I am standing in the famed Hong Kong Shoe Store, a 68-year-old business in Penang, chatting with owner Wong Heng Mun while deciding on the style of shoes to make as part of a day-long class with the master shoemaker. The list of former apprentices here is long and intimidating, especially as these are the very streets in which young Jimmy Choo first got his inspiration. Wong tells me he started offering classes to the public after being approached by local tour company Metro Bike, which had noticed a rise in the popularity of such courses.
This course is just one example of the latest way to holiday – embarking on a creative vacation. In its latest travel report, Pinterest noted that searches for “living like a local” rose by 146% in 2017. A recent Booking.com survey also revealed that 59% of travellers would rather choose an experience over a material buy on holiday. As such, a raft of new companies such as VAWAA (Vacation With An Artist) and Backstreet Academy, which organise experiences as varied as making leather bags in Chiang Mai to watercolour painting in Siem Reap, have been launched.
In 2015, VAWAA founder Geetika Agrawal spotted a gap in the market while holidaying in Bali. After spending the day making jewellery with a silversmith in Ubud, she found herself wishing she could stay longer. That’s when she hit on the idea of VAWAA. The company now offers creative experiences in cities such as Bangalore and Hanoi. Guests can pick up a variety of skills, from making stone sculptures to building bamboo bicycles, with apprentices spending up to seven days working with a craftsman.
It’s clear these unique vacation experiences leave an indelible mark on the apprentices. Ibrahim Iqbal from Singapore signed up for a soap making apprenticeship with VAWAA while on holiday in Slovenia. “I wanted to have an engaging experience during my trip, and I reckoned working with a local artist would give me that,” he says.
Fellow Singaporean Chia Pei Zhi chose to fly to Penang with her friends to learn the art of rattan weaving. “My friends and I work in the craft industry but had no experience with rattan,” she explains, “We wanted to gain the skills to make simple objects or perform basic rattan furniture repairs on our own.”
At the end of my four-hour experience, the sandals I’ve chosen to make are ready. They are sleek and well-finished, more thanks to the master than his sloppy apprentice. I also know I am walking away with a lot more than footwear; I have received an insight into a different world and spent time with one of Penang’s last great artisans.
3 alternative apprentice spots
Build a bamboo bike in India – Make your own bike on this seven-day course in Bangalore. vawaa.com
Weave in Laos – Join a three-day masterclass in Luang Prabang. ockpoptok.com
Make Jewellery in Bali – Create a personalised silver trinket with Sanur Jewellery Studio in Denpasar. sanurjewellerystudio.com
This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.