When a man from China charted his story in Visakhapatnam, Rehin & Sons was born. It all started when Jao Tang Chang came from China to India in the early 1940s to join the shoemaking trade that his family members were already part of. After working with them in erstwhile Calcutta, he soon started his own store there. The development of the port in Visakhapatnam held promise, and he came here to start his shoe-making business in 1958.
“The store was at Saraswati Junction back then, opposite the present day Dolphin hotel,” shares his son On Kwong who along with his elder brother Sen Kwong have managed the business since the early ‘70s. Started at a time when there were very few footwear shops, like Bata and the Best shoe mart in One town area, Rehin and Co was founded.
“Rehin is a Chinese word that means brightness and shining,” says On Kwong, who is fluent not only in his native tongue but English and Telugu as well. And true to its name, the store started picking up business. It was the era of shoe making. “The store had two rooms; the larger room at the back had the workers and the little room in front was the retail space.” Retailing wasn’t a big thing, he shares, adding that more space was actually needed for the workers who’d make the shoes. As business grew, the shop shifted its manufacturing section towards Suryabagh, where they made footwear for the next few decades.
Remembering those days gone by, On Kwong recalls that they would custom-make shoes for their customers. “We would show them a catalogue where we had drawn designs. We would also show some of the shoes we had made for others.” The customers would then choose the colour and style, provide their measures, and depending on their foot-shape the store would take care of the rest. “Back then customers coming for shoes mostly consisted of academicians, government and naval officers, doctors and lawyers.” They also catered to major orders of the Caltex Oil Refinery, Coromandel Fertilizers, Hindustan Zinc, Hindustan Shipyard and other organizations. A typical order would take 2-3 weeks for delivery.
On Kwong, who was born and brought up in Visakhapatnam, started to associate with his father’s business from 1974 onwards and became a full-timer in 1980. Plenty of change was happening in the market and slowly their store also started to branch out from being shoe makers to retailers. They started selling other products. In 1984 a bigger store was opened near the earlier one to cater to the expanding business. The current premises of Rehin Sons near the RTC complex opened in 1996.
There have been some wonderful memories, and he recalls the time when two policemen came knocking at his door on a Sunday morning. A film star apparently wanted his help and when he went to Dolphin Hotel where the hero was staying; it turned out to be Megastar Chiranjeevi. “He was acting for Chanti Abbai where he dresses up as Charlie Chaplin, and though the costume department had given him a pair of shoes, he wasn’t happy with them, as he wanted the shoes to flap when he walked. We decided to make them longer and so I got one of our workers, opened the workshop and we made the shoe longer. It took a few trips from the workshop to where Chiranjeevi was shooting and it was only at 2 AM the next day that he was satisfied with the shoes.” Having catered to many such requests, On Kwong also remembers remodelling shoes for Bollywood film star and producer/ director Rakesh Roshan, in the movie Kaamchor, when he wanted three inches added to his already high heels. “We saw the changing retail scenario in developed countries and knew that one day, standalone stores would find it difficult to flourish.” With chain stores, shopping malls and online marketing being popular today, he adds that Rehin and Sons is here because their core customers inspire them. “It’s nice to hear customers walking in and saying that they knew my father, and the store.” Some customers are second and third generation also and come and recollect that they used to have their school shoes made to order here. “That person is a grandfather or grandmother today. We have a long history behind us.”
Having seen the market change over the years, he shares that back then few people wore shoes and commonly people did so on special occasions only. Sandals have been more popular. However today, every person has a pair or more of shoes. A major gamechanger in footwear has been the advent of sports shoes in India. They entered the market in the mid-80s from Taiwan, were mass-produced using machines, were relatively cheap, durable and available in attractive colours. “In fact, we probably launched most of the major brands in Visakhapatnam,” he shares. Having seen brands coming in, some shining and others being swamped; Rehin and Sons, stands as a spectator to it all. It continues to be the comfort store for their core customers who like the personalised goods and attention. With products coming from across India, some of the manufacturers they deal with haven’t changed over the years. Rehin and Sons will continue for as long as it can, marking its page in the history of Visakhapatnam. We wish them the best.