Slender mannequins decked out in elegant tartan cheongsam stand guard at the door of Yuen’s Tailor. The unorthodox dresses show off the tartans’ colours and shapes to great effect, just as chequered bolts of the cloth offset beautifully against the shop’s dark wood interior.
Run by the brothers Bonny and Johnny Yuen, the shop is aptly situated within the martial environs of Tai Kwun, where it has been since 2018. In colonial times, Yuen’s Tailor was appointed contractor to British Forces by the Ministry of Defence, putting them in charge of procuring everything from barbering services to shoe repair and, most crucially, tailoring. Several Scottish regiments have been stationed in Hong Kong and as a result, Yuen’s became and remains the only Hong Kong tailor that specialises in Scottish Highland dress.
A customer arrives, anxious to have an old kilt altered before the Saint Andrew’s Ball, an annual celebration of Scottish culture and identity which has been held in Hong Kong since the 1870s. Johnny Yuen, who tends to the shop and its customers, listens without judgement, offering advice on letting out the kilt in the efficient but friendly manner that one might adopt after long years serving the armed forces. Bonny Yuen, the principal kiltmaker and tailor, leans against his shop counter, tape measure draped over well shirted shoulders, ears trained in case he is called upon.
Bonny is the elder brother and he has run this business since he was a teenager. But the shop’s association with the armed forces goes even further back, to when the Yuen brothers’ father ran a tailoring business in Shek Kong, near the Royal Air Force Station. “My father did everything for the British Forces, but when he passed away in 1969, I didn’t know anything,” he says. “But good thing he left me the small shop outside of Shek Kong.”
With the fortunes of his family suddenly thrust upon him, the 12-year-old went to work as an apprentice tailor. He toiled in various Shanghainese tailoring workshops around Tsim Sha Tsui, one of which supplied suits to the Mandarin Oriental. The eager Yuen learned in two years what most would learn in three, then moved on to a shop in Yuen Long district. “If you become a tailor you cannot make too much money,” he says. “You have to do some business [for yourself]. That’s why I went to Yuen Long, to learn how to run a business.” After a brief stint, Yuen was ready to return to his family’s Shek Kong shop. He took over when he was 15.
“Back then I went to every single barracks to take orders from the English, Scottish and Gurkha regiments,” he recalls. “Lei Yue Mun Barracks, Gun Club Hill, Blackdown Barracks. They had many small camps in Fanling. A few months here, a few months there to learn how to help them make uniforms.” Even with his tailoring background, there was much to grasp about the fabric and construction of military tailoring, steeped in a rich tradition of ceremony and rules.
By 1977, Yuen’s had moved to Stanley Fort, on the south side of Hong Kong Island, and in 1980, the business was presented with a new challenge. The Queen’s Own Highlanders were to be stationed in Hong Kong and the Yuens would be called upon to dress them.
Over the years, the Ministry of Defence dispatched several military master tailors to Hong Kong. They taught Yuen the craft of Highland kilt making and gained introductions to authentic tartan fabric mills and the kilt accessory craftsmen from whom Yuen’s would need to source sporrans, Ghillie brogues and the distinctive knives known as sgian dubhs. In exchange, Yuen taught one of the Scotsmen to make trousers.
“It wasn’t too difficult for me to learn how to make the clothes,” he says. “But I didn’t yet know how to ‘occupy’ – this means knowing what sorts of things you need to be dressed up in for different occasions.” Every regiment has a distinct style of uniform and attendant ceremonial clothing, from the Black Watch with their iconic black, blue and green tartan, to the Coldstream Guards with their red tunics. To win the trust of their new clientele, the Yuens would have to become as knowledgeable, if not more so than they, in the ways of dress.
“Some of them were a little bit surprised that I, a Chinese, was making Scottish dress,” says Yuen. “They were sceptical at first. They assumed that I just ordered the material and knew nothing.” Reaching for a pamphlet, he unfolds it across his countertop to reveal meticulous line drawings of Montrose Doublets, Prince Charlie waistcoats and Full Dress Argyle jackets. The details and conventions are baffling to outsiders, but the Yuens learned the ins and outs, and today they are proud to say that many of their orders actually come from Scotland.
