By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A mid-autumn party invitation arrived. It stated, “Dress Code: Chinese Style Preferred.” While some female guests are dying for the opportunity, I am just the opposite.
Sure, I have some nice Chinese outfits, but do I really care to wear them to expose my fat waist? The traditional Chinese female dress, cheongsam as they are called in Cantonese, qipao in Mandarin, is fitted to the body. I cannot indulge in excessive eating with a tight dress. And oh, I need to wear heels, put on makeup, and get myself a pretty handbag to match the gown. Do I want to project my image as a model or publisher?
Like mother like daughter?
When I attend events, I want to eat, especially fine food. But a bloated belly would hurt my pride. It instantly reminds me of my late mother. Everyone raved about how beautiful she looked with the cheongsam. But behind the scenes, it was torture.
She would try to fit into a Chinese gown not by dieting, but by using a girdle with grandma’s help. It was agonizing to watch grandma trying to push my mother’s waist into the girdle and then pulling the girdle strings hard so she could squeeze into the cheongsam. Those were awful memories. My relatives remember mom’s vanity and wonder why I don’t wear a girdle. Logical thinking, like mother, like daughter?
Don’t get me wrong, I admire my mother’s beauty and style, but never her unrealistic view of it—all physical, nothing internal—never about kindness, generosity, courage, tenacity, and hard work. In retrospect, I now understand the cause of her constant lower back pain.
Where Chinese immigrants get their traditional outfits
Many Chinese women, including me, wear cheongsam only for big occasions like my son’s wedding last year. Where did I get it? Hong Kong, where I was raised. Chinese immigrants would go back to Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan to get their traditional clothes made for special occasions, at a fraction of the original price. The savings cover even the cost of a plane ticket. Now, there are skilled immigrant tailors in Seattle, who can sew Chinese dresses.
My mom would have loved to share in the joy of shopping with me for my son’s wedding. It was sad she couldn’t as she was in the hospital. My aunt took me to a retail district specializing in bridalwear in Kowloon. Shops supply not only for brides and grooms, but bridesmaids, groomsmen, in-laws, and other family members. From clothes to shoes, handbags to jewelry, decorations to tea sets for the traditional Chinese and Western wedding ceremonies, you name it, the shops sell them all.
I bought one used green sequined cheongsam. It‘s the only dress with that color and style in the shop. It was amazing what the shop did. The tailor unstitched and altered the whole dress to fit me in three days. The price was slightly under $500. Had I gone to China, it would be half the price for a brand new dress. Here is the irony: How many times would I wear it? Probably, once. When my other son gets married, I most likely will get a new cheongsam made for his wedding.
In name, my old Chinese dresses were made in Hong Kong. In reality, several were made in China as shop owners sent my measurements back to China for cheaper labor and materials. The collaboration between Hong Kong and Chinese merchants across the border town, Shenzhen, has worked well over the years. However, the current protests in Hong Kong would have disrupted commerce between the two sides, affecting many small businesses who rely on the system for their livelihood.
Modern vs. traditional Chinese style
The traditional female Chinese dress is to show off a woman’s sexy and elegant figure.
Thank God the traditional Chinese female dress has been modernized and beautifully transformed in China and Taiwan decades ago. The modern-style Chinese dress reflects creativity. Foreigners and movie stars like to wear them.
Instead of a tight waist, the modern-style cheongsam is straight without a waistline. The once tight collar, which made my neck stiff, is now shortened and loose. The old dress also made the rear end stand out. Now, the new style can be loose and straight all the way at the back. A bad figure would instantly be camouflaged. The former slits on both sides of the cheongsam can be eliminated, depending on the individual’s preference. When the slits are higher up from the waist, the cheongsam becomes the Vietnamese traditional dress called ao dai.
There are similarities between Chinese and Vietnamese female dresses. It also means liberation for us Chinese women because the Chinese dress can be made into two pieces—a top and pants.
Why I keep Chinese dresses without wearing them
I love those Chinese pant suits where I can move freely. I have a couple of two-piece ensembles in my closet. In all, I guess I have 11 Chinese outfits.
The sad part is, I haven’t worn them for the past five years, and most for more than a decade. Why do I leave them hanging cold and lonely in my closet? Am I silly or what?
The truth is, like most, I have not been honest with myself that those beautiful cheongsams no longer fit me, nor do they suit my current style and age. Another reason I have abandoned the Chinese dress is because I have to work during events, reporting and photographing. Can you imagine carrying a camera and notepad, working on a story in a splendid silk cheongsam? Heels have to go with the cheongsam. I hate high heels. And a nice handbag has to match a fancy outfit. I am not a shoe or bag person.
On many occasions, I have to be on my feet and run to get the best shot. Sacrificing my appearance for my career has been a normal part of my life. I learned a long time ago that I can’t have both. It takes a lot of time to dress up. I found out that wearing a pantsuit at events is so much more efficient, professional, and comfortable than wearing a knockout dress.
One odd thing about us women, studies have found that we don’t wear 80 percent of the clothes we buy. Yep, we wear only 20 percent of our clothes. Call us crazy women, and I would disagree because my husband has the same problem. His closet is filled with a variety of clothes. But he keeps wearing the same ones day in and day out and then complains that he needs to buy more.
Someone might accuse us of accumulating needlessly. No worries, we have plenty of space as we are empty nesters.
Here is the question: What do you do with the clothes you love, but don’t wear? What do you do with expensive clothes, which you have not used, but you don’t want to throw out? I can’t bring myself to take them to Goodwill.
For nostalgic reasons, I look at my Chinese dresses once in a while, reminiscing about the good old days. When the creativity bug bit me, I redesigned one cheongsam into a cover coat. There was one cheongsam that was so tight, I cut it up and turned it into a long shawl.
Why ruin a beautiful dress when another woman can wear it? It’s really better to donate to Goodwill. But no, I still want to hold on a little longer. Usually, I am a decisive person.
Ironically, those cheongsams make me wishy washy—perhaps, for another five years. By then, I might turn all those cheongsams into something useful. Who wants old cheongsams anyway?
Confession: I finally took an inventory of my Chinese dresses: I have 16 in total, not 11. I have a revelation. Those dresses actually mark the history, transitions, and challenges of my life. My mom selected most of the materials and style for my cheongsams. Those were happy memories with my mom, and I wouldn’t trade them with anything.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.