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From afar, the geometric spiral pattern of the Nautilus appeared to be seamless on a single piece of soft fabric. That is, until you walk toward Mdm Chan May Lee and realise that the colourful CYC-tailored shirt she is wearing has buttons holding overlapping fabric in place.
The CYC Shanghai Shirt Company founded in 1935 by her father-in-law Chiang Yick Ching, was the first to offer custom-made shirts in Singapore. May Lee was just 12-years-old when she came to Singapore from China after having lived in a poor Penang village for some time and she started taking night classes for a few years while working as an apprentice under her seamstress mother-in-law. While her husband and brother-in-law attended to customers at the shop, she would work nimbly for 17 hours producing six to seven shirts in the factory each day — an effort considered commendable given the technology they had back then.
Mdm Chan May Lee describes the process of attaching a sleeve to the shirt.
“The Shanghainese way of shirt-making is very meticulous,” the 80-year-old retiree says, portraying an affable demeanour that is fitting of a former tailor who produced custom-made shirts for famous dignitaries such as former presidents and ministers of Singapore.
“You must not try to fix it by joining a new thread. Joining to a new thread will make it look imperfect,” she explains. “My mother-in-law would knock my head if I made mistakes.”
Like most young women, May Lee attempted to save her hard-earned monthly salary of $100, which according to her was a very decent salary amount those days in order to realise her dream of purchasing gold jewellery for herself. However, things did not quite play out the way she wanted and her hopes were immediately dashed when her father requested that she send some money back to Penang.
Old photographs of Mdm Chan May Lee posing for the camera during her younger days.
Concealing her disappointment with a smile, she revealed that her covet for the gold necklace at that moment left her disheartened.
“Back then, I had never seen any gold jewellery before,” she lamented. “I wanted to wear them so when I couldn’t buy the necklace, I was very sad.”
These days, May Lee is optimistic about the legacy her father-in-law left behind. For her, it is assuring to be able to see CYC grow to become one of Singapore’s icons and to be known by many.
With her daughter Fong Loo Fern as the current Managing Director, even May Lee’s granddaughter Jan Fong has taken an interest to be the fourth generation that continues the heritage of the company.
“This business has been around for 70 over years and I grew up in it,” she says. “This really is a gift that money cannot buy. I want to do the same… and keep the legacy alive.”
Mdm Chan May Lee’s story was featured in the Hands: Gift of a Generation exhibition by the Singapore Memory Project held at the National Library Building from 7 August to 13 October 2013. To read the other featured memories, you can explore here.