Saturday, July 23, 2016

Reflections of Sarawak, and Oud by Josh Lee

I had never heard of Sarawak before my family went to live there in the early 1990's. Malaysia is divided into two parts. West Malaysia or Peninsular Malaysia, which is what most people are referring to when they speak of the country, is attached to the landmass of Southeast Asia. East Malaysia is on the island of Borneo and consists of the states of Sarawak, Sabah, and the Federal Territory of Lebuan. Indonesia claims the rest of the island of Borneo, other than a small portion under the control of Brunei.

Twenty years ago Sarawak was still a pretty wild place. Our town of Miri butted up to the South China Sea and jungle enclosed the land perimeters. Eco tourism was in its infancy. We were surrounded by the grandeur of nature but one never forgot that Mother Nature had a bite. One night we were at the Boat Club (the only place in town for expats to gather, meet and drink) and mingling with a group of Brits, laughing and drinking as we swatted at the mosquitoes. The next morning the news spread that one of the fellows there the previous night was deathly ill, and by the day's end he had been medevaced to Singapore. By nightfall he was dead, leaving behind a young family. Mosquito bite. Encephalitis.

Our town was on a beautiful beach with magnificent sunsets but we never put a toe in the water the two years we were there. A brother and sister who ventured in for a swim were stung by a huge box jellyfish and died almost instantly.

A friend washing dishes in front of her kitchen window looked out to see her two-year-old son being shoved around the yard by an orangutan. The Iban helper who babysat my three young children was descended from a tribe of  headhunters just a few generations back.

Magnificent two hundred year old trees stood sentry in the nearby rainforest. We woke up one Sunday to hear that a particularly large old tree in a nearby national park we often visited had fallen and flattened a table where five Japanese tourists were having a picnic. All of them dead. Danger sometimes seemed to quiver in the very air around us.

And yet...on weekends my husband and I would take our three young children hiking in the nearby Lambir Hills National Park, crossing streams on sketchy rope bridges, the air humming with the sound of prehistoric insects, and colorful tropical birds flashing through the overhead branches. Our destination was a swimming hole about a mile into the forest. The pool had been carved out of solid rock, drip by drip, and now was bordered on three sides by 100 foot rock walls. In the middle a waterfall cascaded down, providing a great shower or vigorous shoulder massage, depending how you positioned yourself. Butterflies were thick in the air, especially amazingly large blue butterflies which I had never seen before and are unique to Borneo.  My four-year-olds swung on vine branches like baby Tarzans and splashed down in the cool dark water. The air hummed with life and beauty like I had never experienced before. It was literally paradise.

Lambir Hills, though small in size, is considered to be one of the world's most diverse forest ecosystems, and some experts think it may have the greatest level of plant biodiversity in the world. In addition it hosts more than 200 species of birds, flying squirrels, gibbons, odd insects, and multiple other species. The rainforest provided shelter for so many animal species. We were the visitors in the forest; they were the inhabitants. It belonged to them and we were the interlopers. (The situation in Borneo has changed drastically in the last twenty years due to Indonesian oil palm plantations cutting and burning the trees to plant crops. They are decimating the rain forest. I'm not going into it here. It literally breaks my heart, which is all the more reason that Malaysia's protection of these parks is so important.)

The trees are the home to this amazing natural world, and they were also the inspiration for Josh Lee when creating one of his perfumes.  Josh of Josh Lee Fragrances has made it his mission to preserve Malaysia's heritage through scents, and he has given his interpretation of the Malaysian rainforests with his perfume Oud by Josh Lee. In Josh's words, "This woody oriental fragrance captures the rich biodiversity of the Malaysian rainforests. It opens with fresh notes of dawn break and follows by a medley note of indigenous spices, herbs and floras before unfurling the elegant yet exotic oud accord of its precious trees."

Oud has a bright opening, slightly sweet in the aromatic way common to oriental perfumes. Notes of bitter orange and bergamot provide the brightness in the opening, which Josh describes as the break of dawn, but on my skin this is not a citrus opening. The notes are there to provide that moment of light, but very quickly we walk into the deepness of the rainforest. Clove is used to provide the merest hint of spice as the wood notes begin to make their appearance. Josh also uses a note of hibiscus in the scent and says hibiscus flower is his signature ingredient in his perfumes as it is the national flower of Malaysia. Most of the hibiscus I have smelled are scentless but Josh says this variety has a subtle sweet and musky aroma.

