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Shoemaker Tan Kok Oo hard at work piecing together a pair of Nyonya beaded shoes at his shop in Armenian Street. — TRP pictures by Azrol Ali
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GEORGE TOWN, Feb 4, 2015:
In a ramshackle pre-war shophouse, along a popular tourist spot in a heritage enclave, sits a man, seemingly engrossed with sewing, oblivious to the world passing before him.
Upon closer scrutiny, the middleaged man turns out to be piecing together what would become Nyonya beaded shoes, which will be shipped off to places as far as the United Kingdom and Australia.
For the past 40 years, Tan Kok Oo, has been tirelessly designing, cutting, sewing and stringing together shoes that used to be popular back in the 50’s.
While he admits that it is indeed a dying trade and is not something popular in modern times, especially among the younger generation and locals, the intricate and detailed design of the carefully beaded shoes have drawn the attention and interest of tourists who happened to pass by his shop.
His antique sewing machine, placed strategically at the entrance of his shop, Tan believes, is one of the crowd pullers especially for curious tourists who would want to find out more about the nature of his trade.
“In a way, I am lucky my shop is located on Armenian Street here as this is where all tourists come for sightseeing.
“They notice my shop and sometimes when they return home, they tell their friends about it, so I guess it’s got to do a little with word of mouth,” he told The Rakyat Post.
Word of mouth is indeed paying off for Tan, as most of his regular customers are those residing overseas.
He revealed that producing a pair of Nyonya beaded shoes involved a complicated process of designing, cutting out the material and the most tedious yet satisfying part — beading!
He explained that his beads were either bought locally or ordered from either Thailand or China. Hence the high price a pair can fetch.
The cheapest is RM450 while the most expensive pair Tan had designed was for a Briton who bought it at RM1,200.
“The more detailed the more expensive.”
Recalling how he first started, Tan bashfully related how he did not do well in school. So his father sent him to take up a vocational skill.
“For some reason I was always drawn to tailoring, the arts and crafts, so that was how I started.”
Tan added that since business was not as good as it was in the past, with an average of about five to 10 orders per year, he had no choice but to also use his shop for other businesses such as selling T-shirts and renting bicycles.
When asked if he had plans to market his shoes online, Tan said no such plans were in place.
“I prefer to keep things simple and I believe in the traditional way of doing business.”
Tan added besides his regular customers, occasionally, there will be orders for traditional weddings or photo shoots by bridal shops.