INTERVIEW: Tong Cheuk Fung, Strap Maker And Founder of 47Ronin
“I want to put a piece of Japanese art on people’s wrists.”
Credit: Kent Chia, Typeface.page
You can consider Hong Kong-born, Singapore-bred Tong a champion of Japanese culture and crafts. After all, the watch strap artist started his career in Kyoto and was a business owner helping Japanese companies expand overseas. In his consulting work, Tong spoke mostly Japanese, a language he studied at 13 and thrived in, being the top candidate in Singapore for ‘O’ and ‘AO’ level Japanese.
So it comes as no surprise that Tong’s passion for Japan is translated into his company, 47Ronin. Specialising in handcrafted, high quality watch straps with Japanese elements and designs, 47Ronin is an interesting proposition in the world of leather watch straps.
“While most people know 47 Ronin as the name of a movie, I know it as a legendary Samurai event,” Tong explains. “47Ronin is a historical account from over 300 years ago where 47 Ronins (free-roaming Samurais without a master) showed great courage and loyalty by taking revenge for the unjust execution of their late master. I want to dedicate my work to the modern Ronins who do not follow the status quo but lead a life according to their own philosophy.”
What inspired you to embark on this business?
I was living in Kyoto where I was surrounded by World Heritage Sites as well as traditional Japanese crafts such as kimono textiles, pottery, tatami and bamboo craft. I became interested in Japanese traditional crafts, learning about the craftsmen’s spirit, and found their trades are rapidly dying due to the lack of domestic demand, with the younger generation choosing not to continue in the trade. Since my role then was as a consultant helping Japanese companies expand overseas, I thought I could do something similar.
How did this lead to creating watch straps?
While it is almost impossible to bring around a full kimono or a two-metre tatami to show how beautiful they are, I thought of putting a small piece of their essence on a watch strap, where anyone can bring it around to show off its beauty and tell interesting stories behind each design and material. I wanted to put a piece of Japanese art on people’s wrists and introduce the beauty of traditional Japanese crafts far and wide.
Talk us through the process of designing and making one of your straps.
Firstly, we look at the watch and type of lugs—is it a normal lug, does it have a spring bar, or is it a more complicated design, like that of a Casio G-Shock, Audemars Piguet or Bell & Ross? We will then adjust the strap length and buckle holes according to your wrist size. Things we consider when designing the strap: Shape and colour of the case, colour of the dial, features and shapes on the dial, as well as the concept of the watch design. Sometimes I will have design concepts that match that of the watch. I will pick out components for the strap, such as colour and type of leather, kimono fabric, tatami-beri fabric, amongst others.
What are some challenges you face in the business?
In the watch world, the watch itself is usually the focus, while watch straps are relegated to being accessories. It’s hard for people to imagine the amount of thought, material, design, heritage and stories that are in our straps. Also, while you can get straps in the market for $30 or less, ours cost from $300 to over $400 due to the craftsmanship, design, complexity and material. Fortunately, our customers see more than just a watch strap and many have commented my works are true pieces of art.
What advice would you give someone who wants to start their own business?
Work on something that you truly believe in and you won’t feel it’s work anymore. In this world where people demand instant gratification, a business may take years to be successful. So be patient and pace yourself for what may turn out to be a marathon. While the goal is what drives us in our business, remember to enjoy the journey. It is a much bigger part of the whole package.
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