Uniformity

They’re very partial to a bad uniform here.  My son wears a striped red-and-white joint that causes people to stop him in the street and ask for fries with that.  The kids at my daughter’s preschool wear bright yellow terry-towelling shorts and shirt.  They look like hundreds of tiny bananas marching in to school.  I think they got this terry-towelling idea by following their hot-weather technique of draping a tea-towel around the neck to its full and logical conclusion.  And then they thought a whole outfit made out of a towel lacks the required gravitas and dignity for wearing to an educational institution, so they made it bright yellow.  JOB DONE.

Across Hong Kong primary and secondary schools, there is a very limited range of uniforms on display.  Girls wear dresses, usually in white, made of bulky drill cotton and cut well below the knee, fastened with belts.


Two girls on their way to lawn bowls their casual nursing shift school.

In the few cool weeks each year, these are complemented with formless navy or brown cardigans that dangle halfway down the thighs and well over the fingers.  The overall effect is one of awkwardness, shame and sloppiness.  I can’t think this was the intention of the local uniform designers, but then again they came up with the towelling banana situation for my daughter’s preschool, so – much like the Oriental draftsman – who can really know their intention.

The boys are at the other end of the spectrum, looking like so many Admirals of the Fleet.  Their uniforms are also usually white, like the tropical military dress of most standing naval forces, which is appropriate I guess.  Their white pants are tailored above the ankle, their white shirts covered in epaulettes and buttons.  They wear flat caps usually seen on commodores, pilots, and Victoria Police officers in the 1980s.

Where did they get these ideas?  I have my own theory.  Here it is then.  Obviously when the British left, they abandoned massive stockpiles of tiny military kit all over the place.  During the handover ceremony, at exactly 00:00 Hong Kong time on 1 July 1997, the last British governor of Hong Kong sent the following telegram:

“I have relinquished the administration of this government.  God Save The Queen.  Patten.”

He then sailed from the city in tears, with Prince Charles, on board the royal yacht, both strewing packets of unused pressed pants and “plasti-gold” buttons over the rails of the Britannia under the covetous eyes of the officers on the surveying Chinese warships.

Somewhere, lost in some colonial reliquary, is the second part of his telegram, not publicised on Wikipedia for unknown political reasons.  It simply says:

“Have left 30,000 sets military attire for natives.  To be fished from South China Sea.  As parting sartorial legacy.  NB we like to wear our dacks up to our armpits in the UK, don’t you know.  Rgds, Patten.  PS Jiang Zemin, you are a simply appalling waxwork!  No rgds, Charles P.”

That is really the only plausible explanation, isn’t it?

I have no way to segue back into the narrative here, a common dilemma, so I now employ a patented writing technique of mine: if you can’t find a link, just chuck up a bad photo.  Here is a bad photo of a boy wearing girly socks with his uniform.  Remember these socks, girl readers?

I know their whimsical femininity is set off by the rest of his uniform being that of a wartime commander, BUT STILL.  Really?

Anyway, the middle generations here just wear regular clothes obviously.  But by the time they reach the age of about 60, something interesting starts to happen with the women.  They get back into uniform.  This makes sense in a way because the weather is so intense, it’s easier to cope with in prescribed attire.

Let me tell you how hot and humid it is here.  The first summer we lived here I described it as like being inside a Gladwrap-covered bowl that’s just been microwaved.  Right at that moment when it comes out of the microwave, before the steam seal is broken, and the Gladwrap is stretched out in a taut dripping concave over the bowl.  For nine months.  Today is the first really hot day of this year (I say confidently in May – it’s not even summer yet).  But I know it was hot because of what I saw one local lady doing.  She works in the strip of restaurants on the Tai Mong Tsai Road as you head to Ma On Shan.  Her job is to stand on the side of the road and wave a fluorescent plastic clapping hand thing at the passing cars to encourage their patronage.  She is always super enthusiastic and trying to outdo the touts from the other restaurants.  She’s usually dancing, waving her plastic hand overhead, and calling out happy greetings.  Today she was sitting on a stool with a paper bag shading her downcast head, limply flapping the plastic hand every now and then almost like an involuntary spasm.  I wanted to wind down the window and yell “It’s not even summer yet, how about some clappy hands!” but I didn’t want to let the air-con escape.

