Laundry Legacy

The Shanghai Dhoby & Dry Cleaning Company is still
serving loyal and royal customers in Johor Baru
It’s early on Sunday morning and the businesses at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, one of the most hip and happening streets in the heart of Johor Baru, are hardly open yet except for that corner kopitiam.  

I’m going to the Shanghai Dhoby & Dry Cleaning Company, better known as Kedai Dobi Shanghai at No. 53 and I find it sandwiched between modern businesses, Art52Gallery and Bev C Café, in a row of shops that was built around 1916.  The collapsible gates are closed but I peek into the open crack on the front door and call out, “Hello!” because I’m meeting Chiew Kek Whye, who runs this traditional laundry with his wife, Cindy Chow.

Chiew Kek Whye and his wife, Cindy Chow, who run the
shop and Kay Fong [Right] whom I first met in the park!
It’s uncanny how I connected with the Chiew family:  When Kay Fong, the eighth sibling in their family (there’s eleven of them) bumped into my sister and her husband in the park, he asked if she was my sister because he identified her from reading my family stories.  Later I too met him at the park and we talked about going to visit his brother who took over their father’s dhoby business.  

This lunar new year, my cousin and her former classmate, Karen Chiew, who live in London now, had a reunion dinner.  They were friends in Kluang since Std 2, and my cousin was thrilled to discover that Karen’s grandfather used to run this Shanghai dhoby shop in JB!

This dhoby shop is among the few surviving traditional laundries in JB run by Chinese who originated from Shanghai, China.  My visit to the shop is delayed because they were swamped by a great deal of work for the Johor Sultan’s coronation.  

As the laundry of choice for royalty, dignitaries and the state government, they will receive orders before and after special events and the recent coronation was clearly a peak season for them.  This Sunday morning, Kek Whye and his wife are in the shop to complete pressing the linen used in royal banquets and I get a peek at table linen that include pretty coasters with the Johor royal emblem embroidered in gold threads!

Family History

While Cindy is ironing at the table set up against the wall in the rear of the shop, Kek Whye and I are joined by his brother, Kay Fong.  As the brothers piece together a brief history for me, I take in the antique glass-walled wardrobes that line two walls, filled with hanging garments made of luxurious silk, satin, brocade and beaded fabrics, dry-cleaned, tagged and ready for collection.  

Mother, Yap Chwee Lan, with 7th son, Kay Chen, in her
arms and eldest son, Key Szu, in front of the shop in 1960
Big bags of unwashed curtains and bed linen are piled against the wardrobe fronts, next in line to be washed.  We are standing at the glass counter that doubles up as a showcase, another piece of furniture that has been in use for decades here and Kek Whye jokes that they have no chair for me because their work keeps them on their feet!

Their father, Chiew Seng Leun, arrived in Singapore from Shanghai in the early 1940s, where he worked as a labourer to repay his boat fare.  After payment was settled, he came to Johor Baru in then Malaya, to work with the original owner of this Shanghai dhoby, simply known as Ho.  As news of the Japanese invasion in Kota Baru reached Johor in 1941, the Ho family wanted to close the business and return to Shanghai but Chiew volunteered to take over and from 1942 he ran the business while paying Ho rental in the sum of RM25 per month.

Four of the Chiew brothers, Kay Chen, Keh Pin, Kay Fong
and Kek Whar [Left to Right] sitting on father's motorbike
in front of their dhoby shop at No. 53 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
Chiew and his dhoby business not only survived the war but he also married a girl from a Hokkien family who lived a few doors down the road.  He and his wife, Yap Chwee Lan, stayed in the 2-room living quarters upstairs and worked in partnership to develop the business.  They have eleven children, all of them except the last two, were born upstairs assisted by a midwife who lived nearby.  Yap preferred to deliver the babies at home because she was needed in the business and would go back to work as soon as it was possible.  After the war, Ho returned to Johor and opened another laundry which his son took over on his demise but eventually, Chiew bought over both the businesses at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and Jalan Abdul Samad.

