A National Craft Award winner for Nyonya beaded shoes tells Loong Wai Ting about the dying art
MY grandmother, whom we fondly call Amah (no, not a servant), used to regale us with tales of her growing up at Perak Lane in Jelutong, Penang, of playing with her siblings near their house. These stories always fired our imagination.
Sometimes she would pause to look for things. One time, she took out a well-worn pair of beaded shoes withintricate designs and perfect craftsmanship.
Being a naive little girl then, I asked in Hokkien, my grandmother's mother tongue, why she still kept an old pair of "clogs"? I can still remember her hearty laugh.
"These aren't clogs," she said. As she showed me the flower and bird motifs on the shoes, she told me that the art of making beaded shoes was once imposed on young girls so they would be able to attract rich and handsome suitors. On top of being skilled cooks, they should be able to sew and embroider as well. Luckily, times have changed.
Embroidered shoes used to symbolise status in society.
Now, many years later, I find myself wandering thestreets of Melaka, in search of a beautiful pair of beaded shoes for myself. The sun is scorching outside when I arrive at Temple Street.
As I seek refuge from the heat and gulp down an ice-cold calamansi drink made by a friendly woman at a chai tiam ma (sundry shop), we talk about the weather and tourist trends in Melaka.
Minutes later, our conversation drifts to the famous beaded shoes of Melaka. She points to a shop a few doors away for a good pair of Nyonya beaded shoes.
THE MAN BEHIND THE SHOES
Lim Tian Seng is bent over his work as I introduce myself. He looks up and offers a big smile.
"It has been awhile since someone from the media dropped in for a chat. How can I help you today?" he asks as he puts down his artwork, an intricate pattern of a dog sewn with “manik potong” or cut beads.
Lim is jovial and chatty as he proudly shows me his work, which can fetch up to RM1,000. One of Lim's most expensive beaded shoes features a school of goldfish.
"These custom, made-to-order shoes belong to a Datin who wants a one-off design," he says, pointing at the shoes with the goldfishdesign.
"My customers are willing to pay extra for a one-of-a-kind design.”
As I carefully put down the expensive artwork, Lim challenges me to sew my own pair of shoes. Challenge accepted. I pick up a fine needle. but Lim tells me that I'm holding it wrong. I shouldn't hold it between my thumb and index finger.
The correct way to hold the needle is between my thumb and middle finger to pick up the bead tinier than a sesame seed. I push it through the needle using my index finger. I give it another try but it proves to be harder than it looks. One needs patience, good eyesight and a steady hand. By the way, Lim, 57, doesn't wear any glasses.
I give up and Lim breaks into a laugh. Lim has been sewing since he was 10. As a young boy, Lim's mother would make her son sit still at home by asking him to sort the beads according to colour. Later, he helped his mum sew on the tiny beads.
A former contractor, Lim faced challenges when the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997. His business stalled and on his father's advice, Lim decided to call it quits. One day, as he sat across from his wife, Sue, looking at her sewing a pair of beaded shoes for herself, memories of him helping his mother do the same returned.
"I told my wife that I used to help my mother sew," he says. But of course, his wife couldn't believe it at first and asked him to prove it. It took Lim no time to finish sewing one side of the shoes and Sue was impressed. The husband-and-wife team started a business making beaded shoes.
Lim was conferred the National Craft Award and Unesco Seals of Excellence for Handicrafts in 2012 for his work.
STEP BY STEP
Lim's shoes are mainly in four styles: open-toed, covered toes, criss-cross and the modern, single strap. He uses imported beads from Japan and Europe. He starts off by sketching a design ongraph paper.
Halfway through our conversation, he disappears behind the front of his shop and emerges later with a clear folder, filled with designs that he has painstakingly handdrawn. He even colour codes his design.
"Sometimes the colour changes depending on the mood, but the designs are usually the same," he says. Some designs feature flowers and animals, but there are some exceptional ones inspired by floor tiles in old houses.
When a group of French tourists walks into his shop, Lim immediately takes notice of a blue and white scarf. "You see the pattern on her scarf? When I see something like this, I note it in my mind and later come up with my own design inspired by the pattern and colours," he says, observing his customer.
The dying trade is so time-consuming that it can take up to a month to make a pair of beaded shoes, hence the high price.
As for the future, Lim plans to pass his skill to his daughter. “I've taught her the basics and it's up to her to take up the business or not. Making a pair of beaded shoes takes a lot of time and effort, it is something that the younger generations don't possess. If I could start all over again, I'll sew only handbags. It's so much easier and takes less time," he says.
Before I bid him farewell, Lim regales me with another story. Afemale friend from Singapore, who used to drop by his shop every now and then to sew shoes together, had to give up sewingbecause it caused migraine. At Lim's shop, you can still see the unfinished embroidery his friend was working on.
Lim is worried that he will face the same problem in the future. "I keep thinking what should I do if I can't sew anymore. This is something that I love and want to keep on doing for the longest time," he says.
"I have a dream. My dream is to be able to sew up to 300 of these designs, frame them up on the walls and turn the shop into a living museum. Perhaps I'll charge a small fee for those who are interested to learn the dying trade."
TEMPLE STREET LIM TRADING
63, Jalan Toking,
Tel: 06-292 6813
Pictures by Loong Wai Ting