I met my second tailor on the street on day, waiting for Ellen to arrive for a doctor’s appointment on Hong Kong Island. She had the kids with her, and I must have been poorly dressed, because a young Indian man strolled up to me.
“Need a tailor?” he said.
“A very good tailor.”
“I have one.”
This got his attention. He grinned. “You have one?”
“Where?” he said, still grinning. “Where’s your tailor?”
I pointed west down Queensway Road. “I don’t know: 79, 85, something like that.”
He obviously didn’t believe me. “I can get you a good suit. For 300.”
Now it was my turn to stare: “300 dollars?”
“No way,” I said. “No one can do a suit for 300 dollars.”
He gestured with a thumb. “Come on. I’ll show you.”
“No,” I said. “I’m meeting my wife.” Pause. “And I already have a tailor.”
“Come on,” he said again. He was a good-looking guy with that easy-going attitude of the salesman who knows he’s got you. Walk down Nathan Road on any day, at any time, and you’ll see 50 or 60 guys just like him, all asking if you want a tailor. According to Martin Booth in Gweilo, Chinese tailors consider this demeaning—standing on the street, hawking your wares—and look down on Indians for doing it.
“Seriously,” said the guy now. “It’s my brother. He’s a good tailor.”
“Seriously,” I said back at him. “I just bought a suit. I don’t need another one.”
“How much you pay?”
“No,” I said, looking away. I wasn’t about to tell him $900.
Again that grin, confident, conspiratorial: “How much?”
“It’s okay,” I said, “thanks anyway.” And then I walked away.
Half an hour later, having met Ellen and sent her off to her doctor’s appointment, I take the kids up the escalator of an indoor market to a free, unlocked bathroom I’d discovered there some weeks earlier. After seeing Lucy safely into the women’s, I escort James and Willinto the men’s. And who should we see there, standing daintily at the urinals, but our young Indian friend.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hey.” I took care of Jamie first, then myself. Then I went over to the sinks, where the man was washing his hands.
“You meant US, didn’t you,” I say.
He looked at me politely.
“When you were talking about the suit. You said you could do it for $300. You meant US dollars, didn’t you.”
“Oh.” And then he nodded.
“Because I was thinking, ‘Man, no one could make a suit for 300 Hong Kong.’”
He laughed and wiped his hands on a paper towel. “You should check it out.”
“Tell you what: give me a card. I’ll stop by sometime.”
He tilted his head toward the door. “It’s just down the hall. Come look.”
Every once in a while it’s easier just to give in. So after gathering the three kids, I pushed Jamie’s stroller down the hall and around the corner to a glass-fronted shop with a number of nice looking shirts in the window. It was, I was startled to realize, a place that I’d glanced at a few times before—what’s more, I’d always admired the shelves of tightly-wound shirt material stretching floor to ceiling along one wall. I know it sounds bizarre, but I love dress shirts and nice silk ties. I’m a bald, middle-aged man, you have to understand. Short of adding one of those bald-guy pony tails or getting another earring (or six), there’s very little I can do to accessorize my life and change my appearance. I can’t even grow a beard, not so much because I’m a white guy with Norwegian ancestry, but because, man, those whiskers itch.
Dress shirts, then—and lovely matching ties—are about as close as I can come to, well, looking pretty. Never mind that I never wear the ties, and only use the shirts once or twice a week during the months of December and January: I like having a closet full of fancy button downs and brilliant, gem-like ties. What can I say? Everyone needs a hobby.
Or a fetish. Whatever.
Anyhow, I’d seen this shop before, passing by on my occasional morning outings with Jamie. I’d even stopped and glanced in a few times, though I’d never entered. And now, here I was, being ushered in like some kind of fat, bald, pasty-white royalty.
And what’s more, as I maneuvered Jamie’s stroller through the door, I noticed a rectangular sign in the front window. It read: “Shirts: Six for $1,500.”
For those of you a little slow with your math—or who just don’t care that the HK to US dollar conversion rate is roughly 7.8—$1,500 Hong Kong means roughly $190 US. Divide that by 6, and you’re looking at more-or-less thirty-two bucks per shirt
Per dress shirt.
Per custom-made dress shirt.
Long-sleeved, no less.
I tried hard not to giggle.
Our man from the street introduced me to another Indian fellow, this one bald-headed with a bear and sideburns—a look, I’ll admit, I’ve always found a little disconcerting, the coiffeuristic equivalent of going to work wearing a shirt and no pants.
The second Indian man made a big deal about the kids, offering them cookies and candy and urging all of us to take a seat.
“I’m actually in a bit of a hurry,” I said. “My wife is at the doctor’s, and we’re meeting friends soon.”
“No problem,” said the second man. “You want a suit?”
“No. No suit.” I pointed to the sign in the window. “I might be interested in some shirts, though.”
“No problem,” he said. “We can do shirts.”
“The thing is,” I said, “I don’t know your work. I’ve never been here before, no one has recommended the place to me. How about I only buy three shirts for $750, and then if I like them, I’ll get three more.”
The man smiled so broadly his eyes almost disappeared. He shook his head.
