Forgotten Hong Kong Icon: In the Mood for Cheongsam – Kan Hon-wing’s Mission

Photograph by Nicolas PetitPhotograph of Nicolas PetitPhotograph by Nicolas Petit

 

Mei Wah is the oldest bespoke cheongsam shop in Hong Kong. Stepping through its inconspicuous doors at 76 Queen’s Road West is like stepping into a glamorous theatre. Shimmering rolls of fabric line the walls and I suddenly feel the urge to run my fingers through each one: silk from China, Switzerland and France, thick soft felt from England, intricate lace from the best workshops of Northern France. I’m distracted by the side-by-side explosions of China red, deep indigoes, nightingale blues, canary yellows, bamboo greens and pale, pale white.

Photograph by Nicolas Petit

Photograph by Nicolas Petit

Under the row of fabrics, turquoise clothes hangers carry the lightest of dresses, half-finished collars scribbled with the names and phone numbers of their intended mistresses, patiently awaiting their next fitting. A wooden stool fitted with a silk flower cover is offered and I look up to meet the master of the stage himself, Kan Hon-wing. His eyes seem to dance with excitement as he welcomes me; every one of his gestures is infused with enthusiasm. I feel like I am faced with a Chinese version of Roberto Benigni and he is going to jump up onto his work station and give me the performance of a lifetime. Kan is indeed an artist — not an actor, but a magician of tailoring. The way he talks about the creation of a single cheongsam makes me believe he could conjure up a row of delicate dresses with a gentle wave of his hand.

“You have to be a perfectionist to do this! But I love it, always have.”
Mei Wah is Kan’s workspace, a small window from which he can broadcast the dying art form of bespoke cheongsam tailoring. Now mainly reserved for special occasions, the cheongsam or keipo (qipao in Mandarin) used to be ubiquitous on the streets of Hong Kong. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the streets of the British colony were brimming with cheongsam wearers, both men and women. Status was displayed through the difference in cloth selection, with the upper class favouring silk and lace and the middle class wearing cotton, linen, wool or traditional Chinese flower cloth. By the 1970s, however, Western fashion won out and began replacing traditional Chinese outfits.

Photograph by Nicolas Petit

Photograph by Nicolas Petit

The original keipo is said to have come from the Manchurians during the Qing dynasty, meaning robes worn by the Kei people, as Manchurians were sometimes known. Keipo were generally loose and hung down to conceal a woman’s body all the way to her toes. Richly embroidered and decorated for the upper classes, the generous sleeves and waistline also meant it would fit a woman of any age and body shape. The dress evolves in Shanghai in the 1920s, when more form-fitting cuts became fashionable. The epitome of the art of subtle seduction, these racier models were made popular by the celebrities and high class courtesans of the time. In Shanghainese it was called zansae meaning “long dress,” which in Cantonese translated into cheongsam.

Zolima Kan Hon Wing_Copyright Nicolas Petit-1 copy

Photograph of Nicolas Petit

The modern form of cheongsam may make anyone lacking body confidence run in the opposite direction, but Kan says it is his job to make anyone look great in one.

“Body shape is my problem, not the customer’s,” he says. “Everyone has a different shape and it is through experience that I know where to take it in, where to let it hang a little looser. You cannot hide in a cheongsam and you cannot disguise bad craftsmanship. If it is done beautifully, you see it right away.”

Mei Wah has been around for over 80 years. It was opened in the 1930s by Kan’s grandfather and has since been passed down through three generations. In a way it has been an incubator in Hong Kong for the traditional hand sewing techniques used to make cheongsam, since the Cultural Revolution that took place in China from 1966 to 1976 banned traditional forms of culture, including the cheongsam. A lot of cheongsam knowledge was lost during this period, and even though traditional dress has regained popularity in Mainland China, only now are mainland tailors relearning some of the classic methods of embroidering and fitting a cheongsam properly.

Kan started following in his father’s footsteps at the age of eleven. He started by wandering around the workshop, paying attention to what was being done. It has now been over 40 years since he entered the business, but he makes it clear that he sees it as more than a job. “It is impossible to do this job without passion,” he says, holding up his finger with seriousness. “You need patience and a sense of responsibility.”

Zolima Kan Hon Wing_Copyright Nicolas Petit-4_copy_2jpg

Photograph by Nicolas Petit

For now, Kan has no disciples who will one day take over the business. “It is too difficult for young people nowadays,” he says. “The work that is involved and the money you make in return is simply too little.” He shows me what he means by pulling over a bright red lace dress, a classic for Chinese weddings: every suture on the border is hand-stitched. He runs his palm down to the corners of the skirt, demonstrating how the lining needs to be perfect so that it hangs well. The flower buttons along the collar and chest are the most difficult part of cheongsam making. Every button is constructed and tied by hand with the challenge of making the flower look alive. “It has to be blooming,” he says as he proudly holds up a turquoise and violet petal.

It takes about three to four days to make a dress from start to finish. The customer comes in for the first measurements and an impressive list of every curve and bend in the body is noted down. Kan then sketches the desired pattern. He cuts the fabric and soaks it in water to allow room for shrinkage before sewing it together in a rough draft. The customer comes back for fittings until each arch and swerve hugs in all the right places. The whole dress is then unstitched and put back together by hand.

Zolima Kan Hon Wing_Copyright Nicolas Petit-2 copy_2While his skills are undoubtedly in a class of their own, I suspect it is Kan’s personality that keeps people coming back for more. You simply cannot spend time inside Mei Wah’s theatrical interior without wanting a bespoke cheongsam of your own. Hanging out there is fun, customers linger and chat and invariably recommend him to all their friends. What makes him happiest about his job are the relationships he builds with his clients. “I am in the jan4 cing4 saang1 ji3 (人情生意),” he says — “the human business.” He says every customer is like a friend. “Some even send me their family updates on Whatsapp all the time! I want a customer to appreciate the handiwork and be satisfied with the dress, but also to enjoy the experience.” He smiles.

And his hope for the future? “I will do this until I can and hopefully spread the art and culture of cheongsam making everywhere. As they say, faat3 jeong4 gwong1 daai6 (發揚光大) — let’s make something good more famous, spread the word, glorify it!” This time, I really do expect him to jump up onto his work station.

A bespoke cheongsam costs on average HK$5,500. 

Mei Wah Fashion, 76 Queen’s Road West, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, +852 2543 6889

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