58 Information needed about a Leading Hong Kong Dressmaker, Lily Nègre, 1920s
HF: Suzanne Clouthier has sent the following script and images highlighting Lily Nègre, who Suzanne’s grandfather described as having a reputation as a great seamstress in the Orient, possibly Hong Kong. Both Suzanne and I would welcome further information about Lily, and I would also like to learn more about others involved in the fashion industry in Hong Kong between the wars.
“Une Grande Modiste de Hong Kong” – A Leading Hong Kong Dressmaker
Raoul Clouthier, my grandfather, worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s publicity department from 1913 to 1958. In his 1977 autobiography (preserved within the family in unpublished manuscript form), he described meeting an intriguing French businesswoman from Hong Kong in 1923. Her story may be of interest to readers of this site; perhaps someone will even be able to help fill in more information about her.
When Clouthier served as part of the CPR’s contingent in the 1923 trade show “Exposition Canadienne en France,” he sailed to Europe aboard the liner Empress of France. He wrote (translated here from the original French):
“…Shortly after leaving Quebec City, I made the acquaintance on board of a charming Frenchwoman, a great seamstress in Hong Kong, who was going to London and Paris to make purchases there for her business. She was a kind, distinguished woman, who had had a brief career in the theatre before marrying a Dutch engineer who had taken her to live in Java, Indonesia. Divorced, she had remarried to a Frenchman, but lived in the Orient, where her reputation as a great seamstress among wealthy Europeans living in that part of the world extended from Singapore to Tokyo, Japan … I saw my beautiful passenger from the Empress again … in Marseilles, where I was invited to dine with her brother-in-law, the Chinese consul in that city. Several years later, I learned from one of our CPR agents in the Orient that the former actress-dressmaker from Hong Kong, later established in Shanghai, China, had died in that city at the time of the terrible invasion of the Japanese in 1937, I believe?”
Though he never gave her name in this account, I found captioned images of her in a family album of photos from 1923. There, we learn that her name was Lily Nègre. And in an album of newspaper clippings that Clouthier had collected between 1911 and 1937, our family recently discovered a clipping from Montreal’s La Patrie newspaper that confirmed the lady’s name as Lilianne Nègre, and her husband’s as Henri (possibly corrected in the margin to Robert?) Nègre. An English-language version of the same article appeared in the Montreal Gazette newspaper of August 15, 1924. The articles’ quote regarding her servant(s) does reek, alas, of colonialism! And her dream of retiring in Canada apparently never developed.
We now wonder if Mme. Nègre might be connected to the “Maison Lily” named in Tableau 6 of this website’s article, “French retail trade companies in Hong Kong 1918-1941”. I have yet to find definitive evidence beyond the coincidence of names, however.
I have so far also been unable to confirm whether Mme. Nègre was indeed among the victims of the terrible events in Shanghai in 1937. If any readers can help with further information and/or sources, your comments will be much appreciated.
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