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.)

Anyway.

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:

advertisement for cigarettes

(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

Advertisements

In Conversation with Jung Chang at The Wheeler Centre

Last night the Wheeler Centre cruelly made me choose between being queer and being Chinese. Not really, of course. I’m Chinese no matter what, and I’m pretty damn queer. But  I had to choose between Alison Bechdel and Jung Chang, and Jung Chang, Chinese biographer, banned on the mainland but so beloved everywhere else, and lacking the connotations of Amy Tan, was always going to win. Jung Chang has written a new  biography of Cixi, Dowager Empress, scourge of China; Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who launched modern China. This biography has been written exclusively using first-hand accounts, and I’m so excited to get my hands on it.

look at this cutie!
look at this cutie!

Jung Chang is an excellent speaker. She has a wealth of adorable stories, a way of turning the most tragic anecdotes into amusing moments, and a lovely way of speaking (and not a little bit of familiarity, with her Chinese words thrown in amongst her accent and her pauses). She tells of being sixteen in 1968, and committing to paper her very first piece of writing, a poem. At the time, being a writer was certainly enough to have one sent down, and that very evening, as she was lying on her bed composing her work, the Red Guards busted in for a random inspection. Desperate to hide her evidence, she tore up the pieces and flushed it down the toilet, and there her writing career stalled for a decade. Everybody laughed, though it’s ostensibly a story of how difficult life was under Mao. Chang just has a way of telling it.

Wild Swans (and her Mao biography) are banned on the Mainland, but Jung Chang herself is not, merely blacklisted. She fought to be able to visit her mother for fourteen days in every year, and while she’s in country (in Chengdu, mostly), she refrains from talking about her work, publicising, and even seeing her friends. Chang shrugged. It is the price of being a writer, she said, and I lack the words to express how this makes me feel, but I’ll try. One of the hardest things for me, when I write about identity (and you know how I love to write about identity), is how much of my family to bring into it; how much of what can hurt me to bring into it. And I love how matter of fact she is of it, how accepting of her situation. This is the fence upon which she sits, and that’s just how it is.

The audience was a delightful mix; I love looking into a queue to see a whole lot of Chinese people, not just older but younger, too, my age or so. Lots of middle-aged to older white people, some others. Sporadic mutters and giggles when the interviewer first pronounced ‘Jung’ as if it were a ‘Y’ sound,* and second repeatedly pronounced Cixi incorrectly (Chang just kept saying Cixi until it sounded okay, and admittedly 慈 is not the most easy of sounds). But then, a sign perhaps of the white audience? Laughter when Chang related of how difficult it was for Cixi to get Chinese people to go overseas, to get a Chinese person to be ambassador to foreign countries. The first Chinese ambassador to the USA was an American. But Chinese people were afraid: afraid of being kidnapped, afraid of being killed. And there were giggles from the audience, as if this isn’t something truly to fear? (Clearly they’ve never been a Chinese person in a Western country)

funny story: the first airbrushed photo in chinese history
funny story: the first airbrushed photo in chinese history

When asked if Cixi’s history had been influenced by any thing in particular, Chang demurred, explaining the misrepresentations. What she meant to say was, surely, misogyny. Just like Wu Zetian.

When Cixi was young, she had a eunuch lover. Eunuchs were always despised, though Chang suggests they should be figures of sympathy. Cixi instigated a canal cruise for her lover’s birthday: there were dancers, and singing, and revels. This caused an outcry, because EUNUCHS and LADIES MAKING CHOICES, and her lover was put to death, the dancers were sent off to be prostitutes, and Cixi had a breakdown.

I loved the way Chang told of Cixi’s reforms, from the sweeping societal, through to the court etiquette, and how Cixi, who loved curiosities, never rode in a car – because the driver couldn’t bow AND drive at the same time. I also loved that she waved at foreign photographers, because she had heard that foreign monarchs did that (very different from the tradition of being hidden from view all one’s life, as Chinese royals were).

I was most interested to learn about Cixi, but as an endnote, I also learnt about George Morrison, whom Wikipedia tells me was also known as ‘Morrison of Peking’ or ‘Chinese Morrison.’ He came up because a man in the audience asked if Morrison, from Geelong, was in Chang’s new book, noting that he features predominately in many other biographies of Cixi and of the period. “No,” said Chang, after a pause. It wasn’t a ‘trying to remember’ pause – it was an awkward pause, a ‘how do I say no?’ pause. Morrison, says Chang, didn’t speak Chinese. He got a lot of his information from Backhouse, a man who claimed to be Cixi’s lover and who claimed that on her deathbed Cixi told him “never let a woman rule.” It had better not surprise you, reader, to learn that he was a giant liar.

