The Business of Blooms

24 August 2018

For Kuala Lumpur’s old florist shops, success stems from decades of hard graft and reputation.  

A cluster of mom-and-pop florists are boxed in skeletal set-ups amid stalls hawking local snacks, bags and clothes, Jalan Hang Lekir is home to a cluster of mom-and-pop florists boxed in skeletal set-ups. The street bisects Petaling Street market, and this is where some of the city’s oldest florists ply their trade.

Most of them would rather get on with their business than entertain questions from a curious stranger. One elderly uncle, who declined to be named, said to me in Mandarin, “See, I’m second-generation and we’ve been running a stall for about sixty years and we’re still here. Why don’t you talk to the people at Lee Wah instead? They have their own premises now.”

Just around the corner, on Jalan Tun H. S. Lee, Lee Wah Florist is now a bustling family business that takes up three adjoining shop lots and employs 50 full-time staff.

Nemo Lee, a pixyish, confident 25-year-old with short cropped hair, joined the family business three years ago after graduating from HELP. She’s part of the fourth generation, along with her brothers and cousins, who are slowly being entrusted with the reins while their parents keep a watchful eye.

“Lee Wah is the name of my grandfather, but my great-grandfather was already in the flower business since the 1950s. He had started wholesaling even then, and it makes up 70 percent of our business today. I think that’s why we’re still around,” Nemo says.

The Lees started out with a stall at Central Market and moved to Jalan Hang Lekir and other locations before, finally, moving into their own brick and mortar shop in 2003. It’s a dynasty of flowers: branches of the Lee family also own Pudu Ria Florist, with outlets in Pudu and Cheras; they used to own Floristika in Bangsar and Weng Hoa Flower Boutique just a few doors away from Lee Wah.

Jun Lee, Nemo’s 33-year-old brother who left a career in advertising just months ago to join the family business, remembers what it was like helping out at the stall on Jalan Hang Lekir before he left for college. “In those days during Chinese New Year, we would work 24/7 and sleep on cardboards in the stall itself. The bargaining was the best part. Now I’m back, trying to remember thousands of flower names,” he says, with a laugh.

Nemo explains the weekly rhythms of the flower business: “We get our local shipments from Cameron Highlands and they are delivered to us every night, except on Saturdays. We also import half of all our flowers, delivered by air three times a week, mainly from China, India, Vietnam, Holland and South Africa. We import flowers like roses, lilies, carnations and amarantus, and because they are more sensitive we store them in our cold rooms, which are usually set to nine degrees celcius.”

She says the busiest periods are during Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, as well as during weddings, which tend to fall between September and December. Lee Wah also launched an online shop several years ago, but it receives the bulk of its customers via telephone, especially WhatsApp. Its clients are mostly hotels, restaurants, and retail florists, usually from the Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya and Cheras areas.

Apple Lee, Nemo’s mother, has been working in the family business for about 40 years. Apple, who raised her family as a single mother, reflects on the past few decades: “Back then, it wasn’t so competitive. Now, you have to be a one-stop shop. When a customer walks in, you have to be able to give them everything they want, or they will go somewhere else.”

In a bid to evolve with the times, another florist called Lee Flower, based in Subang, has moved into teaching floral design since 1997. Based in two shoplots in SS15, the retail shop occupies the downstairs and an academy takes up the upstairs floors for classes and workshops. There’s also a hostel for students visiting from abroad, as far as China and Canada.

Lee Flower is owned by Kathy Ong, who is accredited by the American Institute of Floral Designers. Most students at Lee Flower go on to work as floral consultants and event planners. “I have always loved flowers,” says Victor Das, who is attending a class. “In the future, maybe I will open a business, but the main purpose now is to offer free flower-arranging services to my church.”

Again, there’s a long history to this business. More than 60 years ago, Lee Flower’s founder Goh Teo Hwee began plying his trade as a florist on Jalan Sultan. He then moved to the Hock Lee Grocery Store on Jalan Tun Perak in the 1960s. Before setting out on his own, he had apprenticed in the flower trade even as a teenager back in China, before joining his father, who was also a florist, in Singapore.

Kathy first came to know Mr Goh in the 1980s when he first supplied her flower shop, City Florists, in the old Holiday Inn on Jalan Raja Laut. He also offered her support and advice, and as she grew closer to him and his children she started calling him “godfather”.

“You know, the life you live in a floral shop is not what you think. It’s working hard, seven days a week, for more than twelve hours a day. You work during the festive season, when everyone is celebrating. You don’t have a personal, social life,” she explains.

When Goh’s children decided to work outside of the floral industry, Kathy took over and merged both businesses.

“I closed down the shop on Jalan Tun Perak, and Mr Goh came to work with me in City Florists until the day he died. Imagine this: the shop was only less than 200 square feet with 13 people working in it. There was no place to sit, and when we wanted to eat we overturned the flower pails and used them as stools. My mum and my godfather helped me a lot in those days. I owe them a lot for that.”

In 2000, Kathy moved into her current spacious premises, and has since focused more energy on the academy,. She has also ceased her wholesale business. The academy currently has five instructors, and she plans to train more. “Our students’ successes are our achievements,” she said.

Both Nemo and Kathy identify the point of delivery—from suppliers, and to customers—as the main challenge in their line of work. “With overseas shipment, anything can happen. They can go missing, or get sent to the wrong place. Or maybe the wrong product is sent to us. Then our customers won’t get their flowers on time for a special event,” Nemo says.

“Customer service is the most important part,” Kathy concurs. “That’s where you build your word-of-mouth reputation.”

But through ups and downs, these florists remain optimistic about the future. As Kathy said, “The flower business is an evergreen industry. You use flowers to comfort, to congratulate, to apologise, to bond. Flowers say it best for all occasions.”

Lee Wah Florist — 29 Jalan Tun H. S. Lee, Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur 50000 (03 2078 2822). Open Mondays to Sundays, 8:30am-10pm (Closed on from 5pm-7pm on Sundays)
Lee Flower — 70, Jalan SS15/4, Subang Jaya, 47500 Petaling Jaya, Selangor (03 5637 0668). Retail shop open daily from 9am to 6pm. Academy open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 10:30am to 6pm.

By Emily Ding
Photos and video by Teoh Eng Hooi


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