Monday, July 23, 2012

'Uncle' Lee, the joss-stick maker

A close-up of the joss-sticks  
 Uncle Lee putting the sandalwood dough through a stick
 as he sits on a stool in front of his shop off Stewart Lane, Penang

A moment to reflect: Uncle Lee's business relies quite a bit on the weather - if the skies
are clear, he'd be able to produce more joss-sticks. If it's cloudy skies, he might have to call it a day,
thus limiting the number of joss-sticks he could produce, and ultimately, affecting his income.

He was rolling the dough when I noticed his hands. 
Wrinkly, these hands have produced hundreds of thousand of joss-sticks
in Uncle Lee's lifetime until now. I decided to take a shot as he sat there, possibly
wondering why would his hands being the focus of my attention :)

One of the final processes of making the joss-sticks: the smoothing process where 
Uncle Lee uses a board to gently roll the sticks to get them into shape.

A humble shop house that has been home to Uncle Lee and his wife for over 70 years.

A quick meal with his wife as Uncle Lee takes a breather in the morning.
Despite the small size, the place is a treasure trove of memories.

It's been awhile since I last went walking around the streets of George Town for photography. So, on last Monday, I did what I've been missing all the time. On a bright Monday morning, I met 'Uncle' Lee at his shop off Stewart Lane in Penang. In fact, the shop is just a stone's throw away from the Goddess of Mercy (Kuan Yin) temple. 

I started chatting with Uncle Lee after introducing myself; he told me how he has been living at the exact shop house for over 70 years. The house, in fact, does not belong to him. According to him, the house belongs to a local businessman and philanthropist, Yeap Chor Ee. For my fellow Penangites, you might have heard of this gentleman, or even familiar with the road that was named after him. 

From my conversation with Uncle Lee (who is over 80 years old), he is proud of his joss-stick making legacy as his joss-sticks are meticulously handmade using imported Australian sandalwood, a stark contrast from the mass-produced (by machines) joss-sticks that are widely used in Chinese temples. I took a whiff of the joss-sticks, and the smell was really pleasant. 

Well, this is just the beginning of a mini personal photography project I'm embarking on. I spent almost 2 hours with Uncle Lee on that morning but I know, my photographic journey on this has just started. I appreciate him allowing me to take a peep into his life; how he struggles against the commercialized world, how is aged body and eyesight are slowly but surely taking their toll, and how to live in dignity despite hardships. 

He told me sometimes tourists or visitors would hand him several ringgit as a form of donation, but being a proud man, he refused. I can see he wants only to rely on himself, and not wait for hand-outs from others.

I respect his resilience and honesty, and I hope to be back again someday soon to have a chat with him as I watch him roll the sandalwood dough into miniature joss-sticks. And at the same time, I would have my camera ready with me as I document this legacy.

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