More than a dress - the social history of the cheongsam in Singapore

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 August, 2012, 10:53pm


In the Mood for Cheongsam

by Lee Chor Lin and Chung May Khuen

Didier Millet


Jason Wordie

Few garments reveal as much about their broader cultural context than the cheongsam. Reviled by some as a sleazy Suzy Wong cliché, and embraced by others as a potent symbol of cultural and ethnic identity, the cheongsam has enjoyed enduring - if intermittent - popularity for more than 80 years.

Development of the cheongsam on the mainland and the overseas Chinese world, from early Republican times until its general decline in the 1970s, is tracked and links to Chinese women and modernity are explored in this magnificent new book. Drawn from a popular exhibition held at the National Museum of Singapore, In the Mood for Cheongsam - co-authored by the museum's director Lee Chor Lin and its Fashion Gallery curator Chung May Kheun - is both lavishly illustrated and solidly researched, which enables it to be appreciated on a variety of levels.

Cultural migration patterns, and what passed for metropolitan elegance in the overseas Chinese world, are closely detailed. Hong Kong, and in the pre-liberation era, Shanghai, were exemplars of all that was chic, modern and to be emulated by Chinese women. This carried over into Singapore and Malaya, where the cheongsam was readily adapted to the demands of a tropical climate.

After a few decades in which the garment's popularity languished, the cheongsam is enjoying a renaissance. Nostalgia for former times implies that something worth retaining from the past has been lost to modernity. An unexpected consequence of works such as this one, which document social history patterns as well as celebrate their outward manifestations, is that renewed nostalgia helps trigger a steady revival of sorts.

In Southeast Asia, wearing a cheongsam has become a thought-out alternative response to modern consumer tastes. Revivals of traditional dress have already been seen - to a limited degree - in Singapore and Malaysia with the sarong kebaya. Evolved for the Straits Chinese, this graceful garment is appropriate to the climate, intricate and - much like the cheongsam - a well-made sarong kebaya is expensive. Wearing one can be a reaction to over-strident notions of "Chineseness" in recent years. It allows the wearer to say, "Yes, I'm Chinese, but from this part of the world - and definitely not mainland China" with all the nationalistic and cultural implications that implies.

Snobbery by stealth also comes into play. A well-tailored cheongsam in exotic fabrics easily costs as much as high-end designer gear, asserts a sense of cultural identity, and reveals more of the wearer's true personality than the latest, off-the-peg French- or Italian-influenced shopping mall purchase ever could.

For wealthy society matrons, the cheongsam became their uniform and they were seldom, if ever, seen in public without one.

Aw Cheng Hu, the daughter of Tiger Balm co-founder Aw Boon Par, is one example. In the course of her very long life - she died at 96 - Aw seldom wore anything else in public. Christina Loke, the wife of prominent Malayan businessman Loke Wan Tho (who, with various partners, controlled the Cathay cinema chain) was a well-known society beauty whose exquisite cheongsams were legendary.

Singaporean war heroine Elizabeth Choy was widely known for her cheongsam and accessories that highlighted her personality and background. Originally from North Borneo (modern Sabah) Choy's combination of batik cheongsam and heavy silver dayak bangles defined her individual Southeast Asian Chinese cultural identity.

Shanghai-trained tailors were considered the best, as the apprenticeship was the longest and customers in that city were the most demanding in terms of workmanship. After the end of the Chinese civil war, many Shanghainese tailors moved to Hong Kong and intense competition ensured that quality remained consistently high there.

Tailors in Singapore struggled to match their Hong Kong equivalents because the warm weather in Singapore prevented them being trained in fur or woollens, meaning they had diminished skills.

Becoming an apprentice tailor was a hard life, and craftsmen often wanted different choices for their children. As one tailor interviewed in the book explains, part of the reason for the garment's steady disappearance was a decline in new workers. "I am old now, and all my children have graduated [from university]. I have no one to take over the business from me," he said. "It is the same situation for my friends and their children too."