The Editor slips into the history of an iconic symbol of femininity that once marked a shift from demure to defiant.


     Over several weeks of casual inquiries among random associates, I discovered two things: that it was not easy to find women who were synonymous with the wearing of cheongsam, and that there were, disturbingly, some unpleasant negative connotations associated with women wearing cheongsam.

     The results of my highly-unscientific ‘poll’ aside, it brought into focus the idea that this elegant, iconic apparel, was getting an unfairly bad reputation, when its beginnings were, in fact, scandalous, but for all the right reasons.

     The history and life-cycle of the cheongsam have been beautifully captured in slim volume published by Editions Didier Millet, entitled In the Mood for Cheongsam: A Social History, 1920s – Present, and to a fresh pair of eyes knowing little more than what the garment looks like, it is a delightfully easy-to-digest tome inlaid with stunning visuals. Though the book is written in the social context of Singapore, authors Lee Chor Lin and Chung May Khuen present almost a century’s worth of verbal and visual snapshots of the cheongsam in a fluid, elegantly-fitting form, much like the subject piece itself, and it is just as relatable when they talk of the beginnings of the cheongsam almost as an allegory of the beginnings of Asian women finding a new level of visibility within Asian society.

     A female interpretation of the man’s long robe (changshan), the latter being based on the now defunct Manchu magua, the cheongsam was the female answer for Peking university students when they joined their male counterparts on the streets in May 1919 during the May Fourth Movement. Full-length stockings replaced the trousers, say the authors, just as this new cheongsam replaced the formerly ubiquitous uniform of blouse-and-skirt so favoured since the 1911 revolution that overthrew China’s imperial ruling system.

     While Chinese women found their voice during this time (“on a par with their male counterparts”) and were soaking in both traditional values as well as American and European models of ideals, so followed the need to update their public image. While the momentum of the May Fourth Movement heralded a watershed period of enthusiasm riding on “new hopes and aspirations,” the changsan was welcomed simultaneously not only by Shangai’s high society, socialites and celebrities, but also by prostitutes.

     And with industrial developments such as telephonic cables and steamship travel, Shangai’s influence as a cultural beacon would spread to various Chinese communities further south as far as Singapore. A modern voice shrugging off the dusty whispers of a bygone imperial age, Shangai was the go-to cultural reference point for Chinese culture that was eagerly looking forward to newer times, newer ideas, and newer fashions. The book also details the route of the cheongsam as it made its way into the then-tradition bound lives of the unique communities populated by Straits-born Peranakan women (nyonyas) who were also very much aware of sartorial trends that were sweeping across Europe and China. Though formal occasions demanded traditional nyonyas don Southern Chinese-style costumes, the 20th century showed Peranakan brides photographed in photo studios wearing – what was then – referred to as baju Shanghai (Shanghai dress), a skirt and blouse ensemble.

     As wealthy Peranakan families began to adopt a more urban style of dress while interacting in more frequent formal occasions with visitors from abroad, the changshan had become a widespread choice of formal dress among the Chinese community in SouthEast Asia outside of Shanghai. With the help of Shanghainese and Cantonese-speaking influential Chinese tailors and other members of society in Malaya and Singapore, the cheongsam became more widely known by its Cantonese pronunciation. (In Mandarin, the changshan was known as the qipao, meaning Manchu gown.)

     Pictures from the 1930s show that Peranakan women in their twenties opted for the cheongsam in family portraits, while older female relatives and matriarchs favoured the traditional sarong kebaya. Joining these women were others from non-Peranakan Chinese families, such as wives of middle-class professionals and white-collar working females such as teachers, who became “strong real-life models” bringing the cheongsam to wider public consciousness.

     The cheongsam had figuratively arrived on the scene as being synonymous with newly-independent, beautiful, dynamic and highly-educated women who were, unlike the generations before them, highly visible in public life. These young Chinese adult women, albeit from well-to-do families, now had a slew of personal achievements to their names, such as complete education, professional accomplishments or playing hostess to visiting laureates such as Shaw and Tagore.

