Chinese clogs (木屐) in Penang, Malaysia

When I write a blog post, I never really know which posts will be popular. There are some posts that are popular, which surprise me. One of my most popular post is on Chinese clogs, which I wrote about back in January 2012. People are very interested in this type of footwear, and I have received many comments and messages about Chinese clogs. This is surprising to me because I feel that Chinese clogs are a slightly old-fashioned type of footwear, something that my grandmother would wear. But it seems retro is cool these days, so I am again writing about Chinese clogs.

Chinese clogs (木屐), or ‘mu ji’ in Mandarin, literally translates as wooden clogs. My family calls them ‘cha kiak’ as this is the pronunciation of ‘Chinese clogs’ (木屐) in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien that we speak. Chinese clogs is a very old type of footwear. Apparently, Chinese clogs pre-date the Japanese ‘geta’ or Japanese wooden slipper. Chinese clogs are unisex, worn by both men and women. But clogs with straight sides are meant for men, whereas clogs with sides that curve inwards as if the clog has a waist, are for women. The clogs are made from wood, and are surprisingly comfortable to wear despite the flat, hard wood surface. Because of the elevated sole, the clogs keep the wearer’s feet clean and dry. There is no left or right side to a Chinese clog; you can wear them on either foot. Traditionally two pairs of clogs, usually painted red, form part of a dowry for a Chinese bride.

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Painted clogs. This pair is featured next to a live fish. The Chinese word for ‘fish’ (鱼) sounds the same as 余 the Chinese word for ‘plentiful’, so fish are a Chinese symbol of abundance, surplus and plenty.

Chinese clogs remind me of my childhood because they were commonly worn at my grandmother’s place. We wore regular unpainted clogs. I wore Chinese clogs as a child when I visited my grandmother and the clacking noise the clogs made on the floor reminds me of times spent at my grandmother’s shop. My paternal side of the family come from Hainan Island, and in Malaysia, we ran coffee shops, a very traditional Hainanese profession.

Chinese clogs (木屐) or 'cha kiak' from my grandmother's home

Plain, unpainted Chinese clogs (木屐) from my grandmother’s home.

This photo reminds me of my childhood at my grandmother's coffee shop.

This photo reminds me of my childhood at my grandmother’s coffee shop.

My father’s side of the family live in Penang, on the mainland side of the island state. It was a working class area, a bit rough, and when my father was young, gangs used to ask for protection money from the family’s coffee shop. The money was supposedly to ‘protect’ the shop, but if you didn’t pay up, it was the gangsters who would come and trash the shop. There were many gangs back then, with names like ‘see kang’ (four holes), ‘khong pek’ (08) and ‘ang hwa’ (red flowers). My aunt told me that back then even gangsters wore Chinese clogs. I find this funny because I don’t think of clogs as a tough guy gangster footwear. Rather, I associate them with something my grandmother would wear. Though I suppose one could use the wooden clog as a weapon, if you really wanted to. These days, the gangsters have moved into the loan shark business, rather than extorting money.

One of the questions that I get asked is ‘Where can I buy Chinese clogs?’ This is a hard question to answer because this is footwear that you would normally buy at the market or at a small sundry shop, which are becoming increasingly rare these days. But now I know of a shop in Penang which sells Chinese clogs. It is called Eng Ong Heong Trading on the Eastern end of Jalan Burma, or Burma Road. This shop sells many things apart from footwear. This shop sells Chinese prayer products, retro stuff, as well as traditional footwear like Chinese clogs and nyonya slippers (more on that in a future post).

If you want to buy Chinese clogs in Penang, you can't miss the entrance of Eng Ong Heong Trading on Burma Road, with its gigantic clog in front of the shop.

If you want to buy Chinese clogs in Penang, you can’t miss the entrance of Eng Ong Heong Trading on Burma Road, with its gigantic clog in front of the shop.

Chinese clogs are made by hand, but this is now a dying art as the traditional clog has to compete with modern footwear and the perception that clogs are old-fashioned and noisy footwear. There are very few skilled Chinese clogmakers these days, and clogmaking is a vanishing trade, going the way of TV repair men (remember them?).

An example of a Chinese clogmaker's workshop, where clogs are made by hand.

An example of a Chinese clogmaker’s workshop, where clogs are made by hand.

These days, clogs are more often sold as a souvenir item for tourists, rather than as actual footwear. You can also buy key chains and fridge magnets in the shape of Chinese clogs, if you feel that buying an actual clog is too much of a commitment.

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Souvenir key chains and fridge magnets in the shape of Chinese clogs, also sold at Eng Ong Heong Trading on Burma Road in Penang.

 

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