'This is my bedroom, and also my factory'

'This is my bedroom, and also my factory'

SINGAPORE - Every morning and night, without fail, a rhythmic whirring emanates from Mr Ang Kum Siong's bedroom. The mechanical song of his Butterfly sewing machine is familiar to his neighbours and two sons who live with him.

At the age of 87, Mr Ang still sews batik products like cushion covers, bags and dresses, and sells them from his shop in Holland Road Shopping Centre.

The dedication to his craft continues even after he retires to his four-room flat in Serangoon Avenue 3 at about 7.30pm. After dinner, he cuts and sews right up to when he goes to bed three hours later, and again when he rises at 6am until he leaves to go to his shop at 9am.

"It's a habit. Sometimes customers have orders. I'm very punctual in delivering them," said Mr Ang in Mandarin.

So thin is the line between work and rest for the grandfather of 15 that his home workstation stands just beside his bed, surrounded by heaps of colourful batik cloth, which he buys from warehouse wholesalers in Redhill.

"It's my bedroom, but also my factory," he quipped, breaking into one of his frequent chuckles.

There, the octogenarian can sew about 10 cushion covers in three hours, and a dress in 20 minutes - a dexterity that comes only with decades of experience.

Born in Singapore in 1927 to Chinese immigrants, the eldest of nine children helped his father sell second-hand clothes in Arab Street, near their shared two-storey shophouse in Queen Street.

Among these old clothes bought from pawnshops, he discovered batik - a beautiful Indonesian patterned fabric commonly used in sarongs - and noticed how popular it was with buyers.

Inspired, he began hawking ready-made batik apparel at pasar malam (night markets) in places like Katong and Clementi.

It was only as a middle-aged man in the 1970s that he began sewing batik products himself.

"Nobody taught me. I tore apart ready-made clothes to see how they were sewn," he recalled.

"Handmade things are better to sell because you can mix a variety of patterns and fabrics," said Mr Ang, whose two great-grandchildren wear clothes made by him.

But life as a street hawker, earning about $200 to $300 a month as the sole breadwinner for his younger siblings, wife and nine children, was not smooth sailing.

"I was bullied really badly by hooligans. Every night, they would come and extort money," he said. "It was only later in the 1970s, when the Government started catching them, that they stopped."

On April 11, 1978, a day he remembers vividly, Mr Ang poured his entire life savings of $5,000 into a shop in Holland Village - Wellie Batik.

"It was tough. I spent it all on the deposit, rent and renovation. Even my pockets were empty," he said, adding that he did not earn any money for three months.

But it was a gamble that paid off. Today the business is still around, with his youngest son, Eric, 44, running it with him.

While the place is never crowded, it retains loyal customers and draws tourists, who often take photos with Mr Ang, as well as his trusty Singer sewing machine, in use for 34 years.

He has a third machine, a Ranleigh he bought in 1972 for about $200, but which stopped working last year.

Years of sewing have taken a toll on him. A handshake reveals the coarseness of his right thumb, which is gnarled and twisted. "It's from so many years of using the scissors to cut cloth," he said.

In 2006, Mr Ang's wife of 56 years, who would accompany him to the shop every day, died from chronic lung problems.

"He would cry when customers asked him where she went," said his eldest daughter, Pauline, 61.

But the financial consultant said she and her siblings feel fortunate that their father is still independent and healthy.

She recounted how in 2003, after surgery to remove a growth in his colon, Mr Ang was told to rest at home for a month. "After one week, he was back at work because he couldn't stand doing nothing at home," she said.

When his hands are not sewing, they are busy with other passions of his, like Chinese calligraphy and gardening.

Outside his flat, two lovingly raised rows of potted plants line the common corridor.

Mr Ang also tends to the plants at the nearby Paya Lebar Methodist Church, where he attends services every Sunday before work.

If his trade and shop appear anachronistic, he does not seem to feel it, though he does see the country evolving around him.

"If you don't visit a place for one or two years, it will have changed already. It's not a pity, it's just development," Mr Ang said, shrugging.

But the pioneer takes comfort in the fact that his creations, like him, have stood the test of time.

"The things I make are very durable. Customers like them," he said, his face lighting up with simple pride.

yeosamjo@sph.com.sg

joseow@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 19, 2014.
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