Woman overcomes cancer to start online cheongsam business with mother

Woman overcomes cancer to start online cheongsam business with mother

SINGAPORE - A mother and daughter team have started on online shop selling hand-made, originally designed cheongsams. Each piece is painstakingly sewn by hand, with each design used to produce not more than 30 cheongsams.

The online shop, called "The Happy Cheongsam" was founded two years ago by a 35-year-old consumer researcher, Ms Tay Yeow Ming, and her 66-year-old mother, housewife Madam Heng Mui Kheng.

Ms Tay told Chinese evening daily Lianhe Wanbao that her mother has over 50 years of experience in sewing and tailoring, having learnt the craft when she was just 15 years old. By contrast, her own background is in statistics.

Nevertheless, Madam Heng is full of praise for her daughter's talents in design. "I know she is capable. She would have been influenced as she has watched me design and create clothes from a young age."

Madam Heng revealed that she had worked as a seamstress in a children's clothes shop when she was younger. It was there that she was noticed and invited to teach in a sewing school, where she remained until she got married.

Even after her marriage, she continued running a small business from her home, making clothes for the next 52 years.

Since going into business with her daughter, both Madam Heng and Ms Tay would buy cloth and other materials together and brainstorm for concepts and designs.

Ms Tay explained that the designs they come up with must be modern and fresh. Not only are more unique fabrics selected, but the designs also veers away from those of traditional cheongsams, in order to make them look more like everyday dresses.

However, the cheongsams still retain some traditional elements like the Mandarin collar, and is suitable for all women.

Both mother and daughter feel that cheongsams have to be hand-sewn and should not be mass-produced. Typically, Madam Heng will come up with a design template for each cheongsam, which is then sent to be hand-sewn by various tailors in the region.

They release about six or seven new models every three months, and both stress that a single design can only be used to produce between 10 to 30 cheongsams to maintain its exclusivity.

Woman overcomes cancer to start online cheongsam business with mother

The Happy Cheongsam is a way for Ms Tay to continue her mother's legacy in tailoring, and was born after she came through the darkest period of her life.

In 2011, she was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer at the age of 30, and had to undergo chemotherapy for six months. She recalled: "My mother really took care of me at the time. I couldn't eat, and my hair was dropping. My mother not only had to bring me to hospital, but had to see her own daughter in such pain."

She eventually made a full recovery, and reflects: "In life, nothing is more important than living happily and being with your family and loved ones."

Ms Tay told Lianhe Wanbao that she had grown up watching her mother run a small business from home with an entrepreneurial zeal of her own. "I then thought, it would be such a waste if my mother's craft was to be lost," she said.

"So we decided to start our cheongsam business. Not only is the Cheongsam a symbol of our Chinese roots, but also requires good craftsmanship."

As both mother and daughter insist that every cheongsam is hand-sewn, the biggest challenge for them is to find quality tailors.

Said Ms Tay: "There are not many tailors in Singapore, and it is even more difficult to find those who are truly of a high calibre."

At first, they decided to engage the services of a tailor from Guangzhou in China for their first batch of designs, but it was there that they faced the first crisis of their joint business.

"When we received the finished products, we found that the tailor had done a shoddy job - either the waistlines were not uniform, the collars weren't sewn right, or there were holes in the pockets.

"It was tough. To ensure the quality of the products, we had to take action ourselves by re-sewing any pieces that could be saved. The rest had to be thrown out, and we lost about $10,000," Ms Tay recalled to Wanbao.

But they learnt their lesson, and spent half a year finding reliable tailors from different countries in the region and communicating their requirements in detail to ensure the quality of their cheongsams.

seanyap@sph.com.sg

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