Having witnessed first hand the challenges and struggles that his own father went through as a visually-impaired person, Chang Wan Sang had always wanted to collaborate with this group of people to help them lead a more independent, meaningful life.
“My late father suffered from degenerative optic nerves and completely lost his vision by the age of 48. He passed away at 68, so it was 20 years of a painful, dark journey, as it happened during his prime,” said Chang, 45.
When Chang got married, he wanted to set up his own business. Life wasn’t very fulfilling with the chemistry lab as his office. Besides, he had continued to look for ways to help the blind community and his job had no allowance for that.
It so happened that his wife, Yee Saw King, was working as a graphic designer then. “After much discussion, we decided to produce hand-painted products as these were new to the market and was an opportunity for me to unleash my creative flair. The idea for hand-painted products came about from a friend’s gift to us. It was a hand-painted t-shirt,” Yee said.
But designing is a visual art and no matter how the couple thought about the collaboration with the blind, it seemed impossible. Just when they were about to give up on their idea, an opportunity arose for them to work with the deaf and mute. Even though they have a different disability, they are also marginalised and face almost the same social discrimination.
“Most importantly, they can be part of our enterprise, which sort of fulfils Chang’s dream of working with the blind,” she added.
Their company, Amaze Creative, hires people to paint on white canvas shoes that have been drawn with cute cartoons and pictures by Yee herself. What’s surprising is that of her seven full-time staff, six of them are deaf and mute. Even though Chang and Yee both do not know sign language, they face no difficulty communicating with their staff because it can easily be done with simple hand gestures or through writing in Bahasa Malaysia.
Over the past seven years, the couple have already trained twenty people, many of whom have moved on to set up their own small home-based business using their newly acquired skills.
According to Yee, 44, all of them had to be trained from scratch. On the average, a person would need at least three to six months to learn but some have taken up to a year before they were able to paint independently. Initially, trainees are only allowed to paint on scraps of canvas cloth so as not to waste raw materials. Still the acrylic paint is not cheap. Once they are confident of painting unsupervised, they can start painting on canvas shoes; sneakers, wedges or velcro-strapped shoes for children. These hand-painted shoes are then sold, from RM49.90 to RM79.90 per pair.
A senior artist at Amaze Creative can paint up to 20 pairs of shoes a day. However, the more talented ones have the liberty to design, and not merely paint, their own products under the close supervision of Yee.
As the only employee who can hear and speak among her colleagues, 20-year-old Eswary A/P Subramaniam has worked at Amaze Creative for three years. She first started to train under the company when she tagged along with her deaf and mute uncle who worked there. For Eswary, communicating with her colleagues is not an issue as she has learnt sign language since she was four, because all her family members, except her brother, are deaf and mute.
Working closely with the Malaysia Federation of the Deaf (MFD), Chang and Yee try to accommodate everyone that MFD recommends but it is not always possible due to space constraints at their workshop in Tar Villa Apartment, Desa Setapak, Kuala Lumpur. “Also, at this point, our production is nicely meeting consumer demand. Of course, we hope we can expand our business, especially when we have just been appointed as one of the few companies to help raise funds for MFD,” Chang explained.
As an appointed MFD company, a percentage of their sales are channelled to the non-governmental organisation.
These hand-painted shoes as well as Amaze Creative’s new product range of hand-painted canvas bags are available for sale at a kiosk in The Curve shopping mall and a shop ‘Amaze’ in KLIA2 (Arrival Hall, Level 2). They are also sold online at egoodshops.com. Some of these products are also consigned to a shop along Jonker Street in Melaka, making it easier for customers to buy and own these hand-painted artsy bags and shoes.
Note: An edited version of this article [Shoes worth slipping into] was published on 14th October 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.