It was the summer of 2008. May 12, to be precise. Like everyone else in his Shanghai neighbourhood, Tony Daryanani, who owns a tailor’s shop in the heart of the city, was glued to his television screen as it flashed images of the deadly earthquake that had struck Sichuan province.
It was impossible not to be touched by the horrors the quake had caused. A nation was in mourning, and Tony felt he had to do his bit.
He took out an advertisement that said: “Throw in your old suit and get a new one made for just 1,000 yuan.” He wasn’t prepared for what followed.
“The next day a crowd queued up outside my shop,” says Tony, who goes by his first name. He spent the following days taking measurements for new suits and collecting old ones. “That was the busiest weekend I have had in Shanghai. As the crowd grew bigger, there came a point where I had to tell them I would accept only one suit per person.”
The old suits were given to charity groups working in Sichuan. “Sometimes, it can’t be just business as usual,” he says, admitting he had to bear losses. But Tony also got more than he bargained for – many of those who had lined up outside his shop are regular clients now.
For a man who struggled to find a foothold in this city of dreams – he made ends meet as a waiter, bar manager and a host of other jobs – Tony has come far. Hailing from the Sindhi community, he has carved a niche as the only Indian tailor to succeed in the challenging Shanghai market.
Born in Mumbai (then Bombay), Tony was a year old when his family moved to Hong Kong in 1963 in search of better opportunities, leaving a sick Tony behind in the care of an aunt. He grew up believing his aunt and uncle were his parents. “In 1973, my father [the uncle] passed away. I continued to go to school until 1977. But I was obsessed with going abroad and I dreamt of becoming an actor. That was when I came to Hong Kong as a tourist and stayed with my real family, whose name is Lalwani, but kept calling them ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’. I still did not know they were my parents! When I was in Hong Kong my adoptive mother passed away in India. It was only then that they [Tony’s birth parents] told me I was their son.”
With no relatives left in India, he stayed in Hong Kong. He joined his (biological) father in his tailoring business. Apprenticing with his father was the best education he had ever had. “We had a bespoke tailoring shop in Hong Kong. I watched him use his gentle fingers like an artist painting on a canvas. The more I watched him, the more I learned.”
He worked in Hong Kong for 27 years, during which he travelled all over the world selling “mail order” suits. “It set me on the path to where I am today. In 2004, mainland China beckoned. And it had to be Shanghai.”
The workmanship of Shanghai’s tailors was legendary, especially for bespoke custom-made suits – an area in which Tony excelled. He scouted the city and found there were few English-speaking tailors for the growing crowd of expatriates. His instincts told him it was an opportunity waiting to be tapped. “Whatever little I earned as a waiter and nightclub manager, and saved by eating cup noodles, went into the box,” he says. He opened his first shop in 2007 in Changle Road in downtown Shanghai. “Initially, it was a bit of a struggle, but I was clear on what I wanted. I knew I had the skills … it was only a matter of when and how.”
Tony’s confidence proved well founded. Now his customers come from as far afield as the United States and Europe. Big-name “regulars” include tennis players Leander Paes, a legend in India, and Canadian Milos Raonic; Chinese NBA great Yao Ming; and Bollywood stars. Recounting his first meeting with Yao, Tony says he had no idea who he was about to meet when he drove to a posh flat near the Bund one summer morning. He was led to a guest room, where he met the eight-time NBA All-Star. At 2.29 metres, Yao “was the tallest person that I ever had to dress. [But] he made me feel comfortable … no star tantrums. I asked for a stool and went about my work.”
Excerpted with permission from ‘Stray Birds on the Huangpu: A History of Indians in Shanghai’, published by Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing Company, edited by Mishi Saran and Zhang Ke