Hubert Leong spent many years in the advertising industry as a corporate man. It was a role he enjoyed, that paid well, and allowed him to live overseas. He worked hard, and the bank balance grew. With little time to enjoy it, he started to invest in a life-long passion: guitars. And he soon had a collection of over 150. By Peter Cornish. Photo by Vinh Dao.
As he progressed in his career and reached senior management levels, he was asked to sign non-compete clauses in his contract. This often meant long periods between jobs where he was free to pursue other interests. After finishing one job he was faced with a two-year break, so he decided to move to America and enroll in a guitar making school. It was a decision that reshaped his life and that eventually lead him to Vietnam.
After graduating, he stayed in America to hone his skills working in local guitar shops. From a young age, he loved working with his hands and building guitars felt like second nature to him. There was something about the wood he shaped, the touch and the feel, that encouraged him to learn all he could about this craft. This was obviously before the days when you could just watch a video on YouTube.
After a couple of years, he realised there was no future for him in America. Life there was not easy for an Asian in the 90s. He returned to Singapore, but didn’t immediately go into guitar building full time. Although there were guitar shops there, custom shops were unheard of and there was little demand for the advanced skills he had learned.
As an avid collector, he remained a part of the local guitar community and together with friends founded the Singapore chapter of the Vintage Guitar Club. He went to shows and special events, and eventually decided to open the country’s first custom shop for guitars. Success didn’t come quickly as his skills were unappreciated, but this wasn’t about the money, he just wanted to do what he loved.
As his network expanded, he opened a retail shop where he traded and modified guitars. Although a trained guitar builder, licensing restrictions in Singapore and the cost of specialist machines meant that it wasn’t a worthwhile option. Unable to practice his passion, life became boring. It’s not quite rocket science trading in guitars and the intellectual challenge he needed just wasn’t there.
Venturing back into the corporate world, this time in publishing, work brought him to Vietnam, where by chance many of his guitar clients were based. Every trip included a visit to guitar street where he would buy one or two for resale in Singapore. After some time, he decided to make his move to Saigon more permanent and set about searching for a job.
Hubert continued trading in guitars. By chance, an American customer asked if he could supply 1500 ukuleles which prompted him to take his hobby a little more seriously. After disappointment with the quality of local manufacturers, he decided to start production himself, and set up shop on Pham Ngu Lao. He knew from his days in advertising, that for building his personal brand, a shopfront was essential.
HL Custom Guitars was born. Leong built a reputation among the local guitar community and held workshops most weekends, but high-end Vietnamese customers preferred international brands over guitars made locally. Foreigners and expats appreciated his craftsmanship and the much lower price tag than similar quality from the US.
Once he had built a return customer base of about 1000 clients, he decided to close the store and scale back operations to his home workshop, where he has been working from for the last couple of years. He no longer wants to produce up to 100 guitars per month, preferring to concentrate on building a small quantity of high quality instruments that complement his now established brand.
As a master craftsman, Hubert’s days are varied. He tends to work nights, with days spent interacting with clients who like to visit his workshops during their lunch breaks or after work. He works from two locations, one where his team of craftsmen work with the wood, and where his moulds and templates are stored. The other where he can meet with his clients. Each client who comes to him goes through a lengthy consultation period, at times lasting for months. “I need to understand what my customer wants, why he needs a custom guitar, and what he has already. I must understand their playing style, the types of music they will play, and the type of pick-ups needed to complement the tones he wants.” Hubert explains.
Once this has been decided, he then talks about the aesthetics, starting with the wood, style, and then the electronics and technical aspects of the guitar. “Eventually we put all of this together, and do the paperwork with the spec sheet and invoice. Then we can start production. Most customers tend to pay up front. A lot of this is done online, perhaps I only meet 10% of my clients.” he tells me.
Much of his days are spent meeting and talking with clients. In between, and often late in the evening, he checks the quality of his team’s craftsmanship. Most of them have been working with him for years and can consistently produce high quality guitar bodies. He has specialists come in to do the necks and paint work, all of which he keeps a careful eye on.
Some days he tells me he is too busy to eat. Most days customers come in for repairs, which can be done quickly. Others want more challenging restorations or modifications. “The wood in Vietnam is excellent for making guitars, and costs a fraction of what it would in America.” Hubert explains.
There is a constant demand on him and he spends hours online each day talking to clients and answering questions people may have.
“Sometimes I don’t sleep till the morning. I go to coffee shops during the day as a means for escape, when I’m sick and tired of getting my hands dirty and just want a moment for myself. If I’m not in the zone, I don’t touch the guitars. Every product I build needs to be perfect.”
It’s a busy life building what will someday be the vintage modes collected by people who have a passion for guitars. The craftsmanship and care put into each will show for years to come.