“But how do I know,” I said, “that they’ll be good shirts? I’m not some tourist. I live in Tai Po. I’ve seen some bad shirts.” It was true. Hong Kong is well-known for its tailors, and notorious for its crappy tailors—think shirts that are single-stitched, that literally fall apart at the seams, that are so thin of thread that you can see a man’s chest-hair through the cloth.
“I’m serious,” I said. “If I like the first three I’ll buy more. I’m going back to America soon. I need lots of shirts.”
He nodded slightly, no quite committing, but not not committing either. Leading me to the wall of narrow shelves, he chose two or three bolts of cloth he thought I might like. We went back and forth, him choosing, me rejecting, me pointing, asking for similar fabric in different colors. Everything I chose, I made a point of holding my hand behind the cloth and holding it up to the light. Like most bald men, I’m annoyingly hirsute in other places—though I have managed to avoid the guerilla back thus far. And the only thing more annoying than getting a crappily made shirt, is getting a great shirt that you can’t wear because it makes you look like you’ve pulled it over a wool sweater.
Eventually we settled on three nice materials—one a plain gray and two white with stripes. I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing, when a third man strolled in. He’s older, heavier, better dressed, with a thick head of black hair. Clearly he’s the boss.
Introductions all around, and a word or two exchanged in a dialect I didn’t recognize regarding the particulars of my situation. He nodded at the materials I’d picked out. “Very nice.” Then he gestured toward the back wall of the shop, toward set of shelves we haven’t examined. “You might consider this,” he said, taking down two more bolts that were very nice.
Really very nice.
So of course I ended up ordering six shirts. He took my measurements courteously, the antithesis of my Chinese tailor. “What kind of fit?” he asked.
He gestured toward his young assistant, a thin, handsome man with a slightly crooked nose. “You want close fit like him?” Then he gestured down at his own, voluminous shirt. “Or looser fit like me?”
“Looser,” I said. “You and me, we can’t do what he does.”
He laughed, jotted a few notes, then strolled over to the counter where he began making up a receipt.
“How much down?” I asked, reaching for my wallet.
“Twenty percent.” He tapped two of the fabrics, a bluish-gray one and a white and red pattern that looked almost pink. “These two, though, these are nicer fabrics, so it will be $1,800.”
“No,” I said. “The sign says $1,500.”
He tapped the clothes again. “But these two—“
“No,” I said. Six months ago I would have caved, I’m sure, thinking I was out of my depth, that there was something going on that I didn’t understand, some nuance of culture where I was clearly in the wrong. But multiple trips to the mainland in the last few months had toughed me up. “First it was come in just to look around. Then it was three for $750, then six for $1,500. And now it’s $1,800. You know what? I think I’ll just skip it.”
I shoved my wallet back into my pocket, honestly determined to walk out.
“On no,” he said, and waved his hand. “Okay. It’s okay.” Then he gave me a smile like, It was worth a try, and went back to writing the bill.
I wish the rest of this story were happier. I was really excited about those shirts. Pretty, you know? Jewel like. Bald dude accessories.
I came back a week later. The shirts looked fine in the package. They even looked fine out of the wrapper. It was only when I got into the dressing room and pulled the first one on that I began to see problems.
For one, it was short. Like, it came down over my waist, sure, and I could tuck it into my pants okay—after that, though, I’d need to staple the tails to my underwear to keep them from coming untucked.
And then it was tight. Or tightish. I’m a big man, and not exactly what you’d call buff, so I tend to like my clothing loose, both to hide the fat and to keep the fat from getting pinched or chaffed. This shirt wasn’t exactly lose-a-limb tight, but it was more snug than I’d hoped for, and nothing like what the owner had been wearing the week before. It rode up into my armpits, and restricted my movements whenever I pulled—or tried to pull—an arm across my chest.
And it was thin. Not I-can-see-your-nipples thin, but thin enough that I spent two or three minutes standing there in the dressing room, thinking back to the week before and asking myself if I had, indeed, tested each fabric up against bright light. I had, I was certain of it. Staring at myself in the mirror and seeing the foreboding outline of my chest hair move like a thunderstorm beneath that white and red pinstriped fabric, all I could conclude was that the store had two sets of material—a thicker one that they showed customers, and a thinner one that they actually used to sew the shirts.
And now, I have a confession: I talk tough, I know, swagger a lot and act like I’m never afraid to speak my mind.
The truth of the matter, though, is that I’m a wimp. It’s not so much that I want people to like me—it’s that I’m terrified they won’t. I just can’t handle the thought of looking deep into someone’s eyes and seeing nothing there but disdain—though, I’ll have to admit, I’ve seen this look more than once in my career.
In the end, I think I’m just terrified of confrontation. I’m no good at it, not good at having people yell at me, not good at standing my ground, firm in the knowledge that I’m right—or more right then the idiot across from me with spittle flying off his lips and a crease the size of the Mississippi flood plain in the middle of his forehead.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying this: I knew I was being ripped off. I knew they were selling me shirts that were cut short, where the material probably wasn’t what I’d paid for. I knew that chances were slim to none—barring a crash diet where I lost 30 pounds and six inches in height—that I’d ever be able to wear any of these shirts once I returned to the States.
I knew all this, yes. I knew it all. And even so, I paid for those shirts and left the shop with a broken heart.