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The Incense Makers: Malang, East Java

We have seen them being used at ceremonies in Bali and other parts of Indonesia, together with offerings in Canang Sari, and many of you probably burn the odd stick at home.

Being married to a Chinese-Indonesian, the fragrance of burning incense is always lingering at home. But what I didn’t know was how these perfumed sticks were made. Wahyoe Boediwardhana reports from Malang on the Incense Makers in that city:

Incense maker’s not so sweet
Wahyoe Boediwardhana, Malang

The sky darkens as Sumarah hurriedly picks up thousands of incense sticks, the ends of which have been smeared with teak sawdust paste, from a bamboo drying rack. Rain is imminent, and the 33-year-old villager from Petungsewu, Malang, knows that if the sticks get wet, her hours of hard work could be ruined in moments.

“If the sun is shining brightly, the drying process will take a whole day, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” Sumarah says, wiping the sweat on her forehead.

Her tight work schedule means she needs to store the semi-processed sticks now so she can start working on new ones. “(If not) I won’t be paid in time because I still won’t have completed my work,” she said.

Earning a low Rp 300,000 (US$30) a month, or Rp 650 per kilogram of incense she produces, Sumarah had initially planned to use the extra money to buy something for her two children.

Demand for incense normally increases a little as ethnic Indonesian Chinese celebrate Chinese New Year, however, Sumarah says this year, orders have remained steady.

In Wagir district, Sumarah’s boss, Nadiyono, the owner of the CV Sumber Surya incense factory, says the most demand from incense comes from Bali. “(With Chinese New Year) there is still normally an increase in orders. Let’s say around 10 percent more than ordinary days.”

Operating since 1990, the company employs around 70 workers and produces around 45 tons of semi-processed incense a month, with Bali its main market destination, followed by Jakarta, Surabaya and Malang.

With a sale price of between Rp 160,000 (US$16.00) and Rp 220,000 for every 40-kg unit, Nadiyono believes Indonesian-made incense will stay competitive for the next 10 years at least.

Although she is paid relatively little for her work, Sumarah is one of four workers who specializes in producing small, 22-cm incense sticks.

“At a glance, the process looks easy, but in reality not every worker can produce the small incense due to the intricate process. For instance, the sawdust paste could roll and become uneven in the hands of a novice. That’s why they (the four workers) get higher wages,” a senior employee, Bambang Supandi, said.

When bamboo raw materials arrive from suppliers, they are cut and sliced into 22, 29 and 32-cm lengths and weighed. The sticks are then tied into bunches and their ends dipped in coloring agents — green, red, yellow, brown — or left their natural color, depending on the order.

“For Confucian followers, each color has its own meaning according to the respective religious ceremony. But not for the Balinese, who only want them to be fragrant and cheap. That’s why our sales in Bali are good,” Nadiyono said.

After drying the sticks, workers then soak the ends in water before they are dipped in glue. While the sticks are still gluey, their ends are coated with sawdust made from teak or coconut shell. The final step is to smear the incense with fragrance, a process usually done by the buyers.