A Fashion Designer’s Lunar New Year Feast

Inspired by his family’s annual festivities in Malaysia, Han Chong filled his London home with friends for an evening of Mandarin gimlets and pineapple-filled pastry.

Guests including Jaimie Hodgson, left, Susanna Lau, center, and Rosey Chan, right, gathered for dinner in the designer Han Chong’s East London townhouse.Credit…David Fernandez

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By Kin Woo

When the fashion designer Han Chong, 43, was growing up on the Malaysian island of Penang in the 1980s, he always looked forward to the 15 days of festivities, beginning in January or February, that signaled the start of the lunar calendar. “Those are some of my happiest memories,” he said recently, recalling how his extended family would congregate in and around his father’s store in George Town — which sold Chinese delicacies like lap cheong (cured sausage) and dried pork jerky — to gossip, cook, eat, exchange lai see (red envelopes containing money) and watch the local lion-dance troupes perform. Seeing his mother and aunts wearing their finest clothes for the occasion also piqued Chong’s interest in fashion. “I loved watching them put so much effort into dressing up,” he said.

At 23, Chong moved to London to study women’s wear at Central Saint Martins; after graduating, he went on to co-found his first label, Three Floor, with Yvonne Hoang, in 2011, before leaving to launch his own brand, Self Portrait, in 2013. In the decade since, Chong’s polished, ultrafeminine designs — in particular his dresses, which often feature delicate detailing such as broderie anglaise and skin-baring cutouts — have earned the label fans including Beyoncé, Selena Gomez and Michelle Obama. “Our clothes let women feel like themselves,” Chong said of his approach to fashion. The brand’s revenue has doubled year over year since 2020, when Chong shifted his focus to Asia, eventually opening 41 stores in the region. It has also diversified: Chong recently added a children’s line, a range of handbags and a bridal collection to the mix. Last year, he purchased the intellectual property and assets of the designer Roland Mouret’s namesake brand — founded in 1998 and known for its form-fitting evening dresses — relaunching the company with Mouret as creative director.

In the 20 years since he left Malaysia, Chong has been eager to keep up the traditions of his childhood. And so, on a recent Saturday evening, he gathered friends at the five-floor Brutalist townhouse he shares with his partner, the architect Andreas Kostopoulos, in East London for an early Lunar New Year celebration. Wanting to bring a taste of his home country to the occasion, he enlisted the Malaysian Chinese chef Ping Coombes — who won the BBC cooking show “Master Chef UK” in 2014 and went on to launch her own supper club and cookery school — to create a special banquet for the evening. His guests included the fashion journalist Susanna Lau and her two children, Nico, 6, and Casper, 3 months; Lau’s partner, the record label owner Jaimie Hodgson; Tiffany Hsu, the fashion buying director of Mytheresa.com and her husband, the artist William Streng; the composer and pianist Rosey Chan; the model Eliza Rutson Pang; and the fashion designers Steven Ma, Soohee Park and Robert Wun.

Learn More About Lunar New Year

The holiday, which this year fell on Jan. 22, is widely celebrated around the world — and always with good food.

Most of the attendees are part of a tight-knit circle of friends who regularly organize group dinners at Asian restaurants around London and seek out dive bars for raucous karaoke sessions. “Because we work in such a fast-paced industry, it’s important to hang out with friends who keep you grounded,” said Chong. Save for Park, who wore her own designs, the female guests — and one male guest, the journalist Yu Masui — wore looks from Self Portrait’s spring 2023 collection and Chinese New Year capsule collection, primarily in jewel-like shades of red and green (lucky colors for Lunar New Year).

The evening began in the library on the home’s ground floor, where guests were greeted with flutes of champagne, Negronis and Mandarin gimlets. There, illuminated by a geometric Isamu Noguchi Akari ceiling lamp, they perched on a cream modular Mario Bellini sofa, sipping from teacups filled with a rich pork and ginger broth and eating pork dumplings dipped in chili sauce. It was the first time many of the friends had seen each other since the previous year, and so they filled each other in on their winter breaks. Chong and Hsu discussed their recent trips to Japan, and Lau recounted hers to Thailand. Around 9 o’clock, the group made their way to the kitchen and dining room, on the second floor, where Coombes had laid out the meal family-style on the wooden dining table, encouraging everyone to help themselves to dishes including a lacquered red Peking roast duck, a tender poached chicken served with ginger scallion sauce, stir-fried lotus root, giant steamed tiger prawns, deep-fried whole sea bass and a luxurious tangle of stir-fried noodles and steamed lobster.

