China Through the Looking Glass

Ms Genevieve wrote a red carpet rundown about the 2015 Met Gala, and it’s great and you should read it (she has many excellent photos of excellent Chinese women there being fierce). Usually her rundowns are sufficient for me and I don’t need to talk further, but this year’s theme was “China Through the Looking Glass,” and I don’t think it will surprise you to know that I have opinions that need to be discussed in depth.

First of all, if you didn’t already know about Guo Pei, feast your eyes upon her beloved, amazing work. She is China’s premier haute couture designer. She is stunning and talented and I would probably kill a white man for the chance to wear some of her designs. Sometimes when I’m putting together outfits I’m picturing her 2010 One Thousand and Two Arabian Nights Collection in my head as I do it. We should all aspire to One Thousand and Two Arabian Nights.

Chinese woman in a dress designed to evoke blue porcelain

In an interview with Maosuit in 2012, Guo Pei noted:

Often fashion industry executives come to China or visit my studio and are shocked to see the level of fashion in China. One French fashion expert came to visit my studio and was completely surprised to see haute couture in China. He didn’t think it could exist outside Europe. 

Given that atrocity, I’m super glad that Rihanna chose to wear her, and that now lots of people around the world are looking into her work. That’s great! That’s a great outcome from the Met Gala and the theme. What a shame an amazing Chinese couturier can’t get a leg up in the Western fashion world.

(Incidentally, in 2010 she was compared to Charles James, and the NYT suggested she had in fact surpassed Paris designers.)


Let’s talk poppies.

Opium is so fraught in China, particularly in regards to China’s history with Britain and various other Allies. The two Opium Wars occurred due to the colonialist need of Britain and other European countries to force their substandard manufacturing upon China in the 1800s. The history of opium in China is so fraught that an official delegation from the UK in 2010, that included PM David Cameron, was asked not to wear poppies for Remembrance Day because they were a “symbol of China’s humiliation at the hands of Europe.” And then they wore them anyway. (Of course they did)

I guess it shouldn’t surprise us then that, given fashion’s great history of cultural delicacy, a number of people wore dresses (or, in the case of Cara Delevingne, fake tattoos) covered in poppies. To be fair, it’s hardly their fault; an email from Vogue Social Editor Chloe Malle about the theme for China: Through the Looking Glass” mentioned that the official dress code was “China White Tie” and she wasn’t sure how people would interpret that. “China white” is at times a slang name for a type of opiate. So it’s subtle, obviously, and not at all a continuing demonstration of the cultural imperialism of the West. Not at all.

chloe sevigny in a mess of a dress made of traditional silks

And beyond poppies. Here’s the thing about Chloe Sevigny’s dress: each individual component is fine, and can be linked to a specific period in Chinese fashion history, for the most part (that front slit is a choice, I guess). Each of these eras of history had some amazing fashion! Why, then, one would choose to combine eleven trillion dynasties into one outfit is astounding.

The top is clearly half a top. Please witness our Lady of Delight Fan Bing Bing in The Empress of China for an example.

Fang Bing Bing in Empress of China in a red Tang dress

The bottom of Chloe’s dress is clearly attempting to be a cheongsam. Its variations don’t usually include a front slit. It’s not out of the realms of possibility, except that under layer clearly demonstrates it’s a side slit. The under layer is also overly long – traditionally the petticoat is only to above the knee. See one of my favourite ads from the 30s:

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(Don’t do cigarettes, kids) This outfit is see-through and yet entirely still accurate. It’s fitted correctly. Its slit is to the thigh but on the side. It’s tight but moves. You can see the hit of petticoat under there.

And Chloe’s biggest issue is the fit. Cheongsams are exactly tailored, and to wear one that is so long it’s crinkling unattractively on the feet is not really on. And the wrinkles. Cheongsams are kind of hard to wear, why bother wearing one if you’re not going to wear it properly?

