Who is Song Huaigui? She played the role of Empress Longyu in the movie “The Last Emperor”; she was also the first general manager of the Maxim restaurant, representing the urban elite lifestyle, where the Beijing taxi driver Feng De broke into in the movie “Warm Summer”; If you know her more deeply, you will know that she was an important figure in promoting Pierre Cardin’s internal viewing in the National Culture Palace in Beijing in 1979, which was China’s earliest fashion show; she also trained China’s first group of models and brought them to the international stage. Song Huaigui’s multiple identities are difficult to describe in a few words. In the fields of art, film, music, and fashion in China from the 1980s to the 2000s, she was a legendary figure that is hard to replicate.
In the recently unveiled exhibition “Song Huaiqi: Pioneer of Art and Fashion Icon” at the M+ Museum in Hong Kong, 320 exhibits including archival materials, clothing from world-renowned fashion designers, movie costumes, film clips, art pieces, and large-scale wall-mounted art installations showcase Song Huaiqi’s life trajectory. Representing figures from different fields are intertwined in the context centered around Song Huaiqi, presenting a context of the development of contemporary visual culture in China. “She is like a global citizen, having lived in Beijing, Sofia, Paris, Hong Kong, and other places. It can also be seen that the different aspects of China’s world culture over the past 30 years are connected through her,” said Pi Li, the chief curator of the exhibition, in an interview with Art News/Chinese Edition. He led the curatorial team to conduct research from the perspectives of art creation, fashion collection, life history, and social circles. The biography “Song Huaiqi: A Life of Art, A Lifetime of Fashion” was published at the opening, focusing on the narrative of personal history from the overall structure. As Pi Li wrote in the afterword of the book, “This exhibition will be a cross-section of China’s visual culture development from isolation to openness in the second half of the 20th century.”

In a sense, Song Huaiqi, who shuttled between the art, culture, and fashion fields of the East and the West and created various precedents, is also the first generation of “global citizens” since the founding of New China.

The exhibition opens with the question “Who is Song Huaiqi?” Several sets of dresses that Song collected and wore to important occasions during her lifetime are presented here, outlining a gentle and elegant female image. A clip from the film “Beijing Love,” directed by John-Paul Pietrus, is playing. In this short film, Chinese supermodel Ling retraces the footsteps of Song Huaiqi, looking back at the enlightenment of contemporary Chinese fashion. She wears Song’s dresses and strolls through the streets of Beijing. Then, the exhibition enters a more daily and personal space. The curatorial team selected seven more casual Pierre Cardin outfits, accompanied by documentary photos of Song wearing each outfit.
Born in Beijing in 1937, Song Huaigui met her future husband Wan Man while studying in the oil painting department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Their marriage was the first international marriage in the People’s Republic of China after its establishment. After their daughter Song Xiaohong was born, they moved to Bulgaria with Wan Man the following year to start a new life. At that time in Beijing, Song’s classmates Yuan Yunsheng and Jiang Feng, the acting dean of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, were labeled as rightists and sent to the Shuangqiao Farm in Beijing for labor reform. In Bulgaria, due to the scarcity of oriental women, Song also participated in several films, playing the role of an Asian girl dancing in a wandering art group in the Bulgarian film “Sun and Shadow”.

Song’s diverse identity and the wide range of her work began to emerge at this time. In addition to acting in films, she also worked at the Bulgarian New Products and Fashion Center, starting from drawing design sketches to participating in design, and became a full-time fashion designer in 1970. Her work at the center also gave her experience in design and modeling, as well as access to the latest fashion information in Western Europe, especially Paris.

At the same time, she gradually achieved success as an artist. During this period, she began to conceive her famous “Butterfly” series of works, which revolved around the myth of Zhuangzi’s dream of a butterfly and explored the relationship between all things in the world. The works also used the form of female reproductive organs. Although she was in Eastern Europe, she still had a very deep understanding of Eastern culture and was committed to the integration of Eastern and Western cultures. Her works “Composition 2001” and “Aporia”, which she completed in collaboration with Wan Man, were selected for the Lausanne International Tapestry Biennial in 1971 and 1973, respectively, and were the most influential international exhibitions in the field of modern tapestry art. These two tapestry works transformed tapestries from two-dimensional to three-dimensional, breaking away from their original decorative and practical functions. It was also these two works that earned them a reputation in Western Europe and led them to be invited by the French Ministry of Culture to reside in an international art city in 1974, thus beginning their life in Paris.
At the exhibition “Song Huaigui: Art Pioneer and Fashion Icon” in 2023, numerous documentary photos were displayed, providing the audience with a more intimate perspective of Song’s life in Bulgaria and Paris. At many gatherings and events, Song always wore cheongsams or other traditional Chinese clothing, representing her identity as an Eastern woman living in a foreign country. In France, she had close relationships with many Chinese artists, architects, and fashion industry figures. The works of her friends Zhao Wuji and Zeng Haiwen emphasized the expression of Chinese traditional art and Western abstract art. Later, she also met I.M. Pei. “Song Huaigui: A Lifetime of Art, a World of Fashion” records: “Song Huaigui and I.M. Pei met at Wan Man’s Espace Pierre Cardin exhibition in New York. Pei’s experience and feelings in building the Xiangshan Hotel may have been one of the important reasons that prompted Song Huaigui to return to work in China.” In an interview, Pi Li also talked about Song Huaigui’s Eastern cultural identity living in the West: “Song Huaigui’s personal cultural identity is independent of the Cultural Revolution in China. In the process of living in the West, she did establish a very strong interest and expression in traditional culture. Cultural identity is not something that a person imagines in an isolated environment, but is formed in a process of continuous communication and exchange, forming one’s own cultural identity.”

