Four traditional Chinese cheongsams tell the story of a family’s journey across China, India, Yemen and finally to London.
Foo Ying Yoe and her daughter, Yua Haw, shared a love of the iconic London department store Liberty and would often visit together to buy fabric. A good seamstress, Foo Ying made herself a dress using the Liberty fabric that blended the distinctively English material with elements of Chinese design — echoing a cheongsam. “My mother was fastidious about her dress, and embedded that trait in her children. She also loved fashion and delighted in shopping,” explains Yua Haw, who not only inherited her mother’s love of dress but also the Liberty’s cheongsam — which she still wears today.
In the summer of 2020, Yua Haw generously donated four beautiful cheongsams from Foo Ying’s wardrobe to the Museum of London’s Dress & Textile Collection. These traditional garments — known as cheongsam (长衫/長衫) in Cantonese or qipao (旗袍) in Mandarin — have a long history with roots in the Qing dynasty of seventeenth-century China. Foo Ying’s cheongsams show that the style has changed remarkably little since this version became popular in the 1920s, and tell a surprising story about her extraordinary international life.
Across the seas
Foo Ying was born in Jakarta in 1922 to wealthy Chinese parents. The family travelled to Burma (now Myanmar), Kenya and Vietnam before returning to China in 1928. When Japan invaded China in the early 1930s, the family left their home for Calcutta (now Kolkata), India. When Foo Ying reached ‘marriageable age’, a Chinese marriage matcher was consulted. She was married to Sing Kow Yoe, who came from the same region of China but lived in Bombay (now Mumbai). The couple later moved to Aden (now South Yemen).
The cheongsams belonging to Foo Ying, which were donated to the museum, were produced while the family lived in Aden, but these traditional Chinese garments — interestingly — were all tailor-made in India! Foo Ying would post a sample dress, plus her specifications for fabric and trim, to a tailor in Bombay. Once ready, both the old and new garments were sent back to her. She did the same for shoes, sending a traced outline of her feet to the Chinese shoemakers in Calcutta, a city with a thriving Chinese community.
Understanding the cheongsam
The cheongsam is a close-fitting and high-necked garment, usually with slits on either side of the skirt to allow for movement, and made in a variety of fabrics. Fashion historian Faith Cooper suggests that it is one of the most recognisable garments associated with Chinese culture. In her essay for the Fashion and Race Database, Cooper notes that this style of dress “reached its height in fashion in the 1930s and was worn as everyday wear throughout the 1940s. However, when Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the qipao was considered a symbol of the bourgeoisie and became strictly forbidden. During the 1950s and 1960s, it remained popular among the overseas Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.”
The earliest of Foo Ying’s cheongsams is made in a black and silver brocaded fabric with a very small waist. Yua Haw believes this style was influenced by the tight-fitting cheongsam worn by the actress Nancy Kwan in The World of Suzie Wong (1960). Yua Haw suggests that this was the first time the cheongsam gained public attention in Britain, though older generations may have seen the garment in the 1930s films Shanghai Express or Limehouse Blues, set in London’s original Chinatown. Both films featured the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. Since the release of these films, the cheongsam has been used many times, and often over-sexualised, within Western culture. Journalist Alex Perry suggests that this is part of a wider appropriation of Chinese and East-Asian culture that shows "insufficient acknowledgment of [the] historical significance" of the cheongsam.
Impressions of London
The Yoe family moved to London in 1966, when Yua Haw was 14. They arrived on a ship at Tilbury Docks, a hugely significant site in the modern history of British immigration. It was here in June 1948 that the Empire Windrush first docked, bringing over 800 immigrants from the Caribbean. Of that journey, Yua Haw remembers feeling “amazement at the world outside of Aden (the ship stopped at Port Said, Naples, Barcelona), eating Western food (a bit tasteless compared to the Chinese, Indian and Arabic food I was used to eating) and using a knife and fork, the idea of three courses, the rough seas in the Mediterranean and the Bay of Biscay (miserable for me, the rest of the family were fine).”
The Yoe family initially settled in West Croydon.[See Note1] Yua Haw remembers her mother wearing the two ‘day’-style cheongsams frequently through the summer months in London. These garments are simple but beautifully made — the green is a printed cotton fabric of a style also found in Western fashions of the 1950s-1970s. They are accompanied by a petticoat, historically always worn with a cheongsam. Modern versions, though, are more likely to be lined. The petticoat donated to the museum has been very carefully designed to complement the shape of the upper garment. It has a discreet snap fastening on the right shoulder strap — echoing the fastening on the cheongsam — and small slits on either side of the hem.
After two years in London, the family moved to a small village outside Guildford but made monthly ‘pilgrimages’ to London’s Chinatown for Chinese ingredients they could not find locally. Yua Haw recalls: “We would come up by train from Wanborough, via Guildford to Waterloo, then the tube to Leicester Square. At that time, shops were more limited, so we usually went to Loon Fung, where the purchases would be soy sauce, fresh chillies, ginger, garlic, noodles and vegetables that were not available locally. We would then end up at one of the restaurants (Loon Fung, Lido) for some lunch before returning home, laden with our goodies.”
The Chinatown that Yua Haw visited in the late 1960s and early 1970s was young, having only recently been established in Soho. The original centre of the Chinese community in Limehouse had been in a steady decline since the 1930s. Journalist Rebecca Liu suggests that Soho’s “established nightlife found a happy partner in the late-night takeaways and restaurants" that sprang up, as many Chinese people were forced into restaurant work when faced with limited employment options. Lido, the restaurant that the Yoe family frequented, opened in 1969 — one of the first in the Soho Chinatown — and is still open today.
In many ways the Yoe family became quite ‘anglicised’, but they always maintained Chinese traditions such as the celebration of the Chinese (Lunar) New Year. Foo Ying’s dressing preferences also reflected this balance of being a Chinese-British citizen. She mixed Chinese styles with Western fashion — sometimes, as with the Liberty’s cheongsam, in one garment. The four cheongsams and petticoat now in the Museum of London collection represent the global journey of one family, and the international connections and cultural associations that can be represented in one apparently simple garment.
 Yua Haw remembers that they did not know or encounter any other Chinese people in the West Croydon area. There has been a small Chinese community in London since the 1870s, originally centred around Limehouse. This population grew following the Second World War. The Yoe family arrived in a decade which saw the Chinese population in Britain more than double, from around 39,000 in 1961 to around 96,000 in 1971. Although new arrivals from China often initially gravitated towards the established communities in Limehouse, and later Soho, they subsequently often dispersed to settle more widely across Greater London to establish businesses and raise families — which, perhaps, explains why the Yoe family did not encounter other Chinese people following their move to Croydon.
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