Vancouver’s Chinatown has seen its share of change in the course of the past century, but Modernize Tailors has remained the go-to place for a first-class custom-tailored suit throughout the last 100 years. Owner Bill Wong, 91, still works full-time in the tailor shop his father opened in 1913.
The City of Vancouver recently honoured this remarkable centennial by declaring Nov. 3 Modernize Tailors Day. In addition, throughout November, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is hosting Modernize Tailors: 100 Years of Dressing the Modern Man, an exhibit commemorating the family-run business.
Changing with the times
To walk through the doors of Modernize Tailors is to take a swift breath of history. The shop contains an iron and a button-hole machine that are 80 years old, and the work space conjures the charm of an era when it was unthinkable for kids to attend school without made-to-measure pants.
Yet, the business is keenly aware of modern consumer tastes and has survived due to its owners’ uncanny ability to adapt to change. In the last five years, Bill’s son Steven has joined the business as well, and worked to augment its online presence.
“In the earlier era, we would serve all levels of the city. It’s really a younger generation that’s finding us now – our blog has quite a young voice,” Steven explains.
Even though we no longer live in an era where custom-made suits – Modernize Tailors’ specialty – are the norm for everyday wear, the shop keeps busy with suits made for milestone occasions such as weddings and first job interviews.
“The fashion business is always up and down, but because of the internet, people always seem to find us,” says Bill.
Transforming limitations into success
Though starting a business as an immigrant in Vancouver is still not easy, today’s newcomers are in an unquestionably better position than Bill’s father Kung Lai Wong was a century ago.
Eliza Chang is the program director of Settlement Services at S.U.C.C.E.S.S., a local social service agency. With funding from the B.C. Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training, S.U.C.C.E.S.S. offers a Business Immigrant Integration Support (BIIS) program to newcomers who have been in Canada for less than five years.
“BIIS is [here] to increase business immigrants’ knowledge, expand their business network, help further refine a business or an investment, so that immigrants would be able to confidently make informed decisions,” says Chang.
In Kung Lai Wong’s era, incentives such as BIIS were sadly unimaginable because business loans to Chinese-Canadians were prohibited because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Modernize Tailors was started with cash capital earned through hard work and solidarity within the Wong family.
Bill Wong earned an engineering degree in the mid-1940s, but he says racial discrimination made it impossible for him to find a job in that field. Still, he doesn’t regret his alternate career path.
“I have no resentment that I never got to go into engineering. You can do all kinds of things with fabric that you can’t do with a piece of wood or steel, and [tailoring] also consists of a lot of art,” he says.
His father’s emphasis on artistry is one of the things that drew Steven to the business after a career in teaching art.
“There’s a long tradition of good craftsmanship, good materials. We use the language of art and education, and people learn a lot here,” Steven explains.
Modernize Tailors: 100 Years of Dressing the Modern Man celebrates the shop’s unique place in Chinatown’s history. Shayla Perreault, visitor experience and operations manager at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, says that the exhibit opening – part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival – was a vibrant event whose highlight was Bill Wong reading from his diary, written when he was 14.
“A lot of the time with history, you have all these objects, but the story is missing…but if you’ve got the diary, then you’ve got the story of the person,” says Perreault.
Steven believes that his father’s story is universally inspirational.
“If we do what we love, that’s energizing and it keeps us going,” he says.
And for his part, Bill is not showing any signs of slowing down. On top of full-time work at the shop, he gardens and practices SunDo Taoist Yoga with Steven, embodying the kind of vitality that has made Modernize Tailors an enduring sartorial presence in Vancouver.
To contact Modernize Tailors and find out more about the business, visit http://www.modernizetailors.blogspot.ca. And for more info on Modernize Tailors: 100 Years of Dressing the Modern Man exhibit, visit http://www.vancouverchinesegarden.com/events.
To register for A Stretch With the Tailors, a SunDo Taoist Yoga class taught by Steven Wong at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, call 604-662-3207.