Tailor Made: Chinatown’s Last Tailors

Tailor Made: Chinatown’s Last Tailors

Hidden in plain view among the abundant offerings of this year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (which runs from March 13 to 23) was a program of four short films under the title By Hand. Aside from the delightful opening bit of animation, three were documentaries featuring men of a certain craft, from a pushcart cinema operator in India to the proprietors of a halal slaughterhouse in New York, who intend to pass their hand-made talents to their children.

In Salim Baba, the pushcart man has several sons who already help him on his daily runs through Calcutta, wheeling the cart with his century-old, custom-rebuilt film projector to show eager children an assortment of classic Bollywood videos and trailers, which the old man cuts and splices himself. The skills will be passed on, but it remains to be seen whether such an out-of-time tradition will survive our digital age.

When we first meet 27-year-old Imram in A Son’s Sacrifice, his dress and demeanor suggest hip-hop more than halal. The business his elderly Bangladeshi father started in Queens has flourished, thanks to the influx of South Asian, African, and West Indian immigrants into New York. All he needs is a successor, whom he finds in his hamburger-eating, half-Puerto Rican son, whose competence is exceeded only by his devotion to his family.

But the centerpiece was Tailor Made: Chinatown’s Last Tailors, where brothers Bill and Jack Wong are the endearing victims of their own success story, and seem quite comfortable with it. Their father started Modernize Tailors in 1913, and the two eldest brothers have run the business for the past fifty years. In the postwar boom, they were the largest men’s tailor shop in Vancouver, employing 20 people and suiting up celebrities like Sean Connery and Gordon Lightfoot. In the off-the-rack, globalized 21st century, they still do a boutique business, from the mayor of Vancouver who rolls in throwing around a few Cantonese phrases, to the department store who seeks them out for their vintage Singer Buttonholer, which is almost as old as they are.

They are now 85 and 83, and their North American success story has produced an extended family of doctors, business folk, and other professionals, but no tailors. It turns out that neither Bill or Jack intended to take this path either. After World War II, they both graduated with engineering degrees, but were unhireable as Canadian Chinese. Nevertheless it’s clear the wise and witty Bill loves the business he turned to because of the limits white society imposed upon him. The more reticent Jack tends to stay in the background. When asked about his trade, he says at one point, “Maybe I can be a carpenter,” a remark expressing both ambivalence in his path and as well as an inherently hopeful attitude that’s made them and Modernize Tailors endure.

Their youngest brother Milton, whom they helped raise, did breach the wider world, and spectacularly, as an investment banker, university chancellor, and Order of Canada honoree. As a gift to his brothers, he buys the original storefront which he then converts into a retirement home-cum-living museum and work shop, for the brothers to continue part-time tailoring. The only thing left to do, is find a successor to take over their store.

It is this search which takes up the lion’s share of the CBC documentary, with two strikingly different candidates. One is an Asian-American architect and part-time fashion reporter, who is attracted by the artistry as well as a desire to make connections with his roots. Unfortunately he does not sew and never really picks up the essential skills, which dashes his romantic and somewhat rose-tinteed aspirations. It’s a testament to Bill’s integrity, that he dissuades the apprentice from continuing at the probable cost of seeing the shop close forever.

The other apprentice candidate, a Caucasian, who turns up is none other than the tailor from Holt Renfrew, the department store client of Modernize. Unlike the architect, he can sew and do all the tailor stuff well. That makes him attractive to the fashionistas on London’s Saville Row, where our young tailor ends up. He comes back to break the news to Bill, but not before he shares a Saville Row catalogue and we are let in on a rich moment: young tailor points out excitedly to old tailor that the haute coutre fabric of the day can be found right on his shelves, to which Bill replies laconically, “So, it’s back in fashion.” Young tailor decides to return to Saville Row, but not before both apprentices and many family members help them move across the street to their new old home.

The film ends with a postscript, showing the now part-time tailors at their new shop. I felt comforted by that sight, as well as by this Vancouver Sun article. In addition to more background on the Wongs and Vancouver Chinese, it indicates that the Chinatown area, long in decline, may be poised for a resurgence that could support once again an exemplar of craft such as Modernize Tailors. But Bill and Jack Wong are irrevocably the last of something – they are the final generation of pioneers, every bit as pioneer as the frontiersmen, trailblazers, and homesteaders of the North American West – and I strongly hope that people who see this story will begin to view the brothers and their achievement in that same spirit.

Tailor Made: Chinatown’s Last Tailors

Directed by Leonard lee, Marsha Newberry

Canada 2007, 45 min.

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