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Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race

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From yellow-face performance in the 19th century to Jackie Chan in the 21st, Chinese Looks examines articles of clothing and modes of adornment as a window on how American views of China have changed in the past 150 years. Sean Metzger provides a cultural history of three iconic objects in theatrical and cinematic performance: the queue, or man's hair braid; the woman's suit known as the qipao; and the Mao suit. Each object emerges at a pivotal moment in US-China relations, indexing shifts in the balance of power between the two nations. Metzger shows how aesthetics, gender, politics, economics, and race are interwoven and argues that close examination of particular forms of dress can help us think anew about gender and modernity.

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1 Charles Parsloe’s Chinese Fetish

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IN THE NINETEENTH AND EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURIES, THE ABSENCE of Asian bodies on U.S. stages resulted in actors developing what Josephine Lee calls “a complex set of codes for the presentation of the Oriental Other” that borrowed from the lexicon of Asian stereotypes.1 I group such codes—conventional associations of signs and meanings that purportedly convey Asianness—under the term “yellowface performance.” Over the decades, actors in yellowface have often stirred controversy; indeed, Anna May Wong’s complaints about Luise Rainer in the film The Good Earth (Sidney Franklin, 1937) led in part to Wong’s attempts to shift the representations of Chinese figures on the silver screen. But the relative obscurity of nineteenth-century yellowface performers impedes the contextualization of such disputes.2 The career of the white actor Charles Parsloe during the 1870s provides the most comprehensive case study available with which to examine early yellowface practice. The popularity of his embodiment of the “Chinaman” (a term indicating a theatrical construction that I invoke as a counterpoint to the lived experience of Chinese men) both depends on and informs hegemonic constructions of Chineseness. Parsloe’s performance practice constitutes a kind of ventriloquism, in which he animates the Chinaman and specifically his queue as a fetish that substitutes for and conceals the dominant anxieties about Chinese immigrants among the white majority in the United States during the late 1800s. The histories and genres through and to which Parsloe’s hairpiece generates meaning code the object as the dominant feature of the skein of race in late-nineteenth-century melodrama. The queue becomes the material apparatus of racialization through its deployment in frontier narratives.

 

2 Screening Tails

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WITH THE ASCENT OF MOVING PICTURES, THE CHINAMAN OF STAGE melodrama morphed into a new medium that negotiated between often competing modes of melodrama and realism and that shifted the queue’s relevance as a representational object. Film and other photographic technologies visualized Chineseness, bringing the American public into a new immediacy with what otherwise would have remained distant events. Particularly in regard to the violence of conflicts like the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901), these images catalyzed perceptions of Chinese people as primitive. Moreover, they reified this idea in regard to the Chinese/American population, which was officially constructed as foreign through the 1888 Scott Act—legislation that denied reentry to Chinese laborers who left the United States in order to travel abroad, in particular to visit China. Representations of the Boxer Rebellion linked the queue to notions of Chinese barbarism, understood specifically as a non-Christian and noncapitalist state of existence. But when Chinese people actively removed these queues and instrumentalized them as usable objects, the image of the primitive “pigtail” could be sustained only through a remarkable disavowal of Chinese/American men modernizing in precisely the ways thought unavailable to them.

 

3 Anna May Wong and the Qipao’s American Debut

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ANNA MAY WONG ACQUIRED SEVERAL QIPAO DURING HER WELL-publicized sojourn in China from January to November 1936. From this period through World War II (when images of Asians became more numerous on screen), Wong’s films particularly fashion her body through the use of costumes that become the focus of the camera. The clothing Wong wears enables readings of the Chinese/American woman’s body that elaborate on, and sometimes contradict, the diegetic narratives in which Wong appears. A focus on dress highlights the seams that connect the individual racialized and gendered body to the larger body politic at the moment of a decisive shift in American attitudes toward China.

