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January 26, 2011

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Prime cuts from legendary tailors

A fresh start and new clothes are a must for the Chinese Lunar New Year. Some men seek the immaculate work of legendary hongbang tailors whose skills are dying out. Tan Weiyun visits the masters.

In the 1920s and 30s, Shanghai was crowded with stylish, well-turned-out foreigners and not a few of them were noted for their auburn or red hair.

To dress these men in Western style, a special group of meticulous tailors from Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, took up the challenge and became known as hongbang tailors. Hong meaning red and bang meaning group. Another less colorful version says the name is derived from Fenghua County in Ningbo area. Hong is a twisted pronunciation of feng.

In the 50-plus years from 1896 to 1950, more than 700 men's tailoring shops were opened in Shanghai, including more than 420 run by Ningbo tailors.

Over the years, hongbang became synonymous with high-quality material, masterful cutting and stitching and perfect fit. Many tailors claim to be hongbang, but are not.

The tailors who made their name in Shanghai have a long history dating back around 150 years in Ningbo.

Hongbang tailors were said to have made the first Western suit in China and the first Zhongshan suit (sometimes called the Sun Yat-sen suit), which catered to contemporary sensibilities without adopting Western styles wholesale.

Probably the most notable hongbang master is Chan Wing Wah, now older than 90 and living in Hong Kong, who is said to have opened the first hongbang tailoring shop in Shanghai and written the first textbook on modern tailoring.

His son, Peter K. Chan, is the owner of W.W. Chan & Sons Tailoring Ltd, with a store in Shanghai and one in Hong Kong. The tall, slim Hongkonger is considered one of the city's, and even Asia's, great custom tailors. Chan is a sixth-generation hongbang tailor.

"For me, it's more like creating a work of art than just making clothes," says Chan, sitting in his shop where huge shelves display bolts of the finest imported fabrics, as well as Chinese fabrics. There are Italian wools, cashmere, vicuna and wools that even include fragments of diamonds and even 22-carat gold.

The shop is tucked away on Maoming Road S., once known as Asia's Savile Row. Each suit cut and stitched by master craftsmen requires 22 precise measurements and can be made in any style. It is guaranteed to fit perfectly. Two fittings are usually required.

Though his father is the probably the greatest living hongbang tailor, Peter Chan is modest.

"It matters what you make, not where you come from," he says.


Chan has been researching the history of hongbang tailoring.

"It's a long story," he says and gives this account.

During the reign of the Jiaqing Emperor (1796-1820), a poor Ningbo tailor named Zhang Shangyi in Fenghua County was forced to become a cook on a fishing boat. The boat was shipwrecked off Yokohama, Japan, and Zhang was saved by local fishermen. To support himself, the tailor made clothes for foreign sailors and traders.

The Chinese tailor soon mastered the skills of making foreign garments and became something of a suit-making celebrity in Japan. He later returned to Ningbo and set up what is believed to be the country's first suit-tailoring shop.

As business expanded, Zhang taught his skills to other Ningbo tailors and sent them to open stores in Tokyo and Kobe.

Ningbo people traditionally like to do business in Shanghai, which was even more open to foreign trade and tailors flooded into Shanghai. They settled in busy downtown areas on Julu and Maoming roads, as well as other streets.

Chan Wing Wah was one of those Ningbo tailors who answered the call of opportunity. He was 14 when he arrived in Shanghai and became an apprentice in the Shengli Suit Shop on Sichuan Road, where he met many foreign customers.

Chan learned Japanese, English and Shanghai dialect as well as how to manage a business. In 1943 he graduated with straight-As from the Shanghai Cutting College, China's first institution of suit tailoring.

In 1949, Chan relocated to Hong Kong and started business. Chan Sr never returned to the Chinese mainland, but his son returned almost half a century later and opened a store on Maoming Road S.

"The trend of handmade suits has been picking up on the mainland in recent years as more people focus on the quality of life," says Peter, who began tailoring at the age of 17.

"Each suit requires 22 measurements and can be made in any style from a classic Brooks Brothers box suit to a double-breasted suit," he says.

Some skillful master tailors can "read a man's body" just by a quick glance. "It's not as exact as a measuring tape, but it's pretty close," says Qi Baijun, founder of the Ningbo Hongbang Fashion Research Institute in Ningbo. He is a seventh-generation tailor.

Qi, who is 35, was taught by Jiang Jiming, a sixth-generation master, and several years ago set up the research center.

"It was my master's wish to preserve and promote this skill," Qi says. The institute's collections includes old brass irons, China's first suit-making textbook and many documents and photographs.

Cutting is an essential skill and a good tailor saves as much fabric as possible. At least 14 different kinds of stitches are required and ironing is also a skill. A handmade suit requires 50 to 80 hours to complete and usually costs between 6,000 (US$911.85) and 12,000 yuan (it can be far more depending on fabric).

"There 16 requirements for a quality hongbang suit, and these can confuse lay people," says Qi. "A simple way to judge a suit's quality is to look at the button hole, it's the key."

A quality button hole must be stitched carefully and tightly, with a clear and neat shape. "If the hole is perfect, chances are the suit won't be bad in quality," says Qi. "Details can sometimes reflect the whole."


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