So, it’s hot.  And I’m a prick.  But the main point is that it’s hot.

When a whole segment of society decides to choose a uniform, particularly when the particular segment is old and prone to heat stroke, wouldn’t you think they’d choose something cool and refreshing?  The Pakistanis have the shalwar, the Saudis have the thobe.  Even in Australia, where most people don’t actually live in the desert but it IS hot, old ladies have it right, with their cropped perms and light cotton dresses.

But here?  When these things were being decided, they chose slacks.  They chose long-sleeved, heavy-ish blouses.  They chose to keep their hair long.

Here is what every lady over the age of 60 in Hong Kong wears every single day.

Essentials:
Sandals
Slacks
Thick jade “longevity” bracelet
Blouse
Headband
Umbrella/walking stick combo

The blouse is nearly always purple.  I don’t think the British can be blamed for this, but I can’t explain it.  And I never see these pau-pau uniform items in shops.  Where do they come from?  Did the uniform evolve because one day someone over the border in Shenzhen got a cheap shipment of 700,000 bolts of purple shirt fabric?

Selection of desirable shirt fabrics.

In conclusion, if you are a prospective expat looking to integrate here, what you have to do it this.  Keep your eyes open for clothes that look completely unsuitable for both the weather, and projecting a professional and polished appearance.  Buy them.  You are now a member of most clubs/schools in Hong Kong.  Welcome la!  I look forward to sharing some fishballs and a durian juice with you shortly.

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29 Comments Add yours

  1. Jenny says:

    The other amazing thing about the white uniforms is that they never seem to look dirty even on the way home from school. When my kids wear white to school (their school, unusually, has no uniform – liberty, fraternity and all that – and I occasionally make the mistake of giving them something white to wear), they look a mess before they even arrive at school. Imagine what the clothes would be like after a few weeks, when no amount of washing can totally get out the mud/grass/paint/blood/chocolate/Marmite stains! Proof that kids at those schools don’t play outdoors much, and carry a nice little web towel box in their bag to wipe their faces and hands when eating.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Your kids don’t have a uniform? I’m stunned! Liberty and fraternity indeed! I have often wondered about the white thing myself. Rufus’ sports T-shirt is white and I think we’ve already bought about four. He can’t even get through a day without a grievous food-based stain (no grass because there’s none at his school obviously – it is HK 😉

  2. Architart says:

    I would fit right in with these elderly ladies! I used own a lot of purple tops, probably because I was told that I looked good in purple once. Then one day I looked into my closet and realized that I had waaaaay too many purple tops and perhaps I was becoming eccentric at the age of 25. Since then I have consciously diversified my wardrobe but I still own a lot of purple tops so I have a lot to look forward to in thirty years.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Conscious diversification! A tactic! Fabulous. You’ll be so set. Start prepping your commentary on the price of veggies…

  3. HK is just like Malaysia! Our uniforms are equally ugly. I endured 11 years of wearing a pinafore to school.

    Urgh, even the word ‘pinafore’ makes me want to claw my eyes out.

    You LIKE durian????

    1. I just Googled “pinafore” and Alison, you were one lucky girl!

    2. jadeluxe says:

      Of course I don’t like durian, no. Does anyone?
      (I had to wear a pinafore in Australia by the way! It was an odd uniform though. We were ridiculed. It was bright yellow with our names embroidered on the chest. Well done, school.)

  4. sisterhoodofthesensiblemoms says:

    I wish it was appropriate for a middle aged woman to wear a bath towel in the United States. I would even wear a bright yellow one on a day like today.

