Balik Pulau – Where Cottage Industries Still Survive

There are many small and traditional family businesses located in the sleepy hamlet of Balik Pulau. Those that thrive do so by being small scale and relying on family and a handful of workers. Penang Monthly visits three of these enterprises.

Faridah’s Kuih Bahulu

Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, kuih bahulu is a local favourite. The cake also plays a significant role in many celebrations, such as Chinese New Year, and is a popular favour at Malay weddings.

Since 2002, Faridah Ali has been producing and selling this kuih. “I started the business with friends at first before running it by myself,” she says.

Faridah Ali.

“The idea began from an initiative by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, under the Women’s Development Group (Kumpulan Perkembangan Wanita) project that provides courses and seminars on business and marketing to enable local women to start their own businesses,” says Faridah.

Flour, eggs, sugar and vanilla plus years of experience and expertise are the ingredients needed to produce the delicious kuih bahulu.

“The process takes several steps, beginning with kneading the mixture of flour, eggs and sugar. I sometimes put in a little bit of flavour, which varies depending on the type of kuih bahulu I’m making. Then the dough is fitted into moulds and baked in the oven,” said Faridah.

She also has a variety of moulds to match the needs of customers: “People can request kuih bahulu with unique designs and colours for special occasions.”

Delicious kuih bahulu packed and ready to be sold.

Faridah usually makes 600 to 700 pieces of kuih bahulu twice a week, but this amount can increase during the holiday season. To meet demand, she employs two helpers from the same community. Each has their own duty: kneading, baking, and packaging. Faridah hopes to one day pass on her skills and expertise to her children if any of the six decide to take up the business.

Address: Sebelah 220, MK D, Jalan Baru, Balik Pulau, 11000, Pulau Pinang

Chop Kim Hoa Belacan

Heading off from the town centre towards Pulau Betong, we meet Lo Eng Joo at his residence-cum-factory where half a dozen workers process the popular belacan (shrimp paste) used in Malay, Chinese, and Nyonya cuisines. Jointly owned by four siblings, Chop Kim Hoa Belacan Factory is a third-generation family business.

“My grandfather started this and ran a small factory in Batu Feringghi. It was then passed on to my father who moved here. We have been doing this for about 60 years now,” says Lo.

Packed belacan.

“We mostly cater to the Penang market, but we also export and distribute all over Peninsular Malaysia, all the way to Johor. Some clients buy in bulk and export to Australia, England, and Holland. That’s how we spread, I think. By word of mouth.”

Lo explains the process of making belacan, from krill to block: “The krill are first caught by fishing boats and immediately mixed with salt. Upon reaching the factory, the catch is placed on a sieve to drain out the water and later spread out to dry under the sun for about three hours. After the dried krill are passed through a grinder, they are stored to ferment for two weeks. We repeat this process three times. After two to four months, we take them out to dry and grind again. The thick paste will then be moulded, cut, and packaged into rectangular blocks.”

The entire process can take from six to 12 months.

“There are methods that can produce belacan faster, but the taste is not as thick; the scent and colour is also different. We prefer to ensure the highest quality,” says Lo.

“We also need to watch out for contamination,” he was quick to add. “The presence of mud or fish will change the product’s taste, smell and texture.”

Lo Eng Joo.

With increasing demand and the fact that every 3kg of krill only yields 1kg of belacan, they get krill from outside the state, from as far away as Terengganu. Even that, Lo says, is not sufficient for their usage. On top of that, production is also vulnerable to bad weather: “Rain slows down manufacturing.”

In spite of that, the business has been a success. “It helps that we all stay in this neighbourhood – all four siblings reside in Balik Pulau,” says Lo.

Does he plan to pass it down to the fourth generation? “It depends whether they want to. My children work elsewhere for now. One of my brother’s sons is working here. When they were small, they all helped out after school. So we’ll have to see lah.”

Address: No. 390, MK. 7, Pulau Betong, Pulau Pinang, 11020 Balik Pulau, Malaysia

Lo demonstrating how belacan is made.

Lean Seng Bedak Sejuk

Situated near the jetty in Kuala Jalan Baru, the Yeoh family has run the Lean Seng Bedak Sejuk business for over three decades. Bedak sejuk, or cooling powder, has a cooling effect on the body and is said to remove skin blemishes and alleviate itchiness.

Abdul Rahman’s house.

Beads of bedak sejuk are then left under the sun to dry.

There was a change of guard early this year when Yeoh Siong Huat took over from his father, Yeoh Keng Beng.

“My brother and I are the second generation. Our dad, helped by our mum, has been doing this for 30 years. It’s plenty of work.”

“Plenty” is an understatement. Though making bedak sejuk requires only rice and water, it is a tedious process that takes up to a month.

“First, broken rice is washed and soaked for a month to ferment. We have to change the water every week because of the smell,” explains Siong Huat.

“After that, we wash the rice and grind it. We use a cloth to filter the fermented rice pulp and hang it out to dry for 10 hours. After that, a piping bag is used to squeeze the pulp into tiny tear-shaped drops on a tray. We leave it to sun for one to two hours a day over four or five days – we can’t put it out all day because it will crack under high temperatures. If it rains, this step can take up to two weeks. I do this from 8am till noon, non-stop. I can’t even eat because I have to watch the weather and also keep an eye on the timing of the process.”

The commitment is extraordinary for the tiny returns it brings. Siong Huat says it is enough to meet their needs, though not by much. “We can’t afford to use an oven because of the electricity bill.”

It also doesn’t seem financially sustainable to hire labourers given their small-scale production and their wish to keep prices low.

“Rice is also getting expensive, but we can’t sell our goods expensively. Others sell at a higher price, like RM10 per bottle compared to our RM4 per bottle. We sell them from our house. Some people buy from us and distribute elsewhere, like Chowrasta Market or Malacca.”

Keng Beng adds, “We use pandan leaves for natural fragrance, unlike others who buy stock from us and then add perfume.”

Siong Huat left his factory job late last year and will now continue with the business for the foreseeable future. “In the old days, my father couldn’t do much alone – people would place their orders but we couldn’t take too many of them. We do not export to other countries because the fees are costly. So for now, we cater to local demand and loyal customers.”

Their commitment to this traditional, homemade trade is awe-inspiring. At a time when cosmetic products are expensive, foreign and artificial we have here a fatherand- son team making their own bedak sejuk and selling it to fellow Penangites at little profit.

Address: Lean Seng Bedak Sejuk, Kuala Jalan Bahru, 11000, Balik Pulau

Nidhal Mujahid is a sociopolitical analyst at Penang Institute. He loves art and music and used to play the angklung. He graduated from the International Islamic University of Malaysia with a degree in Political Science (Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Science).
Ooi Kok Hin is an INTP who lives to write and writes to live. Follow him at https://www.

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