A handmade pair of Nyonya beaded shoes is a piece of wearable art
I hover uncertainly at the entrance, confused by the unexpected presence of a canned drinks stall and a row of souvenirs. One rack is laden with shoe lasts. A table is overrun with pattern drawings. Leather swatches, trimmings and bottles of beads spill out of boxes. Yes, this is definitely the workshop-cum-outlet of Tan Kok Oo, one of Penang’s finest makers of Nyonya beaded shoes.
No ordinary footwear, beaded shoes are an integral part of the distinctive Baba and Nyonya culture, the moniker for early Chinese immigrants who settled in Penang, Melaka and Singapore. They eventually drew from both local Malay and their inherited Chinese heritage to form a culture that is uniquely their own. The shoes were de rigueur for social occasions – no self-respecting Nyonya would dare to wear anything else with her coiffed hair, accessories and kebaya!
Tan is distinctive for being one of Penang’s few – if not only – shoemakers, equally adept at making the two major components of the shoe – the sole, and the beaded ‘face’ that covers the upper. While most shoemakers tend to specialise in one or the other, Tan was unusually interested in the arts and saw it as more than a vocation.
Starting out in 1974 in his cousin’s shoe wholesaling business on Jalan Sri Bahari, he picked up the skill of making the upper from his cousin, and persuaded other sifus (masters) to teach him the art of making solid soles. When his cousin passed away in 1997, Tan established his own shoe shop on Armenian Street, where he has stayed put.
To Tan, the hardest part of making a Nyonya shoe is the colour combination of the beaded face. “You really need colour contrast so you must be daring, yet the colours have to be harmonious,” he says. The tiny coloured glass beads are hand-sewn one by one onto a piece of cross-stitch cloth on a wooden frame, before it is fastened to the sole. A cloth is glued to the back to reinforce the upper. He explains, “Beaded slippers are very fragile, and any break in the thread will slowly unravel the entire tapestry.”
As the beads are miniscule, it is only possible for him to do four hours of beading a day before fatigue and eye strain set in. On average, the beading takes three months to complete for a pair of shoes, although he only needs one full day to finish the actual shoes.
Originally, the beaded face is in a crescent-shaped panel, thus forming a close-toed slipper. At Tan’s, you can request three different toe styles – round, square or pointed. As for the design, you can bring a printout of your desired pattern for him to refer to, choose your motifs from his catalogue, or do it the old school way: describe your preferred motif and favourite colours, and trust Tan to devise a new pattern based on his experience and instincts. “No returns so far,” he says with a smile when I ask.
Despite Tan’s expertise, bespoke shoemaking is a sunset trade, hence the supplementary drinks and souvenir businesses. “In a way, I am lucky my shop is located on Armenian Street here as this is where all tourists come for sightseeing. They notice my shop and sometimes when they return home, they tell their friends about it.”
Still, he barely breaks even by the time he’s added up the cost of his material, time and rental. Thus, Tan is left with a dilemma: should he betray the tradition of bespoke shoemaking or live hand-to-mouth, like a true artist?
Naturally, Tan has chosen the latter. He refuses to compromise on his standards. For example, he prefers to use the more expensive Grade 1 beads from Japan, as the colours don’t fade. “The beads are also smaller, which makes the patterns look more refined.” He is aware there are shoemakers who resort to cost-cutting measures by substituting leather with PVC, but this is a no-no for Tan.
“Only leather is worthy of a heritage as fine as Nyonya beaded shoes,” he asserts.