Local tailor vows to continue making endangered Malaysian-made cheongsam

Ryan Sim shows one of his unconventional products: a cheongsam with batik designs.

PETALING JAYA: As a fresh-faced business administration graduate in 2007, Ryan Sim was disappointed to find that job opportunities were offering salaries far below what he was hoping for.

His mother, Kong Yoon Yoon, intervened and brought him into the family business of tailor-made traditional Chinese clothing.

Now the face of Emerald Brilliant’s second-generation, Sim bears the responsibility of preserving the trade and traditions.

“A lot of my customers tell me, ‘Don’t give up, because if you do, there will be no more local cheongsam.’

“If I don’t continue running this business, the Chinese community won’t have any Malaysian-made traditional clothing to wear.”

The youngest of four sons, Sim had to carry on the 47-year-old family business as his brothers had their own careers.

The business is still very much a family affair, however, as Sim’s wife and one of his sisters-in-law help Kong with designing work.

Looking back, Emerald Brilliant has come a long way from its humble beginnings in Cheras Yulek, Kuala Lumpur, in 1972.

Its headquarters ultimately moved to Petaling Jaya, and the company now has several outlets in prominent shopping malls such as 1Utama and Mid Valley Megamall.

Having started as a fashion, casual wear and cheongsam shop, it was only in 1995 that Kong, a graduate of a local designer school, decided to focus on tailoring traditional cheongsam.

It was a risky move and yet a possible niche opportunity, as no one else was selling specialised cheongsam at the time.

And when FMT visited, it certainly didn’t look like business is slowing down, as the store was hustling and bustling to complete orders in time for the Chinese New Year season. They were so busy in fact that Kong was too rushed to be interviewed.

Sim said orders for the lunar new year came in as early as the first week of November, adding that they have received commissions from customers in countries such as Indonesia, Australia and even America.

It’s taken time for him to embrace the business. “At first I wasn’t really interested and had no clue about the trade,” he admitted. “I’ve been here for 13 years now and slowly, with time, it became okay.

“Because you need to work for your future, you need money so you must work. It’s not really about being interested,” he explained.

With a new generation taking the helm comes a new set of challenges to tackle. Sim acknowledged that one of the bigger struggles he faces is finding staff to keep the shops running.

He said there is a dependence on foreign workers in the industry, although it’s not for a lack of willingness to employ locals.

Locals are either uninterested in working in the industry or cannot give a long-term commitment to the job. The only Malaysians who are willing to work are older aunties, some of whom work from home.

“Nowadays even foreign workers are not cheap. Some ‘experts’ earn more than RM100 a day,” he said, lamenting how there are fewer and fewer tailors available now.

He has also been unable to hire new foreign workers, following the government’s decision last year to ban foreigners from working as textile shop assistants.

The nature of the trade is shifting, Sim said, and the current business environment requires the company to build its brand to survive.

“If there’s no good branding, it’s wasting time. So it’s branding, followed by skill and quality.

“No matter how beautiful a piece of clothing you make, if you have no brand not many people will buy your items.”