Monday, August 30, 2010


Tiny shoes for lotus feet

Raymond and Tony Yeo, the only Chinese bound foot shoemakers, give TANYA ABRAHAM an insight into the ancient custom of binding of women's feet and their business.

“Asking a woman about her bound feeT is akin to prying into her most intimate and private moments”

Now a souvenir: Raymond Yeo shows his wares.

Raymond and his brother Tony Yeo are surprised that I am an Indian. They have many questions about India and her strange customs. Like sati; it baffles them that a woman should give up her life for her husband. I, in turn, find it strange that the two men are Chinese bound-foot shoemakers. They laugh!

I am seated inside ‘Wah Aik Shoemaker', their tiny shop in Malacca amid a display of tiny shoes and newspaper cuttings on the walls. Both Raymond and Tony promise to educate me about their business and the custom of foot binding, in exchange for answers to their questions. I promptly agree; they, after all, are the only bound feet shoemakers left in the world today.

Status symbol?

It seems almost impossible that the Chinese woman of yesteryear could be without bound feet. It is like expecting to see an English woman without her corset in the 18th century. It was a sign of femininity; and a sensuous one too. “The smaller the feet, the more attractive it was for the man, thus getting her a wealthy and eligible groom,” explains Raymond between sips of Chinese tea. If on her wedding day the woman did not display the prized ‘Lotus feet', it was a sign of extreme disgrace and a poor show of her family's status.

Much of a Chinese woman's future depended on her marriage and, in turn, her feet. During the Sung Dynasty, (960-976 BC), dancers' desire for feet the size of a lotus flower was promptly copied by courtesans and upper class women: it became a symbol of social standing and the luxury of having not to work. Eventually the lower classes began imitating them, so much so that the bound feet became a status symbol.

Raymond reveals some details that intrigue me. He blows at the golden liquid in the cup clasped in his palms, his eyes fixed on the tea: “Asking a woman about her bound feet is akin to prying into her most intimate and private moments”. Chinese men attached a certain erotic value to the feet. If a man was allowed to touch a woman's lotus feet, it was a sign of approval, indicating that a relationship could be started between them.

I ask him about the women in his family: “Once the Chinese came to Malay, the tradition died a quick death. But there, of course, remained women who had bound feet, and others in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore as well. When my grandfather came to Malaca (from Hainin province in China) in the early 20 {+t} {+h} century, he found this shop was more lucrative than the coffee shop he initially started.”

Only producers

Women flocked from the most interior regions of Malaysia to pretty their small feet (it was only natural that the most beautiful shoes be chosen to adorn the most treasured part of their bodies), and once the last bound feet factory in China was shut down in 1998 (the custom was banned in 1912), Wah Aik Shoemaker became the only producers of the lotus feet or golden lily shoes.

The suffering and the pain were sometimes so intense that some could barely touch the ground for months on end. One woman, Raymond recalls, told of endless days of extreme agony, when she would cry to sleep every night. “She had her feet bound when she was four years old. Her mother used silk wrappings almost 20 yards long. This forced all her toes except the big one to go under the soles of her feet, upon which a heavy stone was placed. It eventually crushed the arch of her feet and broke the toes, pulling them towards the heel.” Raymond added the elderly woman, then 80 years old, visited his shop in a fancy car accompanied by an army of servants to choose the colours of silk for her shoes. “She was proud of what her suffering had gained her.”

That was more than a decade ago. And the only woman Raymond and Tony now know with lotus feet lives in Kuala Lumpur. Still the delicate shoes they make with extreme precision continue to have a market, “mostly with tourists, who buy them as souvenirs.” That is then carried away to lands afar, to keep alive stories of a 1000-year-old custom.

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