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HONG KONG NOTEBOOK: The cheap tailor-made suit endures

June 27, 1997

HONG KONG (AP) _ Years before he whipped Singapore into economic shape, a man named Lee Kuan Yew visited Hong Kong on a boat. He promptly went to a tailor and ordered a suit.

``He was measured in the morning, his fitting was in the afternoon and the suit was delivered to his cabin that evening,″ a host recounted recently, introducing the impeccably attired former Singapore prime minister.

A 12-hour suit, and a good one at that. It made a deep impression on Lee about the fabric of Hong Kong _ made of people who get things done and do them well.

That was 1954. Four decades later, as it returns to China, Hong Kong’s fabled electronics are overpriced and a beer can exceed $8. But the good, cheap, custom suit endures.

``Tailored in a day? Absolutely. That’s Hong Kong’s specialty,″ says Rick Chotrani, a native Hong Kong Indian who should know. A consummate salesman, he has a suit for everyone _ at an average price of $250.

``Cashmere?″ he asks, smiling broadly and pacing circles around a potential customer. ``I can do cashmere. I can do linen. I can do double- or single-breasted.″

``Two buttons?″ he’ll say, plucking fabric bolts from the hundreds that line the walls of Nita Fashions in the tailor enclave of Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui tourist mecca. ``I can do three buttons. How about four? That’s very in now.″

Then he’ll burst into tommy-gun staccato. ``Pleats? Cuffs? Vents? Baggy? How do you want the lapel?″ His colleagues _ Max, George and Andy _ look on.

Suddenly he’ll be everywhere _ and this means everywhere _ with the tape measure. He’ll scrawl, scribble, go for the gut: ``You’re not planning to gain any weight, are you, chief?″

And as abruptly as it began, it’s done. Total time expended: four minutes. Another fitting the next day and my suit _ an olive, four-button, pleated, cuffed number _ is ready. Their personal record _ a suit done in four hours for an especially hurried traveler.

At my fitting, Chotrani’s silky rap and deft use of my name _ ``Yes, Mr. Anthony. Certainly, Mr. Anthony.″ _ convinces me to buy two shirts.

A half-block away, on the fourth floor of a tailor-dominated arcade called Mirador Mansion, Ming Chen-chi and his staff of 65 tailors turn the orders into real clothes.

``I wouldn’t keep doing it if I didn’t enjoy it,″ says the chalk-wielding Ming, encircled by 16 freshly sewn suits.

On the ground floor, Francis Cheng is in his 26th year of tailoring, and business keeps getting better.

``Hong Kong has always had this reputation,″ Cheng says. ``But it’s gotten more so _ mostly because of word of mouth. Now our suits are the most famous in the world.″

That’s what the men prowling Tsim Sha Tsui’s streets tell tourists. They pounce from doorways, thrusting fliers into passing hands. ``Come see my store,″ they bleat. ``Bargains like you’ve never seen.″

And the people come _ people like Frank Jancura and Al Benz of Cleveland, retired teachers on their fifth suit-buying trip to Hong Kong.

Each bought two jackets, two suits, five pants and eight shirts _ all custom-made. China taking over Hong Kong? Not interested; they’re headed for the mainland China 1 1/2 days before the big event.

But they’ll be back. Jancura recently pulled from his closet an old suit made in Hong Kong in the 1970s.

It was useless, but it wasn’t the clothing’s fault.

``If I hadn’t had too many milkshakes and Snickers bars, it would have been fine,″ Jancura says. ``I deteriorated, not the suit. And that’s why I keep coming back to Hong Kong.″

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