Mason & Smith
Started from the bottom – An interview with John Chung of Mason & Smith
Donning a crisp tailor-made shirt and immaculately ironed flat-front pants, John Chung of Mason & Smith dabs a cloth into a tin of premium Saphir shoe polish, the best of its kind, and applies it onto a pair of bespoke Italian leather brogues. The sky is dark. The bar downstairs bustles with activity. A quick glance at the clock shows that it is now 11 p.m., four hours past closing time.
Staying late is a typical part of John’s routine on weekdays. He reaches his shop at Boat Quay at about 10 a.m., smokes several cigarettes, and catches up on his reading, before beginning work on his clients’ shoes. He closes the shop at 7 p.m. but he stays on to complete his work. Even though the shop is closed on Sundays, he would still come back to do his accounts, and experiment with new products.
“The longest I’ve worked was for 40 days with no break,” the self-professed workaholic claimed, referring to his yearlong stint at Marina Bay Sands. John used to have an express shoe shining stand in their retail section, which he described as the toughest time since the birth of Mason & Smith in 2013.
“The only break I had was the three days for Chinese New Year. I had to work on Christmas as well,” he recalled.
When he started Singapore’s first shoe shine bar at Kevin Seah’s retail space at Boat Quay, he maintained his stand at Marina Bay Sands. A lot of coordination was involved during that period of four months. He would be at Marina Bay Sands from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., before taking over from his helpers at Boat Quay to continue his work till late.
“There was no life, only work.” John quipped.
Everyday is a busy day at Mason & Smith, a now one-man operation. His never-ending workload, and the need for him to stay past opening hours, is attributed to the times when a single customer may bring in several pairs of shoes to be worked on.
He would sometimes compete with a friend of his, who also works long hours, to see who stayed longer at work, or worked longer hours that particular day.
“If he is still at work when I call him after I close shop, I would think to myself, ‘I should have stayed in the shop longer!’” John recounted.
John, who is 23, started his business in 2013 with a humble booth of cheap plastic chairs, printed A4 paper as signage, and barely even a proper company logo. His initial idea was to sell vintage dress shoes, sourced from overseas, at the Public Garden flea market.
“I realized that people were interested in the shoes because they were nicely polished,” said John. Armed with this knowledge, he taught himself to craft the perfect shoeshine and the finest patina.
It was at the Public Garden flea markets that John first met the executives in charge of Marina Bay Sands retail. It was also here where he first encountered Kevin Seah, a veteran bespoke menswear designer and the owner of the space that John currently works at.
John has come a long way since his humble beginnings setting up shop in makeshift booths. The exposure he has accrued since his stint at Marina Bay Sands has nabbed him opportunities to work with Dr. Martens, Hackett London, and Louis Vuitton.
The greatest highlight of John’s career thus far, is his trip to Florence, Italy for Pitti Uomo 87 in January 2015. He had the opportunity to meet with the top eight shoemakers from all over the world, at the top menswear tradeshow in the world. What made the experience memorable was going beyond rubbing shoulders with these shoe masters. He was interacting with these experts, having personal and meaningful conversations with them.
John plans to stand amongst these shoemakers as their peer someday.
“You can be anything you want to be,” said John. “As long as you are willing to work for it.”
Text by: Choy Jing Hui
*Image courtesy of John Chung
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