Category Archives: Exhibitions

Mid-Autumn Festival Hong Kong: It’s a marvellous night for a mooncake

Mid-Autumn Festival may just be one of my favourite festivals in Hong Kong because just about everywhere makes the effort to look pretty. Admittedly, all it takes is a few paper lanterns scattered about, but at night time especially, it looks charming and uniquely Chinese.

Also know as Moon Festival, it’s held on the 15th day of the 8th month (of the lunar calendar, so roughly late September) when the moon is supposed to be at its brightest. There are many variants of the legend behind the festival, but I’ll tell you (in the best Chinese tradition!) the one that my mum told me.

A long long time ago, there used to be ten suns in the sky, which burnt away terribly at the Earth. The emperor commanded the most skilled archer in all the land, Hou Yi, to shoot down all but one of the suns – which he did, leaving us with the one sun we have today. As a reward, he was given a magic potion that would grant him eternal life and he hid it away at home. According to my mum’s version, Hou Yi became a tyrant, corrupted by power and ambition; on seeing this, his beautiful wife, Seung Orr, decided to eat the pill herself to prevent him from living forever (other versions have the wife finding and eating the pill accidentally). Upon eating the pill, she found herself becoming lighter and lighter and she began to float. Eventually, she floated out of the window, up into the sky and onto the moon where she lives today. She also has her rabbit with her, who you can sometimes see outlined on the moon.

If you’re a virgin to Moon Festival, there are only two things you need to know – lanterns and mooncake! Seung Orr adorns many a mooncake box and the traditional cakes are made with a yellow duck egg inside, representing the moon. Nowadays, there are all kinds of modern takes on the mooncake, including chocolate, mango, green tea or even ‘snowy’ ice-cream ones. We bought one that was shaped like a pig! It came in a miniature version of the traditional basket that real pigs used to be carried to market in the olden days and I love how he even has a little curly tail. Alas, he had to be decapitated and eaten – the filling was green bean paste – and my auntie said he looked a lot nicer than he tasted!

Lanterns are lit to accentuate the brightness of the moon and on the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival itself, paper ones are lit and floated off to the moon. This year, one managed to land on an MTR train, sparking a small fire, panic, evacuations, delays and talk of regulating lanterns more closely next year. As with mooncakes, lanterns have evolved with the times and you can get them in practically any shape, size or colour you desire, with inflatable musical cartoon character versions proving particularly popular with youngsters (so if it’s late September and you’re hearing a tinny tune in the dim and distant, it’s probably a toddler holding a blow-up Doaremon).

We went to the special market in Tsing Yi’s Maritime Square Mall, which is basically your one-stop Mid-Autumn shop. As you can see, the lantern stall was a riot of colour! We bought two ($35 each) – a pretty lotus flower and a gorgeous goldfish. You can see them in action in our flat below!

However, these are mere small fry compared to the lanterns that the government has built to mark the occasion. For all of Mid-Autumn weekend, Victoria Park in Causeway Bay is transformed into a luminous lantern extravaganza. It costs a small fortune but hey, who cares when it looks this spectacular?!

Check out my posts on more beautiful Mid-Autumn lanterns in Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong here and here

The Evergreen Classic: Transformation of the Qipao @ HK Museum of History review

Warning: picture-heavy post!

So eager was I to see Hong Kong Museum of History’s exhibition about the qipao (also known as cheongsam), my boyfriend and I showed up a month early and trotted along to the special exhibition hall on the ground floor – only to discover a display about some ancient Chinese tribe instead. Yawn. Whilst my history geek boyfriend was delighted that we got to spend a lazy day in the regular exhibition (The Hong Kong Story – review of that here), it gave us a chance to scope out the space that the qipao would be shown in – and we weren’t impressed. It seemed small, cramped and my boyfriend predicted that we’d be in and out within an hour. How wrong he was!

Having managed to turn up in the right month, The Evergreen Classic: The Transformation of the Qipao proved to be a stunning surprise. I had worried that it would pale in comparison with the wonderful couture exhibition (loaned from The V&A) at The Heritage Museum last year; in some ways, it managed to be better. Some 280 qipao, of all shapes, sizes, colours and textures were displayed (apparently, some with waists so tiny that custom-made mannequins had to be ordered in!), with the exhibition flowing along nicely as it detailed the evolution of the qipao from its origins in the 17th century to the modern designs we’re now more familiar with – and, despite the amount of dresses, as well as information boards, 400 pictures and videos, it didn’t feel cluttered, cramped or messy. The best part – you could really get up close to the dresses (only the oldest were displayed behind glass), marvel at the exquisite detailing and take lots and lots and lots of photos! All things you couldn’t do at the couture exhibition, in case you’re wondering.

