Time-honored Hong Kong tradition begins to unravel

In the world's capital of tailor shops, quality merchants wage a battle with cheaply finished suits from China.

One doesn't build Rome, or a good suit of clothes, in a day. Even in Hong Kong, with the world's densest concentration of tailors, the stereotypical 24-hour turnaround is considered sartorial barbarism. But shop owners say quality Hong Kong tailoring is disappearing fast, due to cheap labor on mainland China.

In the better shops, making a suit involves the selection of style, cloth, measurements, and multiple fittings, all lasting a week at least. Shirts take two days.

"We don't want the customer walking out of here in a suit that doesn't fit," says Norman Tsui of A-Man Hing Cheong Co., perhaps the busiest and most venerable house, founded in 1898. It has red carpet, dark woods, stacks of imported wool - and "hasn't had a [discount] sale in 102 years," says Peter Chen, a junior salesman since 1964. Richard Nixon was outfitted here before his China trip in 1972.

Hong Kong suits are identifiable for a generally conservative, yet "sharper, crisper" look. "You can have great work but not a great fit, something lumpy. Or a great fit and bad workmanship," says Mr. Yue, A-Man's chief tailor, a diminutive man with large glasses who, like many tailor refugees of the civil war, arrived in the '40s from a Shanghai shop.

As per old-world Asian decorum, no one at A-Man knows Yue's first name, despite the fact that "junior salesmen" like Mr. Chen, a 37-year veteran here, have worked with him for decades. "I've never asked him for a different name," says Mr. Tsui.

Almost to a man, the staff of downtown shops is older. "No youngsters want to know how to be a tailor. Not in Hong Kong, and not in England and Italy," says Tsui.

"We are in a sunset business," says Elton, manager of Raiment Custom Suits, which used to employ eight but now has four tailors, all nearing retirement. "Kids in the city want college. They don't want this."

After China took over Hong Kong in 1997, businesses lost many long-time clients, says Paul Ng of Mayer Shoe Co. "If you've survived the last two years, you are OK for now."

But the main change is in the authenticity of the materials and workmanship. Most suits cheaper than about $700 are turned around in Guangdong province on the mainland. Top Hong Kong firms say Chinese materials are inferior - zippers, padding, lining, and the fabric.

Statistics are scarce in the mercurial tailor trade, but a spokesman for well-regarded Sam's Tailors says 85 percent of Hong Kong suits are finished in Guangdong, once the fitting is complete. Raiment Custom Shop says the figure is 95 percent.

Elton, whose Chinese name, Ah-tong, was altered by a Scottish missionary when he was a boy, says, "A tailor pays a middle man $200 to finish the suit, and he gets the work done for $14 [on the mainland]. They don't hand-stitch arms, they don't add silk lining to the pants. It isn't what the client thinks he's getting."

Many shops stay in business, say insiders, by using lower-quality fabric, which constitutes about half the price of a handmade suit. Peter Chen of A-Man claims that wool marked on the side of the bolt as "Made in England" helps guarantee authenticity - though other tailors say manufacturers in Asia will now stamp "Made in England" on some exports. Another trick is for customers to pick out a fine wool, only to have a cheaper fabric substituted.

Hong Kong clothiers have adjusted to the times. A-Man still sells three or four suits a day, which cost $500 to $6,000. And Manager V.K. Poon still snips cloth samples to send to clients. Houses like Sam's Tailor have started to copy fashions from Milan or Paris at their clients' requests.

Elton, who started in the business at age 10, remembers a Westerner in the early '50s who asked him to count the bolts on the shop's top shelf. "Boy, how many are there?" he said. "Sixteen, sir." " 'Then boy, make me 16 suits.' It was common in those days to talk this way," Elton remembers. "At that time, suits were $32 dollars each," he says. "And I think they might have been made better!"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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