Hang by a thread
Cheongsam maker Lau On-hing has been using the same sewing machine for the past half-century and he has no intention of changing it. It's not nostalgia that prevents him, but a rather practical reason.
'The new ones sew too fast. You can't rush to make a cheongsam. It is too delicate. You can't risk missing a single thread,' says Lau.
The 63-year-old veteran has created cheongsam for countless celebrities including the likes of Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, Zhang Ziyi, Tang Wei and socialites such as Vera Waters and Christina Lee Lok Ngan-kwan. He's often approached by filmmakers and art directors such as Ang Lee and William Chang Suk-ping and he made costumes for Lee's Lust, Caution, Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, 2046 and the still-in-production The Grandmasters.
Lau has spent almost 50 years in the trade, so he has seen the prime time of the traditional Chinese dress. But when asked about the future, he says with a sigh: 'The skills will be lost in Hong Kong before long. In future you will only be able to find ready-to-wear cheongsam, mass produced on the mainland, and perhaps with zips up the back.'
The traditional cheongsam style, according to Lau, subtly accentuates a woman's curves. The zip is always on the side of the dress and the slit should be no higher than three inches above the knee cap. The laces that are used to embellish the hems of the sleeves, collar and skirt are all hand-stitched.
'You can't call it a cheongsam just because it has a mandarin collar,' says Lau. 'It's impossible to make cheongsam with a machine. The measurement has to be so precise that it won't fit if the customer wears a different brassiere.'
The cheongsam, otherwise known as a qipao, is a traditional Chinese garment originating from the loose-fitting Manchu one-piece dress during the Qing dynasty. The much more body-hugging version was popularised in 1920s Shanghai, fashioned by socialites and upper-class tai-tais.
As the Shanghai upper classes fled to Hong Kong when the communists took control of the mainland, the rich tai-tais packed their party dresses and brought their personal tailors to town.
Tang Wah-yan, 77, and Chau Chung-lung, 75, were among the earliest local cheongsam makers. They both learned the trade in their early teens from the Shanghai master tailors.
Chau remembers the shop he used to work in was in a prominent spot in Wan Chai. 'There used to be over 30 of us and we had to work until one or two o'clock in the morning in order to meet the demand,' he says of the industry's golden period in the 1960s and 1970s. 'Everybody wore cheongsam. Not just the tai-tais. Office girls, dance hostesses and even hawkers wore them. That's how popular they used to be.'
Chau says that in those days, the luxurious dresses could cost as much as an office clerk's monthly salary.
'Some tai-tais would get a new cheongsam every week and they wouldn't ever wear the same dress twice. Some would give me fabrics that were bought from museums,' he says.
But the situation changed drastically in the early 1980s, when the first waves of Western pop fashion rolled into Victoria Harbour.
'The miniskirt killed the cheongsam overnight,' says Tang, laughing.
Both Chau and Tang are barely still in the trade. Today, Tang says, he only takes appointments and orders from regular clients, such as Elsie Leung Oi-sie, former justice secretary, and Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the secretary for development.
Prospects seem brighter for Lau, who still has his studio New King's Fabrics Company on the third floor of a building in Lan Kwai Fong.
'Zhang Ziyi was here for a fitting a while back. She recognised me for making her cheongsam for 2046 and joked that she would have me making her wedding cheongsam some day,' Lau says proudly.
He suggested to Zhang that if that really was the case, she'd better tie the knot quickly. 'I don't know how much longer I'll still be in the business. But I know my retirement day isn't too far away,' he says.
Lau has seen better days. The shop he worked at for the past 15 years was originally on the ground floor of a building nearby.
He had to move to the upstairs location, where the rent was cheaper, when his old boss died in 2004. The boss' son, who inherited the business, had no interest in it. The old shop is now a sportswear chain store.
Lau sometimes has to turn down appointments because he's on his own; his fellow tailor retired years ago. He now takes his time, making about six cheongsam every month.
'We used to have 15 tailors just to do the cheongsam,' he says. 'There used to be about 2,000 cheongsam makers in Hong Kong. But now there are fewer than a handful still in business.'
The lack of new blood is a reason for the trade's near extinction. 'No one wants to learn the trade,' says Chau. 'When I started, at the age of 12, I worked without pay for three years, and then half pay for the next two years.'
During the first three years, Chau says, he had to do everything in the shop, including brewing tea, cleaning up and making glue, which is used for pattern making.
The master tailors didn't always teach him. 'You had to watch and learn and work extra hard on your own,' he says. 'But obviously people don't do things the old way any more.'
Lau says he's been approached by young aspiring designers before, but none of them have had the patience to see it through to the end.
'In the old times, only teenage apprentices were accepted because when you grow older, your hands get stiff,' says Lau. 'It's the same if you stop doing it for a year - you won't be able to hold the sewing needles properly. It takes years and years of practice until it all becomes natural.'
Although design student Helius Yuen Kin-wai has a passion for the cheongsam - he's collected about 600 dresses over the years - he still hesitates to join the trade.
'It's a pity that little has been done to revive the trade. I'd love to know more about the heritage but I'm not sure I'd be prepared to go through the training right now,' the 26-year-old cheongsam enthusiast says.
As the local traditional cheongsam trade has wilted, customers have been turning to more economical versions made on the mainland.
The discounts are tempting - you can get a cheongsam made in Shenzhen for about HK$500, while the prices in Lau's shop range from HK$3,000 for a simple knee-length version to more than HK$10,000 for a luxe evening gown, including fabrics.
'The difference lies in the craftsmanship. Making a cheongsam is down to every detail,' says Lau.
His shop also offers fabrics from Valentino and Armani, and silks from Italy and France.
Others often turn to ready-to-wear dresses available from major labels such as Shanghai Tang and Vivienne Tam.
'Considering the figure-hugging nature of the cheongsam, it would be wishful thinking to hope that a single fit will perfectly accommodate women of all sizes and shapes,' says Chee Au, Shanghai Tang's chief creative officer. 'However, at Shanghai Tang we are always exploring ways to make the cheongsam a more accessible item. One option is to use stretchable fabrics that are more figure-friendly.'
Riding the Chinese economic boom, a string of fashion houses have been embracing the Oriental-inspired dresses, including Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior.
'The traditional cheongsam silhouette will be fiercely preserved at Shanghai Tang. It holds an immensely elegant shape that will withstand the test of time,' says Au. 'Particularly with the growing influence of China, the cheongsam dress is undisputably a modern-day take on the 'little black dress'.'
But the traditional tailors are not convinced by the so-called East-meets-West modern-day alterations.
Lau says some styles he sees are neither Eastern nor Western, while Tang and Chau insist that cheongsam have to be custom made.
'We have been lucky to have the luxury of these traditional craftsmen working in Hong Kong,' says cheongsam collector Yuen. 'It would be a shame if the trade continued to disappear like this.'