Love can work in mysterious ways. Mac Ho will testify to that. In 1997, at age 39, he hit skid row. A failed tailoring business not only lost him $200,000, but also left him more than $60,000 in debt.
Then, his father's second wife booted him out of the family home for being such a failure.
At what was the lowest point in his life, he took part in a choral performance organised by a temple in Waterloo Street - there, he met accountant Eliza Yap.
"After rehearsal on the first night, we went for supper and started talking. We went for supper the next two nights and continued talking. On the third night, we talked about getting married," he recalls with a grin.
They tied the knot within a fortnight. Their union surprised many. He was a Secondary 3 dropout on the verge of bankruptcy; she was a chartered accountant with an MBA from the University of Hull and had a well-paid job at a multinational corporation (MNC).
Now 57, Mr Ho says jokingly: "I was single, had no money and no property; she was single, and she was an accountant. She was perfect for me."
His wife, 50, says: "We just talked and talked about so many things. Even though he had hit rock bottom, he didn't show it. He was still so optimistic and very passionate about his business. I was working in an MNC with thousands of employees and I seldom saw such enthusiasm. I was certain that a person with such passion could not be a failure forever."
With her help and support, he started over from scratch.
He went to London to train as a master tailor. Today, he and his wife run Raffles Tailor and Raffles Suits. Raffles Tailor boasts outlets in the swish Marina Bay Link Mall, offering bespoke suitmaking and tailoring services. Over at Raffles Place, Raffles Suits does alterations and sells ready-to-wear suits, shirts and accessories. Their clients include tycoons from Russia, China and India, as well as corporate bigwigs in Shenton Way.
Decked out in a sharply cut jacket and spiffily tailored trousers, Mr Ho speaks about his family. He is the fifth of eight children. His late mother was the first of his father's three wives.
"My father was often not around, and it was not easy for my mother, who had to take care of eight children. After she gave birth to my youngest brother, she slid into depression and never recovered," says Mr Ho, who grew up in Joo Chiat and was often left to his own devices.
At Presbyterian Primary and Chai Chee Secondary, he was more interested in looking cool than in studying. He repeated two years in primary school, picked up smoking at 11 and was once caned by the principal after he was caught puffing away on school premises.
Even at a young age, he was a fastidious dresser.
"My mother couldn't take care of us, so we learnt to take care of ourselves. I washed and ironed my own uniforms and clothes. I was so particular that I had my uniforms made by a tailor - they weren't bought off the rack," he recalls. He also hung out with a friend whose father was a textile merchant.
At 16, while in Sec 3, he decided to drop out. "I wanted to go out and make money. I reckoned I would have to study many more years before I could leave school and find a job. I thought it would be a lot faster if I left school and started a business," he says.
Things did not go according to plan. Instead, he loafed around for a couple of years, playing the drums or guitar with a band called Swinging Heart, until he was called up for national service.
He also took up boxing under the late Chua Gim Chiang, a flyweight champion and one of Geylang's most famous denizens.
"I trained with him for more than 20 years. But he treated me like a son and never allowed me to take part in matches; I think he didn't want me to hurt myself," says Mr Ho, who still practises boxing moves every weekend at home.
While in the army, he enrolled in a part-time tailoring course at People's Park Complex, and started making clothes for himself and his friends.
After NS, he borrowed $20,000 from his father and started his own shop, Mac Tailor, at Katong Shopping Centre in 1980. Things went well at first. Within a year, he had upgraded from his 200 sq ft unit to one double the size. "I was 21 and all my customers were very young; some were students," he says.
But business soon slowed down.
"I was getting older and the customers were growing older with me, and it was getting a bit difficult to get new customers," he says. "I decided to change my concept and focus on a more classic style of tailoring instead of making fashionable pieces. I was breaking even, but I didn't see any future if I stayed on in Katong."
He moved to The Concourse in Beach Road, hoping to cultivate a new clientele among the corporate crowd. "It was a bad move; my business got worse," he recalls with a sigh.
There was no traffic and, having signed a three-year lease, he soon found himself unable to pay his rent or his suppliers. He maxed out his credit lines and had to borrow from relatives to make ends meet.
When his lease ended in 1997, he was $200,000 poorer and more than $60,000 in debt. That was when he met the woman who became his wife.
Mrs Ho, now the mother of 13-year-old fraternal twins, remembers being impressed by his drive and his talent. He would, she says, spend hours researching and working with fabrics to get his suits to fit perfectly.
"He might not have been highly educated, but I knew he would be very successful one day because he had such a clear vision of what he wanted to do and be," she says.
With a laugh, she adds that she probably looks at life a little differently from how many others would because of her own trials and tribulations.
At the time, she herself was saddled with $100,000 in debts, because she had served as the guarantor for a bank loan taken by an acquaintance, who later ran away. And when she was 30, she nearly lost her life after having a heart attack on the tennis court.
"I was prepared to stay single until this guy came along. My experiences told me I should look beyond the surface and look at the person's substance. I could see he was kind and passionate. The money problems were not an issue. Money can always be earned again," she says.
The couple lived in a rented room for two years while Mr Ho tried to get back on his feet.
With his wife's help and some bank loans, he cobbled together $10,000 to open Raffles Tailor in Peninsula Shopping Centre.
It was not smooth sailing.
"I made only enough to cover the rent," he says.
After half a year, he decided he needed to stand out from the crowd and carve a niche for himself.
"I decided to use my credit lines and head to London to learn technical cutting and sewing. My wife asked me if I was sure because she had heard that tailoring was a sunset business. I told her: 'When I come back, I promise you I will be the most popular tailor in town before I turn 45.' "
Mrs Ho, who was then working with Microsoft here, decided to take a few months off work to be with him while he took a two-month course for professional tailors at the renowned London College of Fashion.
"I was doing my MBA then, so I decided to take time off to study for my exams," she says.
Their sojourn cost them $20,000.
"Even after we returned from London, things were not easy," he says. "Each time my wife asked how the business was doing, I would feel heavy-hearted because I was not making much."
But slowly, his reputation as a London-trained tailor spread. Things got even better when he won the top prize at the prestigious Asia Master Tailors Convention in Seoul in 2002.
Mrs Ho says: "A lot of people sniggered and poured cold water when he said he wanted to take part in the event. They said he would not stand a chance against competitors from Japan, Korea and Hong Kong."
Her husband started doing so well that he moved to the Delfi shopping centre in Orchard Road in 2002. He started with one unit but soon expanded to two.
"I promised my wife I would make it at 45 - I managed to do it when I was 44," he said.
After 10 years, he moved to the Marina Bay area because that was where most of his clients were.
Many have become faithful fans, he says, proudly displaying a stack of e-mail and letters penned by happy customers from as far away as France and Australia.
"I always do the cutting myself," he says.
Some of his more affluent clients, including a tycoon from India, order suits that use fabrics blended with diamond fragments, which can cost as much as $30,000.
In 2002, Mrs Ho quit her corporate job to join the business. In addition to handling business development, she is Raffles Tailor's image consultant, having gained accreditation from the Association of Image Consultants International.
They have come a long way from the room they once rented in a Chai Chee flat. They now live in a condominium in Bukit Timah and own four other private properties.
"My father's second wife died a few years ago. Apparently, she felt quite bad about what she did after she saw how well I did," he says.
He now hopes to mentor young entrepreneurs.
"You might not come from a good background and you might not have done well in school. But that is not the end of the world. There are opportunities - you just have to grab them. And I'm willing to share what I know."
This article was first published on Mar 1, 2015.
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