你好,旗袍 (Hello, Qipao!)

In the grand tradition of freebies, I agreed to volunteer for Hangzhou’s International Qipao Exhibition in exchange for a free custom-made qipao dress. I’ve done a lot of events and things for Hangzhou’s tourism bureau (some of which include: helping to choose the slogan “Living poetry,” being in a couple G20 promotional videos, and even editing the city brochure.) This time, I went in with absolutely no idea of what I was supposed to do.

I mentioned the etiquette class I took in another post (link here), remembering that we learned not only how to walk, but also the proper ways to pose. They were described as “pains.” Headache: hand on head. Toothache: hand near chin. Backache: hand on waist.

qipao pains
Or any combination thereof


‘Ah, so we’re going to be models,’ I thought.

Well…sort of.

The day began at 6:30 am at the umbrella museum by the Grand Canal, where hordes of high-schoolers were waiting to do our hair and make-up. I asked, and it turns out that they had been studying cosmetology for the past 2 years, and so were brought in to help us get ready. I’m pleased to say that I’ve reached the level of adulthood where I can handle eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick, but was grateful to have someone do it for me nonetheless. When it came to hair however…

“Yeah, it’s naturally curly, so it might be different,” I said.

“This is NATURAL????” the high-schooler said. “Holy shit!”

I watched her freak out as her teacher came over to calmly tell her to just put it up in some way. When it was all done, she nudged me with her cell phone for a couple pictures.

But lest we forget…the qipao!

qipao classic

I was part of the Zhejiang University group, and we had been told that we could not choose our designs (which was fair, considering they were FREE). So we just went to the area to grab the ones with our names on it. I mean literally. My name is on the tag. I am my own brand. My qipao’s design was an artistic rendition of Hangzhou’s Baochu Pagoda (which incidentally is my favorite spot), which had been especially designed for this qipao exhibition. It was smooth. It was silk. It was as fancy as I’d hoped it would be.

But what, pray tell, was I supposed to DO in it?

As it turned out, just be in group shots, do interviews with TV stations, and generally be a pretty extra in a film advertising the qipao exhibition. The director apparently wanted 1,000 foreign women to sign up so he could get a shot of qipao-laden crowds. We didn’t quite have 1,000, but we did get enough to fill both sides of the bridge for a shot welcoming others to the Grand Canal.

qipao bridge

I was approached by a reporter near the beginning, and I’ll admit that I was a little dazzled by all of the qipao. She asked me how qipao reflected the cultural landscape of Hangzhou, and I just dumbly pointed to my own qipao and said, “Look! It’s Hangzhou. It’s literally on my dress. My qipao literally IS the landscape of Hangzhou!” I do kind of hope she uses that in her report.

We posed on the bridge, and then went to West Lake for more video shots. By this point, many of the other girls were eying my low-heeled sensible shoes with envy. We had to walk along a crooked bridge (which apparently were made crooked in ancient times to slow down ghosts, since ghosts can’t make sharp turns. The more you know!) I was part of the group that held up the sign, which was all well and fine until we had to walk along the bridge. We fumbled over the inclines, slowed down the line, and were generally cussing along in a very unladylike way.

Film it again? Naw.

In terms of duties, that was about it. We had to pose for group shots for a video I hope I can see at some point. The other girls crowded around me to ask what happened next, assuming that since I was the translator from the lesson, I knew what was going on. (Also, years of being a teacher have taught me how to say absolutely nothing with absolute authority.) In the end, we just took a bunch of pictures by the lake.

And, of course, we remembered to pose with the “pains.”

True, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and freebies usually come with strings attached, but this time, I got a fancy dress out of it. Freebies have never done me wrong! (knock on wood…)

Huang Yazhou and the Hangzhou Writers Association

So, I’ve already written about the little poetry group that could in Hangzhou (now complete with a fancy name: The Hangzhou Writer’s Association, with our own website here!). Usually we just do open mics/slams (and occasional nature walks). This month, we did something a little different: we got the chance to welcome local poet Huang Yazhou for a seminar on his poetry.

How do you possibly make such connections, you might ask? Well, one of our friends who regularly attends open mics, Helen, is his good friend/student, and basically told us she could make it happen.

In the weeks leading up to the seminar, we got our hands on copies of his bilingual collections of poetry. Helen asked us to take pictures with them, and so on the night of the seminar, she had a nifty power-point with our pictures as background. She made a lot happen: free copies of his books, gifts, free drinks, and even some press to come and cover the event. (And all I can say is daaaaaamn Helen!)

The evening itself was centered around Huang Yazhou’s poetry. To be honest, though I’ve attended seminars before, I’d never planned one. Helen suggested an open mic reading of his poems followed by some time for Q&A. So shall it be written, so shall it be done.

Turns out that Huang Yazhou is super nice and has a good sense of humor! I asked him about a line in his preface that said, “Poetry is a dance for the young.” His response? A quote from writer Borges “If one is still writing poetry at 70, then he is a true poet,” and his observation: “I’m not quite 70 yet, so I don’t think I can truly call myself a poet. Almost, though!” Other questions included what Huang Yazhou would say to his younger self, to which he said, “I wish I could be like all of you, who come here to enjoy poetry not because it’s your job, but because you really do love it. That, to me, is a wonderful thing.”

