City Weekend

Old style Hong Kong tailor has a passion that’s always in fashion

In an ever-changing world, Kan Hong-wing’s cheongsam store remains a comforting refuge for women who demand the best

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 February, 2017, 2:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 February, 2017, 2:02pm

The long-established cheongsam tailoring shop in Sheung Wan is more than just a business to owner Kan Hon-wing. It’s his life.

“I spend a lot of time here, more than I do at home,” Kan, 66, said in his two-storey shop on Queen’s Road West.

Established in the 1920s by Kan’s grandfather, the authenticity of Mei Wah Fashion quickly spread by word of mouth. In modern and rapidly changing Hong Kong, the traditional old Chinese dress business has caught lots of media attention in recent years. Kan has even become the face of a local TV show.

Despite all the attention, the third-generation tailor has not yet found the right person to inherit the family business and keep the art form going – at least not his 20-something son.

“I brought him to the shop when he was little, hoping to influence him, but it didn’t work. And he has shown no interest over the years,” he lamented.

Kan is reluctant to push his son to take over the business because “cheongsam making is all about passion”.

But he understood that the low pay, long working hours and uncertain future had deterred people from entering the industry. “A lot of young people asked me to teach them cheongsam making. Most of them gave up when I spelled out the hardship,” he said while showing a pile of papers with names and phone numbers.

“So, there’s nothing much I can do, but just let it be.”

The cheongsam, from swinging Shanghai to Suzie Wong to slit thigh-high

The shop has so far received enough orders to keep Kan and his two other tailors busy till 2018. “It looks like we have lots of orders. The truth is we are understaffed.”

The golden era of the cheongsam, according to Kan, was between the 1940s and 1960s, when the traditional Chinese apparel was worn daily as casual wear. Back then the shop was packed with more than 30 tailors working round the clock and barely getting a day off.

Many had arrived from Shanghai in the 1940s and were originally private tailors to big families.

“Initially their lives were hard in Hong Kong. Being able to live in subdivided units was already very fortunate because some had to sleep on the streets or under staircases, ” Kan recalled.

It was after the 1970s when the then British colony became more Westernised and shifted to jeans and T-shirts, Kan said. Nowadays, cheongsam can be seen at parties, weddings and other special occasions.

Dressed in a striped shirt and grey trousers with black leather shoes, Kan insists on looking immaculate at the shop, even though there were only a handful of customers on a Wednesday evening.

He won’t let something go if he thinks it’s not done in a perfect way
A Kan Hon-wing customer

A bride-to-be stopped by to pick up a red cheongsam as her wedding dress. The customer, who gave her name as Joanne, placed her order a year ago and was impressed by Kan’s craftsmanship.

“He’s a very demanding person. He won’t let something go if he thinks it’s not done in a perfect way,” she said. “His persistence is something you can depend on.”

Locating in a quiet and old neighbourhood, the shop, filled with colourful fabrics, is where love and friendship blossomed. The near century-old store was where Kan met his wife, who was a customer back then. “It was love at first sight,” he smiled.

Kan also referred to his two other tailors as family friends. “I don’t like being called boss. We are in the same boat.”

Hong Kong fashion designer Grace Choi gives classic cheongsam an update

While Hong Kong’s property market has been rated the least affordable in the world, Kan is lucky to have a friend as his shop’s landlord – he did not charge rent for six months during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003.

Kan, who got into the business as a teenager, estimated there were fewer than 10 cheongsam tailors left in Hong Kong, but he believed people would always want to wear and make them as it was part of Chinese culture.

He stressed that he had never thought of giving up his career because his creations had always been recognised by customers. That explained why he spent more than 10 hours a day at the shop and had never had a honeymoon after years of marriage.

Another woman came in the shop, looking for a cheongsam for her singing performance in three days. “Is there any display dress that you can sell?” the customer, Mrs Chong, asked.

“No,” Kan replied without hesitation. “Every dress is tailor-made.”