By Sakini Mohd Said
Tan Siew Hiok Foto Bernama
KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) -- Tan Siew Hiok has been sewing beaded shoes for 37 years and is still getting the same old question.
"Why do your shoes cost more than those at other shops?" customers would ask when the visit her shop, Old Town Clog Shoes Enterprise at Jalan Hang Jebat.
Tan's beaded shoe offeringFoto Bernama
They would say that they could get it cheaper elsewhere, at only RM40.
The Melaka-born 51-year-old took it all in stride. She understood that not many of her customers realise the quality and intricacy of needlework needed to create a product that is the beloved heritage of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya culture.
"I don't take it to heart because the cheaper clogs they compare mine with are the ones made in the neighbouring countries and are of a different quality," she said to Bernama in an interview.
To address the frequently asked question, Tan decided to buy a pair of the cheaper beaded clogs to help her illustrate her point to customers.
She wanted customers to see the difference in quality for themselves.
It was not an exercise in futility, as the visual comparison certainly helped her customers understand why her work sometimes cost thousands of ringgit.
What Tan is facing is a dilemma shared by other local craft entrepreneurs.
The oversupply of handicrafts from neighbouring countries with similar culture and heritage has somewhat forced local craftsmen to work harder at winning the hearts of customers.
The lower quality enabled foreign crafts to be priced cheaper. Not many buyers are savvy enough to tell the difference, and may simply choose the cheaper option.
This scenario is not new. The Tourism and Culture Ministry is aware of the issue and its detrimental effect to the local handicraft businesses.
However, Tan did not want to merely sit around, depending only on Kraftangan Malaysia to educate the public on the issue.
That is why she came up with the creative solution to help explain to her customers why her craft costs more.
"I'm confident in the quality of our handicraft because local craftsmen emphasise very much on quality. Anyone who is well acquainted with my work will not question the price," she said.
She assured that she was not trying to sound boastful, but merely intended to uphold the superiority of a heritage of tradition that is the pride of the Baba Nyonya community.
Using the foreign-made beaded clogs as an example, Tan generously shares with customers tips on how to recognise a quality piece of work by its stitching, beadwork, shoe quality and type of wood used.
Foreign products usually have irregular stitching and beadwork. Its colours are less vibrant and are prone to fading, especially when frequently in contact with water.
"The beadwork are also not as nice because there are gaps between each bead. This happens because they fill the beads on one thread and sew them.
"When one bead is damaged, the others will fall off too," she explained.
This is in contrast to her products that use beads from Japan and are sewn individually to create the customer's preferred design.
This way, if one bead is damaged it will not affect the surrounding beads.
"Usually these shoes can be handed down for generations. The only thing that would need fixing is probably the sole," she said.
Beautiful footwear would be useless if it did not provide its wearer comfort or poses a health risk in the long run.
Visitors to Tan's shop would often marvel at the not only the finely-stitched beadwork, but the fact that she makes each pair of shoes, from the start to finish, completely by hand and on her own.
"I don't buy readymade shoes and simply glue on the beads. Comfort is my priority and I research the shape and size of the shoes I make over time.
"This is our advantage and it has helped the business stay on for 37 years. Our shoes are not only beautiful but they are comfortable, durable and of impeccable quality," she said.
Tan's interest in shoemaking started in her teens, when she first caught a glimpse of her grandmother's beautifully-beaded shoes.
At the time she was involved in producing coconut shell-based ladies' accessories.
The mesmerising sparkle of the beads inspired her to venture into an entirely different craft.
"I tried to copy the designs and learned to sew on the beads myself. I started off using bigger beads. When I became better at it, I moved on to smaller beads and started taking orders.
"It took me three months to master the techniques this craft," she recounted.
However, she said, producing a high quality beaded shoe was not an easy task as it could take over four months to complete a pair, depending on the design and type of beads used.
That is why some of her work costs up to thousands of ringgit. The most popular motif tended was the rose, she said.
STILL VERY MUCH LOVED
However, there are also clogs in Tan's shop are priced from as low as RM10. The clogs are made to suit the affordability of customers from all walks of life, from the regular folks to the VIPs.
Her clientele includes the wife of the Prime Minister, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, as well as the late wife of a former prime minister, Tun Endon Mahmood.
For Tan, her greatest joy was when she was among 12 recipients of the Master Craftsman Award 2015, in conjunction with the recent National Craft Day.
"I was overjoyed by the recognition given as never had I imagined I would be given an award simply for my beaded shoes," she said.