Footwear by hand

Footwear by hand
The 'Kasut Manek' (Peranakan beaded slippers)

For over 40 years, 76-year-old Song Kwek Choong hasn't bought a pair of shoes.

Instead, he makes them. By hand.

Nestled deep within Golden Mile Tower is his nook of a shop where scattered leather pieces litter his desk.

This great-grandfather is one of the last few traditional shoemakers in Singapore.

When The New Paper on Sunday visited Mr Song, he was busy cutting leather with his trusted shoemaking knife.

His hands are covered in cuts and scars, dried glue and grime lurk under his fingernails.

"I made my first pair of shoes when I was 13," says Mr Song.

"My father was a shoemaker and that was how I got myself into this trade. But I wanted to learn other techniques so I ventured out on my own".

At 15, he met a businessman who was based in Johor Baru, Malaysia. There, Mr Song made shoes for the Johor royal family and high society.

"I was the most busy during Hari Raya. Each pair of shoes used to cost RM50 (S$20), which was big money at that time," says Mr Song proudly.

Not contented with just fashioning regular shoes, Mr Song travelled to Malacca where he went on to learn his speciality, the Kasut Manek or Peranakan beaded shoes.

At the mention of that, he drops everything he was working on, rifles through some boxes and drawers before pulling out three pairs of intricately designed sandals.

"These shoes are made for one of my regulars and cost about $700 each pair," the craftsman says in Malay.

He enthusiastically tells this reporter everything about the shoes, from the beading to the heels.

The passion the grizzled old shoemaker displays is infectious, and soon we are discussing the best way to create fancy footwear.

Mr Song prides comfort and quality, rather than style. He says that his creations can last at least five to six years.

Apart from using shoe moulds, he brought out an A3-sized book filed with shapes - feet outlines.

"No two feet are the same," Mr Song says, before going on to tell of a customer who had such unusual feet she could not buy shoes off the rack.

Her right foot was much broader than her left, and both feet were of different sizes. As we age, our feet tend to change in shape too, Mr Song says.

When asked if he plans to retire to watch over his great-grandchildren, the wizened shoemaker turns and gives a piercing stare. "As long as I can still walk and my hands can still cut leather, I will never close my shutters."

jariffin@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Sep 7, 2014.
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