The Imaginary West (i.e. Cultural Appropriation Is Not Just a White People Sin)

I just saw a post on Facebook about a little white girl in a kimono who faced heavy criticism for hosting a Japanese-themed tea party. I don’t know for sure if it’s a global trend because I don’t have clairvoyant vision of every monitor on earth, but Buzzfeed’s #woke posts and Xiaxue’s recent tirade against “libtards” seem to be indications that the topic of cultural appropriation is picking up speed among the internet savvy.

This post is going to be about said cultural appropriation. I know, the horse has already been beaten to death, but today I’m going to bring another horse out of the stable to beat. No one else knew there was another horse in there (and incidentally, no one could have expected such a long-winded and poorly constructed analogy right at the beginning of a blog post either.)

Okay enough with the beatings and the misplaced equestrian references. Here is my point.

Cultural appropriation isn’t a sin exclusive to the hegemonic West because other cultural spheres have appropriated and misrepresented Western imagery in their own capacities, contributing to the growing cloud of an imaginary West. I’m not familiar with the political or social landscape of South America or Africa and so I have to, regrettably, leave them out of the equation for now. But I am very familiar with Asia, being an Asian myself, and I know this hypothesis isn’t entirely bonkers.

Let me break it down for you:

Cultural appropriation tends to happen when a powerful cultural entity dwarves a less powerful entity. What is power? Power can be drawn from various extensions of influence. For example, an entity is more powerful if its language is more pervasive, its philosophies are believed by the majority, it has greater stores of financial and natural resources, etc. As of right now, academia and journalism are still pre-occupied with investigating and revealing the ramifications of Western colonialism (rightfully so, because these things do need to be discussed if we want to move on from such horrors in a civil manner). But this also means that nobody is freed up to write about cultural appropriation from a different point on the globe. Ironically, the conceptualisation of Western cultural appropriation took place on the sacred grounds of Western academic writing. It was almost as if individual white people (shout out to Linda Nochlin) were atoning for years of European pillaging and plundering. Sociological terms were developed and set against the West, and so it continued.

largerJean-Léon Gérôme, The Snake-charmer, (1870). Cropped image of it appeared as the cover for the Edward Said’s seminal piece on Orientalism. Now the incriminating poster for Western pillaging in the Near East.

This drew our attention away from the fact that Asia is amassing power in the present. To begin with, thanks to India and China, there are more Asians on earth than any other race. According to this infographic, the Chinese family of languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc) is more widely spoken than any other language. Seven out of ten of the top spots on the Pisa education ranking went to Asian states (Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and three Chinese states). China and Japan clinch the second and third spot on the global GDP ranking. Somehow, against the backdrop of WWII and recent political strife, Asia is prospering. There exists a world that’s entirely written in Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese etc., and in that world, the soil is fertile for cultural appropriation of the West.

I’m not suggesting that things in the East neatly mirror the happenings in the West. This is not an essay about equivalence, nor is it a manifesto to instigate the Asian takeover of the world. Memories of a colonial past/Western superiority still exist in the psyche of Asia. The cultural appropriation of Western imagery in Asia doesn’t ignore or counter those memories. Instead, it processes and transforms conceptions of Western superiority to suit the needs/benefit of Asia, and this process could be damaging to the West.

How does it suit the needs of Asia?

Cultural appropriation goes hand in hand with consumerism, because perceptions of certain cultures spread primarily through consumer products. Consumer products are available even to the lowest common denominators in society. You don’t need an education or a noble upbringing to have access to advertisements and plain ol’ everyday objects. Everyone is a viewer because images are everywhere thanks to consumerism. Asian companies benefit when their branding espouses Western ideals and transforms them to appeal to consumers. This influences Asian perceptions of the West. From here on I’m going to use the specific example of the image of Marie Antoinette and its re-imagination in Japan’s romanticised/glamourised France.

swjKpEFan wallpaper of the 1972–1973 The Rose of Versailles manga series

The Rose of Versailles (or Berusaiyu no Bara) was a popular manga series that started its run in 1972. To the best of my knowledge, the series’ narrative didn’t really rose tint Antoinette’s fate. She ended up guillotined all the same, no head and all. The aesthetic legacy that this manga left behind, however, is arguably more influential towards contemporary perceptions of France.

