PHOTOGRAPHY BY ONIN LORENTE | www.style-anywhere.com
You are the founder of the Cheongsam Society…
[Yes], it is an association of men and women from around the world dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the cheongsam. Members of the Cheongsam Society are encouraged to wear the cheongsam on all formal occasions and celebrations – especially to events that stipulate Western dress codes – and on a regular, even daily, basis.
A picture of a shophouse filled with wisps of smoke, a singer on stage and a speakeasy in the back just came to mind. Are your gatherings like that – if so, how high does the slit on the side of the cheongsam have to be for us to get in?
That seems incredibly romantic. Our gatherings are in fact a little more sober. At Mid-Autumn, we gathered to appreciate gong fu cha (kung fu tea) at a teahouse while discussing traditional Chinese musical instruments. We might watch a Chinese opera performance next, although it sounds equally appealing to have guests join us in replicating a scene from 1920s Shanghai, replete with vintage cups and metal flasks.
Hey, just tell us where and we’ll show up. So is there a special name for the male cheongsam?
The English loanword ‘cheongsam’ is derived from the Cantonese word that literally means ‘long shirt’ (cheung sam). The word is gender-neutral and refers to the loose, one-piece garment worn by men and women during and after the Qing dynasty.
Why do you choose to wear the cheongsam everyday?
It is the most visible way to preserve a part of our Chinese heritage and communicates the message of the Society without even having to say a word.
And the pants, shoes, socks, bag and fan?
It’s part of the package! You won’t know how comfortable cloth shoes and kung fu pants are until you put them on. As for the fan, it serves a very practical purpose, especially when you’ve been under the sun for too long. But it doesn’t mean I should also keep the queue [the long pigtail hairstyle worn during the Qing dynasty]; the Society’s not about going back in time, it’s about perpetuating a natural, organic development of our heritage.
Isn’t this a very warm and restrictive outfit for our weather?
Not if it’s well tailored and made of appropriate fabric. A cheongsam is naturally loose fitting, and one that’s made of linen is also highly absorbent, provides high air permeability and is a good conductor of heat. Most of my cheongsams are made of linen. It’s just about the most comfortable attire to be in all day, any day.
But what happens when it rains?
If the cheongsam flaps too much in strong wind and rain, the lower portion might get a little damp, but it dries faster than a pair of denim jeans or polyester pants. And if necessary, I can always take the cheongsam off to dry, which is not possible with jeans or trousers. Thankfully, I’ve never had this problem!
So where can we get your outfit and for how much?
The kung fu pants cost $16 from a martial arts supply store across from Chinatown Point; my black cloth shoes cost $7.90; the black cloth bag was $18 from a shop in Marina Square; and my cloth fan was only $5, also from a shop in Chinatown. I’m sure you can find cheaper ones elsewhere.
Do you get funny looks from the public?
All the time! But anything that is at first unusual will surely draw attention, and sometimes it gives me a chance to talk about the Society. Wearing the cheongsam lets me show others that it can be regular attire, and hopefully to inspire them to do the same.
Has anyone come up to you to ask you about your attire yet?
It happens very often. They are usually curious, but the strangest question ever put to me was, ‘Are you a fortune teller?’
And what did you say?
‘I’m wearing what we’ve been wearing for the past 400 years; it’s called a cheongsam.’ It was, and is usually, met with admiration, positive responses and compliments.
I bet it’s harder to run away from screaming teenage girls in this.
Because it is so loose fitting, you’re able to run faster for buses and trains, and look peerlessly cool doing it. There is just one thing a cheongsam restricts – ungracious postures. The structure of the cheongsam forces you to adopt a proper, elegant posture when you're walking, standing, and especially sitting.
Is it harder to go to the loo in this?
Without going too much into graphic detail, it is probably sufficient to say it takes just two steps and you’re ready to do business.
[Blushes] Right. Thank you. Speaking of business, have you been subjected to any alternative treatment, good or bad, at establishments?
Fortunately not, but my attire has become a great conversational starter everywhere, and in various situations it has paved the way to meeting a few important people.
How else are you promoting the art of the cheongsam?
I’ve set up a website and Facebook page. I’ve also been trying to think of ways to interest the National Heritage Board in our cause, and perhaps work with Chinese institutions or bodies. The idea of busking has come up, although we first have to come up with a convincing act to get the National Arts Council to grant us a letter of endorsement.
Any last words?
The cheongsam is but a tiny aspect of our heritage. We Chinese have a history that dates back 5,000 years; we’re sitting on a gold mine, and many of us don’t even know it. Hopefully, in generating awareness of Chinese culture and traditions, more people will come to a deeper level of familiarity and appreciation of our priceless inheritance.
For more about the Cheongsam Society, go to www.cheongsamsociety.com