Covid-19 business: Bespoke shoemaker in Penang hard hit by pandemic despite being in business for more than 60 years

·5-min read
Wong is the second-generation shoemaker and owner of Hong Kong Shoe Store, where the famous shoe designer Datuk Jimmy Choo apprenticed decades ago. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE
Wong is the second-generation shoemaker and owner of Hong Kong Shoe Store, where the famous shoe designer Datuk Jimmy Choo apprenticed decades ago. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE

GEORGE TOWN, May 16 — The festive season is usually the time shoemaker Wong Heng Mun is busy filling up orders for custom-made shoes, sometimes with orders backing up to two months.

Since 2020, that has changed. Wong sits idly in his shop these days, occupying most of his time on his smartphone, and occasionally repairs the shoes of his regular customers.

“If you order a pair of custom made shoes now, despite Raya being just around the corner, I can make it in two weeks. Previously, it would take me two months because of all the orders coming in,” he said in an interview with Malay Mail earlier this month.

Wong is the second-generation shoemaker and owner of Hong Kong Shoe Store, a shop well known for being the place where the famous shoe designer Datuk Jimmy Choo apprenticed decades ago.

Wong’s father, Sung Choy, was one of the first shoemakers to open a custom-made shoe shop in Penang back in 1958.

Sung Choy apprenticed with an experienced and skilled shoemaker in Klang when he was in his teens before moving around several places including Singapore to learn from other shoemakers.

“My father was always keen to learn more and each time he got a job at a shoe shop, he would ask to learn the shoemaking skill at that shop even though he had already acquired good skills from his first master,” Heng Mun said.

Eventually Sung Choy settled down in Penang and worked in yet another shoe shop before he realised that there was a market for custom-made shoes.

Some of the shoes made by Wong on display at the Hong Kong Shoe Store. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE
Some of the shoes made by Wong on display at the Hong Kong Shoe Store. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE

“He took a chance and set up a small shop and within a year, he started making a name for himself as there were very few places that offered custom-made shoes that are comfortable and of good quality,” he said.

Soon, the shop was getting customers from all walks of life, from the middle class to even members of royalty from Kedah and other states.

Heng Mun said business was so good and the shop became so well-known in the 1960s that people were seeking his father out to apprentice with him, including Choo.

He said Choo apprenticed with his father for several years before leaving to try his luck elsewhere.

“People often thought we were using his fame to make our shop famous but it was not true, our shop was famous back in the 1960s even before him,” he said.

Heng Mun himself started learning shoemaking from his father at the age of 10 and took over the shop in the 1980s.

“I mastered the skill at 16 and that was when I started full time in this shop,” he said.

His father, now 88 years old, has retired fully and only visits the shop occasionally.

Since the pandemic hit, Wong has had to resort to the occasional repair work for his regular customers. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE
Since the pandemic hit, Wong has had to resort to the occasional repair work for his regular customers. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE

He said business remained brisk throughout the years until the Covid-19 pandemic hit and with that the first movement control order (MCO) last year.

“Everything came to a halt, business dropped to zero for months and the only thing that kept us going was some regular customers who came to us to repair their shoes,” he said.

He said when interstate borders reopened after the middle of 2020, business started to pick up again as about 80 per cent of his customers were from Kedah and Perak.

”A lot of my customers are from those two states and most of them were orders for larger sized shoes, special sized shoes for the disabled or orthopaedic shoes,” he said.

This year, when the MCO was imposed again and interstate travel was banned, business was back to zero again.

Due to the nature of his business, going online is not an option at all even though the shop has a Facebook page.

The 58-year-old said he had considered going online as a new way of doing business but it was near impossible to do so without proper fitting sessions.

“I custom make each pair of shoe according to the size of the customer’s feet so they have to come here to measure, not only the size, but the whole shape and width too,” he said.

He said it is only with proper physical measurements that he is able to make shoes that fit perfectly.

Wong arranges shoes for display at his shop. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE
Wong arranges shoes for display at his shop. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE

“It is not accurate just going by size because there are other measurements such as the shape, the thickness of the feet and the width,” he said.

He said some people have wider feet and without proper measurements, the shoes might end up being too tight for them even if the correct size was made.

So, the Facebook page is mostly to showcase some of the shoes he has made and to promote his custom-made shoes including orders for the traditional Nyonya beaded shoes.

He said they are barely able to get by with zero orders and only shoe repairs to eke out a meagre living since 2020.

“Fortunately, the shop landlord, a clan association, was kind enough to give me a rental discount of 20 per cent until September so that lowered my costs,” he said.

As for now, Heng Mun can only hope that the interstate travel ban will be lifted soon so that he can once again start taking custom-made shoes orders.

Hong Kong Shoe Store was among the local shops in George Town that won gold status under the cultural continuity recognition category of the George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) Heritage Recognition and Awards 2020.

The gold status is for traditional shops and traders that have been in operation between 50 and 99 years.

The shoe store was originally located along Muntri Street before it shifted to its current location at Kimberley Street.

The shop has a Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/hongkongshoestore/ which has a link directly to Heng Mun’s WhatsApp.

Hong Kong Shoe Store
20, Kimberley Street,
George Town.
Time: 9am-7pm
Tel: 04-261 4695 / 012-505 6905

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