Monday 26 May 2014

Dressmaker to tai-tais and celebs

Fame as a kebaya maker draws clients to her shop even half a century later
By Wong Kim Hoh, The Sunday Times, 25 May 2014

Madam Leu Yock Mee's hair is nicely coiffed, and she is decked out in a fetching peach-coloured kebaya top and a pair of red slacks.

The ensemble - which the dressmaker made herself - is as comely as the smile on her youthful face.

Playfully initiating a game of "guess my age", she throws her hands up in girlish delight when she gets an answer 15 years off the mark.

"I'm 94 years old," she says. "I don't look 94?"

To show just how remarkably spry she is, the nonagenarian picks up a spool of thread.

"Ambil jarum, ambil gunting," she says to her domestic helper Yati, asking for a needle and a pair of scissors in Bahasa Indonesia.

She snips away a bit of the thread and proceeds to put it through the eye of the needle.

It takes her all of two tries, without glasses.

Although a fall several years ago has forced her to move about in a wheelchair, Madam Leu still puts in a full day's work six times a week at Red Beauty Ladies Dressmakers, the business she has run for more than half a century.

Framed photos and newspaper articles line the walls of the small shop located at the basement of Katong Shopping Centre.

One of them is of Anneke Gronloh, the Indonesian-born Dutch singer who was hugely popular not only in Europe but also in the region during the 1960s for her hits such as Bengawan Solo and Boeroeng Kaka (better known in Singapore as Burung Kakak Tua).

In the photo, taken in the early 1960s, Gronloh's statuesque figure is shown to stunning advantage in a pink lacy baju kebaya top and a matching sarong.

Madam Leu designed and made that outfit for the singer - who wore it at a concert here - in less than 24 hours.

The outfit did more than just generate photo calls for Gronloh; it also changed her dressmaker's life.

Overnight, Madam Leu, or Mrs Cheng as she is known to her clients, became the go-to person for a sexy kebaya.

Tai tais, diplomats' wives and celebrities - from Singapore's Siput Sarawak to Hong Kong's Nancy Sit - streamed into her shop. Even Singapore Airlines called on her to design kebayas for its stewardesses.

"And that has helped me raise four children. I put all of them through university except for the youngest one; he said he didn't want to study," says the feisty woman in Mandarin.

Born the youngest of six children to poor Hakka farmers in a remote village on Pulau Bangka in Indonesia, she has always wanted to better her lot in life.

After completing her primary education, she told her mother she wanted to learn dressmaking.

"One of my elder sisters used to make my clothes. I hated what she made because they were always too big and too long.

"She said I would grow. When I complained, she would knock me on the head and tell me to learn how to sew on my own," she says.

After spending a year mastering the art of dressmaking, she started sewing and mending clothes at home for fellow villagers.

Her earnings were meagre, so she also helped out on her family's farm, chopping wood, planting crops and tending to the pigs they reared.

It was hard work.

"I had to dive into the river infested with crocodiles to harvest plants which we used to feed the pigs. I'd be in the river from morning until evening. My hands were all wrinkled because I was always submerged in water," she says.

Her destiny, she decided from a very young age, lay outside Pulau Bangka.

"I had suitors from a very young age but I told myself if I married a man from the village, my children would grow up in the village. They would not have a good future. I was very choosy," she says.

Her Prince Charming finally came when she was 28.

Mr Cheng Wee Min came from a village nearby, but was educated and worked as a teacher in Singapore.

"His elder siblings knew about me. They told him I was pretty and hardworking and knew how to sew," she says, before breaking out into peals of laughter.

"When I heard that he was a teacher and lived in Singapore, I also wanted to find out more about him."

When she got wind that he was returning to Pulau Bangka on holiday, she got her niece - who lived in the same village as Mr Cheng - to be her emissary.

"I asked her to let me know if he was ugly or missing an arm or a leg," she says, eyes twinkling. "She cycled furiously to my home and said: 'Aunt, there's nothing wrong with him. He's very handsome.'"