This was a free (but booked out) event at the Wheeler Centre. If you’re in Melbourne, The Wheeler Centre is a great way to see/hear some awesome stuff, for free or for cheap! Get to it.

*!! This tweet from the Wheeler Centre tells me that Jung Chang pronounces her name Yoong! Which is super interesting that she’s chosen a pronunciation that’s so different from the pinyin/romanisation. How non-standard! I apologise for making fun of the interviewer for that.

if you are the one (stereotypes for dating)

While living in China I met my friend Wendy, also a Chinese-Australian from Melbourne. We would hang out often, through the afternoon and into the evening. Eventually, though, she would run off from me, to go watch her Chinese dating show. I would make fun of her. Then we came home to Melbourne.

fcwr-4

If You Are The One (非诚勿扰) is that Chinese dating show. I love it.

The premise is that there are 24 women, and they stay on the show episode after episode until they end up with a date. Each episode features 4 guys; they show some (pre-filmed) videos and the women ask questions, and through this process the women turn their lights off if they become disinterested in the contestant. At the end, if there are lights on, the guy can choose one of those remaining women.

Often, even if there are lights on, the guy will say no to those remaining, and leave without a date. Frequently, they will leave without a date anyway, because all 24 women will have turned off their lights. Sometimes the contestant will have a large number of women to decide between, and the women will have done the hard sell on themselves, which is always super excellent – I love a woman who puts herself forward, and is in a situation where she is supported in putting herself forward, as they all are on 非诚勿扰.

Each guy is on stage for between five and ten minutes, so everyone has to decide fast. The guys might have a better idea of the women, as the women stay on episode after episode (and are filmed and screened regularly), and viewers can get an idea of their personalities. The questions are pointed, and cover all sorts of things; the decisions are snap and sometimes seemingly random. The outcome is serious.

Prior to watching 非诚勿扰, I’d always considered dating shows boring, superficial things; nothing wrong with them, but kind of pointless and not for me. At the end of each opportunity, two people leave to have a date, and if it doesn’t work out it doesn’t work out. 非诚勿扰 is not like that. It is portrayed as very life or death, must end in marriage stuff. If it’s going to be ‘let’s have a date and it might not work out,’ people clarify with “let’s start as friends and see what happens,” rather than the other way around.

fcwr-1

Now that we are home, and 非诚勿扰 airs on SBS2 Tuesday through Thursday nights, Wendy and I watch it together, from our own couches. We text our often snarky comments back and forth, making snap pronouncements and guesses as to the outcomes. It is easy to do.

非诚勿扰 is incredibly stereotype based; it’s all snap decisions and assumptions, and every word and every choice is weighed for significance and, usually, allows someone to be found wanting. One contestant came out in a t-shirt, and a woman berated him for not caring about his appearance. Another woman came to his defence – she was an art gallery owner, and analysed his clothes, correctly deducing that he had designed the print on the shirt and was wearing it for the first time this evening, and based on that deduction would be happy to leave her light on for him. (He chose her, in the end)

If a contestant is a little large, or 胖, we assume they will lose a number of lights. If the contestant is nerdy looking, or old, or bald, or too ridiculous when they come out; if they focus too on one thing, or talk too much about their parents, then the women will turn their lights out.

One contestant says “I lived in Taiwan for so many years, and most girls I have met are Chinese, so I’ve become accustomed to getting along with Chinese girls…Unlike foreign girls who always keep talking during a chat, showing no respect to others, Chinese girls are generally more considerate,” said Joel. “Maybe they’re influenced by traditional Chinese culture, Chinese girls are good listeners.”

Gosh! We are, aren’t we? I know I totally am.

fcwr-3
(the contestant’s reply to ‘every girl you know in Australia is very independent?’ was ‘i don’t hang out with locals’)

Over two weeks SBS2 aired the Australian specials of 非诚勿扰, and despite the many things I could say about the show, it is this in particular about which I would like to chat.

非诚勿扰 is allegedly based on failed Australian dating show Taken Out, and is currently so popular in Australia it’s discussed on AFL forums. It’s been profiled on the Vine, with an article entitled ‘Why we’re obsessed with If You Are The One’.

Why ARE Australians obsessed with 非诚勿扰? Why am I?

We’ve seen dating shows before, and we’ve seen this dating show in particular before, and it failed. But it’s now so popular here it’s on SBS2 three nights a week (though last night’s episode was a repeat).

