Mending not spending

It's a rule of thumb that in the western world nowadays if it is broken it needs replacing. Not so here in Thailand where you can still get things fixed.

By | Sat 1 Aug 2015

The Guardian named us the “Lost Generation”, the Bangkok Post: “Gen Me”. We are the new generation that has rocketed the consumption rates to a previously unheard of level. Though I have never really considered myself a proponent of the consumerist world, in all honesty, I also can’t be excused from being a part of disposable culture. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to give us all the blame.

On the one hand, we are constantly tempted to consume, and on the other, the goods we purchase have been made to break. Elizabeth Cline’s ‘Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion’ points out that there are no longer two fashion seasons per year but fifty two; some brands update their clothing racks twice a week, while others introduce up to 400 new styles weekly on their sites. How can we resist the temptation to buy more, when these sites are so easily accessible by our smartphones? And talk about smartphones, the Bangkok Post stated that 75% of my generation owns one, with Manager Online claiming that Thailand has 15 million mobile telephone numbers more than its total population. These shopping facilitators make it so easy for us to spend, and keep spending.

Back in the mid-19th century, disposable products such as razors, plasters, sanitary napkins, and condoms were first manufactured and promoted as both hygienic and convenient. Today, it is difficult to separate what’s disposable and what’s not as the life cycles of products continue to shrink. In fact, Gile Slade, the author ‘Made to Break’ said, “our whole economy is based on buying, trashing and buying again.”

To give a little balance to this global phenomenon, Citylife is paying homage to three Chiang Mai businesses which see treasure in another man’s trash. For a fraction of what it costs our wallets and our planet to buy a new pair of shoes, bag, watch, or whatever else you think you’ve worn through, pop on down to these goods doctors and get your favourite items back on the mend.

The Mobile Fixer

According to Thai PBS, Thai youths use their mobile phones on average for a year and a half, with college students using their smartphones for less than a year. Instead of allowing a broken screen, programming glitch or wonky buttons to send you off to spend tens of thousands of baht on a new phone, we suggest a painless visit to 191Phone Shop in Pantip Plaza.

Behind the little shop’s messy counter is Ahpaew Taebiang, a 27 year old Akha employee and mobile fixer who fell into repairing six years ago after graduating from Montfort College through a scholarship. “I always try first, whether I can fix it or not is another question. If I can fix it then I ask for money, and if I can’t fix it then I don’t take any money…no matter how much time I have spent on it. I also never push people to buy new phones from us if it is possible for me to fix their old ones.”

“Phones today are more fragile and complex than they used to be,” he told me. “In the past, phones had a small screen and buttons, today they are mostly composed of a screen, so when you drop it, the screen shatters.” With more functions to a phone also comes more pitfalls and points that can be broken; and not only do they break more easily, they are also more expensive to fix. The cost of repairs depends on if there are replicated parts available from China.”

“There was also more demand for repairs in the past,” expanded Ahpaew, who is an employee but dreams of opening his own repair shop one day. “Technology is developing fast, repair parts are getting more expensive and I have to work hard to keep myself up to date.” One positive Aphaew has noticed about old phones is that young people don’t throw away their old dated phones, they simply give it to their parents or grandparents to use.

The Clothes Mender
Our mums don’t make our clothes for us as they did in many previous generations; faceless people in factories do. While hotel rooms used to always provide a sewing kit, as mending was a ubiquitous part of our culture, they are not as often seen today.

I stumbled across Aunty Porn’s mending shop as I wandered through the second floor’s outer corners of Warorot Market. Aunty Porn has been tailoring and mending clothes here for the past 50 years. “I do it because I love it, if I don’t love it then I won’t do it,” the elderly woman said. A youthful 74 year old with perfect vision, she still uses her sewing machine with great precision. “It was my decision to learn how to tailor, my father and mother worked in the fields but I didn’t want to work in the sun,” she said.

She is also the first (and possibly the last) person to have told me that she has never bought a single piece of readymade garment. Aunty Porn explained that in the old days seven tailors used to work under her, and she even co-owned a tailoring school. But since the rise of cheap readymade clothing, there has been less demand for her service. People still bring her clothes to mend, but “readymade clothes leave very little room for adjustments, they were made in factories to be sold cheap.”

Auntie Porn says that many of her clients have been coming to her for generations and that they value her patience and good memory. “My memory is not very good these days so I have to write down what the clients want,” she said as she pulled out a few scraps of paper to show me the orders taken. As to the future, her daughter is also a seamstress, but her grandchildren have shown little interest in the trade, something she accepts, but is
saddened by.

The Cobblers
“I just wanted to make a living and raise my children,” said the 63 year old pioneer of Saneh-Haa, a shoe repair shop open since 1980 on Chotana Road in the days when it was still red with unpaved dirt, and which dramatically translates to ‘inflamed by love’.

“I thought I would quit [the repair work] after I sent both of my daughters to university, but after graduating, they both wanted to work here!” she beams. Despite its unkempt appearance, this shop is managing a bustling trade.

“I graduated with a master’s degree in education but I decided that shoe repair is a valuable skill which is dying, and one which I truly value,” said Som, one of the two fruit-named daughters now running the family business. “And I left my job as a manager of a supermarket so that we could keep the money in the family,” added Cherry.

“The quality has dropped; a lot of shoes are made in China,” explained Som. “Today things break easier and are more delicate,” she said. Add in the declining economy and these factors are bringing in a roaring trade to the humble business.

“If students buy shoes that are not so expensive, then they have to fix them more regularly,” said Som who insists that if the job is simple then they don’t even charge their customers, and overall they keep their prices very low and reasonable.

The sisters are not content to simply sit on laurels past, they are also looking into the future, “Our store continues to improve,” Som said as Cherry showed me handmade key chains she made for gifting clients over the New Year, and the reusable cotton bags they have just started giving out to clients when they come to pick up their shoes.

Repairing old items is not just about fixing what is broken, it goes far beyond that. For some an item holds precious memories, for others it is sheer comfort and familiarity.

There is something to be said about valuing what you own and doing your best to preserve it. It is also personal. One thing that is clear is that these fixers all have personal relationships with many of their clients. They remember what they like, they go the extra mile to bring back to life what they value and it is this service, this personalised, personable relationship that they have with their clients which brings them back again and again. I am going to remember this experience of getting to know these people and I will bring my old clothes to Aunty Porn to celebrate her life’s work; I will show support for Aphaew’s dream of owning his own repair
business by sending my friends to fix their phones with him and I will honour the dying art of shoe repair by having my favourite sandals mended at Saneh-Haa rather than simply picking up my smartphone and ordering a new set.

Repairing is no longer just about not disposing of the item itself, but about making sure that the art of mending is never tossed out either.