    But seriously, I love how you bring the culture alive for us. Good post. Ellen

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Thanks Ellen. I would wear a towel of any colour if it were appropriate. COMFORT!

  5. Mayor Gia says:

    Hahahah interesting! You seem to have a firm grasp on the clothing culture there 😛

  6. Vanessa says:

    The scene with the 3 older ladies looks so familiar to me. I live in an area with a large population of migrant workers. There is also a community of Chinese people. When you see them outside the grocery store, or coming in from a long day working in fields they are dressed exactly like this. No matter how tired, or how hot they are they still chatter happily with each other.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Yeah, they love a chat.
      I’m glad to hear the uniform has made it overseas! The polyester diaspora! 😉

  7. kristin says:

    Oh those uniforms are dreadful!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Hideous. HIDEOUS.

  8. I have to admit, I kind of like the white dresses as uniforms. But that’s probably because I had to often ask girls (on hot days) to please hike up their spaghetti straps so that we didn’t have side boob distracting the boys. And I also had to ask boys to turn their “gun barrel pointed at me” t-shirts inside out so that I didn’t have to picture them, well, pointing a gun at me.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Haha gun barrels! I don’t mind a uniform. I don’t think they should be white though. I also don’t think they should be fawn and duck-egg-blue tartan like mine was.. 😉

  9. I have never been to Hong Kong. I imagined much more fashion savvy among the young people, but I guess a uniform is a uniform. I loved your segue. I had a similar problem with my post this week so I used a hache-line. But a bad photo would have been SO much better.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      They’re quite fashion-savvy, in their own way. You can’t help your uniform though I guess…
      I’m not really sure what a hache-line is but I think I’ve used one. I’ve used just a random line of asterisks or something anyway. GREAT TECHNIQUE 😉

  10. Love the gladwrapped microwave analogy. That sweltering steam is unbearable. I hope you have good A/C.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Oh yeah! I can’t imagine living here before electricity, I really can’t.

  11. You consistently crack me up. If it helps (I’m sure it won’t), it’s been ridiculously hot here where I live (outside NYC) and I am astounded my the number of elderly folks wearing jackets and long sleeves and polyester trousers/slacks (these are most definitely not pants, they are trousers or slacks). But they all have an umbrella to shield them from the sun, so go figure.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Is it because, like babies, they can’t feel or regulate their own temperature? It must be.

  12. suzy016 says:

    i’m not sure if i more love the uniforms or the clappy hands. because if ever there was a non-scientific thermometer out there, it should involve the frequency and enthusiasm of a pair of clappy hands. as usual, great stuff.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      I’ll ask clappy-hands if she wants to be the blog’s resident non-scientific thermometer. Love it. Thanks 🙂

  13. Those are pretty drab, but I won’t lie. I’d love a uniform. I hate picking out clothes for myself and my kids.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      I’m with you there, just for myself choosing work clothes. I change my mind three times before I go to bed, and then change it all again in the morning anyway. And who doesn’t love coming home to half your clothes all over the room and skewered with frantically discarded coathangers?

  14. Wow. I just can’t get over those girly socks. Is it strange that I want nothing more than to pull them up? I hate sagging socks!

  15. ellebee08 says:

    Loved this blog. I remember being in a taxi in HK and looking out to see two girls, aged 6-8, wearing full-on sailor outfits, from head to tow, including navy blue coats with white piping. Engrained in memory. I always wondered what those three ladies on the bench could possibly be talking about. That’s my fascination. Where they bought their eggs that morning, who has the best deal on green tea that week, what pig organ makes the best soup? Could make for an interesting blog(?)

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Thanks Lisa! It’s quite bizarre when you first see it, isn’t it. I think you’re spot on with what they’re discussing. Now that I understand a lot more Cantonese, you’d think I’d be able to enlighten you – but actually I find it really hard to understand the elderly people. They speak in full slang and lots of weird grunting noises. Nonetheless I think you’d have to be on the money.

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