Who gets to wear my cheongsam?
When you’re 17 years old and choosing your prom dress, the last thing you might think is that a picture of you in a modest high necked, full length dress could go viral and ignite a frenzied, febrile war of words on cultural theft, racism and the colonialism. You probably just think that the silky Chinese cheongsam will make you stand out from those predictable gowns that all the other white girls will be wearing. But may this be a lesson to you, young lady, to do your cultural studies research and may you never, ever again, dare to wear an item of clothing that does not belong to you. And by ‘you’, I mean ‘your race’, ‘your culture’, ‘your heritage’. For a précis of the insanity I’m referring to, read about poor Keziah Daum in this news article.
When doing research for this article I came to realise that the topic of cultural appropriation is wide and deep; a topic that has been interrogated ad nauseum by academics and cultural historians in the fields of art, music, food, fashion, ideas, and just about everything else. I cannot offer no more than some circular musings from my own narrow experience, but I do feel the need to speak up and say: A WHITE WOMAN WEARING A CHINESE DRESS IS NOT OFFENSIVE TO CHINESE PEOPLE.
Of course, there are nuances and qualifications. These days, our discourse does not allow for such things. Extreme outrage is the only currency on social media. The flames are fanned by clickbaiters and Twitter is the accelerant. Such is our society where the wise, funny, imaginative, educational and clever perspectives are tainted by wilful stupidity and angry, shouty people. But hopefully there are still some people who want to engage in thoughtful dialogue and a rounded debate.
I am of Singaporean Chinese heritage. My home country, Singapore, was a jewel in the crown of the British Empire during the time of my great-grandparents and grandparents. I’ve been to many a fancy-dress party where we dressed up as Native Americans. I’ve worn saris to work parties. I’ve worn kimonos in photo shoots. I’ve painted my face as a Dia de los Muertos sugar skull. Until last year, I had never worn a cheongsam or qipao, the supposedly traditional dress of a Chinese woman. This is partly because I am drawn to contradictions, and for a Chinese woman to wear a cheongsam, to me, seems lazy and unimaginative. I feel it also promotes the stereotype of the demure and exotic Asian woman (see my earlier post on The Asian Woman Fetish). You could say that I’m a ‘bad Chinese’, a banana – yellow on the outside…. I’m the one who has to ask other people when Chinese New year is. Don’t ask me the origin of Chinese customs. I can count to 10 in Mandarin but not much more. I can’t eat spicy food, can’t cook any “oriental cuisine” except a stir-fry and my favourite food as a child was a sandwich. This is not just deficient. It’s almost a visceral and deliberate rejection of my roots. When I came to England as a teenager, I embraced Western and European culture. Literature, movies, philosophy. fashion, music. I know many Indian and Asian friends who have done the same. Isn’t it funny how my race gives me a free pass to wear a traditional Chinese garment even though I’m the biggest banana in the fruit bowl? Continue reading “It’s just a dress, you can appropriate it”