100 years of Love in Nanyang 百年好合

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Contrary to popular belief, gender equality is not a modern (and revolutionary) invention to the ancient Chinese. Details of which, I would go into another time. However, for the purpose of this article, we will look at the changing relationships between the two genders, across different social statuses over the last 100 years or so, and would conveniently have a quick look at their changing fashion. After all, dressing maketh a man/woman.

This post is a stark contrast to the previous post, and I suppose you can probably feel the strong local/Nanyang flavour here (if not, you’ll see it soon). I quite like the cultural diversity. But it is also important to disclaim that the post is not 100% accurate in depiction due to resource constraints and also cos, we exercised some creative liberties AKA fun.

I tried to capture the general spirit of the eras, and although colour photography didn’t get popularised till the 60s with the lowering of cost in that technology, I still decided to edit most of them in colours so we can better relate to those people. Like how Peter Jackson’s upcoming docu-film colours B&W footages so those people in the pictures feel more real.
The 1910s–The wave of western liberalism
Clothing notes from Lin Tong: Heavy linen male cheongsam and gingham cotton female loose early style cheongsam from Golden Scissor Cheongsam, vintage suitcases and vintage style modern accessories
1940s leather dance shoes


Cheongsam was worn by educated women earlier on, as it was a product of western liberalism and feminism. The traditional wear of Chinese women would be the top blouse with a bottom skirt, and by dressing in a loose (yes, they weren’t bodycon-tight yet) one-piece robe that resembled the male robe of that era, it was an act of rebellion against the traditional social role of women which the liberals found oppressive and archaic.


Many women who were exposed to western liberalism were born with a silver spoon and were educated overseas. They wore muted colours in a very upper-class interpretation of philosophical and political ideals of noblesse oblige and focused on the ‘serious’ topics related to politics and the future of the Chinese society. Naturally, it would not be the kind of cheongsam you see in movies like In the mood for love because women were fighting against their objectification, so it would probably be the last thing on their mind to look sexy at that point in time. I find their quiet, understated confidence really sexy attractive/admirable actually.

If you visit the Modern Colony gallery at the National Museum of Singapore, you would be able to know more of the dresses and lifestyles of this particular group of people and also see the wonderful dresses and cosmetics they have during the period. I’ve been eyeing a few of them for years… *rubs hands*


Men who were educated overseas, too, were advocates of women education such as Sir Song Ong Siang and Mr Lim Boon Keng who started the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School.

If you are at the museum, you might notice that men generally wore suits. Because the top 1% of the population was educated in the West. But I have no doubt that there would be men who still wore the male Chinese robe, or that they would change into them from time to time since it was still the de-facto wear for Chinese men during that period.

They also carried really interesting suitcases, which were divided into compartments with even hangers and likes! Of course, those were really bulky cases that were built to last a lifetime of sea travels! Thank GOD it’s sea travel otherwise just the case itself would have exceeded the luggage allowance by today’s standard!
The 1920s–The Opium Windfall

Clothing notes from Lin Tong: Maroon iridescent lace long sleeve female cheongsam and linen-cotton male cheongsam made for tropical climates, both from Golden Scissors Cheongsam, modern vintage style accessories.


According to a reliable source, opium trade was an extremely profitable (and legal) business especially in this part of the world before the 1910s. Many wealthy businessmen built their fortune and empire from opium money. In the 1920s, while the government made efforts to control and oppress opium trade and smoking, it proved impossible to be stopped overnight. So the government eased it in, starting with the license to smoke opium in your own private premises in 1925, and by 1929, it was regulated like our cigarettes today where only adult above 21 would be legally allowed to smoke opium.

And the women’s role in such households? Probably still very much a subject of the rich towkays, and busy trying to serve and please her ATM sponsor. It was as much of a gender issue as it was a matter of financial independence. Even in today’s world, whoever controls the finances of the household has the most say (my husband would agree).


Quick Trivia: The last emperor wasn’t being funny when they featured Puyi, the last emperor of ancient/imperial China in sunglasses. Granted he might have been the first and only Chinese emperor to be caught on film wearing sunglasses, the existence of similar types of sunglasses in China went way back to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE).
The 1930s–Tailors and Women
Clothing notes from Lin Tong: Vintage 1950s cream and golden high collar cheongsam in checkered banarasi silk (Hong Kong tailor)
Both male cheongsam by Golden Scissor Cheongsam

Yes, if you are familiar with Saree material, you would recognise the Banarasi silk mention! I have one electric blue with gold thread saree made of banarasi silk, and it is absolutely gorgeous!

