Fashioning a revival of ancient Chinese attire

Fashioning a revival of ancient Chinese attire
Far right: Ms Ni (seated), Ms Gong (centre) and Ms Zhang posing for photographs, which Ms Gong later shares on social media. Ms Ni is wearing a Ming-style Hanfu with an elaborate gold weave and Mongolian influences, such as a collar and metal buttons. Ms Zhang is in a Tang Dynasty style Hanfu, which is characterised by loose, long fabric in elaborate colours.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The qipao is often said to be the epitome of elegant Chinese dressing, but it is actually the traditional clothing of the Manchus, a minority group that conquered China and ruled it for more than 250 years under the Qing Dynasty.

Instead, the Han Chinese, who form the largest ethnic group in China, and from whom most Singaporean Chinese have descended, had their own traditional clothing, called Hanfu.

Now, a group of Singaporeans are making it a tradition to put on Hanfu for special occasions, to promote Han Chinese culture.

The Singapore Han Cultural Society was formed in 2012 to create awareness of pre-Manchurian Han culture. It organises gatherings for members and takes part - quite conspicuously - in cultural activities and community events.

Its 32 members are encouraged to wear the Hanfu when they meet - even over lunch at restaurants or for karaoke sessions - to promote awareness of this traditional clothing, in the hopes that one day, it may be as well known as the qipao.

The Hanfu consists of a two-piece upper and lower garment with diagonally crossing collars. It has long and loose sleeves, and concealed buttons. Belts and sashes complete the look.

This was the traditional dress of the Han Chinese for more than 2,000 years before 1644. It was banned by the Manchus after they conquered the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and founded the Qing Dynasty in 1644.

The society's acting president, Mr Michael Jow, 41, carries around a suitcase full of Hanfu for newcomers to try. He said: "Some people think that we are cosplayers or actors in a drama."

Society members, including acting president Michael Jow (far left), 41, honouring Singapore’s forefathers – clasping their hands together before making three bows to the national flag – at an event to mark the Winter Solstice, a festival for thanksgiving and reunion before the arrival of winter.Photo: The Straits Times

He hopes that people will eventually accept the Hanfu as traditional Chinese clothing, "so that they do not feel strange wearing it".

He may have a point about its unfamiliarity. Public servant Gong Pan Pan, 30, wears Hanfu to the office on Fridays when the office dress code is more relaxed. A commuter on the bus once asked if she was Korean.

Ms Gong's desire to "pursue the authentic, quintessential look of each era in Chinese history" has spurred her to acquire about 30 items of clothing that span several dynasties.

She buys them from China, as they are hard to come by here, and has spent about $6,000 so far on Hanfu and accessories.

Public servant Gong Pan Pan (far right), 30, helps student Zhang Duojia (seated), 19, with her make-up and outfit as student Ni Chen Xi, 19, watches. Ms Gong regularly invites friends to her home for Hanfu dress-up sessions. They refer to books and the Internet for make-up details of a specific dynasty. Ms Gong is wearing a Song Dynasty-style Hanfu, known for its simplicity compared with Hanfu from other dynasties. Ms Ni’s Ming Dynasty-style Hanfu has elaborate patterns – originally woven but now embroidered – on a winter overcoat.Photo: The Straits Times

Ms Gong, who was born in China, has lived here since she was seven. She is now a Singapore citizen and is married to a Singaporean. She said: "Learning about Hanfu opened up a whole new world of Chinese culture, the history, the influences and the diversity."

She has regular dress-up sessions at her home with friends, and shares the pictures on social media.

The first time Mr Pang Chin Chong, 33, who works as a purchaser, put on a Hanfu - borrowed from Mr Jow - was to a company Christmas event. But wearing the Hanfu has become more than a one-time novelty for the new member of the society. The Malaysian, who is a Singapore permanent resident, intends to buy a few pieces to wear on festive occasions.

Mr Pang Chin Chong, 33, and members of the Singapore Han Cultural Society draw curious stares as they walk in Chinatown during a pre-Chinese New Year gathering. Many onlookers think they are Chinese drama actors. Society members gather once a month – for community events or for meals and tea sessions at restaurants. They are kept informed of the activities via Facebook.Photo: The Straits Times

Mr Pang, who is single, was educated in Chinese until the age of 12, and then in Malay and English. He said: "I am keen to learn more about ancient Chinese culture and tradition, and the Hanfu is just part of the culture."

seahkp@sph.com.sg

VIDEO

Watch Ms Gong Pan Pan talk about her love for Hanfu


This article was first published on Feb 6, 2017.
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