As Beijing goes international, so do its tailors

Beijing, November 8:

When African leaders came here to meet Chinese leaders, many of them had one common destination in Beijing: tailor Ji Mingren’s store at the Silk Market.

They are not the only international visitors the famed tailor receives.

“I’m really proud to be a royal tailor”, said Ji, whose latest customers include Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and her family. They were here for the China-Africa summit on November 4-5.

The stylish president, known for her good taste in clothing, said that she loves Chinese silk, which is ‘beautiful’ and ‘silky’. Her sister was browsing through a stylebook while Ji took note of the president’s size in her hotel room Thursday. “So many colours and different styles. It’s difficult for me to choose,” she said.

Ji, 41, said the clothes would be delivered in 24 hours. Guinea Bissau president Joao Bernardo Vieira and his family felt perfectly at home when Ji brought a wide variety of wool and silk to their hotel room.

In an earlier visit to the Silk Market, the first lady had chosen wool for the president, silk for herself and an embroidered slipper for their daughter. “Let’s pose for a photo together,” their son offered cheerfully as Ji was taking his size for a jacket.

The Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which attracted 48 African countries, was the highest-profile international gathering here.

Ji, an acute businessman from east China’s Jiangsu Province, brought one million yuan ($125,000) worth of commodities from Suzhou and Hangzhou, two leading silk production centers, to meet the shopping spree by the African guests, particularly the first ladies.

“For many foreigners the Silk Market is almost a stereotypical image of Beijing. They love the silk and traditional Chinese garments,” he said.

An apprentice stealthily learning sewing at a tailor’s shop in Shanghai in the 1970s, Ji said he feared very much to be ranked a ‘capitalist’ in those days. He came to Beijing in 1983 as a peddler selling self-made jackets, shirts and skirts on a downtown street. “Beijingers didn’t have much clothes to choose from in those days. So I became very successful.”

In two years, he had made enough money to rent a store, accepted eight apprentices and opened up the first privately owned store in the Yongdinglu community in western Beijing. Back then it cost 25 yuan ($6) to tailor a woolen jacket and five yuan for a pair of trousers.

He was one of the first tailors to be based at the Silk Market in the 1990s. Large crowds of foreign customers, who make up 80 per cent of all the shoppers at the market, have compelled Li and many other shop owners and assistants to become multilingual salespeople. Many can greet the shoppers and bargain in English, French, Spanish and Arabic, said Wang Zili, general manager of the Silk Market.

“I studied English at school and managed to speak some Arabic, Italian, French and Spanish after I became a shop assistant here in 2004,” said Cheng Wenli, a 20-year-old shop assistant.

“Now I can chat and bargain with the customers in any of these languages. The first lady from Guinea Bissau bought jeans here,” said 19-year-old Gu Dongxue. “She spoke English and praised the quality of our clothes.”