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Chinese Increasingly Donning Traditional Attire

China News Digest, 13 February 2002

[CND, 02/13/02] After many years of aping Western fashion, mainland Chinese are again wearing traditional Chinese designs, fabrics, and clothes. Across the country, people rich and poor are buying the traditional silk and cotton outfits, the Washington Post reported on Monday.

WANG Gang's shoe company did well despite the recession last year, reaping $2 million in profits.

To celebrate, the entrepreneur purchased a suit of traditional Chinese clothes, made of fabric woven from golden silk thread and decorated with patterns of ancient Chinese copper coins with white feathery wings.

You like? This real gold! exclaimed Wang, a jolly 42-year-old with a gravelly voice and somewhat broken English, twirling around with fashionable flair at Beijing's airport. Wang was waiting to board a flight home to his parents' house in Zhejiang province in eastern China for the Spring Festival holidays for the Year of the Horse.

Although Wang's flashy gold attire might not be for everyone, he had nothing but praise. This, he intoned happily, is China style.

In Beijing, Chinese executives who work at Western companies have begun to dress for work in shirts with hand-stitched Chinese buttons. In Shanghai, women who used to go all out for a Western-style white wedding with a big lacy Western-style dress are requesting a red cheongsam, a traditional, close-fitting style of dress with a slit up the side that dates from the Manchu ethnic group, rulers of the Qing dynasty. The cheongsam is also newly cool in the southern boomtown Guangzhou, but is usually worn there as a miniskirt with a very high slit.

My boyfriend doesn't like me to wear this dress too much, said Zhao Linlin, a slim 19-year-old from Guangdong, draped in a black cheongsam mini atop Gucci boots.

He worries that men stare at me too much, she said as she looked through books in a Beijing bookstore, a large Chinese character for happiness splashed in gold across her behind.

Chinese fashion arbitors say the trend toward traditional clothes first began about two years ago, and gained steam after last October's meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Shanghai, when China gave the leaders of all participating countries traditional blue or red Chinese silk jackets for a group photo.

President Bush might have looked a little uncomfortable in his royal blue jacket emblazoned with peonies, but his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, wearing the red that is both highly traditional and the color of the Communist Party, smiled beatifically.

The APEC meeting added dry kindling to the fire, wrote the Liberation Daily of Shanghai about the emerging fad.

In stores across Beijing, buyers acknowledged the APEC meeting as the impetus for their decision to choose traditional clothes for the big Spring Festival meal, which occurred Monday night, New Year's Eve.

At the Manfuli shop, an upscale tailor in Beijing, sales are 60 percent higher than last year, and an unprecedented number of men are purchasing traditional Chinese jackets.

If Jiang Zemin will wear something, then everybody will wear it, said WU Mengfan, 24, the shop's manager, whose family has been in the trade for many years.

In a country where people wore little but blue and green for thirty years (1949-79), then began to embrace Western fads blindly in the 1980s and 1990s, Wu said, the return to clothes from the Chinese tradition was about individuality.

They want to wear something that makes them a little bit different from everyone else, he said. They're usually upper-middle class -- you know, white-collar workers.

The trend is resuscitating one of China's money-losing industries. Like many of China's traditional crafts, including tea and rice wine production, the silk business has lost out over the past two decades as Chinese rejected their own cultural history and embraced the West.

Now we realize that we can be cool and be ourselves at the same time, said Wang, switching to Chinese. Look at me, he said, pointing to his clothes and his Coach briefcase bag. I'm a mix of East and West.

The recent trend has been like a pancake from heaven for China's weakened silk industry, the Beijing Evening News said recently.

Silk industry executives in Hangzhou, the southern Zhejiang city that is the center of China's silk industry, noted that at the beginning of 2001, dozens of silk firms were ready to shut down. Now at the Hangzhou Xin An Silk Factory, hundreds spinning machines are running constantly and we still can't fulfill the market's demand, said a factory spokesman.

But the hard times are not over for the silk spinners. A recent survey of more than 350 state-owned silk enterprises found that they lost an estimated $79 million in 2000.

China's state-run media have devoted extensive coverage about the fashion trend, transforming it into another sign that everybody likes China's government.

China's political situation is stable, its economy is soaring and the self-confidence of our race is on the rise, the Liberation Daily said, explaining the trend.

Such assertions made Wang the Beijing businessman laugh.

These guys are goofy, he said. They still insist on making this a political thing. Because I like this gold outfit, it makes me a nationalist. I got a Hugo Boss suit at home that I love just as much. Politics? Sorry. This is about fashion. And the girls love it!

In downtown Beijing, Yue Naiqin, the manager of another store, said she hope President Bush would again wear traditional Chinese clothes when he returns to Beijing later in February.

Traditional things are our glory, she said. I hope you print that. (Laurel Mittenthal)