Friday 4 May 2018

When is a dress just a dress? American teenager's Chinese prom dress and cultural appropriation

Anna Chen writes in the Guardian, An American woman wearing a Chinese dress is not cultural appropriation

(Guardian headline and standfirst written by sub-eds)

When is a dress just a dress? Remember those photos of the little cocktail number that looked blue with black lace to some and white with gold lace to others when they were in fact the same frock? American teenager Keziah Daum now possesses a prom dress with similar magical properties, and it’s landed her in hot water with culture pedants.

The attraction of the qipao (“cheongsam” in Cantonese) is obvious: a sexy, figure-hugging sheath of silk with a high mandarin collar balancing a va-va-voom flash of leg via a thigh-high slash. Its beauty, however, turned into a curse when photos posted on social media of her wearing her beloved vintage find made her a target for tens of thousand of tweets accusing her of cultural appropriation. That’s one heck of a fashion crime.

The original complainant’s instinct – to draw a line at a time when Chinese people are under siege from Trump-inspired China-bashers – is understandable, but in this case, completely mistargeted. If anything, the qipao represents power and class, not race, and certainly not the culture of some exploited underclass.

The qipao’s history is said to have originated with the Manchu Qing dynasty, when members of the Han population they ruled were forced to wear a loose version of the one-piece instead of their own traditional clothing. Created in Shanghai in the 1920s, when warlords ran vast swathes of republican China, the slinkier form of qipao was a fashion favoured by one ruling strand of Chinese society that we associate with Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, who fled to Taiwan when the communists won their revolution in 1949 and ditched the bourgeois qipao for Mao suits. Some even detect a western influence in its hybridisation, meaning the current outcry could be compared with taking offence because someone in Asia wore a tuxedo.

At its core, the identity debate is about power: who has it, who’s lost it and who’s chucking it around with abandon. This is hardly a case of a white American dressing up in a fringed chamois tunic with a feather headdress, mocking the indigenous people their antecedents almost wiped out.

At least Keziah wasn’t tip-toeing around to mimic bound feet in a play set a millennium before foot-binding became a thing in China, as in perhaps the most absurd example of cultural appropriation I’ve witnessed. In More Light at London’s Arcola Theatre several years ago, seven white actresses played Chinese concubines buried alive (allegedly) with China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210BC. Wearing kimonos (Japanese) and sticking chopsticks in their hair (!), this was a prime example of badly executed appropriation. Unlike Keziah’s appreciation.

When cultures meet and mingle, they inform and enrich each other. I can wear tartan, wear pyjamas, knock up a curry, curl my hair, cry along to the blues and dance to funk. I know the difference between a schmuck and a schlemiel. I’ve sat shiva for a friend’s father. I love gefilte fish. Does this make me a cultural appropriator?

The whole cultural appropriation debate is in danger of being turned from a defence of minorities under the colonialist cosh into a lazy substitute for real political power. How has it degenerated to the extent that we’re now on social media mobbing teenagers whose only crime is to consider a Chinese dress beautiful? Qipao-gate this isn’t.

With President Trump and his acolytes pumping up yellow peril fears around China, and his trade wars threatening to slip into hot wars, the last thing we need is this trivialised pastiche of serious debate. Minorities have precious little ammunition with which to challenge tribal juggernauts. Don’t waste what little cultural and political firepower we have.

Keziah was neither stealing power nor claiming ownership. And she looked lovely.

Here's me wearing the cheongsam from my solo show Suzy Wrong Human Cannon (Edinburgh Fringe Festival), at the ICA in London for a performance of Bondage Pic by Grace Lau.

Guardian piece

EDIT Here's a taste what we're thought of in Britain and pretty much generally in the western Chinese diaspora:

The Opium War by Julia Lovell book review: Smoke and mirrors and barely disguised disgust for the Chinese.

What happened when the Tony Blair government tried to blame the catastrophic outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease on the UK Chinese.

For a minority to be truly part of British society you have to be visible, otherwise you're a blank canvas onto which the dominant group's inner demons can be projected. The Chinese British community finally say no to yellowface when the Royal Shakespeare Company does The Orphan of Zhao.

Similar controversy when London venue The Print Room produces a yellowface In the Depths of Love and then performs like a contortionist to make their risible excuses leaving most of us aghast and laughing in disbelief.