In 1937 Anna May Wong appeared in a cameo role in MGM’s Hollywood Party (Roy Rowland), an orientalist star pageant that opened with one of its hosts, Elissa Landi, a white woman, arriving in a rickshaw. As the “real” Asian in this showcase of Hollywood celebrities, Wong interrupts the spectacular invocation of reel visions of Asia by positioning herself as a supposedly authentic purveyor of the latest fashions from China. She contrasts starkly with the rest of the cast, from the male host Charlie Chase—reminiscent, in his yellowface garb, of both Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan—to the Cocoanut Grove orchestra, ridiculously festooned in bright Chinoiserie. This two-reel musical short returned Wong to the American public eye after her sojourn in China. The film’s vignettes suggest a tension in this representation about whether conventional Hollywood depictions of Asia would be contested, reinscribed, or parodied. Such were the stakes in Wong’s return to the big screen.

 

4 Exoticus Eroticus, or the Silhouette of Suzie’s Slits during the Cold War

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A RATHER INFAMOUS ICON, SUZIE WONG NEVER TOUCHES U.S. SOIL IN the imaginative worlds she inhabits in the novel (1957), stage (1958), and film (1960) versions of her story. Nevertheless, if Anna May Wong introduced a certain dress to the American public, Suzie Wong brought it into vogue. Tsai Chin, who played the part on stage when Paul Osborn’s play The World of Suzie Wong moved from Broadway to London in November 1959, describes in her autobiography the phenomenon as she experienced it in England:1

The show started a fashion craze. Women abandoned the blonde Brigitte Bardot look and grew their hair long and sleek. Some even dyed their hair jet black and penciled their eyes to be more almond shaped. Unfortunately for some, for it is not an easy dress to carry off, the cheong sam became the thing to wear. . . . The dress was so popular at Christmas parties in 1959 that Lee in the Evening News drew a cartoon of a woman commenting on her friend’s cheong sam: “Dammit Myrtle, I’ve told you a thousand times you can’t wear too-clinging frocks. Look what you’ve done to that one: split it.”2

 

5 Cut from Memory: Wong Kar-Wai’s Fashionable Homage

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SHORTLY AFTER MID-CENTURY, THE QIPAO LOST ITS NOVELTY IN THE United States and its popularity for everyday use in China and Hong Kong. Despite a brief qipao craze in the People’s Republic of China during the 1980s, the historian Antonia Finnane concluded that insofar as the qipao “continues to be discussed and promoted on the mainland,” it “is suggestive both of a certain nostalgia for the 1930s and of a vague sense of the connection that the qipao supplies with a generalized past.”1 Finnane ultimately argues that this generalized historical understanding of the garment may well have served the burgeoning PRC tourist industry in its quest to establish a marketable form of Chineseness, but that it also demonstrated “for better or worse” that “a privileged female sphere in Chinese society is relatively underdeveloped.”2 In Hong Kong, the qipao declined from the 1960s onward “as the availability of Western dress . . . increased.”3 However, three groups of consumers—“wealthy women, celebrities and school girls”—continued to wear the dress on a relatively regular basis even as it became increasingly associated with formal wear. In addition, the “tourist industry has adopted the cheung sum as an internationally recognized signifier of ‘Chineseness,’” and “it is not uncommon for migrant women—those who emigrate from Hong Kong to elsewhere—to possess cheung sam as a form of linkage with Hong Kong and to wear one at an important event such as a graduation or a wedding.”4 This latter point recalls the opening of this book. On the mainland and in Hong Kong, the qipao served overlapping but also different functions in terms of articulating what and how the category of Chinese femininity might mean.

 

