Culinary refinement meets fashion fineness at what could be considered the first-ever gourmet and sartorial tribute to an ancient Chinese literary master
In the brief history of SOTD, this is a first: beginning a post with a Chinese verse. And not about some flowing robe, but about pork, specifically the best way to cook the humble meat!* Food of present times, like fashion, has been characterised by processes that are best described as fast. Speed may be of the essence, but slow is now trending. Accelerated is not elevated, swift is not swish. This thumbs-down of the quickly-made has brought two different artistic disciplines together, even if they are not directly connected. This week, Yan’s Dining Fine Shanghai Cuisine (嬿青私房菜) and veteran designer Thomas Wee (黄华) collaborate to spotlight the cultural legacy of Song dynasty poet Su Shi (苏轼), better known by his pen name Su Dongpo (苏东坡). Yes, the celebrated scholar who was credited for creating the classic dish of braised dongpo pork (东坡肉).
The meeting of cuisine associated with—and inspired by—Su Shi and fashion conceived by a designer known for his masterful riffs of traditional forms is the unusual highlight of this Dongpo Banquet (东坡宴), described as an opportunity to “partake in poetry and wine at the prime of our life (诗酒趁年华)”. It is, in fact, epicurean/literary appreciation that also includes the calligraphy of Grace Chen Liang (陈亮) and the Peranakan-style jewellery (the connection to Song literary high unclear) of Foundation Jewellers. The event was conceived by Chinese-media-veteran-turned-restaurateur Wang Yanqing (王嬿青) to mark the 920th anniversary of the passing of Su Shi (1036-1101), a giant among the literati of ancient China and a celebrated gastronome who was also a gifted cook. While it seems odd that fashion could be served alongside slow-cooked pork belly in the salute of a polymath not noted for sartorial flair, the pairing is surprisingly evocative and tantalising.
The star dish donpo rou (bottom left) in the presence of outfits by Thomas Wee
Not many of us here are that familiar with the poetry of Su Shi or the pork of Su Dongpo. Thomas Wee admitted that until his collaboration with Wang Yanqing, his knowledge of the Song multi-hyphenate was limited. “I know about Su Dongpo from Cantonese opera,” he revealed, “from the portrayal by Leung Sing Poh (梁醒波, a born-in-Singapore, Hong Kong actor popular in the ’60s/’70s). Whether the real person was fat or slim, I didn’t know”. Yet, he could not pass up the collaborative opportunity, especially to interpret Song aesthetic in a modish way. “Tang dynasty is, to me, the most beautiful period, but it’s overdone,” he said. “Song dynasty, I can explore.” He went through many visual materials until the art director of Muse (the official magazine of Dongpo Banquet) Chua Kwee Peng shared with him an image of indeterminate origin: a tea-stain-hued depiction of a boatman and a standing lass crossing a lake. It was an Eureka moment.
Song-era clothing, also referred to as hanfu (汉服), did not deviate dramatically from the prosperous Tang that preceded it. Mr Wee’s designs kept to the flowy lines of the period’s silhouettes, generally slim (瘦, shou), delicate (细, xi), and long (长, chang), and in the form of jackets (袄, ao) robes (袍, pao), skirts (裙, qun). There is a simplicity of shape that could be seen as contemporary, as well as the play with the oversized in some of the bat-wing tops (which could be mistaken as Qing!), each carefully avoiding over-ornamentation, yet their Chineseness unmistakable in the round collar (圆领, yuanling) and, in one gilet, the cross collar (交领, jiaoling). There are two sets of men’s styles too, with one loosely based on the lanshan (襴衫), a tunic-like outerwear that Su Dongpo would have worn, both as a scholar and a government official. Mr Wee’s take typifies his cross-dynasty styles that characterise his Chinois-accented menswear for the last decade or so.
Thomas Wee eager to explore the Song dynasty
But, if the entire capsule of about 20-odd pieces (only four were displayed) looked somewhat familiar, it is because Mr Wee has been on this aesthetic track for some time now. His approach to Chinese style has always been in his loose cuts, and how he pivots away from the conventional—even traditional—to reflect his particular flair with the technical minutiae of dress-making. As Mr Wee has said before, his design process and pattern planning happen synchronously, and one is never independent of the other. No matter how innovative his technical draughts are, the end garments are always recognisable as clothing to be worn. With thoughtful details and twists that set them apart, yet within unambiguous femininity, many women find his clothes immediately appealing. Among one of the more distinctive pieces this time is an asymmetric one-shoulder top with a bias-cut flounce that underscores the diagonal neckline in the front and back. There is a notch at the top where the shoulder is. The panel could be let down at that end to allow the wider top to drape over the shoulder. Or, folded up to create a pointed, architectural sail above the shoulder to flank the face. As they would say in Japan, one top, two ways.
