The Spencer Mansion was designed by William Ridgeway Wilson, and built in 1889. The Mansion was donated in 1951 by Sarah Spencer to become the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

VICTORIA - When people I meet for the first time hear that I am a Specialist in Chinese art, they invariably ask if I travel to China often. While I do go to Hong Kong for our sales, most of my travel for work actually takes place within the United States and Canada.

My job has afforded me the opportunity to travel to places I would not normally think to visit. One such place was Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island off Canada's Pacific coast. I had gone there to see a pair of 17th century chairs that belonged to the St. Matthias Anglican Church which were later consigned to Sotheby’s and sold during the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale in New York on 11th and 12th September 2012, for $758,500.

Whenever I travel, I always try to visit the local museums to familiarize myself with their collections, and try and develop relationships with them, especially museums with collections of Chinese art.  It was the connections that Sotheby’s had with the Masaki Art Museum and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, that led these museums to choose Sotheby’s as the house of choice to help them with their deaccessions.  

So while in Victoria, I took the opportunity to visit The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria which is home to one of Canada's most important Asian art collections, second only to the Royal Ontario Museum. When The Gallery first opened in 1951, it exhibited art in the historic 1889 mansion that now forms part of an exhibition complex along with seven modern adjacent galleries.

The exhibition Silk Splendour: Textiles of Late Imperial China (1644-1911).

The ongoing exhibition at that time of my visit was called Silk Splendour: Textiles of Late Imperial China (1644 - 1911). The exhibition featured 19th century garments from the Qing dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty. Antique Chinese textiles are truly beautiful. The time and effort that went into a garment would be inconceivable today. A dragon robe would take a team of ten to twelve women between four to five years to complete. If you look closely, there are often differences between the left and right halves of the robe due to the fact that they were executed by different people. A woman’s robe could take up to three years to complete. The length of time taken to complete a garment resulted in Chinese fashions changing very slowly. However, the early decades of the 20th century saw dramatic political, economic and social changes in China, which affected the way Chinese dressed.

When I was in Hong Kong in 2010, there was an exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History called The Evergreen Classic: Transformation of the Qipao that featured Chinese clothing from the late Qing period through the 1970s and beyond. In Singapore in 2012, while I was there visiting my family, there was a similar exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore called In The Mood for Cheongsam, which also featured Chinese clothing from the late Qing dynasty through the 1970s, but this time in a Singaporean context. Catching these three exhibitions gave me an overview of almost two hundred years of the evolution of Chinese dress from the 1800s all the way to the 1970s.

My mother and aunt, 1960.

The 1970s were the last time that Chinese dress was worn by Chinese women on a daily basis. By then the wide Qing dynasty garments had evolved into a slender sheath-like garment called the Cheongsam in Cantonese and Qipao in Mandarin. The basic features however, remained the same. The garment had a high mandarin collar, opened on the right and fastened down the side. The Cheongsam first made its appearance in the 1920s and rapidly gained popularity as a symbol of Chineseness. In Singapore, by the 1930s, Straits-born Chinese women, who were descendant of Chinese who arrived in Southeast Asia during the Ming dynasty, and had traditionally worn Malay dress, also adopted the Cheongsam as daily wear.

Shanghai Tang 2012 collection.

In mainland China, the Cheongsam was banned in the 1960s, but it continued to be worn in Chinese communities outside of the mainland such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore until the 1970s, when cheap factory-made western-style clothing became the norm. Although the Cheongsam has ceased to be daily wear for Chinese women, it has never really gone away.  It continues to be a symbol of Chineseness, and designers and fashion labels such as Vivienne Tam and Shanghai Tang, continue to keep the Cheongsam in the fashion forefront.