How much is laughing with, and how much is laughing at? These two screencaps at The Vine really highlight that for me:

fcwr-2 fcwr-1

This is a Chinese way of speaking, of communicating; of making sense of the world. Was this cap set chosen because we’re making fun of Chinese people? I mean, I know it’s awkward in English but are we as Australian viewers being encouraged to make fun of Chinese language quirks? (an aside: I totally struggled with this when I spoke Mandarin every day)

Don’t get me wrong, I make fun of Chinese people. But that’s a thing I get to do as a Chinese person, having lived in China, understanding what it is exactly that I’m making fun of; understanding that I am, in essence, making fun of my self, of my family, of my history.

And I wonder, what is the line between real and unreal; between stereotypes for good and for bad? And how will that impact me, in my life? People take this show seriously, so I feel justified considering its messages seriously.

There is growing scepticism within China as to whether foreign specials, and participation of foreigners on the show, is viable and realistic, or simply a ratings grab. Can foreigners have stable long-term relationships with Chinese people, due to the cultural differences?

The Australians on the show (all Chinese, born outside of Australia – from China and Malaysia), if they mention dating an Australian woman, say it didn’t work out due to cultural differences.

As someone with an Anglo-Australian father, even I’ve had a whole lot of cultural differences in failed relationships with other non-Chinese Australians, yes, but to attribute all of them?

My mother, when I first started dating, advised me not to date a mainland Chinese man – for fear he would be too traditional, too feudal; he would expect me to stay at home and look after the children. The opposite, indeed, as suggested by this article:

Zhou also said she believes that many foreigners don’t fully understand China. “All they have learned is the old feudal culture, which says that women should stay at home raising children and doing housework. I also met one who didn’t want his girlfriend to be a model or an actor, as he thought that was not appropriate for Chinese women.”

Even news.com.au is talking about 非诚勿扰, and they mentioned the Australian special:

If they’re serious about a dating show, they – and you – need to get onto If You Are The One. Chinese dating show. Big there – 50-odd million viewers – but not huge given the population. It’s culty though. You wait til you watch it. SBS has now put it on Tuesday through to Thursday, because people are discovering it and its frank charm. It’s a kind of panel show, the guy comes out, there are questions, they give their assessment, he gives his, his friends appear in a video and say their piece, he picks his girl, the end. It’s sensational. None of the fakery of The Bachelor. It just feels fake doesn’t it? They’re all too scared to say anything real, I feel like. So last night there’s a guy on, Luo Si, 29, he’s from Sydney, where the universities have no gates – this is what he says – and his experience with relationships is very discouraging. “Like waves, they don’t settle down … I just want to find the right girl. But who is the right girl? Can you tell if you believe in love? What is love?” Fantastic. His friends came on – and it would’ve been better if this bit hadn’t been shown – and talked about how he was in love with a girl he chased for two years. She showed “no reaction.” Each time he was rejected, one them said, he’d drink by himself. In the end Luo Si chose the girl who said she liked cooking and cleaning.

It’s culty, they say. But what makes it culty? Is it the seriousness and the earnestness? Is it the ridiculous costumes my current favourite wears? Is it the attitudes and the silly noises and dances? Or is it the laughter, the laughing at and the laughing with?

my current favourite always wears costumes
my current favourite always wears costumes

I love laughing with it, too. And I love the insights it gives to Chinese culture, traditional and otherwise, and how it reminds me of being in Beijing, even reminds me of the friends I have long since left behind there.

In China, an article in Time suggests, 非诚勿扰 and shows like it are popular because they’re honest, and because they place capital in being honest, and there is a lot of dishonesty in China and across the world, in dating and in other areas. And I love that about it, too.

One of the Australian contestants was doing well, he had 24 lights on at the first video, and still over ten as his last video began. In it, his cousin tells a story of when they were younger, they were making dumplings and the contestant was sent out to purchase chives, and brought back ‘green vegetables’ (this usually means gailan or bokchoi) instead. The cousin laughed and said, but I’m sure he’s better now, but it was too late. Almost in unision those lights turned off, the implication already there: this man cannot look after himself. That from a 20 second tale about vegetables.

One woman, when asked how she budgets, confesses that she spends all her money by the end of the month and doesn’t save at all. A previous woman was notoriously stingy, rejecting immediately any man who she felt spent too much, regardless whether he had the personal wealth to support it.

“I can’t tell if you didn’t shave or if this look is intentional,” murmurs one woman. “You look much better in the video than in real life,” states another. I love them and their honesty and their abruptness. It seems so genuine. I think this is in large part why I love this show.

I have no real conclusions, except to state that based on the assumptions on this show, I’m only ever gonna have great relationships with other half-Chinese half-Anglo Australians from Malaysia.

If you’re in Australia, you can watch If You Are The One with English subtitles on SBS2 or on SBS Ondemand. If you hang out on twitter you can chat about the contestants using the #ifyouaretheone hashtag, which the SBS2 twitter does quite actively. If you’re not in Australia, you can watch it on the Official Youtube (no English subs).

