Saturday, January 2, 2010

Unchanged Melody series 4 - Master Hong Hanlin, Artisanal Shoemaker 洪汉林 - 手工制鞋匠

Hong Hanlin 洪汉林, 80-year-old is making shoes when I arrived at his tiny shoe shop at Bencoolen Street Food Center. He is one of Singapore's few remaining artisanal shoemakers. His father passed away when he was a child, and his family was poverty-stricken. At the age of 15, he went into shoemaking, and endured a very hard period as an apprentice.

Make the jump to listen to what Master Hong said about his life as a shoemaker.

01 - Apprenticeship by Martin Lew
Click on Play button to listen Master Hong's dialogue. Below is the translation.

"During my time, the masters would beat their apprentices. We got scolded all day long. We had to wake up at 6 am... to wash all the dishes in the kitchen. And we had to boil water, make tead and sweep the floor. After that, we would open the shop and wait for the master to start work."

"When it was meal time, he would get me to go to the wet market to get him a 10-cent bowl of beancurd. By the time I came back from the market, the dishes were gone and only plain rice remained."

Despite the hardship, Master Hong endured 3 long years of tough apprenticeship. In the end, he persevered and enquired an accomplished skill and mastered the complicated and intricate craft of shoemaking.
Shoemaking is a skilled craft. Shoemakers must have a good understanding of the human foot and basic knowledge of bones and muscles. With an aim of customizing to each customer's feet, a shoemaker employs sharp skills of drawing, trimming, slicing, cutting, knocking and gluing in order to create a unique pair of shoes that fully suits the customer.

With the emphasis on economic efficiency, such time-consuming and laborious work is not viable in today's society. However, Master Hong strongly believes elaborate works creates fine products. The average shoes cannot be compared with hand-crafted shoes.

02 - Workmanship by Martin Lew
"Now you can simply use glue without having to stitch. Just paste it on. That's why the shoes split easily after a short time. As for my shoes, if for any reason they split open, for instance in the rain, you can bring them back to me. If you bought it for $100, I'll pay you $200."

In spite of Master Hong's persistence, there's nothing he can do to save the traditional shoemaking trade. Not more than 6 artisanal shoemakers like him remain. "...some have passed on while some have retired. Their children do not want them to work." explained Master Hong in Mandarin.

The leather cutter is a shoemaker's best tool. Its razor sharp blade can cut any type of material. "I have suffered many cuts to my hands and feet." exclaimed Master Hong. "When I was an apprentice, I did not appreciate the danger as there was once I was too slow to get up, the cutter droppped on my toe and there's still a scar. When you put in some force, you would get cut if not careful." he continued. He even showed me a scar on his left hand. "That was when I accidentally stabbed myself when I was an apprentice." he said.

03 - Shoemaker Tools by Martin Lew

Master Hong doesn't bother about such bodily hurt as his prime consideration is to make shoes that satisfy his customers. He has 2 groups of clientele. One group consists of people who cannot find their desired shoes, and the other are people who have problem foot type.

04 - Shoes for Handicappeds by Martin Lew
"I have made a lot of shoes for disabled. I have seen all kinds of feet. When they can't get a pair of shoes elsewhere, I would make one for them."

Having endured the toil and despair of being in this trade, Master Hong does not wish for anyone to follow in his footsteps. As such, his craft is destined to die with him.

05 - Dying Trade by Martin Lew
"Many have asked me to take in apprentices, but I refuse. Even my son can't do this. The young ones aren't keen on such troublesome work. They are more interested in mass producing for overseas markets. Who'd want to make shoes a pair at a time, which is painstaking and bothersome."

"I dare say there is no happy shoemaker. There is no happiness in my generation of shoemakers. How can one be happy when you toil from morning till night, by which time there's nowhere to go to but sleep."

"When you have a skill, you can work till you are 80. You work on if you can, but if not, you have to give up." said Master Hong.

Here's a slideshow for summary.

Readers can visit my website for other Unchanged Melody series.