     The cheongsam, by the mid-1930s, had transcended its practical, defiant cut as the attire with which to snub imperialist zeitgeist, to become the sartorial symbol of increasing woman power and influence in public spheres. But while some elitist connotation had been attached to the qipao and cheongsam before the Second World War, by the 1950s and 1960s, the dress had become everyday dress for many Chinese women in SouthEast Asia as more women were mobilised into action and incorporated into growing post-war economies of newly-decolonised nations. Remarkably, too, post-war cheongsam, unlike its pre-war predecessor, became more figure-hugging, where excess fabric was replaced with nipped-in waists and darts on the bust to accentuate a woman’s natural assets. By the mid-1960s, the cheongsam had become the management-dictated choice of uniform for employees from banks, airlines and retailers to factories.

     While many sociologists note that fashion often mirrors the changes within society, the perspective of the Chinese tailors during this time was that the cheongsam was a marker of Asian culture, going as far as to suggest that for petite Chinese women, a custom-made qipao or cheongsam was more fitting (in the aesthetic as well as cultural sense) rather than Western-style attire, for ‘petite Chinese women’. Also notable is the fact that the cheongsam has been revived and reinvented into many modern versions of the traditional tailor-made dress (the customized tailoring giving it its ‘exclusive’ feel) but the distinctive mandarin collar remains a differentiating staple.

     And speaking of petite Chinese women, when Malaysian songstress Janet Lee sweeps in to our meeting in a light green cheongsam offset by her long curtain of silky black hair and yellow strappy heels, she is a vision of loveliness. Her easy charm pours forth as she shares, almost confidentially, as if she’s known me for five years as opposed to five minutes, “A friend bought this but gave it to me – six, seven years ago, I think – and I had it altered at Sungei Wang,” she grins. The svelte 35-year-old fashion-lover (“I usually style myself with vintage secondhand accessories”, she adds cheekily) worked as an IT events executive and model booker before she had what she terms a “lightbulb moment and a to-do list” and decided to make fulltime singing her day (and night) job. “I am my own manager now,” she smiles. Her heart was closer to fashion and entertainment, she says, and after having been urged by her best friend in 2005 (“Just dive in headlong, she told me”), and got herself a chorus girl role in a musical – Pygmalion at the KLPAC – soon after. “What I love best is singing,” she enthuses passionately. “Nobody’s getting any younger, and if not now, when?” she says emphatically. Up until two years ago, Lee was performing and singing at weddings and private functions, “and now I do more corporate events and theatre,” she adds. A quick peek at her business card tells you pretty much of the authenticity of her passion, as it says, “I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing.”

     And she is synonymous with wearing various cheongsam when she croons Shanghai jazz to her adoring fans. As we girly-gush over her large personal collection of photos of cheongsam stored on her touchscreen phone, she tells me, “I don’t think I owned a single cheongsam or qipao when I was younger,” she quips suddenly, “but when my girlfriends and I started shopping in flea markets, that was when we discovered these old pieces of cheongsam, and I started to collect them,” she remembers happily. “I have mostly secondhand ones, such as this,” Lee says, gesturing to the green one wrapped around her toned figure, “and I started wearing them when I was in my late twenties.” She admits she is a practical person, and part of the reason she loves picking up cheongsam from flea markets is because, “they look good, and they’re much cheaper. If I want something brand new, I can’t afford it,” she states candidly, “and I wouldn’t know who to go to, to have it tailor-made, and why would I spend 300 times more on the price when I can find something that looks good for less than a hundred Ringgit?” Says the bright-eyed Lee, “When I started taking more bookings to sing Shanghai jazz (jazz music based on popular Mandarin oldies – shidaiqu – from the 1920s to the 1940s ‘Golden Era’ of Shanghai jazz clubs) I actively sought out and looked for these qipao. I never say ‘no’ to a good collection!” she laughs warmly. “I’m attracted to what looks good,” adds Lee readily, “but the qipao, with its figure-hugging shape, has an edge over other traditional Asian dress like sari or kebaya, for me, because it’s more practical, especially when I need to change, as there’s no folding of pleats involved and with some batik kebaya sarong you have to have a corset ready. If you have a good tailor and you know what flatters your body shape, any woman can look good in a cheongsam.”