The Exotic Place as Other (and notes on cinder, by marissa meyer)

Futures and dystopias are frequently set in completely fabricated cities and worlds and planets, often but not always rising from the ashes of some war or climate catastrophe on Earth. There is extensive world-building and backgrounds established, and aside from the shared past of ‘Earth’ there is at times little else shared; Earth, and the issues of now translated into the text.

Frequently, though, those new dystopic futures are in New Something. New Beijing, New Singapore, New Istanbul. When they’re written in English and set in New Asian Something, I will bet you all the tea in my house that it is shorthand for an exotic distant (future) other; that the name of that place bears no actual relation to the plot or the world building other than something superficial like chopsticks, or the heat, and could have been set in New New York or New Londontown.

When you give the name of a place, you conjure connotations of that place, images and memories and ideas. When you name a place and there is nothing similar between the place you describe and the place you have named, what connotations exactly are you trying to conjure? In many cases, that image is other, and the exotic.

Exotic as Shorthand and the Place as Other

Exotic is a problematic term all on its own, particularly so when it’s applied to some culture you don’t know; in English-language Science Fiction, that’s almost always a place that isn’t a Western place. Tori Truslow wrote a great post in 2012. It’s got totally racist connotations, especially when we’re talking about beauty, particularly women; it separates us, and it others us. It’s frustrating when it’s applied to your food and your culture (as I wrote about five years ago). These are all different topics, but you see the connection: the exotic as other.

And the exotic in a text assumes an audience; but more importantly, it makes assumptions on who is not considered the audience.

In Australia, the term ‘exotic’ is used to refer to introduced species of plants and animals; primarily, English species. Roses are exotic; as are rabbits. I delight in this usage; particularly in my industry where this is the correct terminology.

The words ‘New Place’ are not required to create this artificial and lazy sense of place as other. Firefly, the Joss Whedon space western, is set 500 years in the future when the USA and China have combined to form one governing body and there’s nary an Asian city or country name in sight. There are swearwords in ear-twitching Mandarin, though, and comments about cooking bao and some kitschy East Asian set dressing. There’s no actual evidence of the alleged Chinese upper class, and despite claiming to be a fusion universe the show features no actual Asians (and indeed, described as Pan-Asian rather than the logical outcome of Pan-Chinese). It creates this great sense of place, of other, of how our dystopic future might turn out without resorting to green skies and triple moons…if you’re not sitting there, foaming at the mouth while someone appropriates your culture for its trappings and none of what it could actually contribute (say, actual Asians. And 100 kuai says terraforming was invented by an Asian scientist. Because have you met the Asian monolith?).

Dystopic future Los Angeles as represented in Blade Runner (you know what’s great about Blade Runner? Edward James Olmos) is like the perfect summing up of my point. It’s so perfect, I found some lecturer’s class notes on the internet that agree. This 2019 LA has lots of East Asian elements and non-English languages, and a whole lot of brown people, which reflected a (1980s but still relevant today!) fear of East Asian growth (Japan then, but China now) and an increase in white flight, which in Blade Runner are used as short hand for dystopia.

My disdain for The Wind-Up Girl remains strong, for many reasons, and in my original review I noted that (sorry, I’m totally quoting myself here):

there is really no point to setting the novel in Thailand. Thailand in this novel is othered just like many of the characters, and at most point it feels like any old made up exotic back drop. There’s very little about the setting that is really clearly a future Thailand, except from some mythology stuff. It could have been any old country, so why make it Thailand? Except I guess to make use of its sex trade issues WHY OH WHY. Some reviewers (okay, one commenter on one review) mentioned that it could be because Thailand is the only country that was never colonised by some white dude, which, okay, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still totally The Other.

And as Jaymee points out in her review, there is not only no justification for this geographical choice, there is also no explanation for inexplicable changes in neighbouring geography, such as the xenophobic fundamentalism of Malaysia (called Malaya in the book) which is inconsistent with a nuanced understanding of Malaysia’s history and racial politics. This oversight highlights the other issue with the exotic as the other: a necessary understanding not only of that one city, but of all its other interactions in the world.

Hilariously, I discovered this review of The Wind-Up Girl (which includes a review for River of Gods, which is a book I really want to read to see how terribly it uses India as a dystopic future setting) which completely disagrees with me, on the grounds that a good future dystopia based on an existing city should be totally different due to science and technology and in fact let me quote from this review, because this bit I agree with:

The right way is to recognize the historical fact that no country reaches the tech frontier without undergoing serious social changes. The faint echoes of samurai and cowboys in the Panasonics and Googles of today are just that – faint echoes. Writers who realize this will try to preserve some element of the spirit of the old in the form of the (imagined) new, rather than trying to cut-and-paste.

