Fortunately, there’s Rosie.
I first heard about Rosie from our friends Chris and Valerie who lived upstairs from us and who had a strange habit of saying, in the middle of, for example, an Indian dinner, “Oh, you really must go and see Rosie.”
For the longest time I assumed Rosie was just another one of their imaginary friends (don’t ask), but eventually I clued in that Rosie was a real person who actually existed—and what’s more, that she was a tailor.
You would have thought that by May, the first time I met Rosie, I would have given up on this whole tailor thing. Sure, I’d come to love the suit and trousers I’d bought from the Chinese tailor in central, but even so, all of it was such a hassle, so stressful, the measuring, the money, just getting from our remote corner of the New Territories to wherever the tailor was. Easier just to go back to the States, wait for the first of our 17 weekly editions of Eddie Bauer, and pick out some boring piece of crap sown in some factory in India.
But no, I had one more thing I was questing for, and I was hoping Rosie was just the person to help out. I have this shirt, you see, a black, short-sleeved cotton-linen number that I’d picked up at a mall years ago. It was an amazing shirt: light, comfortable, loose on my frame and slow to wrinkle. Short of a Packer logo and someplace to store a Cosmopolitan, what more could I ask for?
Well, how’s about four more like it for starters?
My plan, then, was to take this shirt up to Shenzhen, just across the border into China, and show it to Rosie, asking her if she could make more just like it for me. And that’s just what I did. One Sunday morning late in May, Chris and I got up early and took a taxi up to Tai Wo, the MTR station just north of where we lived. In a matter of minutes we were at the Chinese border and through customs. We spent a couple hours getting body, foot, and head massages, then had a good stiff lunch of turnip cakes in XO sauce (which tastes much better than it sounds—not that that would take much) before going in search of Rosie.
I’m at a loss as to how to describe the Shenzhen mall. Think about your local shopping center: a Starbucks on every floor; an Ambercrombie and Fitch with its pedophilic pornography in the entryway; Bed, Bath, and Body Works leaking the scent of sarsaparilla-grapefruit toe scrub into the Insta-Sushi shop next door. Mothers and daughters, teenage couples, and old men with walkers and fire-engine red Chuck Taylors stroll along wide well-lit walkways between shops. Babies gurgle. Doves coo.
Now take that picture and scribble over it with a black magic marker dipped in dog crap. Add a dash or two of insane dystopia (think, Blade Runner on acid), throw in pickpockets, hookers, hustlers who’d sell you the shirt off their grandma’s back, mix well, and you’re about halfway to what the Lo Wu mall looks like.
For one thing, it’s maybe six stories high, low-railed balconies circling a narrow open space. Shenzhen has been in the Hong Kong news a lot lately, because of a spate of suicides at a Taiwanese plant that makes iPods and iPads. Conditions there are so bad that employees—some as young as 18 or 19—have been hurling themselves out of windows, preferring death to 14-hour work days. Standing there, at the foot of the Shenzhen mall, all I can think is . . . well, let’s just say I wished I had a hardhat.
For another thing, everywhere you go in this mall folks are trying to hustle you, calling out to you, asking if you want sun glasses, shirts, shoes, a girl, some food, “What you want?’ What you want?” The only way to get through it without getting suckered into buying, say, a 6-trillion dollar rug, is to put your head down and plow on, avoiding eye contact, shrugging off offered hands, shoving old ladies cuddling infants out of your way.
We go first to the third floor, where Rosie has her shop, a three-walled, white shelved space maybe 8 foot by 10. She’s busy with another customer, so Chris leads me one floor higher, to the material center.
Like the mall as a whole, it’s hard to describe this room. It’s maybe 100 yards by 100 yards and packed, floor to ceiling, with bolts of every kind of material imaginable: tweeds, linens, cottons, silks, wools, stripes, checks, plaids, seersucker, mesh, 60’s psychedelia. All of it is packed into individually-owned booths stacked 10 feet high with the stuff. Pause for ten seconds to run your fingers over this or that fabric, and some pretty young thing will pluck your sleeve and lead you down alleyways nine inches wide, insisting you must see this linen or that wool, that it’s the best they have, that they’ll give you a good price.