Look but don’t touch!

So what did we learn? The qipao originated amongst the Manchu nobility of the Qing Dynasty in China, where they were long, wide and loose. Looking oddly unisex in appearance, with only fingers and the tips of the toes visible, it wasn’t exactly flattering to the female form! Even so, the detailing, embroidery and vivid colours and patterns are beautiful today, hundreds of years later.

Gradually, the form moved with the times – the dress became shorter, the fit became tighter, the famous Mandarin-style collars got higher, short bell sleeves became popular and slits were introduced to make walking easier (and show off some skin!).

Between the 1920s and 1960s, various elements came and went according to fashion – long or short skirts, plain or patterned, revealing slits, one or two pieces (like a tailored suit), being worn with Western-style fur capes or cardigans – all these trends came and went depending on whatever was “in” at the time. As with everything great and good in the world, the Chinese communists attempted to ban it – it’s figure-hugging form doubtlessly decreed too sexy for their austere tastes.

As women entered the workforce and discovered the need for more practical clothing, the tight-fitting qipao fell out of favour, making way for comfortable outfits from the West, although it survived as everyday dress in Hong Kong for a little longer, until the 1970s. Nowadays, the cheongsam is mostly famous as a national dress, worn by Asian beauty contestants, waitresses in Chinese restaurants, students at old-fashioned schools and Oriental stereotypes in movies. However, elements of design still live on in many modern garments and contemporary designers constantly play about with the form to create new, inventive takes on the qipao – with the Museum of History commissioning Hong Kong Polytechnic’s Institute of Textiles and Clothing to create some pieces for the show.

As you can see, I have dealt with the history of the qipao in a few short paragraphs and although the information boards provide a running commentary, the dresses practically speak for themselves. Because there is such little relevant information, reading these boards quickly becomes repetitive and boring, especially towards the end where there’s only so much you can write about a waitress’ uniform or a Miss Hong Kong costume. But skip these at your peril – they often include fascinating photographs, whether of the strange Manchu people with their hair piled high in some precursor to Princess Leia or more contemporary images, showing glamorous Chinese women in qipao with film-starlet hair and art-deco styling.

I was also disappointed that the exhibition failed to make much of the qipao’s strong showing in films. In the 1960s, The World of Suzie Wong and its qipao-clad star Nancy Kwan made a strong cultural impact, making the cheongsam fashionable amongst Westerners – the name Suzie Wong is still a cultural checkpoint today. More recently, in Wong Kar-Wai’s multi award-winning In The Mood For Love, Maggie Cheung wears a different custom-made cheongsam in each scene (46 in total). It’s not just for beauty’s sake either – the outfits deliberately play into Kar-Wai’s sensual evocation of mood and time, whilst the constricting nature of the cheongsam is symbolic of the theme of the moral and social restrictions placed upon the characters. It would have been nice if The Evergreen Classic had acknowledged the impact of these films on the qipao and its place in the Western mindset, with stills and video clips even if they couldn’t get hold of the costumes themselves.

But these are minor quibbles – seeing the qipao up close, in all their glorious intricate detail, is just breathtaking. You can see the fragility of the fabrics, how the striking embroidered buttons often mirror an element of the pattern, the individual stitches on the sleeves. Amazing stuff. I guess the average person, owing to their exposure to the cheongsam in its more traditional forms, views the qipao as a timeless classic yet it’s fun to see how it adopted the fads and trends of the time – especially in the 60s and 70s, where some of the garish patterns are just as headachingly horrid as they are on Western clothes!

I also loved the modern constructions near the end (like the one shown earlier being fingered by a visitor), although some of these felt like advertorials for their designers.  The ones above were some of those designed by PolyU – the one on the left reminds me of something Vivienne Westwood would design (cutesy gingham print combined with the rock edge given by the back detail) whilst the ones on the right, entitled ‘Deconstruction of the Qipao’, look fit for Xena: Warrior Princess! I love how the designer has taken elements of the qipao, like the collar or the typical floral embroidery, and transformed into something totally new and modern. It would be amazing to see these kind of dresses on the red carpet, whether on Chinese or Western stars, or as stage outfits for some of the more outlandish performers out there (need I mention Gaga?!) – the quality, workmanship and sheer show-stopping quality of these outfits had needs to be seen to be believed.

