As COVID-19 cases in Singapore began to increase, the government put out a call to expand the country’s mask supply. One dad heard, and responded. Together with his family, Keenon Lee, 32, started 1929 Mask to create “a reusable mask with nearly as much protection as a surgical mask”. The aim? To help free up surgical masks for front-liners — like Keenon’s dentist brother. In March this year, 1929 Mask was launched.
Treated with Benzalkonium Chloride (BAC) (the same chemical used in hand sanitisers to kill germs), these three-ply masks are water-repellent, and have a bacterial filtration efficiency at close to 90 per cent, says Keenon. Business has taken flight, with orders coming from as far as Canada, and Europe.
The numbers 1929 in the name are doubly significant for Keenon. First they come from the birthdate of Keenon’s eight-month-old daughter Sophia, who was born on 2 September 2019. They also remind him of the 1929 Wall Street Crash “which devastated millions of lives and heralded the Great Depression”.
“It expresses my desire to make the world a safer place for her and her generation. It’s my hope that her future will not be blighted by a global pandemic,” muses Keenon.
Apparently you were once so focused on 1929 Mask that you forgot to feed your daughter?
“Hahaha, we were at the dinner table that day. The food was served but the family was engrossed talking about the mask business. We went on for about 15 minutes before the helper walked past, and noticed that Sophia’s food was getting cold and she wasn’t being fed. We do feed Sophia quite well. She’s not a baby who goes hungry. She has solid food at 8am, noon, and 5pm, and milk in between.
What is your role in 1929 Mask?
Running 1929 is not my full-time job. I have my own renovation business, and my parents have their textile manufacturing business at the factory in Batu Pahat. However, during the last two months in lockdown at home, we spent a lot of time on the mask business. I oversee the overall business operations and marketing as the Chief Executive Officer. My parents take care of the production side.
How has your family’s experience in fabric manufacturing helped?
The family has been in the fabric manufacturing business for four decades. My mother was the former head of quality control for Esprit, while my father was a lab technician and factory manager at Union Carbide, now part of The Dow Chemical Company. They made a good team when they started their own textile manufacturing business two decades ago. My siblings and I spent our childhood helping out. That’s how we know about the processes involved in making fabric, from turning yarn into fabric, dyeing, printing to chemical testings.
How long do you expect to continue making masks?
We believe wearing masks will be part of the new normal so we expect our new business to be sustainable. At the same time, we are not going to abandon our mainstay which is still in fabric manufacturing. In fact, we have plans to expand by diversifying into a line of mosquito-repellent apparel, as well as kids wear.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in doing this?
The biggest challenge is convincing people that our masks are what we say they are. We understand the skepticism as on the outside, our masks don’t look very different from other masks. Most people who have worn our masks believe our claim that they are comfortable. But they are less sure about the water-repellent and anti-microbial properties.
We treat our masks with Benzalkonium Chloride (BAC), the same chemical used in hand sanitisers to kill germs. We’ve tested them at reputable international centres like Bureau Veritas, and TUV SUD PSB. The latter is a renowned testing centre whose last test put our masks’ bacterial filtration efficiency at close to 90 per cent.
Our masks are three-ply. The first layer is treated with water-repellent agents, the middle layer treated with BAC, and the innermost layer is made of cotton for comfort.
How does being a father influence your 1929 Mask journey?
Fatherhood has changed my life a lot, especially my outlook, my priorities and my motivations. We had planned for a baby so when we found out that my wife Sarah (29, a teacher) was pregnant, we were very excited. Being a first-time father, I spent a lot of time reading and researching. But Sarah and I were determined not to be obsessive parents and let Sophia take over our lives completely. We wanted to be chill parents. In fact, our gynaecologist commented how chilled we were compared to other young parents. So when Sophia was a few months old, we went off to Bangkok for a holiday, followed by hiking in Japan.
What will you tell Sophia about this COVID-19 pandemic experience when she is older?
I will tell her that her daddy became a Mask-keteer to save her from an invisible enemy. I will let her know that I spent a lot of time worrying for her safety.
What’s a typical day like now for you now, as a dad?
I work from home now so I see my daughter every day and spend a lot of time with her. I also get to see my parents. We live together in two detached houses with a common area which is a living room. Before the lockdown, my parents spent most of the working week in Batu Pahat and we would see them mostly on Fridays, and the weekends. Now we see them every day and all of us are spending a lot of time in the living room.
Best and the worst parts of your day?
As I now work from home, I combine work with family time and that’s the best part. I always look forward to winding down at the end of the day with Sarah and Sophia, playing with my daughter and getting her ready for bed. They are my greatest joy and I want the very best for them.
What are 5 top tips that you would give dads who are working from home now on managing work and family?
Segregate work life from home life
This may not be the easiest thing to do while working from home, since we tend to attend to our children whenever they need us. However it is important to have some separation between work and home. You can carve out “office hours” during the day when you should not be disturbed unless necessary. You can also set up a dedicated work station.
Train your helper well
We are very fortunate to have a helper to assist us in taking care of Sophia as both Sarah and I are working. We’ve developed a system of getting Sophia to sleep through the night, take her afternoon naps and have regular feeding schedules. We made sure that we trained our helper in this system so that she could stand in for us effectively.
Plan to play
Play time is important for your kids when they are young, so don’t forget to plan to spend this quality time with them! Otherwise, you may end up working all day and realise that you’ve missed out on many things. Remember, your children are only young once, so treasure these precious moments with them!
Flexibility is key
No matter how much you plan, things are bound to go awry when you have young kids around. However, do not fret! This is part and parcel of life. You need to manage expectations at work. Explain your situation to your boss and colleagues and inform them about your availability for meetings. Work out an arrangement for completing assignments outside of the usual nine to five. You may be caught up with home issues during this time when your children are active.
Dedicate some time to chill out
Fatherhood can be tough work too! I believe that just as you should be taking on your share of childcare responsibilities, you should also have some dedicated time to chill out. Take this time to have a beer, relax and zone out for a bit, before the busyness starts again. You can discuss with your partner and work out an arrangement with her so that both of you have dedicated times to yourselves, while the other tends to the kids.”
1929 masks and mask extenders are available online at https://1929mask.com. The masks come in three sizes: Adult, Petite, and Kids (20cm long and 11.24cm wide).
All images: Keenon Lee, 1929 Mask