True! I will buy this theory, or some of it. However I disagree that The Wind-Up Girl has done so, primarily because I ask this: who are you to make the decision that it is sufficiently echoey? The biggest problem with this theory is that we are writing in the today. As an author not from these cities (as every author I am talking about in this blog post is), can they ever truly be trusted to make these sorts of judgements on a city? Instead, they pick and choose and turn up a city that is never quite right, precisely because it could just as easily have been set anywhere and it has brought nothing to the story other than the exotic as dystopic and different, particularly as the stories are written today, in our actual current world politics. (Thanks once again for making Thailand a stereotype of poverty and sexual slavery, Paolo! It’s not like every Western produced text that features Thailand makes the same statement!)

The Accidental Exotic is My Backyard

There is a flip side to this: the unintended Exotic. Elizabeth Knox suggests that non-USA/English in English writers may do this by accident or even consciously, where one’s normal is in fact the “audience”‘s exotic and different. This again makes assumptions about audiences, and asks what we can expect a reader to know and to understand. Famously Avatar: The Last Airbender was considered by some viewers to be entirely fantasy, including some elements taken directly from Japanese, Chinese and Korean myths and traditions. How much of this is because readers (and viewers) are used to the completely familiar, and the exotic as other?

New Beijing, Imagined (No, Seriously, Imagined) in Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (spoilers included)

Despite its capital of New Beijing, the Eastern Commonwealth is not a China. It can’t be, not with far-flung provinces such as Mumbai, an Emperor named Kaito, and kimonos as formal wear. The emperor eats with chopsticks at one point, and Cinder’s sisters are named Pearl and Peony, and family names before personal names. In the market is a sweet bun baker named Chang Sacha, which I guess could potentially be a pan-Chinese name. There is a moon calendar celebration.

Some reviews mentioned how Chinese it all sounded but it is so not Chinese sounding that I cannot even. It is not even very pan-Asian, which I wouldn’t forgive but would at least be something.

Pearl and Peony are Western stereotypes well before they’re actual Chinese names, especially in a text that’s Linh and Chang and Kaito. Their mother, Adri, makes no sense in this context as a name. Indeed their names even translated, with no naming schema, confuse rather than clarify. There is an Emperor, and with that Japanese name and the Changs and the Linhs (Vietnamese, by the way, if you’re wondering, and also usually a personal name) we’re moving solidly into pan-Asian territory.

The likelihood of China entering an alliance with Japan is as always slim to none for varied historical reasons; I would believe a China-Korea alliance before a China-Japan alliance, though the Singapore I’ll grant, especially if it were a one commonwealth two systems deal.

It’s a lot for me to say that it can’t be New Beijing because the names are broken, but it’s basically all we’re given. This New Beijing could be any North American city that I’ve seen on a tv screen (but surely even then the USA, with its history, is unlikely to accept a hereditary ruler so perhaps not even then). The chances of it being even pan Asian, let alone Chinese, are unlikely. There is nothing in Cinder that gives a sense of place, let alone a sense of a sprawling Chinese city. There is no ridiculous architecture, no noisy press, no constant flux. There is a cluster of apartments rising high into the sky, kids playing in corridors and in my head I imagined Chungking Mansion, the Hong Kong monstrosity, but that was more me than the text.

Awkwardly for me this New Beijing is in a far-flung renumbered distant future, so a defence of this book could be that Earth politics has changed so much that Emperor Kaito (Japanese) could indeed peacefully rule the Eastern Commonwealth of (unnamed) China and Singapore and Mumbai at least, living in New Beijing, and it’s all good.

But uh we live here, in the real politics of the world, and to imply that there is a Japanese ruler of a combined China and Singapore and India is there are no words, imagine me lying on the floor making choking noises as I bury my head in my arm and laugh and laugh and laugh.

The Book Smugglers in a review note that the story is set in New Beijing but really fails to capitalise on that and in addition the story goes out of its way to make Cinder first assumed European, and then Lunar (and we assume, caucasian) – what even is the point? they ask. The point is to use the city as shorthand for characterisation and move on, and this is why representation and research and every thing else is so important. We are not making a needlessly big deal! We are making an actual facts big deal.

Our dystopic future is very scientifically unlikely to be white, because of genetics, and science, and look white people are a minority already, you know? And climate change and the sun and recessive genes, and a lot of our scientific breakthroughs are coming out of Asia and Africa. Do you know how advanced Chinese alternative energy research is? And the fact that authors continue to write our dystopic future as white, or as white hero in a pretend brown world, simply proves the point that we’re used as a backdrop and there’s no actual real reflection of our dystopic future (or our current) in these texts.

