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Not gonna to lie, it still feels weird wearing hanfu out in public even though it has been over a year since I joined the community of those who dress up in traditional Han Chinese outfits in Singapore.

In fact, I was joking with a friend that there’s no way I’d take public transport alone if I’m in hanfu, because while I can pretend to be aloof and cool, behind my mask I’d be frantic with nervous insecurity.

That’s why last weekend was special, because it was the first local hanfu event since the pandemic started. Organised by modern Chinese cultural experience studio Another Day and the Chinatown Business Association, Chinatown’s inaugural Hanfu Festival naturally attracted all fellow tongpao (Chinese term for hanfu enthusiasts) as it was an opportunity for us to wear and flaunt our hanfu without getting peculiar looks from the public.

It was apt for the organisers to have the event in Chinatown, since the area filled with rich heritage and culture has been struggling since the pandemic started.

I was with a friend who first introduced me to the local hanfu scene. As it was a chance for us to air our hanfu from our wardrobes, we were at the event on both days, where we spotted more than 50 tongpao along Sago Street and Trengganu Street.

A hanfu weekend to remember

Hanfu Festival Chinatown Singapore
Some tongpao even had friends come along as photographers for the day. Image source: Tan Kerng Ngee

When my friend and I made our way to Chinatown last weekend, it was an eye-opening sight the moment we got there — it was like appearing in our own fashion parade!

Along some streets notably, there were more tongpao in hanfu than members of the public in their usual t-shirts and jeans. Organisers didn’t give an official number to the attendees, but one of the main hanfu communities in Singapore, Singapore Han Culture Society, has about 2,000 members.

The novelty of having so many tongpao in the same area made many of us, normally too shy to strike up conversations with strangers, more confident and chatty. In the past, if I ever saw another person in hanfu in public, I would bashfully nod or do a little wave of acknowledgement before walking on.

Hanfu Festival Chinatown Singapore
Photo-op area along Sago Street. Image source: Tan Kerng Ngee

This time round, my friends and I were happily bonding with complete strangers about common interests, talking about which era our costumes were from, how we came up with different designs and the rationale behind choosing our outfits.

The most common question? How long it would take on average to prep before heading out. While it takes only a few minutes to wear a hanfu, the hair and make-up that goes with it takes a lot longer! Of course, as always, the guys have it easy.

It was definitely a novel experience for many of us, as it was a rare reason to dress up in hanfu and have various designs from the different Chinese dynasties on display.

Some of the bemused public were probably wondering if they had stumbled on to some pop-up flash mob, or that it was just a bunch of cosplayers (note: don’t call us cosplayers, it’s a different community of enthusiasts) taking to the streets to release some pent-up frustration in the midst of the pandemic.

I did hear a random “wah, they siao ah” (it was really hot last weekend and hanfu is not the coolest attire to wear in Singapore’s tropical weather) here and there, but in general, the public were quite supportive.

Some of them even came up to us to ask for photos!

A safe space for all

Hanfu Festival Chinatown Singapore
Taking photos with a member of the public. Image source: Tan Kerng Ngee

In the past, we would often get stares and negative comments when wearing hanfu in public.

Some tongpao (myself included) often shun chatting with curious members of the public as most times, such social exchanges end with them expressing negative sentiments (even if well-meaning) about our lifestyle choices.

But as last weekend’s event turned a public place into a safe space, most of us were quite open, confident even, about engaging with the public.

It’s different at this event — we got to be ourselves, educating the public on hanfu and sharing our passions with them.

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A few friendly uncles came up to us to chat about our hanfu designs.

One of them asked me: “Is this a Tang dynasty outfit?” And when I nodded and smiled, he turned triumphantly to his friend. “See? I told you it’s not cosplay!”

Others joined in the fun by participating in some traditional games at the event, like Pitch-pot (which players need to throw arrows or sticks into a pot to score points) and Burr puzzles (wooden mechanical puzzles that requires sliding and twisting to solve — like an ancient Rubik’s cube).

Hanfu Festival Chinatown Singapore
Photo of tongpao playing Pitch-pot. Image source: Tan Kerng Ngee

It almost had an air of a (socially-distanced) carnival, albeit with thinner crowds and some rather elaborately dressed groups!

It struck me how people from different backgrounds could come together, bonding over something different from the norm. It was something that we’ve sorely missed since the pandemic started – people having fun together.

While we were rushing to meet some friends, we met a Chinese girl and her Caucasian friend, who had decided to join in the fun by wearing hanfu too. I was excited and charmed by the fact that people from other backgrounds would take an interest in hanfu, which shows that culture can transcend such boundaries.

Hanfu Festival Chinatown Singapore
Different people joining in the fun. Image source: Tan Kerng Ngee

Unfortunately, we were in a hurry and didn’t have time to chat but they gamely took off their masks when I approached them for a picture. It was a moment of simple positivity that still brings a smile to my face when I think of it — like-minded strangers sharing a moment.

In some countries, a person of a particular race dressed in the traditional outfit of another culture might raise accusations of cultural appropriation. But I feel that as long as there is a genuine mutual interest and respect, we should encourage such interactions.

How else can we celebrate and learn more about the different races and cultures who live with us?

Kindness in the smallest gestures

Hanfu Festival Chinatown Singapore
Taking a picture with a younger fan. Image source: Vivian Tan

As most hanfu are ankle-length, hence, some of us, especially newbies like me, have difficulty walking in them. We can’t take the normal strides that we do if we’re in our normal clothes. Sometimes, we would even trip on our own hanfu.

Last weekend, a tongpao tripped and fell when we were busy taking photos. It happened in a flash. By the time I reacted to the commotion, I could already see others rushing to help her up.

I know it sounds like a trivial moment — after all, most of us would do that normally.

But it was how quickly people rushed to help that struck me, their speed accelerated no doubt by the fact that we know how inconvenient it can be at times when moving around with such long skirts, and how dangerous it can be when you get tangled up as you fall over — you know how you see maidens fall over oh so gracefully in Chinese period dramas? Nope, you don’t get that in real life!

Getting her to stand up required a little more effort due to her outfit (how did people manage in ancient times!?). We had to take extra care to make sure she hadn’t twisted her ankle.

Another day, another feeling

Hanfu Festival Chinatown Singapore
Image source: Vivian Tan

I’d previously shared that I felt awkward wearing hanfu out in public, even if I was accompanied by other tongpao.

Last weekend, I was pleased and a little surprised to realise that I felt much more comfortable roaming the streets in hanfu. It could be partly due to the presence of other tongpao of course, but I definitely did feel liberated, without the usual fear and judgement weighing me down.

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On my private-hire rides to and from the event, I was comfortable chatting with the drivers as they asked questions about my outfit. I didn’t keep my answers short, in fact I elaborated and clarified as much as I could, hoping that they would get to know more about the hanfu community and see it in a positive light.

The community has always been warm and friendly to me. And I’m glad that we got to show that welcoming spirit to the public last weekend.

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Top Image: Tan Kerng Ngee