Three young Chinese students are selling Chinese traditional clothes at a bustling market in London, and what they want to achieve is far more than running a little stall.

Left: Meiqing Feng; Middle: Zhaoying Yu; Right: Tao Zeng

When many people think about the traditional Chinese clothes, the only thing come to them may be “Cheongsam”. If you now go to the old Spitalfields market, you will see the first stall in London that sells Chinese ancient clothing “Han Fu” from the country’s different dynasties. 

Tao Zeng always wanted to do something related to Han Fu when he was in China, the 23-year-old young man came up with the idea of selling Han Fu when he was doing his master’s degree in Creative & Collaborative Enterprise, and he met his partners —- Meiqing Feng and Zhaoying Yu. Mr Zeng said: “For Chinese people living in the UK, Han Fu is a cultural symbol and medium that provides an atmosphere for you to connect your Chinese heritage background, like ChinaTown. I think people all need a connection with others from the same backgrounds, and I’d like to give them an opportunity for communication.”

The stall has been running for nearly a year now, with low profits that can keep it open, but three of them are satisfied with the business because their original intention was to promote Chinese traditional culture in the UK, not to earn money. Miss Feng also said: Before we started, I was thinking that even if we lost all our investment and wasted our time for no profit, it would still be nice if we had a little stall to present our culture to the locals.”

Many locals passing by often compliment the products, however, a lot of people still confuse Han Fu with Japanese and Korean traditional clothing.Three of them  will then explain the period of each clothing and tell people about the ancient mythological stories behind some special patterns. 

Mr Zeng said: “The influence of Chinese culture is not as powerful as Japan and South Korea nowadays, and we wanted to build the correct image and awareness of Chinese culture in Weston society. But it’s not a competition to argue which culture is better or which clothing is more pretty. I know it will be a long process and we still need to make a lot of effort.”

Mr Zeng has witnessed an increase in enthusiasm for Han fu. In the most recent trip they have organised to the KEW Garden in London, they gathered 16 people dressed up in Han Fu and had an afternoon tea party together, including one native British and one Japanese. Another team member Zhaoying Yu, who is also the core member of the UK Han Culture Association, said: “You can feel a strong sense of the belonging when people all wearing Han Fu and gather for an event, this is one of the reasons that I have been keeping advertising Han Fu in the UK for so many years.”

The team organised an afternoon tea party at the KEW Garden

For the three of them, another significant thing during running the business was that they met and built close relationships with a lot of like-minded people from their stalls and events. A young British man, Sam Hardy who has been studying in China for two years before the pandemic, also went to the KEW Garden with them, said: “It was nice to be around native speakers again. And the learning about the actual clothing, the styles, the history, and the different outfits was quite interesting.”

The little stall also gained big attention on Chinese social media. The hashtag “Three Chinese students selling Han Fu in London market” has been trending for a while on the largest Chinese social media platform Weibo. Netizens were appreciated for their efforts and many overseas students in the UK followed them afterwards.

However, the big publicity also brought some criticism to them, saying that some forms of the clothes they had exhibited were not exactly right, and they were not professional with the traditions. Mr Zeng said they were really upset at the beginning when they saw these comments, “But these comments also pushed and encouraged us to be more careful when choosing clothes.”

After receiving this wide attention, the team also felt their responsibility of promoting Chinese culture has become greater, and they could not only sell Han Fu for interest but also for more people to understand the culture behind it.

Mr Zeng said: “ When you arrive in a totally strange country where the norms and values are different from your heritage, you will love your own culture more. We have to have people to promote our culture in a different society and let diverse cultures communicate. We are only trying our best to do a thing that many Chinese people also wish to do, and we are obliged to do.”