May 2, 2011

SINGAPORE: He takes 100 hours to make a pair of slippers!

SINGAPORE / / Shop / May 2, 2011

By Lester V. Ledesma

A Singaporean craftsman pursues the dying art of kasut manek and explains why it takes so long to produce a pair of traditional beaded slippers

A completed pair of kasut manek can fetch up to S$1,000, depending on
the design and craftsmanship. The price seems reasonable,
considering the time it takes to complete a single pair.

Robert Sng looks completely at peace inside his two-story shophouse in the middle of Singapore's busy Kampong Glam district.

In the dim light of a solitary lamp, Robert Sng quietly weaves
tiny glass beads onto canvas.

With a contented smile on his face, the 61-year-old craftsman sits at a weathered desk, his fingers plucking away at a piece of canvas adorned with colorful beads.

“This is a very very slow process”, he explains while pushing a needle into the cloth, “You can only finish this work if you enjoy doing it.”

As he pulls on the thread, a tiny blob of glass takes its place on an intricate pattern of flowers and birds.

No larger than his entire hand, the design has been a work-in-progress for almost three weeks now.

“I concentrate on three rows of beads at a time, that's about two hours in one sitting”, Sng adds, “If I stay any longer my eyes get tired and my neck muscles begin to ache.”

It will take at least another week before the masterpiece is complete. Afterwards, he will go to a shoemaker who will fashion his handiwork into the final product: traditional beaded slippers called kasut manek.

A steady hand and infinite patience is required.

Decades ago these were the preferred footwear of Singapore and Malaysia's Chinese-Malay Peranakan communities.

With their intricate lines, the delicate step-ins completed fashionable get-ups and denoted the social status of their usually wealthy owners. From the 1930s to the middle of the century, crafting this native beadwork was both a pastime and a necessary skill for the women of their time.

Dorothy had her ruby slippers, Cinderella had a glass pair and nonyas, a pair of hand-beaded slippers.

Kasut manek was so popular that the Peranakan ladies -- who were called nonyas -- kept pairs to match every occasion and outing.

Sadly, as the decades moved on, hectic lifestyles left people with little time for such a pursuit. These days, making beaded slippers survives as a rather obscure hobby among a handful of Singaporeans.

Although Sng is not a Peranakan, watching an elderly neighbor create fine beadwork is one of his clearest childhood memories.

He took up the craft during his career years as an airline flight attendant. Now retired, he continues making these traditional artworks inside his antique souvenir store. He doesn't earn much from it, though, despite the high price that accompanies each pair of kasut manek.

Sng shows his latest work-in-progress to a pair of tourists in his shop.

“My slippers cost between S$700-S$900 depending on the design -- it might sound like a lot, until you realize that it takes about a hundred man-hours to complete,” says Sng.

He also reveals that he managed to sell only one pair in the last three months.

“The young ones these days would rather spend on a branded leather bag,” he observes. Hence the need to keep his curio shop stocked with other, more salable items.

Despite the lack of demand, however, Sng intends to keep working on his slippers for as long as he enjoys doing it.

“I'm sorry to say, but there really is no money in this,” admits Sng.

"For me it's now just a retirement activity. It's a labor of love and a good conversation piece. Tourists come to my shop and ask questions about what I do -- it's a chance for me to show a bit of our culture to them.”

© 2011 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc