I first met Lee in 1999 when my husband suddenly moved to a job that required him to be in an office and wear suits. Tukang Jahit Soon Loong was recommended by a local friend. Over the last 14 years, he has made suits for my husband, cotton drill chinos for me and all the fancy suits my sons needed for their various teenage school proms. We, in turn, now recommend him to anyone in need of tailoring.
Lee is a role model. His shop is always slightly dishevelled with works in progress, piles of cut fabric, racks of suits and jackets, and piles of black lawyers’ robes on every surface. He constantly works hard, and his attention to detail and quality cannot be faulted. Just as he has had 40 years of loyal custom from many clients, so he has provided dedicated loyal service over the same years. He has seen people age and their bodies change shape, yet like a good partner in a long lasting marriage, he gently tucks and pins his fabrics in order to smooth out the flaws. This instils a sense of wellbeing when one looks in the mirror! Being a tailor requires great diplomacy and Lee has a very quiet, dry sense of humour.
Lee’s father started the business in the 1930s. Coming from China, then Bangkok, to Penang, he married a local girl and ended up in business on Campbell Street. The rented premises was shared with a textile merchant and a gold trader. By 1955, the business had expanded and he rented this present shop – No. 55 Bishop Street. It became Soon Loong & Co. The whole family lived upstairs.
Lee, born in 1944, started work with his father in 1960. He was sent down to Singapore for two intensive weeks one Chinese New Year holiday, where he was apprenticed with a master cutter. Cutting and fitting are Lee’s expertise. Fabrics are imported from Italy and Europe through a supplier in Singapore. In 1972, Lee took over the family business from his father and in 1978 he bought No. 55 using a loan approved through the family company.
Lee married his wife in 1978. She is the specialist and tailor responsible for the piles of lawyers’ robes and stiff white collars that are kept tidy in tins around the place. She gained her skills from an Indian master tailor who previously acquired his expertise from working with Ede & Ravenscro in London. They have two sons, both engineers.
Husband and wife are experts in their field and an asset to George Town. In other great cities, these tailors would be valued as a great heritage name brand, increasing in fame with the passing of time.
With their years of experience in these specialist skills, both husband and wife are experts in their field and an asset to George Town. They are perfect examples of our intangible heritage. In other great cities, these tailors would be valued as a great heritage name brand, increasing in fame with the passing of time.
So I was sad to hear that after 58 years in this building, Soon Loong & Co. was moving its business out of town to Sungai Pinang and renaming it Lee Style Trading. They are still maintaining the letters S and L in their logo to keep the name of Soon Loong from fading completely.
Complications with the title and ownership of the building have led to these changes, one of many that are taking place in George Town as we look ahead to the future of this World Heritage Site. Related issues have led to various family decisions, pushing and pulling on minds with questions of land values and ownership, and what business is best in this changing heritage city. Many people are grappling with these changes, some be er than others.
Lee tells me he doesn’t understand why the street has become so derelict of the old businesses. His wife agrees that it is hard to keep up with new styles and the influx of cheap clothing in malls, but they both maintain that their business does not pander to fashion, and that demand is still there. Lee says with a smile in his eyes that it is now age that makes him slow in keeping up with his orders.
Bishop Street was “the” street of imported textiles in its heyday. Green Silk Store, the Ladybird Shop, Vogue Fabrics, mostly all gone now, are faded already in people’s memories as George Town also changes its clothes. The Lees will continue to work from Bishop Street on Fridays and Saturdays. They have not yet se led comfortably into the changes but are hoping to make a smooth transition, rather than allow the name of Soon Loong to fade away.
Please seek out these expert tailors at Lee Style Trading, 17-G-21, Serina Bay, Hilir Sungai Pinang, 11600 Penang. Lee can be contacted at +6016 441 0736
Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson is a Malaysian artist and designer. She grew up on estates and has lived in Penang for the last 14 years. She is inspired by Malaysia's incredible environment, heritage and natural history. She had a magnificent childhood and likes projects.