Bee Tai, a clothing store with a colourful past

Bee Tai brought new meaning to local street fashion of the late ’70s, ‘80s and the ‘90s.

Kenyalang Portraits

By Wilfred Pilo

KUCHING, March 17: Bee Tai is no ordinary clothing store. This ‘The Fashion Place’ in India Street was once a shoppers’ paradise and the place to be to buy the latest fashion and casual wear in the mid-’70s, ‘80s and the ’90s.

Back then, when there was hardly any competition, it was also dubbed the ‘fashion trendsetter’ house. Here, customers could get hold of branded jeans, fashionable dungarees, Hawaiian shirts, stylish dresses, loud and colourfully worded T-shirts and a myriad of accessories to go with it.

Bee Tai was a prime fashion mover and a household name then. The name brought new meaning to street fashion among the young, especially in the late ’70s. Its popularity was unmatched, with repeat customers faithfully coming back for the latest wears in town, which were sold at relatively affordable prices.

Its customers were not only from Kuching. Some were from other towns!

India Street, the busy commercial area in the heart of the city. This is where Bee Tai is nestled.
The frontage of Bee Tai Clothing store.

Carrying a Bee Tai shopping bag then was something to be proud of, and some observed that the bag often made heads turn for it denoted a certain level of prestige.

On top of it all, Bee Tai was probably the only clothing store in town to have their own clothing line under the brand name ‘Crazy Machine’, which fitted every demographic profile and retailed at very affordable prices.

DayakDaily recently walked down memory lane to have a chat with its owner, Jerry Tan. The 79-year-old Tan confided that it was his late father who set up the business, but it was the elder Tan’s sons who turned Bee Tai into a household name decades ago.

The entrance to Bee Tai clothing store at India Street.

“Initially, my father operated a textile and fabric business on the present premises. Sadly, at that time, the business didn’t do well as it faced stiff competition.

“My two brothers and I then decided to step in. We changed the business strategy, so its successes in the following two decades didn’t just take off overnight. The successes came from our business acumen, which worked,” he recounted.

Before he became totally immersed in the running of Bee Tai, Tan said he was working for a multinational oil and gas company.

“Due to the nature of my job, I travelled quite a bit to places like Singapore and Thailand. And it was while travelling that I often thought of how I might help my father’s business, which was not doing well.

“I started to be observant in what people in other places liked to wear. That was when I tried to experiment with my idea of selling casual clothes in the shop.

“I started to buy well-known branded jeans and T-shirts that were not found in Kuching to be sold in the shop. To my surprise, there was a very good response from local shoppers. Every time I travelled overseas to places like Singapore, I bought some more clothes as there was a good demand for them in Kuching.

“I might have broken the jinx to get my father’s business in the right direction, so I sought help from my sister to help sell these clothes.”

The casual and vibrantly coloured apparel for men and women at Bee Tai clothing store.
The Mandarin Collar cotton long-sleeve shirts are still one of the well-known designs available at Bee Tai.

Eventually, Bee Tai became the first clothing store in town to be an authorised dealer for Levi’s jeans in Kuching. But the shop also carries other brands of jeans, including those under the ‘Crazy Machine’ name.

“We also offered different designs and cuttings for our clothes all the time, as compared to other clothing stores in Kuching. That strategy still stays today. For that reason, I believe Bee Tai succeeded in meeting customers’ needs during that period.”

Tan revealed that his taste for good, casual clothing came about when he was a student in the United Kingdom. He bought some of his clothes at Carnaby Street in London.

“Living in England amidst a fashionable London setting in those days influenced the way I wore my clothes. My apparels continue to this present day.”

At the height of their business, Tan said Bee Tai decided to expand, with one store each in Kuching Plaza (now Plaza Aurora), Sarawak Plaza and Wisma Hopoh.

“It was totally a family business then, but when the business and market trends changed and consumer and demographic patterns and demand changed, the business started to decline.

“The tastes of consumers, change in shopping habits, the appearance of many more brands, aggressive competitive advertising, the building of shopping malls and arcades were factors that gave business operators like us stiff competition.”

The wide selection of assorted and colourful T-shirts and other casual wear are still the trademark of Bee Tai clothing store.

Tan narrated that his two brothers also left the business to seek greener pastures in other fields of endeavour.

“I had to resize the operations, closed the three outlets and stick to one here in India Street. I am now the only owner of Bee Tai, assisted by my wife.

“Now, my strategy is different. We focus more on women’s clothing and on that demographic market to sustain our business. And, like before, we still sell different designs on our products and accessories to our customers.”

Tan said that despite targeting a different demographic group of shoppers, he disclosed that Bee Tai still had many loyal, old customers.

“I am not sure whether it is due to brand loyalty or because there are always something different in the design of clothes we offer.”

The famous Bee Tai clothing store glass sign ‘The Fashion Place’ still hangs at the cashier’s station. This unique sign is valuable memorabilia now.

Looking back, Tan is very grateful that Bee Tai had made an impact on the lives of many people in Kuching in the past. He thanked them for all their support over the years.

“Time has changed. The taste for clothes has changed. India Street has changed, too, and for that matter, Bee Tai’s clothing store has changed, also.

“But we are still very optimistic, and we are still very much enjoying every moment serving shoppers. Even some of our staff have been with us since those days when our clothing store was filled with daily shoppers.

“We will continue offering shoppers the best products at affordable prices.” — DayakDaily