Sherlock and wily orientals: Blind Banker, Episode 2 review. I'm afraid this has completely wrecked my enjoyment of anything featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. Trigger warning: it features a qipao.

Sinophobia and Copenhagen: open letter to the Guardian's Mark Lynas. Right now, Germany and China lead the world in green energy policies while Trump pumps fossil fuels, even contriving to leave the Iran nuclear agreement on dubious grounds which is sending the oil price rocketing — $71 at time of writing, expected to go over $100 for the next three years. Great for Texas ...

... and Canada is currently sitting on the planet’s second largest oil reserves which it plans to release into the markets and the atmosphere, and is the first Kyoto signatory to renege on the deal. China is sticking to the Paris accord despite Trump pulling out the US.

To "trump" it all, we're even excluded from debates about us: Laurie Penny excludes woman of colour from debate about representation of women of colour


Colin Jackson said...

Good article. It concerns me a bit that culture has become a badge of belonging, like a flag. Culture is a gift you give to humankind. If it's worth anything, it should be anyone's.

Stella in NYC said...

Anna -- you are free to express your opinions, but as you are not Asian-American, it's not your job to be telling Asian-Americans how they should feel about this topic. Whatever experience you have being Asian-British is not relevant to the Asian-American experience here, in the US. For the same reason, the opinions of Asians who live in Asia are irrelevant; they have an entirely separate culture from Asians who live here. Asian Americans would never presume to speak for those who live in Asia.

I don't think the girl acted with any malevolent intent; she's just a kid. But the questions and controversy that this stirred up are worth some serious examination. Mekita Rivas has written a very clear explanation of why a white girl wearing this dress and getting applauded for her fashion sense can cause pain for an Asian-american girl, who will get a very different response if she wears a qipao to her prom.

Madam Miaow said...

Dear Stella, thanks for your comment. Please note that I don't write the headline or standfirst, so can we engage regarding the points I make in the article.

My perspective is from being part of the Chinese diaspora in the West, not an American, so I apologise if the headlines made it sound that way. Chinese Americans and Brits have linked arms in recent times over matters such as the yellowface Orphan of Zhao controversy in the UK and the La Jolla Playhouse in the US.

In Northern Ireland, the UK's first ethnic Chinese Brit politician, a brave woman named Anna Lo, has defied the racist right to defend Romanians, Roma, Poles and other minorities under attack — she's one of my heroes.

In Australia, Erin Chew, who tweets as ThisAsianWomanSays @echewy, has to fight off not only vicious white attacks, but also Chinese Aussies pressuring her to shuddup whenever she challenges the China-bashing narrative.

We are all linked, we are all being targeted and we need to support each other.

The frock was in one way a boon to us because it's put a robust debate in the spotlight. What emerged from Journey to the West's "Qipaogate" video once the red mist had begun to clear is the core problem of the way diaspora Chinese are still regarded as sub-human, denied an equal place in society. Here's what happened when a Chinese Brit tried to participate in UK politics.

And here's how the Blair government tried to blame UK Chinese for the devastating outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease, linking us with filth and pestilence in a way that would make Goebbels proud.

The chief thing I wanted to do was put the link between the intensifying scapegoating of Chinese everywhere and Trump's anti-China (huh, anti everyone) actions in the public domain. I'm sick of challenging the mainstream China-bashing here largely on my own or with a handful of fellow BEAs — we need a wake up call that the danger is real and upon us. That statement from the FBI attacking Chinese students made my blood run cold and evoked memories of what happened to the Japanese in WWII. Far from trying to diminish the reality of cultural appropriation and what it means, I'm trying to focus our energy on what's coming down the pike.

First impressions last, and the twitter thread with which I originally took issue, made it look like a pile-on onto a kid, muddying the waters as well as looking like bullying — ironic when it's us who get bullied — so the significance was missed. What I didn't do was throw him under a bus as some were hoping for, but pointed out that his instinct was understandabl. I also caught flak in the comments for insisting that cultural appropriation is a real, existing phenomenon with concrete consequences instead of deriding it.

Here in Britain, we look at the US with some envy and a lot of admiration at how many east Asian faces you see. I mean, in Marvel Agents of Shield, you have not one but TWO Asian women starring in the series. And yet I know that the struggle continues. I'm sorry we disagree on some of the particulars but all I can say is, in the current climate, sister, I will endeavour to have your back.