Essay: Diary of a Disgruntled Chinawoman

by Elizabeth L. Peng on 29 January 2014

Elizabeth L. Peng explores China's ever-changing fashion identity.

Elizabeth L. Peng explores China's ever-changing fashion identity.

Still from Asian Couture Week 2013, Marie Schuller

I'm somewhat of a transnational loner. This means that I’ve grown up with dual identities, that of a Western, individualist thinker, and the other, a dutiful Confucian and 'descendent of the Dragon’. All of this is to say that I am first generation Asian American, ethnically ‘Han’ Chinese, and somewhat of a displaced, third culture kid. If not living in Western Europe or the U.S. as part of the Chinese Diaspora, I am at home in East Asia, whether that be Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Taipei. One lingering constant, however, has always been my love affair with fashion, irrespective of place.

So why is this important? When it came time for me to start my career, a niche opened up, rather fortuitously, at the nexus of my two major interests, China and fashion. Since, I have covered the Chinese fashion and luxury industry in the English and Chinese-language media, helping to bridge the gap between two formerly estranged cultures now peering curiously at one another, both with a seemingly insatiable desire for understanding.

I remember when I was growing up, being Chinese didn’t suggest that same kind of tacit cool in the way that being Japanese in the eighties would have. To Western minds, Japan, with Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto debuting in Paris, was the standard bearer of the Eastern avant-garde. Chinese fashion was a sea of Mao suits –certainly no match for Rei Kawakubo. Female idols were Western propagated figures, like some heroine from Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club or the perfectly coiffed and Christian Madame Chiang. Most people wouldn’t have even been able to place my ancestral home of Chongqing on a map.

How things have changed.

Nowadays, the top design schools (including my alma mater Central Saint Martins) are filled with Mainland Chinese students [1] while publications and journalists focus their editorial attentions on the APAC region, reporting regularly from China fashion’s frontlines: Jing Daily, Business of Fashion’s China Edit, The D’Vine and Red Luxury among others. Western luxury brands require their London and Paris store staff be proficient in Mandarin for their ‘TLCs’ or ‘traveling luxury customers’, with secondary and tertiary cities in China a vital part of their aggressive expansion plans despite signs of a ‘China slowdown.’ Cities like Chongqing – now, one of five national central cities – are being dubbed the ‘defacto luxury hub of the country’s Southwest,’ [2] while new role models, in the guise of hardworking fashion designers (whether Phillip Lim, Jason Wu or Alexander Wang) are on the rise [3].

It seems that being Chinese in the early 21st century is of irrevocable interest.

That interest can be defined by the rapidity with which the East Asian luxury market – spurred by new money, a rising middle class and an increased appetite for luxury consumption (whether conspicuous or discerning, at home or abroad) – has grown in recent years. Of the $US 318 billion dollars of luxury sales around the world, Asia Pacific will become the dominant region within five years time [4], with China accounting for approximately 20% of global sales by 2015 [5], and 44% by 2020 [6]. This is certainly the reason why I had incredible access to some of the industry’s most influential (and oftentimes recluse) names when staffed at Lane Crawford: Sarah Burton, Haider Ackermann, Riccardo Tisci, Alber Elbaz, Rick Owens, et al. These were longstanding commercial relationships (or joint-venture partnerships) for one of the world’s most important regions.

Nothing stands in the way of the Chinese like their own muddled sense of artistic self, rendering us incapable of knowing just what comprises the modern Chinese identity with respect to design.

But with all of this outward attention and interest, with the Western world paying clamorous tribute as vassal, literally kowtowing to their Eastern suzerain for the future promise of profit, does it finally mean that China is at the centre of the civilised world, the ‘new Japanese,’ or even purveyors of a distinctive, cultural cool, influential tastemakers in our own right?

Not by a long shot. But we only have ourselves to blame. Nothing stands in the way of the Chinese like their own muddled sense of artistic self, rendering us incapable of knowing just what comprises the modern Chinese identity with respect to design (be it fashion or otherwise). And I don’t mean a Maggie Cheung custom cheongsam from In the Mood for Love, but more of what the stuff a modern Huishan Zhang garment is made of. Sure, an overarching aesthetic has been represented half-baked and wanting in the form of brands like Shanghai Tang or Shiatzy Chen (though the latter is better qualified), and newer brands like Shangxia are making its attempts, but finding an authentic and real contender is a trying thing indeed and almost an impossible feat for one brand to represent. (China is a multicultural and vast land, indeed.) As editorial director of Modern Media Group, Shaway Yeh, lamented over lunch last week, ‘There are many opportunities but little talent.’

Even the notions of ‘taste’ are still perceived within the global Chinese community as being a codified and contested thing – with the Taiwanese, Cantonese, or Singaporean Chinese women at the forefront (they, of course, had more global exposure), followed by the Shanghainese as shrewd, stylish sophisticates (to also include women from Suzhou or Hangzhou), while places like Shandong (known for their overt and alarming displays of wealth) and Beijing (traditional and bureaucratic, with the exception of its princelings) follow closely behind. Take also, for instance, the new neologism ‘tuhao’ (and my personal favourite) which was first coined to describe the gaudy gold iPhone 5 phone, evidence of something someone with oodles of money, but poor, gauche taste would purchase. Since, ‘tuhao’ has taken on a whole new ostentatious life [7]. We are still haplessly provincial, not quite the arbiters of sophistication.

But who’s to blame? In China’s pursuit of wealth and power (fuqiang) over the past century and a half, the same question has always arisen: How to become ‘modern’ and remain ‘Chinese?’ And yet the Chinese Communist Party’s idea of ‘Chineseness’ ties to the idea of the ‘socialist spiritual civilisation’ (shehuizhuyi wenming) – the general intellectual pursuits of science, technology or the cultural arts – while ‘modernity’ has often been equated simplistically with Westernisation.

That the Chinese government doesn’t possess a clear stance on how to define luxury in a socialist market economy further adds to the confusion. It is clear that the Plenary is making moves to modernise its party platform (e.g. loosening the one-child policy) but fashion consumption still undermines the egalitarian experiments of the party’s past. Former president Hu Jintao spoke out against the purchase of luxury goods, stating that it widened the rich-poor gap and damaged the collective idea of unity, while current president Xi Jinping favours a quixotic ‘China dream’ that aims to bring comprehensive wealth and prosperity to the nation.

China’s creative class needs to build a lasting cultural legacy, establish the basis for a modern Chinese aesthetic (this is a big ask, I know), and redefine the meaning of ‘Made in China.’ Instead of buying into the perceived superiority of Western heritage brands and their implications on taste, an internal evaluation of homegrown design and their own aesthetic sensibilities needs to happen in an almost reactionary, trickle-up fashion. It’s a sentiment that is being echoed by others, like Chinese-Indonesian-Singaporean Frank Cintamani, who founded the Asia Couture Federation and summed up the China fashion conundrum up nicely by asking, ‘I’m wearing a bowtie and a Christian Lacroix suit, why am I not wearing a Mandarin collar? I’m speaking to you in English. That will change, that’s how anything evolves in the world. America gained its power and influence because of economic prowess – Asia has it now. Give it a generation and all of our first language might just be Mandarin.’ Is it only then that we will finally be comfortable in our own creative skins, with irrefutable evidence of what China cool really represents?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.



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