Sooner or later in every Chinese girl’s life, there comes a reckoning with the cheongsam, almost serving as a symbolic token of the transition into (young) womanhood. Such is the enormous power that one gender-specific garment wields over a young and socially impressionable mind or, more importantly, a mind that has not yet been made up and remains undecided in terms of gender-specification. Fashion can play a progressive, even radical, role in our 21st Century socially relevant discourse, as well as be of great importance in the dissolution of gender boundaries. Fashion can echo the core concept of transgender, cinching in the confines of what is male and what is female.
“This was a piece of clothing that made me feel unafraid to be a ‘boy in a dress’ in front of a crowd, connected to my present and my past.” Kai Cheng Thom
Temper Magazine’s Trending segment casts a net upon all that is throwing tantrums within the world of China Fashion across a variety of global sources. This very necessary segment dips its toe into the deep indigo-dyed pool that is the ocean of Middle Kingdom fashionable astonishment.
This time around, we wrap up a social-mandate-condemning and androgynous-star-styling week with writer, performer and social worker Kai Cheng Thom who puts pen to paper for Xtra and shares with readers the story of her transition into womanhood, told through the outline of a dress.
When addressing the role of clothing in gender and society’s perception thereof, one is obliged to, at the very least, mention “Orlando: A Biography”, the novel by Virginia Woolf. (All are hereby obliged to hail Tilda, the Oscar-winning protagonist of the book’s silver screen adaptation.)
The book, first published in 1928, describes the adventures of a poet who changes sex from man to woman and lives for centuries, sharing many an encounter with key figures in the English literary history. Considered a feminist classic, the book has been cited and debated at length by academics and critics in the fields of gender and transgender studies.
Mindful of her protagonist’s fluid transition between the male and female genders, Woolf looks at “fashion” as a vehicle of transition, denoting the fluidity of gender-specific identity. She writes:
“Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman’s dress and of a woman’s sex. And perhaps in this she was only expressing rather more openly than usual — openness indeed was the soul of her nature — something that happens to most people without being thus plainly expressed.”
Right on. And so, fastforwarding almost one century, we let Kai write her story. In her own words.
Sooner or later in every Chinese girl’s life, there comes a reckoning with the cheongsam.
The first dress I ever wore in public was a cheongsam [also known as the “qipao” in Mandarin Chinese]. This was before I transitioned, before I grew out my hair, before I even called myself a woman.
I wore it as part of a drag dance and spoken-word performance. Unlike the demure cotton and wool cheongsam I wear today, this cheongsam, a gift from my best friend’s Hong Kong-born mother, was made of bright red silk, the color of pride and good fortune. It was adorned with dragons rendered in gold embroidery.
There was power in this garment that went beyond beauty — lovers of fashion will know the kind of power I am talking about. This was a piece of clothing that made me feel stronger, unafraid to be a “boy in a dress” in front of a crowd, connected to my present and my past.
Sooner or later in every Chinese girl’s life, there comes a reckoning with the cheongsam. Even if you don’t know the word, you still know what I’m talking about: that dress with the high collar, body-hugging silhouette, and slits up the side of both thighs.
That dress, so often associated with the trope of East Asian women as at once uptight and demure, yet nymphomaniacally hypersexual; in other words, the misogynist’s perfect fantasy doll.
The dress that has been linked for the past hundred years with Chinese (and arguably, East Asian in general) women’s femininity and sexuality, and that still appears everywhere, haunting Chinese women, from runways to thrift shops to drag stages to pornos.
When I put on a cheongsam and look in the mirror, I can pretend, for a moment, that “being a Chinese woman” — whatever that means — is something that fits my body.
As a trans woman and a diasporic Chinese person who has always felt painfully disconnected from her cultural heritage, the cheongsam feels like something that has always been just out of my reach, yet inextricably far away: a sense of ease with what I claim to be in the world.
When I put on a cheongsam and look in the mirror, I can pretend, for a moment, that “being a Chinese woman” — whatever that means — is something that fits my body as beautifully and easily as actress Maggie Cheung’s 21 vintage cheongsam in Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the mood for love”.
The problem, of course, is that most cheongsam are not easy to wear, right down to the physical level.
Designed to adhere to patriarchal Chinese and European norms of female beauty, the figure-hugging design of the dress makes breathing difficult and free movement impossible; meant to emphasize (or demand) an hourglass silhouette, the cheongsam does not flatter a diverse range of body shapes.
The cheongsam has become inextricably linked with Chinese femininity in the mainstream cultural imagination. Also known in Mandarin as the qipao and to the uninitiated simply as the “Chinese dress,” the name of the cheongsam comes from Cantonese, literally meaning “long garment.”
The cheongsam often remains seen as an orientalist sex symbol in the minds of Western audiences, popularizing the archetype of East Asian women as hypersexual, submissive beings.
Once a loose-fitting, unisex national costume introduced by the Manchurian conquerors, the cheongsam took a decided turn for the modern and sexy in 1920s Shanghai, where the influence of competing colonial European powers Britain and France held sway over fashion. Shanghainese dressmakers, designing for a new upper class of cosmopolitan Chinese women, combined traditional Chinese aesthetics with European sexual mores to produce an exclusively feminine cheongsam that emphasized the shape of the body.
The cheongsam came to international attention in 1960, when actress Nancy Kwan burst onto the silver screen in the now cringe-inducingly racist film “The World of Suzie Wong,” sweeping Hollywood with her portrayal of a sexpot Chinese escort who seduces a white American man, all while dressed in slinky, revealing cheongsam.
This unfortunately iconic film was key in establishing the cheongsam as an orientalist sex symbol in the minds of Western audiences and popularizing the archetype of East Asian women as hypersexual, submissive beings.
Like Chinese women ourselves, the cheongsam has thus acquired a strange, double connotation, seen as both conservatively traditional and intensely erotic.
Read Kai’s full and fascinating story of her transition into adulthood, womanhood and new life right here on Xtra!
As we at Temper always choose to end in beauty, a little history of literature 101:
“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us… There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.” Virginia Woolf
This trending topic was originally written by Kai Cheng Thom for Xtra, 2017. All rights reserved
Additional editing and introduction by Elsbeth van Paridon for Temper Magazine
About Kai: Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, and social worker who divides her heart between Montreal and Toronto, unceded Indigenous territories. She is the author of the Lambda Award-nominated novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press), as well as the poetry collection a place called No Homeland (Arsenal Pulp Press).
About Xtra: Canadian Xtra brings you LGBT news and culture through a sex(uality)-positive lens.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Vogue China, 2009. Photographer: Nick Knight.
Temper Magazine does not own any of the above English content. All featured English content belongs to Kai Cheng Thom for Xtra, 2017. All rights reserved.