5th Apr 1998 New York Times, Sunday
Featured in New York Times, Sunday
By David Hochman April 5, 1998
For a few minutes in January, it seemed to really matter that my right shoulder leans forwards slightly more than my left. I was in Hong Kong, being fitted for a suit at W.W. Chan and Sons, one of the last of the city's great custom tailoring shops. As soon as I announced I wanted a suit made, it appeared that neither chicken flu nor crashing stock markets nor the return of the Chinese Government could keep these master craftsmen from working their measuring-tap magic. Suddenly, I was at the center of a storm of white chalk, straight pins and perspiration. Tang Yan Choi, a stout, tough-looking man, who - like many of the best Chinese tailors - claims Shanghai as his place of origin, taped me in eight or nine places and grunted out something in Cantonese, while Raymond K. K. Kiang, the manager of the 41-year-old shop, took furious notes.
"That his secret method," Mr. Kiang told me. "He reads your body."
Thirty-one measurements later, I was ready to receive Mr. Tang's assessment: my chest is full, my stomach is flat, I have a rounded right calf and I tend to wear my trousers two inches lower at the waist than I should. The hardest news to hear, though, was that my right shoulder stoops forward ever so slightly. "That's why you've come to us."
Heading up the stairs to W. W. Chan's became a morning ritual during our week - long stay. Mr. Kiang said he needed to see me each day for fittings, and now Ruth, who became jealous watching me get so much attention, was in the adjoining room at Irene Fashions, Chan's women's division, having a jacket made. She had brought a favorite blazer to have coped, but Tommy Liu, the tailor at Irene's
placed the jacket on a chair, winked and quickly sketched a garment that put Ruth's Donna Karan blazer to shame. The sketched version was tapered and pleated in all the right places (as well it should be, for $560), and soon Ruth was being lassoed by Tommy's tape measure.
Over on the Chan side, I was having heart palpitations. Like most upscale shops, W. W. Chan's had not lowered its prices when we were there; and we did not try to negotiate. The dark cashmere-and-wool suit they had whipped up overnight, and which, at $875, would be the most expensive garment I'd ever purchased, still had chalk-marked lapels, no lining, no buttons, pins everywhere and only one sleeve. Mr. Tang, friendly as ever, poked and tapped me unceremoniously, while Mr. Kiang politely reminded me to return the following morning.
We felt a touch of sadness heading over to Chan's that final afternoon to pick up our suit and jacket. Even in our shopping stupor, it was impossible to ignore the depth of Hong Kong's distress. The week we were there, another major investment bank, Peregrine Investments Holdings, collapsed. The upcoming Chinese New Year was looking for traditional feasts, as the territory's chickens had been slaughtered to impede the spread of a flu virus.
Mr. Kiang helped me into my wonderful new suit jacket, but even he couldn't contain his uncertainty this time. "Business is not so good," he said. "Next generation of tailors is not being trained, and I wonder if business can last much longer." Traditional tailoring houses like Chan's, where all the work is done on the premises, are rapidly being replaced by less exacting shops, which send out garments piecemeal to factories in mainland China. Of course, a proud man like Mr. Kiang would never permit such an arrangement.
He handed me his business card with two hands, as is the Chinese tradition, and promised he would visit the United States twice a year for new suit fittings and to make alterations on this one. Ruth joined me in her new chocolate brown outfit, and both of us, dizzy from a week on the streets, said goodbye to our tailors and to Hong Kong itself - pondering, as we would a Zen riddle, how a "super Saver" vacation could have cost so much money.