What, to us, did not work was the seemingly obligatory inclusion of Grace Chen’s calligraphy. The cursive writing appeared on two garments: on the skirt of a tunic and on one extra-long fluted sleeve. Ms Chen, the first to come onboard on this project, initially named ‘Po’ject 苏, is a masterful calligrapher of bold, assertive, and confident strokes that Wang Yanqing described as “masculine”. But it does not appear that her ink compositions were conceived to be applied within the very specific shapes of Mr Wee’s garments: she did not have fashion in mind. They looked to have decamped unceremoniously from paper to cloth, and unable to escape the kitsch that are easily found in any gift shop in the first-tier cities of China. But Mr Wee begged to differ, explaining that he had, in fact, picked the calligraphy himself, after asking Ms Chen to read what she had written to him and explain their meaning. It was at this point that the designer made known to us that he does not read or write Mandarin, although he speaks it proficiently. “I don’t read and write putonghua (普通话),” he said. “In a 10-word sentence, I can recognise only three”. Startled, we asked what second language he studied in school. “Malay” was his rapid reply.
Calligraphic text on sleeve
The souvenir store vibe was most pronounced in the communication material produced by the editorial team of Muse. While it is true that many creatives here, even in the Chinese media, are more expressive in the visual language of the West, it is dismal and discouraging to see interpretations of Chinese aesthetic in fashion styled so derivatively and obviously, in classic show-and-tell manner. Are the clothing designs so subtle that the models need to carry Chinese string instruments, the erhu (二胡) and the pipa (琵琶), to augment the clothes’ inspirational references? But this was homage to Su Shi, not Gao Ming (高明)—this was not a revival of the Tale of the Pipa (琵琶记)! Or, is this to reminisce about defunct Chinese emporiums? To exoticise the fashion in case we can’t discern the cultural heft? Or, for the image creators, to be culturally pious? These photos stood in sharp contrast to the food of the Dongpo Banquet, in the plating, as well as the paring of ingredients: low-key. Unexpected were the plump oysters in Shaoxing wine on thick slices of goose liver. All the food stood out on their own visually, sans superfluous, tacky props.
Su Shi, who Sotheby’s called “the Chinese Renaissance man”, probably never considered, even in his most inspired moment, that in the future, fashion would salute his influence on culinary traditions. His was a life spent to a large extent in exile—banished, rather than sentenced to death, for upsetting the ruling and political class, who accused him of treason against the emperor. Despite his early scholarly life and those spent in civil service, Mr Su did not enjoy the wealth or material comforts that others of his professional standing might have had. Luxury, in life and in clothing, escaped him, but poverty did not. Historians acknowledge that he didn’t lead a good life, but despite the hardship, he was a serious optimist, as reflected in his impressive body of written works, namely shi (诗) and ci (词) or lyric poems, many of which depicted his own vivid experiences of a simple life.
The small exhibit at Yan’s Dining Fine Shanghai Cuisine
Modest life choices characterised Su Shi’s times and travels. The famous dish (among 66 or so that is associated with him) that still bears his name is made of humble pork, a meat that in the Song dynasty, was not considered with much regard. As Wang Yanqing regaled, Mr Su learned to cook pork in Huizhou (惠州), Guangdong Province (广东省). At that time, the meat was cheap, so he could experiment with it till he made what he truly liked. The long-cooked pork that he was famous for was, according to lore, the result of oversight: he forgot what he was cooking as he was playing chess with a friend. Later in Hangzhou, after the completion of the Su Causeway (苏堤, sudi) that he oversaw, grateful town folks gave him pork in appreciation of his effort in the public work. He asked: “why do you gift me with pork?” It is not certain what answer he received from his supporters, but he decided to make his favourite braised pork to share with the people. Delighted with the dish, the satiated recipients decided to name it dongpo rou.
Using gastronomy to shine a light on the backstory of the old masters is the main aim of the fine-dining adventure of Wang Yanqing, also a passionate literary impresario. With a background in journalism (the former host of Channel 8’s Good Morning, Hello [早安你好] and Date with Yanqing [嬿青有约]), she is a compelling storyteller, who seems to relate to the travails of Su Shi and who deeply appreciates his poetic output, even correcting us when we said the number is 2,300. She was swift: more than 3,000 works have survived. Su Shi believed that, like the cooking of dongpo rou, haste is not the cook’s best friend. Patience is pivotal. The clothing design of Thomas Wee, produced in a small, home-based sampling facility, shares similar preference for the unhurried and attention to detail. If one pseudonym and delicacy can cross generations and near-millennia to inspire, perhaps our maestro of fashion could one day be just as influential too.
*Be patient; rush it not. With adequate fire and time, beautiful it shall be—Ode to Pork, Su Shi
Dongpo Banquet is at Yan’s Dining Fine Shanghai Cuisine, from 2 to 5 December 2021. Photos: Chin Boh Kay. Illustrations: Just So