Hong Kong Patterns, Part II: Silk City

After the devastation of World War II, Hong Kong rebuilt itself on the strength of industry. It was an industrial powerhouse by 1962, which is when Daimaru set up shop in Causeway Bay. While the Japanese department store came to Hong Kong to capitalise on the city’s rapid modernisation, its open market flowing with Western goods, and its cosmopolitan populace, it also understood the benefits that being close to Hong Kong’s robust industrial sector could bring. 

Daimaru and other Japanese emporia of the time, like Mitzukoshi and Takashimaya, began as kimono makers. In the 1960s, Hong Kong was the centre of a sophisticated textile industry that included the weaving of that most Chinese of materials, silk. Rooted in Chinese tradition but savvy to the desires of foreign consumers, Hong Kong’s textile manufacturers had relatively low labour costs, which would be useful to Japanese companies with an appetite for sumptuous materials.

For a brief period between the 1980s and 90s, Hong Kong wove pure silk for use in kimonos. But it was still ancillary to most kimono production, which continued to occur in Japan. “Despite relinquishing some of the production to Hong Kong, I should point out that only the most basic fabrics for kimono were woven in Hong Kong,” says Bruce Li, assistant curator at CHAT (Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile). “These were plain fabrics that were shipped to Japan for dyeing and printing,” used only for the obi, or waistband, of the kimono, he explains. 

According to silk weavers at the time, the Japanese were strict with quality control and arranged frequent trips to Hong Kong for monitoring work. But they also created opportunities for Hongkongers to go on work visits to Japan. This story of cultural exchange stemming from Hong Kong’s blend of commerce, manufacturing and internationalism can be traced in several distinctive patterns that were grounded in Chinese identity but ever accommodating to the needs of the world.

Like in Japan, silk has traditionally been associated with key life events for Hongkongers. “We don’t think about it often but it’s always there, that fabric,” says Li. Silk appears at various key moments: it lines the elaborately embroidered kua worn for weddings, and swaddles the bodies of the dead at traditional funerals. 

Within the display, a red coverlet attests to the importance of silk. Adorned with butterflies (symbolising joy and love), and peonies (implying strength, virility and lush beauty), the coverlet, which was gifted to newlyweds in the 1950s, has decidedly romantic overtones. Gilded peacocks form the centre of the pattern create a wonderful symmetry with the item displayed alongside – a weave draft featuring another exotic bird: Donald Duck.

The gridded paper design was created by one of Hong Kong’s first silk mills, to be translated into punch cards for a jacquard loom. The artifact tells a tale not often depicted in the cartoon fowl’s antics, one of international trade, the Cold War, the influence of Western pop culture and Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China.

Around the 1950s and 60s, Cold War trade embargoes were imposed on China, affecting all products including silk. “Since the US and the UK banned mainland Chinese imports, customers wanting silk from the Far East were only able to purchase it from Hong Kong,” says Li. The selvedges on every bolt of silk woven in the territory proclaimed the product to be “Made in Hong Kong,” asserting a distinction from any Communist country. 

This arrangement resulted in Hong Kong creating products meant for direct export to the West rather than for local consumption, which had the unintended effect of blending Western pop culture and Chinese culture through trade. “We think that these [Donald Duck] design sketches likely arose from that time when Hong Kong was weaving fabrics for the West, maybe for the US. It resulted in these very interesting designs where you see an iconic cartoon character against these auspicious Chinese motifs – he’s holding a lotus flower and wearing a wadded jacket. His tail feathers are rendered like Chinese auspicious clouds. It’s all very funny. A very special image that wouldn’t sell in Hong Kong. It’s very strange.”

Because silk is impractical for day to day use, its popularity waned in the 1960s and the silk industry was obliged to diversify. “Silk is not easy to manage,” says Li. “It’s difficult to wash. It’s hard to keep it from creasing and it snags very easily.” To suit changing demand, Hong Kong’s weaving industry increasingly applied silk to simple consumer goods. Those with even a passing acquaintance with Hong Kong will recognise the colourful silk jewelry pouches that can be found across the territory from Stanley Market to the jade traders of Yau Ma Tei. Adorned with floral patterns, clouds and other chinoiserie, these pouches and items like them gave locals and visitors alike the feel of traditional Chinese goods. The industry wasn’t afraid to go even further in seeking new markets and would adapt both their technologies and materials for other uses. Introducing new fibers like rayon to their silk weaving machinery, silk manufacturers began weaving synthetic textiles and applying these to the most European of accessories: neckties.

Ties themselves carry many social, historical and cultural connotations, but colonial influence is also woven right into them. Li indicates a number of weave drafts on display at CHAT. These sketches are a unique record of Hong Kong graphics and corporate identities as they evolved out of armorial badges and crests and into modern logos – graphics that could accompany any Hong Kong schoolkid from their formative years right into adult life as an employee or bureaucrat within the colonial establishment. “You’ve got HKU, China Light and Power, the Housing Authority and even a department store, Wing On,” says Li. “Hong Kong wove a lot of neckties for export to Malaysia too. These designs really show that Hong Kong manufacturers were adapting to what was needed and what people wanted at the time.”

Sensing even more difficult market conditions, Hong Kong’s weavers adapted their technologies even further to create low end but high volume products like woven labels for the garment industry. Before long, even these measures would prove inadequate as the Hong Kong market became too small to sustain its textile industry. Manufacturers would have to set their sights farther afield and in doing this, they would form the unlikeliest of cultural partnerships through industrial skill, keen business acumen and patterns.

Patternways: Visualising Hong Kong in Transition is now on display at CHAT. Click here for more information.

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