January 14, 2021
While most brands begin from a point of filling a product gap in the market, Joshua Tong’s beautiful sensory brand, Maho has come from a place of ritual, honour and connection. On a journey to redefine perceptions of incense, he spent over six months blending each of his sensory stick variants to create the perfect scents, reworking each of the formulas to achieve a 60 minute burn time, but still keep it all in perfect balance and harmony – which is precisely what the ritual is about. Here, we chat to Joshua about honouring his heritage and his mother, the power of scent, and bringing a little magic into each and every day.
Tell us a little about the MAHŌ backstory…
How the brand began is a very personal story. Coming from a family of Southeast Asian heritage, we use incense as a form of prayer and spirituality, and also on the anniversaries of those who have passed to pay our respects and converse with those we lost.
My mother would tell me that when we burn incense (especially at the welcoming of the Lunar New Year) our hopes and wishes would transcend to the heavens and this is where our wishes would be heard. When my Mother passed suddenly in 2011 my world came crumbling down and I felt I had lost everything good in my life. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye or tell her how much she meant to me. I fell into a world of darkness, but because of what she taught me about incense as a child, I would sit by her altar and burn incense – one after another in the hopes that she would hear me. I didn't realise until years later that the very act of doing so gave me a sense of calm and connection. MAHŌ was born in honour of her work as a devoted mother and philanthropist.
How did MAHŌ evolve from an idea to what it is today?
In 2016 I began to deconstruct classic incense, to create a more modern ritual which can be adopted by a wider audience. I decided to rebrand the term incense to “sensory sticks” as everyone has such a preconceived, unflattering idea of what incense is.
Each scent is a refined blend of quality woods with complex layers of notes and accords. We use natural aromatic resin or Balsam which are fragrant resinous substances that flow from a plant. We typically use this to bind the ingredients together, further enhancing the natural fragrance of our sensory sticks. In addition we use elm powder derived from the slippery elm tree, this is the inner bark of the tree and traditionally used in natural medicines for coughs and sore throat amongst others.
What were you doing career-wise prior to MAHŌ?
My parents were immigrants from Saigon and had very little education, so they always encouraged me to study hard... and become an accountant haha. I didn't want to disappoint them so I graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce and went straight into corporate banking, however I knew this was something I really didn’t enjoy. I stuck at it until 30 when it became too draining on my soul, and then left to go to the Melbourne School of Fashion. From there I fine-tuned my crafts in design and fashion – I’ve always known this would be my eventual career, I just had to wait for the right timing and courage to go out and create something meaningful for myself.
It wasn’t an easy road – I had to hustle with school, waiting tables and taking on extra jobs here and there to support myself and my project. It took me four years to launch MAHŌ but honestly it is the most fulfilled I have ever been.
So, why incense?
My mum was very spiritual, and growing up in a Buddhist faith, we would attend temples and beautiful pagodas. Incense was so ubiquitous for all of us, it just seemed like a natural element in our surroundings. But the connection for me was beyond incense being a product, rather what it represented: the act of lighting an incense was a vessel between us and connecting with our spiritual self.
Being a Scorpio we are obsessive – and my obsession has always been shopping. I would spend hours in any given store and one of my favourite things to buy is homewares, specifically anything sensory. However, I have always struggled to find high quality modern incense and felt there was room in the market for luxury incense with a contemporary fragrance and appeal. '
What I really love about sensory sticks is that it has the soul of incense, but in all aspects is surprisingly different. It’s incense, reimagined. I have incorporated design and practicality in the packaging too – like the portable take-anywhere glass tube with the included button burner. I travel quite a bit and take the tube with me everywhere. From the beginning I set out to bridge the gap between incense and luxury scented candles.
What is your favourite incense ritual?
The alarm goes off at 6.30 am and the first thing I do is light a sensory stick while waiting for my tea to brew. I find this ritual helps me focus and mentally centre myself for the day. While burning I would do 30-45mins of yoga or meditation (not every day) before I head off to work.
How do you believe your sensory sticks create calm in your home?
I can’t exactly explain it, but there is something really slow about the ritual of incense. For me it’s about the whole act of taking out one stick and lighting it with fire, then placing it on the burner and watching the smoke slowly emit from the ember. You can just see the soft ripples of smoke slowly ascending, creating almost a monasterial ambiance in the room.
How did you decide what scents to create?
Like most Australians, I love to travel and every place I visit has a certain smell that reminds me of a moment in time. All my fragrances are inspired by memories of travel, for example, Gypsy Wood was inspired by the time I backpacked around Eastern Europe and Rose Bois was literally a smell I tried to recreate while scooting around the resorts in Bali.
How did you decide on what burners to create to complement the sticks?
My design aesthetic is generally minimalistic, so I’ve always had a clear directive when it came to designing the burners. Inspired by Japanese instruments and simple form, I wanted to interpret modern day rituals, a simplistic pairing of linear to create an elegant accent to a space. I love polished raw materials such as brass as I think there is something quite decadent about this metal, which I chose for the two launching designs.
I am in the process of designing burners for the new collection and will create something large enough to catch the ash, and perhaps play around with mixing brass with stone for example.
You launched MAHŌ just as the global pandemic hit. How has this changed or affected your business?
Talk about bad timing!I had spent four years developing MAHŌ and was finally able to launch in February 2020, to only be faced with a global pandemic in March! It was something I had worked so hard for so long and in a way I felt like the pandemic stunted our growth.
I am probably one of the most un-tech savvy people you’ll meet, which was why online retail was never my focus. However I guess like everyone else I had to pivot – learning and upskilling my online presence, reading up on selling through social media and Google - all of it!
The quick six… with Joshua Tong
I’m currently burning... Right now I am actually burning “Baby Boy”, a fragrance I’ve been working on for the 2021 collections. I’m excited about this fragrance as everyone will instantly recognise it and will be sure to take them to some point in time in their lives.
One thing that would surprise people about me is... It’s quite embarrassing but one of my biggest phobias is being alone in wide open spaces. It’s probably why I left for London at 22 – to be amongst the noise and traffic!
The last podcast I listened to was... I’m not so big on podcasts but I am slightly obsessed with masterclasses at the moment, the last being Anna Wintour’s creativity and leadership.
I take my coffee... I’m naturally an anxious person so I’ve never really drank coffee, however I can’t get enough of tea – all teas. My breakfast tea is Gorgeous Geisha from T2.
During lockdown I most missed... Walking the strips of shops and cafes, walking the dog down Brunswick St to do a bit of vintage shopping or driving down the peninsula for weekend getaways.
My personal mantra is... “There is no such thing as a coincidence”, I had never really believed that but am finding this to be true as I get older. I always used to ask “why did it happen? Am I on the right path?” But I do believe you are exactly where you are supposed to be at that time.