For 26 years, this Chinese seamstress has kept traditional Malay costumes alive with her customised designs
Needles and thread were never far away when Madam Lie Hong Haw was growing up, so it was inevitable that sewing would become the guiding passion in her life.
As a child growing up in Medan in Indonesia, Madam Lie, 64, was often by the side of her eldest sister, a seamstress. Their parents had settled in Medan after leaving Fuzhou, China.
Madam Lie would help her sister with chores such as sewing on buttons, but those mundane tasks soon sparked a passion for sewing.
The seventh of 10 children, she would collect scraps of fabric to make clothes for herself, her sisters, friends and neighbours.
The positive feedback boosted her confidence and following her father's advice to pick up a life skill, she started attending classes at a sewing academy near her home when she was 14.
She learnt the basics of the craft, such as taking measurements and drafting, with a focus on contemporary fashion and traditional Indonesian outfits. The timing was spot on as the fashion and sewing industry was blossoming in Indonesia at the time.
Madam Lie was quick to put what she had learnt into practice. Her mother's sewing machine became a tool for her to customise clothes for customers at home, while she continued honing her skills at the academy.
Her six classmates at the academy have all but dropped out of the fashion industry, but Madam Lie remains busy with her craft.
She works seven days a week at Bewa Enterprise, a company she founded in Joo Chiat Complex in 1993 with her husband and business partner Wong Song Kwong, 66.
Bewa Enterprise is known for ready-made and customised traditional Malay costumes such as baju kurung and baju Pahang. In recent years, it has introduced more modern styles such as the mini kurung to break into the youth market.
Madam Lie's clients generally buy her clothes for festivities such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri, weddings and official gatherings, as well as for religious visits to Mecca.
Madam Lie was given the nickname Bewa by her clients. At that time, she had returned to sewing from home after a seven-year break looking after her two sons. The name Bewa became well known in the Malay community and eventually served as her company's name.
She said she decided to focus on making clothes for the Malay community because of her familiarity with Malay tradition and culture, noting: "The fashion is similar to what we have in Indonesia. I understand my customers very well and we communicate like friends."
But she still had to make some cultural adjustments.
"The clothes I make here belong to the Malays so I had to understand and learn what traditional Malay costumes are like," she added.
A visit to her workplace on most days will see the tireless Madam Lie bounding up and down the stairs between her two shop units on the third floor of Joo Chiat Complex, and her office and workstation on the fourth floor.
At the same time, she attends to customers, offering suggestions and advice, taking measurements, and delegating work to her skilled seamstresses Chen Liping and Zhen Guo Yao.
She also spends time on the most important aspect of her customised order business - cutting the patterns for the orders.
"When we take the measurements ourselves, we can assess whether they are fat or slim. The result will be a better fit," said Madam Lie.
She is passionate about keeping the traditional aspects of Malay clothing alive and has encouraged Ms Chen, 60, to learn how to sew the traditional leher ketumbar design on the collars of the outfits. The Malay seamstresses she employed could not sew them any more because of poor eyesight.
"Some customers nowadays don't want it made but I encourage them to. I tell them it's their tradition," explained Madam Lie.
The task of coming up with new designs for younger customers and taking the business online lies with the elder of her two sons, Mr Huang Jian Hui, and his wife Stacy Chua, both 35.
"When I first came (to Singapore), there were still some people who were sewing Malay clothes," Madam Lie recalled.
"There are now fewer and fewer people doing so. Young people these days do not learn how to sew Malay clothes. People usually just buy ready-made clothes."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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