After red envelopes had been exchanged, Coombes served a spiced roasted pineapple and coconut cream mille-feuille with cinnamon ice cream, which inspired several of the guests to reminisce about the pineapple tarts, traditional Lunar New Year treats, of their childhoods. “I’d been craving some home cooking and good conversation with friends,” Chong said, as the evening started to wind down. “In my family, we believe that if you eat well and are generous and share your food with your neighbor, then the year will go well for you.” Here, he shares his tips for a laid-back but authentic Lunar New Year feast.

Find the Right Collaborator

Chong was introduced to Coombes by a mutual friend and had been wanting to work with her on a dinner party for some time; he admired how she’s become an ambassador for Malaysian cuisine. His brief for the meal was open-ended — he simply asked for a “feast to showcase our culture” — and while many of the dishes Coombes served, such as the poached chicken, roast duck, crispy pork belly and deep-fried whole fish, are popular around Lunar New Year, she also found ways to inject a sense of whimsy into the food. She served dumplings (filled with pork, spring onion, shiitake mushrooms and dyed green with spinach juice) in the shape of bok choy cabbage alongside real bok choy. And between dinner and dessert, she surprised the guests with shots of cendol, one of Chong’s favorite childhood sweets — a snack of shaved ice with coconut milk, palm sugar and slippery green pandan noodles.

Use Every Inch of Your Space

Chong and Kostopoulos’s 2,300-square-foot home has been the venue for many parties, both impromptu and planned, over the years. Chong bought the house, which was designed by the British architect William Russell in 2002, a decade ago and lived in the space for a year before commissioning the firm Casper Mueller Kneer (who designed Self-Portrait’s flagship store in London’s Mayfair district) to renovate it, with the goal of making the space feel more serene. Despite the imposing steel and concrete facade, the neutral palette of the interiors and the couple’s modernist furniture — including pieces such as a yellow zigzag-shaped chair by Gerrit Rietveld and a white polystyrene Economy chair by Max Lamb — there is a warmth to the place that encourages guests to explore and hang out. While the weather outside was too cold to use the rooftop terrace, as the evening progressed, each floor of the house was filled with guests, buzzing with conversation.

Stay True to Your Aesthetic

Chong wanted to give his guests an authentic Lunar New Year experience but decided against using traditional decorations such as hanging lanterns and paper scrolls. As an avowed minimalist, he said, “that’s just not me.” Instead, on the afternoon of the party, he went to the nearby Columbia Road flower market to gather bunches of anthuriums, delphiniums, orchids and Icelandic poppies to create bold floral arrangements for the tables and filled wooden bowls and Delftware teapots with mandarins and lychees — two fruits that symbolize good fortune in Chinese tradition — arranging them on the dining table and side tables.

Create Your Own Rituals

The giving of fruit and lai see are beloved Lunar New Year customs — intended, respectively, as an expression of love and as an invocation of prosperity. When Chong saw Chan take a bowl of lychees to the top floor and start tossing them over the balcony to the crowd below, it inspired him to make the ritual exchange of lai see more dynamic: he grabbed a handful of red packets and started throwing them to his friends, much to their delight. “I just want people to have fun, and to give them something to remember,” he said.

Get Everyone Involved

It’s customary during Lunar New Year festivities for older guests to give lai see to younger ones as a way of sharing good fortune, and Lau’s daughter, Nico, was accordingly showered with red envelopes after the meal. “Susie is a good friend, so Nico is very much part of the family,” said Chong. And just like most of the adult guests, she came dressed in Chong’s designs: a red cardigan and skirt from Self-Portrait’s children’s collection, accessorized with a matching bow-topped scarlet handbag.

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