I was thinking of my mother’s qi pao, which hung in one closet along with several of her other precious dresses, but the qi pao was different and stood out – it was red with some embroidery, made of silk and was very shapely, with a long slit down each side of the dress. I found out later that she wore it at her wedding. I loved the feel of the silk. It was so soft and intimate. I could rub it against my cheek, and it felt sensual.
When I went to Kun Ming, I visited a factory that made silken cloth. There were two men at a loom, weaving. The older man sat atop an old wooden structure and pedaled away as on a bicycle but at varying speeds (I’m not sure my memory is entirely accurate here), and the younger man below moved his fingers quickly and precisely across the evenly spread out threads as across the strings of an instrument. The older man above determined which spool of thread would filter down to the guy below. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much more, except that the weaving of the cloth was intricately coordinated between these two men (who never spoke a word as they were working), and it must have taken a great deal of time and skill to learn how to do this.
The end product was bundled yards and yards of silken cloth of all different colors. To this day, it is one of the most luxurious sights I have ever seen. Each bundle seemed heavy in weight, with different patterns of embroidery in gold, silver, turquoise… and some of the embroidery, as intricate as it was, was subtle because it was red on red or ivory on ivory.
I asked someone at the counter if I could have a small piece of cloth, just a small square as a souvenir. She checked with her supervisor and said, “I’m sorry. We cannot give you just a small piece. We have to sell the cloth by the meter. If you want, you can buy a meter of cloth.”
A meter of this silken cloth cost $300 at the time. Even if I could get half a meter, it would be $150, which was too much for me to afford. Privately, I wondered if they thought I had deep pockets as a foreigner. (You always had to be wary of inflated prices as a foreigner.) Didn’t they have a piece of “scrap” lying around somewhere? Whatever the case was, they were, indeed, attending to a couple of Japanese customers who had decided on what cloths to buy (most likely, for kimonos). The woman at the counter unrolled and measured out the cloth of each bundle carefully and took out a fine pair of scissors, making an almost perfect straight cut down the middle.
The qi pao, which is a traditional Chinese dress, is now worn mostly at formal occasions, like weddings or ceremonial functions, or is worn as a uniform for certain job functions (stewardesses at airlines, for example). Each one is made to fit the individual body (like a glove) and has a collar at the top, traditionally with Chinese knots for buttons. It’s not the most comfortable garment to walk around in, but it’s certainly a hip-hugging, sexy dress. Not all of them are made with silk, which is expensive. I don’t know if today there are still two men weaving cloths at the loom where I was in Kun Ming or whether they have been replaced by factory workers. I do know it was a magical experience to see the cloths and see them being made.
As for my mother’s qi pao, my sister and I both at one point tried to put it on, of course, but it didn’t fit either of us correctly (my shoulders were a bit broad, my waist wasn’t tiny enough and the bodice was definitely too loose). My mother had a figure to be envied, and my sister and I joked that certain traits skip a generation. We asked our mother to put it on, but she modestly declined, even though I’m quite sure it would have fit her. Perhaps she wanted to keep the memory of her having worn it only on the day of her wedding.
My sister now keeps my mother’s qi pao. Even if I like to tell myself that material things don’t matter so much, I realize that certain things do, especially because they represent a piece of someone that is part of us – in this case, a memory of the vivid, beautiful woman that my mother was and what was precious to her.