To the uninitiated, Marie Antoinette was an icon of French excess in the years leading up to the French Revolution. She married into the French monarchy when she was 15, was portrayed in elaborate Rococo paintings in flowing satin and lace, and is most remembered for telling commoners to “eat cake” when the economy was crashing and the commoners were starving. For the record, I don’t think she actually said the cake line, but it is a useful distillation of what she represented to the French public. Wealth, a detachment from the common folk, ignorance, idleness. It’s an ugly facet of French history, and a story that inspires present-day French nationalism.

Today, her portraits are historical documentations of the monarchy’s lavish spending. Rococo paintings are seen as kitschy ghosts of the pre-Revolution past and seem only to be celebrated in cutesy “French-themed” cafes.

vlbmarose3Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette with a Rose, (1783). She won’t be smiling like this any longer. A bit hard to smile without a head.

In The Rose of Versailles, Antoinette’s bouffant hair and equally bouffant bows were resurrected to convey glamour. The new manga Antoinette is adorable, pretty, unabashedly elaborate, romantic and pink. She now sports curly blonde hair instead of the historically accurate powdered white wig. This image of a romantic and rose-scented France pervades East Asian advertising, especially for products marketed toward women.

The manga image of Antoinette lives on in the branding of Isehan’s Heroine Make line of cosmetics. Antoinette’s historical significance is left completely out the picture and she appears as a dismembered aesthetic, a figure that only serves superficial decorative purpose. She has the same 1700s court attire on, but decked out in pink, and it looks like she has gotten a white kitty cat with luscious eyelashes. Note that there is no mention of where this image came from. If we take The Rose of Versailles‘ portrayal to be an intermediary, then the Heroine Make advertisement is the finished product.

10294968_510138862465204_2952821205769443809_oAn advertisement for an Isehan Heroine Make gift set of eye makeup. I don’t know what year this is from but I bought mascara from this brand a few days ago and the packaging looks pretty similar.
laduree-makeup-lm-harajuku-store-blushA delectable assortment of makeup products from Les Merveilleuses de Ladurée. Took this pic from Universal Doll.

Such a transmutation of pre-Revolution French imagery isn’t isolated to manga and Heroine Make cosmetics. It persists insidiously in other companies as well. It’s a pretty widespread phenomenon all over East and Southeast Asia. The above image shows a collection of cosmetics from the brand Les Merveilleuses de Ladurée. Ladurée is itself a macaron brand that originates in France, but these Merveilleuses are a sister brand that only markets itself in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It profits from the appeal of the fictional romantic France.

The Antoinette Café in Singapore adopts the same imagery for its branding. According to its website:

Antoinette invites you to share our joie de vivre in our beautiful surroundings reminiscent of an elegant boudoir with an excess of meticulously crafted cakes, pastries and fine food as the Queen descends on Singapore’s shores. Marie-Antoinette, the last Queen of France who was so often revered for her extravagance and fine taste opens her humble abode and presents a tantalizing treat for the senses both savoury and sweet.

This quintessential Parisian pâtisserie and salon de thé will set the benchmark for the pastry and dessert scene not only in Singapore, but also in the region with her takes on time-honoured French classic desserts. While our restaurant promises a savoury celebration of Chef Pang’s culinary prowess with an excellent selection of classical regional French fare.

Incontestably, L’élégance â la Française at it’s best!

Doesn’t this sound like cultural appropriation to you? It sells the Antoinette lifestyle to an Asian audience. Pink, powdered, perfect.

How on earth could this be detrimental to the West? Doesn’t this reinforce Wester superiority?

Well, a fantasy is a fantasy. It does encourage tourism from East and Southeast Asia. I don’t think Paris would be as popular a tourist destination if we didn’t believe in its supposed inherent romance (their public transport is really shitty and there’s dog poo everywhere). But at the same time, it erases actual struggles in France from the East and Southeast Asian consciousness. When we think France is beautiful and scattered with rose petals, we don’t hear about the centuries old racism against Romani people, we don’t hear that France also has a large black and Arab population, we don’t hear that the current unemployment rate rests at 9.5%, and we don’t care about the Syrian refugee crisis hitting Europe. An airbrushed, culturally appropriative image of Antoinette might indirectly benefit the upper echelons of French society (especially if they are young blonde women with a penchant for pink bows), but it directs our attention away from the real problems. What happens when an excitable Chinese tourist goes to Paris and sees a homeless family? Are they stains on her perfect holiday? France is a complex country. A homeless beggar in Paris is as French as the quaint little cafe next door.

So? Now what?

I’m not proposing that we persecute everyone equally and that we impose some sort of tariff on cultural exchange. It’s inevitable that ideas mix and meld together to produce a new melange of values. That’s how cultures evolve in the first place, and that’s how populations communicate across borders.

