third-generation shoemakers wah aik are still making beaded nyonya sandals and bound feet shoes by hand, continuing a family legacy that began over 100 years ago.
every single coloured bead, each swathe of fabric or leather, the smallest details of shoemaking – nothing escapes the sharp eyes of yeo keng yam, simon and raymond yeo. into their 50s and 60s, the yeo brothers are the grandchildren of the late yeo eng tong, who arrived in melaka from hainan island more than a century ago, armed with skills that he had honed under the tutelage of a master shoemaker. his know-how covered footwear for the armed forces and nurses, men’s leather oxfords and profitably at the time, three-inch golden lotus shoes for women with bound feet.
he opened wah aik shoemaker in what is now known as jonker street and in adapting to local life, also learned to make traditional beaded sandals that the nyonyas wore to complement their form-fitting kebaya. his specialty extended to traditional wedding shoes, leather slip-ons that bore intricate floral patterns embroidered from silver thread. “we can’t make them these days,” says raymond as he picks a pair gingerly from a cabinet that holds a small selection of the antique beauties, “because you can’t even find this type of thread anymore!”
the several pairs that the yeos still have in their possession are precious inheritance from their grandfather and are now part of the prized display at their shop on jalan tokong, several hundred metres from the original premise, which they had to give up in 2000 due to rising rent. “we transported the entire store, lock stock and barrel to this current address. all our families and friends came out to help on moving day,” raymond recalls, pointing out that practically every piece of furniture and all the shoemaking equipment they still use – a sewing machine and wooden shoe moulds among them – were from their grandfather’s time.
in essence then, wah aik is not just a retail outlet but a living museum of melaka fashion from the 19th century. at the time, the practice of binding women’s feet – considered a status and beauty symbol – was very much alive and so it was that the late yeo made many a pair of bound feet shoes. some of his handiwork is now part of the exhibit at the shop, including a couple of models made of silk and one that’s made of grey leather. “back then, the leather versions were more common as they’re sturdy enough for daily wear, whereas the silk ones are worn on special occasions,” says raymond.
the latter have velvet insoles and leather soles, and it is these that the brothers continue to produce today. selling for rm95 a pair and mainly to tourists, they look no different from the ones in the display case except for one feature: the original designs had rounded fronts that reflected the shape of bound feet whereas today’s versions have slim, tapered tips as they’re clearly not meant to be worn but are collectors’ items.
what has not changed is the process itself; whether it’s the dainty bound feet shoes or delicate beaded nyonya slippers, every component is still executed by hand just as the brothers had been taught by their grandfather and later, their father. that includes cutting the different fabric and leather parts into defined shapes, sewing the parts together, punching the eyelets and for the nyonya shoes, stringing and sewing every single bead. they take customised orders for both types of shoes, offering a selection of patterned silk for the former while the latter comes in a number of designs – flats or heels, slip-ons or with straps – and choice of coloured leather. there is also a variety of beaded patterns to choose from, striking motifs in vibrant palettes, one more elaborate than the last.
although the brothers make it look effortless, observe them at work and it’s evident just how laborious every step of the shoemaking process is and how precise they need to be. with the bound feet shoes, there is the added challenge of having to shape the upper by hands as there is no mould for it.
the yeo brothers took over the family business some 30 years ago and are intent on keeping it going for as long as they can. their next generation has, to date, not expressed any interest in taking over and even their location is not secure; the landlord may be selling off the unit soon, which means that wah aik may have to up and move again. but if they do, you can be assured that they will keep the shop’s furnishings and displays as is.
> wah aik shoemaker melaka no 56 jalan tokong, melaka, malaysia tel +606 284 9726/+606 317 1901 opens 9.30am-5.30am daily http://wahaikshoemakermelaka.webs.com
this story first appeared in the edge review