Reviving a dying trade

For a month in 2012, she and her husband were in Britain learning 18th century medieval shoemaking techniques.

That was how passionate they were about the craft.

Founder of Shoe Artistry Kit Lee, together with co-founder and husband Jeff Wan, own a workshop in Hong Kong which makes and sells made-to-measure and bespoke shoes.

Ms Lee is a Singaporean, while Mr Wan is from Hong Kong. Both are 35 years old.

They also conduct workshops teaching leather shoemaking.

Ms Lee said: "I've always been a hands-on kind of person, so when I first came across leather shoemaking I was fascinated by its techniques and materials."

The couple met in Hong Kong when Ms Lee was posted there for work in 2008 and they married a year later.

In 2012, they bought over Ming Kee Shoes, a 40-year-old handmade leather shoe business. They rebranded it as Shoe Artistry and have spent about two years developing their own style of leather shoemaking.

Ms Lee said: "It takes a lot of strength and stamina to make leather shoes without heavy machinery.

"And it's not just about making a pair of shoes that look good - they have to be comfortable as well."


The couple will be visiting Singapore next month to hold their first beginner leather shoemaking workshop in collaboration with Tyrwhitt General Company, a store that sells handcrafted goods here.

They will be holding workshops teaching participants to make leather baby shoes and unisex slip-on shoes. Another workshop will be on shoe design and pattern making.

The workshops, which range from entry level to advanced, cost between $140 and $250, and all tools and materials will be provided.

The process of making a traditional leather shoe involves 280 steps, but the couple have reduced this to just 80.

More advanced workshops are usually held over several days, while beginner workshops take hours.

The couple, who usually conduct up to five classes a week in their workshop in Hong Kong, said their classes are fully booked until July.

Ms Lee said the trade is dying around the world, and there are only five shoemakers left in Hong Kong.

She said: "Shoe-making is a traditional and valuable craft in Hong Kong. It's part of its heritage so it's sad if it's gone."

She added that the business was on its last legs because there is no new blood entering the trade, and shoemakers have a very traditional mindset towards the younger generation taking on the craft.

Ms Lee said: "They don't feel that it's 'nice' work and think that the younger people aren't interested.

"Now, we want to tell the story of the trade in the hope that the craft will continue, and workshops are essential if you want people to appreciate the craft."

Exploring his interest in making products

While his peers spent their afternoons playing computer games, he was usually found in hardware shops in the vicinity of his parents' bakery at Upper Aljunied Lane.

That was how Mr Poh Wenxiang, founder of Make Your Own, found his passion in combining mechanics and art and started making furniture and lights.

The 29-year-old said: "Looking at the different bolts and gears in the shops inspired me. It made me think about how the different components could and fit together to perform a function.

"I would also talk to people in the shops to find out what the different parts were used for."

Make Your Own, a company which holds workshops teaching people how to make furniture, was founded in June last year after Mr Poh left his job as a visual merchandising designer.

The company is next to his parents' bakery.

The former Nanyang Polytechnic industrial design student now conducts workshops teaching people to make products such as lamps and tables using industrial materials like copper pipes and wooden blocks.

Make Your Own also makes customised furniture and lighting.

The workshops are usually held twice a week on weekends, and they take place at various locations, depending on the companies Mr Poh is working with. There are five to eight people in each class.

Mr Poh said: "I see workshops as a form of sharing knowledge with people and raising awareness for creativity.

"It's also a good way to teach people to find alternatives to products, instead of having them buy items off the shelf."


Mr Poh was also able to explore his interest in making his own furniture and products during design and technology lessons during secondary school.

He said: "The process of turning something raw into a product fascinated me."

He started making and modifying his own furniture when he renovated his new home in 2010.

One of his first creations was a customised coffee counter made out of a children's cabinet from Ikea.

He assembled the cabinet according to instructions, but added some switches and lighting to it.

Mr Poh gets a thrill out of mixing and matching different hardware components to suit their different functions.

He believes that the practice of learning to make your own products is catching on in Singapore.

He said: "When people go hands-on, they'll understand the effort needed to make such a product and this makes them appreciate things. If we keep buying, we take these things for granted."

Deriving joy from woodwork

He handcrafted almost all the furniture in his home himself.

Mr Gregory Swyny, 34, the founder of The Woodwork Initiative, made his own kitchen cabinets, bedroom wardrobe, bookshelves, and computer table out of wood when he moved into his home at Bukit Merah with his wife in 2011.

Mr Swyny, a Singaporean of Irish heritage, has conducted two woodwork workshops this year.

In these classes, participants learn to make furniture like bar stools and knick-knacks such as bottle openers out of wood.

The arts management graduate divides his time between woodwork projects under The Woodwork Initiative, which took off early this year, and working freelance at a theatre company.

Mr Swyny held his first workshop last month after he helped friends make wooden furniture for their store and people started inquiring about and showing interest in learning carpentry.

He plans to conduct more workshops after noticing a growing interest in carpentry.


The workshops, which are held in Chinatown, teach participants to cut, put together and sand raw wood using heavy machinery.

The classes cost between $45 and $150, and last for around two to four hours.

An average of seven participants have attended the past two workshops, but Mr Swyny hopes to run bigger classes in the future.

Mr Swyny said his father used to take him to worksites and teach him woodwork, but he found his passion in the craft only in his early twenties when he realised that he was good at carpentry and enjoyed woodwork.

He said: "I've always been influenced by art and I've always known that I wanted to do something creative.

"Carpentry allows me to be a designer and maker at the same time and this gives me the most satisfaction."

This article was published on April 25 in The New Paper.

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