Only one question remains – why oh why hasn’t a catalogue been produced? And, since it ends on 13 September, why oh why haven’t you been there yet?! [Although a lot of the pieces are on loan from real people, I’m hoping a more permanent form of this exhibition eventually makes it to The Heritage Museum – you’d best be reading LCSD!] For just $10 (and that includes the main exhibition as well), it’s a must for anyone who basically appreciates nice stuff. My boyfriend’s not into fashion at all (as his wardrobe attests, ho ho) but even he seemed to enjoy it. Go forth and qipao! And if it’s too late… here’s a few dozen of my best photos to make up for it (click for enlargements).

P.S. My favourites were from the 1950s and 60s, so there may be a slight bias. Apologies, fans of ye olde qipao.

Collar detail on some of the older qipao

Love how glam these Shangainese girls look – traditional clothes but hair and make-up that would make any 1930s Hollywood starlet proud. And check out those cheeky side-slits!

Both red (it’s our lucky colour after all) but look at the contrast between old and new – from loose to fitted,via tailored business suit and seemingly Art-Deco print.

These were my favourite qipao of the exhibition; they belonged to 1950s’ HK film star, Lin Dai. The photo does not do the black cheongsam in the first picture justice – up close, you can see the lace embroidery overlay and its a subtly elegantly sexy effect. The design and prints of these are so clean and simple that they still look amazing today.

Put your sunglasses on! As I mentioned, some of the prints are very ‘of their time’ i.e. hideous now (ok, the blue florals aren’t too bad – they just look like china and give me a bit of a headache). But the detail is still gorgeous up-close.

No such prints on the school uniforms! Apparently, a lot of students who have these uniforms complain vociferously about it – and once you’ve had a tight Mandarin collar round your neck in a typical HK summer, you’ll understand why!

Close-ups of the button clasps used at the collar.

I love these photos. They ‘capture a moment’ – a time when the cheongsam was everyday wear in HK.

I guess these are the simpler kind of qipao you could imagine for everyday wear – but even then, the lace embroidery is still so beautiful and complex up close. I’d be constantly worried about damaging them at work!

I’m a big fan of fashion sketches and found these fascinating – they’ve been drawn in that typical 50s’ style and show how the Chinese woman could Western up her outfit with a cardigan, fur wrap or jacket. It’s really unusual to see obviously Asian women being drawn in fashion sketches as well, rather than just a generic silhouette.

From just looking at these, you’d say 1970s right?! The frilly sleeves on the left are a new detail and the one on the right reminds of the classic Missoni print and colours, matched with the green contour lines, which are reminiscent of the whole Christopher Kane body-con thing that is happening now.

I imagine the ones on the left are more for evening wear – the midnight blue one with the sprig of glittery embellishment just looks so sleek and modern, it’s unbelievable it was made decades ago! I liked the one on the right just because the print was so subtle (squint hard to see it!) yet really lovely, fresh and youthful.

I’m also a fan of these retro drawings of stylish qipao-clad ladies that were often used in advertising in the 1930s (famous now for featuring on the Two Girls line of toiletries and cosmetics products). It’s something that the HK Museum of History has capitalised on with this very clever series of adverts, showing these traditional drawings alongside modern qipao, which look very like the ones in the pictures, that are part of the exhibit.

The dress on the left was worn by Michelle Yeoh at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival – a beautiful, fluid, elegant take on the qipao (love how the lines of colours emphasise the shape of the body). The middle one was worn by HK film star Josephine Siao in the 1970s – the traditional embroidered borders were taken from her mother’s collection from the 1930s! And I just liked the watercolour-style print of the one on the right, ok?!

Occasion-wear qipao! The one on the right was worn by hostesses at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony (red and gold, classic combination!). I believe the one on the left was Siao’s wedding dress – it’s interesting that the typical qipao details are not on the dress itself but on the cape thing over it – and the cute flower appliques on the (bridesmaid’s?) dress are so pretty!

