Thursday 12 December 2013

Tailor Made (Mistakes)

As a teenager, I think going to the tailor is a sure sign that you have grown up, joining the ranks of adults.

Unless, of course, if your family was wealthy and your clothes were mintly tailored every Chinese New Year. A friend lived that...clothes tailored since he was three. He has a photo of himself in a tiny waist coat looking very much the Little Master he was called by his two amahs.

That was until his father's business took a dive and he had to wear hand-me-downs. He suddenly realised that clothes could last! And in his case, they did. His father's business took a while to recover. But although he was economically challenged, he did not buy clothes off the rack. He'd always found those ill-fitting, he said; and continued to have them tailored whenever he could afford it.

I suggested if it was all in his mind this need to tailor. He smiled and said maybe.

I then told him that although I had my clothes tailored once, they didn't fit. It was during my student days at Pre-U college. It was the beginning of the new school year and the school thought they could do the students a favour by hiring a tailor and have the uniforms made en masse, just to help the students save some money. It was after all a mission school and saving money a desired virtue. Besides, the students' families might appreciate the gesture. Maybe there were a number of needy students in our school that year!

I decided to sign up. For me it was just a matter of convenience. No need to go to a tailor and afterwards having to pick up the clothes there myself. Everything would be done at school. I also needn't worry if my uniform would be of the right shade of school color. Nobody had ever heard of the Pantone color-coding system at the time yet, let alone SCOTDIC the one for textiles.

Surprisingly, even though it was a centralized effort, our school uniforms took longer than usual to finish and deliver. Were there too many orders?

In any case, on the day itself, I was very excited. I couldn't wait to wear my uniform and begin life at the new school. Pre-U sounded exciting and vastly different from secondary schooling. The Pre-U kids I've seen were more like young adults than pimple-challenged pubescent kids in shorts. I couldn't wait to be part of their cohort!

Finally, the Day of the Uniforms arrived. My classmates were just as excited as I was. My new classmate Long was also eager. He came from a kampung in Nee Soon (Yishun) and never had his clothes tailored.

But alas, to the disappointment of everyone, the uniforms came back very poorly made. How bad? Well, the inside seams of the pants didn't match for one. They were impossible to align when ironing (that's two!). The seamline would always be different each time and end up being crooked!

For someone who grew up with NPCC and smart uniforms, such awkward pants were rather off-putting. How could I wear these, I wondered?

I made a report to the school. It turned out that I was not the only one. The school was inundated with similar complaints and getting flak. The girls too were affected and had skirts with A-lines that were anything but. One classmate kept pulling at hers. The situation was so comical that we could only laugh. How can a tailor get such basics so very wrong? It was not as if they had to work with a difficult material such as silk! I  mean all they had to do was sew straight, right?

We all wondered who made those clothes. It turned out to be a professional tailor. Really? We were all incredulous. We suspected that the shop subbed them out to other less-able contractors. Maybe the pants were sewn by two blind midgets taking one pant leg each. Sigh....

As with young adults, the reasons came fast and thick as did the inevitable jokes. Someone suggested that were our school uniform a sarong, things might turn out better. No sewing required. And we could change into our PE gear real quick without having to go to the changing room. At sports meets, we would have a flag to wave about, etc, etc. We could use the sarong to snap at each other. My classmates were not very book smart, but heck, their heads were always full of crazy ideas. 

So, even though we might have become young adults, our thinking then was still very teenager!


I looked at myself in the mirror in my new school uniform. A young man in ill-fitting clothes stared back. The shirt was tight at the shoulders making him look hunched. The backside looked out of shape. The lower left leg seam was crooked. 

I wished the mirror to be a trick mirror but it wasn't!

I presented myself to my sister who laughed out loud immediately. "Yau mo gau cho ah!" she exclaimed in our dialect Cantonese. "That's really messed up! You better go get it changed!" She was still laughing as she exited the room.

And so the next day, I took my school uniforms (three sets) back to school. It turned out that we had to liaise with the tailor ourselves. And as the queue was long, I decided to live with it. After all, it was only for a short two-year course, barring me failing and having to repeat. After college I would be called up for National Service and can say goodbye to school. No more school uniforms for me! 

