In his father’s footsteps

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Amrul Hidayat & Norzatul Ramlan Saudin. Tasek Gelugor, Seberang Perai. 2016

Story by Ivy Soon. Photos by Kenny Loh. Reproduced from the book, Seberang Perai – Stories from Across the Sea.

The late Haji Hashim Hassan was a famous Kepala Batas capal (sandal) maker, and he was adamant that his sons follow in his footsteps. It wasn’t that they could continue his legacy, but so they’d acquire a skill and never go hungry.

But his elder son Amrul Hidayat had other plans – he wanted to be an artist, perhaps even a rock star. His father wasn’t convinced he was all that talented. He was not even impressed when Amrul studied microbiology at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

“My father said he would give me a degree in shoemaking in two years,” recalls Amrul, 36, who quit university to apprentice with the old master. He recites conversations with his father vividly and fondly, some of which are in Hokkien, as they both spoke it fluently.

Their most heated arguments were in Hokkien, says Amrul who is known as Ah Loon in Kepala Batas town where he grew up in his father’s shop on Jalan Perak.

They didn’t see eye to eye on many things, and clashed over everything from using machines to Amrul taking over his father’s business. But even though his father passed away in 2008, all Amrul’s stories circle back to ‘the old man’.

Though initially the reluctant heir to his father’s capal-making heritage, he is now a proud custodian of the traditional craft.

“Capal is not just another sandal, or footwear. It is part of Malay culture, part of the Malay costume. It goes with the baju Melayu, samping and songkok. The proper footwear for the Malay traditional attire is not kasut sepatu, or shoes, not your Bally.

“Capal is worn with the baju Melayu for formal functions, even at the palace,” asserts Amrul who now specialises in high-end custom-made leather capal. His customers include former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, ministers, politicians and celebrities. Some customers are also from families that have patronised Capal Jago for generations, from during Amrul’s late father’s time.

“All the leather is imported, so it’s more expensive now to make a full leather capal which can cost up to RM600.

“Capal makers now also use mock leather to cater to the retail market, so we can make affordable capal for adults and children,” Amirul says.

The invaluable skill his father passed to him – that distinguishes him from other shoemakers – is the skill to fit the buckle that sits on the intersection of the capal’s T-strap. If done right, the wearer will have a snug comfortable pair of capal.

“He taught me like how he was taught. I was expected to try on my own, and then show him, then try again. I had to be self-motivated. He didn’t spoon feed me. If I wanted to learn fast, I had to practise hard and keep at it till I was satisfied I had mastered a step,” recalls Amrul whose father learnt to make capal from a Minangkabau shoemaker from Palembang, Indonesia.

During Amrul’s father’s youth, Seberang Perai Utara was a centre for Islamic studies. Ulamas came from all over, including Palembang, to teach and learn Islam. They also brought with them cultural influences, such as the capal which is a traditional Sumateran footwear.

“The Malays have been wearing capal since the early 20th century, also influenced by the Indians. Capal comes from the Indian word capli, which means slippers. It also used to be called kasut Palembang. It’s called kasut datuk in Minang. Some people call it kasut P. Ramlee. The difference between Indian and Malay capal is a strap across the toe for the former,” explains Amirul.

Fewer people are wearing capal now as they have many other footwear options. There are less than 10 capal makers in Malaysia today.

“In the 1950s, there were 15 capal makers in Penang alone. But when they passed away, there was no one to take over,” says Amrul who admits he cannot keep up with the demand for his capal as he doesn’t have enough skilled workers.

“Workers don’t want to learn the way I did. Some came to work with me expecting to learn how to make capal in three months. When they can’t, they quit to look for easier work, or jobs that pay better,” says Amrul who believes there are no shortcuts, only sheer hard work and many hours of practice.

He still does the fitting of the buckle on every capal in his workshop as none of his workers has the knack for it yet.

Amrul’s wife Norzatul Ramlan Saudin, who is called Lena, meanwhile is skilled in embossing their signature motif on the capal. Amrul insists she does a demonstration and then proceeds to tease her about how muscular her arm is from wielding the hammer and die.

The most precious lesson Amrul’s father taught him was not shoe-making but business management. When Amrul suggested that he take over his father’s business in 2005, his father gave him 24 hours’ notice, RM3000 capital and told him to start his own business.

So, Amrul started Jago Mutiara Enterprise. A year later, he took Lena to see his father with 50sen in his pocket.

“My sifu lectured me from morning till night, for four whole days. We went through everything I did and how I spent my money. He told me in detail all the things I did wrong and how I was a fool. He said ‘now you know the difference between making capal and doing business.’

“At the end of the four days, he told me I had two options. I could come back to work for him and never worry about managing a business. Or he could give me another RM3000 but if I fail I cannot come back again,” says Amrul, re-counting his tongue-lashing of a lifetime with grimaces and grins.

Amrul took the RM3,000, and restarted his business with his father’s lecture ringing in his ears… probably till this day. He points to a pile of leather remnants in his workshop. “My father would flip if he saw that. ‘That’s money,’ he’d tell me when he visited my shop,” he says.

But his father would have approved of how Amrul is building his business prudently.

“Because I ventured out young, I was able to network and make contacts early. That’s how I was able to buy machines from shoemakers who had retired,” says Amrul whose days of lavish spending are over.

He built Jago Mutiara’s workshop in a village, surrounded by padi fields, in 2012.

“We didn’t take a bank loan. We are slowly adding to it as we go,” says Amrul who has just put in the extension for his showroom.

He works closely with government agencies like Risda, the Rural and Regional Development Ministry and the Tourism and Cultural Ministry to market and promote capal.

He also uses social media to engage with his customers. One can now search for Jago Mutiara on Facebook. “For some reason, my customers are mostly from elsewhere. Only 5% of them are from Kepala Batas, the rest are from other states.

“So, instead of waiting for customers to come here, my wife and I have been travelling to expos and exhibitions everywhere in Malaysia to sell our capal,” says Amrul who travels around in his trusty beat-up non-air-conditioned van.

He doesn’t know if his two sons will continue their family’s capal-making heritage. “My 14-year-old son would ratn hisIher cook than hold leather. My nine-year-old son is a born businessman; he has sold his classmates all the school supplies we bought him!

Amrul says: “It’s different now… we can’t push them. If we pull the strings too tight, they will break.”

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