AT the turn of a knob, a gust of hot wind hits the woman sitting in the waiting area of Dent Repairs. The younger man who’d just walked in sports a similar expression as the woman sitting down; they both look completely dejected. There’s a sense of anxiety in the air with the woman fidgeting with her phone and the man, pacing up and down, sighing.
All this comes to a momentary halt when the owner of the shop, Jerry Wong Hon Chee, enters the room. “Can I help you?” Wong asks in the gentlest of tones, breaking the tension immediately.
The guy, by now sweating profusely, mumbles the word “dent” and points to his car outside. Wong nods, smiles confidently and ushers the man to the car to inspect the dent. Barely two minutes later and Wong is back in the shop together with the man, who now looks somewhat relieved.
For Wong, these kinds of expressions are nothing new. He’s seen it for the last 20 years ever since he started his business. “Don’t worry, it’ll be as good as new,” he reassures the man. It’s not a phrase he repeats just to rid his customers of their jitters. Although he won’t readily admit it, Wong is one of the country’s most sought-after dent technicians.
FROM GROUND UP
His work space looks more like a film set than a workshop. The shine from the epoxy flooring bounces off the white walls decorated with newspaper clippings and photos of Wong at work in Australia, New Zealand and the UK.
A pair of mobile LED lights with a soft, white glow sits on either side of the car he’s working on. The tools of the trade, varying in length, hang neatly on a metal board.
“You’d be surprised how many people find they can’t sleep at night when their cars are dented, even a little,” Wong says, sniggering. “Cars are one of those things that people work so hard to save up for, so when they finally get it there’s a lot of not just financial but also emotional investment in it... For the first three months at least!” he adds, jokingly.
His understanding of auto care began at a young age. As a teen, he worked in his father’s car shop in Temerloh, Pahang. Surprisingly, Wong was never interested in the automotive industry, even then. “To be honest with you, I was a drifting log. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” he recalls, adding: “I just did whatever I had to do to pay the bills. Working with cars just happened to be a way to do that.”
With a family comprising eight siblings meant that everyone had to be supportive of each other, says Wong. “We weren’t well off so we had to share everything and stick together. They told me I could earn money any way I wanted as long as it was legal,” he recalls with a laugh.
In the early 1990s, a friend recommended him to take up a course in paintless dent repairing, a concept virtually unheard of outside Europe. “It was a crash course. I couldn’t afford to stay longer than six months in the UK,” recalls Wong, adding that he actually followed his mentor Steve around repairing dents in cars. “He wouldn’t let us work on a car ourselves till we had perfected the craft of doing it,” he says of his mentor who was based in Colchester, Ipswich.
That training, Wong notes, made him understand the value of doing things to perfection.
Out of the five who attended the course, only two completed it. Wong was one of them, and the only Asian in the group. “Paintless dent repairing isn’t for everyone,” he confides, sharing that the craft takes years of practice, persistence and patience.
MARK OF PERFECTION
Paintless dent repairs, as Wong divulges, is just picking up in this country. But in Europe, it has been around as early as the 1940s. The “ding men” as they were known, developed special tools to fix little dents on cars from the inside so they wouldn’t chip the paint —a costly cover up at that time.
“The tools we use have, of course, evolved over time. Just as the materials used for the body of cars change, so does the technology for Paintless Dent Repairs (PDR)” says Wong, holding up a side pane tool resembling a long, metal hook. Car manufacturers have shifted from using sturdy steel for the body of cars to the more lightweight aluminium. A change in material has led more drivers to opt for these types of dent repairs, the PDR.
His is a fascinating job. PDRs require expert technicians to massage dents from the inside of the car, leaving the paint completely untouched. Car owners who go to his shop often stare in wonder watching him work.
A couple of the owners get down from their vehicles, including a long-time customer of his, Ann Silva. Arms crossed and eyes glued on Wong, she whispers: “Just watch him do his magic.”
The cars are slowly starting to fill the narrow back alley where Wong’s workshop is located. However, when he first started, things were very different: He could barely convince a single person to try PDR. Young and determined, he went from one second-hand car shop to another to pitch the idea.
“The constant rejection wasn’t easy. Many times I felt like giving up. But I really believed in what I could do so I carried on,” he confides. It was a rough few months for Wong and his wife (whom he admits to wooing with durians) before he earned his big break — a plant manager saw him fixing a dent. “That’s how it started but even then people were still keener on paint jobs, which were cheaper then.”
DO IT RIGHT
These days, Wong is either in his Puchong workshop or in Australia where his expertise is often sought, especially when hail storms occur.Describing it as the toughest kind of dent possible to fix, he acknowledges that every day presents a different challenge. “Dents are like thumbprints. No two dents are identical,” he shares.
But every time Wong comes across a challenge, he remembers his father’s words. “My father told me, ‘the car is a dead thing. You are the living thing’. So you’re supposed to work your way around the car. It is all about thinking outside the box and problem solving,” he recalls, adding that it’s an anecdote he has handed down to his own son, who now works with him at Dent Repairs. By mid-day, customers are walking in, some frantically looking for Wong to ease the heartache of seeing the dents in their cars. “You know what keeps me going?” he poses to me before going out to see to another dent. “It’s the smile on their faces after we’re done.”
Customer Silva puts it rather aptly when she says: “He fixes frowns too.”