If the exotic walls of Sabrina Wong’s Japanese Flea Market could speak, they would tell a vastly different story of the Rokeby Road shop’s previous life as a slick and smooth ultra-modern Vodaphone store.
Things have calmed down somewhat since Wong took over that buzzing space and transformed it into a tranquil, ethereal and spiritually-calming reminder of an ancient time in Japan.
That was back when silent, meditative contemplation produced beautiful works of art using silk, ceramics, handmade rugs and soaps.
Under Sabrina’s gentle direction, the store at the bottom end of Rokeby Road now pays exquisite tribute to all things Japanese, while subtly educating customers on zero waste, seeing the beauty in imperfection (wabi sabi) and traditional Japanese art and craft techniques such as sashiko (hand stitching).
With soothing jazz on the soundtrack and sandalwood incense wafting through the air, a constant procession of artists and artisans – and people who are just curious – wander into the kimono-lined shop and enjoy a green tea under the Japanese chimes.
They leave carrying one-off treasures, wrapped in origami paper, knowing their purchases will outlast any mass-produced bargain from a chain store. They’re also welcome to take a little note bearing a message like: “You Will Never Regret Being Kind.”
The shop fittings blend in so seamlessly with the retail items that customers often ask if they can buy the floor rugs or the couch they’re sitting on.
“I want this space to be like someone’s home,” says Wong. Using her unique home-taught design skills and the production talents of overseas friends, Wong magically transforms fabrics – from kimonos, bolts of hemp or linen fabric or pre-worn garments – into wearable works of art, donating a percentage of each sale to Chab Dai, a charity in Phnom Penh which provides care to survivors of modern slavery.
Customers who buy a deconstructed kimono, a silk necklace, an origami greeting card, house-made soaps, a ceramic pot, or a leather cuff made from an old ring are contributing in their own small way to help eradicate the practices of forced labour, sexual exploitation, human trafficking and forced marriages affecting 40 million people around the world.
“It’s my way of giving back to people who really need it in Cambodia,” says Sabrina, who was born in Malaysia. “I really love beautiful things, and I have loved everything Japanese since I was a young child.”
The former commerce graduate, who worked for the Australian Trade Commission in Brunei, learnt Japanese as part of her double-degree major and worked in Japanese restaurants to put her through her studies.
“I look Japanese,” she says. “And I loved wearing Japanese clothes.”
When Wong returned to Perth from Brunei she started her own fashion label, Sab Five Five, in Claremont.
She then did a stint in Phnom Phen, where she designed a restaurant interior, which is where the plight of victims of modern slavery inspired her to do something to help.
On her return to Perth in 2020 during the pandemic, she opened her Japanese Flea Market in Forrest Street and moved to the larger premises in Rokeby Road last May. Her workshop at the shop’s rear is crammed with fabric bolts, dyeing equipment, jewellery pieces and a sewing machine.
“Anything really that inspires me to turn it into something beautiful,” she says.
To illustrate the process, she takes a floaty greyish-blue silk top from the shelf.
“This used to be a beige, Italian linen top,” she says.
“I re-dyed it and sewed part of a doily onto it. Works like this take about a week to make. Some customers commission me to make things out of beautiful pieces their loved ones have given them or worn. Somebody might have a T-shirt they loved or that was worn by someone they loved. I can deconstruct it and make a diary cover out of it.”
She also stocks garments by local zero-waste textile designer, Luke Van Den Hoek.
“That is our philosophy,” says Sabrina. “No waste. We are making something look vintage, but at the same time, it’s not. The fabric comes alive, and it has a new identity. We want this to be a store where people come in and only want unique stuff.”
And while Sabrina is doing her bit to wipe out modern slavery, she is also adding vibrancy, colour and a positive energy to Subiaco.
For that, she needs a medal. Or at least a Japanese five-yen coin attached to an origami crane. The meaning behind that? Good luck. We think she’s already got that in spades. And, now, so has Subi.
Japanese Flea Market, Shop 29/17-31 Rokeby Rd