Joss Stick Makers: Jakarta, West Java

Smoke from burning joss sticks is believed to carry prayers to the deceased when it makes its journey upward into the sky. However, for the Chinese Indonesians who make joss sticks — locally known as hio — life is often tough. “A Buddhist monk once told me joss stick producers can never be successful because they are destined to end up like the things they produce — burnt to the very end,” joss stick maker Soe Siu Kong, better known as A Kong, said recently.

With the help of one of his workers, the 51-year-old was packaging joss sticks in his workshop located down a narrow lane behind Jl. Bandengan Selatan in Pekojan, West Jakarta, Agnes Winarti reports.

Joss sticks are traditionally burnt in front of Buddha statues and other religious deities in Chinese temples. Joss sticks are also sometimes burnt in doorways or open windows to offer prayers to heaven or the gods.

Propelled by the existence of a large Chinese Indonesian community in Jakarta, the joss stick business blossomed before the 1990s. However, as similar products made overseas started flooding the market, local producers such as A Kong felt the pinch.

Today A Kong and his bother Soe Siauw Hong, otherwise known as A Hong, are among a small number of joss stick producers continuing to operate in the capital.

A Kong inherited the business from his late father, Soe Kim Weng, who started making joss sticks with ‘Merak’ (Peacock) brand in 1952.

“I’ve kept the business running mainly because I don’t have any other skills to make a living,” he said.

Only A Kong, the oldest of seven siblings, and A Hong continue to follow in the footsteps of their father, who arrived in Indonesia from China in 1947.

Joss sticks are made from a mixture of water, teak wood powder and a type of sticky powder, with sandalwood perfume added.

A Kong said his father used to get sandalwood from East Timor, but when prices went up he was forced to start using sandalwood-scented perfume instead.

Employing four workers, A Kong produces hand-made joss sticks that are commonly used for special ceremonies, including Chinese New Year.

A Hong produces spiral joss sticks using a semi-automatic machine. Spiral joss sticks are used on a regular basis and can often be found hanging from temple ceilings. They can burn for up to 15 days.

A Hong manufactures joss sticks in his home on Gang Lima Pekojan, which is just a few blocks away from A Kong’s workshop.

Despite the economic uncertainty he faces, A Hong, a 46-year-old father of two, said he wanted to preserve the legacy of his father, who was one of the first joss stick makers in Jakarta.

He said at various times throughout the year demand for joss sticks increased, especially toward Chinese New Year.

“We receive more orders during Chinese New Year and demand can increase by up to 50 percent,” said A Hong.

A Kong said it was difficult to meet the increasing demand as he did not have enough workers.

“I cannot employ more workers as most days the demand is not strong enough,” he said.

Competition is the biggest problem the brothers face in expanding their businesses. Joss sticks from Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore are also flooding the country, making it hard for them to sell too far away from home.

A Kong sells joss sticks to several shops in Petak Sembilan, Glodok and Kota, while A Hong sells his products to temples and individual worshipers around Jakarta, Bogor, Bandung and Sentul.

A Kong said in the heyday of his father’s business, up to 30 workers were employed at any one time. He said his father shipped joss sticks around the country to places such as Lampung and Palembang in Sumatra, Ujung Pandang in Sulawesi, and several cities in Kalimantan.

“The foreign products are more solid and can burn for longer, so it is hard for us to compete,” he said.

A Kong said the 70-centimeter joss sticks he makes burn for six hours, while a similar product from China could burn for up to 15 hours.

Despite the tough competition he faces, A Hong said he still hoped his children would continue the business in the future.

“I hope my boys will continue the business, but I can’t force them to do so if they have another path in life to follow.

“They have the right to choose what is best for them,” he said.