In the late 1970s, Pierre Cardin brought a team of more than ten models and over two hundred sets of clothing to Beijing to hold China’s first fashion show at the National Ethnic Culture Palace. At the time, it was called the “Internal Observation Meeting.” Although it was an event only open to the Ministry of Foreign Trade and the fashion industry, it was the first time that Chinese audiences had close contact with top foreign fashion.
One of the most famous photos from Pierre Cardin’s 1979 trip to China features model Marsis, known as Cardin’s muse, dancing on the Great Wall in a rainbow-colored dress. She is surrounded by a group of young people dressed in dark work clothes, which reflects the fashion situation in China during the early stages of reform and opening up. It also reflects the impact and inspiration of Western fashion and aesthetics on young people. In September of the same year, the Star Exhibition, initiated by Huang Rui and Ma Desheng, was held in the small garden on the east side of the National Art Museum of China. Cardin’s fashion show is widely regarded as the enlightenment and starting point of China’s contemporary fashion history, and is considered a historic event.

In the following decades, Pierre Cardin established a trademark licensing production model and had a wide supply chain in China. Song Huaigui, who had previously intersected with him in New York, became Cardin’s representative in China. Her main job was to find brand manufacturers and agents for Pierre Cardin in China, and to promote the Pierre Cardin brand within China. In order to hold a public fashion show in China, Ms. Song selected more than 20 tall young people from sports schools and the streets, and trained them to become China’s first group of models. Some of them even started their own modeling careers as a result of this experience, thanks to Ms. Song’s previous work experience at the Sophia New Product and Fashion Center and the magazines and photos sent by her French friends.
In the 1980s, fashion became a focus of Ms. Song’s work after she returned to China. Through fashion, we can see the intricate relationship between Chinese art and commercial culture that emerged after the rise of commercialization in the 1990s. In the research process of the curatorial team, they found that the connection between avant-garde art and commercial culture was vaguely visible in the new fashion brought by Pierre Cardin and the parties and gatherings held at the Maxim’s restaurant, which opened later. This is precisely the difference in development paths between China and the West. As Pierre Cardin said, “After the end of the Cultural Revolution, the development of avant-garde art was reflected in the opposition of elites and avant-garde artists to the established system in culture. However, in business, we can also see the pursuit of a free market economy and commercial culture at that time, and the pursuit of self-expression that was synchronized with commercialization. Song Huaigui and Maxim’s are the connection point between avant-garde art and commercial culture. This also opens up another aspect of our understanding of visual culture and avant-garde art in China in the 1980s and 1990s.”

In 1981, Pierre Cardin acquired the Maxim’s restaurant in Paris, which was built in 1893 and decorated in the most popular Art Nouveau style by its second owner, Eugene Cornuche. The decoration has been preserved to this day and has become a cultural heritage protected by France. After acquiring the Maxim’s restaurant, Pierre Cardin planned to replicate it in many places around the world, and Beijing, which had just opened up, became part of Pierre Cardin’s expansion plan. Song Huaigui, the Chinese representative of the Pierre Cardin brand, also became the vice chairman of the Maxim’s restaurant. According to the legal provisions of the Chinese government for joint ventures at that time, the chairman was represented by the Beijing Tourism Bureau.

Madame Song Huai-Kuei: Pioneer of Art and Fashion

In 1983, under the leadership of Madame Song, the interior decoration of Maxim’s restaurant in Beijing was modeled after the grandeur of its Parisian flagship store, from its iconic bar to its painted glass panels, porcelain, and silverware. Maxim’s quickly became a popular venue for banquets among both Chinese and foreign officials and businessmen. Many political and business celebrities, artists, film directors, actors, singers, and models regarded Maxim’s as a place for daily gatherings and a must-visit destination for foreign celebrities visiting Beijing.

