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The Cheongsam Mood

Article 4 | In the Mood for a Cheongsam

Chinese Feminine Beauty - is the Cheongsam no longer in fashion ?

Since the early 1990s, a new wave of Chinese and Chinese-American designers such as Vivienne Tam, Anna Sui, Hang Feng, Yeohlee and Shiatzy Chen, and some Westerners like Britain’s John Galliano has been re-interpreting the cheongsam for an international clientele, resulting in a revival of sorts, and this has been noted in In The Mood For Cheongsam, a 2012 book co-published by Singapore-based Editions Didier Millet Pte Ltd and the National Museum of Singapore (it’s priced at RM85 a copy here).

Co-authored by Lee Chor Lin and Chung May Khuen, this 160-page medium-sized hardcover book is orientated towards cheongsam history in Singapore, and this orientation also applies to the hundreds of black & white and colour photographs, both contemporary and archival, as the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) has a section showcasing a collection of the finest and most beautiful cheongsam.

However, this does not detract from the fact that the authors amply detail the world of cheongsam in general. Lee is director of the NMS and a specialist on Asian textiles and Buddhist art, and Chung specialises in the history of Singapore women from the 1950s to 1970s and is currently the curator of NMS’ fashion gallery, and their book covers almost a century, from the origins and cultural impact of cheongsam in the 1920s to the present day.

In a seven-page introduction, Lee wrote: “On May 4, 1919, when a group of female Peking University students took to the streets with their fellow male students, they wore not the blouse-and-skirts ensemble that had been in vogue since the eve of the 1911 Revolution, but a version of the man’s long robe (changsan) which was based on the now defunct Manchu magua. This female interpretation of changshan... caught on in other major cities, particularly in Shanghai, and was wholeheartedly embraced not only by the ladies of Shanghai’s high society, but by socialites, celebrities and prostitutes alike.”

At the time, Shanghai, considered the Paris of the East, was the beacon of all things new and fashionable, and the cheongsam soon spread throughout the world wherever Chinese migrated to, as the migrants included Shanghainese tailors skilled in cheongsam. When the Communists took over China in 1949, the cheongsam was considered bourgeois dressing for the elite and thus fell out of favour, but flourished in freer societies such as the then British colony of Hong Kong, and throughout South-East Asia, including then British Malaya and Singapore, and Chinatowns the world over.

Following the introduction, this reader-friendly book has three self-descriptively titled chapters, namely: The evolving meaning of the cheongsam from the 1950s to 1970s (to the extent that Chung Khiaw Bank in Singapore had cheongsam uniforms for its female staff), Prominent women (the late Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, wife of Singapore’s former long-serving Prime Minister, were among those in high society there who habitually wore the cheongsam) and The producers of cheongsam (focusing on the many Shanghainese tailors who came to Singapore to start life anew before and after World War II).

As a garment, the mandarin-collared cheongsam has evolved from conservative loose-fitting long-sleeved gown that reached down to the ankles to sexy figure-hugging sleeveless gown cut off at the knees, and the bolder women would opt for slits that reach up almost to their hips in order to flash their long legs and thighs whenever they move about.

In the movies, perhaps none was sexier in cheongsam than Nancy Kwan when she portrayed the title role of a good-hearted prostitute in the 1960 movie The World Of Suzie Wong whereby Kwan, then aged 21, was gorgeous in at least seven differently coloured cheongsam.

If Lee and Chung had authored their book in the 1960s, they would probably have titled their book ‘The World Of Cheongsam’. Indeed, Lee and Chung titled their book In The Mood For Cheongsam in allusion to 2000 movie In The Mood For Love in which the lead actress Maggie Cheung looked gorgeous in a Cheongsam.

While no longer widely favoured by women, cheongsam continues to flourish as uniforms worn by restaurant hostesses, serving staff at luxury hotels and air stewardesses of mainland Chinese airlines.

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