Story of 1929

Story of 1929

Founder of 1929 Mask, Keenon Lee
Keenon Lee, founder of Singapore-based 1929 Mask.

My name is Keenon Lee. I live in Singapore with my wife, daughter and parents, who run a fabric-making business. Like all of you, our lives began to face disruption a few months ago when the Covid-19 virus started spreading around the world. Daily living has become increasingly unsettled as social distancing measures force us to adjust to a new normal of being locked down at home for all but the essential necessities of life.

Suddenly, Singaporeans are having to think about how we are to protect ourselves against an invisible, deadly enemy that scientists are struggling to understand. Many in our communities are scared, for themselves, their children and their elderly parents.

As the Covid-19 situation escalated and supplies of masks dwindled, I started to wonder if I would even be able to buy enough masks for my young family and employees in my renovation business. I wanted to do all I could to protect them.

Masks were in short supply worldwide. My entrepreneurial mother, Mdm Ng Cheng Choon, who has more than 50 years of experience in textiles manufacturing shared the same concern about the scarcity of masks. She worked for the fashion brand Esprit when it had a factory in Singapore, rising to the rank of quality controller. She and my father, Mr Steven Lee, have been running the family fabric-making business, Rengitex, since 1998, and they produce custom-designed fabric for some of the leading retail brands in the world.

They make a winning team; she knows how to pick the right yarn, have it spun into fabric, pre-treated, dyed and printed to exact specifications and satisfaction of customers. My father was a former lab technician and factory manager at Union Carbide, the US chemicals giant where he had worked for 19 years, before joining my mother. He is intensely passionate about chemistry and nothing separates him from his atoms and molecules.

Founder of 1929 Mask, Keenon Lee's Parents
Keenon's parents are actively involved in the business, offering their expertise.

We have bales of cloth at our factory in Batu Pahat so we said to ourselves, why not turn it into a timely new business proposition?

At the start of 2020, my parents and I embarked on a frenetic period of research, design, chemical testings and prototyping to produce what we believe is a most comfortable mask that is more effective than the average reusable mask in the market. Given the circumstances, we had to work fast. Research and testings that would normally take months were condensed into weeks over many sleepless nights. The efforts led to the birth of our flagship product, a three-ply face mask treated with benzalkonium chloride (BAC), a chemical found in hand sanitisers and antiseptic wipes that kills bacteria and viruses. The outermost microfiber layer is water-repellent so any droplets that land on the mask roll off readily, a quality that is retained even after dozens of washes in laboratory tests. The middle layer is a combination of polyester and cotton that we found to be the most effective for absorbing BAC. With the third layer coming into direct contact with the face, we made entirely of cotton for greater comfort.

Why 1929? The number has a double significance for me. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 devastated the lives of millions of people and heralded the Great Depression. The four digits also mark the birthdate of my daughter, Sophia, on 2 September 2019. Thus 1929 signifies both crisis and hope for me; in the same way, the current coronavirus pandemic poses a threat to our way of life but our attempts to do something like creating a good mask, represents our best efforts to giving hope to the next generation.

Our aim is to add to worldwide supplies while helping to reserve the store of surgical-grade masks for frontline personnel such as doctors and nurses, for whom such protection is vital. At the local level, we are doing our part to make sure the vulnerable have access to effective masks and are donating them to migrant workers as well as the elderly.

Our work is not done. We are continuing to look at how we can improve the fit and efficacy of bacteria filtration for a cloth mask, which remains elusive as the nature of fabric does not lend itself to surgical-grade bacteria filtration as compared to disposable masks. My father’s dream is to make the first reusable mask that has 99.9% bacteria filtration efficiency.

We are not trying to save the world. We are simply doing our best to make sure there’s something left behind for the next generation. Will you join us?

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