Lee Kuan Yew's former shoemaker to retire in 3 years without successor: 'PM Lee suggested I retire at 70!'

Lee Kuan Yew's former shoemaker to retire in 3 years without successor: 'PM Lee suggested I retire at 70!'
PHOTO: Lianhe Zaobao

Another day, another talented craftsman retiring without a successor in sight.

Shoemaker Lee Kean Siong, 67, who handmade customised shoes for the late Lee Kuan Yew, told local media that he will be retiring in three years' time.

The second generation of Lee Hoi Wah Shoe Maker lamented about how difficult it is to find a disciple - let alone a successor.

"I have had three female disciples who studied shoe-designing and wanted to learn how to make them from scratch.

"None of them really mastered the art of it as shoemaking is very cumbersome and requires one to be very detailed," he revealed, adding that all three left within a year.

Lee's two children are also uninterested in shoemaking. Therefore, they will not be taking over the business.

A missing successor aside, the shoemaker with over 40 years of experience also cited problems with rising costs and ageing co-workers - his 69-year-old sister and an employee who's over 70 - which had led him to thoughts of retirement.

"Some customers come to me now with extra orders as they are worried that they wouldn't be able to find suitable shoes upon my retirement," said Lee, who made a total of 16 pairs of black leather shoes for the former Minister Mentor.

EARNING LEE KUAN YEW'S UTMOST TRUST

The hardworking crafter was first recommended to Lee Kuan Yew by his wife Kwa Geok Choo, and for the twenty-odd years of serving Singapore's first Prime Minister, the shoemaker earned his utmost trust.

Lee recalled the time when the late Lee had corns on his foot and was in pain, but instead of going to a doctor, he came to the shoemaker to add more insoles.

"Every one's foot is different, and the important thing about customising is getting the precision of the height, width, length of the shoes," said Lee, adding that this is the only way the wearer would feel comfortable going about their everyday life.

ALSO READ: This cluttered old shop made shoes for Mr Lee Kuan Yew for 25 years

The detail-oriented shoemaker even spoke about how everyone's feet change over time, and that they have to be mindful about it so that every pair of shoes would fit perfectly.

"It's not easy, that's why no one is willing to learn shoemaking these days," he bemoaned.

CUSTOMISATION IS KEY

Shoemaking is tough; customised shoemaking is even tougher.

Lee did not start customising straightaway when he succeeded the business from his dad - he only sold shoes wholesale before customising took over.

Customers with feet of different sizes, legs with varying lengths or have special needs due to polio can all get customised shoes from the talented shoemaker.

"The customised shoes have to fit and be comfortable - this is the key to building up a good brand name and customer base," said Lee, who does all his shoe moulds and designs from scratch.

"WHY DON'T YOU RETIRE AT 70!"

Handcrafting a pair of shoes is pure hard work and with all three crafters at Lee Hoi Wah Shoe Maker around 70 now, Lee feels it is time to call it a day.

The shoemaker met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at an event some years ago and, while chatting, realised that they are of the same age.

"PM Lee jokingly said to me, 'Why don't you retire at 70!', and that has stuck with me, motivating me to plan my retirement," he revealed.

lynette@asiaone.com

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