Feature: Resurgence of Chinese fashion icon Qipao from bygone era in Hong Kong

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by Yao Lan, Hong Xuehua

HONG KONG, Oct. 2 (Xinhua) -- Dust motes fill up the air and fabric clippings scatter at a tailor's shop as a smiling, hunchbacked man, with a tape measure around his neck, opens an old-Shanghai picture album featuring the then fashionable ladies in Qipao.

Eighty-nine-year-old Leung Long-kong is little-known in China. But people around the world may have marveled at his works from director Wong Kar-wai's award-winning film "In the Mood for Love," in which 23 colorful Qipao made by Leung becomes the storyteller of the days when Qipao was still faddish on the streets of Hong Kong.

The Chinese fashion icon Qipao, after a century since it was born in Shanghai in the 1920s, has made its way through history from the hand of old craftsmen with deep-rooted Chinese culture.


"Cheongsam (or Qipao) used to be so popular, as people did not have many other options to buy western-style clothes," Leung told Xinhua, saying the dress was an everyday outfit among Hong Kong women, from the most ordinary ones to those upper-class ladies. "Now nobody is wearing them except on some grand and happy occasions."

Qipao, featuring a high collar and delicate cloth buttons on the front, originated in China's Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In Hong Kong, it is more well-known as cheongsam, meaning "long gown" in Cantonese.

Leung came to Hong Kong from neighboring Guangdong Province at the age of 13 before he started his apprenticeship, which seemed to be the only way to earn his daily bread back then. "I was too little to know what to do and it was so hard to make a living at that time," he said.

Finishing his three-year apprenticeship making Qipao and suits, Leung witnessed the gradual shift of Qipao from a dress of Manchu origin, a minority group in China, to its blending of Chinese and Western sewing skills in Hong Kong.

The unique dress, which used to have a high neck and straight skirt covering all the woman's body, except for her head, hands, and toes became more form-fitting, with a more revealing cut, shorter sleeves, and a high slit in the 1950s, after the traditional garment was brought to Hong Kong by a group of Shanghai tailors.


The glory days of Qipao in the 1950s and 1960s in Hong Kong waned in a time of fast fashion and mass production of ready-to-wear clothing.

"The old tailors have died one by one. I am one of the youngest ones who have been left," said another Hong Kong tailor Chun Cheung-lam, 74, who used to run more than five shops selling silk with handmade Qipao business in Hong Kong in the 1980s, while now there is only one still operating.

But Cheongsam is still a preserved tradition visible at formal occasions such as wedding ceremonies, movies, and Miss Hong Kong Pageant. It still serves as the school uniform in more than 10 middle schools in Hong Kong.

"For decades, it was a tradition largely unique to Hong Kong, which kept the tradition alive," said Professor Liu Tik-sang at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's Division of Humanities, saying the culture preserved in Hong Kong went back to the Chinese mainland with a modern twist after the reform and opening-up in the late 1970s.

The Hong Kong cheongsam-making technique has been inscribed in the Fifth National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage announced in June by the Chinese government with "outstanding historical and cultural value," according to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government.

For traditional craftsmen like Leung and Chun, fast ready-to-wear manufacturing can never compare with the subtly handmade clothes with precise measurements taken beforehand.

"One can tell who made the dress by examining its details. There is no need to make a logo," said Chun.


When many of the old hands at cheongsam-making are now in their sunset years with less than 10 senior tailors left in Hong Kong, both the old tailors and young designers are trying to figure out a way to pass on the legacy.

While Chun is still teaching cheongsam-making classes in schools, Leung, whose apprentices have either retired or left, can hardly resume the time- and energy-consuming task given his age and health condition.

"The kids and grandchildren all want to learn while having little time and patience. A lot of people knocked on the door and said they are eager to learn, but we all declined," Leung's daughter Emba Leung told Xinhua.

To carry on the tradition, younger fashion designer Mary Yu, 41, who has been attending classes teaching knot buttons-making techniques, is trying to renew the design of cheongsam by taking cues from Chinese history and literature.

"I feel I should tap into Chinese culture and know more about the past. One should have an in-depth understanding of your culture in order to move on," Yu said. "Fashion design requires a profound knowledge of one's culture before visualizing it."

"After a period of wearing Chanel all the time, there will be a day when one looks back to traditional Chinese culture, whose subtlety, luxury and elegance have been inherited for thousands of years," she added. "It is about finding the stuff that exists in your genes and suits you best."

Yu set up her own Qipao brand in 2016 at Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporium in Hong Kong's Kowloon district. Most of the clothes were made by tailors based in Shenzhen or Hangzhou in the mainland for lower costs and more traditional Chinese craftsmanship.

In the constantly evolving fashion industry, Qipao is catching up with the times. Zippers, digital print patterns and new materials such as lace and denim were introduced among the new generation. More daring ideas like 3D printing Qipao have also come into reality.

"For culture, we should innovate it to reflect our time, while holding on to some of the most basic elements such as knot buttons, the mandarin collar, and side slits," said Crystal Hu, president of the Royal Cheongsam Association in Hong Kong and a Qipao lover who owns over 200 Qipao in a variety of styles.

The clock hanging beside Leung's sewing machine ticks. On the working table lies an order book, with precise measuring numbers recorded and colorful cloth pieces sticking on the side as page markers.

Leung, the man with more than 70 years of experience working as a tailor, said, "Qipao, most importantly, should be form-fitting, with no wrinkles," when talking about his own criteria of a perfectly-made Qipao.

Yu said the vitality of Qipao derives from its capture of elegance and hidden beauty from Chinese women. "Beauty lasts forever. It is always there regardless of the passage of time." Enditem

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