May 10, 2012|
HK Magazine: How did you fall in love with the cheongsam?
Helius Yuen: It started with a vintage photograph of my grandmother. I know that my grandmother had a very painful past. She witnessed the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong and endured poverty. But in that photo on her bedside, she was wearing a cheongsam and had makeup on. She was stunning, making my 14-year-old self realize how a cheongsam can completely transform a woman.
HK: Your appreciation for the cheongsam began very early, but when did you start to collect them?
HY: I only started collecting at around age 20. The blank period between when I was 14 and 20 was because I was what people would call “a street gangster.” I fell behind in my studies because I was lazy. Then I was assigned to a vocational high school, an environment where real learning was impossible. Violence, foul language and gangsters were the norm. The education system had labeled me a piece of trash. I dropped out of school after my second year and spent my teenage years fighting and doing nothing on the streets.
HK: What reignited your love for cheongsams?
HY: Everything after my troubled years can be traced back to one person: Joel Chung, a well-known vintage toy collector. He became my mentor after hiring me as a salesperson. Gradually, I learned more about the history of Hong Kong from him. He took me on photo-taking excursions in old areas of Hong Kong and showed me what collecting really is—to rediscover, remember and respect one’s cultural past.
HK: How did that grow to a collection of 700 cheongsams?
HY: Most of my collection comes from family and relatives of people I know. At first, people did question my motives and thought of me as a pervert. After all, what is a young guy going to do with their cheongsams? But as I learned more about cheongsams, people trusted me and believed their cheongsams would be better preserved under my care.
HK: Which cheongsam is your favorite?
HY: This patterned cheongsam from the 50s is my favorite (pictured above) as it contains a very romantic and personal story. The dress belonged to the mother of Joel Chung. She and Chung’s father went boating, and she specially made this dress for the date. It also signifies Chung’s approval of me as a professional collector. That was the moment when I felt I was a qualified collector.
HK: What are some of the difficulties with collecting cheongsams?
HY: Space is definitely one of the problems, especially in my early years. I did not earn much back then and lived in an apartment the size of a single room. I had to throw away a lot of other treasured items, such as my collection of vintage glass bottles, to make space for them. The apartment was literally bags of cheongsams and a bed.
HK: Has anyone tried to buy or sell your cheongsams?
HY: I do not collect cheongsams for money but for their cultural and historical significance. The highest offer I received was ten of thousands [of dollars] for one cheongsam. But I can say with confidence that I will never sell my collection.
HK: What are your present and future plans?
HY: I am now studying fashion with Caritas Bianchi College of Careers. I do plan to carry on with my study of fashion design at IVE [the Institute of Vocational Education]. I also love all things that represent old Hong Kong, hence my plan to open a bing sut [old-school cafe] in Mong Kok, which would serve traditional dishes as well as house an exhibition about Hong Kong’s bing suts.