The Wong family has been living in Bag Bazaar making remarkable hand-made shoes since 1975. The craft is a legacy handed down from generation to generation through changing times.
Forty-five years ago, Wong Howsen and his wife Lim Ay Yan came to Nepal and immediately set up a business in Kathmandu, making hand-made shoes. He chose the then quiet neighborhood of Bag Bazaar and had their living quarters above the store where he spent the rest of his life. Born in Shillong, India, he was of Chinese origin and grew up in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Howsen’s mother had opened a shoe store and a restaurant in Shillong where she raised four sons and two daughters who were twins, but today only one of his brothers remains in Shillong. The rest have immigrated to different parts of the world, like many other Chinese families have done.
Calcutta had a large Chinese community that was engaged in the tannery business and shoe making industry, while some also ran restaurants. There is a vibrant Chinatown where locals go to eat delicious Chinese food, but over the years, a large number of Chinese have left India to settle abroad. After completing his studies in Calcutta, Howsen joined his mother in Shillong to help her run the business. When he finally decided to leave his birthplace, he put his cousin in charge of their store there and headed for Kathmandu. Here in his new found home, he didn’t wait long to start his own business which makes his store also forty-five years old.
Seven months ago, Howsen passed away, leaving behind his 72-year-old wife and four grown up children, one of whom still remains here, running the old family business. “My brother and I are twins and we have two sisters,” says Wong Shiao Leong who still lives in the same house in Bag Bazaar. Unlike most of us, they write their surname first, followed by their given name. “Mom and Dad came to Nepal together and built up a reputation of making hand-made shoes. We still continue the tradition but we only call the 100% leather shoes hand-made because the ones with rubber soles involves machine pressing the sole,” he adds. He joined his father in the store 28 years ago after completing his studies. On a cool Sunday after office hours, his shop is buzzing with a steady stream of customers walking in. Most seem to want custom made shoes and many of them have come to collect their order placed several days before. The shoes come in a wide range of prices from Rs. 3000 to Rs. 18,000.
Wong Howsen had a close friend while studying in a Chinese school in Calcutta. When their kids were grown up, the two arranged for their son and daughter to get married. Shiao Leong and Suysha Syiemiong got married 20 years ago. “We had our wedding in Shillong and a bhoj in Kathmandu,” says Suysha smiling. They have two daughters, one studying in Class 7 at St. Mary’s while the elder daughter is attending K.M.C. doing her second year in Plus 2.
Shiao Leong’s mother is still actively involved in the shop, attending to the customers personally. The three of them along with staff all deal with customers, taking out shoes from the racks or taking down orders, or fetching the made to order shoes. One of the staff is putting the finishing touches to a pair of boots. From the racks full of shoes, customers choose a design and either place an order or buy a ready-made pair. Most of them seem to seek advice from Shiao Leong as they are undecided when they walk in. There is a buzz when they have to deal with many clients simultaneously but the atmosphere is lively and friendly.
The sales are equally split between custom made and ready-made, the custom made costing more for obvious reasons, but Wong explains, “It takes longer to make custom made shoes as you need to try out a new pattern and there’s wastage of leather as well. It usually takes 2 ½ days to make a custom-made pair while a regular design takes about 1 ½ days. The leather comes in sheets of either 18 sq.ft. or 20 sq. ft. and have to be cut into smaller pieces.” He remembers a time when besides themselves, only Bansbari Chala Jutta and Fitrite were producing shoes but they were factory made.
Although places like Calcutta in India had a large number of Chinese people settled and making a good living in the 70s, Nepal had only a handful of Chinese families permanently settled in Kathmandu. Besides the Wongs, there were two families running restaurants: one family in Jamal and another in Lazimpat. The family is Lazimpat was also Wong and had a restaurant named Wong’s Kitchen, a popular eatery among locals and expats. A Chinese dentist had set up a clinic in Lazimpat in the 1970s and his daughter followed in his footsteps to study dentistry as well. “The dentist’s son has opened a business cleaning carpets in Saat Dobato, and there’s another Chinese family that has a retail store of ready-made clothes in Boudha,” says Wong.
“Although I was born here, I can’t get a citizenship as the government changed rules years ago,” laments Shiao Leong. It is a problem faced by many people living in Nepal whose parents immigrated to the country before they were born. But having been born here, he speaks like any other Nepali without a trace of accent and is very much a part of the Nepali society. His children are the third generation of Wongs living in Kathmandu.
An old Singer machine confronts you as you enter the shop and Shiao Leong informs me, “This machine is a 100 years old and was bought by my grand-mother. We had seven of these in the old days.” They still use this old sewing machine. In the shop you are surrounded by large racks reaching from the floor up to the ceiling, full of leather shoes in various hues. The shoes they make are highly impressive and they come in all shapes and sizes of amazing variety including Dingo boots, Harley boots, Chelsea boots and others. Some of them have fancy patterns which seem popular among his customers. “Will this look good with jeans?” asks one customer while another one wants something that will go with formal trousers. “Go for brown, that will match well,” advises Wong. Some of them are his regular customers who have been coming here for years and you can feel the intimacy. The Wongs are a friendly family and seem to have good rapport with their regular clients.
I am amazed and rather disappointed with myself, that in the forty plus years that I’ve spent in Kathmandu, I had never stepped inside Wong & Co. I am sure there are many like me who’ve walked past their store and never even bothered to look inside to see what they are selling. We are the losers rather than the Wongs. When we can order a pair of shoes that will be in the shape of our feet and exactly the way we want them to look, what more can one ask for? They have a very successful business going and I am certain that when it comes to hand-made shoes, they have no competition.
The process of making shoes:
- Making a frame as each pair of shoes needs a different frame.
- A pattern is then cut on the frame.
- The leather is then cut for a trial.
- Setting is done.
- Pattern in then put on the frame.
- Folding, joining and stitching.
- Sole is then chosen and fitted to the shoe.
- Packing, finishing & spraying.