Sunday, March 7, 2010

Shoe Making Industry in Penang... A Dying Tradition

Jimmy Choo and the shoemakers of Penang | My Sinchew
Jimmy Choo and the shoemakers of Penang

The shoe-making industry used to be the pride of Penang. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily

The half-century old Lian Aik Shoe Shop at Campbell Street. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily

There are only a handful of old shoe shops left at Campbell Street. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily

Xie Quan Chang (R), and Li Kok Qiang relating the history of Penang's shoe-making industry. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily

The shoes-making industry in Penang has once become the priority of the island's manufacturing industry and was profoundly respected by the public.

Modern people today may find it unbelievable that even some Singaporeans were willing to become shoe-making apprentices in Penang.

Jimmy Choo pride of Penang

A small island like Penang is also able to produce an internationally acclaimed shoe designer, Jimmy Choo (Zhou Yang Jie). Although Jimmy sealed his achievements in the UK, he started learning the skill of shoe-making back in Penang.

Therefore he is truly a pride of Penang's shoe-making industry.

Ever since its founding by Francis Light in 1786, Georgetown has evolved into an international city in the region. It has played an important role as a place for foreigners to conduct their businesses and the shoe-making industry was developed since then.

Jimmy Choo used to be an apprentice at Hong Kong Shoe Store in Penang. It is believed that his outstanding shoe-making skill was picked up from there and has brought over to the United Kingdom where he successfully built his career.

Precious leather shoes

Two of the senior shoe-makers on the island, Xie Quan Chang, 61, and Li Guo Qiang, 65, said during an interview with Sin Chew Daily that in the past the luxury shoes which the British used to wear were leather shoes with hidden thread, and the shoe-makers in Penang had mastered such talents prior to the 1960s.

It was time-consuming to make leather shoes. Besides, it required outstanding skills and some of the apprentices were still unable to produce a pair of good leather shoes even after learning for four years.

A skilled shoe-maker could normally make only a pair of shoes of hidden thread in one day, and some might need a couple of days!

The shoes were relatively costly and could cost more than a thousand ringgit today. Moreover, it is hard to get unless you buy them in the UK.

During the early days, majority of leather shoes were made of leather or sheepskin and the shoe-makers were required to sew the thread through the skin of these shoes.

Such thread-hidden shoes were out of sale since 30 years ago and it is today regarded as precious antique shoes by modern shoe-makers.

Over a hundred shoe factories

Half of a century ago, shoes made in Penang were warmly received throughout Southeast Asia as well as among foreign tourists to Penang.

At that time, there were over a hundred shoe factories in Penang producing shoes for local as well as oversea markets.

Xie's father, Xie Quan Sheng and Li's father, Li Rong were both engaged in the the shoe-making industry. According to them, the techniques of adhesive shoes were spread here from Singapore.

Due to the convenience of pasting only the shoes bottom with glue instead of sewing, about three pair of shoes could be produced within a day.

The change in techniques has gradually turned many small-sized factories into medium-sized ones capable of mass production.

Initially, the market prices of adhesive shoes were about the same as leather shoes although they were much easier to make. However, mass production has led to price competition and leather shoes gradually disappeared from the market due to sharp decline in shoe prices.

Well-known for its diversity

The past shoemakers in Penang had different skills and thus the shoes they made were of different styles and this has diversified the shoes produced in Penang.

Unfortunately, the shoe-making industry here has slowly been replaced by the more competitive and bigger shoe-makers in China.

Shoemakers choosing to quit

In fact, after Penang lost its free port status in 1969, the number of visitors buying duty free items has declined sharply. This has forced the shoe-makers to search for alternative livelihoods, resulting in the decline of local shoe-making industry.

Penang Shoes Association was established 98 years ago with the objective of protecting the right as well as welfare of shoe-makers on the island. The association also used to provide free meals to poor shoe-makers in the past.

Four shoe shops remaining

Until recently, there are only four old shoe shops remaining at Campbell Street, down from the original 20, as the public prefer to shop at Komtar, one of the famous shopping complexes in Penang. (Translated by LIM LIY EE/Sin Chew Daily)

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