Detail from a classic Vivian Chan Shaw designed garment. Photo © Vivian Chan Shaw Pty Ltd

The Family Yarn

Vivian Chan Shaw has been a celebrated Australian fashion designer since the 1970s but her ancestral connection to Australia and creative flair crosses many generations.

1930s Shanghai

In the 1920s and 1930s the port city of Shanghai was a growing metropolis, a vibrant and exotic centre for finance and trade, as well as an indulgent playground for wealthy foreigners and Chinese mainland migrants bent on the pursuit of every possible pleasure. Shanghai also provided a home to various groups of European refugees, such as White Russians fleeing Revolution in 1917 and later, in the 1930s, to Jewish refugees escaping growing Fascism in Europe. 

The city was divided into distinct political zones - the largely British-managed International Settlement, the French Concession and the walled zone of Greater Shanghai administered by the Chinese government. It was a melting pot of cultures, society and architecture. Modern art deco skyscrapers and luxury apartment blocks were being built in abundance while maintaining a number of historic Eastern buildings and temples.

Shanghai was also home to Sidney Leanfore and his wife Ella Hing. Married in 1932, they had a shared family history as both were born in Sydney to families with mainland Chinese heritage. Ella had returned to China as a child while Sidney had returned as an adult, around the mid-1920s, to study Animal Husbandry at Nanking University. 

But in early 1932 trouble was brewing for this bustling city, and on 28 January it was bombed by the Japanese Navy.

The following months were characterised by violent military combat in the streets, the reinforcement of troops and a continued bombardment of the city and surrounding areas. A ceasefire was reached on 5 May which allowed a few Japanese units to remain in the city.

In 1934 Sidney and Ella chose to travel to Hong Kong for the birth of their child, ensuring she was born in a British territory. Perhaps they hoped the birth of their child in the British controlled city of Hong Kong would make a potential return to Australia less complicated. They named their daughter Wywy meaning ‘brimful of life’. In English this name translates to ‘Vivian’, also meaning life.

This is a photograph of a Chinese man dressed in a suit and Chinese woman in a white dress and veil on their wedding day.
Sidney Leanfore and Ella Hing on their wedding day, Hong Kong, 1932. Photo courtesy of the Chan Shaw family.
This is a photograph of a mirrored sign for the shop 'Little Shirley' with writing in English and Chinese
The mirrored sign for Ella Hing’s children’s wear store, Little Shirley, Shanghai. Photo © Claudia Chan Shaw

Ella Hing was an artistic and talented designer. She owned a children’s wear boutique, Little Shirley, located on Yu Yuen Road, Shanghai. The name showed the remarkable popularity of a child star of the times, Shirley Temple. The craze for all things Shirley even extended to the naming of her child, with Shirley as Vivian’s middle name. The business allowed Ella to use her fashion flair, sewing some of the children's garments sold in her store and enjoying the prosperity of the bustling city of Shanghai.

In 1937 the Second Sino-Japanese war broke out and the Battle of Shanghai resulted in the occupation of Greater Shanghai by Japanese forces. Chaos followed as bombs rained down on the city and thousands rushed to flee the city, including Sidney, Ella and their three year old daughter Vivian. Fearing separation in the chaos to leave, Sidney tied a silk cord around his waist and attached it to Ella and they hid their daughter inside a suitcase for safety.

The family gained passage aboard a French military ship, leaving behind their family, possessions, home and businesses, arriving in Sydney to start afresh.

This is a photograph of a letter from 1932
Letter from the British Consulate General allowing Sidney Leanfore to travel through the Japanese controlled area of Shanghai, 1932. Image courtesy of the Chan Shaw family.

A new start

In Sydney, Ella soon re-established her children’s wear store, cleverly selecting a storefront only a few doors away from the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Surry Hills. By 1943, it was the largest maternity hospital in NSW and the new Little Shirley, in a prime location, continued to thrive. Embroidered ladies blouses sold in the store were supplied by the Leanfore Trading Company, an import and export business managed by her husband Sidney.

Ella made some of the garments herself, including the specialty velveteen dresses with smocked yokes and puffed sleeves. The young Vivian, then around 8 or 9 years old, spent her afternoons hand making delicate grub roses to embellish some of the dresses, which in later years would also feature in some of her own designs. She also regularly accompanied her mother on buying trips to wholesale suppliers in the city, helping to select toys, trinkets, dresses and fabrics. It was these experiences that shaped Vivian’s creative flair for fashion which came to bear fruit in later years.

This is an image of three hand drawn colourful flowers
A botanical sketch from Ella Hing’s exercise books while studying various design and fashion courses at the East Sydney Technical College Image courtesy of the Chan Shaw family
This is a black and white photograph of a Chinese-Australian husband and wife pushing a pram with twin babies along a street and a young Chinese-Australian girl watching from a door stoop
The eternally elegant Ella with husband Sidney and their new born twins Eugene (Wy Man) and Eugenia (Wy Duc). Big sister Vivian sits on the front door step c1939. The birth of these exotic twins, an unusual sight in Sydney at the time, caused quite a sensation. Photo courtesy of the Chan Shaw family.

