Claire Flora — Blooming business

Manning the shop are two semi-retirees — Anna Kong and Ellen Kong (right).

Creative careers are more than just fun and rewarding — they can also be lucrative, stable and a great way to work with and help people every day. Florist Ellen Kong says that trends may change but fresh flowers will never go out of style.

Buds of perseverance

A tour in their five degree Celcius chiller: some of the flower species that requires a colder temperature to survive.

The flower industry has always been a profitable business as people use flowers for every occasion.

Sharing her stories, florist Ellen Kong explained that the inspiration for her to start wrapping bouquets came from her memory as a little girl.

“Back then, there were no specialised flower shops in Kuching. My mother used to go to the city’s riverside to purchase chrysanthemums. She loved flowers and would regularly decorate the house with them,” said the 70-year-old.

When Ellen had the opportunity to participate in a flower arrangement course in Kuala Lumpur, she immediately jumped at the chance.

On display at Claire Flora — a bountiful flowers for patrons to choose from.

“Flowers have always been in high demand. So I decided to enrol in the flower arrangement and bouquet course.” Ellen then opened a store in the capital city in 1973.

In the 90s, she decided to return to Kuching and opened ‘Claire Flora’. She and her youngest sister had high hopes for their business venture at Jalan Ellis. However, Ellen lamented that when the shop initially opened 22 years ago, business was very slow.

“When I was in Kuala Lumpur, flower bouquets as gifts were very popular. However, in Kuching, the demand was very poor and people only bought flowers once in a while,” Ellen said. But despite so, she and her sister Anna never gave up.

Today, ‘Claire Flora’ is still standing, and ranks among the top pioneering florists in Kuching. Ellen said that the business was ever evolving.

“Just like fashion designers, florists have to keep up with the trend. Since I started, there have been lots of changes with flower arrangements. I started with Ikebana — the Japanese style. Then I had to adapt to European style arrangements which were very popular in Kuala Lumpur. The current trend in Kuching leans more towards Koreanstyle.”

Asked how she managed to keep up with the trends, Ellen said that she studied most of them from the internet and listening to customers’ demands.

“Even if I need to do different arrangements, it’s not really a hassle for me anymore. Since I have already mastered the basics, I can easily arrange the flowers accordingly.”

Another challenge of being a florist is looking for ways to keep the flowers fresh. Although she has been in the industry for almost five decades, Ellen conceded that she was still learning and improving her method of preserving flowers.

“It took years of trials and errors. Over the years, I’ve learned that keeping them at the right temperature is very important for flowers. Different species require different temperatures to survive longer,” she said.

Sharing an example, Ellen said tropical orchids required a warmer temperature such as 10 degrees Celcius. However, for flowers from colder countries such as roses or lilies, Ellen would store them in her five-degree Celcius chiller.

A tour in their five degree Celcius chiller: some of the flower species that requires a colder temperature to survive.

With an assortment of flowers available at her shop, Ellen shared that most were imported from the Cameron Highlands, China and the Netherlands. Sometimes, she also imported flowers from India, Ethiopia and as far as Kenya.

Asked whether this affected the prices of her bouquets, Ellen said that it did.

“The cost mostly depends on the flower species and where it’s from. The imported ones cost more as I have to include the shipping costs as well. And the rarer a flower is, the more expensive it will be. For example, peonies and tulips. But everyday flowers such as the chrysanthemum can be considered cheap,” she added.

Sharing further, Ellen said that as a florist, she had to understand basic taboos in flower arrangements.

For example, giving white chrysanthemums to a Chinese is considered taboo. The flower is often associated with death as it is usually presented at funerals.

“When sending flowers to a funeral, you have to make sure that there are no red blossoms inside the arrangements, although certain communities here are fine with it. And normally, if we want to send flowers to the ladies, the arrangements will be pinkish. For boys, they will be bluish. These are just the basics,” said the semi-retired florist.

Recalling her experiences, Ellen said, “Once, a customer who was studying overseas ordered a bouquet for Mother’s Day. When we delivered it to his mother, the look of shock and joy on her face was priceless! As a mother, I was touched by it myself.”

On the other hand, she also had an unpleasant experience delivering flowers on Valentine’s Day. “I delivered the flowers, but the receiver, upon seeing the sender’s name, asked me to throw the bouquet straight away,” she recalled.

After decades in the industry, Ellen remained steadfast about the future of her business.

Despite facing the challenges of the pandemic and the need to keep up with the ever evolving nature of the business, the buds of perseverance continue to flourish within her.