Today we are introducing an article ‘Identity pride and exclusiveness: cross-border craftsmanship and Chinese tailors in post-war Hong Kong, 1945-1970’ by Katon Lee.
The tailoring industry is one of the traditional trades in Hong Kong, and “Shanghai tailoring” is one of its distinctive skills, attracting people from around the world to patronize. There is a story behind it.
Prior to the 1970s, Hong Kong was a migrant society. Due to political turmoil in China and significant discrepancies in living standards and economic opportunities, the city received a large influx of mainland Chinese immigrants in the post-war era. In the first wave of Chinese mass migration, which took place from the mid-1940s through to the 1950s, tens of thousands of Chinese tailors migrated to Hong Kong from Canton and Shanghai in search of political stability and personal safety. Thanks to their tailoring expertise and work experience, they began to develop a professional reputation in local society, earning themselves worldwide recognition as their suits emerged as one of the most representative cultural icons of the city in the eyes of many Western visitors. While some Chinese elites and businessmen would order suits from Cantonese and Shanghainese tailors for the purpose of dressing for work and social gatherings, the tailors’ target customers were predominantly Western tourists who demanded suits for everyday use and were better able to pay for them.
The Kung Sheung Evening News conducted some brief surveys that shed light on the tailoring landscape in early post-war Hong Kong. As noted in its article on 18 November 1946, at the onset of the migration wave, approximately 700 Chinese tailors fled from Mainland China and set up their establishments in the tailoring industry in 1946. After 1949, the CCP considered suits to be an ‘evil symbol’ of western capitalism, and suit businesses were quickly abandoned. More suit-making tailors, who were vilified as ‘capitalist roaders’, felt insecure living under communist control and decided to flee from Canton and Shanghai to Hong Kong due to its protection from communist governance. In this wave of post-war migration, most of the Chinese tailors migrating to the city were from Canton while only a small minority were from Shanghai. This pattern is the result of the now-strict immigration policies imposed by the colonial government in the 1950s to replace the lax controls. These measures required that all people who sought to enter the city by land from ports north of Guangdong must hold a Hong Kong entry permit. While non-Cantonese needed to obtain the permits either from the Office of the Charge d’Affaires in Beijing or through relatives in Hong Kong, Cantonese from Guangdong were exempt from this requirement. Under these stricter immigration controls, the proportion of Shanghainese tailors quickly dropped, becoming a distinct minority in the industry. However, they brought sophisticated industrial practices that oral history interviewees termed ‘a significant threat’ to their Cantonese counterparts.
With a long tradition of providing suit-making and tailoring services for Westerners, Shanghainese tailors enjoyed widespread fame in the suit market. Because they hailed from Shanghai, where Chinese and Western cultural and commercial interactions had long flourished – and where they acquired a form of cultural capital associated with what historian Leo Lee has termed ‘Shanghai modernity’ – Hong Kong’s Shanghainese tailors were able to best their Cantonese competitors in marketing high-end suits.
Recent scholarship has shown that in cosmopolitan urban spaces, identities are flexible, and migrants often integrate smoothly. But Shanghainese and Cantonese tailors who migrated to Hong Kong after World War II developed a different trajectory of identity transformation. Instead of simply integrating into a single social collectivity based on claims to a common Chinese ethnicity, they forged separate diasporic identities according to their places of origin. By problematising the arrival of Shanghainese tailors and their interactions with Cantonese tailors in Hong Kong, this article shows that pride in a place-based identity along with a strong sense of exclusiveness facilitated the maintenance of social boundaries by the Shanghainese community against the Cantonese. It argues that despite the common Chinese-ness of both migrant communities, place of origin was employed as a critical form of social identification and differentiation, creating an as-yet insurmountable barrier to the amalgamation of the two Chinese communities.
裁縫業是香港傳統行業之一，而「 上海裁縫 」是其特色技藝之一，吸引不少人從世界各地而來光顧，背後有段故事。
香港故事 – 世紀物語 (第51輯)