Vancouver Sun: A tradition restored – a story about Vancouver Chinatown's Modernize Tailors

Vancouver Sun: A tradition restored – a story about Vancouver Chinatown's Modernize Tailors

Modernize Tailors
on the southwest corner of Pender and Carrall St. in Vancouver
Chinatown is a cultural landmark.  It stands right beside the
skinniest building in the world, owned by Jack Chow Insurance.  As
a child growing up in Vancouver, I learned that my Uncle Laddie worked
there – the  husband of my mother's eldest sister.  I also
learned that it was run by a man named Bill Wong, the same name as my
father.  So my father was known as “Bill Wong the sign painter,”
as opposed to “Bill Wong the tailor.”

In recent years I have
gotten to know Bill Wong the tailor better, as our paths have crossed
more often.  At dragon boat practices, Gung Haggis often bumped
into the Wong Way dragon boat team on Sunday afternoons.  Since
the elder Wong brothers grew up with many of my own family elders, I've
also known a number of their descendants, so there is always somebody
to say hello to.  In 2005, both dragon boat teams participated in carving wooden dragon boat heads

Bill Wong carving a dragon boat head with his grandchildren – photo Todd Wong

Bill
Wong has attended some of the book readings and presentations that I
have organized at the Vancouver Public Library.  And this year, he
came to the Gung Haggis Fat Choy Robbie Burns Chinese New Year dinner,
and sat with my parents.

His son Steven Wong joined the Gung Haggis Fat Choy dragon boat team last year.  So… lots of cross-overs.

A tradition restored

Milton Wong's ambitious project has returned his brothers' tailoring institution to its original premises

John Mackie,
Vancouver Sun

Published: Saturday, April 14, 2007

Milton Wong has managed billions of dollars in investment funds. His tireless philanthropy helped him earn the Order of Canada.

But
he has never forgotten his roots in Vancouver's Chinatown, where his
father started Modernize Tailors in 1913 in the Chinese Freemasons
building at Pender and Carrall.

Modernize Tailors is still in
business, operated by Milton's older brothers, 85-year-old Bill and
83-year-old Jack. And three decades after being forced to move, they're
back in the original location, because Milton, 68, has bought the
building.

Brothers (left to right) Jack, Milton and Bill Wong are glad to be back at the first premises of Modernize Tailors.View Larger Image View Larger Image

Brothers (left to right) Jack, Milton and Bill Wong are glad to be back at the first premises of Modernize Tailors. photo Stuart Davis, Vancouver Sun

Milton
did more than just buy it. He's completely restored it, and converted
the upper floors into seniors housing so that his family members could
retire back in the neighbourhood where they grew up.

But there's
a hitch. After a three-year restoration, and a couple of million
dollars in renovations, Bill and Jack have decided they're still too
young to retire.

“No one's moving in,” Milton says with a laugh. “That's a downer.”

The
Chinatown social services agency SUCCESS is now going to find occupants
for the 11 suites, which are quite spacious and deluxe for seniors
housing.

Meanwhile, Bill and Jack are busy setting up shop at 5
West Pender, where they were given a month's eviction notice in 1976
after someone bought the building and renovated.

Customers who go
to the old shop at 511 Carrall are directed to the new location by an
ancient piece of Modernize Tailors stationery that's dated in the
1940s, and has a six-digit number (“MArine 0630”).

“We're still using our old stuff,” Bill says with a shrug. “It says the corner of Pender and Carrall, so it's still usable.”

Back
in the '40s, Modernize had 20 employees and was a seven-day-a-week
operation. There were a couple of dozen tailor shops located all over
Chinatown, which was a bustling place full of restaurants and
nightclubs.

The throngs of people that used to fill Chinatown's
sidewalks and businesses are long gone. Modernize is the last tailor
shop in Chinatown, and one of the few old Chinatown businesses that
have survived the neighbourhood's long decline.

Jack has no illusions about the future of tailor shops like Modernize.

“This is a dead business,” he says.

“A
lot of clothes are made in China now, where the labour cost is only 10
per cent of the cost here. People buy into readymades and
wash-and-wear.”

How have Bill and Jack survived? They keep costs
low by doing the sales and tailoring themselves, along with two
employees (one is their 72-year-old cousin Park).

Milton is also an unpaid salesman, buying his suits there and recommending the shop to his friends.

“You
need mouth-to-mouth advertising, and Milton has done his job,” says
Jack. “Either that or he gives suits to his closest friends and forces
them to come down.”

For his part, Milton is optimistic about the
future of Chinatown. He points out that condo king Bob Rennie is
restoring the historic Wing Sang building and selling condos up the
street. Several new businesses are thriving on Pender Street, and the
success of the Woodward's building project finally seems to have
sparked a rejuvenation of Vancouver's historic core.

 

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