At an event held at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Priscilla Shunmugam, the founder of the fashion label Ong Shunmugam, sparked controversy with remarks that some deemed racist. She was discussing why the cheongsam is a recurring theme in her designs, a video clip of which went viral.

“Chinese women have progressed significantly faster and further as compared to their Malay and Indian counterparts.”

Her research showed Chinese women were “the first Asian women to shake hands with men” and were quick to adopt Western dressing, Shunmugam added in a discussion on Singapore’s contemporary fashion identity.

“When I play around with the cheongsam, I find that I can have more fun and that Chinese women are more receptive.”

Shunmugam, born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to a Chinese mother and an Indian father, apologized for her remarks to The Straits Times, acknowledging them as clumsy, hurtful, and insensitive:

During the Q&A session, I was asked why the cheongsam is a recurring silhouette in my work. I ought to have been crystal clear with my answer and I acknowledge that it was clumsy, hurtful and insensitive. It was also uncharacteristic of the narratives championed in my work … I’m rightly being held accountable for what I said and I apologise unreservedly for the comments I made.

Despite this incident, Shunmugam and her firm are renowned for their modern reinterpretations of traditional Asian clothing. Their designs blend contemporary styles with heritage textiles and craftsmanship, particularly in the unique reinterpretation of the cheongsam, also known as the qipao. This traditional Chinese dress features a form-fitting silhouette, high collar, and side slits, originating in 1920s Shanghai and remaining popular today for weddings, banquets, and cultural events.

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