30 May 2017
8 min read
The Wong family have refined the craft of shoemaking. Their dedication to the trade has kept the shop thriving
And soon they take over from their father, just as they have done with the shop for some time now. Shiao Leong, Wong’s son, has been taking care of Wong & Co. Chinese Shoes for more than two decades now, and Suysha Wong, the daughter-in-law, has been involved in the business for almost 16 years. Every day, Shiao Leong sits right at the entrance behind the shop’s sewing machine, the leather pieces gliding swiftly under the needle, each stitch flawlessly rendered. Behind the counter, one of the staff members is hunched over a chart paper, pencil in hand, tracing the pattern of the shoe that has been recently ordered. Suysha Wong, sitting beside the counter—in front of the several shelves that showcase dingoes, oxfords, boots—is always ready with answers for each and every shoe-related question a customer puts forth.
The family has refined the technique of shoemaking, and their dedication to the craft has kept the shop thriving. That kind of belief in what they do can only have come from doing something for decades, and doing it right every single time. In the last four decades, despite the many other shoe shops mushrooming across the city, Wong & Co. has done great business because they know what they are doing—hand-making the best-quality leather shoes.
Their confidence comes from being the keepers of a knowledge that has been passed down through generations in the family. After decades of crafting shoes in his father’s shop and in his own workshop, the art of making a good pair has become muscle memory for the older Mr Wong. He learned the craft of bespoke shoemaking, the art of custom-making shoes, by observing his father toil at their shoe shop in Chinatown, Calcutta. Their shop was just one among the many others lining the streets of Chinatown, where shoemaking has long been a profession of choice. Later as the demand for custom-made shoes increased all over India, most Chinese shoemakers filtered out to cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, among others, to capitalise on the growing business prospects. Wong’s family decided to move to Shillong.
Instead of taking the easier and cheaper route of using readymade soles—made of PU, rubber, plastic or nylon—Wong’s has stayed true to the tradition of creating their leather soles by themselves
In Shillong, his father stuck with his love for the craft and started a shoemaking business in Bara Bazaar. Wong helped his father around the shop, imbibing each and every skill his father had to offer, to start on his journey to becoming a master shoemaker himself. In 1975, when Wong first came to Kathmandu, he came as a visitor. But the city’s “peaceful energy” stirred in him the desire to never leave. So he carried all the skills he had learned, along with memories of his shops in Calcutta and Shillong, and started Wong & Co. in Bagbazaar.
Every day that he worked here, the city got busier, dirtier, dustier and noisier, but the peace he had felt when he first came to the city stayed with him. And with every passing day, the shop’s reputation for their custom-made shoes was spreading. None of the clutter accumulating in the city outside, nor the bandhas and the traffic jams were enough to make him want to pack up and leave.
And regardless of the changes outside, inside the shop, the work moved to its own rhythm. The elder Wong’s formula for making his best shoes, which he got from his father is an age-old, simple one. It’s something that most other shoe shops in the city once adhered to too, but jettisoned over the years. Unlike them, instead of taking the easier and cheaper route of using readymade soles—made of PU, rubber, plastic or nylon—Wong’s has stayed true to the tradition of creating their leather soles by themselves. The care and attention that goes into the themselves making of the sturdy bottom means it can handle much wear and tear, without the shoemaker’s having to sacrifice anything when it comes to providing comfort.
How the leather soles are made embody the true meaning of ‘custom-made’. “Even the inner part of the collar and the insole are made of leather,” says Shiao Leong. “After you wear these shoes for a certain time, the leather moulds itself around the shape of your feet.” As the sole mimics the curves and contours of your feet, the shoes become more and more comfortable. Furthermore, says Shiao Leong, making shoes in this manner, prevents them from developing an odour. Even today, when Wong’s has taken to making shoes of the cheaper variety too, more than half the shoes made in the shop have hand-made leather soles and follow the same age-old method of craftsmanship.
Over the last four decades, thousands of customers have walked in to wong & co. and walked out with their special pair of shoes
Every pair of shoe at Wong’s, however, goes through the same process. First, the design that is on the customer’s mind gets rendered on paper by Shiao Leong. He puts the pattern on a piece of leather—pigskin, calfskin or cowskin—and his scissors swiftly make cuts along the edges of the template. Then comes the designing. Using a punch, Shiao Leong seals the fate of the leather—he makes perforations along the edges for a brogue, none at all for an oxford, and accents for dingoes. Then all the pieces start coming together, as he hand-stitches the leather together to form the upper, before giving it its final form over the last—a frame made in the image of the foot. Finally, to bring everything to a close, he stitches the leather sole with the upper part, using cotton threads to ensure sturdiness. The regulars at Wong & Co. have known that their shoes are more than good value for money, in terms of comfort, fit, design and durability, and that is why they keep coming back even after so many years.
Over the last four decades, thousands of customers have walked in to Wong & Co. and walked out with their special pair of shoes. They’ve come from all walks of life. There have been office-goers who wanted sturdy everyday boots to wear to work; there has been an actor (Bhuwan KC) during his tyro days, who wanted to make the best impression in his debut movie with a new pair of dingoes; and many members of the royal family used to order shoes from him; quite a few still do. The shop’s clientele is not just limited to Kathmandu. Shoe aficionados from all over come to the store, be it from Chitwan, Pokhara, Hetauda or Dharan, to get a shoe made exactly like the image they had in mind. Many also end up settling for a find that they hadn’t been looking for.
Wong’s also makes ‘special’ custom-made shoes. A regular, Prem Subba, who has been coming to the shop for more than 20 years, says, “I have a condition that requires me to wear special boots, and Wong’s always gets it right.” Subba makes sure to carry at least five of Wong’s boots every time he travels abroad. “Every time someone asks me about my shoes, I can’t stop talking about Wong’s and their skills.”
Such kind words are what Wong’s business is built on. Because Wong’s has never compromised on quality, the shoes are the shop’s best advertisement. The word-of mouth reviews don’t stop proliferating. That is why Wong’s have nothing to worry about, says Suysha Wong.
Even though the market might today be saturated with cheap readymade brands, they know that they’ll keep thriving. And even though the street of Bagbazaar is getting a makeover, discerning customers will still make their way to the little shop, to get fitted just right.