Visions in Silk


As the sky sets pink over curling blue roofs, green pagodas and a giant papier-mache Buddha, a procession of elaborately costumed Chinese royalty snakes through a lantern-strung street in Chinatown.

One empress for the evening is pulled in on her rickshaw. Draped in pink silk, she wears ornamental blue fingernails sharp as claws and blue-tassled silk slippers with a gently curved, centered platform heel. Another empress wears a towering headdress like a phoenix--adorned with pearls and feathers. Men in robes and embroidered silk slippers accompany them, and, along the route, gala guests carry drinks of milk tea, sucking tapioca balls though oversized straws.

Moving through this scene so exotic it feels like a movie set from another era is the man who provided the imperial costumes for the procession kicking off the first Chinatown Art Festival.

Designer and costumer Peter Lai, 51, plays his part. The diminutive man darts through the crowd dressed in quilted black tails, a gold-threaded dragon undulating across his jacket.


The festival, which will run through July 22, was organized by the Los Angeles Chinatown Business Council and the California Art Club. Its goal is to renew interest in Chinatown’s historical background and raise money for upkeep. Organizers hope more Southern Californians will visit the Chinese bakeries, jade stores, restaurants and nightclubs that make the neighborhood north of downtown Los Angeles a cultural magnet.

Thursday night’s festivities celebrated the opening of the Hong Gallery at 951 N. Broadway, in Chinatown’s Central Plaza. Inside hang 138 pictures of Chinatown, painted by nearly 100 artists from the California Art Club. The painters took to the streets of Chinatown between June 9 and 16 to capture what they saw.

In oil, acrylic, pastel, and watercolor, they drew still-lifes, pastries, pagodas, street scenes and stone lions. Some of the artists are Chinese Americans for whom Chinatown is the first place they lived in America.

Along with dragon dancers and costumed Chinese musicians, Lai was enlisted by the California Art Club to bring flavor, excitement and authenticity to Thursday night’s opening event.


With their brilliant yellows, blues, pinks and reds, the shimmering silk costumes are so vibrant, so elaborate and so intricate that staring at them is visually intoxicating.

Lai said the fantastical costumes, which are reproductions of original garments from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, were either designed by him or came from his family. Some of the stitching on a single outfit took a year to complete.

Lai’s family began creating costumes for the Chinese opera in Hong Kong in the 1940s. When film exploded in Hong Kong in the late ‘40s, his family began to make costumes for period movies. And when television hit the scene, they transitioned to that. Lai spent 10 years of his youth designing costumes and outfitting and building baroque, gravity-defying hairdos for actors on Chinese television. After his father died, no one in the family wanted to carry on the business, and Lai moved to Switzerland.

Today he runs a boutique in San Marino. There, with a staff of five, he creates period costumes, both Chinese and European, and designs contemporary clothes, from wedding dresses to cocktail sheaths. Of his designs, he says he “brought the East to the West, Eastern flavor to Western clothes.”

Lai also rents out costumes to party-goers. “It’s about $450 for a costume, makeup and the Chinese opera hairdo,” he said. “But people can’t recognize you at all.” A picture in the art gallery Thursday night showed Lai, unrecognizable in a headdress and white pancake makeup, posing with Elton John.

Models wearing his modern attire gathered on the balcony of the Hong Gallery during the procession and threaded among guests during dinner.

As the festival winds down, there will be a fashion show featuring Lai’s work at the gallery on the evening of July 21.