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The Kota Raya Cobbler
Mazlan Zulkifli is one of the last roadside cobblers in Kota Raya, who’s been repairing shoes in the area since its ’90s heyday.
In search for better opportunities in 1994, Mazlan Zulkifli left his hometown of Kota Kinabalu for Kuala Lumpur and became a security guard in the heart of the city.
However, having never attended school, the writing hourly reports became a big problem for Mazlan. Unable to tolerate another scolding over a poorly written report, Mazlan quit his job a year later, but opportunity was waiting just around the corner.
“Right outside the building I was working at was Kota Raya, where I saw long queues of people waiting to get their shoes repaired,” Mazlan recalls. “Some of the cobblers were my friends, so whenever I spent time with them, I would discreetly observe how they repaired shoes and went home to practise the techniques by myself.”
A few weeks later, he surprised his friends outside the Kota Raya Shopping Complex by setting up his own station as a fellow cobbler. According to Mazlan, the area’s foot traffic at the time supported up to 20 cobblers without them getting overly competitive.
But it didn’t stay that way for too long, as the city rapidly expanded over the decades and cobblers eventually started leaving Kota Raya to find customers elsewhere – some even went to suburbs. Today, only Mazlan and three other cobblers remain in the former hotspot. Mazlan is the most veteran cobbler among them.
At 55 years old, he finds comfort in routine. He’s chosen to remain at his corner, by the alley that separates the old mall from neighbouring shoplots. His daily commute hasn’t changed for the past two decades: he takes the number 420 bus from Pandan Indah, Ampang where he lives to Maybank Tower – a four-minute walk to his workspace.
Like most roadside cobblers of today, he travels light, using polystyrene box covers to hold his supplies of glue, rubber soles, heels, and an assortment of replacement pieces.
Stitching has become second nature for Mazlan, as it’s the most common repair work for worn sneakers and sole replacement. He also works fast; even though there are fewer cobblers around, competition is stiff. He keeps prices low to attract customers, and works fast hoping that his speed will increase customer volume.
“No one is willing to pay RM30 for shoe repair anymore,” remarks Mazlan, “They either can’t afford it, or would just rather buy new shoes.”
Despite making less than half of what he used to make when he first started out, the seasoned cobbler remains unfazed. Most cobblers in Kuala Lumpur, he explains, are enterprising folk. They’re mostly handymen from out of town, who like himself, stumbled upon shoe repair.
When the roadside cobbler boom ended, the enterprising solution for most cobblers was to leave Kota Raya, but Mazlan wanted to stay on, and had an ingenious idea of his own. Today, on top of shoe repairs, he hand makes his own stitching awls and sells them to other cobblers in the area.
To make these stitching awls, Mazlan upcycles broom handles to make the grip, and spends his downtime straightening, sawing, and filing down umbrella springs into interchangeable needles.
He also believes that the roadside cobbler profession will end with his generation, arguing that replacing has become more preferable to repairing.
“I am resigned to this reality,” he says. “I never went to school, and this work managed to support me and my family then. But it’s very different now. I don’t think it would be the same if my children inherited this line of work today.”
By Aizyl Azlee
Photos and video by Teoh Eng Hooi
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