So that is probably what we meant by Nanyang fashion, where materials were traded, gathered and get adapted to various ethnic wear be it saree or in this case, cheongsam. I remember my bestie at work Vatsala (also someone extremely knowledgeable about the Indian culture and history) told me that the checkered pattern has made a comeback in the saree world. When I saw Lin Tong mentioning the banarasi silk, it clicked!

Lin Tong shared that Colonialism helped that silk move from South India to Hong Kong during that period. But I wondered where did the checkered trend come from? So I did a bit of googling (too short a time to do proper research) and…



Scots! One of my favourite people! And yes, think of those tartan designs, and your Burberry…

This is a pattern that has 3000 years of history, originated from the Highland of Scotland! It was banned for about a century in 1746 as it symbolised the Scottish rebellion against the English monarchy! Who’d have guessed that a small detail like this would’ve brought out such an interesting historical narrative!

Anyway, by now you would be wondering, why was the man holding an iron, and there’s another man behind the sewing machine–where are all the other women? Isn’t this a Cheongsam shop? As counter-intuitive as it sounds, there’s likely none–cos of patriarchy. Women were still very much working at home, so the men were the outward/client-facing people. So yes, tailoring was a male-dominated industry (I think it is still kind of that? At least based on my limited experience at the Peninsula Plaza), and the women would probably do more of the little embroideries, sewing of buttons etc at home.
The 1940s–The gradual shift away from traditional gender roles
Clothing notes from Lin Tong: Vintage 1950s cream and golden high collar cheongsam in checkered banarasi silk (Hong Kong tailor)
Male cheongsam by Golden Scissor Cheongsam

Of course, there’s the Great Gatsby era and the calm before the storm… Women (Note: high SES ones) seemed to have it good with the many parties, looking glamorous and sexy. There’s certainly a blurring of gender divide between domestic and public spheres.


But honestly, if there’s a stain on the table, and your maid’s out for grocery shopping, who do you think would be the one who has to wipe it away? You think you can call your husband to do it? Perhaps before you do that, you would look at your beautiful banarasi silk dress, pearl necklaces, your bank account and then take that good morning Singapore towel to finish what would be regarded as still your job. Except that you feel that you really own it now.


The good news is, your feet are not bound anymore and in a way, you are empowered to feel that you own the domestic sphere.
Clothing notes from Lin Tong for WWII era:
Female wartime: 70s does 40s printed grey samfoo, modern replica wooden red clogs
Male wartime: Modern pyjamas and Good Morning Towel

The 1940s–Found love in a hopeless place

While Peter Jackson restored colours of WWI, I removed them for this set of WWII-themed ones in my post-production (above). Lin Tong used the war to shatter the fixed social roles imposed on the two genders–which is a very traditional Confucian idea of men and women.


So people met as equals, supporting each other through this period. Yes, bananas, lots of bananas were involved… There is a strong Chinese diaspora identity now rooted in local Nanyang identity yet deeply supportive of China’s anti-war efforts.


There was a breakdown of gender because when you are just trying to survive amidst the poverty and deprivation, you think a lot less about power dynamics.

I met a group of elderlies in their 60-80s a few days ago in my job, and they shared that life in the past was trying and much tougher but they were happier because they were moving ahead towards by supporting each other. The less you have, the more you appreciate whatever little you do.
The 1950s–Navigating the multiple identities
Clothing notes from Lin Tong:
Original Vintage 1950s cotton blue with white polka dot samfoo, modern replica wooden red clogs
The rest of the male clothing and accessories are modern, adapted to look like the 50s ( e.g. Grana and Owndays, serious hahahaha) <–her exact words!


After the war, it’s time to rebuild what was destroyed.

And there comes the emerging idea of marriage, love and relationship on an individual basis. Men, in general, started to wear western clothes like shirts and pants, and couples started to go for casual working class dates in the coffee shops around.


Fancy a Char Siew date? Original cups complimentary courtesy of the shop uncle who thought they were shooting a period drama!
The 1960s–New era, New life
Clothing notes from Lin Tong:
Original vintage 1960s Pucci-style geometric silk cheongsam
Original vintage 1960s Glomesh metal purse
Modern replica 1960s style cat eye glasses
The rest of the male clothing and accessories are modern, adapted to look like the 60s


The Singapore story–from third world to first. We were a young nation that just expanded rapidly with non-stop building of brand new housing precincts (thanks to HDB which was set up on 1 Feb 1960!) like Queenstown, Tanglin Halt etc.

While the older generations generally would miss their old kampong friends and environment, many youths were promised a more sanitised and better housing condition to raise their future family in.


