A perfect fit

A perfect fit

School dropout is passionate about promoting the traditional Chinese qipao

May 26, 2011
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Helius Yuen is an ardent 'qipao' collector whose grandmother's photo inspired him to pursue the hobby.
Helius Yuen is an ardent 'qipao' collector whose grandmother's photo inspired him to pursue the hobby.
Photos: May Tse
He showed up in class only once every two weeks and dropped out in Form Two. He used to be a bully and a marijuana addict, and made a living as a salesman and working in restaurants and kitchens.

But five years ago, he decided enough was enough. The dull life of toiling in a kitchen was stifling. "Never again would I want to work like a brainless machine every day," he says. "I know I can do much better. I just want to do something I want in life."

Helius Yuen Kin-wai is now a design student at the Caritas Bianchi College of Careers - and a qipao know-it-all.

The qipao, or cheongsam, is a body-hugging Chinese dress that originated from the Manchu people. The one-piece silk dress is characterised by a high neck and meticulous embroidery.

For the first time, Yuen is showing off to the public some of the 600 qipao in his collection, gathered from friends and piles of garbage.

The hobby was inspired by his grandmother, now 80. A photo shows the working-class woman in the traditional qipao. "I can hardly recognise her. She just looks gorgeous," the 26-year-old recalls, speaking behind big black-rimmed glasses. "It's unbelievable that the qipao has such a transforming power."

Yuen was keen to learn more about the dress. "In the 1940s, only the rich in Shanghai wore exquisite qipao to show off their social status ... The poor people had almost no chance."

In the 50s, political instability on the mainland drove many qipao masters to Hong Kong, where the dress gained popularity among the grass roots. Working-class women in the city learned to sew it by hand using cheaper materials.

They wore qipao even when shopping at a wet market, he says. "Wearing the qipao shows respect for the master's skills and design, from choosing the piece of cloth to sewing it into a tailor-made outfit."

Yuen's idle life is far behind him. He now spends his spare time scouting everywhere from the old streets of Sham Shui Po to rubbish collection centres for qipao. Sheung Wan's Lascar Row, or Cat Street, known for its antique shops, is a favourite hangout.

It sometimes amazing where qipao might turn up. A photo he had bought in Cat Street was published in a magazine and a woman recognised it as her own. She then donated two valuable qipao to Yuen's collection.

Handling more than 600 qipao isn't easy. Yuen not only sets aside a room for his treasures, he puts them out in the sun every month to let them "breathe" and avoid damage caused by humidity. He also plans to turn a village house into a studio to display more qipao.

"It's a pity Hong Kong doesn't have its own fashion. Not one fashion label can make it to the top 10 brands here," says the budding designer, who aims to establish his own fashion brand. "The qipao ... will be my inspiration."

Yuen is displaying 27 qipao at Tsuen Wan Plaza from 10am to 10pm until Sunday. The collection includes a dress made of silver and golden silk, worth the price of a car.



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