I guess I sometimes do take it for granted to be in a collection of people who like poetry not because it’s expected of them, but because they actually factually just like poetry. It’s not as common as you’d think, and when we can get together to welcome a new voice, it’s indeed a wonderful thing.

Of course, the event itself took a lot of planning and effort (and that’s outside of all that Helen did). People approached me to ask when the next one would be, and not gonna lie, a tired “beer me now” voice in my head thought “Not for a long time!” But in the end it’s worth it. We’ll do it again, and hopefully we’ll do other wonderful things in our group. And as long as we keep truckin’ all the way until we’re 70, then maybe we’ll be true poets, too.

Walk Like a Lady

I remember seeing my junior year college roommate once slide on a towering pair of stillettos.

“How can you walk in those?” I said. “Won’t you break your ankle?”

“Nah,” she said. “I took classes when I was younger. These are as comfortable as tennis shoes.”

At the time, I could only take her word for it, positive that no amount of classes could ever make me love spiky death-traps. Little did I know, I would have to take a walking class of my own someday.

Several months back, I signed up to volunteer for Hangzhou’s International Qipao Exhibition, an event meant to celebrate and show off the culture and history of the Qipao (旗袍, sometimes translated as cheongsam).

This type of dress (image courtesy of Google)

Not gonna lie, the big draw to volunteer at this exhibition is that all volunteers get a FREE CUSTOM-MADE QIPAO.

Um, yes.

When would you wear a Qipao? Whenever you feel like looking and feeling fabulous, basically. Or, whenever you managed NOT to eat an entire cake and therefore want to show off your curves.

To volunteer at the exhibition, we ladies have to do more than nab out dress and run for the hills. Though, from our scant training time thus far, it seems like most of what we’ll have to do is walk and pose. Or at least that’s the impression I got from our qipao etiquette class last week.

Chinese etiquette class? My first thought was that scene in Mulan when she has to pour the tea. Were we going to have to flutter around pouring tea at precise angles, complimenting our guests in flattering but unobtrusive ways? Would I accidentally sic a cricket on them and bring dishonor on my family?

No to the tea-pouring, maybe to the cricket.

First off, we had to learn about the qipao itself. I was acting as Chinese-English interpreter that day, and quickly learned that there are a lot of Chinese adjectives that all basically say “Qipao’s are really beautiful and refined.” I did my best to convey the magnificence of the qipao, though to be honest at a certain point, was grateful to move on to the actual lesson. My inner thesaurus was quickly getting exhausted.

Me smiling to hide the internal screaming.

The women in charge, dressed in qipao themselves, stood ramrod straight and walked as if doing a dance. They told us that posture was very important: shoulders back, chest high, chin down, eyes level, with a slight smile to tell viewers “No, I’m not thinking very hard about every body part right now.” To sit, we would have to smooth out the back of our dresses and could only sit on the front third of the chair.

“Backs straight, shoulders back! Smile!” they reminded us. Lucky for me, years of orchestra have prepared me for seated posture. I was not so prepared for the poses, though.

“We pose as if in pain,” the woman said. I translated it, to much amusement from my foreign classmates. She nodded, affirming that I was right. “Think of it: my tooth aches,” she rested her hand on her chin in a cute pose, “my head hurts,” she put the back of her hand on her forehead, “my back hurts,” she placed a hand near her back. “Isn’t it lovely?”

Well, it didn’t sound lovely, but as I watched her pose with ease, I had to admit that the pains paid off.

The hardest part of our lesson, however, was definitely the walking. You’d think that walking would be fairly straightforward, but since qipao are tight dresses, we had to get used to taking delicate, small steps. We also had to carry ourselves with good posture, and of course…

“Smile!” she said. “And don’t look at your feet!”

We had to take each step as if walking in a straight line, and had to try and make our knees swish together. Some girls didn’t have their high heels yet. I had my cheater high heels: the kitten heels that were about as close as I was willing to get.

“Great!” she said, though I felt like a galumphing elephant next to her. “Now we’re going to try it with umbrellas!”

We each got an umbrella,  and found out that there was a specific way to hold the umbrella, that whenever we wanted to turn around, we had to first pose, lower the umbrella until our faces peeked out, and then twirl them four times before going back. The maneuver took several tries before we were deemed acceptable. But then, it was time for the fans.

Fierce AF

Like the umbrellas, the fans also required special maneuvers to walk/turn around. We had to hold them two fists away from our chests, and then turn them upside down before turning around to walk back. I can’t speak to how it looked, but I definitely had to translate the fan placement enough times that I’ll definitely get that part.

Me, trying to smile while not dropping my fan.

I never realized that so much went into this. I guess I assumed that for this event, we would mostly be posing in pretty places around Hangzhou while exhibition-goers filled their SIM cards with photos, or just giving directions or handing out pamphlets or something. For all I know now, we’ll be doing some kind of runway extravaganza!

If that’s the case, I’ll have to look up a lot more synonyms for “Walk like a lady,” because my own vocabulary is lacking.