As most creative enterprises are run by a younger demographic, it was refreshing to see the same enthusiasm and passion in a more mature entrepreneur. Born in Negeri Sembilan in the 1950s, David Cho comes from a large brood of 12 children. His father was an ironsmith. “It was a big family, so we really needed extra income to pay for basic needs like education, as well as pocket money. So, my father made wire baskets and strainers at home and my mum was always by his side to help with all the tedious cutting and finishing of the baskets,” recounts Cho.
Naturally, all the children were roped in. And like all chores, it was done begrudgingly. “To be honest, my siblings and I didn’t really like to [make the wire baskets] at all because it was very bothersome. Every time my dad went to work, he left incomplete baskets and we had to make sure that they were finished by evening. I love the outdoors, so once, I took some of the work to the football field and watched people play. I cried. I was not able to join because I needed to finish the work. We loved our father, but it was a commitment and responsibility,” reminisces Cho.
While his older brothers left home early to pursue their own paths, Cho stayed behind to help the family. When he was about 15, his father got a new job as a contractor, securing the family financially and rendering the part-time venture unnecessary. Inheriting his father’s crafting tools, Cho decided to take over.
At that time, he says, they were one of the main suppliers of strainers and baskets for the Kuala Lumpur area, with the help of their dealer, Uncle Leong.
“I was in Form 4, so there was excitement. I experienced what it was like to have extra money on the weekend. I always expected Uncle Leong to come on Saturday from Kuala Lumpur just to see me. He’d give me the orders and collect the stock. The orders were good and actually increased until I was crafting day and night,” he says. At his peak, Cho was churning out 15 to 20 pieces a week.
It was this independence that shaped Cho’s views. “I always impart to the new generation that you need to set a goal. Even today, I still set goals. The hard work that you put in will be rewarded,” he explains.
Although he was able to take away many valuable lessons from it, the venture did not last because of Uncle Leong’s declining health and eventual retirement, as well as a lack of orders.
It was time for Cho to take the next step in life, so he moved to KL for further education at 18. “I am an art lover. But when I was making the baskets, there was no way I could take it as an art form, because the designs and sizes were from my father. I was just copying and redoing,” he says.
Cho went on to work in advertising and then education; he now counsels students.
After almost 40 years, the yearning to create wire baskets returned in the most organic yet unexpected way. Cho had bought his late mother basket-making metal wires and tools to help keep her active. Her speciality was the “spider”, an intricate weaving technique used for traditional kitchen skimmers or basket bases.
“Once, the haze was very bad, and I could not plan outings. I was just staying home. My nephew was getting married and I was wondering what to give him and his bride. So I took some of the wires left by my mum … I made a floral basket to put flowers in. [At the wedding,] I got a very good response for it. My family said it brought back memories and strangers felt it was nostalgic,” he explains.
The response prompted the birth of The Heritage Baskets, which is aimed at preserving and reinventing the Cho family’s crafting legacy. Helped by his daughters Eleen and Elizabeth, Cho took his newly designed baskets to Traders’ Markets, a bazaar in KL, and garnered positive feedback. As a result, their Instagram page focused less on selling and more on educating — to bring awareness of the intricacies of making metal baskets. The Heritage Baskets has also been approached to stock museums and shops in Melaka.
After so many years, Cho’s muscle memory did not fail him. “You need craftsman’s fingers. My hand is like iron, like pliers. Even though I had not made a basket for many years, my hands were retrained very quickly.”
Cho makes full use of his creative freedom, taking two to three days to design and make a basket. “Now, there’s no time limit. I have the opportunity to creatively design whatever I want. Earlier, because of the haze, I had time. And now, with the lockdown, I have even more time,” he adds.
The Heritage Baskets’ most recently released design — the Jīn Basket — is inspired by the local pumpkin. In future, customers can look forward to a series of wire baskets influenced by natural shapes and designs found in Malaysia.
Other than the vintage feel, what makes The Heritage Baskets’ pieces unique is the rich story behind the brand. To Cho, the baskets have a generational appeal and he intends to pass on the craft to his daughters. While his aims are very different from those of the 15-year-old who was given the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, Cho still believes in staying goal-oriented to reap rewards. “To me, the basket is symbolic of blessings and prosperity. So, when you have a basket to carry, you have something to fill … What’s nice is that someone has said to me, ‘because you preserved this craft, I believe your father is smiling down from heaven’.”
For more information or to purchase, see their Instagram here.
This article first appeared on Jul 6, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.