THREE Brothers

Vivian’s father, Sidney Leanfore, could trace his Australian connection to the 1860s Victorian goldfields when his grandfather travelled from Dongguan in central Guangdong Province, lured like so many by the temptation of gold and the potential wealth it could bring. On the goldfields Chinese miners worked over claims in tough conditions while others branched into subsidiary businesses as storekeepers, market gardeners, bankers and traders, essential services and suppliers for these remote and developing towns. While many Chinese migrants remained in Australia after the gold rush subsided, Sidney’s grandfather was one of the few who returned to Dongguan with his hard earned wealth. But with just the next generation, three brothers made the long return journey to Australia. Chan Lean Fore, Chan Lean Diy and Chan Lean Young, arrived in Sydney around 1900.

The family name of Chan, which comes first in Chinese culture, soon disappeared on their arrival. Chan was rendered by Australian customs officials as Charlie and the names Leanfore, Diy and Young attributed as surnames. The brothers soon established themselves as local entrepreneurs and family men. Charlie Young became a successful food producer with six market gardens ranging from Canterbury in the southwest to Pymble in the north, as well as owning a butcher shop in Sussex Street. His brother, Charlie Diy, married an Irish woman and soon became father to a brood of interracial Catholic children.

The third brother, Charlie Leanfore, established himself as a journalist on the Tung Wah News, later theTung Wah Times, a pro-monarchist Chinese language newspaper. The newspaper office also served as the head office of the Australian Chinese Empire Reform Association, the NSW Chinese Merchants’ Society and other Chinese community organisations. 


Charlie Leanfore became a well-connected man about town mixing with the social elite and new Chinese migrants alike.  

This is an image of an official document for Sidney Lean Fore, and shows a photograph of him as a young boy and his hand print
Australian identification papers for the young Sidney Lean Fore Photo courtesy of the Chan Shaw family.
This is a black and white photograph of a Chinese man dressed in a western suit and in a seated pose
Chan Lean Fore, Vivian’s grandfather - in Australia he was known as Charlie Leanfore. Photograph taken in Sydney, early 1900s. Photo courtesy of the Chan Shaw family.

Charlie Leanfore was active in societies assisting Chinese immigrants arriving in Australia, lending a hand of support to his countrymen. His circle of close friends was a varied one, including prominent NSW cricketer and Australian cricket captain Monty Noble, who was godfather to Charlie’s eldest son, and Thomas Garvin the Inspector General of Police in NSW, as well as several prominent Chinese community leaders.

Charlie also befriended the visiting American magician, William Ellsworth Robinson, who performed under the exotic oriental persona of Chung Ling Soo. They met during the illusionist’s sensational visit to Sydney in 1909 which saw sell out performances held at the famed Tivoli theatre. Chung Ling Soo was a mysterious character who kept his Scottish ancestry hidden from all but his close family and friends and kept an almost constant aura of mystique throughout his charade. He is perhaps most remembered for his tragic death in 1918 when one of his famous tricks went wrong and he was fatally struck by a bullet. His charade was finally up when he reportedly exclaimed on stage in perfect English, ‘My God, I’ve been shot, lower the curtain’.

An image of a yellow, blue and white poster with some oriental-style decorations advertising the magician Chung Ling Soo
Chung Ling Soo, the marvellous Chinese conjurer, poster c1905-1918. Courtesy W. G. Alma conjuring collection, State Library of Victoria

On 26 July 1909, at the age of just 42, Charlie Leanfore unexpectedly passed away. He left behind a wife, Ah Choy, and three young children, Noble, Ivy and Sidney Leanfore who were cared for by family and friends.  

Though Sidney and his siblings grew up in Sydney, he moved to China to study Animal Husbandry at Nanking University. He married the beautiful Ella Hing in 1932 in Hong Kong and just two years later they had their first child Vivian.

Ping Nam, the President of the Chinese Empire Reform Association, and Chung Ling Soo led the funeral procession, accompanied by the NSW police band. 


Ella was born in Sydney in 1906, the youngest of six children. Her father, Ben Hing, first came to Australia from Zengcheng in Southern China in 1883 at the age of 14. As a young man he and a partner established a fruit and vegetable business, supplying large wholesale orders to companies such as the P&O shipping line and the Hotel Australia. The business partnership ended in 1938 and Ben Hing took on management of the business, Austral Providores, along with two of his sons. During the Second World War they were awarded a large contract to supply the visiting US Navy.

