Drifting on a slow boat away from Chinese culture

Drifting on a slow boat away from Chinese culture
Rihanna arrives at the 2015 Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala benefit in honor of the museum’s latest exhibit “China: Through the Looking Glass” May 4, 2015 in New York.

The race was on to upset some with clumsy fashion takes on an ethnic theme.

Every year, The Costume Institute of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art sort of sets a dress code for its ball based on its exhibition and it is regarded by many as one of fashion's biggest nights.

Its recent Met Gala had the theme China: Through The Looking Glass.

Warning gongs sounded in my head as I wondered earlier what stereotypical garb the celebrities would turn up in: Enter the dragon motifs, slide in the embroidered silks, cue the cumulus clouds.

But while critics ridiculed some of the outlandish looks, I was surprised that I did not mind the bending and occasional butchering of the theme as much as I thought I would.

Is it unusual to find one's own culture exotic? And is exoticisation possible because one has alienated oneself from the culture or is there a bigger undercurrent also doing the dividing?

Many Met Gala guests, perhaps wary of stomping on cultural sensitivities, walked on eggshells in interpreting the subject and turned up in gowns thematically a million miles away from China.

But others made a meal of it, like singer Rihanna, who swept in with an imperial yellow, fur-trimmed coat with a massive rounded train, which the Internet cracked up over and quickly turned into an omelette meme. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker fired up some critics by wearing a wayang-like headdress which made her look as though her head was going up in flames.

Others, like singer Lady Gaga, deliberately or accidentally took Japan for China; sartorially, she travelled vaguely in the Eastern direction, found herself in a whole other country and wandered back in a kimono-inspired gown.

Is it a small matter mixing the two countries up? Oh, let's see, Sino-Japanese relations are merely haunted by China's bitter memories of Japan's occupation of parts of the country before and during World War II, and ties have also merely turned arctic in recent years over territorial rows and mutual mistrust over Japan's bolder security policies and China's military assertiveness.

My ears were ringing from the war cries of online commenters. The BBC reported that "a huge variety of responses could be found among Weibo's 2.3 billion posts, which came with the hashtag #2015MetBall... Some of those commenting did not refrain from highlighting the night's more florid outfits with a mixture of astonishment and disdain". Commenter Mary Su Yu posted: "This is all hugely deviating from Chinese culture. These crooked nut stars are simply throwing on macabre (outfits) and passing them off as oriental."

But my eyes were consuming the dresses' details with an objective detachment and my heart remained open to the creative interpretations. Maybe it is because, even though I live in a country which is in touch with its Asian side, I have to admit that I find parts of my own culture unfamiliar enough to want to play with it.

I like to occasionally wear a cheongsam when the sweltering Singapore weather permits; but is it my way of folding my cultural heritage into my daily life or am I just as guilty as some non-Chinese Met Gala guests of exoticising the culture? Despite being Hakka-Cantonese, I sometimes cannot help hearing faint warning gongs that make me not wear my more traditionally Chinese clothes so as not to put them on some pedestal.

Growing up in Singapore, my version of Chinese culture - the local lo hei, the diasporic Qing Ming - was filtered through pop culture made elsewhere. What I imagined as being authentic emanated from Chinese films such as Raise The Red Lantern, starring Gong Li, who was one of the co-chairs of the Met Gala.

Then there was actress Maggie Cheung in cheongsam moving languidly through dark corridors from the Hong Kong film In The Mood For Love by film-maker Wong Kar Wai, who oversaw the Met exhibition art direction. And reading an English translation of Chinese classic novel A Dream Of Red Mansions, while watching a TV series based on it in Mandarin.

It feels like I am a full-blooded but half-baked Chinese person. But are there greater forces cooking these feelings?

With tensions between Chinese Singaporeans and Chinese nationals here, there are some locals who are quite particular about differentiating themselves from the foreigners.

According to an essay by Mr Peidong Yang entitled Why Chinese Nationals And S'poreans Don't Always Get Along, published on The Straits Times' Singapolitics website in 2013, it is significant how some Chinese Singaporeans use the term "racist" to describe the prejudice felt against Chinese nationals.

This is despite Singaporean Chinese and Chinese nationals coming obviously from the same race. Mr Yang wrote: "But the fact that some Chinese Singaporeans - especially the younger ones - are ready to reflect on their prejudice towards the Chinese (nationals) as racism seems to be due to more than just the loose or wrong employment of the term; instead, it precisely reflects how much more distinct and distant the new generations of Chinese Singaporeans have come to conceive of themselves as opposed to the Chinese (nationals)."

So, psychologically at least, if we are evolving into different "races", perhaps our Chinese Singaporean culture is moving to a point where culture from China appears quite exotic to our eyes.

Are some of us unknowingly playing a game of having our heritage passed on via Chinese whispers? Traditions distorted over time and distance, shortened for the sake of convenience, flavoured by South-east Asian cultures.

I have watched and heard of people tweaking customs to suit their situations. Rituals half-forgotten but fully fought over during emotionally heightened occasions like weddings, when relatives who are not completely sure of customs squabble over how a specific item should be given on such and such a day for this much and that much of luck.

So it could still just be me and my soggy grasp of Chinese culture. Or there could be deeper currents also at work, carrying me and other Chinese Singaporeans away in a slow boat from China.

denise@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 17, 2015.
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