Fifth in the family, Kek Whye [Right] who runs the business,
with his brother, Kay Fong, the eighth in the family,
showing off their family photo taken in 1976
"This was the only time of year when the ironing stations were covered with long table cloths and laid out with mandarin oranges, cookies and festive goodies,” said Kay Fong. 

He described his father’s strong service commitment to customers and how the shop was hardly closed for holiday breaks except at the lunar new year and also because his birthday falls on the third day of the lunar new year.  

As Chiew and his wife worked side-by-side in this labour intensive business, they were determined to give their children a proper education.  So they decided to send one child to a Chinese school and the next to an English school, and repeated the same alternate pattern for the education of all their children!

When Kek Whye was 14, he had completed six years in Foon Yew School with two more years in the national type secondary school.  He was the only one among the children who learnt the ropes of the laundry business as he worked with his father.  After five years in the business, he took a year’s sojourn to see the world by joining a passenger cruise liner that took him to Europe, the US and the Caribbean Islands.  He came home to settle down and married his pen pal from Sitiawan, Cindy Chow.  After the birth of their second child, he went on his second and final sojourn with a Swedish-American cruise liner, this time as Laundry Master, and explored as far south as the Antarctica and also north to Alaska.

Old Traditions

This Shanghai dhoby still uses this traditional
flat iron to press linen and cotton fabrics for
the smoothest finishes!
With these vast travel experiences under his belt, Kek Whye was ready to continue working with the laundry and on his father’s retirement in 1988, he inherited the business.  His pen-pal turned sweetheart and wife, Cindy, is more than a helpmate who works with him in a partnership that’s reminiscent of his parents’.  Now with four grown-up children who have careers of their own, these two spend most of their days working together, washing, drying and pressing laundry in the shop.

To meet delivery deadlines, this husband and wife team is sometimes in the shop from as early as 3am but on most days, they start work from 5am and pause for breakfast around 8am.  Their lunch break is just half an hour at noon and the shop usually closes by 4pm.  When Cindy says they often take “rush jobs” home to wash, I wonder when they have enough time to rest!

Loyal customers keep returning to them even though the minimum delivery time is ten days.  This is probably because they appreciate that each item is individually hand washed the traditional way.  I’m told the washing machine is used only to spin dry heavy and larger items like curtains and blankets.  I cannot help being curious about where and how they “hang dry” items and Kek Whye leads me into the rear of the shop where I can see sheets and curtains hanging from the ground floor ceiling.  Beyond that, I can see the sky through the air-well through to the first floor where more garments are systematically suspended to catch the sun and wind.

Linen coasters with the royal Johor emblem
embroidered in gold threads!
I pass Cindy at the pressing station where she is using an electric flat iron to press sheet after sheet of linen table mats into thin crisps.  This is a solid contraption that has a broad heated flat surface that will smooth out every crinkle with a skillful swipe of her muscled arm.  Kek Whye tells me that this is the only unit still in use since his father days in the business and back in those days, it was his mother who would repair the iron!

With their business established since 1942, Kek Whye and his father would have done laundry for four different sultans and five different menteri besar in Johor.  In fact the present menteri besar was using their laundry services since he was single and working as a lawyer in JB.  Later when he was appointed to a federal role in the capital city, he still arranged for his laundry to be done by their dhoby shop!

The studio shot of the Chiew family taken on their
father's 60th birthday
From the formal studio shot taken on their father’s 60th birthday, Kek Whye and Kay Fong are pointing out who’s who in the family photo as we share a laugh at the fashion and hair-styles of the 70s.  Of the eleven siblings, only three of them still live in JB.  While they treasure the carefree lifestyle and fond memories of growing up in this old neighbourhood, this traditional laundry is not a business any one of them is keen to continue.

“When my wife and I are too old to work, we will retire and close the shop,” said Kek Whye with quiet resignation.  Armed with a service commitment to customers which he also inherited from his father, he admits that he would rather work than go on holidays.  That’s because his mind would be preoccupied by the work piled up for him in the shop.  “I’ve traveled enough,” he happily declares.  And for now, this hardworking husband and wife team are grateful for modern technology that keeps them in touch with their daughter and baby grandson in Canada.

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 19 April 2015

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