What I do propose, however, is that we read a little more, ask a few more questions, and try our best to glean a more accurate picture of any culture we are considering. Humanity is complex and nothing is as simple as an image.

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“Don’t put Yip in the same league as Schooling”

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Hello everyone, it’s me again, sorry-not-sorry that I haven’t written in a while, I was too busy playing doge 2048 and listening to other fledgling 20-somethings talk about consulting/start-ups/how amazing the chinos at Uniqlo are. I had so many precocious ideas to write about, including the rise of anti-intellectualism in Singapore, but I figured I wasn’t intellectual enough to actually have valuable insight. It’s not easy for me to write because I require the beautiful blend of sun-dried anger and the kiss of an organic external event, and then I have to leave this concoction to brew for until I can form a coherent post. These elements finally came together earlier today when I saw this Godfrey person essentially write his resignation letter “Honor Yip, but don’t put her in the same league as Schooling”.

Here’s a summary of the article:

  1. Don’t give Yip Pin Xiu and Joseph Schooling the same recognition or same monetary award because
  2. The Paralympics is for disabled people and hence there were fewer competitors so the playing fields (pools?) are not the same, the implication being that Schooling’s game was tougher
  3. Yip should get $200,000-ish, but not $1m like Schooling

For the uninitiated, Yip Pin Xiu was the Singaporean representative for the 2016 Rio Paralympics where she won two gold medals (for the 100m and 50m backstroke). And this Godfrey Robert, the writer of this article, is the Protector of the Realm and Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and he has galloped valiantly forth to shield Joseph Schooling from having his thunder stolen by Yip Pin Xiu. Because very obviously the world is full of injustices, and one cannot simply stand idly by while people even insinuate that a Paralympian is as victorious as an Olympian.

Not.

I must admit that I was floored when Joseph Schooling beat Olympic darling Michael Phelps, and that adorable picture of Phelps and pre-pubescent Schooling was the cherry on top of the AWWWWWW cake. I didn’t get sick of the Joseph Schooling shenanigans at all after his big win. When I saw that some buses had congratulatory messages scrolling in the display I was like “YEAH MAN THAT’S OUR SCHOOLING!” I might even have made a few “looks like Phelps got schooled” puns. It was amazing, and we were all proud. This post is in no way an attempt to belittle his achievement, because 1) that’s not in my interest 2) it’s impossible to belittle. But most importantly, this post isn’t about Joseph Schooling. He’s only a peripheral character in this story.

This is about Yip Pin Xiu, and about how we better recognise how huge an achievement hers is. We should be damn proud of her. Godfrey got one thing right—she shouldn’t be in the same league as Schooling. Their achievements are incomparable. Her gold medals aren’t just metal tokens won from 2 swimming competitions. They are symbols of the obstacles she has surmounted from the day of her diagnosis. It’s not as simple as a clean subtraction of her ability to walk. This is a world that’s literally constructed for the able-bodied. She’s inconvenienced at every turn and curb, every dressing room, every bus, every toilet. And on top of all these physical inconveniences, she has the weight of medical bills and has to endure condescension from the likes of people like Godfrey. I can’t believe this has to be said. This is some primary school 好公民 level of moral discernment. How could you negate all this because she had fewer competitors at the Paralympic games? Maybe there were fewer competitors because it’s so unimaginably difficult to break free from society’s patronising expectations of the disabled? How dare you reduce all of this into one hurried line (“her handicap, tough training regimen and rigours of the battle of mind over matter”).

I don’t really care about the whole prize money thing because I understand that some people are unsatisfied about the government taking some of it, and when the government is involved it’s a guaranteed can of worms. But I care that Godfrey is implying that her achievement wasn’t as big as Schooling’s, and he’s demonstrating his bias along monetary lines. We live in a world where disabled people are systematically disadvantaged in almost every way, and someone decided that it was his imperative to fight for the acknowledgement of an able-bodied swimmer WHO IS ALREADY VERY CELEBRATED. This is not only mean and stupid but also NEEDLESS. Good lord have you ever seen something more redundant?

In conclusion, Godfrey is irrelevant as hell and he’s probably a writer because his own playing field for smug, condescending fibrous-husk-brained jackasses is really narrow. I hope Yip Pin Xiu never learns of his article, and if she did then let our cheers be louder than his bs.