During NS, no one complained about mismatched seams and strange hemlines; we strangely fitted into our clothes rather well. Perhaps the "botak" haircut took away more than just hair. It also took away our critical nature. We all just blended in like apples in a barrel. And no one wanted to be labelled a Complaint King in that first three months. You could get "blanket partied".

And since school was mostly a half-day affair, our time spent in that lousy uniform would be minimal. Besides, I was involved in a few school activities that required me to change out of my school uniform, so, I really can't be bothered with it at all.

A consolation was that my school uniform was not the worst. Fellow classmate Ding's school pants were all poofed up at the crotch making it seem as if he had a small pillow tucked in there. It looked as if there was no difference whether he worn his back or front. Yet others had ill-fitting pocket openings that had extended openings like some bovine's inverted vagina. Good luck with keeping a wallet in there!

Man oh man, how could a tailor (or a bunch tailors) get their orders so very very wrong???


My first tailoring experience was at a tailor shop named Brazil in Bukit Timah Shopping Centre. I used to school around that area and when I served my NS in SAFTI, Jurong later on, that place opposite Beauty World became a journey mid-point back-and-to camp. So naturally, I would hang out there for coffee and to do some window shopping. I remember spending quite a bit of time at a ground floor electronics shop that also dealt with hi-fi.

A few years earlier back in secondary school, BTSC was already our regular hangout place. We used to go to a nearby sch for Technical Studies. Even though encumbered with our T-squares and drawing boards, we still hung out at BTSC. We watched Jackie Chan's Drunken Master there when the cinema at the top floor was still active. There was also the rather "atas" (expensive) The Ship restaurant for business meals and first dates!

The reason I had to tailor my clothes at Brazil was that I needed a suit for my Officer Cadet School graduation. I also needed something for a farewell party so I added an additional pair of pants to the order. For that private function I was expected to bring a date so there was incentive for me to look better than usual. And I did want to impress my date!

The pants turned out very well. They felt like a second skin and was in a color that I really liked - a kind of water green with barely visible threads of brown, gold and green to make the fabric look interesting up close.

The suit was similarly very well done. It was in a nice grey-blue material with inlaid threads of black. Oh my! My very first suit! I guess most guys would remember their first suit... whether it was made for work, a wedding or even a funeral. Especially if the latter's their own.


Back in the 80s, I had a neighbourhood family friend who was a tailor. He and his fellow tailor brother ran a shop nearby. It was around that time that I realised the profession was going the way of the Dodo. He (the elder brother) knew it too and started leasing out part of his shop for other business. My mom was the first to take up that space to sell her small jade and silver jewelry pieces.

It was then that we had more conversations with him and come to realise that departmental store ready-to-wear clothing was killing both his business and profession.

How to save it? we asked. But the older brother was resigned to his fate and started to trade in stocks and shares - a booming profession at the time.

In the end, trading in stocks became so addictive that the elder brother decided to sell off his shop to concentrate on that. The younger brother also stopped making clothes to help out at a nearby hawker center.


You know, I thought my tailoring misadventure ended at Pre-U college, but no. When I started work as an adult, I needed work pants. At one time, the trend was to make three pairs for $100. Not a bad promo, I had thought then. The first set I got made was at a stall in the hawker centre opposite the ferry terminal (beside the old World Trade Centre). The pants turned out excellent and I took pleasure in wearing them for many years. I also liked the jean-style pockets in front, not something one could find easily off the rack; and this old man tailor did make them very well!

Many years on, with pants worn down to bare threads, I decided to revisit the same tailoring promo idea and went to a stall in Marsiling that charged only $88 for three pairs! Instead of being more expensive as time passed, tailoring new pants got cheaper!

It must be the competitive nature of the business that drove prices down. Or the downward spiral of material cost, no thanks to China or India dumping their surplus textile products on their neighbouring trade partners. Either way, we got to enjoy good cloth at pretty low expense.

And so from good cloth were those $88 pants made. 

At that price they were even better than the ready-to-wear pants sold at John's Little or Chinese Emporium. In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have gone to Marsiling (near my home) to make those pants. The guy seemed rather nervous and did fumble with the measuring tape. He also seemed shy measuring my crotch area. Was it that intimidating? I wondered mischieviously. In the end, his wife took over the measuring task. No, she wasn't young and she wasn't taken in by my good looks and prominent crotch bump. She just couldn't tahan her hubby.