(It’s funny how easy it is to misread a thing. Another review claimed that for the ‘sensitive readers’, there was nothing to worry about, unless you were offended by cyborgs. Oh sure, nothing, except the explicit medical trauma where Cinders is offered up for medical experimentation by her step mother, and then we are treated to pages and pages of her tied to a lab table, panicking, having her blood drawn by med robots, her protesting and saying she was not a volunteer, having a disembodied voice telling her too bad. Sure. Nothing to worry about for anyone.)

Imagined World Politics and Their Implications in 2013

New Beijing is in the Eastern Commonwealth, which is ruled by the hereditary ruler Emperor Kaito. An emperor of any Chinese-something alliance is unlikely, given China’s history with hereditary rulers and though the Emperor was such for nearly 2000 years, it will take much to move him back again. The Emperor lives in a palace in New Beijing, so we can assume that New Beijing is the capital of the Eastern Commonwealth. This book was published in 2012, so we can assume that New Beijing implies something about the original power of China moving into this commonwealth, particularly in light of page 28, at which point I gasped out loud: “Subjects had been carted in from provinces as far-reaching as Mumbai and Singapore.”

The provinces of Mumbai and Singapore. The author’s website implies that the ‘Eastern Commonwealth’ is basically Asia, and that there are other similar conglomerates (Africa, Europe and Australia, ruled by a Governor-General).

Speaking of Africa, one of the key components of Cinder is the deadly plague which found its first outbreak in a small village in the African Union. This is revealed to be a disease brought to Earth by refugee Lunars, who have fled to the African Union’s unpopulated areas. It’s problematic that ‘unpopulated Africa’ is the location selected for runaway Lunars (and not, say, unpopulated Europe or unpopulated North America), due to its implications of a continuing ’empty’ or backwards Africa.* It’s problematic that this feeds into the concept of dirty brown people.

In the previous section I talk about why implying the Japanese-China alliance or commonwealth or whatever is a completely ridiculous notion given our real world politics. This conglomeration of the Eastern Commonwealth which I cannot even take seriously because it then refers to the province of Singapore (as opposed to the country of Singapore, which surely is the point of a commonwealth) just continues to give rise to the idea of pan-Asianism, a particularly vexing problem when we are talking about the representation of Asian people in Western texts; that is, we are interchangeable.

My Face

I could really do without authors choosing to set stories in my exotic different cities and then choosing to make the city some random Western smush, with no real need to be set in that city and no real understanding of how my city works.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not all up on my rant horse because she’s ruining my city or my feelings or whatever. But this is definitely a personal issue as well as an intellectual one. It assumes that a non-western audience is not your audience; it assumes unfamiliarity with the setting, because it’s a short-hand; it assumes that my city is short-hand for cool and exotic. And it is lazy and unnecessary and occasionally it makes me very angry.

*a footnote! I’m trying to avoid footnotes but this one is important and definitely a foot: I hate ‘#firstworldproblems’. you know what African countries have? commutes to work that are so short you can’t listen to a whole song, the movie you pirated being only available in poor quality so looking bad on your tv screen, and really expensive socks (all items I have taken from the hashtag right at this moment).

Pacific Rim and the Chinese Jaegar Program (and what that means in 2013)

If you know nothing about China at all, one thing you might know is that China loves design, and function, and building Really Really Big Things Really Quickly. And then building a second one. And then a third one that’s even bigger, with extra columns and squiggly bits. And then keeping them forever until they’re held together with duct tape.

The other thing you probably know about China is that there are a lot of people.

So it shouldn’t have surprised you when, in Pacific Rim, the Chinese Crimson Typhoon, piloted by the adorable Wei triplets (played by Charles, Lance and Mark Luu), turned out to be one of the four remaining Jaegar.

[Please note that this post contains spoilers for Pacific Rim (and also vague spoilers for Iron Man 3)]

The Logistics of the Chinese Jaegar Program and China’s Role in the World of Jaegars and Kaiju

This construction work is not limited to building large things quickly. It extends to a massive scale, manufacturing product after product and having a massive impact on global movement of commodities and industrial components. Production and manufacturing in China covers a whole lot of areas relevant to Jaegars, including industrial production, electrical production, and electronics. Although in recent months there has been a slight dip in employment figures in this area, this is considered to be due to an increase in automation, which further supports the Jaegar production cause, at least in theories. Reverse engineering is also a significant element, the copying of what already exists until one cannot tell the difference. Fake Apple stores are perhaps the most well known in the West, Apple stores that are so convincing in appearance and behaviour and electronics that even the staff have no idea they are working in a fake. And in 2004, when NEC discovered there were NEC counterfeits coming out of China, investigations revealed the entire company had been copied – 50 factories across China and Taiwan, complete branding, corporate HQ, royalties, products in major stores, warranties and final products “of generally good quality”.

