Dressmaker to tai-tais and celebs

Dressmaker to tai-tais and celebs
She's 94 but Madam Leu Yock Mee still runs a dressmaking business in Katong Shopping Centre. She became an overnight sensation in the 1960s when a kebaya she designed for Dutch singer Anneke Gronloh became a hit.

Madam Leu Yock Mee's hair is nicely coiffed, and she is decked out in a fetching peach-coloured kebaya top and a pair of red slacks.

The ensemble - which the dressmaker made herself - is as comely as the smile on her youthful face.

Playfully initiating a game of "guess my age", she throws her hands up in girlish delight when she gets an answer 15 years off the mark.

"I'm 94 years old," she says. "I don't look 94?"

To show just how remarkably spry she is, the nonagenarian picks up a spool of thread.

"Ambil jarum, ambil gunting," she says to her domestic helper Yati, asking for a needle and a pair of scissors in Bahasa Indonesia.

She snips away a bit of the thread and proceeds to put it through the eye of the needle.

It takes her all of two tries, without glasses.

Although a fall several years ago has forced her to move about in a wheelchair, Madam Leu still puts in a full day's work six times a week at Red Beauty Ladies Dressmakers, the business she has run for more than half a century.

Framed photos and newspaper articles line the walls of the small shop located at the basement of Katong Shopping Centre.

One of them is of Anneke Gronloh, the Indonesian-born Dutch singer who was hugely popular not only in Europe but also in the region during the 1960s for her hits such as Bengawan Solo and Boeroeng Kaka (better known in Singapore as Burung Kakak Tua).

In the photo, taken in the early 1960s, Gronloh's statuesque figure is shown to stunning advantage in a pink lacy baju kebaya top and a matching sarong.

Madam Leu designed and made that outfit for the singer - who wore it at a concert here - in less than 24 hours.

The outfit did more than just generate photo calls for Gronloh; it also changed her dressmaker's life.

Overnight, Madam Leu, or Mrs Cheng as she is known to her clients, became the go-to person for a sexy kebaya.

Tai tais, diplomats' wives and celebrities - from Singapore's Siput Sarawak to Hong Kong's Nancy Sit - streamed into her shop. Even Singapore Airlines called on her to design kebayas for its stewardesses.

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