Back to the future

By Christy Yip and Yeo Wei Lun

Sung Chang Da, 23, stands out from the crowd at Bugis Street in his hanfu.

A few heads turn as Sung Chang Da boards the bus. A blue robe extends down to his shin, incongruously juxtaposed against khaki chinos, black loafers and a canvas backpack. His oversized sleeves brush gently against the bus handles as he steadies himself.

In the past, the third-year School of Humanities student would be nervous when dressed in such an eye-catching piece. But today, he strides with confidence in his hanfu.

The hanfu is the everyday wear of the Han people back in 2700 BC. However, the 23-year-old is neither a time-traveller nor on the movie set of a period drama. Sung is part of a growing regional movement to make the hanfu relevant again.

Like many Chinese traditions, the hanfu was lost in the seventeenth century when cultural assimilation policies were enacted in China.

But in 2003, hanfu enthusiast Wang Letian from Zhengzhou, China, sparked a revival movement on the internet when photos of him wearing the hanfu went viral online. The movement has since spread to Taiwan and parts of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Singapore.

In Singapore, the Han Cultural Society encourages its members to don the hanfu whenever they meet, to promote the wearing of the traditional garment. The organisation was established in 2012 and has 873 members to date in its Facebook group.

The society comprises mostly older Chinese culture enthusiasts, and Sung was the youngest member when he joined in 2016.

Sung wears the hanfu when he attends the society’s bi-monthly meetings or ad hoc events, such as the exhibition titled Before Cheongsam: 2,000 Years of Chinese Fashion, organised by a fellow member last month. He also makes an effort to don it during family festivities or gatherings with friends.

During a steamboat dinner in hall for the Lunar New Year, Sung recalls how his friends were “politely curious” when he showed up in the hanfu and proceeded to pepper him with questions about the clothing.

“It was quite amusing to see him in the hanfu because it is uncommon for youngsters to dress in traditional clothes even during the Lunar New Year,” said fellow coursemate Marian Lim, a third-year School of Humanities student.

“But I was pleasantly surprised that there are people who are interested in traditional things, even in this generation,” added the 22-year-old.

At home, Sung’s family does not think much of his participation in the hanfu movement. Sung describes himself as the “odd one out” among his siblings — two older sisters who are not as interested in Chinese culture as he is.

But traditional clothing is just an entry point to Sung’s greater vision: for Chinese people to regain confidence in their culture.

Young people today often perceive Chinese culture as “outdated”, “boring” or “lame”, said Sung.

But not him. He attributes his love for Chinese culture to his family’s staunch participation in Chinese traditional events, such as the Qingming (tomb-sweeping) festival. They would also make the six-hour-long drive to Ipoh, Malaysia, to visit their family home for the Lunar New Year, in what Sung describes as a “pilgrimage”.
Besides trawling through online forums to learn more about the hanfu, Sung has also gone for two camps in Malaysia to learn more about the Han culture, each spanning three days.

Sung eventually hopes that perception towards Chinese culture can change over time, and that Chinese culture can generate as much interest as the Japanese and Korean cultures have.

He remarked: “It’s rare for a young person like me to be so interested in traditional culture.

“I don’t expect many to share the same view but for people who care, this is something we can embark on together.”

The hanfu is usually worn on its own and secured with a matching sash across the waist. Sung said he felt nervous the first time he wore the hanfu out in public, likening it to wearing combat uniform, commonly known as the No. 4, on the train.

From left to right: Mr Adrian Tang, 35, Mr John Chan, 42, Ms Zoe Tang, 38 and Sung Chang Da, 23. Members of the Han Cultural Society gather monthly to share their opinions on assigned readings about Han culture.

Traditional Chinese outfits and rituals were showcased at the exhibition, Before Cheongsam: 2,000 Years of Chinese Fashion. Sung hopes that traditional practices such as Chinese archery can be re-introduced to the younger generation through co-curricular activities.

Among the attendees were enthusiasts dressed in their own hanfu, 29-year-old Ms Mayka Low (left), a relationship manager, and Ms Yu Meng (right), 19, a first-year at River Valley High School.