The business occupied several levels of a building in the Rocks. As a child, Vivian visited her grandfather’s business often and even now can vividly recall her fascination with a room piled high with unwashed potatoes. Led by temptation Vivian would slide down the pile of dirty potatoes in her beautiful clothes, potatoes thumping and bumping across the room as they collapsed underneath her. Brown dirt and dust filled the darkened room, and while it caused immense joy for a child, her parents were not impressed. In 1948 Ben Hing returned to China following his retirement and sadly passed away in 1950.

This is a black and white photograph of a well dressed Chinese family standing in a group with two young children at the front
Ella Hing, second from right, (middle row) with some of her relatives in Shanghai, c1937. Her daughter, Vivian, stands in the centre of the front row. Photo courtesy of the Chan Shaw family


Vivian was a talented and creative child. With her hair in ringlets, much like the idolised Shirley Temple, she had a natural ability for ballet and piano. She attended the Conservatorium of Music and went on to study Music and Arts at the University of Sydney, though she never felt music was to be her career. 



This is a black and white photograph of a young Chinese girl dressed in a ballet costume and tying up her ballet slipper ribbons
Ballerina Vivian aged approximately 5 years, possibly taken for Pix magazine. Photo courtesy of the Chan Shaw family.

As a young woman Vivian bucked against all expectations and eloped with a charismatic though somewhat irresponsible man. By the age of thirty she was left with four children to raise on her own. To make ends meet she worked as a buyer of fabrics, trimmings and lace by day, and spent her nights fervently knitting pieces to be sold in baby boutiques. She was renowned for knitting just about anywhere, including on board suburban trains and even in darkened cinemas.

Vivian soon moved on to work at a bridal store and later managed trendy fashion boutiques In Shoppe and Merivale. It was the swinging sixties and an exciting time as art, design and fashion became ever more daring and experimental.

In 1972 with a wealth of experience in the retail industry Vivian finally opened her first boutique and label, Jeunesse, located under Sydney’s Hilton Hotel. The soft and flowing unique designs were made by hand using exclusive fabrics and were soon discovered by local and international celebrities staying in the hotel above. 

Stars such as Dionne Warwick, Margaux Hemingway and Bo Derek were seen at events wearing these unique designs influenced by Vivian’s Chinese heritage. Patterns, finishes, tassels and tie features were inspired by the sumptuous robes worn by traditional mandarins at court.

This is a black and white photograph of a woman dressed in a Chinese-inspired tunic and wide-legged pants.
One of Vivian's iconic creations, c1977. Photo © Vivian Chan Shaw Pty Ltd

Vivian also began to produce some hand knitted pieces and became attracted to the then less conventional medium as a means to separate her work from that of other designers. The introduction of a hand loom allowed her to experiment and create colourful, elegant and individual designs.

Her youngest child, Claudia, soon had the fashion bug, helping her mother in the store after school at just eleven years old. Despite some experimentation in the film world as a university student, the family flair for fashion soon took over. In 1982 Claudia was instrumental in arranging a sales tour of the USA, resulting in some incredibly successful sales to boutiques across the country. Vivian and Claudia also took part in a showcase of Australian products at a trade show in Newport Rhode Island, for the 1983 America's Cup Exports of the Vivian Chan Shaw label extended to the USA, UK, Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand and even Papua New Guinea.

My Chinese heritage has influenced everything I do. My work is entirely influenced, consciously or unconsciously... If I go to Hong Kong or Shanghai I look for pieces, little tiny gems, and I bring them back and I put them with all sorts of different stones I have [for my jewellery]. Vivian Chan Shaw, 2014

This is a colour photograph of a necklace with a central asian-style carved piece sitting on a red fabric background
A carved jade and lapis lazuli necklace from the Vivian Chan Shaw jewellery range Photo © Vivian Chan Shaw Pty Ltd
This is a colour photograph of a woman modelling a pale blue knitted dress
Vivian's daughter, Claudia Chan Shaw, models the Diana dress. Photo © Vivian Chan Shaw Pty Ltd

Claudia is perhaps most recognizable as one of the hosts of ABC TV’s Collectors (2010-2013) but the creative family talent has also seen her become an author and involved in numerous art and design projects as well as partner, co-designer and marketing director for the Vivian Chan Shaw business.

In 1986 Vivian Chan Shaw opened her now trademark outlet in the Queen Victoria Building, Sydney. Vivian and Claudia have continued to create iconic and distinctive women’s wear, gathering both national and international clients. 

This is a detail photograph of a pleat made from colourful knitted yarn
The colourful, soft knitted fabric is a distinctive feature of the Vivian Chan Shaw brand. Photo © Vivian Chan Shaw Pty Ltd

About the Author

Colour photograph head and shoulders portrait of woman with long brown hair and glasses
Veronica Kooyman
Former Assistant Curator
Interpretation & Exhibitions
Veronica has worked in museums since 2009 and has been fortunate to work at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour and the National Motor Museum in the Adelaide Hills where she had far too much fun riding around in vintage cars. Between 2014 and 2018 Veronica worked as part of the exhibitions team, learning and sharing new and fascinating stories from her home city.
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