Coco Ma did not enjoy the idea of wearing a uniform when she first started attending St. Paul’s Co-Educational College. “I was very annoyed with it!” she exclaims. Girls at the school wore a royal blue qipao, with strict rules about length and accessories like jumpers and scarves. There is only so much each student can do to assert their individual identity. “People strive to change their looks by altering their shoes, watches, or hair styles, but often we just all look the same,” says Ma.
And yet she eventually came to see the uniform as a badge of honour. “I think it’s beautiful, traditional, the epitome of Chinese beauty,” she says. “Since it is a traditional qipao, it reflects the long history of our school and our identity as students there.”
It’s a history that is particularly significant for Hong Kong. When it opened in 1915, St. Paul’s was one of the city’s first all-girls schools, and it was the first to require uniforms in 1918. (It became co-ed in 1945 when it merged with its sibling boys’ school.) The girls’ first uniform was a two-piece qipao with white tops and matching pants or skirts, but it was eventually replaced by the simple one-piece qipao that students still wear today.
There are exactly 2,179 kindergarten, primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong. Most of them require students to wear a uniform, each one of which is a window into the unique history, values and traditions of the school it represents. And more than that, they reflect the different faces of Hong Kong. Run by government or church, English-speaking or Chinese, pro-Beijing or the politically neutral – the diversity of Hong Kong’s schools is embodied by the uniforms worn by their students.
It isn’t clear when the first school opened in Hong Kong, but the oldest recorded institution was Li Ying College, which opened around 1075 in present-day Kam Tin. For the most part, though, education was the domain of small-scale village schools, of which there were around 20 when the British arrived in 1841, when the population of the entire present-day territory of Hong Kong was just over 100,000. The government eventually began regulating those schools, but it wasn’t until 1862 that true public education made its debut with the opening of the Central Government School — later renamed Queen’s College — in 1862.
But Hong Kong’s religious leaders were not satisfied with the idea of universal secular education, and they pressured the colonial government to give Catholic and Protestant schools equal footing with government schools. That laid the groundwork for the educational system as it exists today: a network for government-regulated but otherwise autonomous schools.
When St. Paul’s chose the qipao as its uniform in 1918, it simply reflected the way that most Chinese people in Hong Kong dressed at the time. There were no overriding regulations or standards for uniforms, so it was up to each school to decide what their students should wear. Some, like the Kowloon British School — a government-run institution reserved for the children of expatriates — seemed to take an ad hoc approach to adopting a uniform. “There was no school uniform until, in my time there, a pupil called Helen Wylie came to school in a dark blue tussore dress which the headmaster liked so much it became [the] girls’ uniform,” wrote a former student named Barbara Anslow, who attended the school in 1928.
It wasn’t until after World War II that uniforms became nearly universal in Hong Kong. The number of schools swelled to accommodate the millions of mainland Chinese migrants who settled in the city from the 1940s to the 1960s. Space was at such a premium that some classes were held on the rooftops of public housing estates. Perhaps the popularity of uniforms was a reaction to the widespread poverty and squalor of the era.
“Visiting writers who documented local life during the desperately overcrowded, poverty-stricken 1950s and ‘60s often commented on how immaculately Hong Kong’s schoolchildren were turned out when they emerged from hillside squatter huts and densely packed tenement buildings,” notes local history writer Jason Wordie. “Many school uniforms — then as now — were primarily white, which made laundering in such conditions all the more challenging.”
As Wordie and many others have noted, school uniforms are a “social leveller” that helps erase the class distinctions between students. It’s hard to tell a scholarship student from the scion of a wealthy family when they are wearing exactly the same thing. At the same time, though, the cost of buying a uniform could be a burden for poor families, and some working-class schools decided not to require uniforms for that very reason.
Former mill engineer Hui Chor-tin recalls how his primary school, which was run by the Hong Kong Bar-Bending Workers Union, drew its students from the shantytowns around the Kowloon Walled City. “You could tell what a student’s family condition was from the way he dressed,” he says. “Some poor kids would wear their undershirts and pants to school but teachers didn’t discourage them from doing so. Everyone was from a similar background so they wouldn’t laugh at others who wore worn-out clothes to school.”
Uniforms may have been an attempt to erase distinctions between students, but they only underscored the difference between schools. A uniform might ensure a kind of equality in the classroom, but it’s just the opposite outside the school gates. “Some of us, when we hang out with our friends after school on the streets, will choose to take off our school badges, because we know what we are doing represents our school and we want to protect the reputation of that,” recalls Coco Ma.
