A gang of elderly matriarchs rolls in off a sleepy Yuen Long street and into a well appointed shop. The store fills with chatter, each grande dame raising decibels, vying for aural domination with alternating opinions and demands.
“There must be more beading!”
“When will it be ready?!”
“Young people these days! They don’t understand what they want!”
A mousy clerk placates the women while mannequins stare impassively, their svelte forms swirling with dragons and phoenixes whose aerobatic union is captured in the aureate splendour of traditional Southern Chinese wedding dresses, known as kua (gwaa3 褂).
Amidst the brouhaha sits a quiet bespectacled man, simply clothed in contrast with the raiments on display. This is Timmy Wong, whose father started Lucky Embroidery (Hung4 Wan6 Sau3 Zong1 鴻運繡莊) at this location in 1975. Wong joined him in 1977 and has acted as a patient listener and sartorial guide to countless brides over his 43 year career. “In the beginning we traded in all sorts of cloth products – bed linens and sundries like that,” he says. “One of our businesses was making, selling and renting out kua for weddings and this became what we are most well known for.”
Invented in Guangdong and introduced to Hong Kong as early as the 1930s, few people continue to make kua locally. Lucky Embroidery is one of the territory’s oldest kua purveyors and still creates its own garments, even if the intricate embroidery must now be done in the mainland. “You can see how expensive a kua might be from the degree of ornamentation,” says Wong. “Cheap ones, priced at around HK$10,000, are very sparse. The most expensive can cost upwards of HK$80,000. It’s all a matter of how much time goes into the embroidery and simply put, nobody can afford to do that in Hong Kong anymore.”
Designing and making a kua requires skilled labour, which is carried out by Hong Kong sifu, or masters. Embroidery designs are still hand drawn but technology has streamlined the process. “We used to redraw entirely new patterns by hand if a different size was required but now we have the luxury of scanning and resizing them,” says Wong. Once printed, pattern outlines are pin pricked like constellations, creating a stencil. Powder is then dusted over to transfer the image to fabric.
In decades past this powder would have been ground oyster shells and the fabric would have been silk. Modern kua are made of acetate satin. “We changed material in the 90s because acetate has a lustre that doesn’t fade, unlike silk,” says Wong. “But some customers feel silk is more luxurious, so in these cases we make the lining from it, as natural fibres feel good against skin.” At over HK$100 per yard, a silk lining can increase cost by thousands.
Once stencilled, the fabric is stretched over a frame and worked over with a series of chain, stem and counted stitches. An older method employed thread wrapped in gold or silver leaf, anchored to the silken backdrop by small couching stitches. Finally, embellishment completed, the material is cut and sewn into a fine jacket-like garment. “The whole process takes anywhere between a few months and a full year,” says Wong.
The word “kua” commonly refers to an ensemble of two garments, “but only the top is the kua,” Wong advises. “The bottom is a skirt, kwan4 (裙), and they are never one piece. The skirt represents fertility because it is open and signals that children will issue forth, which is why trousers are never worn even though the word for trousers, fu3 (褲), would be a homophone of “prosperity” (fu 富).
There are many conventions when it comes to the design of kua. Their most striking aspect is the intricate embroidery depicting flamboyant dreamscapes of auspicious symbolism including bats, goldfish, clouds, peonies, and double happiness (soeng1 hei2 雙喜) and yin-yang (jam1 joeng4 陰陽) symbols. A kua can feature some but never all of these motifs (lest it be deemed “too much”).
The bat (fuk1 蝠) is a homophone of fortune (fuk1 福) and thus represents prosperity. “There should be five bats to represent the common wish of five blessings,” says Wong, referring to “ng5 fu3 lam4 mun4” (五褔臨門). There is a certain logic to how things are placed. Since bats are airborne they must appear high up in the composition; since goldfish, symbols of abundance, swim in water they go near the bottom, as do yin-yangs.
Whatever other symbols may be present on the kua, a dragon and phoenix are essential. “Dragons represent masculine power while phoenixes represent feminine beauty,” says Wong. “The two together represent a perfect union.”
