Friday, January 2, 2009

Ah Chuk

I am not quite sure what I did to deserve it, nor can I remember the circumstances in which he gave it to me, but I still wear a completely indestructible light brown Harris Tweed “sports jacket,” meaning jacket, that was made for my father in Hong Kong, “Hand Tailored,” so says the label, “by AH CHUK, Ladies & Gents Tailor, 3A Humphrey’s Avenue, Kowloon, Hong Kong, Tel. 63635.”

Further down, actually concealed inside the breast pocket there’s another label. It reads “AH CHUK ORIGINAL,” with spaces for the typewritten details: “NAME: P. C. Trumble / ORDER NO. 1038 / DATE: 8th Sept., 1961.” The typewriter ribbon must have been steeped in nuclear waste, because this customized label has survived more than 47 years of fairly regular dry cleaning.

I love that “P. C. Trumble.”

Dad was always P. C. Trumble, or, in the office, where I went to work for a while as a general dog’s body with a few other partners’ sons during the summer holidays, “P.C.T.” Evidently, when asked for the relevant particulars by Ah Chuk, Dad gave his name as P. C. Trumble. I doubt if it would have occurred to him to say Peter, and I am quite sure that Ah Chuk never addressed him other than as Mr. Trumble. I suppose my own habit of signing e-mail messages “A. T.” may descend from Dad’s businesslike habit at Malleson’s.

In those days, solicitors’ briefs were still folded in half and tied with red (actually pink) tape, and stored away in rows upon rows in a cavernous storage room on the sixth floor of the St. James Building at 121, William Street, for a standard period of about fifteen years. Rats and mice used them to make comfortable nests.

Every summer, under the not particularly onerous supervision of a kind, elderly law clerk called Edgar Parker, it was our job to remove that year’s redundant files, put them in big canvas bags, sew them shut, and take them to the basement, whence they were removed to an industrial incinerator.

We were pretty slack, and one year I recall assembling a chain of paperclips that descended five floors.

We were also inquisitive, and some of the files were extremely interesting, especially certain divorce matters, above all the ones that were hotly contested, and contained scarifying photographic evidence.

Not all files were destroyed, of course, and in about 1980 Malleson’s was still holding an ancient tin box containing certain papers and personal effects belonging Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, a client who, because he boarded a lifeboat with Lady Duff-Gordon and her secretary, Miss Mabel Francatelli, and despite having been exonerated by the Board of Trade inquiry into the disaster, was for the rest of his life known as “the blackguard of the Titanic.”

For some reason the Duff-Gordons chose to sail first class under the pseudonym “Mr. and Mrs. Morgan,” and because Sir Cosmo made the bad mistake, afterwards, aboard the Carpathia, of giving a generous cash gratuity to each of the members of the crew who saved their lives, the inference was that he had paid his way to safety, and had, in any event, failed to observe the golden rule of women and children first.

Presumably in 1980 it was still thought possible that Malleson’s might eventually deliver the box into the hands of some Duff-Gordon relation, or next of kin. I recall it contained a few letters, one or two deeds, and, for some reason, a rusty old cutthroat razor.

I have no idea why on earth Sir Cosmo retained the services of a firm of solicitors in Melbourne, but I do recall that Dad had several old English clients, including Mrs. Goodfellow, who lived in quiet retirement near Taunton in Somerset, and whose livelihood had been prudently stewarded by Malleson’s since the nineteenth century. Shades of Magwitch, perhaps?

Just now I checked, and there is still listed in Hong Kong “Ah Chuk, Tailor.”

They’ve moved from their old premises on the ground floor of the Season Commercial Building in Humphrey’s Avenue, but only just around the corner, to Carnarvon Mansions, at 12, Carnarvon Road, in what is now referred to as the neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon.

Dad must have had the coat made whilst returning with Mum from their first trip to Europe, which was when they spent a few days being driven around West Germany by their friend Andreas von Schubert, the proprietor of Grünhaus (q.v.).

The lining is pretty much in shreds, and most of the buttons are gone, but the coat is otherwise intact, so earlier this week I made a bee-line for one of my favorite shops in the whole wide world, Tender Buttons, Inc., at 143 East 62nd Street at Lexington Avenue, to see if I could obtain carefully matched replacement leather buttons, and sew them on.

Tender Buttons is obviously named after the unreadable tractatus Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms (New York: Claire Marie, 1914), in which Gertrude Stein carries on and on and on, eventually coming up with this bon mot: “Startling a starving husband is not disagreeable.”

I suppose we must take her word for it, but somehow I doubt if Miss Stein and Miss Toklas knew many starving husbands.

Anyhow, the proprietors of Tender Buttons, Diana Epstein and Millicent Safro, are also connoisseurs and collectors of rare historical buttons, and have actually written a book, entitled, not surprisingly, Buttons (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991), which includes a foreword by Jim Dine, and a preface by Tom Wolfe. I bought a copy of it a few years ago, and it’s extremely absorbing.

Tender Buttons sells only buttons, but it also stands as a monument to human ingenuity and imagination, because until you have paid a visit you never dreamed that the parameters of the parent concept could be so broad, or could embrace so many varieties, shapes, sizes, and types of button, clip, fastener, loop, hook, eye, or sinker.

The danger is that once you start searching you cannot stop, and, upon returning shamefaced to your wardrobe, you’re tempted to throw everything into a kit-bag and bring it back to Tender Buttons for immediate refurbishment. Why live with dull old standard black or grey plastic ones when you could have coral, or sea anemones, or toggles in the shape of trumpets, or little bells, or miniature colosseums?

Fortunately in this instance I found the right little leather buttons to replace the ones that are missing from the cuffs of Dad’s sports jacket, and prudently I bought a couple of extra big ones for down the front as well, just in case.

For years Ah Chuk posted Dad a complimentary calendar. “The Original AH CHUK,” it read. “Beware of impostors, or you may get rob.”

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