While children would normally ask for a kitten or puppy as a pet from their parents, all Leong Chai Yuen wanted was an elephant. Her fascination stemmed from watching Walt Disney’s animation, Dumbo, as a kid. “I was just a 6-year-old and really thought that elephants could fly just by flapping their ears,” laughed Chai Yuen. After numerous requests, her dad bought her a rabbit instead, which also had big ears like the elephant. Not surprisingly, Chai Yuen named the rabbit, Dumbo.
Now, at 42, older and definitely wiser, her passion for the majestic animal never wavered. She said, “I now know that I can’t keep elephants as pets but that’s not stopping me from collecting anything that has to do with elephants. I have a sizeable collection now and Thailand is my favourite hunting ground for elephant-themed souvenirs and memorabilia.”
In 2013 Chai Yuen, who holds in degree in Hospitality Management from University of Middlesex, United Kingdom, decided to take a break from work after years in Sales and Marketing in the hotel and property sectors. Chai Yuen recalled, “I was just exhausted and needed to get away from the rat race. I gave myself six months leave and thought that I would look for another job after that.
“I relished the freedom of time I had, and spent the first three months travelling, first within Malaysia, then Thailand and also went on a three-week Silk Road trail which took me from Chengdu to Kashgar in China. I guess you could say that the novelty of not having to work wore off after three months on the road and I found myself with too much free time when I came home!
“One day, I took out my sewing kit and tried to do something out of the scraps of fabric that I had. All these while, the only time that I had held a needle was when I was forced to fix a button on my blouse, and never actually sewn anything. However, to my surprise, I made a little elephant out of the pieces of cloth.
“Coincidentally, during that time, a friend asked me to help man her weekend craft stall, which I agreed to, since I needed something to occupy my time. Through that, I made friends with a lot of local crafters who shared their passion with me. That was when I discovered that I could do something with my new-found hobby of making elephant-shaped craft too!”
Now, one year down the line, Chai Yuen has teamed up with four of her new crafter friends to rent a stall in Kong Heng Square to sell their handmade items. Chai Yuen, who now works full-time there, offers a range of elephant-themed products that include decorative plushies, tote bags, handbag charms, key-rings, purses, fridge magnets and bookmarks.
Unlike other crafters, Chai Yuen’s products carry a serious message. In her own words, “I hope that through my creation, I can raise awareness on the plight of elephants. It is an endangered animal because of climate change, poaching for ivory and human population encroaching on elephant habitat, among other factors.
“I made a special decorative plushie collection which I have named the Africana collection, whereby the elephants here spot distinctive Safari shades and are named after specific African nations. These countries have an elephant story to tell, be it negative as in an extinction threat, or positive such as a successful conservation programme.
“I would also like to educate the Malaysian public about our very own Borneo Pygmy elephants. The physically smallest elephant species in the world, Borneo Pygmy elephants live in dense jungle. The massive clearance of rain forests for timber is a major threat to these elephants, and unfortunately, it is reported that there are less than 1500 elephants left in Malaysia, mainly in Sabah. This species is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“In Malaysia, we have elephant sanctuaries in Borneo, Kuala Gandah and Kenyir Lake. I encourage everyone to visit and get a closer look at these animals and to learn about them. I am glad that I am able to do this small bit with my elephants as the opening subject.”
As all of Chai Yuen’s elephants are hand-sewn, her biggest challenge right now is in meeting large orders for her products. These orders are random and sometimes, Chai Yuen finds herself crafting hundreds of small elephants within a short period of time.
She shared, “I normally put in six to eight hours a day sewing elephants but when I receive a huge order, I would be working around the clock like a mad person. Despite the pressure in meeting these orders, I still enjoy myself tremendously when each elephant takes shape.”
So, where does Chai Yuen see herself going from here? “I’d like to increase my product line and distribution channel in due time but what would make me happiest is when our Borneo Pygmy elephants are accorded the same status as the orang utan and proboscis monkeys,” she said.
Indeed, why not elephants?
Note: An edited version of this article [Lady Elephant] was published on 31st January, 2015, in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.
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