He isn’t impressed by kua makers who neglect to follow these rules. “I see many makers, particularly from the mainland, who don’t follow traditional requirements,” he says with a moue of distaste. “You can’t just fool around with symbolism.” Designers who fail to heed basic principles create kua that “may look good” but “the cultural content is lost.” Though kua are dramatic, they are ceremonial garb rather than costumes. “There are actually elements taken from theatrical costumes, but costumes are too over the top,” he says. “Some of the mainland kua are more like superficial stage outfits – a simulacrum for something like a period film. These are not designs that respect tradition.”
But Wong is not a die-hard traditionalist; over the years he has proven himself to be ever willing to adapt. In the 1990s, the popularity of kua dropped dramatically as brides opted instead for the aspirational white lace and organza of Western wedding dresses. The kua was seen as old fashioned. In response, Wong began to evolve his designs to win back the public’s favour. Perched on a kua front, like a crystalline bird of paradise, a resplendent phoenix preens at luxuriant tail plumage studded with Swarovski beads. “Kua of the past did not feature crystals,” says Wong. “Adding beads was our way of making kua contemporary and enticing customers.” This innovation is a signature of Lucky Embroidery’s, and the company has registered the design.
The world has not always been ready for Wong’s contemporary takes on the kua. In 2016, Lucky unveiled a series of kua emblazoned with an unorthodox mythological beast: Hello Kitty. “The concept was criticised and people felt we had been hypocritical, saying that tradition needed to be upheld on the one hand yet creating this kua on the other,” he says with a smile. “In that case we hadn’t intended to create a traditional kua – our aim there was to showcase our abilities and willingness to work with clients to realise concepts collaboratively.”
Wong is treading a careful line between preserving tradition while demonstrating that kua need not be stuffy or predictable. “Yes, we can give you dragons, phoenixes, peonies and the like, but we can stretch ourselves and demonstrate that we are playful and creative as well,” he says. “We wanted to broaden the perception of kua and avoid them turning into museum pieces. It was a big step for us.” Lucky Embroidery has also started experimenting with clients in applying their flamboyant embellishments to Western clothing. “It’s a small sideline but rewarding nonetheless,” says Wong.
As social changes have swept across China, the quality of embroidery has fluctuated alongside other crafts. Modern printing methods have encroached on embroiderers’ business and the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, saw many embroidered textiles destroyed. Hong Kong embroiderers have worked hard to preserve skills that could easily be lost. “In the early days most craftspeople in our industry, including my father, had escaped from China, bringing their skills with them,” says Wong. “For a time, the tradition of kua on the mainland was completely severed. Not only were they forbidden but even the depiction of dragons was prohibited. Hong Kong, however, was free to carry on the custom throughout the Cultural Revolution and as a result, the former colony has preserved the tradition best.”
Emblems have been replicated with only slight modification for hundreds of years and Lucky Embroidery maintains this link to the past by keeping a collection of vintage kua. Wong fetches a white paper box and carefully removes the lid. Unfolding tissue paper, he reveals a delicate black kua, its embroidery hanging on by mere threads. This heirloom had been worn by three generations before it was added to Lucky Embroidery’s collection. “These days the entire outfit is red, but kua from the 1950s were black, while only the skirt was red,” he says. He cites an expression: jam1 joeng4 diu6 wo4 (陰陽調和), meaning that yin and yang are in harmony.
Lucky Embroidery is also steward to a large cache of heritage ceremonial designs which are used in processional and temple regalia like banners, parasols, flags and tunics. “We used to collaborate with a factory in Guangzhou, the Chinese Theatrical Costume Factory,” says Wong. “They had over a century of history and many talented sifu. Their tens of thousands of designs were all hand drawn. When they closed shop we hired their sifu and bought their drawings along with their stockpile of materials. We did not want to see this history destroyed.” Preservation is particularly important for regalia, he adds. “What we make today is almost exactly the same as it was in the 50s. We dare not change those. Customers are not looking for novelty here.”
In Lucky’s back room, sewing machines roar, laying down crimson lines of stitching. The sifu, all in their 40s, are relatively young for the industry. “I don’t foresee a problem with our tailors ageing – we will pass down our skills to a new generation,” says Wong, beaming. The future looks bright for Hong Kong’s kua craft.
Outside, the matriarchs have come to an accord and a splendid kua has been selected. As red thread plunges into richly embroidered cloth to form one silken garment, so too will their families be joined.