On The Street of Eternal Happiness, number 217, there’s an old man named Master Chu Hongsheng. He’s 94 years old, slicked back white hair, immaculately dressed, and he’s wearing a tape measure around his neck. He’s a tailor, and he sells his clothes at this tiny shop.
For nearly 80 years, master Chu’s made only one style of dress: The Qipao. It’s also known as the Cheong-Sam. If you’ve ever been to an upscale Chinese restaurant, you’ve probably seen a host or waitress wear a qipao. It’s a tight, form-fitting, one-piece dress, usually embroidered with flowers.
Back in the days before China was communist, most women wore qipaos. Master Chu started making them in 1934. He was sixteen. Back then, the Street of Eternal Happiness was named Rue Bourgeat, after a prominent French lawyer who lived in the city. It was a crazy time in Shanghai. The city was one of the wealthiest in the world – ‘the Paris of the Orient’ – rich foreigners mixed with Chinese in a lawless landscape; 1930’s Shanghai was notorious for every kind of vice.
The sexy look of a Qipao was a perfect fit. And that meant business was booming for Master Chu.
“It was different back then,” Master Chu says from inside his Shanghai shop. “We didn’t even have cars. Instead, people pulled you around in a rickshaw. If you were wealthy, you had a carriage. The Qipao was really part of the national dress code. Whether you were a rich or a poor girl, you wore one. Girls who would visit the dance halls wore very tight ones. I thought they were a little too tight.”
But that didn’t stop Master Chu from making them. What nearly stopped him, though, were the anti-capitalist campaigns of Chairman Mao Zedong’s Communist China. In the late 1960s, Mao initiated China’s Cultural Revolution, calling for class struggle, putting the economy at a standstill. The government outlawed qipaos, calling them a symbol of bourgeois decadence.
By then, Master Chu had decades of experience. He was known as one of the best Qipao tailors in the country. Instead of targeting him for this, government officials made calls to him…on the sly. Now that qipaos were taboo, officials’ wives, it turned out, wanted these symbols of bourgeois decadence more than ever.
“During the Cultural Revolution, government officials would send their cars late in the evening to pick me up, and then they’d drop me off at a hotel where I’d make qipaos for their wives,” he said.
Not even Chairman Mao could stand in the way of Master Chu’s business. Nor can today’s rapidly changing China. The manager of Master Chu’s store, Fu Xinglin, removes bright red and white qipaos from a rack. It’s wedding season in Shanghai—high season for Qipaos. Business, he says, has never been better for Hanyi, the brand name of his and Master Chu’s qipao line.
“We used to sell more qipaos overseas, but the financial crisis in the West has slowed that down,” Xinglin said. “Nowadays, demand in China is very high, and that’s good, because foreign buyers often thought a thousand US dollars for a qipao was too much. These days, the Chinese will buy qipaos from us that cost at least five thousand dollars.”
Customer Fan Haiyin and her husband took a five-hour flight from across China just to buy one. But in her conversation with a clerk, she can’t decide which one.
“Do you have a white one?” Hanyin asks. “I like red, too.”
The clerk resonded: “Red is China’s classic color; you can wear it at a wedding or if you’re hosting an event.”
Fan couldnt decide, so her husband stepped in with an offer no one could refuse. “Just choose one red one and one white one!”
And that equals more money for Master Chu.
“Business has picked up ever since Deng Xiaoping opened up China thirty years ago. There’s more trade now; China has transformed itself,” he said.
Today’s economic boom in Shanghai reminds Master Chu of the golden days of the qipao, when business never seemed to stop. He’s not stopping either. Later this year, he’ll become a great-great grandfather. He says he still won’t retire. I ask him if he has a secret for living so long.
Be your own boss, he says, and make sure to always “hang out with younger people.” Should be easy enough for a 94-year-old tailor here on the Street of Eternal Happiness.