Tailor who dressed former PM ready to call it a day

Khong Kim Lyew is the third-generation owner running Kwong Fook Wing.

PETALING JAYA: Within walking distance of the Pasar Seni LRT station in Kuala Lumpur is Jalan Sultan. This is where pre-war shophouses dominate the landscape, home to fancy cafés and speakeasies that are all the rage today.

Located next to the open-air parking lot is a 105-year-old tailor shop, Kwong Fook Wing, run by 72-year-old Khong Kim Lyew, the third-generation owner.

At a glance, one would brush this shop off as any other old-fashioned run-of-the-mill tailor, but this modest shop has been cutting bespoke suits for a distinguished clientele, from royalty to the country’s second prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein.

Kwong Fook Wing is located in Jalan Sultan, Kuala Lumpur.

The walls of the shop are adorned with both handwritten and typed testimonials from dignitaries from all over the world, praising the tailor’s excellence in craftsmanship and service.

British High Commissioners, foreign diplomats, politicians and even former kings, all have left a note thanking Kwong Fook Wing for their years of service.

On one corner of the shelves is a picture of Razak shaking hands with Chairman Mao Zedong during his historic trip to China in May 1974. The prime minister presented Kwong Fook Wing with autographed copies of photographs of his visit as a token of appreciation for making his suits.

Khong showing an autographed copy of a photograph of Razak shaking hands with Chairman Mao Zedong.

Rolls of fabric are neatly stored in glass cases and presiding in the midst of all this splendour is the immaculately-dressed Khong, sporting his signature look – that of a measuring tape hanging loosely around his neck.

Like a doctor with his stethoscope, this common but indispensable sewing instrument is always on his person.

“This shop, and its history, would not exist if not for my grandfather,” says Khong as he eases back into his chair.

Khong tells FMT that it all began when his grandfather – instead of joining his father who migrated to Australia during the Gold Rushes of the late 1800s-early 1900s – disembarked in Singapore to earn a living as a rickshaw puller.

He moved to Malaya after two years and started making Western clothes after noticing the influx of Europeans into the country. In 1915, he established Kwong Fook Wing in Jalan Sultan. He had one child, a son.

“My father studied at Victoria Institution but when he completed Standard Nine, the Great Depression had set in and jobs were scarce, so he had no other option but to take up tailoring. He ran the tailoring department at Robinsons & Co until the Japanese invaded Malaya.”

When the Japanese occupation ended in 1945, Khong’s father worked at the tailor shop full time and the business began to prosper.

“When the British came back, some of the colonial officers recommended us to the High Commissioner. During the pre-independence days, the High Commissioner was the supremo of the country – if you were good enough for him, it meant you were definitely good enough for the ordinary person.

“We served many customers, including the police and army, and when we achieved independence, we served several Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the second prime minister and many others.”

A colonial hat that once belonged to a British officer.

Khong began working as a tailor in the shop after the riots of May 13, 1969. It was then that he discovered his love for sewing despite having been enrolled at the University of Malaya just days before.

He fondly recalls how the late finance minister, Tan Siew Sin, was the first to recommend Kwong Fook Wing to Razak to get his suits fitted.

“Razak came to know us through a person named Wan Baharuddin, the Malaysian education attaché in London. In the early 1970s, Razak had presented Baharuddin with a piece of material and the attaché brought it to our shop to have a suit made.

“He would stay with Razak whenever he returned to Malaysia and showed the suit to him. Razak liked the suit, enquired where he had it made and recalled that Tan Siew Sin had recommended Kwong Fook Wing to him too.”

The very next day, Khong and his father were invited to the prime minister’s house, Sri Taman, to make the first of many suits. Khong said they would be served kuih, and that the prime minister was a man of very simple tastes. His house had no exquisite furniture.

“When the Sultan of Terengganu was the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, my father used to serve him. When he retired, I used to go to Kuala Terengganu. The sultan would fly me out to make his suits.”

Khong standing in front of the memorabilia corner at Kwong Fook Wing.

Clothes maketh the man is a firm belief at Kwong Fook Wing.

“You can sort of know a person’s character from the way he dresses. We are known as bespoke tailors because the customer will speak about what he wants and we will do it according to what he desires.”

Of course, a bespoke suit comes with a hefty price tag and at Kwong Fook Wing, the price can range from RM2,500 upwards.

Kwong measures the material that will soon be converted into a suit for a customer.

Khong said these days there is a lot of competition from shops selling ready-made suits, but he noted that many of the younger generation have begun to appreciate what a bespoke suit is and many are coming in for a suit of their own.

With three daughters of his own, Khong has come to terms with the fact that this 105-year-old tailor shop might have to put away its scissors and sewing machines for good.

“I am the third generation and I do not think there will be another who is keen to carry on. All good things must come to an end, and we have come to almost the tail end of our endeavour in tailoring,” smiles Khong.

Kwong Fook Wing
51, Jalan Sultan
50000 Kuala Lumpur