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The Little Silk Dress That Made China Sexy

In China, nothing says sexy like Maggie Cheung in a tight-fitting mandarin gown. But few people know the real story behind this dress, and how it became so popular in 1920s Shanghai, before disappearing after the revolution -- and finding new life today.

The qipao, worn like this, embodies classic Chinese sex appeal (Shizhao)
The qipao, worn like this, embodies classic Chinese sex appeal (Shizhao)
Yang Tingting

SHANGHAI - In the trailer of Zhang Yimou's upcoming epic film "The Flowers of War" one of the most memorable scenes involves 13 swaying women wearing qipao dresses. Pronounced "chee pow" and also called cheongsam, the dress is both extremely feminine and subtly sexy. It is the embodiment, in some people's eyes, of a kind of classic Chinese sex appeal.

Before Zhang Yimou's film, the form-fitting dress was worn by the elegant and sublime Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar Wai's "In the Mood for Love", and in Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution." It has also made an occasional appearance wrapped on a Western celebrity, including Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Lopez.

But what Western spectators do not know is that today, except for a few ceremonies, its use in China is mostly limited to restaurant waitresses and airline attendants. Ordinary Chinese women simply do not wear this kind of dress anymore.

In the past couple of years, many people have become nostalgic for the time before the Chinese Communist Party's takeover, thanks, perhaps, to a few popular television series set during the pre-war era, when upper-class ladies and socialites wore such gowns.

Although the stylish and often tight-fitting dress was created in the 1920s in Shanghai, the traditional "qipao", meaning the garment of the Banners People, chiefly the Manchu, was a garment worn by the mandarins: men and women of the Imperial court. It came in the form of loose vest all the way down to the feet, worn on top of a long-sleeved blouse. It was later transformed into the gown with sleeves that became the prototype of the modern qipao.

Women's lib and prostitutes

In the old Shanghai where the vanguard of the women's liberation movement took the lead in China, the missionaries and merchants opened schools for girls. It's said that it was these female students who initiated the fashion. They wore plain, simple but elegant qipao. They represented the new intellectual aesthetic. The dress quickly became popular with the celebrities of the time.

But it is also said that another category of women gave the cheongsam new life in Shanghai: older prostitutes. This is an interesting theory. In the first half of the last century prostitutes led Shanghai's fashion taste. The prostitute was the fashion model of her time.

In pre-war Shanghai the competition among prostitutes was intense. Russian and Japanese girls flooded in looking for riches. The Chinese girls were forced to use their traditional dressmakers' talent to fashion a dress that did wonders for the figure, making each girl tall and elegant, while the tight fit worked wonders on men's imaginations.

No matter which version of the story is true, they confirm the most important quality of this garment – it has a different effect on each woman, either graceful or flirtatious, all depending on who's wearing it. Although it was first created in the 1920s, it was in the 1930s that the qipao benefitted from some Western tailoring influence. More structural than the Chinese original, it boasts a lower waistline and darts at the bust and the waist for a tighter fit, while the shoulder seam and fitted sleeves completed its devastating effect. Softer shoulder pads rendered the look even more feminine than the original with its more angular shape.

From that time to the present, with the exception of the cheongsam, China has failed to produce any stylistic influence on the clothing world. After the revolution, female fashion disappeared altogether in China. Women basically wore military fatigues. Only in the past 20 years has this started to change.

Recently, in Beijing, there was an exhibition called a "Hundred Years Celebration of the Qipao. The exhibition shows the birth of the Republic of China cheongsam, how slits and Western-style tailoring modified it, and then in the 1940s, the final variations of the gown prior to its almost total extinction.

The celebrity effect

In pre-war Shanghai famous artists tried their hand at designing qipao. A female painter, Tang Ying, not only owned countless of them herself, but also ran a fashion company that exclusively sold these dresses. As the "Paris of the Orient", Shanghai had already been prominently featured in in women's fashion magazines. And because the cinema production center was also in this city, Shanghai rivaled Hollywood for sheer glamour.

The most famous woman associated with qipao was Soong Mai Ling - the former First Lady of the Republic of China and wife of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Soong came from a wealthy family and spent her teenage years in America before she went back to China. When she returned to the States during the war along with Chiang to promote the Chinese cause, she charmed many American politicians, including President Roosevelt, with her well versed English and Western culture -- and her graceful but restrained array of Chinese qipao.

She lived to be 106. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London asked her to donate one of her qipao gowns as their exhibition piece just before she died.

After China turned Communist, the wives of the party leaders continued to wear the qipao for a while. Wang Guangmei, wife of disgraced ex- People's Republic Chairman Liu Shaoqi, wore a qipao on a state visit, one of the crimes for which she was brutally "criticized" during the Cultural Revolution.

The qipao continued to be popular in Hong Kong and in Taiwan where many Chinese Nationalists and their families had fled after Mao took over power. But on the mainland, the dress had totally vanished until its reappearance over the past 20 years, worn by female Chinese leaders at solemn occasions, or stars on the red carpet.

And yes, you will also see them worn in China by receptionists, waitresses and masseuses. The glaring red versions with a high slit to reveal the leg have also made the qipao, alas, a sign of cheapness and vulgarity.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Shizhao

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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