Dutch wooden clogs (klompen)

Happy new year 2017! It’s a brand new year and I’m excited at the start of this year to write about Dutch clogs. I have wanted to write about this type of footwear for ages and I’m happy to finally be able to do so.

When I think about icons related to the Netherlands, tulips, windmills and wooden clogs come to mind. The first ever wooden shoe came from the Netherlands, dating from about 1230 AD, meaning that the Dutch people have been wearing wooden shoes for almost 800 years. These wooden clogs are quite appropriately called klompen. In the past, these clogs were made by hand and cut from a single piece of wood. Nowadays, the clogs are machine made.

A gigantic wooden clog outside a Dutch souvenir shop. This clog is painted with a traditional motif to make the top resemble a leather shoe (Photo by Sim Kui Ping).

A gigantic wooden clog outside a souvenir shop in the Netherlands. This clog is painted with a traditional motif to make the top resemble a leather shoe (Photo by Sim Kui Ping).

The first guild of clog makers was formed in the Netherlands around 1570. Before the 16th century, only rich people could afford shoes, which were handmade from leather. Most people at that time didn’t wear shoes, so wooden shoes became a cheap footwear option for the masses. In the Netherlands, klompen were worn by peasants and farmers.

These days, Dutch people don’t regularly wear klompen anymore, though they are still worn by some people, mainly farmers and gardeners. Because klompen are made from wood, they are as safe as safety shoes or steel-capped boots, and can protect the wearer from sharp objects.

Nowadays, klompen are mainly sold as tourist souvenirs of the Netherlands, rather than as actual footwear.

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Colourful ‘klompen’ painted with a windmill design, in a souvenir shop in the Netherlands (Photo by Sim Kui Ping).

If an actual wooden clog is too large, klompen souvenirs can also come in mini forms, such as fridge magnets and pins.

A fridge magnet in the form of 'klompen' (Photo by Chang Shih Yen).

A fridge magnet in the form of ‘klompen’ (Photo by Chang Shih Yen).

Below is a brooch in the form of a pair of plain, unpainted ‘klompen’, a gift from a friend who used to live in the Netherlands.

A brooch in the form of 'klompen' (Photo by Chang Shih Yen).

A brooch in the form of ‘klompen’ (Photo by Chang Shih Yen).

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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.

 

Japanese geta (下駄)

Since my last post was about Chinese clogs, I thought that in this post, I would write about another kind of wooden clog – the geta, a type of Japanese wooden slipper. Geta is a traditional Japanese footwear made of wood, usually with two raised bits of wood at the bottom to create an elevated sole. A ‘hanao’ or the V-shaped thong on top keeps the foot in place. Apparently the geta came about in the Heian period (794 – 1185).

I managed to get myself a pair of geta, not in Japan though. I think it would be difficult to find footwear to fit my big feet in Japan. I bought my size 10 geta in Malaysia, but I think they are made in Thailand. My geta is a modern take on the traditional geta. It has rubber covered soles, a cartoon puppy and heart-shaped woodcut on the wood.

Shih Yen’s modern version of the traditional Japanese ‘geta’

Just like with Chinese clogs, traditional geta does not have a left or right side. The hanao (or thong) is in the middle so that it is possible to wear the geta on either foot. However, my modern geta has the hanao slightly off-centre so that a left and right foot is clearly distinguishable.

When I wear my geta, friends always ask me, “Is that comfortable?” This question takes me by surprise because if you don’t mind the clacking sound, the geta is one of the most comfortable footwear that I have ever worn. It’s like walking barefoot on a wooden floor. I can guarantee that you will not get any blisters while wearing geta. No one ever asks me this question when I’m wearing stilettos or high heels and they are much more uncomfortable than the geta.

Geta are traditionally worn with Japanese kimono or yukata (summer cotton kimono), but they can also be worn as casual footwear with everyday clothes. When wearing yukata, it is not usual to wear socks (or tabi) with the geta.

Shih Yen wears geta with her handsewn summer yukata. It is hard to distinguish the wood floor from the wooden geta!

Chinese clogs (木屐)

It’s almost Chinese New Year. The Chinese use the lunar calendar and this year Chinese new year is on January 23rd 2012. This year is also the year of the black water dragon, which confusingly starts on 4 February 2012. Chinese new year comes early this year; the year of the dragon starts on ‘li chun’, which is the first day of spring. In 2012, ‘li chun’ is on 4th February.

Since Chinese New Year is almost here, I thought I would write about Chinese footwear. One example of casual Chinese footwear would be Chinese clogs or 木屐 which translates as ‘wooden clogs’. We call them ‘cha kiak’ in my family, which means ‘wooden clogs’ in the Hokkien dialect of Chinese.

Apparently, clogs from Wen Chang county on Hainan Island in South China has a very long history, centuries-old, and was the forerunner of the Japanese ‘geta’ or wooden slipper. Since my father’s ancestors came from Wen Chang county in Hainan province, my father’s side of the family wears clogs all the time. My paternal grandmother runs a coffee shop (a very traditional Hainanese profession) and she wears clogs around the shop, house and even to go next door. My uncle and aunt also regularly wear this type of footwear around the house and my aunt prefers them to slippers because according to her, her feet are cleaner while wearing clogs, unlike slippers which collect dust. Chinese clogs remind me of my childhood because their clack-clacking sound reminds me of my grandmother, and of the times I spent in her coffee shop.

There is no left or right side to the clog. You can wear them on either foot. They are very comfortable too. The design of the clog, with its elevated sole, helps to keep your feet dry. The wooden sole is also amazingly non-slip and is good to wear on wet surfaces. These clogs don’t come in any standard size. At the clogmakers, they generally come in big, medium, small or kids size. Clogs with straight sides are meant for men and clogs with sides that curve in (like in the picture) are for women.

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

Interestingly, red wooden clogs are also included in a Chinese bride’s dowry. Two pairs of clogs, beautifully painted in red, make up part of a traditional Chinese dowry.

Sadly, making traditional Chinese clogs is a dying art. It is increasingly difficult to find these type of clogs as they have to compete with more modern footwear. Nowadays, these clogs are becoming more of a tourist souvenir item than everyday footwear.