Wei Shao - The Press
20 May 2023
Helen Chen turns heads as she strolls through Christchurch.
Wearing traditional Chinese dress – known as Hanfu – and carrying a finely embroidered silk bag, she’s one of a new generation of Asian Kiwis embracing China chic.
“I wear Hanfu almost every day,” she said.
“A traditional Chinese dress can tell a lot about our history and culture.”
Chen, 36, is originally from Taiwan and has lived in New Zealand more than 20 years.
She has a huge collection “with at least 100 sets of Hanfu dresses”, which were imported from China.
“Don’t ask me how much they cost. It gives me a headache to think about it.”
One common misconception is that Hanfu refers to clothes styled on those worn during the Chinese Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220).
In fact, it’s an umbrella term for a wide range of traditionally inspired Chinese clothing.
Regarded as a symbol of imperialism, Hanfu was banned during Mao Zedong’s era. Today, many younger people, like Chen, see it as a way of connecting with their heritage.
“As a Chinese woman living overseas, I think wearing Hanfu is my way of learning Chinese history and culture and showing them to people in New Zealand.”
As a child, Chen loved watching Chinese period dramas, particularly seeing the characters’ ancient clothing, such as robes, crossed collars and wide sleeves.
“I fell in love with the long gowns embroidered with flowers and phoenix, and wondered why no one wore them in their daily life,” she said.
Although those costumes can be large, long and inconvenient in daily life, Hanfu clothing is different, said Chen. They are “very mixable and matchable”.
On a busy day, she would wear “something with a Chinese cultural element” or “a mash-up” of modern and traditional Chinese clothing.
“For a special event, I would wear the whole set. An upper ru jacket, a qun skirt as the lower garment, and several forms of accessories, such as headwear, embroidered shoes, jade and a handheld fan.
“I always get good compliments from people. They told me they loved my pretty dress and wanted to take a photo with me.”
Despite attracting lots of attention, only a few Kiwis can tell the difference between Hanfu and other traditional clothes from Korea or Japan, she said.
“I don’t feel odd when people stare at me as I am wearing something different.
“It is about my culture, and I am proud of my cultural heritage.”
Fellow Cantabrian Jenny He is such a follower of traditional Chinese fashion, she has worn Hanfu clothing while snowboarding at Mt Hutt.
She doesn’t consider it everyday wear and often saves her Hanfu dresses for special events and family gatherings.
“I collect them as art pieces,” she said.
Her dresses are handmade by embroiders in Suzhou, the Chinese province famous for embroidery.
“They are pricey, around $100 to $400 per piece.”
Leah Xiao, owner of Christchurch-based Norah Dress Rental, has noticed the growing popularity of “travelling with Hanfu” in the South Island.
She has added two dozen Hanfu dresses to her rental stock since last June.
“Every month, I receive at least four or five people asking about renting Hanfu for photography,” she said.
“Most of them are young girls who like pretty dresses and would like to experience the traditional culture.”
People hire photographers to take pictures of them in their outfits, she said.
“The Avon River and the stone bridge in Hagley Park are the two famous sites for Chinese visitors in Hanfu.”