Maker of Mao's hat gives you plenty to think about, William Axford finds
Some sights in Beijing are so amazing that you have to hold onto your hat or it'll blow away. The Shengxifu Hat Museum is one such place. Featuring exhibits from throughout China's long history, it opened June 8 and all displays are explained in Chinese and English, allowing access for both natives and expats. With the addition of videos and photographs, the museum comes to life for any visitor.
The best part? Admission is free.
"The museum was opened to celebrate the company's 100 years in the business," said Li Jiaqi, general manager of the Dongcheng district store. "I came up with the idea about three years ago. It celebrates Chinese culture. It is also for China's friends, such as Western hat makers and any hat wearer.
"Hat making in China has a 5,000-year history but there hasn't been a single museum dedicated to it yet."
Li said because Shengxifu has been in the business of hat making for so long, the company is able to achieve the ambition of opening such a museum.
A tour through the museum is not only a walk through history but also a perspective of style throughout the world. Though all the displays are replicas, each hat is crafted as authentically as possible, offering a glimpse at old and rare hats from different countries and decades.
There are nearly 200 hats on display that range from the style worn only in front of emperors, to modern-day pieces. Tools used to make the hats, such as spinners and curling shackles, are also part of the display.
The exhibits are visually pleasing, offering visitors a first-hand look at how the hat has evolved over time.
Straw hats that were made in the traditional Chinese style became more English as the company expanded into Europe.
Ushankas, or wool caps, were adopted from Russia and have been constructed from various materials such as sheepskin, otter pelts and rabbit hides. Broad-brimmed hats or "cowboy hats" have gone from being made of straw to felt and leather.
"It is not just about wearing hats and making them, it's about the cultural meanings too," Li said.
"People throw hats up when they're happy. They wear them in activities such as horse riding and during graduations."
The museum also showcases a timeline of how Liu Xisan, the company founder, left his home in Shandong province to build a respected business in the city of Qingdao. His life is a story of rags to riches, complete with the first few products he made, such as the Panama hat and the British tweed cap.
One of the most interesting exhibits in the museum includes hats specially made for prominent Chinese figures such as Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai. Surprisingly, the people who made those hats were unaware of who they were for.
"The people who made the hat for Mao didn't know it was for him until they saw him wearing it at Tian'anmen Square on TV," Li said. "In the 1950s and 1960s, hat makers were not allowed to know who their hats were destined for."
Zhou's hat was made in a similar fashion, without any of the workers knowing it was for him. Shengxifu recently came across it but unfortunately could not include it in the museum.
"This past May, we visited his relatives and saw the hat. We couldn't take it with us so we took pictures and made a replica," Li said.
Li not only sees the museum as a means of celebrating the past, but also of strengthening ties for the future.
"One benefit of this place is to bring people together. This will bring cultures together, building business and economic ties. The goal of the museum is to inform about Chinese culture, not to make money."
Today, the company still makes most of the hats that are on display.
Anyone who comes for a visit will no doubt tip their hat to the long history of the craft.