SCMP: No cutting corners: The artistry of the ancient qipao tailor

2013/3/20 South China Morning Post

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Kan Hong-wing in his Sheung Wan shop. Photo: SCMP

In this second episode of our Uniquely Hong Kong series, a third generation tailor tells us the history of qipao, and why the art of Chinese tailoring has a special place in his heart.

At 63, Kan Hong-wing admits he’s one of the youngest – and the last – qipao tailors in Hong Kong.

The owner of Mei Wah Fashion, Kan is one of a dwindling number of tailors who specialises in qipao – also known as Mandarin gowns – which were originally wide, loose dresses worn by Manchus as casual wear during the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912). Over time, the dresses have taken on the body-hugging forms of today.

Friendly and talkative, Kan is passionate about his craft.

His shop, located on the corner of Queen’s Road West in Sheung Wan, is hard to miss. Curious shoppers can be seen peering through its windows, drawn to the bright colours and elegant designs displayed inside.

Kan is a third generation qipao tailor. His grandfather started the business in the 1920s.

Kan says the 1940s to 1960s were a golden era for the qipao. “Everyone wore them then. Women wore qipaos to work, to the wet market and in the kitchen.” explains Kan.

Hong Kong saw the arrival of over a 100 qipao tailors from Shanghai in the late 1940s. They were part of the great influx of mainland refugees into the city – fleeing the turmoil across the border.

These shifu (“masters”) once served the upper echelons of Shanghai society, including the wives of tycoons and politicians. But life was tough for them in Hong Kong. They often had to sleep in the streets and take any work they could. Others fled to Hong Kong later during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). This was a time when fashion was considered a luxury, recalls Kan.

“People wore uniforms {in China in the 1960s}. The pursuit of beauty was [considered] selfish, and a sin,” explains Kan. “It is different now. During the 1970s, and afterwards, the Chinese began to dress in a more western-style. Now all the old Shanghai-born tailors are in their 70s and 80s. I am the youngest qipao tailor in Hong Kong, and I’m 63,” he exclaims.

Kan says there are now less than 10 Shanghai shifu in the city. Mei Wah employs three of them.

He insists his craft always reflects his own work – not a client’s body shape. “Your body shape has no bearing on how good you look,” he adds, almost indignantly. “A master will tailor the qipao so anyone can look good in it.”

His quiet pride isn’t in the beautiful things he makes, but in the reaction from customers. “If you don’t like it, I won’t charge you,” he says.

Every woman is different; it’s like getting different hands each time you play mahjong

There’s customer-shop confidentiality, too. In recent years, qipaos have been memorably featured in some films. Kan believes some qipaos in films lack authenticity, although he won’t reveal the names of celebrity clients he has made them for.

As the master tailor carefully lays out the different materials he is currently working with, Kan says: “Westerners and traditional Chinese have two different concepts of beauty. Western dresses expose more of your assets; but we Chinese treat a woman’s assets like a mystery, like a treasure waiting to be found.

Kan speaks of his craft with great reverence. “You can’t cut corners,” he says, almost disapprovingly. “Half an inch is half an inch. It might as well be closer to 10 inches – it’s still a mistake.”

He hand-stitches his hems and creates his own designs for the floral-inspired buttons. He even does the embroidery by hand.

Kan is very careful choosing materials for customers. “Different clients use different cloth, according to age, shape, nationality, etc. Every woman is different; it’s like getting different hands each time you play mahjong,” he says, laughing.

The most expensive, but popular materials in his shop are lace and velvet. Kan’s creations are priced from HK$4,000 to HK$20,000.

Qipao tailoring is not a profession for the faint-hearted. As well as having to undergo years of apprenticeship, it also demands character. “If you want to be a qipao tailor, you must have: responsibility to the craft, an eye for detail, talent and passion,” Kan stresses.

Then, he chuckles. “Of course, you also have to expect you won’t earn much – so you might not be able to support your family very well.”

He remarks sadly that his craft is dying – at least in Hong Kong. A few young people approached him learning the craft, but most could not stand the tedium. But he ventures that perhaps tailors from the mainland will come to Hong Kong once again and revive the craft. The demand is here. Kan doubts it will ever go away. “It’s a testimony to how Hong Kong treasures the craft – how long it’s lasted.”

He sees his own role as being true to himself and his craft. “If I can stand and walk tall, then I know I am doing some good in the world.”

Kan Hong-wing’s Mei Wah Fashion can be found at 76 Queen’s Road West, Sheung Wan. Tel: 2543-6889. Be sure to book in advance.

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