Speaking of Our Lady of Beauty and The Most Money of Anyone Else in Chinese Media (she is currently the highest paid actress in the world):

fan bing bing in an amazing bu creation of yellow and green

Christopher Bu often dresses Fan Bing Bing. Would that he dressed all of us, but we wouldn’t be able to do him justice. Specifically I want to note him because he does some of my favourite work with combining traditional elements of Chinese fashion and design with more modern (read: Western) elements, and I adore his embroidery work. You should also be checking out his stuff.

old white lady in pyjamasA note about pyjamas:

Pyjamas make you a Shanghai Auntie, and they’re not the greatest way to evoke China. However what they are is a great joke, because a) everybody has a pair, and b) in 2010, before the World Expo, the Chinese government worked hard to eradicate public pyjama wearing across Shanghai.

Pyjamas were endorsed by Deng Xiao Ping during Opening Up, and became a fashion statement adopted from the West. It was a nice way to imitate the West, which was a big part of Opening Up. Pyjamas were also a matter of convenience – in tiny state housing, why change to dash across the road? Wear your pyjamas. So in terms of attention to theme and weird imperialistic thievery that leads to inappropriate use, this is actually incredibly on point!

And now they’re being worn to the Met! So actually anyone can wear their pyjamas. I endorse it.

You may notice I’ve only mentioned two Chinese designers here! That’s because there weren’t really that many.

Names such as Guo Pei, Christopher Bu and Bao Bao Wan may not trip off the tongue just yet, but they are the vanguard of a new invasion of Chinese fashion designers who don’t resort to the detailing of Chinese traditional dress.

And even the Guardian, which has an article asking where all the Chinese designers were, managed to make it awkward and othering, which makes everyone want to find out more about Chinese designers! Because even as they’re awesome, they’re still exotic, I guess.

(The quote above, incidentally, fails to note that these designers still do amazing traditional detailing, and Bu is known for it.)

Here, let’s palate cleanse with my other favourite Guo Pei creation.

Chinese lady consumed by a black and red dress

love me long time ugh help i’m dying

Say you’re lucky enough to get the beautiful and talented and adorable real-life doctor AND actress, Australian-born Renee Lim [1] in your new comedy show (which is relatively funny – I laughed a lot). Do you let her natural comedy stylings shine with the words, completely unrelated to race, that you have in your script?

Or do you cast her has the heavily-accented, heavily made-up, younger Thai girlfriend of your midlife crisis white father?

GEE. I just don’t know! It’s so hard to decide! Both options are so excellent!

mae, from please like me
sorry i know it’s hard to see but you can just make out her blue eyeshadow and her finger bling

Aside from her accent and her heavy bangles, Mae isn’t even Thai – as if bangles and an accent defines a Thai woman. She could totally be Chinese-Australian! (Or Thai-Australian even though I have issues with the pan-Asian identity – but not a brand new immigrant) Later the series looks at the playful mockery that is part of the “Asian” mindset. She could totally be Chinese-Australian!

It’s not the show I have a problem with – it’s that this is how Australia sees its South East Asian women.

This is not new. South-East Asian Australian women have long been presented as sexual objects, and as objects of ridicule (within a sexual sphere or with a sexual component).

In 1994 we were subjected to Cynthia, played by Juliet Perez[2], who was born in Australia. Cynthia was “a gold-digger, a prostitute, an entertainer whose expertise is popping out ping-pong balls from her sex-organ, a manic depressive, loud and vulgar. The worst stereotype of the Filipina.” [3] She was heavily accented and frustratingly other, laughable and deplorable and completely unable to be related to.

Her Thai-ness, much like Mae’s Thai-ness, was completely unnecessary; it was defended by producer Al Clark as “a misfit like the three protagonists are, and just about everybody else in the film is, and her presence is no more a statement about Filipino women than having three drag queens is a statement about Australian men,” which, uh, fuck that shit, Al, because white Australian males are the very definition of the Australian man, but I don’t see the reverse being true about heavily accented Filipino Australian women in small desert towns, completely separated from their communities and cultural networks. Do you?

