It’s just a dress, you can appropriate it

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”

Sexy muthas

Have you seen the “sexy mum” at the school gate? You know the one who wears the clingy low-cut top and a red lip at 8.30 am? Or the one with the languidly dishevelled rock ‘n roll hair and bootylicious jeans, who looks like she’s having an affair with an indie guitarist? There is one at my kids’ school who works a golden glittery block heel most mornings. Another one who always has sunglasses in a colour to match her many cute bodycon outfits. How do we feel about these women?

Continue reading “Sexy muthas”

I dress, therefore I am

When I take pictures that show how much I care about image and clothing and post them on Instagram, I am in no doubt that I invite people to think me vain and shallow. I don’t feel any need to justify what I do, and in fact, if more people (especially men) took some time to present a good version of themselves as opposed to not caring what they look like, then I’m all for vanity. In fact, I would posit that creating an image, a persona, an avatar, an alter ego (such as one does on social media) is an act of existentialism. The clothing we wear is significant in how we choose to exist and move through the world.

Continue reading “I dress, therefore I am”

Vero: Underdogs in a capitalist world

For my online friends who have been deleting their Vero accounts because of its CEO’s dodgy past, I admire your idealism but it’s a bit like saying donuts are bad – because, carbs and sugar – whilst you continue to eat bread, cereal, pasta, cakes and cookies every day. If you want to only deal with companies that have a clean record on ethics and morality, if you want to sleep easy at night knowing that you have not helped to support discriminatory, non-inclusive, exploitative, morally offensive practices, then I suggest you should review the truth behind these good things that you probably quite like:

  • Subscription-based streaming of TV and movies to your living room.
  • The ability to order a hot meal delivered in the next hour from your mobile device.
  • The ability to order a cab in the next 5 minutes from your phone.
  • Subscription-based streaming of virtually all music ever produced.
  • Cheap books or any other consumer product, delivered to you by tomorrow.
  • The ability to share your words, pictures, news articles and cat videos with your friends, family and colleagues all around the world.

Continue reading “Vero: Underdogs in a capitalist world”

The Asian Woman Fetish

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Photo by @acalculatedrisk. Wearing Bordelle Burnt Red signatures

I want to say something about the trope of the Asian woman. By “Asian” here I mean East Asian, i.e. ethnically Chinese, Japanese, Korean. The Asian fetish has always been a thing (more accurately, the Asian Woman fetish). I can’t blame anyone for being attracted to what they are attracted to. I’m not going to shame you for your foot fetish, so I shouldn’t do it for your race-fetish. Should I? Continue reading “The Asian Woman Fetish”

The Book of Cunts

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I was given this marvellous present by some dear friends. The Cunt Coloring Book was first published in 1975 by Tee Corinne, which makes it almost as old as me. The drawings in the book are part of a project she started in 1973 to document “real women’s cunts”. I will almost certainly never get round to actually colouring them in because I lack the necessary artistic skills to represent the complexity and colour variegation of labia. However, I am certainly enjoying looking at the line drawings and marvelling at the certainty that no two cunts are alike. I wonder if any scientific research has been done with identical twins on this subject – hmmm… *applying for funding now*.

People complained back in the 70’s about the title of this book, and I’m sure they are still complaining now, because ‘cunt’ is for some illogical reason, still seen as the most obscene word in the English language. Cunts are beautiful and wholesome. They are complex, sensitive and flexible. They give pleasure to their owners and to others. They swallow up penises and they push out humans. Why should such strong, life-giving things be associated with the most blasphemous, derogatory, insulting epithet? We should reclaim this word. If anyone calls you a cunt, beam at them and say “Why, thank you! I AM an amazing and mysterious creature!”