By Hana Chen
“My surname is Ang,” begins the voiceover in Mandarin, “my name is Ang Kum Siong.”
As the video goes on, the narrator, or Uncle Wellie to his loyal customers, continues his story in a gentle and slightly throaty voice.
As the educational arm of the youth ground-up movement, Everyday Elderly aims to raise awareness on issues faced by seniors.
Uncle Wellie’s video is the third in a series that shares the stories of seniors in our community, all of whom share a common trait — a dedication to pursuing their passions into their golden years.
For the past 44 years, Uncle Wellie has been the proprietor of Wellie Batik Fashions, a job that he carries on to this day.
As the name suggests, Wellie Batik Fashions sells a wide range of Indonesian batik products, from bolts of brightly-coloured fabric to handmade clothing and accessories, all sewn by Uncle Wellie himself.
The song of the sewing machine
I hear the shop before I see it.
Stepping off the escalator, I’m immediately drawn to the rhythmic whirring that faintly echoes through the mall corridors. It’s a familiar sound that I recognise — the comforting chugachugachuga of an old-school sewing machine — and I know that I’ve reached my destination.
Holland Road Shopping Centre, with its distinctive orange facade, eclectic small businesses and the plethora of nail salons, is an icon in its own right, and Wellie Batik Fashions, opened in 1978, has been a fixture through the decades.
Over the years, Uncle Wellie has moved around the mall, before settling at the store’s current address, #03-06.
When I enter, I’m immediately struck by its vibrancy — rows of neatly-hung clothing, swathes of floor-to-ceiling fabric on display — vivid colours surround me wherever I look.
And tucked away in a corner of the shop is Uncle Wellie, hard at work on his old sewing machine.
In person, Uncle Wellie is soft-spoken and composed, and he acknowledges my presence with a simple greeting. No stranger to interviews, he has been featured numerous times in various publications for his craft, including AsiaOne and Vogue Singapore.
He briefly retired in 2012, but decided to return. And apart from taking two days off a year, Uncle Wellie works seven days a week, morning to night. He works with his youngest son, Erick, 52, who joined him in the family business in 2013.
Together, the father-son duo keeps the store running like a well-oiled machine. When a customer enters the store while I’m talking to Erick, Uncle Wellie (who is more fluent in Mandarin) shows her around the store, answering her questions in his imperfect English.
Once Erick finishes his interview, he takes over, deftly guiding the customer through her purchase as Uncle Wellie chats with me as I explore the shop.
As he brings me around the store, I can’t help but be struck by his passion for batik. Taciturn on the surface, he shares readily on the different batik he has made over the years, and the myriad small unique details he added.
Uncle Wellie’s passion is evident in the video as well. “There are dresses, long pants, bags, aprons,” he says, “all handmade by me.”
Decades of dedication
Born in 1927, Uncle Wellie spent the first few years of his life in Singapore before moving to Fujian, China. There, he received a brief education before working on a farm.
After World War II ended, Uncle Wellie followed his parents back to Singapore. His father was a second-hand clothing merchant, and Uncle Wellie helped in his business up till his death, which left the eldest of nine children to support his mother and siblings, as well as his own wife and children.
It was a daunting task, but he worked hard to overcome the challenge.
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Uncle Wellie began to sell textiles and ready-made clothing in pasar malams around Singapore. At that time, he didn’t have a licence, and often had to make quick getaways with his goods whenever the authorities raided illegal street stalls.
Even after he managed to find a permanent stall, life was not easy. In a feature by The Peranakan, Uncle Wellie recounts how during the 60s, hooligans at various markets would extort protection money from him and the other stalls.
“Of course we refused. So we met with the big boss to try and resolve things,” he said in the interview, “but at the Thomson Road market, they carried guns to threaten us.”
Despite these altercations, Uncle Wellie persevered, and business thrived.
“To eke out a living, I had to work very hard,” explains Uncle Wellie, “because I have nine children, and my younger siblings are very young.”.
While supporting his family, he managed to save up $5,000 (a large sum at the time), which he used as a downpayment for a rental unit at Holland Road Shopping Centre.
At first he didn’t turn a profit, but eventually business began to thrive.
Wellie Batik Fashions’ reputation as a trustworthy source of quality batik fabrics brought them customers from all over the world, many of whom retain a strong sense of loyalty to this little shop in Holland Village.
Says Uncle Wellie: “Business was at its peak in the 90s. There were Japanese and Westerners back then who bought these fabrics, and a variety of items, back to their countries.”
Continuing through Covid-19
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Today, business has slowed down, no thanks to the global pandemic. Nevertheless, Erick and Uncle Wellie have managed to make things work.
Erick has increased the online presence of Wellie Batik Fashions, setting up a website as well as Instagram and Facebook accounts, although he still keeps the personal touch with customers via email and phone.
These efforts proved pivotal to keep Wellie Batik Fashions afloat through the Covid-19 pandemic. Erick explains that they were fortunate to not encounter any disruptions in their supply chain, thanks to trusted Indonesian suppliers.
As he has begun online methods of payment, overseas customers can order their products online and have the items shipped to their doorstep.
“Everybody was caught by surprise (by the pandemic),” explains Erick, “The shop was closed for ten weeks during the circuit breaker.”
With four of his sisters, all of whom are adept seamstresses, and at the encouragement of customers, Erick and Uncle Wellie also started making batik cloth masks.
“During the lockdown period, we were able to have some sales. Not a lot, but better than nothing,” says Erick, adding that they have sold over a thousand masks.
He leveraged social media, posting on Instagram, and going on Facebook Live to advertise different batik products. The loyalty of their regulars also ensured that sales continued during this time.
“Why don’t you retire?”
As Singapore eases into post-pandemic life, business continues as usual for Uncle Wellie. He and his son have no plans to close shop anytime soon.
“I cannot retire. When I still can work, (and I’m) able to move my hands and feet, my mind will continue functioning well. Days will then pass by quickly,” says Uncle Wellie, “I will give my all to this business until the end.”
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It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed throughout the other Everyday Elderly videos. Just like Uncle Jeffrey and Uncle Chris, Uncle Wellie remains indomitable in the face of old age, making them an inspiration to us all.
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Everyday Elderly plans to continue featuring the stories of our seniors each month, so do be on the lookout for upcoming features.