The Shanghai Qi Pao Club

Travel Stories: They gathered to celebrate the sexy, figure-hugging traditional Chinese dress. Kellie Schmitt joined them for a journey into the country's past -- and future.

“Talking so loudly in a quiet setting is a disgrace,” she said. The Mandarin popped from her mouth like Chinese New Year firecrackers. “We, as Chinese, can’t give Westerners the opportunity to look down on us like that.”

The laoshi, a petite beauty in her 70s, had created the group in anticipation of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the city’s response to the Beijing Olympics. Many locals see the Expo as an opportunity to show off Shanghai and its citizens to the world. The city government has launched a politeness campaign, posting signs about standing to the right on escalators and not jaywalking. A citizen group even formed to ban the wearing of pajamas in public, a practice that some fear indicates backwardness.

All the comparisons with foreigners made me uncomfortable, and I began to wish I was wearing a hat to hide my blondness. Sure, while living in China I’d noticed the occasional breach of manners, at least by Western standards. I watched people blatantly cut in line and, in a local noodle shop, I’d even seen an older woman spit onto the floor in the middle of dinner.

But I’d also experienced a lot of warmth and hospitality in Shanghai. The qi pao members welcomed me, an American, into their intensely local club. We were in an area of the city where waiguoren, or foreigner, sightings were rare enough to garner looks. Soon after her lecture, the laoshi had invited me onstage to speak about myself and the group clapped with encouragement when I spoke in broken Chinese, unlike some Americans who won’t tolerate stumbling English. Hearing a culture so openly trash its own behavior—especially by comparing it to foreigners—felt wrong. I wanted to reassure them, like a parent dealing with an insecure school girl who just wants to be popular: Be confident in yourself. So what if the other kids don’t like you? If they don’t want to be with you, it’s their loss.

“Rachel,” I whispered, after returning to my seat. “Do you agree with her? Do you think Chinese are really that rude?”

She smiled and stifled a laugh as if my question were so outlandish it was funny.

“Ah, Chinese, sometimes we have very bad manners,” she said. “But this group—the qi pao club—we know how to act.”

The members considered themselves enlightened Shanghai ladies, Eastern versions of Miss Manners. But, as I attended more and more meetings of the qi pao club, I began to wonder if Judith Martin would approve.

She certainly would tut tut at their respect for privacy. At the Chinese New Year’s party, the laoshi rattled off a list of key questions you shouldn’t ask strangers—such as age. Meanwhile, Rachel pointed to some performers who had been sitting at our table. Apparently, she had gotten the scoop on them while I was in the restroom.

“You see that one in the red boots?” Rachel said, leaning over as if offering privileged dirt. “She’s 60-plus. Can you believe it? And that one over there with the black hat, she’s 80!”

In another meeting, a guest lecturer highlighted essential manners.

“When you sit down at a nice restaurant, do not use your cell phone,” she said. “Wait for other guests to receive their order before you eat. And, whatever you do, do not slurp!”

Just in case the rules hadn’t sunk in, six club members acted them out. In a makeshift café on the auditorium stage, the members of one group crossed their legs at their ankles, waited quietly for everyone to be served, and sipped softly. The other group was much more reminiscent of a typical Chinese restaurant: loud, cell phones in use and copious slurping.

As the women authoritatively discussed group two’s transgressions, at least three cell phones rang out.

It was as if the women liked the idea of manners more than the energy it would take to change their style. You couldn’t blame them, though—they were trying to change some behavior they’d been engaging in for the better part of a lifetime. The members were mostly over the age of 60, around the stage of life when some Western women assume a haughty position of superiority, complaining that the younger generations have no manners.

But as a result of twists in China’s history, it’s the opposite here. These women represent China’s lost generation, the ones that suffered through the Cultural Revolution. Their mothers probably donned stylish qi paos in decadent turn-of-the-century Shanghai. But by the time these ladies were ready to wear the graceful dresses, the Communists had taken over and the qi pao tailors had fled to Hong Kong. The years that followed stripped these women of anything reminiscent of high society, from upscale restaurants to stylish clothes. When China reemerged in the modern age, it was too late. Their qi pao era had passed.

In the most recent meeting of the qi pao club, the laoshi recounted what seemed like yet another tale of manner misdemeanors. This time, however, it ended on an upbeat note. While standing in the subway, a Shanghai teen had stepped on the laoshi’s foot. Unlike the older residents who would have likely just walked away, the youth quickly apologized.

“Younger Chinese are polite and respectful,” the laoshi said. “We can’t give them the opportunity to look down on us older women.”

As I looked around the room at the older women I had grown to admire, her comments resonated. Too often, I was like the younger Chinese she had described, the ones that balk at their elders’ bad manners. I’ve watched with obvious disdain as older ladies pushed me in the subway or edged me out of line. What was wrong with them, I had sneered, with a definite air of superiority. 

Now that I had met these ladies, I realized that their actions didn’t represent a deliberate attempt to be discourteous. They had simply been shaped by their environment, a time when different societal norms applied. I was surrounded by warm, welcoming women that liked to know someone’s age, and maybe slurp a little soup sometimes. Even if they never implemented the laoshi’s politeness plan, they still wouldn’t be rude people.

Still, even if it doesn’t define who we are, etiquette can serve a purpose. By wearing qi paos and celebrating manners, these women were regaining the ability to hold their head high in a new China. They were rediscovering what the political climate had stolen from their youth: poise, respect and self confidence. These aging Shanghai ladies were retrieving their lost era by celebrating the beauty, glamour and decorum of the qi pao.

Meetings of the qi pao club often concluded with a dance set to the same famous Chinese love song. The women in multicolored qi paos glided across the stage, weaving in and out of each other while twirling fans and parasols. At the finale, one woman moved to the front, holding her head high and posing with a flower.

As she stood there, graceful and elegant in the qi pao, the lyrics rang out. They told the story of a special flower that can only reveal its sweet fragrance in the darkest hour of the night.

Kellie Schmitt lived in China for two years, where she was a frequent contributor to CNNgo. Her work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Afar Magazine and The Economist's Business China. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she's working on a book about life in China.

7 Comments for The Shanghai Qi Pao Club

Amy 08.07.09 | 1:04 PM ET

“It had all the markings of a strip show” ?

Except that it’s a room full of women, not men.

Randolph Driblette 08.08.09 | 3:09 PM ET

I luv this part about old women who just want to slurp some noodles and spit a little. Makes me want to visit China now before it changes too much,

kalista 08.09.09 | 9:34 PM ET

“100 women gathered to celebrate the qi pao, the sexy, figure-hugging traditional Chinese dress”, nice quote, the strong institutionalization of the family in traditional Chinese would seem to have made familism even more central in that society than in most.

Vicki Jacob 08.10.09 | 6:37 PM ET

When does the Wild China specials come on again?

Vicki Jacob 08.10.09 | 6:39 PM ET

When are the Wild China specials due to come on the Travel Channel again?

kira 09.12.09 | 11:05 PM ET

Since Qipaos emphasize curves and thighs, and must be worn with high heels, they only look good on those with flawless figures and long slim legs.  The average women would look dumpy in a qipao, which has too short a history to be considered traditional.

I think these ladies should revive the beautiful hanfu, which was worn for thousands of years before the Manchus conquered China.  A woman of any shape would look dignified in a hanfu.

Carlos 02.10.10 | 8:10 AM ET

Given that is a fad of the 30s, and mostly the members are elderly, frankly it was common to find older people. However, it must be nice to see these women dressed in their Qi Pao. It is still somewhat traditional in Shanghai.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.