Representations of South East Asian women outside of Australia (but still connected to Australians) only reinforce this. Turtle Beach, set in Malaysia, features my beloved Joan Chen as Minou, a Vietnamese woman married to the Australian ambassador. During the movie she sacrifices herself for her children, because South-East Asian women are self-sacrificing for the family, I can only assume. [4]

In Serangoon Road (we all know how I feel about that by now), all the South East Asian women are completely separate from the Australians – there are no SEAzn Australian women in Serangoon Road, which is woah quite the factual error. Maybe my beloved Pamelyn Chee is about to get it on with an American played by an Australian, which is another issue but the point remains.

South-East Asian women on Australian TV can’t be Australians. They’re always from somewhere else; they’re always othered and markedly different. Ien Ang [5] suggests that this is also in part to present a safe multiculturalism to Australians – some SEA women can be Australian, but they’re still markedly different.

The ABS doesn’t give me the data on percentage of Australians who were born in Australia but are of SEA origin/descent/ethnicity (or if it does I’m not able to work it out). But look around your life. How many SEAzn women do you know who look like this, who act like this? Because fuck if I do (I don’t). I have a broad, hilarious Australian accent (except when I’m talking to my mother) and there’s no way I’m sacrificing myself.

This cultural stereotyping for the purposes of entertainment (AND WRONGNESS) is by no means limited to us South-East Asian ladies. There is (was) one non-Anglo Aussie on Packed to the Rafters and his family is played for stereotypical Greek family laughs [6]; Benjamin Ng talked Gangnam Style and the stereotyping of Asian males in the Drum last year [7]; Hany Lee came on board Neighbours as an exchange student (rather than, say, a Korean-Australian) – despite being born in Australia.[8]

If we seek to see ourselves, reflections of ourselves, and actual realities in our media, then Australian media is obviously not presenting us with that, and it’s for a whole lot of reasons. There’s a whole lot of stuff to say here about authenticity, perceived authenticity (and inauthenticity), accepted stereotypes, racism and the Australian identity, but it’s late and you’ve heard it all before. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was 19 years ago, and was hardly even the first cut, and here we are with Mae in 2013, migrating to Australia with her bangles clacking, loving her old white man long time. The Australian identity, if it exists, contains multitudes, and it’d be nice if I wasn’t injured by trying to find it in my Australian media.

PS I’m authentic even when I’m not speaking Manglish at a clip.

Further Reading:

This seems creepy, but Ben Law’s thesis

Asian Women in Australian Soap Operas: Questioning Idealized (sic) Hybrid Representation, Monika Winarnita, Asian Social Science Vol 7, No 8, August 2011. available at: …

Footnotes and References

[1] Renee Lim interview with Asians on Film, Asians on Film, (no pub date) accessed 27/10/2013 available at*



[3] More Than Just a Laugh: Assessing the Politics of Camp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Ann-Marie Cook, (no pub date) accessed 27/10/2013 available at

[4] The sacrificial Asian in Australian film, Olivia Khoo, real time 59, feb-mar 2004, pp15, accessed 27/10/2013 available at

[5] Ien Ang, quoted in Asian Women in Australian Soap Operas: Questioning Idealized (sic) Hybrid Representation, Monika Winarnita, Asian Social Science Vol 7, No 8, August 2011. pp4.

[6] All-white Australian television fails the reality test, Melissa Phillips, The Age, February 17 2012, accessed 27/10/2013 available at

[7] Gangnam style and the stereotyping of Asian males, Benjamin Ng, the Drum, 25/10/2012, accessed 27/10/2013, available at (don’t read the comments, as always)

[8] Racist debate about TV shows is not always black and white why am I even referencing this stuff properly, Colin Vickery, The Herald Sun, 04/07/2011, accessed 27/10/2013, available at