Albert Centre is famed for its local delights at the hawker center on the first floor, as well as the dried seafood items and textiles on the upper floors. But it’s not just the stores that make up the rich heritage of the building and surrounding area; its store owners, who have been there for years also play an integral part in its history. And one of them is 72-year-old seamstress, May Tang, owner of Tang Cottage. But beyond her job, she also likes to sing. She is a member of the Hsinghai Art Association, and together, they’ve performed all around Singapore and Malaysia, with another gig coming up in August. We spoke to her in Malay, and this is her story, translated.
The sewing machine that May uses most of the time.
When did you come to Singapore?
I came to Singapore from Medan in 1965 and lived with my cousin at Beach Road. I studied clothes design and tailoring for both men and women, on top of cooking and baking, at a local institution. After that, I married my husband after being introduced by his uncle and had two children. When my daughter was three, we went to Hong Kong so that I could learn how to make Shanghai-style cheongsams–something I was really interested in– and make-up for six months.
How long have you been doing this?
More than 30 years. But before that, I worked from home at my Bedok South HDB and made clothes and did alterations for people living there. I used to go to People’s Centre every month to buy the fabric, zippers, buttons… that kind of stuff. But I’ve stopped making clothes for about seven years now, and only do alterations.
Have you thought of retiring?
No. I want to do this until I really can’t anymore. My husband did ask me to stop because I’m not young anymore, but I told him I don’t want to stay at home and do nothing. I don’t want to spend my days like that and let my mind wither away. People think tailoring is easy but it takes a lot of patience and skill and technical know-how, so that way it keeps my mind active. Besides, I love what I do.
What are some of the problems you face as a seamstress in Singapore?
People like to bargain with me about the prices of alterations, even though I’ve priced them according to how much work needs to be done. Also, nowadays young people aren’t interested in this trade, so there’s nobody to teach. It’s also a lot of pressure to teach so I rather do this and run the business myself.
May looks through her folder of photos.
I understand that you like to sing…
Oh, yes. I rush over for practice with the Hsinghai Art Association at the Stamford Arts Centre every Saturday at 7pm after work and sing the soprano parts. Every year, we have two performances; one locally and one overseas. Actually, we’re opening at Kuching next month. So, like now, when we’re closer to the performance, we also have rehearsals on Wednesday.
Have you ever thought about going full-time to start a singing career?
No lah, I’m too old now. I like to sing as a hobby and used to sing a lot in the toilet. My favorites were always mandarin and Indonesian songs. Then my friend introduced me to the association and suggested that I joined. 30 years later, I’m still doing what I love. But this tailoring job is my passion, so in that sense I’m very lucky.
What’s one advice you’d want to give to our readers?
Whatever you do in life, you have to face it yourself. Anything you do, you must be happy. Once you start something, you have to finish it; not halfway and then stop.
Tang Cottage is at Albert Centre, 270 Queen Street #03-35, Singapore 180270. It’s open everyday except Monday, from 12pm to 7pm.