Back when I was in the market to buy a wedding dress in Hong Kong and China, I had the worst time finding something I liked and–more importantly–something that fit. I never had a problem finding clothes in my native US, but in Hong Kong and China a couple decades ago, that was not the case.
Before I met my former husband, I experienced some weird interactions with men when it came to my weight and what I should be eating. I so wanted to fit in that I just chalked this up to another cultural difference and went along with it.
One guy I dated would only order vegetables (boiled to death and smothered in cooking oil) for my lunch while he ordered a lunch box of rice, meat, and vegetables for himself. Sometimes I’d eat lunch with a friend of his, and that guy told me I should stick to an all-fruit diet before dinnertime (around that time, famous Hong Kong politician Martin Lee had gone on an all-fruit diet before noon and lost a lot of weight).
And then after I was engaged to my former husband, who came from mainland China, it was time to shop for a modest wedding dress for our Hong Kong civil ceremony and a red qipao for our banquet in Hubei Province.
First, the civil ceremony. We were eloping and not telling anyone at our university (his idea), so I couldn’t wear a pouffy white wedding dress. Or a red qipao. We were going to elope one Thursday afternoon, so it would be something I’d wear to class before heading to the marriage registry, all while keeping this marriage a secret.
My then-fiance went shopping with me to look for a modest dress. I had in a mind a cream-colored shift dress and maybe a matching jacket, but he had other ideas. The one outfit he picked out was a red bandana wrap skirt. Yeah, maybe for a rodeo.
So I went shopping on my own a week before our ceremony and still couldn’t find anything. One off-white pant suit seemed really elegant, but the largest size was still too small. I was starting to panic and wasn’t sure I’d ever find anything to wear to my civil ceremony.
Then I found this long, white tunic with frog buttons and a mandarin collar. It fit and would have to work!
I owned a brown, sleeveless dress with a chiffon underskirt, so I’d wear the tunic over that. And over the tunic I decided to wear this long, black jacket. In my memoir, Good Chinese Wife, I describe this get-up as something a musician in a makeshift orchestra would wear, but there was no time to find another outfit.
Only one classmate asked why I was dressed up that day in class (I said I was going to Tsim Sha Tsui later that day, which wasn’t a lie; it’s where we had our one-night honeymoon at the Miramar Hotel), but other than that I flew under the radar at the university.
Next up was the red qipao for my Hubei banquet. Not only was it extremely rare for mainland Chinese women to wear a qipao at their weddings at that time, but it was almost impossible to find one for purchase then. We scoured the racks in Shanghai and Wuhan before traveling to Suzhou for my then-husband’s dissertation fieldwork. One quick trip to the Suzhou Silk Museum solved this problem.
They had one red qipao for sale. We held it up to me and figured it would have to do.
It was all right as long as I didn’t run or sit down too quickly.
I wore it again half a year later in Chicago and had to wear this white shawl to cover up. Just five extra pounds and the thing barely fit.
I lost the tunic, dress, and jacket long ago in one move or another. But the good news is that the qipao still fits!
Now there are so many great options when it comes to clothes shopping in China, including custom-made tailoring and off-the-rack selections.
And when I shop in Hong Kong these days, I can always find clothes that fit. I’m a size medium there now although I’m still the same height and weight. I guess women’s clothing sizes in Hong Kong have changed with the times.
Even though I no longer have all of them, I’m still happy with those purchases I made all those many years ago.