Why Terrorists Can Only Be Muslim

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The shooting at the Orlando nightclub Pulse occurred on June 2, and between that time and now, a series of terror attacks have erupted across Central Asia—there was a suicide bombing in Medina near the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad, three other bombings in Qatif and Jeddah, yet another suicide bombing on June 28 at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, a bombing with a skyrocketing death toll in Baghdad on July 3, and finally, there was a siege on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka last Friday. These nightmares have now been placidly reduced to “events”, and we’ve come to a point where they read more like the droning of the world’s engine—brown people just bomb things, that’s just how the world works. News of bombings trickle into our Facebook feeds and Twitter streams, we go through the internet’s profile picture phase of mourning, and then we move on with our lives.

It’s no coincidence that these attacks struck right when families were preparing for Eid al-Fitr (the day which marks the end of Ramadan fasting, and for my Chinese friends yes, it’s the same as Aidilfitri). One source (which escapes my mind right now, fill me in if you know) wrote that the day before the attack in Baghdad was “full of life” but that now the “smell of death” rips through the air. Terrorists, so aptly named, know exactly when to strike to hurt the Muslim community where it hurts the most. They are also experts at creating rifts in cosmopolitan societies with middle-eastern diasporas, and sending ripples of those threats worldwide.

Terrorism is, intrinsically, a Muslim problem. Only Muslims can be terrorists, much in the same way that only women can be sluts, only non-whites can be immigrants, and only black people can be thugs. Before you chug a beer and applaud me for shedding my “political correctness” and crossing over to the Conservative side, understand that I am not talking about how some people are genetically predisposed to being evil. Not at all, because that’s a load of Mein Kampf horse baloney. I am talking about how we invent words to simplify complex problems and play into the hands of tyrants who want to disenfranchise entire groups of people.

I got this idea from my art history over-education—Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971). Nochlin says that we don’t call women Great Artists because women are entering a system that’s already rigged against them. We don’t use the term “great artist” to impartially refer to great art-makers. The term has a certain look and feel to it. A “great artist” is necessarily someone who is a brooding white man and is simultaneously haunted by his own aesthetic genius and the ghosts of his past. A woman will never be a “great artist”.

Similarly, the term “terrorist” has a particular look and feel to it. The term was only popularised in 2001 when the then U.S. president George Bush declared the War on Terror. We don’t rationalise a term as sensational as “terrorist”; we have impressions of the term. When we think terrorists we think bombs, planes, white people dying, brown people wearing cloths on their heads, Arabic, Allah, and American Sniper. A trigger-happy white person can waltz into an elementary school with a semiautomatic rifle and execute children, but he’s never a terrorist, just a lone wolf. When we combine a term as vivid and divisive as “terrorist” with the rise of the internet, we get mass hysteria and a whole lot of islamophobia.

Okay so we get it, there’s irrational racism and xenophobia behind all this, as always. But why is terrorism a Muslim problem then?

It is a Muslim problem not because it’s a problem they caused, but because it’s a problem they suffer the most from. The whole situation is deliberately set up against Muslim and Middle-Eastern civilians. Muslims are the primary victims of terrorism. For the rest of this blog post I will refer to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as The Delusional, 1) because that’s what they are and 2) because to acknowledge them as representatives of Islam is to support their cause.

The Delusional are banking in on existing xenophobia in cosmopolitan cities in North America and Europe to turn everyone else against Muslim civilians, so that they are unprotected and unwelcome even in their own homes. When there’s enough islamophobia going around, there are two possibilities: 1) Muslim civilians become distraught and defenceless in a country that wants them to leave and thus become easier to oppress, 2) violent Muslim individuals feel compelled to act against that hatred and are ironically drawn to the very terrorist organisations which have caused the problem in the first place. As for the terror attacks in Muslim countries, non-Muslim countries are unwilling to get their hands tied up in the violence, because as of right now, the Middle-East looks like an Acme minefield and nobody wants to meddle with a Muslim problem. Brown countries just bomb each other all the time, that’s what they do. Meanwhile, The Delusional are getting Twitter mentions and Facebook posts which bolster their claim to the Islamic iron throne. We legitimise their Delusional organisation when we say they represent the fundamentals of Islam, and every time we do, they’re closer to becoming the Caliphate they set out to be. They hate the “West”, yes, but their main goal is to gain control over all Muslim people. The mechanism of the term “terrorist” works so flawlessly from so many directions, and in the most macabre way, this is a good example of what an effective brand name can do for a terrible cause. 

So yes, in this sickening roundabout way only Muslims can be terrorists and terrorists can only be Muslim, but it’s about time we break away from our islamophobia and stop making it so goddamn easy for The Delusional to become the face of Islam.