The qipao worn by Miss Hong Kong 1977, Loletta Chu. Beautiful unusual colour and floral design – definitely a stand-out at the exhibition.

This is where it gets fun, as modern designers try and put contemporary twists on the qipao whilst remaining true to the design. I think these were stage costumes for one of HK pop queen, Anita Mui’s, concerts. That cape design on the far left is so gorgeous and wintry feeling, the floral design of the second one is composed of thousands of beads (probably pain-stakingly sewn on by hand!) and the leaf detail on the other one is actually rather risque – it’s see-through! The one on the far right, again with some transparent details, is designed by Blanc de Chine and the rest may well be too but I can’t remember.

More modern qipaos, with some close-ups of the stunning details (far right is of the train of one of the dresses). I think these would make amazing wedding dresses.

And after all those photos, I hope your brower’s still working!

The Evergreen Classic: The Transformation of the Qipao is on at the Special Exhibition Gallery (on the ground floor), Hong Kong Museum of History, 23 June-13 September, 2010, $10 per person. 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, 2724 9402.

Exhibition pamphlet available here.

All photos taken by me or from the museum’s website.

After the exhibition has finished, you may be able to find some of the qipao either in the museum’s regular exhibition or at The Heritage Museum in Shatin.

Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence – Escape to Waichow Exhibition: I’m talking bout a whole lotta history…

Boys will be boys…

One of the downsides of having a boyfriend with a history degree is that he is prone to parroting “interesting” history facts whenever we’re out and about town (to be fair, I do the same with Disney trivia and Girls Aloud lyrics, so I shouldn’t complain). Having put off a trip to the dryly-named Museum of Coastal Defence for practically as long as we’ve been going out, I finally capitulated last week.

Someone in HK’s marketing department is clearly missing a trick, as the place would much better (if not entirely politically correctly) be named Hong Kong’s Wartime museum, hence instantly snagging an instant demographic of 7-14 year old boys (or just boys in general… the two twentysomethings I went with loved it). Built around Lei Yue Mun fortifications, the museum details how Hong Kong has defended itself from various attacks, invaders and general baddies over the years. It’s a little short on actual exhibits because the exhibition is the place itself; get your walking boots on if you plan on exploring every caponier, ditch, underground magazine, battery, gun, jeep, cannon and ruined wall with visible bullet holes in. (The torpedo station is well worth a look though and the views, as seen below, over Lei Yue Mun and across the harbour are stunning).

What did strike me is that, despite HK’s frequent attempts to make itself ever newer and shinier (as evidenced by the many front page stories of the government trying to tear down historical buildings), history really is all around. The museum details the remains and ruins of all the other fortifications around Hong Kong that are around if you care to look. OK, it’s not the palaces, country houses and spectacular cathedrals that Britain excels at and exist even in some of the sleepiest of villages but seeing and touching the bullet holes in that wall still sent a shiver down my spine. A 19th century hand-drawn map of Hong Kong is also startling in revealing how history exists in what’s not there – coastlines in today’s HK have been entirely redrawn as land has been reclaimed.

Photo Copyright © Marion Udall

After a couple of less-interesting rooms about how Hong Kong defended itself from pirates in ye olden days (with an exhibit of embroidered armour made from silk and reinforced with ummm… cotton – looked beautiful, can’t imagine it keeping the arrows out), you hit the good stuff – World War II and the Japanese occupation (if by good stuff, you mean rivettingly horrifying). Connected to this is a special exhibition called Escape to Waichow, a truly amazing story that I knew nothing about and which more than justified the visit.

It’s a story that’s itching for a Band of Brothers television mini-series at least, if not a big screen epic. It’s a tale of the kind of unparalleled courage, bravery, fighting spirit, doggedness and sheer good luck that just doesn’t seem to happen these days. The actual exhibits are by-the-by (newspaper clippings, uniforms, medals) but it’s a story so remarkable that it could be written in Morse code and still remain enthralling. Time for some details (excuse factual inaccuracies, I’m working largely on memory)…

Escape to Waichow – HMS Cornflower survivors

As the Japs were attacking and the surrender of Hong Kong looked inevitable at the end of 1941, an escape plan was put together to smuggle out some senior officers. Even before this party got on the boats, the route was fraught – their car was stopped by Japanese soldiers several times and they were only able to proceed thanks to one Henry Hsu, whom you’ll hear more of later, shouting ‘Banzai! Long live the Emperor!’ in Japanese. On reaching the harbour, they were told the MTBs they were supposed to have taken had left so they then had to rush to get sixteen gallons of petrol to power the ship that they could find (HMS Cornflower). I remember reading that some officers has been told to leave without the Chinese contingent but refused. Once they finally took to the sea, the barrage began – rifles, machine guns, shells.