“The kilt is the most important part,” says Yuen. “We always do it by hand. We never use any machine stitching.” It takes the kiltmaker 24 hours to complete a kilt from scratch and while there is still demand for such raiments, there has been no call to make military uniforms since the last British regiment, the Black Watch, left Hong Kong in 1997. These days, most of the Yuens’ Highland dress business comes in the form of alterations and kilt rental. “Not many people can afford Scottish wear. A full set costs about HK$30,000, but don’t forget, once you have the items, they will last your whole lifetime. They get passed down through families so there’s no need to buy any more unless you get bigger or smaller.” He chuckles. “Most become bigger.”
After Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China, the Yuens feared there would be no call for their unique skills – but this has not been the case. “When we moved out of the barracks, we stationed ourselves in Central Market. I didn’t know anybody at the time but there was the Saint Andrew’s Society,” says Yuen. “They had been searching for somebody to help their members with making kilts. It was a good bridge.”
In addition to ceremonial garb, Scottish cultural organisations like the Saint Andrew’s Society and the Hong Kong Highlanders have encouraged their members to order regular suits at Yuen’s in order to bolster its business and make sure Hong Kong always has a reliable kiltmaker. For this, Yuen is more than up to the task. “Because we made uniforms for the military, we make clothes that you can move, march and fight in,” he says. He illustrates his point by referencing a prominent—albeit fictional—Scot. “It’s just like the suits that James Bond wears. We know how to occupy and we know how to make clothing that is functional and looks good when you’re moving around, not just when you’re standing still.”
With their deep pleats, kilts are material intensive. Each requires a minimum of 8 yards of fabric. The need to keep vast stocks of tartan for different clans and organisations has proven difficult and increasingly unnecessary as a bulk of Yuen’s business shifts towards regular suiting. Though the shop keeps a few popular tartans such as Cameron, Stewart, Black Watch, Flower of Scotland and Pride of Scotland, others have to be specially ordered.
“You can spend a lifetime learning about tartan and no Scotsman will wear his friend’s tartan, only his own,” says Bonny, who has assisted countless clients in selecting appropriate patterns for day and evening use and in distinguishing between ancient and modern variations. Surprisingly, it is often Hongkongers who need the least help in this regard. “Sometimes, the non-Scottish people coming here have more information than Scottish people because they just like Scottish dress. They study it. Maybe they studied in Scotland. Maybe they graduated from Dundee, maybe from Edinburgh. Those universities have their own tartans so they might use that.”
As the Yuens flip through a hefty tome of tartan samples, a girl enters the shop. Gingerly poking around, she leaves then returns trailing behind a shop assistant. “The young lady would like this hat,” the shop assistant informs the brothers, proffering up a smart Black Watch tartan beret. The Yuens obligingly ring up the hat as the customer places it on her head and adjusts it to a jaunty angle of her liking.
Seeing a growing interest in Scottish dress amongst Hongkongers, Yuen’s has found a way to use their leftover tartan stock rather than leave it to moulder in storage. They’ve opened an outpost in the revamped Central Market, where they once had a shop. Simply named Tartan, this new arm of the Yuens’ business makes fashionable hats, bags and accessories for Hongkongers who may not have a need for a kilt but still fancy a bit of Highland flair.
With this growing interest, the Yuens have even tried their hand at developing tartans for Hong Kong – their first tartan, a reference to the beloved Red-White-Blue bag, was designed with an enthusiast, Jacky Ming. “This is the first time, in my experience, that a Chinese has designed a tartan and asked me to weave and make products for him,” says Yuen. Though the fabric is still being woven in Scotland, scores of Hongkongers have already ordered cheongsam and kilts, eager to display pride in their city.
The walls of Yuen’s are adorned with regimental medals and shields in recognition of their distinguished service. Though the brothers’ old military friends may never return, they hang onto old letters of recommendation from natty lieutenants and majors who they once suited and booted. The Yuens still occasionally revert to military jargon and speak of being “stationed” as though their venerable shop were a remote but valuable outpost – and in many ways this is true.
Displayed lovingly amongst the regalia and bolts of tartan fabric is a Hong Kong couple’s framed wedding photograph. The bride is in white and the groom is resplendent in traditional Highland dress, emblematic of a city that looks to the future but remembers its origins in a world that no longer exists. This is the convergence of cultures that gave rise to unexpected treasures like Yuen’s Tailor.