By: Christie Jia Wen Carrière
It’s just a dress, just a skirt, just clothes. I could talk about what the qipao/cheongsam means to our culture, I could talk about the importance of our silk. You could argue that it’s just a piece of clothing, that it’s made from a synthetic fabric inspired by Chinese silk, and that you just thought it was pretty. It has nothing to do with cultural appropriation. But it’s more than that. The simple garment alone is not the problem in a lot of cases. The problem is that you can find this garment on a myriad of trendy online/Instagram brands by typing “oriental” into the search bar. Or “Chinatown” or “exotic,” even “chun li.”Key words in the product description include “sexy”, “exotic”, “mysterious” and all the other Dragon Lady synonyms. Then you buy it, only $19 on sale. It gets made in a sweatshop where Chinese people, children even, make kitschy and vulgarized symbols of their own culture in horrifying conditions for little to no pay. Then your package arrives in the mail, and you do look beautiful in it. You feel really sexy in that mini skirt and that lace-up, cut-out qipao. Your body looks great in it, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but then you turn around and talk about how a real Asian girl could never look so good in her own culture. Because we’re not as curvy? Because our eyes are small? Because we all look alike? Were you one of the kids who made fun of me for wearing my cultural clothes to school on Chinese New Year? The clothes my grandma gave to me, the clothes that used to belong to my mother, the clothes that used to make me feel so loved, the clothes you made a child ashamed to wear.
Then you go do that inevitable photoshoot in Chinatown. Maybe you even put chopsticks in your bun or hold up some Chinese take-out. You pose amongst the crowded shops, in front shelves full of little gold buddhas, $1.25 each, red paper lanterns, ¢99 each, white and blue vases $15.99 each. Or you pose in front of the big neon sign that says Chop Suey, or a Fu dog with graffiti on it. Taking photos in Chinatown in it of itself isn’t the problem. But next time consider the history of Chinatown. Consider the laws that prohibited Chinese from living within
400 feet of a white person. Consider how Chinatowns are built on a history of Chinese Americans having no other option but to sell cheap trinkets, kitschy stereotypes, and “Chinese food for white people” as part of an Asian themed tourist attraction, to survive and make a living. Consider what you are using and how you are profiting off a cultural space. And consider the current struggle against gentrification in Chinatowns. You were not “just matching the colours” in your photoshoot. Then you post your pictures to Instagram referencing anything randomly attached to Asian culture “sweet and sour anyone?”, “#chunli”, a series of Asian related emojis, or maybe some indecipherable phrase google translated into Chinese writing. All the comments saying
“konichiwa” with dragon and kimono emojis further condone your behaviour. Even if you “did nothing wrong” and used an ambiguous caption that made no mention to the Asian-theme, how many of your followers did you call out for leaving those comments? At the barest minimum did you bother to tell them that “konichiwa” is Japanese? You profit socially, you get a bunch of likes and some more followers, your friends are all validating you. You’ve played your role in condoning and perpetuating this fad. It’s worse if you’re a celebrity or an Instagram Influencer, you profit off the commodification of our culture as reduced to stereotypes, and you continue to boost its popularity, and you give license to the ignorant. You have the ability to greatly affect public perception of race and culture, this is how you choose to use that? And this is the problem with it, not the one garment alone but the frenzy of trends and behaviour that surrounds it. And you could argue that there’s nothing wrong with appreciating and “honoring” culture. But here’s the question, if it’s about appreciation and honour then where are the Chinese, or any Asian, people within this fad? What is their position in the power dynamic? The truth is this trend isn’t about us, nor is it for us. It’s not to appreciate or honor us, just our material goods. That’s what it’s always been about, this trend isn’t a new thing. The popularity of Asian-themed goods cycled in and out of fashion throughout history. The trend of Japonisme and Chinoiserie in Europe had a profound effect on Western modern culture. Specifically looking at Modern Art, so many of the great Western artists took from were inspired by the Japanese woodblock prints (Ukiyo-e). Artists such as Van Gogh, Degas, and Monet. And it always comes back around, in the 20s, in the 90s, and now it’s evolved and has infiltrated Instagram culture. You can’t say Bella Hadid is “slaying in a 90s inspired dress,” it was cultural appropriation then and it is cultural appropriation now. They always wanted our material goods, artefacts and curiosities from our culture, even when China wanted nothing to do with Western goods. That’s how we got the Opium Wars, that’s why Chinese people had to start immigrating to America to begin with. They wanted our porcelain and our silk, so they started a war. We wanted a better life, but they couldn’t stand for us to live amongst them. Then they wanted our cheap labour, Chinese coolies to build the railways. But when the work was done and jobs became scarce they couldn’t stand for Chinese people to work amongst them, occupying jobs they felt belonged to the white labourer. They resented that large corporations would use Chinese workers, who did not have the same rights and who were denied citizenship, to break strikes. Their animosity was towards the Chinese, who they felt