They had to bail out. One was shot in both legs, another killed outright, another shot and drowned – Admiral Chan Chak only had one leg to start off with! As he handed someone else a lifejacket, he was shot in the wrist. As Henry Hsu removed his artificial leg (where he had HKD$40 000 stashed away) so Chan wouldn’t be weighed down for the swim, Chan shouted, ‘What should we do?!’ Hsu’s answer was ‘Pray to God!’; Buddhist Chan replied, ‘If we make it out of here, I’ll convert to be a Christian!’. Needless to say, one-legged Chan (with the help of Hsu, who was conveniently a champion swimmer too) made it ashore, became known as the Nelson of the East, was awarded a KBE and duly converted. My friend would also like to point out: ‘One leg, one arm = auto badass’. No prizes for spotting him in the photo above.

David MacDougall, of the Ministry of Information, was shot in the shoulder. He practically bellyflopped in, was unable to swim for long on his front, kicked his shoes off after nearly going under twice and managed to reach the shore – fully clothed, with a pistol strapped to his waist – on his back. Another of his colleagues swimming to shore heard one of their colleagues drown noisily behind him. All this while still subjected to ceaseless gunfire from the Japanese. [Another crew member who couldn’t swim and remained drifting on the boat even managed to get rescued – talk about lucky!]

Upon reaching China, they still had an arduous journey aided by guerrilla Chinese – through the jungle, some not wearing shoes, many suffering from injuries and illness, freezing at night. When they reached Waichow, they were treated to a hero’s welcome although it would be four years and many thousands of miles until some of the British finally made it home. The famous photo of the 68 escapees from all the boats (shown below), invaluable in tracking down descendants and piecing together the story of this ‘great escape’, was taken with the photographer’s last glass plate – luck again!

I’ve not even done this incredible story justice. Many of the survivors went onto great things in high office – mayors, governors, Hsu in the International Olympics Committee. Another became arguably the most famous Coastal Forces Commanding Officer of WWII. The majority of the Cornflower party led long lives, with many only dying in the last few years, in their late eighties and early nineties (Hsu in 2009). I’m not a great believer in faith, as can be evidenced by my reluctance in joining in my school’s prayer meetings (they occur in Chinese, I was once told we were praying the air conditioning got fixed – excuse me if I think God has bigger things to worry about) but you can say that someone out there wanted these men to survive. Wonderfully for us, they survived long enough to leave detailed accounts of their amazing lives – some in diaries and letters, others in audios that you can listen to in the museum and others simply by living long enough to procreate and produce sons, daughters and grandchildren who can also share their memories and are keeping their ancestors’ legacy alive (they retraced the journey last Christmas).

I couldn’t help but wonder what would be left of our generation now the paper trail has dried up. Seems unlikely a Google cache of my blog will still be about – will all that’s left of me be the worksheets I’ve made for kindergarten?! Then again, do we have anything worthy enough to write about that could warrant an exhibition?

Anyway, the Museum of Coastal Defence is well worth a visit, especially whilst Escape to Waichow is on (hopefully they will make it permanent). It’s a story too incredible to not learn about. Entry is just $10 (free on Wednesdays) and the whole shebang will take a good 2-3 hours if you read thoroughly and intend on exploring the fortifications (so a nice day would help). The charmingly amateur café would make England’s cultural bods shriek – hand-written signs on scraps of paper, plastic garden chairs, one bloke hand-cooking everything in the kitchen – but everything else is informative, professional and well… not as boring as expected. And at least I can now pre-empt some of boyfriend’s history trivia with a few sneaky facts of my own!

Museum of Coastal Defence, 175 Tung Hei Road, Shau Kei Wan, +852 2569 1500. Open 10am-5pm. Entry $10, free on Wednesdays, closed on Thursdays.

Check out this website, run by one of the survivors’ son and from where I got the pictures of the escapees, for more about the incredible (yes, I feel I haven’t used that word enough) Escape to Waichow.