I could just imagine the excitement of new couples going househunting and owning their first (leasehold) home! [In other news, freehold and other types of properties still cost a bomb]
The 1960s–FREE LOVE!
Clothing notes from Lin Tong:
Original vintage 1960s style silk neon stripe shift dress
1980s silk mens’ tie
Original vintage 1960s neon printed mens cotton shirt
Modern replica 1960s style sunglasses


And then, there’s the rock and roll and ganja and hippies culture! Singapore was the entertainment hub in the 60s with many pop bands dominating the local music scene like the Quests whose song even unseated The Beatles on the Singapore music chart at one point!

We were also the hotspot for filming and one could still find traces of old Singapore in some of the films starred by well-known HK actor Patrick Tse 谢贤 (father-in-law of Faye Wong王菲).


Women adopted Western colours and polyesters in clothing, and the idea of couples and individual-based relationships dominated over arranged marriages. Men wore solely western clothing, well-suited for the tropical climate. And perhaps as a side consideration for their comfort in this heat (no, I’m kidding), men were greatly discouraged from having long hair (this is true).
The 1970s–Joys of the simple life

Clothing notes from Lin Tong:
Original vintage 1970s crocheted pink babydoll dress handmade by Lin Tong’s maternal grandmother /Popo
1960s paisley print cotton sash (made by a 16 year old Lin Tong)
Original 1970s giant cat eye glasses
1970s style cotton poplin men’s shirt with Cuban Collar, a style very popular in the 70s
Modern replica 1970s style sunglasses


This era, Lin Tong decides to focus on middle class ordinary/everyday couples. The scenes of domesticity, and increasingly equal gender relations as shown through the act of washing dishes together. Qipao/Cheongsam is abandoned in favour of the Western clothing entirely.

The 1980s–Asian Tigers! *Roar*
Clothing notes from Lin Tong:
Original vintage 1980s orange and blue sheer georgette cheongsam that belonged to Lin Tong’s maternal grandmother / Popo
Original vintage 1980s cat eye glasses
Original vintage 1980s orthopedic ahma sandals
Original vintage 1980s stingray leather backpack, gifted by Lin Tong’s paternal grandfather /Yeye
Original vintage 1980s mustard yellow hair bow barette and bun net
Original 1980s rayon Unker tropical hawaiian shirt
Modern replica 1980s style sunglasses


Well, it might seem like the clothing notes outweighs whatever you can see in this picture above. We were really more about businesses and development at this point. There’s lots of rapid insatiable economic growth with men and women all joining in the workforce. With the growing affluence, came the HUDC (Housing and Urban Development Company) that built a premium type of housing which is better than the HDB but not as good as the private property.


And yes, that kind of kickstarted our chase for the 5Cs. People started to prioritise their ability to hustle over all else, and we were known as the Asian Tigers for our rapid economic growth post-1960s.
The 1990s–Re-emergence of Asian values
Clothing notes from Lin Tong:
Original vintage 1990s polyester l/s jacket and long cap sleeve ankle length fuchsia cheongsam
Male 1990s style light brocade cheongsam top by Golden Scissor Cheongsam


In the 90s, there is a re-emergence of the Power cheongsam and Asian Values as a reaction to previous decades of westernisation. The Cheongsam was used as a symbol of corporate power and deemed boardroom appropriate as women climbed the corporate ladder. Many of our former first ladies also wore a wide range of cheongsams to functions.

A few years ago, the National Museum of Singapore held an exhibition In the mood for Cheongsam that showcased the wide range of cheongsams our first ladies and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew wore. It was a wonderful exhibition and I highly recommend getting its catalogue if you didn’t manage to catch it! It gives a much more comprehensive breakdown of the cheongsam and the role it played in Singapore’s social scene.


This idea was pitched by Lin Tong (aka Golden scissor cheongsam), and executed on her holiday to Penang with Gwen and gang. The dresses featured were a mix of period-specific dresses and replicas, personal collections of Lin Tong (don’t bother asking to borrow, not happening, just like my Hanfu). Because I’m not an expert in recent fashion (hahah, anything within the last 100 years is recent), I rely heavily on Lin Tong’s framework and input. Of course, I would definitely make mistakes, but that’s cos we are all learning together! If you feel strongly about something, write in and we could right the wrong, or we could discuss it! Or, we could even work on one other article together!

RIGHTS: This post is jointly shared by Lin Tong (the mastermind, model, and owner of everything), Gwyneth Teo (photographer) and me (post-production and writer). Repost & link to post is OK, but please get in touch if you wish to reproduce anything from here~!

PS. Let’s not start the discussion of Malaysia Vs Singapore. Fashion has better sense than to stop itself at the causeway just cos of a difference in passport.

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