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26-year-old shining example of Singapore craftsmanship
WHERE do some CBD suits go if their leather wingtips or brogues need a polish or a spot of repair?
They go to a shoe shine bar called Mason and Smith in Telok Ayer Street. His well-dressed staff deliver a shoe shine starting at S$18. (Want a military-grade mirror shine from 50 layers of wax? That's S$60.) Repairs can cost up to S$450.
The owner of the establishment, John Chung, comes with relevant credentials: he is the world shoe-shine champ.
Yes, there is such a thing as the World Shoe-Shining Competition. It is organised annually by Shoegazing and The Shoe Snob, which cast themselves as leading authorities on classic shoes for men.
Mr Chung, all of 26 years old, beat two other experienced shoe-shining specialists in the finals of that competition just this month. His winner's plaque in glass sits on the counter top in his shop, along with a gleaming pair of tan lace-ups - the very pair he worked on that won him the prize.
When asked why he took part in the competition to go toe-to-toe with other more experienced shoe-shiners, he answered simply that he wanted to see where he stood on the global level.
"It was also an opportunity for me to learn from other artisans and people in the shoe industry," he said. He said he has been in the trade for just four years (officially), and says he has lots more to learn.
His secret to a high shine lies in technique, he said. The other finalists typically applied the wax on their shoes and polished them immediately, but he spent a good 10 minutes applying wax - with his bare hands, and then polishing the leather with his cloth only after that.
He said of his unconventional method, which puzzled many: "The technique that I used is not widely recognised and not many people use it. It is quite a unique technique, and I think with that, I was able to get it shiny."
Rewind back to 2013, the year the former Victoria Junior College alumnus first stepped into the shoe-shine industry. What he had to learn of the craft aside, it didn't help that he was taking the path less travelled.
He had earned a place at Nanyang Technological University's Art, Design and Media course, but after his national service, he knew it wasn't what he wanted to do.
His parents weren't happy, of course, when they realised that their son wanted to dabble in selling second-hand vintage shoes for a living. They would have preferred him to get a university degree.
"My parents were very against it. They are quite conservative, not that liberal," he said.
But why shoes?
Mr Chung replied that his delving into the craft behind shoes exposed him to the technical side of the trade.
"There wasn't a specific point in time when I became obsessed. The love for shoes just grew stronger and stronger by each passing day."
With S$700 from his savings, he started procuring second-hand shoes to sell in local vintage flea markets, running pop-ups once or twice a month.
He no longer sells these shoes, but still has a small collection of "six or seven pairs of rare shoes" of his own. They cost between S$500 and S$4,000 a pair, and because of their high price, he does his buying only once or twice a year.
He said of his collection: "These shoes are very rare… Some are already out of production, and some have been around for 30 to 40 years."
When he started out as a professional shoe-shiner, the work was back-breaking. It was a one-man operation, and he did not have the luxury of undergoing an apprenticeship to hone his skills.
He is thus largely self-taught.
"I did not have a specific teacher when it came to shoe-shining. Most of the stuff and techniques, I picked up from the Internet such as YouTube videos, Facebook and Instagram, as well as other shoe-shine artistes."
The other hurdle was his status as a novice, which came bundled with anonymity.
"Nobody knows who you are… Nobody knows about shoe-shining."
To spread the word about shoe shining, he started running hour-long workshops on the craft.
Another problem he faced was in the lack of distributors selling shoe-shine products. Products such as Saphir, a French brand he regards as one of the best among shoe waxes, and Boot Black (from Japan) had to be sourced from overseas.
He went to Japan for Boot Black, which is hardly sold in Asia, and met with the suppliers to discuss getting the wax delivered to him in Singapore.
He had no financial backers, so he had to use his own funds to buy the other tools of the trade - shoe brushes and cloths.
He works long, hard hours. A typical day starts at around 7am and ends at around midnight. He said that wanting to do well in all areas of his life, not just his chosen vocation, is what drives him.
He is no longer a one-man operation. His crew of three full-timers and four part-timers clock 10 to 12 hours a day.
"Shoe-shining is quite tough on the body," said Mr Chung. "When I first started, I did not think about how strenuous it would be. It was more of making a good living out of it and I thought it would be fine."
He has abiding memories of some customers. One is of a customer whose shoes he was shining at his stand in Marina Bay Sands (MBS) during the Christmas season.
"He gave me a S$50 tip when the service was only S$10 and asked me to enjoy the holidays," he said, chuckling at the memory.
His service has intrigued other customers to the point they get into conversation about shoe-shining.
His interactions with these customers at MBS made him realise the market potential of his business. He moved into a shared shop space in Boat Quay, where he stayed for three years.
This year, Mason and Smith opened at its current premises on Telok Ayer Street.
Mr Chung isn't done.
He is now learning the art of shoe-making - he has teachers from Hong Kong and Japan - he plans to open his own flagship store next year and to launch his own bespoke label in 2022.
Ask what he has learned so far, he replied: "Be prepared to put in the hours. It is a marathon and you got to be prepared to be in it for a long time before you find some kind of accomplishment or result.
"The more you enjoy it, the longer you can work. You've got to really love it."
Oh, by the way, his parents are now fully behind him.