Published: 14:13, April 2, 2024 | Updated: 17:00, April 2, 2024
Classic clothing hurrayed in Hong Kong
By ​Atlas Shao in Hong Kong

Traditional Chinese garments gaining appeal, recognition at international hub where East meets West

Li Na (right) wears hanfu while holding the national flag with her friend at a variety show in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong returning to the motherland on 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

A birthday surprise is not easy to come by for 90-year-old Wong, having lived through the majority of the length and breadth of human experience, but dressing up in traditional Chinese hanfu this year came as a welcome treat.

For a group birthday party this year, Wong and her friends decided to dress up in the ancient Chinese attire, don elegant makeup, and get their photos taken.

It's remarkable what a bit of dress-up can do to liven up a party, with almost all guests making a point of saying they would like to do it again with their grandchildren and other friends and relatives.

Li Na, vice-chairwoman of the Chinese Culture and Hong Kong Hanfu Association, one of the event's organizers, said this response was typical.

She told China Daily that hanfu is gaining an increasing following in Hong Kong among people of different age groups, and that her association is growing by the day.

"At first, we only had a dozen or so pieces of hanfu, and our members would just need to keep them at home and take them out when needed. Now, we have over 100 pieces and need to rent a warehouse for storage," she said.

Li said joining the association over three years ago changed her life.

After finishing her day job as an office worker, Li, driven by a passion for ancient Chinese history and culture, became committed to promoting and organizing hanfu-related activities.

"The promotion of hanfu has become easier than before. With exposure growing on social media platforms, more and more people are interested and willing to learn about it," Li said.

The association constantly receives inquiries about events and invitations to collaborate from different sectors, she said.

Interest has been increased through a variety of different interactive events such as trying on hanfu and making hanfu accessories, which are held in Hong Kong as many as three times a month.

Li wears hanfu and Tang Dynasty (618-907) makeup while modeling for a class on beauty in ancient times. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Gaining traction

Lin Zhihui, a fellow from the Department of Chinese History and Culture at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, teaches ancient clothing-themed courses and once served as a judge in a hanfu modeling competition. She agreed there is a trend that young people are more willing to take part in hanfu activities or wear hanfu to attend special occasions.

"When the hanfu modeling competition was held at Lok Fu Place (a mall in central Kowloon) in 2023, every floor was filled with people looking on," Lin said.

She said people are more willing to express themselves and wear hanfu, and even incorporate it with modern dress such as by wearing a blouse on top. These changes allow people to wear hanfu on more occasions in their daily lives.

As for the influence these changes may have on hanfu's characteristics, Lin said the tradition itself is changeable, flexible and inclusive. As hanfu can be made more practical in modern society, it may encourage more people to try and learn more about it, thus helping promote the traditional attire in the mainstream, she said.

Han Yike, 23, who works in education, fell in love with hanfu six years ago, and said she always wears hanfu at traditional festivals or major events.

"The beauty of hanfu goes beyond its gorgeous appearance; it's unique and elegant," she said.

Li poses at a traditional horticultural garden. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Chinese style

Hanfu joins another form of traditional dress in Hong Kong that has long been preserved in the city — cheongsam, or qipao in Mandarin Chinese.

The sewing techniques used in Hong Kong-style cheongsam were included among 20 items inscribed into the city's first-ever representative list of intangible cultural heritage in 2017. It was later included on the national list in 2021.

Haze Ng Kwok-hei, a committee member of the Hong Kong Cheongsam Association, told China Daily that Hong Kong is the best place in the world for preserving and passing on the art of cheongsam. Ng said in the 1950s, a large group of skilled tailors from Shanghai moved to Hong Kong, fueling the development of the city's tailoring industry.

Cheongsam has appeared in several acclaimed Hong Kong films, including In the Mood for Love in 2000, starring Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung Man-yuk.

The glory days of the Hong Kong film industry have also served as a springboard, thrusting traditional attire representing Chinese culture into the international arena.

Hanfu lovers browse for snacks at a fair celebrating Spring Festival in Hong Kong on Feb 4, 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Technology and tradition

Despite flutters with the silver screen, the traditional techniques used to make cheongsam are being passed down to fewer and fewer people these days, due in part to modern technology and the fact the skills often take from three to seven years to master.

According to Ng, many cheongsam products on the market share only a similar shape to the authentic traditional dress.

For example, Ng said, a standard female cheongsam should have at least three things — a standing collar, be folded left over right, and two side slits.

"There is no zipper on the back of a traditional cheongsam, but most of the ones sold on the market today have back zippers," she said.

Although authentic cheongsam cannot be mass-produced, Ng said that Hong Kong's mature garment technology can still help promote and popularize it so that the public can understand more about the traditional garment.

Ng added there is no conflict between tradition and modernity.

In the production of modern cheongsam, some new garment techniques include 3D printing, laser engraving and digital jacquard.

There are also more innovative fabric choices for making cheongsam available such as gambiered Guangdong gauze, corduroy and suit fabric. Ng said computer-aided pattern generation and digital jacquard weaving technology have been applied to reinvent men's cheongsam. By using the computer to draw the pattern, designers can overlay it onto the template and the computer can automatically align the pattern at the front, middle and back seams, saving twice as much fabric in the production process.

Hanfu lovers participate in a celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong on Sept 29, 2023. (PHOTO / CHINA NEWS SERVICE)

Joanne Lau Yee-kwan, a senior lecturer of the Department of Fashion and Image Design at the Hong Kong Design Institute, told China Daily that there are a growing number of textile technologies and modern fashion elements being applied to traditional Chinese attire. For instance, 3D printing can be used to create complex patterns and effects, and even be applied to buttons and lace embellishments.

Additionally, textile materials that are antibacterial, stain-resistant or self-cleaning can enhance the functionality and durability of clothes. Modern fashion elements such as innovative deconstructive tailoring and environmentally friendly design approaches can be employed to revitalize hanfu, making it more suitable for the needs and tastes of contemporary people and more accessible to the general public, she said.

The acceptance of hanfu hit another level when the city's culture, sports and tourism chief Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, dressed in it to promote the city's tourism with two other officials in a video last year.

In Lin's opinion, Hong Kong, as an East-meets-West city, has an inherent advantage in promoting traditional Chinese clothing, as it attracts people from all over the world.

Echoing Lin, Li believes the acceptance of hanfu is on the rise in Hong Kong.

"In the past, when we wore hanfu on the street, others always cast a strange look and even mistook it for Japanese or Korean clothing. However, now, many people will compliment us and proactively ask if it is hanfu," said Li, believing that people's recognition of traditional Chinese attire will continue to grow.