Tales of the Golden Lilies

Although Raymond Yeo Kheng Chuan spends most of his time these days making fashionable Peranakan beaded slippers, the business that he inherited from his grandfather, the late Yeo Eng Tong, is best known as the shop to head to in Malacca for intricate hand-sewn lotus shoes.

lotus shoes
Raymond shows off old photographs of ladies with bound feet

Remembered Raymond, “In the old days, my grandfather used to handcraft lotus shoes for women with bound feet not only in Malacca but also Kuala Lumpur and as far south as Singapore.”

These footwear, with a shape that resembles a lotus bud, are shoes worn by women from China with bound feet. Although such women, known as “Golden Lilies”, are possibly no longer around, foot binding was a custom commonly practised in China in the 18th and 19th centuries.

lotus shoes
a pair of lotus shoes on display

Girls, as young as four years of age, from well-heeled (pun intended) families had their feet crushed and bound to stunt their growth to display their status in society; that their families were so wealthy, they did not need to work, thus enjoyed a good life. With delicate feet, their mobility was seriously curbed.

lotus shoes
striking colour combination

As it was also seen as a symbol of beauty and appeal, young girls from other social classes were also later subjected to the same treatment by their elders. Thankfully, the practice was banned in the early 1900s.

When Yeo arrived in then Malaya from his home province, Hainan, in China, to seek greener pastures, he opened a coffee shop upon settling down in Malacca. Despite its popularity, Yeo noticed the need to provide bound-feet women from China with a beautiful range of lotus shoes, which he had learned to sew from a shoemaker before he left for Malaya.

lotus shoes
super small shoes

Malacca was an important trading hub in the old days and many tradesmen from China settled in the town, bringing along with them, or sought from their hometown, Chinese brides, many of them with bound feet.

With this observation, in 1902, Yeo converted his business from a coffee shop to a specialty shoe shop. Thus, Wah Aik Shoemaker was established.

lotus shoes
side view

Raymond, 62, is the third generation to carry on the business, alongside his two older brothers, Tony Yeo Keng Yam and Simon Yeo Kee Dack. The bachelor, who began working at the shop part-time at the age of 18 and full-time two years later upon completing his studies, disclosed, “My nephews and nieces are all working in Kuala Lumpur and they have no interest to take over the business. Frankly, we do not have a succession plan.”

Raymond himself took over the business in 2001 when his father, Yeo Sing Guat, passed away.

Showing off the dainty three-inch-long shoes, Raymond said, “We make these shoes based on templates of traditional designs handed down by our grandfather. Our materials are procured from a supplier in Petaling Jaya. Featuring leather soles, these shoes are lined with black velvet inside while the tops are rich Chinese brocade fabric. Normally, a pair of lotus shoes would require four to five days to complete. Shoes with more elaborate designs require a longer time to craft.”

As the only shop in Malacca that sells these shoes, now more as decorations or souvenirs rather than footwear, this century-old family business receives a constant stream of mainly European tourists, who know how to appreciate this elegant piece of living history in this part of the world.

lotus shoes
Raymond busy putting together a pair of beaded shoes that his sister sewed

Raymond and his brothers are understandably proud of being a part of living history. Raymond, the spokesperson for Wah Aik Shoemaker, said, “By crafting these lotus shoes, we are keeping the tradition alive. These are a good reminder of what young Chinese girls of past generations were subjected to and their significance.”

Each pair of lotus shoes at Wah Aik Shoemaker is priced from RM95 and the glass casing for display purpose are sold separately at RM40 each. Raymond and his brothers do not keep too many pairs of ready-made shoes. Therefore, those who are interested to purchase a pair or two are advised to place an order first.

The affable Raymond also welcomes curious visitors to his shop to have a look at the lotus shoes that are on display and takes time to explain about their intricacies to those who are interested.

Raymond added, “Do take note that by October, we are relocating to No. 92, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street).”

Note: An edited version of this article [Tales of the Golden Lilies] was published on 26th September, 2015, in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.

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With love

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