‘Preserving dying techniques’: Inheritance of cheongsam in Markham needs joint efforts

Cheongsam, also known as Qipao, is considered the epitome of Chinese fashion. The elegant tailor-made dress was developed in the 1920s and became fashionable in cities open to foreign trade like Shanghai and Hong Kong.

In Markham, a city with a large proportion of descendants of immigrants from Hong Kong and Shanghai, there are now few old craftsmen who specialize in making cheongsam by hand, although many people still want to wear one for major occasions such as Chinese New Year and weddings.

An avid cheongsam lover, Richmond Hill’s Jenny Wong owns more than 400 one-of-a-kind handmade custom cheongsams. Throughout the year, she always wears a gorgeous qipao, whether she is relaxing at home or going out for work.

“I’ve gotten used to wearing it every day,” said the walking cheongsam icon in GTA, describing it’s easy to get gold, but hard to find a good tailor in Markham.

“I feel anxious sometimes when I get really good textiles,” because she couldn’t find a satisfactory cheongsam tailor here, Wong had to travel thousands of miles with the fabrics and have them made in Hong Kong, and then bring them back.

Repulse Bay Tailors is one of the few handcrafted cheongsam tailor shops in Markham. Two legendary tailors, Tommy Sung and his wife Connie Sung, have been working in their basement workshop for nearly 30 years.

It usually takes the couple two weeks to two months to customize a cheongsam, with at least two fittings in between before it is finally presented to the client. From measuring to cutting and trimming to buttoning, “the whole process is cumbersome and time-consuming, so it's expensive,” Tommy said frankly.

The market demand is decreasing with only a few orders a whole year, he adds on, “who wants to go into this business if it can't support their families?”

In 2016, Tommy and Connie started to consider retirement and thought about finding a successor to their business, but it’s not easy to pass it on as even their two sons are not interested in it.

If someone comes to apprentice, Tommy said that he would definitely teach him or her everything without reservation as cheongsam carries Chinese culture, and the most importantly, he doesn’t want to be the last generation of tailors.

In the past two years, Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Toronto has hosted Cheongsam Exhibition and Beyond Borders Exhibition to promote cheongsam.

“The sewing techniques of cheongsam is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Intangible Cultural Heritage,” comments Emily Mo, the Director of the HKETO, “and the exhibitions were organized to look at the history of this traditional yet fashionable garment as well as its cultural importance.”

John Leung, director of Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto, suggests that local cultural and community organizations to make more efforts to breathe new life into the old technique by initialing a cheongsam design competition, hosting a fashion show and inviting master craftsmen from Shanghai and Hong Kong to give lectures locally.

Events like design competitions would give young designers an opportunity to understand, learn and love this kind of clothing, Leung further elaborates, ultimately integrate the traditional cultural elements into modern design and make cheongsam dynamic, resilient, and transformative, which fits not only the special occasions but also daily lives.

In Leung’s opinion, Markham as one of the most diverse communities in Canada, has its advantage, with a huge Asian population, potential customers and master craftsmen, as well as cutting-edge Western art and aesthetic concepts. “It is perfectly possible to make this vibrant city a blending point of Chinese and Western cultures,” he said.

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Reporter Scarlett Liu looked into the current cheongsam market in Markham and explored the possibility of its future inheritance and development.

Scarlett Liu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Economist & Sun