The base notes are agarwood, sandalwood, cedarwood, and patchouli. I would call this a woody oriental as the wood notes are what the perfume is all about. Sandalwood lends soft sweet woody notes and patchouli gives an earthy bittersweet flavor to the perfume. Oud, also called agarwood, is a resinous hard wood that forms in the middle of the aquilaria tree after it becomes infected with a parasitic mold. I will confess I often have a hard time with oud perfumes, which can present as murky and dirty on my skin,  but I really like this one. It is lighter and more transparent than many other oud perfumes I have tried. I asked Josh if this was intentional. "Yes, it is purposely not too overpowering or else it will be like Arabian Oud and not resemble the tropical Malaysian rainforests," Josh said. "It is of course inspired by the rainforests in Sarawak's National Park."

Oud by Josh Lee is eau de parfum strength and it lasts for several hours on my skin. As it fades it turns into a very sexy skin scent. Wood scents wear very well on my skin chemistry, and I enjoy the slightly sweet and resinous tones of this perfume.  When walking in the rainforests in Asia I am always trying to define what I am smelling. There are no strong florals and in fact no strong scents at all, normally, yet the air does have a smell which I think of as a "feel good aroma". Maybe it's an oxygen high from all the pure air molecules the trees are releasing! Oud by Josh Lee perfume is an amped up version of the smells to be found in the rainforest, and one that had me sniffing my wrists over and over throughtout its wear.

Josh Lee Fragrances website has an info link where you can request information on obtaining samples.  Worldwide mailing of samples starts this month. Please read my other review of Josh Lee Fragrances here and here.

Top photo from Google. Butterfly photo from Bottle photo from Other photos my own. Sample provided by Josh Lee.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Introducing Josh Lee Fragrances: GeorgeTown

Josh Lee debuted his fragrance line in 2012 and the first scent was created to honor the perfumer's home town of George Town in Penang, Malaysia; a city of rich cultural heritage named to the UNESCO list of cultural sites in 2008. George Town is the first perfume created to honor a UNESCO cultural city.

I will introduce the perfume with Josh Lee's own words, illustrated by the photo above of the busy docks of old time George Town. "In the golden days of Colonial Penang, a merchant was sitting at the jetty of George Town while holding a cup of bergamot tea at dawn. While sipping the bergamot tea as it slowly diffused its refreshing and calming aroma, he looked out to sea and watched the ships docking at port. The cold morning air fused with the salty smell of the sea water accompanied him as he made his way to the busy trading grounds. As he inspected goods and shared trading banters, the fragrance of the pungent spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom and anise mingled with the heady scents of local flowers such as hibiscus and rose as well as the delicious aroma wafting out of the kitchens in the vicinity, creating an intoxicating melody of fragrances. To him, this was the quintessential scent of George Town."

If you are a fan of Earl Grey tea, George Town is a must try! On first application the sparkling note of bergamot refreshes and enlivens the scent, quickly followed by tea notes. Sometimes tea in scent can be a bit harsh or too astringent but in George Town the tea scent is refreshing and smooth. The tea note is green tea rather than the black tea of classic Earl Grey, and this allows the note to compliment rather than overpower. It is subtle and wafts in the background.

Josh describes the opening of George Town as the freshness of bergamot and green tea, followed by the aquatic tones of sea water. Normally I am on guard when I see the term "aquatic", but in this instance it is a soft note of saltwater tang reminiscent of the sea, one fragrant component in the olafactory picture.

The second stage of the cologne introduces spices which remind Josh of the varied gourmet offerings of his island. It also harkens back to the days when the city was along the spice trade route, which is what influenced its unique heritage. Notes of  nutmeg, cinnamon, star anise, and cardamom flavor the scent but it goes nowhere near being a spice bomb of a fragrance. The notes just add warmth and a piquant tang.

Soft floral notes of rose and hibiscus represent the profusion of nature. These notes offer a quiet beauty and are not at all sweet or flowery. The cologne eventually settles into a base of sandalwood, musk, and patchouli. The scent is unisex.

