“To open a shop is easy, to keep it open is an art.” Chinese Proverb
The steam from the concrete was rising. It was an unusually hot Saturday to do errands. I crossed the busy road to take shade under an art deco inspired building. It was near Binondo in Manila, allegedly the world’s oldest Chinatown. Yet another day to purchase bits and pieces of street food and knick knacks that one doesn’t necessarily need.
It invariably piles up on the coffee table or freezer.
Each visit to this side of Manila gets dimmer, the once favourite haunts are slowly fading one by one.
There was a strong urgency to skip the normal route and walk east to Escolta street. The name originates from the Spanish root word escoltar meaning “to escort” and was established in 1594. It runs through the Pasig River from Santa Cruz to Plaza Moraga and Quintin Paredes. Not only is it one of the oldest streets in Manila, it was the first to hold high rise buildings in town; making it the main financial district well before Makati city.
During the Manila- Acapulco Galleon trade, Escolta held a large concentration of immigrant merchants, mainly from the Fujian province in China. Escolta was lined with boutiques and shops selling wares from different parts of Asia, Europe and Latin America.
Strolling through the same area- it is now a shell of itself. Mangy horse drawn carriages or kalesas stand idly waiting for the next tourists to rip off. Vendors hunched over random items mostly made of plastic. For decades it has experienced a constant and drastic decline; the once flourishing stalls are abandoned and left in ruins.
I move past the grit and see a lone store. “James Tailor, 1948” it read. No pun intended.
A group of kitschy plastic mannequins are on display however impeccably dressed. One in a tux, a suit and the Philippine barong (embroidered formal shirt). The store is clean and colourful from the outside. The main door is left open with a view of rows and rows of vibrant fabrics rolled neatly into shelves on the wall. Plain, printed, striped or with checkers- they had it all.
A small man stood behind a long glass counter; another cuts through pieces of paper-his measuring tape strapped across his neck. There were a couple of old black and white photographs on the higher shelves. It was a bit awkward-suppose I looked sorely out of place.
A tall white Chinese gentleman holds his hand out and introduces himself. “Andy Lee”.
I shake his hand and quietly walk around the store. “It’s exceptional that you have managed to stay afloat after all these years.” I say as my fingers run through the different types of cotton on display. “May I have a business card? For future reference…” There are quite a few men in my family I thought to myself. Should come in handy for special occasions, maybe a wedding or a funeral? Best to enter and leave the world in style!
Tailoring is a highly respectable trade and skill. The craftsmanship to create, alter and repair garments is a fairly tedious task to undertake. The sudden influx of department stores and ready to wear clothes has made it a dying trade in the Philippines. The rich can afford custom made gowns from high end designers. The rest of us who are stuck in the middle are forced to purchase retail wash and wear, close to one size fits all clothes. The poor head to thrift stores.
James Textile and Burlington Tailoring was founded by Mr. Lee Chong Gak in the late 1940s. His roots originate from China. It is run by the 2nd generation of Lee’s and the entire family is involved in the business. The store moved several times around Manila but Escolta became its final home from the 1970s to present. The family has managed to integrate into Philippine culture and employ only local tailors, seamstresses and cutters in their establishment. The textiles are purchased from Manila based suppliers. Their clientele are mostly professionals- some have been regular patrons for generations.
If walls could talk, how many successful men they might have dressed?
“The workshop is upstairs…Would you like to see?” Mr. Lee said. He was a soft spoken man. His middle aged sister was left at the cashier as he toured me around the store. The flooring of the 2nd floor remained in dark wood, old fashioned cabinets with clear glass doors held the suits and coats ready for pick up. The entire store had character. There was an adjacent room leading to the 3rd floor with a small make shift kitchen. A large washing area on hand for items that needed to be dyed and dried.
The rickety steps went up to a brightly lit and well ventilated work space. I had expected to see more people working but the weekend had them operating with a skeleton staff.
A slim lady was ironing a finished piece in the corner while two men worked over some turn of the century sewing machines. The deco styled windows looked out to a fabulous 1930s building. Towards the left side of the room a wall with wide shelves held stacks and stacks of brown paper.
“Patterns” the tailor pointed. Each individual who patronized the store had their own paper pattern with their specific measurements. Left to right, labelled A-Z. “We hold onto them for at least five years…as long as they are active, they have a place.”
Made sense-it worked. Why complicate something so simple? In the age of advanced technology, James Tailoring was a look back into another world. The staff have kept their jobs with the Lee’s for decades, which says a lot about the family run enterprise.
All live within the same community.
“How long can you keep up?” I asked.
“There’s a Chinese saying you know, we’ll never get fat with what we do…” Mr. Lee chuckled.
“You mean rich?” I quipped.
“That too, but then we’re just keeping up with what we know- the tradition…” he replied.
After all life is about integrity; even though sometimes you feel like you’re hanging on by a thread.