The Scent of Penang According to a Fragrance Master

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The fragrance of a place often evokes memories, and with that in mind, Penang native Josh Lee has embarked on a journey to tell the story of his hometown in scent rather than in word or song. Manveen Maan has a chat with the ebullient fragrance master and catches a whiff of something amazing.

It has been said that a scent can unlock and bring back memories. As the creator of the world’s fi rst heritage city fragrance, this is exactly what perfumier Josh Lee is counting on.

A unisex fragrance aimed at tourists and locals alike, the George Town Eau de Toilette is Josh’s first foray into “heritage scents.” After failing to find a suitable souvenir for his friends at the end of their Malaysian holiday, Josh decided to create his own gift, one that would be unique to his country. “I wanted my friends to remember Penang long after their visit,” he says. “That was when I came up with the idea of a fragrance based on the heritage of Penang.When I realised such a product was not available, I decided to make it myself.”

After gaining a place in ISIPCA (Versailles, France), the top perfumery school in France, Josh learnt how to create and formulate perfumes, from expert fragrance makers and historians. Upon completing his tutelage, this former chemistry graduate returned to Malaysia armed with a veritable taskforce of perfume-concocting knowledge. “It was such a great experience. I learnt about more than 200 ingredients that are often used to concoct perfumes, and the impact they have in a perfume formulation,” he says. “I also learnt to memorise the smell of each ingredient and how to create different type of perfumes from the aromatic, oriental, fruity, and floral families.”

Having been lucky enough to have always been surrounded by different kinds of scents, Josh felt Penang was the perfect location to name a heritage perfume after. “When I was in France, I discovered there were many perfume brands based on cities, such as YSL Paris and Burberry London. Malaysia had none of these so I thought it would be great to come up with one specific to Penang, due to its rich and varied history,” he says.

Seeking inspiration from his surroundings, Josh embarked on a year-long research project to come up with the perfect blend of smells. This talented scent master did not have to go very far to find a muse for his fragrance. Digging into memories from his school days, Josh found an array of distinctive smells he knew he wanted to incorporate. “I went to a 160-year-old heritage school (St. Xavier) that was right next to the ocean. I would sit in class and get intoxicated by the smell of the sea. It was refreshing, cooling, and just a wee bit salty,” he says.

“Every perfume has a story,” he explains further. “George Town used to be a popular trading port for spices. Imagine a merchant in colonial times sitting at the jetty at dawn, drinking bergamot tea, and waiting for the ships carrying spices to arrive. Now imagine that the ship has docked and the aroma of spices fills the air as they unload the goods.Then the merchant takes a walk through the hibiscus bushes that surround the wooden colonial homes. All these scents are uniquely George Town. “

Classified as a citrus aromatic fragrance, it is understand to see how Josh has used the components to create a tropical, refreshing mixture. “The scent starts with the freshness of bergamot and green tea in aquatic tones of seawater. Followed by a spicy kick of cardamom and cinnamon, it eventually leads to a crisp and luminous floral heart of rose and hibiscus,” he states. “The sharp notes of the spices are then softened by a base of sandalwood, musk, and patchouli. Much like the story behind it, George Town EDT evokes a sense of warmth and nostalgia.”

Surprisingly, Josh reveals that creating the physical product was not only the easiest part of the project, it was actually the quickest. “The most challenging part is coming up with a fragrance profi le. Once that is done, the physical creation follows quite quickly,” he discloses. “In a perfume, there are three types of notes – the top note, heart note, and base note. Depending on the volatility, some components emerge quicker than base notes. Base notes are heavier and last longer which is why the smell keeps changing. ”


Once he had the make of the perfume down pat, Josh focused on the design and packaging of the fragrance.The geometrically-shaped glass bottle displays the sea-like, aqua green colour of the perfume and is topped off with a wooden cap, symbolising the heavy use of wood in heritage buildings. Housed in a box made from recycled paper, the packaging carries a distinctly rustic feel. “The fragrance box is really unique,” he says. “It has pictures of heritage buildings in Penang on it including City Hall, Khoo Kongsi Temple, Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, and St Anne’s Church. “

So what is in store for this gifted scent master? “More heritage fragrances!” he laughs. “I want to promote the culture of Malaysia and I think a heritage perfume is an interesting way of doing that.When tourists travel they love to shop and perfume is something people buy all the time – what better way is there to promote Malaysia than through a scent you can wear time and time again?”

Particularly adept at creating unisex fragrances, it comes as no surprise that Josh’s future projects are likely to involve a mix of lighter and heavier scents: “My fragrance will always be based on Malaysian culture and heritage, with both fl oral and woody scents. I would also like to create a Peranakan or Nyonya perfume. I think they are uniquely Malaysian – from their culture, to their food, to the way the dress.”

Always up for a challenge, the ever-adventurous Josh is not one to play by a set of rules when it comes to crafting timeless fragrances. “I want to be able to create perfumes that will continue to live for many years to come.When Chanel No.5 was created in 1924, it was a scent like no other – completely distinctive, yet its popularity never waned and it is still very much in demand today,” he says. “Perfume is an art, there are no limitations.”

Source: Penang International April 2013 – May 2013

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