When I did eventually collect the pants, two of the them had major mistakes. One pant leg was shorter than the other. 

I checked my own legs, they were not at fault at all. Nope, they were very much in the manner I was born with. Same length albeit a little bow-legged. (Was I a cowboy in my past life?)

I highlighted the error to the tailor guy trying to be as gentle as possible so his ego would not be hurt. He was, after all, older. But instead of apologising, he tried to make up an excuse for the mistakes.

What excuse could he possibly give, I wondered, jaws dropping and eyes opened wide in an "Are you serious?" look.

"Wear already no problem," he said, in Mandarin and matter-of-factly.

What??? Wear already no problem?!

I wanted to tell him that I was no magician who pulls optical illusions on unsuspecting folks walking by. 

If a pirate had a wooden leg, HE HAD A WOODEN LEG!

The gall of him to tell me to just go with it. Wah piang! Wah lau eh! was echoing through my numbed mind.

I steeled him an eye. "Ah chek (old man), what are you going to do about this?" 

The man was utterly lost for words and a solution. He could only stare at the handicapped pantleg perhaps willing it to grow a few inches longer. Honestly, I couldn't tell if he was sorry, mulling or thinking.

Finally I said: "Come, I teach you."

"You have to hemp here at the leg end. Unfold it and you will get back roughly two inches. To replace the hemp, just fold the edge less. Alter the other side to match too."

In my mind the solution was pretty obvious. I had learnt to sew in primary school (all part of the regular Art lessons) and was a designer of sorts.

But the tailor guy looked at me as if I was speaking Yiddish.

I was starting to get angry. Look man, here I am trying to fix your mistake. Could you be a bit more contrite, and maybe also a little bright?

At that point the wife came out of the shop. I explained to her again what happened. She looked at her husband and then at the pants, anger rising. I proceeded to explain to her what could be done. 

"Ok, I know what to do," she said, giving her husband a really chilly look that asked "Am i seriously married to you?" 

The following week I collected the pants. They were altered and they fitted. What a relief!


The tailoring shops I first knew as a kid were the ones at Peninsular Hotel where a visiting family friend and her family always stayed. There, the tailors were those who were often called upon by visiting tourists or dignitaries for a cheap but good suit. Pretty much the same as what was happening in Hong Kong then in the 60s and 70s.

In the 80s and up till now, it was Thailand and their tailors' magical skill with silk (and sometimes batik) that pulled fans over.

As a kid growing up in Geylang, my aunty's first BF was the son of a tailor whose shop was along the main road. He would always turn up for a date dressed in what looked like expensive and immaculate duds. His shiny pants always made an impression - the kind successful pop stars wore. His shirts were no slouch either. All in all, he came across as quite the happening dude. And he drove a Mini then, another in-fashion statement.

But surprisingly, my aunt, who was pretty in her own way, did not go further with him, Instead, she picked a rather dour fellow to be her future husband. Maybe his strong chin had something to do with it. Or that she, despite being a quick wit and motormouth, was actually quite conservative at heart.

My best memory of her BF family's tailor shop was the sign above their shop. It was very iconic and made in a style of that era. It featured a model's head and letters painted on zinc sheet and mounted on a backboard made of long wood strips. 

Beside the shop was a small home-factory sewing hats and bags out of plastic drinking straws. The (sun) hats were actually quite prickly to wear. You don't see these kind of products anymore, just as we have stopped making door curtains out of rolled up calendar strips as well.

But today, we continue to go to a tailor for that one-of-a-kind outfit. Nothing fits better than a tailored piece. Girls should know what with their tailored Coming Of Age gowns. And I am glad that some tailors have up their ante with fashionable designs and interesting materials.

I don't like calling a good tailor a tailor. It's like calling a good hairstylist a barber. No disrespect to barbers out there, but a hairstylist has a greater degree of styling and professional skill. A couturier? A dressmaker? A clothier? 

In the news recently, someone designed a bullet-proof and stab-proof suit. Incredible, no? A skill is a skill is a skill. It all depends upon how one applies it. And cooks and chefs best illustrate that as well as artists and sculptors in the interior design space.

Next story: A Life of Jeans

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