were less human and therefore could survive on essentially no pay. We’re subhuman, we can survive eating rats and dogs, we’re a threat to white labour because we don’t need pay. Then they wanted us out of the country, they branded our women as prostitutes as the law did not permit “lewd women” from China to come into the country. Of course, immigration officers were free to determine that all Chinese women were lewd. They tried to scientifically prove that Chinese women all carry a special strand of syphilis, science failed them but the stereotype prevailed. Chinese women had to undergo extreme scrutiny of their “virtue” at the border, they
had to somehow prove that they were not, never had been, and would never become a prostitute. Public opinion that the time being that Asian women were just naturally more inclined towards, what they considered, “lewd behaviour.” The immigration of Asian women practically ended. Chinese men were branded as “anti-family” and “against American values” for not having wives, marriage between Chinese and Whites was illegal. They wanted Chinese Americans to die out. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 lasted for 60 years, and was the only act which specified a group of people by race and ethnicity, rather than citizenship. The act was later modified to include a variety of Asian ethnicities, specified as “Orientals and Mongols.” Even when it was lifted there was a quota which permitted only 150 Chinese people to enter the country per year. They only permitted immigration for those with specialized skills which were deemed needed in America, and high education. Essentially, doctors, engineers, scientists, lawyers, etc. “It’s a stereotype but then why are all the Asians I know like that?” you don’t know enough Asians. And this isn’t an organically formed group, we’ve been scrutinized and restricted since the beginning. Quotas were dropped in 1965, but our value as Chinese Americans is still centred around our intelligence and education. “Asians are all smart and good at math” seems like a friendly stereotype until mobs of white parents are bitter because these high-powered, inhumanly efficient Asian students are taking all the places and scholarships in universities, a space they feel belongs to their deserving white child. To say nothing of Head Tax, to say nothing of the violence and the protesting against our people. To say nothing of over a century worth of legislations and laws meant to restrict and control us, meant to prevent our ability to make a living in this country, to even enter this country, to ever become a citizen. To say nothing of thousands of court cases. To say nothing of Angell Island. To say nothing of Yellow Peril. To say nothing of the long history of Orientalist representations, and the evolution of current representation towards Techno-Orientalism. The point being that they have always wanted something from us, without our people actually
occupying space in their society. Now, what they want is to use the stereotypes, which were forced onto our bodies, to their own benefit. To profit off the commodification of our cultural stereotypes. To profit off the
racial profiling of Asian women, which led to the visual coding of our cultural symbols and clothing as “sexy”, “exotic”, and “mysterious.” Those who buy into this trend want to use the flattening of our cultural identity simply to attain, of all things, IG clout. And the problem with you is that you can do all these things, post a cute picture, be praised for being edgy and fashionable, even cultured. And then you get to take it off, move on to the next look, appropriate someone else’s culture next week. But you’re perpetuating and reinforcing existing and harmful stereotypes that Asians can’t just take off. You benefit from our stereotypes, you get to use them, we live in them. Geisha, Mme. Butterfly, Dragon Lady, Yellow Fever, Oriental, China Doll, Submissive, Docile, Delicate Flower, Innocent, Anime School Girl, Dirty Chinatown, Exotic, Mysterious, Lewd, Sexy, Comfort Women, Prostitute. As an Asian woman you get a choice, are you a dragon or a butterfly?
Christie Carriere is a visual artist whose artwork primarily consists of figurative paintings exploring the hybridity of mixed Chinese Canadian identity interacting within a media dominant culture. Her work, both artistic and otherwise, aims to address the experiences and perceptions of the Asian diaspora as well as create spaces to bring together Art, Culture, and Community. She is also a student at OCAD U, majoring in Drawing & Painting with a minor in Art History.