Charcoal factory in Kuala Sepetang
The charcoal factory in Matang (Kuala Sepetang) is located right in the middle of a spectacular mangrove forest. Kuala Sepetang is located in north Malaysia, near the old town of Taiping.
Mr. Chuah's charcoal factory, mangrove trees waiting to be processed
Mangrove forest is an important part of the ecosystems around the world and in Malaysia there is fortunately some left. There is a small mangrove park near Lumut: Taman Paya Bakau.
The mangrove forest around Kuala Sepetang is much bigger and some parts are now part of a nature reserve. It borders also the nearby Kuala Gula bird sanctuary, just north from Kuala Sepetang.
The mangrove forest is in many ways important. It protects the inlands from floods, creates an ecosystem unique in animals and plant life. And it creates employment for many people living here because of it's mix of salt sea water and fresh water coming from the rivers and rain fall.
Obviously the waters in Kuala Sepetang are the domain of the fishermen, who catch fish at sea and breed fish in fish farms. Cockles are another way of income for the fishermen.
Mr. Chuah explains about the production of charcoal
I was lucky to visit the charcoal factory of Mr. Chuah Chow Aun. He is the second generation in the family who own a charcoal factory since the 1930's. Mr. Chuah is a gifted story teller and it is hard not to listen to his passionate explanations of the charcoal production process.
It all start with harvesting the mangrove trees. The trees need a certain size which is reached after 30 years. When an area is harvested, new trees are planted and that area is not touched then for 30 years.
Deep in the mangrove forest collecting mangrove trees for charcoal production,
here is more about that journey deep into the mangrove forest
The trees are transported with the high tide into the factory. Trees can not be processed with the bark so workers clean the trees. Then the trees are transported to igloo like cones were the baking process starts.
These cones are all handmade without any architecture drawing design. The master building simply builds them still "out of memory and experience".
A cone is used for around 15 years. Once the cone is finished, the logs are brought inside and heated. The process is in fact very simple and complicated at the same time.
It's all about the right temperature, so the process have to be monitored 24 hours a day.
The logs are standing up inside the cone on stone. Then the cone is almost closed apart of a small hole where a fire is burning. This fire heats up the cone and water will start to vaporize from the logs. Inside the cone there is now a temperature of 220°C.
The first stage of this process takes around 8 to 10 days. The log condition inside the cone is determined by the feel of the smoke that comes out of the holes of the cone. Mr. Chuah and his workers have such an experience that they can tell on the feel of the vaporized water how the condition of the log is.
After 10 days the cone is completely shut off and the baking process continues on a temperature of around 83°C. This takes another 12 to 14 days. Then the cooling process starts, this takes another 8 days before the hole in the cone is opened.
All the water is now vaporized out of the wood and the charcoal should look shiny black. The workers now get the charcoal out of the still hot cone and it is sorted, put in bags or transported in a whole log. Most of the charcoal of Mr. Chuah's factory is exported to Japan. A minor part is used in Malaysia.
Producing charcoal is a time consuming process. Most of the process is manually done. People in Kuala Sepetang, Matang and other small villages in the area have a living from the mangrove charcoal factory. At the moment, Mr. Chuah told me, there are around 80 people working in his factory and he has around 100 cones in operation.
Preparing the mangrove trees for further processing is hard work
Some of those people pack the charcoal in packs of 5 kg. Every little piece is manually packed and then transported.
Nothing is not used
As in all production processes there are some waste products. In the case of charcoal there are some parts which for many different reasons can be not perfect. These parts are sold locally. In the past charcoal was used instead of toothpaste! And the charcoal moist is believed by locals to have healing properties. And don't forget that burning charcoal is an excellent way to keep the mosquitoes away!
Mr. Chuah's charcoal factory in Kuala Sepetang
I went twice to Mr. Chuah's charcoal factory. At first, when coming to his factory I wasn't so sure if this would be an interesting visit. The process of producing of charcoal turned out far more interesting then I expected, not in the last place of the excellent explanations of Mr. Chuah and his younger brother. Just before leaving, they gave us some sweet potatoes which were baked in the charcoal of his factory. I am not much of a potato eater (despite being a Dutchman), but these potatoes were excellent.
A visit to Taiping will not be complete with a visit to Mr. Chuah's charcoal factory. It's actually quite easy to find.
From the motorway, choose Changat Jering junction and follow the direction to Taiping. At the crossroads where you choose right to Taiping, you have to follow the direction to Kuala Sepetang, which is 11 km away. Just before arriving in Kuala Sepetang you will find the Mangrove forest sanctuary. Opposite of the forest is Mr. Chuah's factory, a highly recommended visit!