Barely three weeks after he came to see her at her home, they got married and she followed him to Singapore, where they set up home in a rented room in a Jalan Besar shophouse.

One month after she arrived here, the landlord's daughter-in-law got her a couple of customers after learning that she was a dressmaker.

"My landlord had an old sewing machine which no one knew how to use. I bought it from him and had to pay in instalments because we had no money," she says.

Her reputation spread.

"In those days, most tailors were Indians. There were very few women dressmakers. I started getting customers quickly because I had a pattern book and could do all sorts of dresses," she says.

Within a year, she had set up Red Beauty in a shophouse, also in the Jalan Besar area.

Those were tough days, says Madam Leu who had four children in quick succession.

"I had to get up at 4am to cook the day's meals, and I was in the shop working until midnight," she says, adding that she hired teenage girls to mind her children. "My husband's salary was not enough to raise four children and send them to school. But I didn't mind working hard, I wanted all my children to be educated and successful."

Her eldest daughter, Ms Selina Cheng, 65, has three degrees: a Bachelor of Arts from University of Singapore, a degree in Chinese from Beijing Language School and a Masters of Arts from Jinan University.

"She was very adamant about us getting a good education. I had to attend two primary schools - one English and one Chinese - as a kid," says the businesswoman.

Two of her younger siblings became teachers. The youngest, a stockbroker, died of a sudden heart attack two years ago when he was 58.

Madam Leu's career hit a high note in 1962 when Gronloh came to Singapore for a concert with Dutch doo-wop duo The Blue Diamonds and wanted to wear something unique.

"One of my customers handled public relations for William Jacks," she says, referring to the sole agent for Gronloh's record label Philips. "She took Anneke Gronloh to my shop. That's how I became famous."

"Anneke sayang me a lot," she says, using the Malay word to express affection. "I made two sets of kebaya for her. When she came to Singapore many years later, she tried to look me up but I was away in the United States."

Candidly, she lets on that she was not a very experienced kebaya maker then.

"But it's not hard when you are an experienced dressmaker," says Madam Leu, who designed all the gowns for daughter Selina, a former beauty queen with seven beauty titles including Miss Singapore and Miss Tourism.

As her reputation as a kebaya maker par excellence spread, tai tais, socialites and celebrities started seeking her out.

"Once, many people started crowding outside my shop in Katong. I didn't even know Fong Bo Bo had come into the shop," she says, referring to the popular Hong Kong actress.

The Gronloh kebaya got the attention of Singapore Airlines which commissioned her to design a couple of kebayas for its stewardesses before Pierre Balmain's iconic uniform was introduced several years later in 1968.

At the height of her dressmaking fame in the 1960s and 1970s, she hired as many as eight assistants.

Asked to explain her success, she says: "I take a lot of pride in my work. I measure very accurately, and I tell all my clients to be honest with me and tell me what they like or do not like about my kebayas. It is important that you give your customers total satisfaction."

Although she could have retired a long time ago, Madam Leu - who has 11 grandchildren - intends to keep Red Beauty open and running for as long as she can. However, she has scaled down the business considerably, hiring just one assistant.

"My old customers still come and look for me and that makes me very happy," says the grand dame who still does all the measuring and cutting of her clients' dresses. Her assistant does the tailoring.

"Without them, I would not have been able to raise and educate my children. I would not be where I am now."

Holding out for a better life

"In those days, girls were getting married at 15 or 16, so I was considered quite old. But I was choosy, I was not about to get married to anyone in the village. I was determined to get out, I didn't want my children to spend their lives in the village.

MADAM LEU YOCK MEE, who got married at 28 to a fellow Indonesian working as a teacher in Singapore

Fighting for payment

"I was so angry. I went up to her house and scolded her for not paying me. I told her I needed to raise four children and needed money to buy materials."

MADAM LEU, on a late local singer, whom she did not want to name, who did not pay for the kebayas she made

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