Netizens have responded fervently to an online campaign to save the legacy of an 87-year-old Taipei costume tailor, who was the behind-the-scenes hero of several blockbuster films, and his almost 60-year-old costume rental store, which has been pushed to the brink of closure by the migration of the nation’s film costume industry to China.
Having traded on Xining S Road in Wanhua District (萬華) for nearly six decades, Ching Hung Clothes has witnessed the rise and fall of the nation’s costume film market. It boasts more than 7,000 delicate handmade costumes, ranging from ancient Chinese attire to modern-day clothing.
The store’s proprietor, Lee Yan-hung (李衍宏) — who some people address as “Master Lee” — was a relatively well-known figure in the early movie industry, and has made costumes for characters in more than 200 martial arts films and cooperated with big-time action stars such as Jackie Chan (成龍) and Wang Yu (王羽).
Although Lee’s poor eyesight caused by retinal detachment in both eyes has rendered him dependent on others when searching for specific clothing items in the 47 ping (155m2) shop that looks like a costume museum, he can easily name each ancient Chinese imperial dynasty to which the patterns on any particular garment belongs.
In the early part of his life, Lee had taken on several part-time jobs and set up a market stall, before one of his peers in the military recommended him for a job at a film studio.
Lee then started learning the skills of costume design and manufacturing from designers at the film studio, paving the way for the opening of his own costume shop.
Because his made-to-order costumes were reasonably priced and of high quality, Lee quickly became known in the movie industry and was frequently appointed as wardrobe stylist for costume and martial arts movies, including those by Central Pictures Corp and Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers.
“At the peak of my career, I was the wardrobe stylist for eight Taiwanese movies and three Hong Kong films at the same time, with each movie paying me an average of NT$15,000,” Lee said.
Lee added that his hand-made costumes were not only featured in most of the Taiwanese and Hong Kong movies produced in the industry’s early days, but also in blockbusters by Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (李安), including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman and Life of Pi.
However, after the nation’s movie industry gradually started moving overseas — particularly to China — Lee’s business has been doing poorly in recent years and he has hardly been able to break even.
Things took a turn for the worse after this year’s Lunar New Year holidays in February, since when he has not received a single order and can no longer afford to pay the NT$20,000 monthly rent for his store.
“I have no option but to either shut down my store or sell it by the end of this month,” Lee said.
One of his relatives learnt about Lee’s predicament. Fretting that Lee, who is unmarried and childless, might throw away his large collection of movie costumes or let them go for a song, he initiated a campaign on Monday on his Facebook page asking netizens to help save Lee’s culturally significant collection and his store.
Thanks to the campaign, which has been shared about 5,900 times as of Wednesday, a Vancouver-based Taiwanese artist has expressed an intention to establish an exclusive museum for Lee’s costume collection.
Meanwhile, Taipei City Archives executive secretary Weng Chih-tsung (翁誌聰) said that while the agency had in the past collected culturally significant objects, including costumes, it did not have the budget to buy up Lee’s collection.
“The agency’s relevant committees would also have to assess the historical value [of Lee’s collected costumes] before we could procure them,” Weng said. “Nevertheless, it may be feasible that the government borrows Lee’s collected costumes for exhibitions and pays him a rental fee as a way to provide him with [financial] assistance,” he added.
Expressing gratitude to all those trying to help him, Lee said that he hoped to see the “fruits of his lifetime of hard work” being amassed in its entirety by cultural agencies, so that his legacy could be better preserved and passed down to future generations.