Not being privy to the world of high fashion, I had only a vague understanding that the Birkin handbag produced by luxury brand Hermès was an expensive piece of feminine folly. I had a shock when a friend told me one costs between HK$80,000 and HK$1.2 million, depending on the size and type of material.

No matter how many craftsmen pricked their thumbs and animals lost their hides in the making of a stitched-up sack, no bag should cost that much money.

Men and women in pre-modern China had a variety of accessories in which to carry personal items such as handkerchiefs, name seals, money and indiscreet letters. There were bags that resembled modernday handbags and shoulder bags made of fabric or leather, but many people found them cumbersome. Gradually, the practically minded began hanging their bags from their belts.

For the rich, who went almost everywhere with servants to carry everything they needed, these waist bags became very small and, like many modern handbags, were more decorative than functional.

Depending on prevailing fashions, small items could be secreted in one’s sleeves, if the said sleeves were voluminous and gathered at the wrists, or tucked into the folds of the characteristic Y-shaped collars of the traditional Han-Chinese dress.