Is it allowed to wear the national costume of another country when traveling?
(CNN) – Entering the Pandora Cheng Qipao rental shop in central Hong Kong is like stepping back in time. A brown Chesterfield leather sofa sits in the corner next to a gramophone, across from row after row of bespoke qipaos, the traditional high-necked Chinese dress.
Cheng provides “dress-up experiences” to tourists in Hong Kong that use fashion as a way to explore culture. She was inspired by geisha makeovers in Japan and other cultural clothing activities that she participated in on her travels.
“I think when tourists wear the qipao like us, they can immerse themselves in the culture, explore the old Hong Kong style,” she says, adding, “It’s an experience of knowing a culture deeply.”
But for many tourists traveling abroad, the idea of ”disguising” themselves in the clothes of another culture can raise questions about cultural appropriation – and make them reluctant to participate. So what are the rules?
Appropriation or Appreciation?
When it comes to cultural appropriation, it’s important to consider who the cultural “insider” is and what the power dynamic is, says Erich Hatala Matthes, professor of cultural ethics at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Culture “is constantly changing, evolving, and hybridizing,” and determining who is a cultural insider or an outsider will “always be a negotiation,” he adds.
Matthes says that tourists are invited by cultural insiders in cases like the geisha or qipao makeover – but it’s often cultural outsiders who address appropriation issues on social media, for example.
Qipaos are usually called cheongsams in English.
“The context is so crucial to thinking about allegations of appropriation,” says Matthes. “If there are cases where people in Japan or China invite tourists to wear these clothes, denial for fear of cultural appropriation is a separate kind of disturbing assertion of authority to delineate what is acceptable in this context.”
He adds that this can have negative economic consequences for traditional artisans who rely on the sale of culture-specific crafts or experiences for a living.
While an invitation from a culture insider often means the activity is appreciation rather than appropriation, social media tends to decontextualize the context Situations says Matthes. However, he doesn’t think the answer is for people not to share these experiences online as it can help “do more business” for those who choose to share their culture with tourists.
Matthes says that the most important thing for cultural outsiders is to listen: “Try to be respectful of those who have the cultural experience and knowledge, and listen to what they tell you about how to wear the clothes or how one behaves inwardly respectfully in this context. ”
A symbolic dress
Cheng is one of the “cultural insiders” who invites foreign tourists to try a qipao in her rental shop in Hong Kong. Although the dress is symbolic of Cheng, in her opinion it should not be reserved for traditional use or only worn by people of Chinese ancestry. “The qipao is not that heavy,” she says.
Once a loose-fitting everyday item, the qipao (also known as cheongsam) became popular in Shanghai in the 1920s and became increasingly fitter as women gained more control over their lives and bodies.
“The qipao is a starting point for (Chinese) fashion and also the starting point for women’s independence,” says Cheng. She opened her store in 2017 to provide tourists with a tactile way to connect with fast-disappearing old Hong Kong.
With more than 200 handcrafted qipaos, customers can choose from a range of styles and sizes handcrafted by Cheng before having their hair and makeup done for an additional fee.
Then, accompanied by a photographer, customers visit nearby historical sites such as Man Mo Temple and Cat Street Antique Market for a photo shoot (from $ 164).
Travelers, some of whom are wearing traditional hanboks, gather in Seoul.
Before the pandemic, most of their customers were overseas tourists. Now her main visitors are Hong Kong residents looking to explore their city in new ways. With strict Covid-19 mask rules in the city, Cheng expanded the retro photo sets in her store so people could immerse themselves in old Hong Kong without going outside.
In addition to advertising on Airbnb Experiences, Klook and KK Day, Cheng has worked with local hotels, including the Boutique Heritage Hotel 1936 and the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, to offer “Qipao Stay Experiences”. She says that many local Hong Kongers have also never worn a qipao or had the chance to connect with its cultural significance.
“People in Hong Kong love this item, but they can’t find the one they want to use. So we rent qipao so they and other (tourists) can experience it,” says Cheng.
Preserving old art
Cultural clothing experiences have proven popular with both foreign and local tourists across Asia.
In South Korea, a government initiative launched in 2013 grants free entry to the five palaces of Seoul for anyone wearing a hanbok, the Korean national costume worn by both men and women. This initiative aims to preserve traditions, educate people and “popularize and globalize” the Hanbok, says Danny Park, executive director of the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO).
As a result, there are now many local shops around the palaces offering hanbok rentals as well as accessories and hair styling. “Most Koreans enjoy seeing tourists in Korea wearing different styles of hanbok,” adds Park.
Much like Cheng, KTO has partnered with the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong to offer a Korea-inspired stay with a hanbok dress-up experience. With a tea ceremony and VR tour of famous landmarks, the package gave the grounded Hong Kongers an immersive taste of Korea, Park says – with the hope that it will inspire them to visit in the future.
In Japan, dressing geishas and wearing kimonos are another common bucket list activity. The Studio Geisha Cafe in Tokyo offers complete geisha and samurai makeovers, which the founder and wig maker of the second generation Mitsuteru Okuyama launched 15 years ago to teach both foreigners and locals the Japanese culture and the art of “Katsura” ( Wig making).
Prior to Covid, Okuyama said half of his customers were foreign tourists, mostly from the US and Europe. Offering experiences for both men and women, Okuyama welcomes a diverse mix of people into its business.
While Okuyama likes to dress everyone up as a geisha – including Good Morning Britain host Richard Arnold – his only rule is that men must shave before asking about the full face of “Shiro-Nuri” (white makeup).
Okuyama’s mission is to show “the true form” of geisha art, preserve the culture, and correct caricatures and misinformation. “Geishas sometimes appear in American films, and that’s too unreal,” says Okuyama.
Foreigners disguising themselves as geishas aren’t offensive as long as it’s done right, he says. Hoping to introduce foreigners to authentic Japanese etiquette and culture, Okuyama aims to provide tourists with a comprehensive and enjoyable experience. “I just want them to enjoy Japanese culture.”