“At first, my friends teased me. They thought [my cheongsam collection] was abnormal. Why should I take girls’ clothes home?”
Preserving his cheongsams is another problem. Yuen explains that it is difficult to keep a cheongsam in good condition for a long time because the material gets mouldy easily. Also, he needs space to house his extensive collection.
Despite these difficulties, collecting cheongsams is still important to Yuen.
With money, he could purchase more for his collection but that is not what collecting means to him. Rather, it is the process of learning about the stories behind every dress and making new friends that Yuen values.
While Yuen continues to piece together Hong Kong’s past with old cheongsams, local designers are drawing on the past to make new cheongsam designs.
“As a designer, especially a Hong Kong Chinese, [we] should have a deep exploration of our own history,” says Polytechnic University’s Gloria Wong. “Without history, there can be no future.”
In order to make the cheongsam wearable in today’s climate, designers like Wong try to incorporate traditional and modern elements into their cheongsam designs so that a new generation will wear and love them.
“I hope young people will not resist wearing the cheongsam, and will feel cool in it instead,” Wong says.
Despite these efforts to update the cheongsam, Helius Yuen feels the value of the dress has disappeared in today’s modern society. Just as the old industries faded away when Hong Kong transformed into a financial city, so too has the cheongsam, according to Yuen. With fewer than 20 Shanghai master cheongsam tailors left in Hong Kong, he believes that it will be difficult to revive their popularity again.
However, Yuen hopes that people will want to learn more about the cheongsam in Hong Kong. Although he is disappointed about its declining popularity, Yuen believes that as long as the cheongsam is used for special occasions, the form will continue to exist. After all, in the eyes of foreigners, the cheongsam represents Chinese women.
Collecting cheongsams has given the once aimless street-kid a goal in life. The goal is to collect these dresses so that he can hand them down to the next generation. He says that his collection belongs to the people of Hong Kong.
“I will keep collecting cheongsams until I get old, for as long as I can.” Yuen says.
Edited by Sabrina Poh