Deloitte tells me that in 2010, China contributed 20% of the global manufacturing total. Between 1980 and 2009, China went from 0.8% to 13.5%. A quote from Deloitte that sounds like a negative but I actually think contributes to my point: “Many Chinese products have low added value, a challenging position amid rising costs and a shrinking export market. In the current state of the global supply chain, China’s manufacturing industry mainly plays the role of “manufacturing, processing and assembly…” The report points out that China has poor logistics, marketing and sales channels. It’s not explicit, but the implication is for export, and that China still relies heavily on Japan, Europe and the USA for these and for upstream goods. Which goes perfectly, actually, with China being an essential part of Jaegar production and ultimately developing its own Jaegar program.

Chinese minerals are less plentiful than its human and natural resources, but it has been seeking to rectify it. China is one of Australia’s strongest trading partners in recent history, with hundreds of major projects and dual owned operations especially in the mining industry. Australia exports significant quantities of iron ore, coal, gold and crude petroleum to China every year, amongst everything else. This every else includes a whole lot of professionals – every Australian I met while I was living in Beijing was either an English teacher, a politician, or an engineer. The top imports from China to Australia are, tellingly for the logistics of building Jaegars, telecom equipment and computers.

China has a great desperate need to participate in the Jaegar program. I go into it a little in regards to Hong Kong a little later, but China has a huge inferiority complex in regards to its national borders. China was a whole lot of separate countries until it was unified in 221 BC by Emperor Qin, who was originally the king of Qin. He is known as the First Emperor, he built a lot of the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors are his guardians in death and he nationalised the road system. He is not really relevant overly to this post but I want to emphasise that he put a whole lot of effort and reform into combining China into one country, and nobody is letting go now. There is shame in failure is basically our cultural creed. It’s why Tibet is a huge deal, it’s why Xinjiang is a huge deal, and it’s why Hong Kong is a Really Fucking Big Deal. It’s the undercurrent to a lot of things, the concession and the Opium War and the Boxer Rebellion being a case of Those White Jerks, This Is Your Fault. It’s the undercurrent of China is the centre and the pinnacle of the world, the rest of you are all ghosts. It’s the core of the military programs and state control and every thing else, and it’s why when the Kaiju come China will grab onto what it can do and won’t ever let go.

China’s massive military and constructive complexes are often incredibly problematic, but combined with the Chinese historical love of building the biggest things ever (the Great Wall; the many fake mountains just for the hell of it, well actually for the feng shui of it but still), its giant population, its huge population in its massive coastline, its history of needing to maintain national integrity, and the fact that it’s already bringing in a lot of resources, means that China will be going for it so fucking hard.

The Illogical 暴風赤紅

It’s not that Crimson Typhoon isn’t the English translation I would have given of the Chinese Jaegar’s name (it isn’t, but it’s close enough that I’ll handwave). It’s not that it uses character combos with which I’m unfamiliar (Chinese names get esoteric, that’s totally legit). It’s a little bit that the name sounds like it was invented in English and translated into Chinese characters, rather than the other way around.

Mostly, it’s that the name is written in giant traditional characters, when it’s a Chinese craft. It’s a Chinese craft, presumably funded/governed/controlled by the Chinese government. The Chinese government has spent a lot of time and money on making sure that simplified characters are the characters that get used for everything. The likelihood of the Chinese Jaegar, something of pride and awesomeness and achievement, having its name in traditional characters, is completely laughable.

The movie itself is set in Hong Kong, where traditional characters are frequently found; and often very contemporarily used, sometimes because of habit and sometimes in an active eff you to the mainland government. However it is still a Chinese craft, and HK is part of China now, despite two systems one country, and with the potentially for active eff you at the government and the fact that Jaegar was almost certainly built on the mainland, there is no chance that thing is named 暴風赤紅 over 暴风赤红.

If you’re interested, 暴風 is really strong wind (force 11), and 赤紅 is kind of like crimson, I guess.

I wrote some more about names at Tumblr, and there’s a bit more in my next post (tomorrow, on Australia and the Jaegar Program).

