A faint and fragrant scent of sandalwood emanates from a nondescript unit at Ang Mo Kio Industrial Park where three elderly men shuffle about, each absorbed in his own task.
With experienced hands, one of them rolls bamboo sticks in sandalwood powder before dipping them in water to ensure the powder clings. The other two supervise machines processing and regurgitating joss sticks.
Automation and industrial ovens may have reduced the need for manual labour for joss stick company Aik Che Hiong, but the family-run business has stayed true to tradition.
“If you want quality products, it must be made from the best ingredients with your own hands,” said 66-year-old co-owner Koh Cheng Joo, whose father established the brand in 1938.
Since its inception, the company has stuck to its handmade roots and continues to distribute to shops across the island. This year, it dipped its toes into ecommerce to keep pace with the changing retail scene.
Spearheading this digital journey is Cheng Joo’s daughter Audree, who set up Aik Che Hiong’s social media accounts and website.
“Demand won’t disappear overnight, but we need to keep up with the times to remain sustainable,” she said.
Cheng Joo, who now runs the business with his older brother, shared fondly about the early years when his father set up shop on Pekin Street in Chinatown – which is now Far East Square. They chose the name “Aik Che Hiong”, which means a single incense in Chinese.
On a stretch of street where other trades such as hawkers and furniture makers thrived, the business was in good company and growing with its neighbours. But soon, they needed more space.
Following World War II, they relocated to a few kampungs (Malay for “villages”) between the 1960s and 1980s, where there were acres of space to work in, compared to their small shop previously.
But mass production of joss sticks at the new sites was also not ideal. As machinery was not prevalent then, they dried joss sticks in the open ground before packing them. This meant the weather could wreak havoc on the manufacturing schedule.
For Cheng Joo, who helped out in his father’s business before joining national service, he recalled having to scramble to bring the joss sticks indoors during rainy days.
“Our work hours were fixed back then. Because we needed the sun to dry our products, we could only work from sunrise to sunset,” he said in Mandarin.
Distribution and delivery were also tough, as Singapore’s road infrastructure was not as connected then.
“In those days, we delivered joss sticks by bicycles in bulk. Sometimes we would have to cycle to places as far as Jalan Kayu,” he added.
With Singapore’s urbanisation, the kampungs disappeared and the company moved to the flatted factory estate in Ang Mo Kio in the 1980s.
Welcoming a new era
Despite the changes, customer loyalty has never wavered.
The business prides itself on using top quality ingredients, mainly sandalwood, which is known for its calming scent that increases concentration. And customers can distinguish such incense smells from others, said Audree.
The 40-year-old grew up smelling the different blends made by her father. Today, he still painstakingly experiments with scents to create the perfect mix for customers.
“We introduced floral-infused scents like jasmine for the younger crowd. But our signature blend is a trade secret created by my dad, who continues to make it himself today,” explained Audree.
However, sales have been sliding in recent years as lifestyles change. The younger generation Buddhists and Taoists prefer praying at temples instead of at home, and Aik Che Hiong specialises in selling to homes with altars, she explained.
This trend has also affected other industry players. Some major competitors, established in the 1950s and 1960s, folded as they were unable to keep business running or find successors to take over.
“There is a generation gap, but there is still a need to burn incense. It’s just like rice, even if the dishes change, you still need to have it with your food,” she noted.
While the company kept a positive outlook, it came to a point when the family was “resigned to fate”, believing that there was no way to innovate or improve the business.
But ecommerce offered a new way to market their products, reach new customers and build brand loyalty.
Audree discovered Shoptiq and found that its ease of use and affordability were the perfect bridge to help the business cross the digital divide. It now sells joss sticks in bulk online, while still supplying to shops in Singapore.
“Shoptiq’s website template is simple and easy to use. It also has a supportive team that helped me with more difficult things like coding to spruce up the site,” she added.
The digital drive, however, will not change the business operations. Till today, her father still drives a lorry around the island to deliver goods from 9am to 5pm, six days a week.
“This is my dad’s legacy and we will adapt for as long as it’s sustainable,” she said.
“Brick-and-mortar shops will never go away. What we can do is to adapt to the changing times while keeping our tradition alive.”