Theresa’s 60-year passion for the fine art of threading the cheongsam

Wong works the vintage sewing machine which she still uses to sew the cheongsams.

KUALA LUMPUR: In a tiny two-bedroom apartment off Old Klang Road here, 81-year-old Theresa Wong sits hunched over on her sofa.

But she is not idling. Her hands are moving nimbly as she sews a cheongsam, stopping only to get up and open the door for the reporter who is calling on her.

Wong is a cheongsam seamstress. She has been sewing the outfit for 60 years, since she was in her 20s, and her passion for the trade is unmistakable.

“I have been doing this for so many years. I never stopped. I do this 365 days a year.

“And no, I am not bored of sewing the cheongsam at all,” she told FMT in a recent interview.

In a very tight space in her living room, are two vintage sewing machines, bought four decades ago, at a total cost of RM1,300.

Cheongsam seamstress Theresa Wong explaining the intricacies of sewing the cheongsam.

Most of the pre-ordered cheongsams have already been picked up by her customers, but Wong still has several pieces hanging on a clothes rack in the living room.

Wong’s journey through life has not been an easy one. She was orphaned at the age of six, when both her parents passed away.

In her younger days, Wong said girls also did not have the privilege of going to school, and most of them learnt sewing skills to earn a living.

Wong had always admired the skills of Shanghai seamsters, and pleaded with her uncle back then in the 1950s to allow her to learn the trade from them.

One seamster, Wong said, offered to pay her RM30 every month to sew cheongsams. She was 17 then, and jumped at the opportunity to learn from the tailor.

It was a very tedious learning process for Wong, who now has a head full of white hair. She keenly observed the seamster at work and committed what she had seen to memory and practised.

As better opportunities opened up, Wong moved on to work with another Shanghai seamster, where she was paid more than double, about RM75.

Wong takes a trip down memory lane by showing old black and white photographs of her during her younger days.

Gradually, Wong’s skills improved and she began making a name for herself, and subsequently opened her own business. Her highest point, she said, was when she had six workers under her.

Her customers ranged from the late Lim Goh Tong’s wife, to the wife of the late Loke Wan Tho, business magnate and millionaire of the 1960s.

“At a point in time, only the rich wore cheongsam. It was only later that the likes of teachers and professionals began wearing them as well,” she said.

Wong charges a flat rate of RM300 for a cheongsam, with fabric costs being borne by the customers. Customers will have to buy two kinds of fabrics; the first being the fabric she would be wearing as her cheongsam, while the second piece of fabric is the lining underneath her cheongsam, to prevent undergarment lines from being visible.

The mother of two takes about three days to complete a cheongsam, with customers having to come twice – once to have their measurements taken, and another for a fitting session.

“What makes me really happy, is when my customers put on the cheongsam, and it fits them perfectly,” she said with a smile.

Wong also prides herself with sewing traditional flower buttons and phoenix buttons from scratch, which are the only accessories on the cheongsam. It is a tedious and skilful art form.

And while Wong is well aware that ready-made cheongsams can be bought for a much cheaper price – as low as RM30 from Petaling Street – she said that those who are looking for quality and classic cheongsams “will still come to her”.

Chinese New Year, for Wong, will be a low-key affair. She will instead continue sewing cheongsams, as the orders cannot wait.

Wong has hopes to pass on the skills of tailoring a cheongsam to an apprentice, but lamented those who appear interested are not really serious in learning the trade.

Wong realises all too well that age has caught up with her, but she has vowed to continue sewing cheongsams, so long as her health permits.

“This is something I have been doing all my life. I will keep sewing the cheongsam, for as long as I can,” she added.