The Colonialist Narrative: the Hannibal Chau Problem

Liz already mentioned in her overview post that Ron Perlman’s character, Hannibal Chau, was originally meant to be not a white dude, yet somehow, played here by Ron Perlman (a white dude). Whilst that on its own is sketchy, it is super sketchy in context. What we have here is a white man, taking on a Chinese name, running a crime syndicate based out of Hong Kong, specialising in the highly illegal bits of a rare animal, for hilarious medical purposes, because that’s what Chinese people love, you know? This is the most blatantly inappropriate colonialist narrative since Tom Cruise was in the Last Samurai, though I’m pretty sure the Wolverine movie is going to also hit this. Hong Kong, the symbol of China’s super embarrassing failure and capitulation to Western Imperialist forces (see: about 1000 words ago), brought back into China’s arms in 1997 with the end of the loan, is being slowly sucked back into being a part of China. This is for better or for worse and I am not at this juncture discussing the good and bad of it. It is a huge ongoing issue for China, and for Chinese people. China’s concessions to the West were in significant part due to the Opium War, which was a symptom of the forced trickle of opium into China that was a deliberate ploy by Western forces to open China up against its will. Hong Kong was a part of this. So now we have a white dude, taking on a Chinese name, supplying illegal products for what looks like Traditional Chinese Medicine to Chinese people through the port of Hong Kong, surrounded by nameless Chinese thugs. Good work, everybody! Super good work.

The Reflection of China in Current Movies

The increased ‘good guy’ role of China in particularly USA blockbuster movies is indicative of China’s changing role in the geopolitical situation. This is reflected often by small but not necessarily insignificant moments in movies such as Pacific Rim. I do not think it is insignificant, in a ‘right now we are in 2013’ sort of way, that one of the four remaining Jaegars is Chinese, that the movie is set in Hong Kong, that there are three super hot ethnically Chinese Jaegar Rangers wandering around in the background, that they are spoken of with admiration.

In years past China has played the role of unquestioning, unthinking bad guy in movies, aided by the USAmerican tendency towards ‘communist’ as shorthand for ‘evil, unthinking pod person’ (because socialism is a bad thing? Americans.).

This has changed recently, starting with the slow shift towards China as ally in movies, and moving towards dual cuts – Iron Man 3, for example, contained a full 4 minutes extra of Fan Bing Bing’s face and plotline in the Chinese cut. The Mandarin, the advertised baddie in Iron Man 3, had me flailing in rage months before the movie came out, and there is some speculation that the changes to the role and plot in that movie were intentional in courting mainland Chinese demographics. The Christian Bale ‘what these Chinese ladies need is a White Saviour’ movie the Flowers of War (金陵十三钗) was a movie that set about intentionally creating a favourable image of Chinese people for a Western audience, sometimes to the detriment of the Japanese characters. It is also a contentious piece of history between China and Japan, with Japan denying it was all that bad and China maintaining it was super bad. The choice to make this movie could be seen as declaring a side. Red Dawn was to originally feature Chinese villains, who in post-production were digitally replaced by North Korean soldiers (which some sources described as ‘unprecedented‘).

Not to get all ‘everything has happened before’ up in here, but changing movies in the changing geopolitical situation is not only necessary, it’s precedented:

The cinematic depiction of the Chinese has been correlated with US policy towards China, as well as the Western attitude towards the Asians. In the 1920s and the 1930s, the fears of Chinese expansion (immigration) in the United States, reinforced through the circulation of racist thoughts by some US newspapers, pulp magazines, and books, found their way to Hollywood through dozens of movies portraying Chinese as dirty, criminals and tyrants…As China turned into an ally in the 1940s, a more positive image of the Chinese was established. This shift was brief with the rise of Communist China…Hollywood went right back into attack mode.

(Hollywood’s Representations of the Sino-Tibetan Conflict: Politics, Culture and Globalization, Jenny George Daccache, Brandon Valeriano, 2012, Palgrave Macmillan)

These moves are a form of soft politics, a game at which China is incredibly adept. Soft politics forms an explicit part of China’s overall “Going Global” or “Going Out” (走出去战略) concept, and it’s not a surprise that movies is one area where they feel they can easily sway things.

In the real world, China is also a rapidly rising power. Aside from the need to capture the Chinese movie going public, is it really reasonable to posit a future where China isn’t making a significant contribution to whatever amazing world saving efforts the USA is making? In 2013, China owns just over $1.1 trillion (about 10%) of the USA’s world debt, they’re going to have to collect on that some day and it’s important to keep them on side. And when they’re providing more money, they’re gonna want their fingerprints all over everything, just to prove they’re the best again, that China will never again be bested by Western powers.

My Face

You know what I don’t have a problem with? USAmerican movies having to rethink how Chinese people are represented, beyond just stereotypes. And it’s wishful thinking, but maybe this will extend to actual consideration about how other groups are represented, too. And it’s more complicated than that, of course it is, but at least I have that, and maybe one day I won’t need to search so hard to find a representation of myself or my culture that rings at least a little bit true. (And also maybe we could see a bit more of the Luu triplets, I’m not gonna stop going on about that)

 

 

There’s so much more to say, but at 2000 words this is going to have to do.