6 An Unsightly Vision

ePub

The most commercially successful musical to foreground the Sino/American interface during the twentieth century, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (Gene Kelly, 1958), extended far beyond its respectable Broadway run of 600 performances. During four months of 1961 alone, the tour included Des Moines, Omaha, St. Paul, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Rochester, Toronto, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.1 Like The World of Suzie Wong, the show owed its success in part to its iteration across media platforms including novel, stage, and film. Both works also showcased purportedly Chinese costumes on stage when Asian motifs dominated the Great White Way. No period in the history of Broadway saw as many productions with Asian/American settings and characters as the late 1950s. As one actress put it blithely, “if you aren’t slant-eyed and flat-chested . . . you haven’t a prayer of getting a job.”2 The New York Times estimated that two hundred Asian roles were available in New York and road companies for no less than half a dozen different shows, including The World of Suzie Wong, Flower Drum Song, Rashomon (in which white actors were cast in yellowface), and A Majority of One.3 Of these, Flower Drum Song had parts for at least sixteen principals and twenty-one chorus members.4 As I have suggested above, such theatrical productions brought new fashions to the public eye, activating the skein of race and directing new attention toward a specifically Sino/American interface. Flower Drum Song and The World of Suzie Wong especially caught the media’s attention as dramas with large casts and budgets to match. Indeed, “before Suzie’s costume designer Dorothy Jeakins ever laid out a hemline, she imported coolie suits from Hong Kong, even interviewed newsmen who had lived in the Orient and were ‘more or less familiar with brothels.’”5 But it was the musical—with its emphasis on spectacle and its easy translation into even more distribution formats, including film, television, and radio—that seemed to generate the most fervor. The stage production included a recording star (Pat Suzuki), three successful film actors (the recent Oscar winner Miyoshi Umeki; the stage and screen icon Juanita Hall, in a role originally slated for Anna May Wong; and Key Luke, who played Charlie Chan’s number one son), and a well-known American comedian (Larry Blyden). The production provides a source rich in contradictions that evinces shifts in the skein of race around the moment of the Mao suit’s emergence.

 

7 Uniform Beliefs?

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IF AMERICAN CULTURAL PRODUCTION IN THE COLD WAR THROUGH THE early 1960s circulated around the Mao suit as a structuring absence, the ever-growing cult of Mao placed the suit center stage by 1968. This vestimentary visualization in the United States coincides historically with the advent of the Cultural Revolution and the mass production of Mao’s Little Red Book, first published in Chinese in 1964 and released in an English translation in 1966. Beginning in August 1966, frequent reports on the Cultural Revolution reached American audiences. Along with this development, the New York Times reproduced excerpts from Chinese documents. Readers could now see translations of some of the materials to which people living in the People’s Republic of China had access.1

Perhaps President Richard Nixon’s diplomatic efforts to establish formal relations between China and the United States or the Chinese “Mao craze” (Mao re) led to an increasing amount of Maoist paraphernalia in U.S. visual culture, especially from the late 1980s onward.2 Melissa Schrift has aptly linked Maoist iconography as evidenced by the advertising of goods on eBay to complicated forms of nostalgia in the United States. Although her study focuses on the Mao revival in China, her brief comments on American collectors of commodities featuring Mao point to an ambivalent, often paradoxical, relationship between American consumers and the communist system he came to represent.3 Schrift’s analysis suggests that various objects—from Mao suits to Mao badges and Mao posters—index a variety of longings in the public imagination. For some collectors and vendors, the artifacts remind one of the “unlamented dictator of Communist China”; for others, the icons serve as touchstones for current “spiritual explorations” or reminiscences about U.S. “political activism.”4 In one case, collectors stated that accumulating badges allowed them to preserve a little of their adopted “daughter’s heritage.”5 Insofar as these online testimonies share anything, it is faith in the objects’ representational capacities.

 

8 Mao Fun Suits

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IF THE LAST CHAPTER PRESENTED COMRADE CHIN FROM M. BUTTERFLY as a rather earnest figure, the performance of the character onstage enables a wide range of potential expression. In her initial incarnation on Broadway, she embodied a sassy sensibility, perhaps bordering on camp for at least some spectators.1 The comic gambit of an individual actor can shift the apparently given meaning of individual lines, as Charles Parsloe long ago demonstrated. Performance, then, might imbue the apparent political content of a script or the associations of wardrobe with a different resonance. The staging of M. Butterfly certainly produced a spectrum of both serious and lighthearted overtones and undertones that contextualize the display of the Mao suit. These comedic associations have a genealogy in a set of American artistic creations that first emerged in the late 1960s.

The milieu of citation, from Mao’s speeches to the slogans chanted by Red Guards, creates a political context for Edward Albee’s play Box—Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung—Box, a triptych consisting of two different dramatic scenarios in an ABA structure that premiered on Broadway in 1968. Because it foregrounds citational play with the Mao suit even before the more famous prints created by Andy Warhol in 1972–73, Albee’s theatrical experiment might be seen as an American precursor to subsequent cultural productions that shifted the image of the Mao suit to more playful, sometimes parodic, associations. Such spoofs culminate in the performances involving Tseng Kwong Chi.

 

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