Savoring A Scent

PRIMITIVE - Sunday, June 21, 2009
  Fortunately this was not my breakfast

The day started with breakfast in the coffee shop. The first thing I noticed was plates of candy everywhere. Even the hostess offered me some as she placed silverware on the table and announced “Happy New Year.” Around me, people ate noodles. I felt like I had made a mistake by ordering eggs.

I am more self-conscious here than when I first arrived in New York City. The language barrier is the most distinct separation. My Mandarin comfortably consists of three expressions: ni hao(hello), xie xie (thank you), and wo ai ni (I love you). In India, I was already used to the clicking, sing-song style of Hindi mixed with a smattering of English. Here, I would be totally lost without language, but I’m being saved by numerous people in various stages of learning English, and accomplished speakers like Cherry. It’s a good thing. I’m leaving for home in just a few days and I doubt my Mandarin would noticeably improve in that amount of time.

A master carver at work

We spent the day at the factory putting finishing touches on the “incense room.” This is a room Claudia designed to present Primitive’s brand of incense – Primitive Pure. The room is carved with storage and displays for the incense and the accoutrements that go along with its appreciation.

Glen once called China a tea culture. Today, I’m discovering it’s also an incense culture. In fact, it’s many cultures all in one. The entire rear wall of the room is a carved panel depicting a censer with smoke rising and filling the blank space. There are pillars with imaginary incense gods coming out of water and, in turn, smoke rising from their held out hands. Their images are delightful and amusing. They were rendered by Xiao Ma, a young designer at the factory.

Claudia explained Primitive has been working with Xiao Ma since he was nineteen. He’s already written two books about antique furniture and is now a recognized authority in the field. On top of being an artist and scholar, he’s also an accomplished designer. I’m also discovering the new China is filled with some exceptionally talented people.

The meeting at the factory went all day. At one point we broke and went to visit some incense experts Glen and Claudia know, Mr. Choi and Mr. Chen. They are manufacturing the Primitive Pure incense.

Mr. Chen said it’s okay to call him Jackie. “Jackie Chen, like the actor,” he said with a laugh. But I doubt the actor’s nose is as good as his. The two men patiently explained how incense is manufactured and the value of the ingredients. The finest sandalwood is imported from India. Agar wood is cultivated in China and Indonesia. The ingredients are graded according to purity. Some have as much value as gold. There is a real difference between three dollar incense composed of artificially scented binders and incense made with pure, natural ingredients.

Sitting around a small table, sampling and savoring various scents, I came to realize incense is an intimate experience, and the value of the incense room became apparent. It will be a place where one can exercise their nose, heart, and imagination.

Mr. Choi