A silk factory in Jili district, Henan province. Photo: Rue des Archives

Then & now: Chinese silk trade's unbroken thread

Weaving a reputation for quality, China's centuries-old silk trade has run virtually unbroken, writes Jason Wordie


Along with tea and porcelain, silk was one of the main luxury exports from fabled Cathay to the West. Extensive trading links between Europe and China have existed since Roman times, along the Silk Road through Central Asia, and the maritime Silk Route, which had its eastern terminus in Canton (modern Guangzhou).

While these links have waxed and waned over the centuries, international trade started booming in the mid-18th century and - despite minor bumps along the way - it has never really stopped.

External factors, as ever, played a significant role in demand for Chinese products. Rising prosperity in the West during the peaceful period between the Seven Years' War and the Napoleonic wars (roughly between 1763 and 1804), along with increased affluence from the Industrial Revolution, led to a growth in demand for luxury goods such as silk.

The Pearl River Delta never produced much silk for the European market, while Hong Kong produced none at all in pre-British times. Back in the days of 17th-century trade between Macau and Japan, however, high-quality silk floss was produced at Shunde (known in Cantonese as Shun Tak), northwest of Macau, and exported to the Japanese city of Nagasaki in enormous quantities. The Japanese had very advanced silk-weaving techniques at the time, but the best raw silk was produced in China.

After China's trade with the West became concentrated in Canton in the 1760s, the city became a major centre for China-produced fabrics - and it remains so today. Samples were brought to the city for buyers to inspect, and orders were sent back to production areas in the north. Unlike in today's lightning-fast "rag trade", back then, orders might take a year to process and deliver - and that was considered quick work.

Most of the Chinese silk sold overseas came from the central mainland, as it still does, and was produced in massive quantities in the famed silk-producing areas in the lower Yangtze delta.

Soochow and Hangchow (modern Suzhou and Hangzhou), along with Wuxi and other nearby cities, had been silk-producing centres for centuries. A Soochow or Hangchow trademark was synonymous nationally with high-quality silk - and still is. Even a reference to these cities was enough to bring in customers.

In the 19th century, Jervois Street in Sheung Wan (better known to locals as Soochow-Hangchow Street) was the place to go for high-quality silk goods. While the shops are long gone, early Hong Kong guidebooks all mention these silk outlets.

For decades, various central-government-owned emporiums, such as Yue Hwa, sold some of the best silk woven in China. Quality remains consistently high in these outlets, and their prices are reasonable - but not cheap.

Many women's tailors carry stocks of otherwise hard-to-find silk weaves and prints especially suited to the cheongsam. Hong Kong remains a centre of high-quality tailoring and there are famous shops, such as Linva Tailor, in Cochrane Street, Central, that have been oper-ating for decades. But as with many other aspects of Hong Kong life, snobbery comes by stealth here, too: the top women's tailors only make house calls.



This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Smooth operators