EL PASO – A group of people gathered at the Union Plaza downtown on a recent Saturday morning to browse through and buy arts, crafts and food delicacies at the weekly Downtown Artists and Farmers Market.
One vendor in particular stands out from the displays of original, unique hand-made art works because it doesn’t have a canopy overheard like the others. This stand belongs to Seok-Kiew Koay, 58, a designer and maker of bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and rosaries who has been a regular at the farmer’s market since 2011.
“I’ve been doing this (jewelry) for 15 years and this hobby has become my job. I enjoy it,” said Koay as she held up one of her necklaces.
She emigrated from Malaysia to El Paso in 2006 with help from her sister, who was a healthcare equipment provider. Unfortunately, her sister died in January 2013, but Koay continues on with her business in El Paso despite the loss.
Her life has always revolved around a business, starting when she was just a little girl and learning from her father’s rubber-tapping business. They tapped the trees, capturing the liquid and then selling the hardened natural rubber. Malaysia is a top exporter of natural rubber, according to the Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries.
After completing high school at 17, she spent the next couple of years helping her father with his business while pursuing her own goal of becoming a futures trading consultant, looking for investors in new products.
Her big break came in 1980 when she became a community commodity consultant in Malaysia, which allowed her to open handmade craft shops in different places including malls.
However, she wanted to have better businesses opportunities and that’s when she decided to bring her handmade craft shops to the U.S.
“I came to sell at fair prices, not to overprice everyone,” said Koay about marketing her products.
She said her sister came to the U.S. for the same reason — looking for economic opportunity and was the hook that pulled Koay to the U.S.
Her sister may be gone, but she said she has three little dogs including a mini-Pincher to keep her company in her downtown apartment. Her job, which is a full time task, keeps her busy.
Koay’s favorite pieces are the ones that have a ruby on them. She says that rubies are her favorite stone because the red color stands out in her jewelry.
Her typical sales day starts really early on Saturday because the spaces at the downtown market are assigned on a first-come first-served basis and they fill up quickly as vendors vie for the best spots.
While the Saturday downtown market is a constant for her, on Sundays she alternates from one swap one week to another meet the next Sunday.
Koay says that after two years at the market she has received praise from the managers because she sells her quality products at reasonable prices.
Her business and customer service skills have given her opportunities to sell her products during major events, such as, Sunset Heights Block Party back in October thanks to the referral from the Downtown Market managers.
Being single and without children does not bother her, she says, because for her the jewelry she makes are like her children, and when sold she feels proud of the work she did.
Koay can be found every Saturday at the Downtown Artists and Farmers Market from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. selling pieces that range in price from $5 to $45.
“I was here when it first started, and it was empty. Now it’s bigger and I hope more people come,” said Koay.