“Aiyoh, now Covid-19, still wear like that ah?”

The comment was casual, but it was cruel too.

My girlfriends and I were on a walk, dressed in 汉服 (hanfu, or traditional Chinese clothing) at Gardens By the Bay, when we overheard the comment.

Perhaps the auntie who muttered it from behind her mask was surprised by what she saw, but what she said wasn’t kind.

In a sense, we were used to the comments and the stares, and yes, in a way, it does seem odd that anyone would dress up in such an elaborate way (complete with traditional Chinese parasols!) in the sweltering Singapore humidity.

But let me explain.

It started with a bonding session

Sharing our outfits and excitement on Zoom
Sharing our outfits and excitement on Zoom. Image source: Tan Kerng Ngee

Covid-19 has really struck us, and yes we have accepted and embraced our new way of life. We can’t travel or continue to do some of the activities we used to enjoy. That one-day trip to Johor Bahru that I was planning last year before Covid-19 hit us? Well, that’s on my KIV list till who knows when.

Last year, during the circuit breaker, my girlfriends and I started video calling each other almost every day, talking about what we could do together online and not flout safe distancing rules after the lockdown was lifted. Should we do crazy make-up sessions? Or start a new hobby that we have never explored before?

After many debates, we concluded that we didn’t want to do anything physically tiring or make ourselves look unglam in public. One girlfriend suggested dressing up in hanfu. We would look glamorous and effortlessly so, she reassured us. Right.

I later asked her why she had suggested the hanfu idea. She confessed: “I just wanted to relive my childhood dream, especially since I grew up watching Hong Kong martial arts movies in the 90s!”

Wearing Hanfu with my best friend

She wasn’t alone. Growing up, I was an avid fan of Hong Kong martial arts movies and My Fair Princess (or Huan Zhu Ge Ge, 还珠格格) and they shaped my childhood fantasy of wearing hanfu in the modern world.

I had always hoped I could bring this childhood fantasy to life, pretending to be a person from ancient China living in modern Singapore. We agreed that maybe this new hobby of ours would help alleviate the feeling of helplessness and boredom that we had been feeling since the circuit breaker.

It seemed like a crazy idea at first, but as my girlfriends and I started our research, we found a trove of information online. Clueless as we were at first, we started to find out more about the dos and don’t of wearing hanfu and realised that it is actually a relatively recent phenomenon.

Worldwide trend

Hanfu is a worldwidetrend now
Image source: Shuuterstock/canghai76

The movement started off as a social trend around 2003 to revive wearing hanfu in public. There are now hanfu associations worldwide, with associations bringing enthusiasts, who call themselves tongpao (同袍, or comrade, also a pun on the Chinese word for robe), together.

If you’re interested, most of hanfu features clothes from the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, dating as far back as 600AD. Hanfu uses different types of material, from silk to crepe fabric like Georgette. The fashion trend has garnered a lot of attention worldwide with articles appearing in Vogue  and Vogue Business.

Back in Singapore, we decided to join the very welcoming Singapore Han Cultural Society Facebook community to find out more on Chinese culture. We found out that they even encouraged members to post their hanfu selfies! Started in 2007, the community used to have hanfu walks from time to time but due to the pandemic, these events have been put on hold.

Singapore Han Cultural Society Facebook Page
Image source: Facebook/Singapore Han Cultural Society

But we weren’t going to let that stop us. So the five of us decided to start having our own hanfu walks instead. In doing something different and out of the box, we wanted to break out from the negativity that we felt due to the pandemic.

When we were planning our first hanfu walk post circuit breaker, I was hesitant to wear my hanfu out. We had hanfu fitting sessions during our video calls. But wearing them out in public? This was a different ball game altogether.

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What if people made sarcastic remarks to my face? What if they post embarrassing videos of me on social media? What if I get thrown out of a restaurant? Despite these negative thoughts, I still decided to take a leap of faith to believe that we are a country that embraces diversity.

In the end, we decided to fully commit and even took public transport to our destination for our very first walk!

Judged for being different

Wearing Hanfu on Public Transport
Taking the MRT. Image source: Vivian Tan

Since that first walk, we have gained more confidence. But not everyone is as non-judgemental as we would like. We do get little stabs in the heart here and there when someone passes a disparaging remark, like that auntie who had no filter.

To that, let me say this: hanfu is just like any traditional dress we often see in Singapore – baju malayu, kebaya, sari and cheongsam. People don’t get judged wearing these traditional outfits. In fact, they are often seen as embracing their culture. Let’s look at hanfu in the same way please.

Recently, before the Phase 2 heightened alert measures, a few of us attended a friend’s wedding banquet in hanfu. We were part of the wedding party and as we were receiving guests at the reception area, we could hear nasty remarks like, “why are they wearing this?” and “is it the seventh month already?” (referring to the Hungry Ghost Festival).

Such comments might seem harmless or just a passing joke, but please remember that it takes a lot to dare to be different. A casual comment like that could possibly be the torpedo that sinks the confidence for some first-timers who just managed to drum up some courage to go public.

Encouragement from strangers

Outing at Botanic Gardens wearing Hanfu and mask
On an outing at Botanic Gardens. Image source: Tan Kerng Ngee

But it isn’t all negativity. During our outings, we have met people who showed us kindness and interest. Some would strike up a conversation about our hanfu, our hair accessories or even our embroidery designs. Others would show their support by asking to take a selfie with us!

Once, we met a father and his 6-year-old son at the Botanic Gardens. When the dad saw us, he immediately started telling his son about the history of the different dynasties in China. He even pointed out which particular dynasty each of our hanfu came from.

I was truly awed by his actions, he didn’t criticise or pass negative comments to his son, instead he taught his son to appreciate history and culture. Thank you, sir.

On a walk at Garden by the Bay, before Phase 2 (Heightened Alert)
On a walk at Garden by the Bay, before Phase 2 (Heightened Alert). Image source: Tan Kerng Ngee

Hanfu enthusiasts are just like members of any other community in Singapore. Some of us love K-pop. Some are into sports and exercise. Others are into gaming. There are so many online communities springing up, supporting each other and bonding over something we are passionate about.

In difficult times like these, I am just thankful that wearing hanfu has given me a way to reclaim a sense of normalcy and freedom in my life. And being embraced as part of a new community has definitely been a source of comfort for me. Thank you girls for bringing me into this wonderful community and let’s continue to wear hanfu out when we are able to!


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Top Image: Tan Kerng Ngee