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.
Thick jade “longevity” bracelet
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.