This is the story of my womanhood, told through the outline of a dress.
The first dress I ever wore in public was a cheongsam. This was before I transitioned, before I grew out my hair, before I even called myself a woman.
I wore it as part of a drag dance and spoken-word performance. Unlike the demure cotton and wool cheongsam I wear today, this cheongsam, a gift from my best friend’s Hong Kong-born mother, was made of bright red silk, the colour of pride and good fortune. It was adorned with dragons rendered in gold embroidery.
There was power in this garment that went beyond beauty — lovers of fashion will know the kind of power I am talking about. This was a piece of clothing that made me feel stronger, unafraid to be a “boy in a dress” in front of a crowd, connected to my present and my past.
Sooner or later in every Chinese girl’s life, there comes a reckoning with the cheongsam. Even if you don’t know the word, you still know what I’m talking about: that dress with the high collar, body-hugging silhouette, and slits up the side of both thighs.
That dress, so often associated with the trope of East Asian women as at once uptight and demure, yet nymphomaniacally hypersexual; in other words, the misogynist’s perfect fantasy doll.
The dress that has been linked for the past hundred years with Chinese (and arguably, East Asian in general) women’s femininity and sexuality, and that still appears everywhere, haunting Chinese women, from runways to thrift shops to drag stages to pornos.
As a trans woman and a diasporic Chinese person who has always felt painfully disconnected from her cultural heritage, the cheongsam feels like something that has always been just out of my reach, yet inextricably far away: a sense of ease with what I claim to be in the world.
When I put on a cheongsam and look in the mirror, I can pretend, for a moment, that “being a Chinese woman” — whatever that means — is something that fits my body as beautifully and easily as actress Maggie Cheung’s 21 vintage cheongsam in Wong Kar-Wai’s A Mood for Love.
The problem, of course, is that most cheongsam are not easy to wear, right down to the physical level.
Designed to adhere to patriarchal Chinese and European norms of female beauty, the figure-hugging design of the dress makes breathing difficult and free movement impossible; meant to emphasize (or demand) an hourglass silhouette, the cheongsam does not flatter a diverse range of body shapes.
The cheongsam has become inextricably linked with Chinese femininity in the mainstream cultural imagination. Also known in Mandarin as the qipao and to the uninitiated simply as the “Chinese dress,” the name of the cheongsam comes from Cantonese, literally meaning “long garment.”
Once a loose-fitting, unisex national costume introduced by the Manchurian conquerors, the cheongsam took a decided turn for the modern and sexy in 1920s Shanghai, where the influence of competing colonial European powers Britain and France held sway over fashion. Shanghainese dressmakers, designing for a new upper class of cosmopolitan Chinese women, combined traditional Chinese aesthetics with European sexual mores to produce an exclusively feminine cheongsam that emphasized the shape of the body.
The cheongsam came to international attention in 1960, when actress Nancy Kwan burst onto the silver screen in the now cringe-inducingly racist film “The World of Suzie Wong,” sweeping Hollywood with her portrayal of a sexpot Chinese escort who seduces a white American man, all while dressed in slinky, revealing cheongsam.
This unfortunately iconic film was key in establishing the cheongsam as an orientalist sex symbol in the minds of Western audiences and popularizing the archetype of East Asian women as hypersexual, submissive beings.
Like Chinese women ourselves, the cheongsam has thus acquired a strange, double connotation, seen as both conservatively traditional and intensely erotic.
Perhaps this is why in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China, Singapore, Canada and the US — everywhere that Chinese people live — it is rare for Chinese women to wear cheongsam, once an ubiquitous staple of middle-class daywear, except on cultural holidays and weddings. Meanwhile, cheap, bastardized versions of the dress are popular as Halloween and sexy dress-up costumes among hipster white women.
Caught between both extremes, the texture of our humanity, our womanhood, is lost in translation.
Since moving to Toronto last year, I’ve found myself obsessed with cheongsam. I’m not sure why.
Perhaps it’s the fact that here in this new city, reinventing myself to fit the demands of a new job and new friends, I’m looking harder than ever for something I can call home. I’ve scoured both thrift stores and the internet hunting for cheongsam; I’ve worn them to work and out on the town. Unlike the gaudy silk red-and-gold versions of cultural stereotype, there are versions made for office and evening wear, in a wide range of fabrics and patterns, from paisley to polka dots.
Sitting in work meetings, surrounded by white cis women and struggling to breathe in my cheongsam, I have sometimes felt as stiff and repressed as a patriarch’s view of women, as an outmoded feminist theory, as a colonizer’s dream of the Orient.
When I go to Chinatown to buy groceries or to eat my favorite salt fish fried rice, the stares I get from other Chinese people range from amused to outright hostile.
Even my white boyfriend is self-conscious about the attention and history that a cheongsam evokes. Once, he told me he was nervous to be seen with me while dressed in cheongsam because people might think that he was pressuring me to wear them as a part of some sort of orientalist fantasy!
Strangely, all of the above has made me more, instead of less, determined to find a way to make the cheongsam fit as a part of my wardrobe and my life. The more I am told that the traditional dress of my ancestors can not, will never, be mine — just as those elusive prizes, “womanhood” and “belonging” will never belong to me — the more stubbornly I try to squeeze this transsexual, diasporic body into its confines.
You see, for all its sexy, sultry glamour, I suspect that the cheongsam hides more than it reveals: the secret, perhaps, to who we are, as Chinese women scattered across geography and time. A path to who we wish to be.
This dress was the beginning and the end: the beginning of my womanhood, the end of my boyhood. My Chinese past and my diasporic present. I still remember how it felt, the silk on my skin. My courage, my cowardice. How the dress became a part of me as I leaped and spun. As I sang. As I breathed fire.