Arun Jaitley, former finance minister of India, was a man of many talents—an ace lawyer, an erudite statesman, and a connoisseur of fine workmanship and design in clothing and footwear. He once went to a wedding where a sudden downpour ruined his newly purchased soft leather shoes. He rued about it to a friend who advised him to send them to the Kim Brothers, a Chinese shoe shop in Delhi’s Jor Bagh Market. The shop has a cult following for its excellence in hand craftmanship and customisation. The Kim Brothers treated the damaged footwear and Jaitley was delighted with the miraculous restoration. Kim Brothers know their leather — it has been a family trade since more than a century.
“As far as remembered history goes, our maternal grandfather Lee Su Yee came from China to India at the start of 1900 and went into a shoe-making trade under the British shoemakers in Calcutta,” says Chiang Chun Hing who runs the Kim Brothers with his siblings. Lee Su Yee eventually shifted his shoe-making business to Allahabad and Lucknow. He also opened one shop at Mussoorie’s premier Library Road and another in the upscale Rajpur Road area of Dehradun, both under his banner of Lee Fa & Sons.
Lee Su Yee soon had a family of two daughters and five sons in India. In 1929, the Lee Su Yee took his eldest daughter Sankyao Lee to Calcutta to catch a ship to China to get her married. While they waited for the ship to arrive , they were introduced to Hugh Pin Hing, a young industrious boy who didn’t indulge in drinking or gambling — rampant in dock cultures at the time. Su Yee realised that he had found the perfect match for his daughter. And so, this was the start of the Hing family.
The newlyweds first joined the Dehradun and Mussoorie business of Lee Fa & Co. But, around 1936, the young family boarded a train to Ambala Cantt to seek its own destiny. Hing renamed the shop ‘Kim Brothers’ too. “Having spent her childhood in Lucknow and Allahabad, my mother Sankyao not only spoke fluent Urdu and Hindi, but she also had such deeply Indian tastes that she maintained an intricate brass paandaan filled with supari, choona, kattha, and fragrant elaichi,” says Chiang, his eyes twinkling with nostalgia.
In an alien town, without any resources or job, Hing knocked around desperately for work. Syed, a local businessman, helped him find a small shop on Alexandra Road just across the popular Sirhind Club, which the Army officers often visited for sport and leisure. This is how Hing got the first batch of orders from British officers for shoe-making, and he set off to work on his newly installed leather machine. Word of mouth spread, and soon, a lot of Army officers and young students from local colleges began patronising and supporting Hing’s shop.
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Getting popular among the British
Kasauli was a popular summer station for the British. A caravan of British families migrated to the hills every summer and came down to the plains with the onset of winter. So, Ambala Cantt became a vibrant market bustling with British families stocking up on provisions, clothing, and footwear for their onward journey. Hing’s reputation for making the snuggest and sturdy shoes spread, and his work grew exponentially. He became known as a master shoemaker crafting the classic Oxford shoe, the debonair Derby shoe, the flamboyant Brogue, and the sturdy Wellington boots. Elite women, too, flocked to Hing’s shop for his steady and well-designed high-heeled leather boots and dainty ballerina shoes made of soft leather.
Soon, the Indian royalty came to know about the recluse Chinese shoemaker and placed orders for their riding boots and tall Jodhpurs at Hing’s.
The Hing family’s fortunes took an upturn. They opened another shop in Kasauli under the banner of H. Hing & Sons. Hing’s seven sons and two daughters got enrolled at the Armed Force Children’s School which was run by a legendary English woman Nancie Joyce Margeret Jones later called Rajni Kumar. She ran sterling educational institutions first in Kasauli and then later opened other institutions such as the Springdales School in Delhi. The Hing family lived an idyllic life in Kasauli. Their shop was in the Jakki Mull building, a walkable distance from their home.
In this small cantonment hill station, everyone knew each other and houses were never locked. The Hing children shopped for home provisions and school books in the undulating bazaar that began at the hilltop and curved down toward the deep valley. In their free time, they would play in the green meadows and take long walks through the pine forests. “If anyone’s kids were naughty, the parents would point toward us and say: ‘See Mr Hing’s children! They are so shareef (courteous) and well-behaved; they are never noisy or naughty.’ So, we were trapped in a ‘good reputation’ and always had to behave very well!” says Chiang Hing, his delight apparent on his face.
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The fall and rise
Magical times never last, and so was the case with the Hing family. As India’s Independence came closer, British families began to leave Kasauli in droves. At one point, it became virtually a deserted town with just a few local families left. Hing’s shoe-making business turned tardy. Their children were shifted to a local government school to save up on expenses. Hing would travel to Ambala and Patiala looking for orders from his loyal customers among the Indian royalty. But compared to earlier times, this was just a trickle — hardly enough to run a business or a home in Kasauli.
Finally, Hing had to take a heartbreaking step. He shifted to Patiala where the royal households were his committed customers. For a few years, the Hing family tried to run a shop in Patiala and Chandigarh, serving the royalty as well as taking mass orders from the student community. But when things still remained unsettled, Hing turned to his wife’s family who ran a successful shoe shop called K.K. Lee Brothers in Delhi’s Khan Market.
The Lee family took the Hing children under its patronage and trained them in contemporary designs and fashions popular in Delhi markets. Khan market was already the hub for diplomats and embassy staff who liked new designs and glossy embellishments on their footwear. After some wait, the Hing family managed to open a shop in the Jor Bagh Market, which has been operational for almost seven decades now.
During this time, the seven Hing brothers and two sisters got married. Many of them have Indian spouses but the Chinese tradition of patient and intuitive shoe-making has continued — and so does their reputation for customised, handmade fine leather workmanship. Sanjay Gandhi, who was very fond of his pets, would get customised soft leather muzzles and leashes made by the Hing family for his dogs. The word-of-mouth reputation is such that when Hollywood actor Richard Gere wanted a protective cover for a sacred prayer wheel given to him by the Dalai Lama, it was the Kim Brothers he turned to.
This article is a part of a series called BusinessHistories exploring iconic businesses in India that have endured tough times and changing markets. Read all articles here.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)