Asian Girl Problem #100: Irony in China

Happy 100th post! That’s a lot of problems. But a lack of finding more problems ain’t one. My word doc overfloweth with ideas for the future, and I will be posting more often in May! To come: being assertive in relationships, Burning Man, and the pliable definition of “queer.”

On to irony. When our generation was at the height of its hipster power in China, there was more than one occasion when I Googled “hipsters in china” just curious to see what was out there. Answer: not much Now there are all kinds of amazing articles like these:

(all linked to sources)

It was a month of cold and hot tea and dim sum meals, of many seniors being open with us, sharing their outfits and telling us their stories, from the feet up.

I’ve never been aware of irony in China, as a countercultural statement or otherwise. This photo is from the Accidental Chinese Hipsters tumblr, which is quite an oxymoron if you require all “bad” hipster fashion to stem from a conscious smugness. My biggest impression of fashion there is that it’s not as hung up on culture or history–more variety is accepted in people from all walks. I might see someone wear a 90s tracksuit one day and a fur vest with knockoff Uggs the next, making me suspect that fashion isn’t fiercely tied to identity as it is to practicality, availability, and daily mood. Is there even a word for irony in Chinese? If so, it was probably coined after the internet.

This article I read today about Ai Wei Wei pointed me back to irony in true counterculture.

But just as Ai promotes the very real weight of his social causes, he also, tongue in cheek, undermines his own position as an artistic poseur.

If there is a thread holding his works together, it is his mixture of bold confrontation, intellectual playfulness, droll humour, and experimentation of form. Beauty is second to social critique.

My two battered cents is that I like reading and thinking about Ai’s art more than looking at it. But more importantly, the article reminded me of how Ai’s personality is so witty, mischievous, yet grounded. In videos and interviews, I see him deliver withering insults and genius insights with a deadpan style. He reminds me of my dad’s side of the family, and numerous other funny people I’ve met in China. If Irony=Humor x Pain x Weird, maybe Chinese culture is the perfect breeding ground for it, even if there isn’t a specific word for it.

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Asian Girl Problem #29: Apropos-priation

I only follow like three fashion blogs, coincidentally all by Asian girls who are around the same age as me. So I found it appropriate after writing this post that one of them just featured an American designer living in Shanghai who’s collection is entirely inspired by the styles of communism and textiles of Chinese Miao tribes.

Emulating or taking directly from a tribe’s craft/clothing tradition is widely popular in Asia, for good reason. The work is beautiful, seeped in meaning, and continues to be made with the same ancient technique and skill by the tribal women. Whether it’s a woven scarf, print dress or beaded necklace, they are rarities compared to the cookie-cutter fashion in stores, and attract fashionistas just like the vintage-hunters we have in America.

jacket My family used to have tons of these unisex army green jackets (without the beautiful embellishments) at home, but got rid of them long ago. Once, on a visit, I tore through my grandparents’ closets to find one of the last remaining ones to bring home. I was certain I could incorporate it into an outfit for a retro-chic, ironic touch. Alas, these jackets (the originals, anyway) are totally unflattering and it still languishes in storage. vest Speaking of fashion don’ts…each person’s boundaries are interesting. I’ve vowed to myself never to wear ethnic Chinese clothing, especially qipaos, unless it’s for a culturally-relevant occasion. On the other hand, my mom loves qipao-inspired jackets and traditional embroidery. When it comes to another culture’s traditional garb, it’s easy to cross the line into tacky.

Photos above from Hart Hagerty

On the designer’s website, it says, “Many Miao are still too poor to send their daughters to school, so when young men leave villages, females must take on agricultural work, leaving little time to teach or learn textile pursuits.” And “Hart’s featured embroidery was made between 1970 and the early 90s and sourced directly from artisans’ homes. Vintage embroidery has far better quality and ingenuity than contemporary pieces, which are cheaply machine-made with artificial fibers.”

The jackets run you $1000-2000 a pop. I must not be the only one wondering how she acquired the embroidery, how much she paid for them, and how she intends this business plan to actually “inspire and empower young Miao women to pursue the ancient art of their mothers and grandmothers as a means to support their independence and cultural heritage.” Might she be able to commission and pay them enough to survive on? To spearhead a new economy and liberate the women from fieldwork, and while she’s at it, start a CSA box delivery program to get food on the table?

Let’s say this is really the goal of these designers.

Because that’s one thing that troubles my understanding of appropriation–if you’re taking the art from the source and paying the artists a fair (keyword: fair) price, bringing their work to greater heights, doesn’t that counter whatever bastardization you make of it? If you buy and then destroy someone’s tablecloth to make an expensive skirt and sell it to a celebrity who wants to seem “authentic,” does the good you bring to the tablecloth-maker outweigh the possible damage you’ve done to culture? Yes, survival takes precedent over culture or art.

Unfortunately, fashion designers are not philanthropists, nor are they usually wealthy.  Their businesses would crumble if they paid a just price. So whatever their intentions, they’re better off keeping their ideals to themselves. Do it for your fashion, and let the people be. Better yet, find better fashion.