Every Saturday night after 10 pm, the tables and chairs around the stage were removed, leaving a small dance floor for rock singers to perform. This event, called “parties,” became a part of the urban elite nightlife under the leadership of Maxim’s.

In 1985, a Pierre Cardin fashion show was held at Maxim’s restaurant in Beijing, as shown in the picture above, taken by Xiao Jun.

World Citizen Madame Song

At the “Business Elite” section of the exhibition, there are numerous documents and photos about Maxim’s restaurant and Ms. Song’s social circle, which includes directors, producers, actors, artists, fashion icons, politicians, musicians, and other cultural figures. In these photos, Ms. Song always appears with a confident and unique fashion sense. Visitors can sit on chairs in the exhibition hall and watch scenes from the movie “Warm Summer” that recreate the bustling atmosphere of Maxim’s restaurant. Rock singer Cui Jian often performed at Maxim’s in the 1980s. At that time, they didn’t call it a performance, but a “party.” In an interview with curators Pi Li and Wu Mo, Cui Jian said, “Party gradually became a common phenomenon. After any large gathering or event, there would be a party… Our performance at Maxim’s had little to do with survival. It was mainly to meet friends at the party. Everyone was very happy and felt it was a way of life.” In his memory, Maxim’s was like an international window. Every weekend, Ms. Song would hold many events, where politicians and cultural figures would meet. Cui Jian talked about this collision as something unique to Beijing, like a small cultural utopia.
At the exhibition “Song Huaigui: Pioneer of Art and Fashion Mother” in 2023, photographed by Liang Yucong, Mrs. Song regularly held Pierre Cardin fashion shows at Maxim’s to better promote the brand and clothing. During a period of resistance to spiritual pollution, Maxim’s, as a revenue-generating restaurant, also became a haven for model performances. Throughout the exhibition, Mrs. Song and the models she trained wore highly designed fashion on different occasions, with fashion as the core representing a modern lifestyle and attitude. Whether it’s fashion itself or the places that carry it, as written in the book “Song Huaigui: A Lifetime of Art, A World of Fashion,” “She once told Zheng Xiaoyu that China needs modernization. Beijing, as the capital, should modernize as early as possible. It’s impossible to let foreigners only eat imitation dishes, roast duck, and hot pot forever. In Mrs. Song’s heart, Maxim’s is an indispensable part of China’s modernization development.”

Starting with fashion and returning to fashion, after wearing Pierre Cardin’s designs for decades and attending various occasions, Mrs. Song began to return to tradition. She returned to the studio and started her own clothing plan – “Wuchao Nishang.” However, what she wanted to do was not a clothing brand, but a global touring performance plan based on the combination of Chinese traditional clothing culture and modern fashion design. It took nearly five years to produce nearly 300 sets of clothing. “Wuchao” refers to the five dynasties of Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing. These costumes have performed in more than 20 shows in cities around the world, such as Macau, Bangkok, Paris, Sao Paulo, and Sydney. In addition to fashion shows, they also incorporate elements such as Shaolin Kung Fu and acrobatics. While showcasing the connection between traditional culture and modern design and life, they also interpret the image of modern women. This approach of integrating Chinese traditional clothing elements into fashion design has also inspired many designers. In the 1980s, Mrs. Song and her trained Chinese models were photographed in fashion at the Forbidden City, as shown in the picture by Yang Fan.
At the exhibition “Song Huaigui: Art Pioneer and Fashion Mother,” photographer Liang Yucong captured the scene in 2023. The exhibition concludes with Ms. Song’s identity as a “fashion mother,” telling the story of the development of the Chinese modeling industry. It also interprets the changes and personalized evolution of modern Chinese female images through various cover images of women in People’s Pictorial under specific ideologies and advocacies. The female images photographed and recorded by photographer Liu Xiangcheng are also presented in this exhibition hall, opening a window for the audience to understand the image and self-awareness awakening of Chinese women.

The exhibition showcases the life trajectory of a modern woman with multiple facets and full personality from various perspectives such as artistic creation, commercial operation, cultural exchange, and fashion mother. It also provides a glimpse into the development of contemporary visual culture in China and its integration into daily life. When Pi Li talked about the original intention of curating this exhibition, he emphasized that since China’s bid for the Olympics, China has gradually established a global image. As an early promoter of modern lifestyle, Song Huaigui transformed into a promoter of traditional Chinese culture and Chinese fashion culture after the 1990s. “These two aspects are integrated in her. She wants to be a global citizen. We can imagine that Song Huaigui is a microcell in history. After analyzing the cell, we can see how abstract concepts are scattered in daily life and in various aspects of commercial culture in the continuous changes of Chinese culture.”