Indeed, the design of different uniforms is a way to distinguish one school from another, but it is also a testimony to the various historical periods in which they have evolved. “Before the ‘50s, students simply wore whatever they had in their wardrobes,” says Paul Lam, a first-generation school uniform tailor and owner of Kam Lun Tailors, which was established in 1961. “This explains why secondary school girls mainly put on maids’ suits whereas boys wore Yat-sen suits or maids’ suit-inspired coats and trousers, which weren’t exactly school uniforms. I myself have worn those too, when I was a kid!”
Strange as they may seem, the names of these uniforms do a good job of reflecting their origins. Maids’ suits (daai6 kam1 zong1 大襟裝) are derived from the clothes traditionally worn by housemaids, which was a two-piece suit consisting of a blouse and trousers. The top blouse had a high collar and small splits at both sides, with simple binding by fabric buttons on the collar and front flap. “The dyeing technology wasn’t as advanced as modern days,” adds Lam. “So the uniforms were available in only two colours – white and light blue.”
In the early 20th century, Western fashion began to exert a significant influence on Chinese dress codes, especially when the Qing court was overthrown by Sun Yat-sen, who founded the Republic of China in 1912. Maguas (maa5 kwaa2 馬褂), which were loose robes with wide cuffs commonly worn by Chinese people, were replaced by cheongsam (coeng4 saam1長衫), notes Iven Cheung, Assistant Curator at the Hong Kong Museum of Education. “Cheongsam, much more Western in their cutting, were simple long gowns worn by male students after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, marked by the slender fit of the light white cotton robes which were paired with belted trousers,” he explains.
The Republic of China introduced another sartorial innovation: the Yat-sen suit, also known as a Chinese tunic suit or, most commonly of all, the Zhongshan suit (zung1 saan1 zong1中山裝). In an attempt to distance China from the Qing-era wardrobe, Sun commissioned a suit based on the Japanese military uniforms he had witnessed while living in Japan. The suit is best known for high collar, three cuff buttons, five front buttons and four pockets. “They represented Sun’s Three Principles of the People, the five branches of government and the four Chinese virtues of propriety, justice, honesty and shame respectively,” Cheung says.
In the early 1950s, school uniforms became more practical in style, a response to the rapid development of industry in Hong Kong. The Overalls (gung1 jan4 fu3 工人褲) were inspired by the work clothes of 18th-century Europe, which consisted of an apron stitched to a pair of trousers to protect the layers underneath from dirt—a concept observed in the classic apron-styled green school dress of Belilios Public School.
Some schools preferred a more elaborate and exotic look, such as checkered and Scottish tartan patterns. Although having no relevance to the Scottish culture, they were adopted for their appealing appearance for one-piece dresses in the summer and skirts in the winter from the 1960s to the ‘80s.
Apart from shapes and patterns, the advancement of modern-day technology has enabled uniforms to be dyed in different hues of the same colour. The qipao, which is currently used 16 schools as a uniform for girls, is distinguished by various shades of blue, except for Pooi To Middle School, which keeps their summer uniform for senior form students in traditional white.
As for boys’ uniforms, the basic combination of a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of trousers has not changed since the 1950s. Under British influence during the colonial period, a slim, English-style cut was popular and blazers were commonly worn in public schools. “Both the blazer and the shirt are more tightly fitted, while the school tie is longer and more elegant with a pointed end,” says Cheung. “The trousers are long, slender and cropped above the ankle, giving the outfit an English gentleman’s style.”
For all their social, historical and cultural connotations, uniforms have the biggest impact on the pupils who wear them. Tom Chan, who studied at St Mark’s Secondary School, recalls how proud he felt when he was able to switch from a junior to senior uniform. “The red tie for juniors is simplistic but the senior one is really cool – it’s navy blue, which contrasts nicely with the design of the tie,” he says. “The colour scheme has a kind of professional sophistication to it.”
Having graduated from St. Paul’s in 2015, Coco Ma now looks back at her uniform with fondness. “I realised how precious those times were, when we were all wearing the same outfit to school,” she says. A common purpose, a common identity – and a last journey through order and guidance before the tumult of adulthood.
Local school uniforms from the past 100 years are on display at the exhibition “Hong Kong School Uniforms – Past and Present” curated by the Hong Kong Museum of Education. Please click here for more information.