Tailor Made: CBC TV documentary highlights Modernize Tailors' 80 year history in Vancouver Chinatown

TAILOR MADE: Chinatown's Last Tailors
CBC Newsworld

Tuesday February 12th
7pm/10pm   EST & PST

Modernize Tailors began in 1913 when their father opened the store.  Brothers Bill and Jack took it over in 1953.  It's now 2007, and Bill's younger brother Milton wants to help brothers Bill and Jack retire gracefully by turning the tailor shop into a “living museum” and “hobby shop,” and move into the restored building and original site of their father's tailorshop. But will they pass the historic tailor shop on to an fashion journalist apprentice or the hot shot tailor at Holt Renfrew?

This is the story behind Tailor Made: Chinatown's Last Tailors, directed by Len Lee and Marsha Newbery, and produced by Marsha Newbery

This was a wonderful documentary that was more concerned with the present day human story of finding a successor for Modernize Tailors, rather than retelling the history of Chinatown and how the Wong Brothers Bill and Jack turned to their father's tailor shop after they were told there would be no jobs for them because they were Chinese, even though they had just graduated with UBC engineering degrees in 1946.  In following the two different successor storylines, the viewer learns an appreciation for what Bill and Jack Wong created with Modernize Tailors, and why it has a special place not only in Chinatown history, but also Vancouver history.  We learn that it once was Vancouver's busiest and largest tailor shop, employing up to 20 people and operating 7 days a week.

You really got to know a sense of Bill Wong, tailor.  He is such as nice down to earth person.  He genuinely was interested in apprentice JJ Lee, and the hot shot tailor David.  But now Bill is 85 years old.  There are other concerns in his life such as his wife and garden. It is shared that wife Zoe is in the beginning stages of Alzheimers disease, and there is a touching scene of them walking hand in hand in Queen Elizabeth Park near their home.  And then there are the many children and grandchildren that we are never introduced to.

There are even some celebrity appearances!  Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan comes into the shop to visit and says that he wants to be able to brag that he has a Modernize Tailors suit.  There is a picture of Sean Connery who was a customer, as well as a thank you note from Gordon Lightfoot.  At one time, Modernize Tailors was “the tailor shop” to go to in Vancouver – especially when the zoot suits were in fashion!  Nowadays they just make zoot suits for the theatre and film companies.

But the best celebrity appearance is their baby brother Milton Wong.  Bill shares that Milton was named to the Order of Canada and chancellor at Simon Fraser University.  The narrator says that Milton is a well-known investor and philanthropist who has bought the historic Chinese Freemasons building and restored it as a senior's residence.  It was also the early site of Modernize Tailors from for fifty years from 1936 to 1976.  Milton has created a smaller storefront for Modernize Tailors to “retire” into, as a kind of living museum and hobby shop, because elder brothers Bill and Jack aren't ready to quit tailoring yet.

Tailor Made was filmed over a 1 1/2 year period from 2006 to 2007.  Bill
Wong's son Steven is on our Gung Haggis Fat Choy dragon boat team so we
heard about some of the story ideas and filming events, such as “the
move.”  From time to time I pop into Modernize Tailors, so I also
bumped into the film makers and Wong family members.  At one point the
film crew was asking about having the 85 year old Bill Wong paddle on
our dragon boat team, because he had done so as part of “The Wong Way”
family dragonboat team in 2004 and 2005.

Bill Wong attended this year's Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner, and his son Steven is a paddler on our Gung Haggis Fat Choy dragon boat team.  It's nice to get to know Bill over the past few years, as our family's have many connections.

It was nice to see my uncle Laddie in the show, since he is one of the tailors employed by Bill and Jack.  And I saw my Auntie Verna, when there was a food celebration with the Wong families in the store.

My cousin Joe Wai made a brief appearance as “the architect” of the restored heritage building, that Bill Wong's younger brother Milton has bought to house the “living museum” of the working tailor shop.

Over the past 3 years there have been 4 documentaries about Vancouver Chinatown families and individuals: Mary Lee Chan: Taking On City Hall, I Am the Canadian Delegate (the Douglas Jung Story), Generations: The Chan Legacy and now Tailor Made: Chinatown's Last Tailors.  I am proud to know descendants from each of the families documented, and especially that there are descendants from each family paddling on our Gung Haggis Fat Choy dragon boat team!

Bill Wong & Wong Family 2005 Carving dragon headphoto Todd Wong

Here's a picture of tailor-turned-woodcarver Bill Wong working on a dragon boat head with the youngest generation of Wongs.  Both the Wong Way and Gung Haggis Fat Choy dragon boat teams took part in an experimental workshop to carve wooden dragon boat heads in the spring of 2005.

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