemic this year, its anxious citizens sought guidance from religious deities, with many generating small plumes of smoke in their homes in honour of these gods.
For more than 1,000 years in Buddhist and Taoist cultures, people have lit incense as a means of connecting with higher powers in times of crisis.
While the coronavirus ravaged the world, a 93-year-old man continued labouring in his workshop on the Malaysian island of Penang, crafting handmade incense, exactly as he’d done for 70 years.
Penang once brimmed with independent joss-stick-makers, but factories now dominate this industry, leaving Lee Beng Chuan as the island’s last incense artisan.
Not only did he supply his community with incense, he also spent years teaching tourists to craft joss sticks. But this month, his long and accomplished career ended as he died in Georgetown, Penang’s capital.
On December 6, his son Lee Chin Poh announced online that his father had “left us peacefully”. This Facebook post prompted dozens of condolence messages, not only from family and friends, but also tourists from distant nations who had visited his studio.
The elderly artisan was busy in his Penang workshop until days before his death, his son said, and Lee had recently released a new, limited-edition form of sandalwood incense.
It was in this small studio, in Georgetown’s Unesco-listed Old Town area, that I met Lee two years ago. For 65 years, he operated out of a modest space next to the Taoist Goddess of Mercy Temple, where his incense creations have been burnt for decades.
After I walked past this temple, I spotted Lee perched on a stool, bent over, deep in concentration. He had a paintbrush in hand and was decorating a huge joss stick, more than a metre long and as thick as a can of soda.
With delicate strokes, he was painting a multicoloured Chinese dragon on to this blood-red incense stick. It was this artistry, this personal touch, that set Lee’s incense apart from the stock-standard sticks mass-produced by factories.
Before I introduced myself – he had not yet noticed me, so focused was he on his work – I paused to read the newspaper clippings about Lee attached to the front wall of his workshop.
He was not only a local celebrity, he was known across Malaysia, thanks to regular appearances on local TV and in local and international newspapers and magazines.
Eventually, I politely disturbed him. He smiled warmly and waved me into his workshop. While Lee did not speak much English, his son was on hand to translate. Together, with the help of a tourist brochure about their business, they explained Lee’s life, career and skills.
Born in Penang, Lee had lived through the island’s bombing and invasion by Japan during the Second World War. When the war ended, Lee searched for an occupation. A local factory owner allowed him to watch his workers making joss sticks, and he quickly learnt this trade via observation. Soon he opened his own incense business and gained a loyal clientele, owing to his unique designs.
Lee explained that the ingredients he used were simple – sandalwood powder, sawdust and a natural adhesive he called “sticky powder”. He placed them in a basin, added water, and used his hands to knead this mixture into a thick dough.
He would then take a clump of this concoction, wrap it around a bamboo stick, and stretch it until it covered the upper part of the stick evenly. The last step prior to decoration was to place a tray of 96 sticks in the sun for two days until they dried.
Despite being busy, Lee found time to teach travellers this careful process. Visiting his historic workshop became a popular tourist activity in Georgetown, which once brimmed with traditional artisans, few of whom still remain.
His son told me earlier this year that their business had been hurt by the lack of international tourists in Penang because of the pandemic. But he and his father had continued crafting incense for local customers.
He said Lee was so concerned about fellow Penang residents amid this health crisis that he’d given out incense for free and written out Chinese calligraphy blessings for neighbours and friends.
Lee's family thought making incense was an important task in the middle of this global catastrophe. Most of their customers believed that incense rituals could “calm one’s mind and ward off sickness”.
Burning incense is a central element of the Buddhist prayer process, says Dr Yu Tao, a Chinese studies professor at the University of Western Australia. He says different schools of Buddhism use incense in slightly different ways.
The most common method is to light the incense and then kneel before a statue of Buddha, while allowing the stick to slowly burn.
“Many Buddhists believe burning incense links them to creatures in Buddhism that have supernatural powers,” he explains.
“They ask these deities for assistance during hard times. Burning incense can demonstrate to Buddha that they are sincere in their prayer to him. When Covid-19 arrived there was so much suffering in the world and uncertainty that I think Buddhists naturally wanted help from Buddhist powers. And so then they burnt incense.”
Tao says burning incense is also viewed as a means of cleaning and purifying a home or temple. This is especially important amid the pandemic.
“Incense has always had a link to being a sanitiser,” Tao says. “There is a belief for Buddhists that incense smoke cleans the air by making it smell better. So that adds to its value during the coronavirus because it is comforting for people to feel air quality has been improved.”
Lee’s tireless work offered such comfort to countless Penang residents across his seven-decade career. Yet it was in his final year on this planet, as the world fought a deadly virus, that his joss sticks became more valued than ever.
Now, one imagines his soul following the path of incense smoke, drifting gently into the sky.