All too often, the “Made-in-China” label has been unduly saddled with visions of cheap, plastic schlock.
As the world’s manufacturing mecca, China has become the go-to place for anybody wanting to crank out millions of Hot Wheels, imitation Barbie dolls or dollar store kitsch.
“A lot of people go to Wal-Mart to buy things and think, ‘Oh, Chinese people aren’t good,’” said Daishu Zuo, co-founder of Whitehorse’s new Oriental Boutique.
Their shop proudly showcases “another side” of
The Oriental Boutique echoes a China rooted in tradition and enamoured with modernity.
Fans, incense burners and teapots are well-stocked, as expected, but Oriental Boutique also carries the contemporary garb of a westernized, industrial China.
The store stocks blue jeans, T-shirts and blouses, all imbued with a subtle Asian flair.
Jean jackets and pants are peppered with embroidery and lace—an exotic spin for a denim-addicted town.
Paisley and Chinese designs alike adorn the store’s collection of silk scarves.
The clothing sizes echo a notably petite clientele.
A shirt which, to most Canadians, would be a ‘medium,’ is assigned an XXL rating by Chinese manufacturers.
These are the clothes of modern China, standard outfits for the bustling streets of Beijing or Hong Kong.
In the early days of the People’s Republic of China, the country vigorously shunned all western fashions.
During the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, a pair of blue jeans could land the wearer in prison.
Mao Zedong popularized the drab, four-pocket paramilitary tunic that American fashion pundits would dub the Mao Suit.
Soon, the suit became an androgenous staple for a citizenry anxiously looking to blend in.
Becoming a key outsourcing spot for western clothiers in the late 1970s, Chinese workers were soon exposed to a flood of western designs taking shape under their sewing machines.
“Factory extras” found their way out the back door and into the stalls of Chinese markets.
Soon, brand names became an obsession of China’s burgeoning consumer culture.
Oriental Boutique carries T-shirts bearing the image of 50 Cent—a coveted overseas symbol of American hip-hop culture.
Another shirt bears the stylized image of a tiger charging through South Asian underbrush.
East has seemingly met West, at least in the design departments of Chinese T-shirt manufacturers.
Zuo was a university professor and owner of a Beijing pharmaceutical laboratory when she met a Yukon-based psychologist while on a trip to Singapore.
After the psychologist commuted six times between Whitehorse and Beijing, the two decided to tie the knot.
Zuo put the laboratory up for sale, quit her teaching job and boarded the 10-hour flight to her new home in Canada.
Unfortunately, Whitehorse was low on pharmacology gigs.
“Here: no pharmaceutical factory, no pharmaceutical university,” said Zuo.
Zuo, lacking proper Canadian pharmacy certification, couldn’t get a job at a Whitehorse drug store.
Even as Zuo’s employment standards dropped, Whitehorse’s chronically understaffed labour market offered her nothing.
“I applied for a lot of jobs, but nobody answered me, nobody interviewed me,” said Zuo.
Helena Ciu, Zuo’s business partner, originally hails from Xi’an, one of China’s oldest cities and home of the famed Terra Cotta Army.
“The first emperor died in Xi’an,” noted Zuo.
Ciu came to Canada in 2001, fresh with a degree from a Chinese financial school.
In Vancouver, she became a stylist.
Overqualified workers forced into humble trades is a “typical story” for foreigners emigrating to Canada—and especially Whitehorse, said chamber of commerce president Rick Karp, owner of Hair Sensations.
“We have a cardiothoracic surgeon from Russia who’s now selling used furniture,” said Karp.
Zuo and Ciu first met on a city bus in Whitehorse, where their Chinese
background prompted them to strike up a conversation.
Over a meal of Chinese Hot Pot, they sealed the deal on a joint business venture.
Ciu called up some relatives, and soon, the first shipment of Chinese-made goods was on a plane across the Pacific.
Of course, opening a shop in Whitehorse means facing a mercilessly small market—especially compared to the crowded sidewalks of urban China, or even Vancouver.
“I didn’t know that here was too small,” said Zuo, describing her pre-immigration visions of the Yukon population.
Beijing is 650 times more populous than Whitehorse.
Diversity has needed to be the key consideration when stocking the Oriental Boutique.
A similar-sized boutique in Shanghai could rake in a good income solely by selling incense cones.
Zuo and Cui need to start with a broader selection.
“As they see what their clients like, they’ll specialize more,” said Karp.
Blue jeans and T-shirts may continue to sweep the orient—but as the shelves and racks of the Oriental Boutique evolve, the traditional culture of China will begin to rear its head.
The Oriental Boutique is located in the old esthetics salon of Main Street’s Hair Sensations.
Contact Tristin Hopper at