Artisan : Madam Chen

Artisan : Madam Chen
Photographed by Amani Azlin
Interviewed and Edited by Chew Siew Keat 



It's a quiet morning in the outskirts of Ampang. A green metal sliding door slides open revealing a factory within a series of shop lots. Behind the closed green doors are a cacophony of sounds. machines chugging away and working on cutting parts, a lady is sat on a corner, hammering away, making sure the soles of the shoes stick to the base. Its a tiny village of craftsmen and artisans working on the shoes, some applying strong industrial glue, some cutting the patterns and some behind a desk making sure the numbers add up and taking on the secretarial tasks that others wont do. It's a team lead by a woman, featuring a team made up almost entirely of women. In a corner behind a big desk busy working is Madam Chen. 

How long have you been a shoemaker?

I’ve been learning this trade since I was 13. I grew up in a new village in Ipoh, everyone I knew were shoemakers. It was a common trade back then. When my teacher, who is still alive and in her 80s, asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up, I told her that I wanted to be a shoemaker. Even my best friend was one! It was something that I have known since I was a child so I don't regret the choice I have made. I remember following a bunch of friends out to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. We were there to learn and I managed to learn and work under a artisan called Saito. He was a pretty renowned shoemaker then. I didn't have a knack for designing so I mostly learned how to make shoes only from him. My duties then even were extended to doing menial daily tasks for him.  But it was great because I managed to learn so much from him about shoes and I’m glad that I can continue his craftsmanship till today. 

What was the highlight of your almost 40 year long career?

After me and my husband started our business, we worked with a Japanese company to make shoes. It was a long term partnership and we learned so much from each other. It was a mutual respect between both parties that allowed us to form lifelong friendships with them. Being that our shoes are handmade they were very understanding on the time that we needed to take to complete their order. They used to have a representative from Japan in Malaysia to help us. We would learn from them, have meals together and the representatives would insist on learning and practicing our cultures. They were very humble and helped make our work ethic and quality better. It was a very rewarding experience. 

What are your hopes and dreams for the future now that you have approached semi retirement?

I don't really have any hopes and dreams anymore aside from the continuation of this craft. The company that I have built with my husband is in safe hands now that our daughter is in charge. This isn't a very glamorous job, you don't get to sit in an office with air conditioning. It’s hard and tedious work making every shoe by hand. Lately we have started including machines in some aspects but most of it is still going to be handmade and my daughter is not afraid of hard work so I’m happy to see this company still going strong. Now I choose to come and help our workers with the shoes whenever I can and there aren't as many artisan's out there as it used to be but luckily we still have a few with us that help us make each shoe with precision and care. 


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