I had sampled the entire Jo Malone limited edition line of tea fragrances the day before trying George Town, and Josh Lee's fragrance was more to my liking than any of the tea based Jo Malone scents. It starts with a refreshing cup of tea and takes you on a stroll through George Town to experience the flavors and scent of the place. It is an Eau de Toilette so longevity is shorter but it holds up better on my skin than the Jo Malone scents did.

Josh says his early life prepared him for a career as a perfumer. As a young child his father would spray Josh with his cologne before leaving the house. "I've always been amazed by different scents, from my father's cologne, grandmother's Chanel No. 5, the smell of incense in temples, smells of nature such as the sea, and the different smells of food," says Josh. "I always remember the refreshing yet salty smell of sea breeze at the school field which is near the sea, as well as the delightful scent of flowers in Penang Botanic Garden." Josh's family operates a shop that sells cake ingredients, and the air was always filled with the aroma of gourmand comfort scents of vanilla, chocolate, and coffee.
"My family shop, Hong Yap in George Town, was indeed the perfect environment for the making of a perfumer." ~ Josh Lee
After receiving a degree in Chemistry Josh decided to pursue his desire to be a perfumer and was a member of the first international class held by ISIPCA, a top institute in France for the study of fragrance and cosmetics. After graduating Josh developed his career for the next ten years in various roles of product development, and in 2012 he fulfilled his lifelong dream of establishing his own fragrance company. Josh's vision for his company is to promote the heritage and culture of Malaysia through scents. Josh developed his first scent to honor the place he has always called home, and has also been recognized as a city of historical significance. George Town, along with Melaka, were added to the list of UNESCO cultural sites in recognition of the living picture the two cities represent of an era of trade in centuries past. Both cities are positioned along the Straits of Malacca and were developed over 500 years of trading between Europe and Asia. George Town represents the era of British rule from the end of the 18th century.

"I have seen a lot of big brands promoting their own home city, such as Paul Smith's London, Burberry London, YSL Paris, and DKNY New York," says Josh. "Moreover, my French classmates encouraged me to do a fragrance based on George Town after they could not find a unique souvenir while visiting me."

I asked Josh what he enjoyed about life in his hometown, and how he would advise a visitor to spend the day. "Penang is a quirky island. You can see many colourful pre-war houses with beautiful carvings on the wall and windows. There are a variety of foods ranging from Chinese to Malay and Indian delicacies. If you enjoy nature, we have the beautiful beaches and lush green hills."
"If there is just one place in the world you must visit in your lifetime, it must be Penang." ~ Josh Lee
"For me, my favorite is the delicious food here. My perfect day starts with a bowl of Hokkien Mee, a spicy soup of egg and rice noodles in a stock made from prawn, friend shrimp, port ribs or chicken stock at Seang Lim's stall in Pinang Delicious Food Court at Macalister Road."

"Then for lunch my favorite food is Ah Leng's Char Koay Teow, stir-fried rice cake strips with cockles, eggs and prawns, at Tong Hooi coffee shop at Dato' Kramat Road. It is best to reach there early to avoid the long queues."

"For dinner it would be perfect to have some authentic Peranakan/Nyona food. This cuisine comes from the Peranakans, descendants of the early Chinese immigrants who settled in Penang, Malacca and Singapore. I would recommend to savor it at Auntie Gaik Lean's restaurant at Bishop Street. This old school eatery is famous for its loh bak, assam fish, kerabu, and nutmeg juice. Nutmeg is produced in Penang and is used in food, drinks, and even massage oils."

"If I am not tired, then I can chill out at Narrow Marrow, a simple cafe with a retro decor, or I can go to the Canteen at China house to have a good time listening to good live music."

Josh Lee Fragrances were presented at this year's Spring Sniffapalooza in New York City by Project Felicia founder Hiro Nakayama. Josh is looking to expand his fragrance line out of Malaysia, and it will be available in Singapore by quarter three this year. I very much enjoyed Josh's representation of George Town and look forward to introducing his other two fragrances in my next two posts.
Update: See my other reviews on Josh Lee Fragrances here and here.

For info on obtaining samples mail Josh at

Photos: Top two from Josh Lee website, Earl Grey tea from Google, Penang coast from, stamps from, Hokkien Mee from www.asaininspirationscom, food stall from, restaurant from, Perfume samples from Josh Lee Fragrances.