That most of the salespeople are women—and noticeably attractive at that—is more than a coincidence, I think, not unlike the conference book dealers in the US who hire mostly skinny women in their twenties to walk the floor.
Here you find the usual wheeling and dealing you’d expect in China: they start high (super high, if you’re a gweilo), you start low, they act offended, you refuse to budge, they cut their price in half, you come up maybe 5%, they lower their price some, you add another 5%, they refuse to go down anymore, saying, “No money, no money,” meaning, “At these prices my children will starve!” You shrug, start to walk away, they knock another 50% off the price, and the two of you shake hands, grinning at each other, both satisfied.
On this particular day, I find a man who sells linens almost exclusively and pick up a few that I like: one dark blue, one olive green, and one salmon-pink-orange-sherbet color that makes my eyes water just looking at it. Chris gets a khaki and a dark blue for trousers, then finds a nice linen color he wants for a long-sleeved shirt. I like it too, so buy a couple yards for my own shirt, which I know sounds a little creepy, I know, but the fact is I’m a foot taller than Chris and he’s got this decidedly un-midwestern Italian-Irish-Czech-Portuguese type thing going, so there’s very little chance anyone will mistake us for twins.
Then we go back downstairs to Rosie.
It is impossible not to love Rosie. This is not because, as you may be thinking, Rosie is a buxom larger-than-life bleach-blonde, cheery, smiley, loving woman like you’d see tending bar in some World War II-era film. No, in many ways—indeed, in almost every way—Rosie defies her name: she is not immensely, overwhelmingly cheerful. She’s not particularly buxom or particularly pretty or particularly—I don’t know—rosie in anyway, shape or form. And she’s definitely not blonde.
What she is, though, is calm. I’ve seen snotty white women in Rosie’s shop rage away because they actually had to wait a whole seven minutes while Rosie took care of another customer, and Rosie has just nodded and looked straight at them, as if to say, “And what would you have me do?” And I’ve seen those same women back down almost immediately.
And what Rosie is, is honest. The first time we were there, I ordered four shirts and a sports coat. She took my measurements, listened patiently as I explained my irrational fear of overly snug armpit seams, then set everything aside on a shelf over a sewing machine.
I reached for my wallet. “How much deposit?”
She waved her hand. “No deposit.”
“Are you sure?”
She laughed. “It’s your fabric. You already paid for it.”
And what Rosie is, is a good tailor. When Chris and I came back two weeks later (spending the morning, again, getting our admittedly ample bodies rubbed down tip to toe), Rosie handed me my weird salmon/pink/orange shirt to try on, smiling a little as its glow blinded three old men passing in the hall.
I was wearing a t-shirt, so didn’t bother with the changing room, just slipping the linen over my head.
And here again I find myself at a loss for words. Have you ever walked out of doors and felt as though the air and your body were exactly the same temperature, as though the air could pass right through your skin and into your bones, and you’d be perfectly fine? Or have you ever risen from bed in the morning and gone downstairs to find a pot of hour-old coffee waiting for you, and taken a sip and just felt—I don’t know: as though this cup of this coffee with this cream in it, was meant for you?
That’s exactly how this shirt felt, slipping over my shoulders: my arms passed through the sleeves as though they’d been there a thousand times before, my chest and pits felt nice and roomy, it hung comfortably around my waist, hugging my belly a little but not too much.
It was, in short, the perfect shirt.
And it remains that way. Even now, two months after our return to the States, I let out a near-silent moan of satisfaction every time I slip on this shirt—or one of its three brethren. They are not just my favorite shirts right now, but arguably my favorite shirts ever, surpassing, even, the black shirt that they were meant to copy.
And if this sounds over-the-top, well then, so be it. The fact of the matter is that I love Rosie, love her deeply and truly and in a way that I’ve loved very few women in my life.
And if that, in turn, sounds disloyal to Ellen, well then you need to know that after I returned to Tai Po with my first—note that word—completed order of custom-tailored Rosie originals, babbling incoherently about Cinderella rainbows and pink unicorns licking my earlobes, Ellen grabbed a skirt or two that she really liked and headed north for her own visit to the incomparable Rosie—and returned as smitten as me.
Ah, love . . . . ain't life grand?
Especially in this shirt.