The Globe and Mail - November 24, 1988
In multicultural Toronto, Hong Kong born Alice Ko is rediscovering a bit of her heritage.
She's custom-making the traditional dresses of old China, then having them hand painted by an artist friend, Arden Pang, who was born there and is now another Torontonian.
"I've just recently developed an interest" she says shyly, in the traditional outfit she calls Chi-Oai or Cheung Sam, the garment many Westerners know as the Suzie Wong dress, after the Fifties film starring Nacy Kwan.
"I've been doing this for just a couple years, at first for myself, but now I would like to integrate the Chinese style with Western style. It is a traditional garment yet you can always be fashionable in it. That's what makes it different."
Each is unique because the silhouette of the subtly-shaped dress is all in the cutting. "I have a few in stock but they really should be custom-made for the individual. They are form-fitting yet contoured to the wearer's figure."
At her home at 11 Monet Ave., Etobicoke, clients select fabrics and colours, "then I give them some suggestions" about the painting which ranges from delicate floral arrangements to bold calligraphy. "This (scripted) one is part of a poem. It means the moon is always brighter back home and there's a drawing of the moon on the back."
Between the fittings to fine-tune the shape and the painter's input (for $280 plain and $380 decorated) she figures it takes about a month to accomplish the final result.
That's not long, considering stylish longevity: the dress has changed but slightly in the 500 years since the Ching dynasty. Then it was hailed as a breakthrough in design, a one-piece garment when two parts were common. But its confining contours restricted it to genteel pursuits. Suzie Wong nothwithstanding.
In the workaday world of modern China, such frivolities disappeared in a sea of blue, black and green uniformity but Ms Ko, after a visit this summer, is pleased to report: "China's changing. The people are more into fashion, more conscientious about what they wear. They want to look good and that's not frowned upon," while admitting that the slender long shape is ill-suited to the transport of favor: the bicycle.
She and her husband came to Canada 13 years ago and have since had two sons. After studying design in Hong Kong and then at George Brown College, she set herself up as a dressmaker "specializing in wedding gowns and bridal parties."
Then the nostalgia set in. She needed a dress for a special occasion and harked back to her roots. Her notion now is to "Westernize" the concept, developing variations on the sex split theme, all the while admitting that the original "is still a pretty good idea."