A Joss-stick Mill in Tsuen Wan

Recollections of a Visit To a Joss-stick Mill in Tsuen Wan By Dan Waters

The manufacturing of Joss Sticks in Hong Kong is believed to go back at least four centuries. It has also been suggested that the primary industry in incense trees gave Hong Kong its name — namely Heung Kong, meaning ‘fragrant harbour’. But there are few incense trees left in the territory today although good specimens may be seen in the Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve.

Originally, the making of joss sticks was carried out with large stone hammers operated by water power generated by hill streams. Just after the New Territories was ceded from China to Britain, in 1898, in a report by J. H. Stewart Lockhart, Colonial Secretary, sandal-wood mills worked by water power were operating in the various valleys of Tsuen Wan (James Hayes, RASHKBJ, V.16, 1976, P.283). Large stone ‘hammers’ pounded fragrant wood into incense powder. The industry remained prominent in Tsuen Wan up until the 1950s.

In the early 20th century at least two sandal-wood mills were active at Pak Kiu Tsai, between Pun Chung and Wun Yiu, outside Tai Po Market. There were also such mills at Heung Fan Liu just outside Tai Wai in Sha Tin. None of these survived into the 1920s.

Six water wheels were in  operation in Tso Kung Tam, Tsuen Wan, up until the 1930s and it is believed one was still operating in 1952-1953. Large electrically operated grinders were however introduced in the 1960s and three mills, so powered, were still operating, according to Chan Ka Yan (RASHKBJ, V. 29, p.101) in 1987. The construction of the Shing Mun (Jubilee) Reservoir and its associated water channels, completed in 1936, probably affected the force of water in the streams used to power the mills. In the 1940s a new machine had been introduced to make incense coils of the kind you see suspended and smouldering inside temples today.

An Incense Tree (Aquilaria Sinensis) July 2008 Kadoorie Farm

An Incense Tree (Aquilaria Sinensis)
July 2008 Kadoorie Farm

I had the pleasure of going on a Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch outing led by Dr James Hayes, in 1976. At the time, Dr Hayes was a government administrative officer in charge of Tsuen Wan New Town. Our group started from the main road half a mile beyond Tsuen Wan and we walked for about five minutes up a picturesque lane in a valley leading up the lower slopes on Tai Mo Shan. By that time, with grinding done by electrical power, I recall inside the mill, everywhere was thick with incense dust. I have recently corresponded with my good friend James, and he says he remembers the visit very well, and indeed I do too.

As an aside, in January 1955, not long after I had arrived in Hong Kong, I drove around the New Territories for the first time. We were returning to the urban area and I remember looking for Tsuen Wan only to realise we had already passed it! In those days Tsuen Wan was a small market centre largely serving the surrounding villages. The transformation of the New Territories with the development of new towns, over the last half century, has been truly amazing.

Photo courtesy Leung Wing Shing Joss Stick Factory

Photo courtesy Leung Wing Shing Joss Stick Factory

In the middle of the 1950s enough rice was grown in Hong Kong to feed the then Crown Colony for one month of the year. Soon after there was a rapid change to the growing of vegetables. One of the local industries to disappear was of course the making of joss sticks, and the mills in Tsuen Wan were demolished (RASHKBJ V. 19, 1979).

Although the joss-stick industry came to a virtual end in Hong Kong the trade in selling quality sandal-wood fans was active especially in the 1960s and 1970s. On my desk as I type this I have a beautifully carved, fragrant, sandal-wood fan which, for me, conjures up memories of the sandal-wood industry.

I thank Dr James Hayes for his valuable comments on my paper.

Photo courtesy Leung Wing Shing Joss Stick Factory

Photo courtesy Leung Wing Shing Joss Stick Factory


Hayes, James, Growth of a New Town, Tsuen Wan and its People, OUP, 1993, pp. 8, 20 and 21.
Sheung Wan, ed. Sidney C. H. Cheung, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2012, PP. 79 and 81.

Articles published in the journals of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch.

Chan Ka Yan, ‘Joss Stick Manufacturing: A Study of a Traditional Industry in Hong Kong’, V. 29, 1989, PP. 94 –120.
Hayes, James, ‘Sandal Wood Mills at Tsun Wan’, V. 16, 1976, PP. 282—283.
Iu, Kow-Choy, ‘The Cultivation of the Incense Tree (Aquilaria Sinensis), V. 23, 1983, PP. 247—249.

This article was first published in the Indhhk email Newsletter 8 sent out on 19th August 2013.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. A water powered tilt-hammer incense mill
  2. Tsuen Wan Water mill
  3. Export of ‘kuan-hsiang’ 莞香 incense from Hong Kong Ts’un, Aberdeen Harbour – Ming Dynasty
  4. Incense tree Plantation, HK
  5. Incense Trees, Wi-Fi ‘Guard’ device to protect – SCMP article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *