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Meet Hong Kong’s cheongsam collectors

by Elaine Tsang

Opening an ordinary black suitcase, a young man smiles and takes out the dresses from his exquisite collection. From the pile of embroidered cheongsams, Helius Yuen Kin-wai picks out his favourite piece.

“It has the longest history within my collection,” Yuen explains of his choice, a sheer blue lace cheongsam. “Also, its design really represents the era which it comes from, the 1920s and 1930s.”

Yuen started collecting cheongsams when he was 20 and now, at only 28, he has more than 700. He was just 11, however, when he fell in love with them thanks to an old photo which showed how the dresses can turn any woman into a star.

Yuen was not a motivated student. He attended a vocational school where he fell in with a bad crowd and spent much of his days roaming the streets.

“I only studied until Form Two,” Yuen says. “[You could say] it was playfulness or naughtiness; I stopped going to school when I was about Form Three.”

At the time, Yuen had no education, no job, and no meaningful goal in life. It was only after he took up a part-time job as a sales assistant that he realised he had to find some life goals for himself. It was this search that led to his cheongsam collection.

Yuen’s current devotion to the cheongsam can be attributed to his friend and mentor Joel Chung Yin-chai, a famous toy collector.

“When I first met him, he was my boss. I was a salesperson selling clothes then,” Yuen explains. “A boss who sells clothes should be very well-dressed and tidy. But every time I saw him, he was carrying rubbish.”

Yuen was curious about Chung’s litter-picking habit and discovered Chung was picking through rubbish to find anything that was related to Hong Kong culture; old photos, stationery and in particular, toys. He told Yuen that things that others threw away could be prove useful to him. Bearing that in mind, Yuen decided to follow Chung on his search.

“When you pick something up you need to clean it, to put it somewhere safe. You must do research and understand the historical meaning behind the object,” Yuen explains. That was when he began to think about his ambition to collect cheongsams, and to learn something about Hong Kong.

This would later influence Yuen’s own beliefs as a collector of cheongsams.