1. Balance

    Yalong Bay, Hainan Island, China. December 2013. 

     
  2. The Bird.

    Yalong Bay, Hainan Island, China. December 2013. 

     
  3. Top: Self Portrait I

    Bottom: Self Portrait II

    Nanshan, Hainan Island, China. December 2013

     
  4. The yellow boat.

    Nanshan, Hainan Island, China. December 2013. 

     
  5. In his picture frame.

    Nanshan, Hainan Island, China. December 2013.

     
  6. Guanyin: Goddess of Compassion

    Nanshan, Hainan Island, China. December 2013.

     
  7. Layers

    Nanshan, Hainan Island, China. December 2013. 

     
  8. Imprints

    Yalong Bay, Hainan Island, China. December 2013.

     
  9. Top: Cafe Dior (aka Cafe de White Privilege Hoity Toity Bullshit)

    Bottom: Candid Jade

    esprit Dior. MoCA, Shanghai.

     
  10. Candids: Ma Rules

    esprit Dior. MoCA, Shanghai. November 2013.

     
  11. Getting experimental up in here

    esprit Dior. MoCA, Shanghai. November 2013.

     

  12. esprit Orientalism: esprit Dior Exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai

                  When I think of the defining expressions of culture, style of dress is an element that comes to the forefront of my mind along with other conventional cultural elements such as food, religion, language, etc. Of these four elements, I find that style of dress in Shanghai has succumbed the most to Western influence. This was quite surprising to me upon my arrival, as I was making comparisons between my experience living abroad in Kuwait and my experience living abroad in Shanghai. In Kuwait, and in the other Middle Eastern states that I have travelled to (Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Oman), cultural expression through dress is still very much alive, despite great Western influence. Men wear white ankle-length dresses (dishdasha) and checkered or white headscarves (schemagh), while women wear long black cloaks (abaya) and/or headscarves (hijab). Children and young people tend to wear Western clothing but in a very modest fashion. Skirts, dresses, and shorts always cover the knees while shirts cover the shoulders and upper chest.

               I was disheartened to find that cultural dress in Shanghai had been swallowed up by globalization and replaced by business suits, H&M, hoodies, and Converse shoes. There is little left to be seen of the long traditional silk hanfu robes, the high-collared Chinese tunic (or Mao/Zhongshan suit), or the luxurious floral qipao gowns. What disturbed me further, was the sight of a traditional straw Chinese rice hat on display as an object of Orientalism in the esprit Dior exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I am sad to say that of the few times I have seen an article of traditional clothing in Shanghai, it was taken out of its original context and appropriated by Western culture to be enjoyed as a piece of art “designed” by the masterful Christian Dior. The dominance of Western dress, in combination with the objectification of Chinese dress, is truly a testament to the extent of globalization in Shanghai. In today’s Shanghai, Western modes of economics, architecture, music, technology, and dress are exalted for their modernity and sophistication, while Chinese modes are forgotten for being too backward and traditional. In this way, globalization is an extension of Edward Said’s Orientalism, a powerful discursive weapon that perpetuates global Western superiority by describing non-Western societies as inferior and in need of “civilizing”.

    image

    Umm hello racism.”The Bar” by Dior. Photo cred: http://awhitecarousel.com/tag/christian-dior/

    A Historical Look at Orientalism

          Edward Said began writing his classic work, Orientalism, as an investigation into the discrepancies between the way Arabic people were portrayed in Western media and art, and his real lived experience as an Arab-American man. In the 19th century, Europeans conjured up works of literature and art that portrayed an image of the Orient that was exotic, sensual, passive, barbaric, mysterious, and non-progressive (Jhally, 1999).  In other words, an Orient that was hostile to development. Although these representations are completely false (great empirical powers such as the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Ottomans are certainly not what one would call “passive” or “undeveloped”), the average European did not have the wealth to travel abroad and experience the Orient for himself or herself, nor the critical thinking skills to question these dominant representations. This distorted production of knowledge provided Europeans with a mirror for which they could compare their Occidental “civility” to Oriental “inferiority”. By reducing the Orient to such terms, they could better master it, control it, and legitimize the exploitative colonialism of it as a “civilizing mission”. This perverted lens through which the West gazes upon the East, as a means of enhancing and maintaining colonial power, is what Said calls Orientalism (Paritosh, 2012; Jhally, 1999).

    image

    Photo cred: http://www.inbetweenreadings.nl/

          As colonialism spread, the Orient evolved to include not just the Middle East but the Far East as well; all societies that are non-Western are non-modern. Orientalism continues to thrive today in the way that Arab people are vilified in mainstream news media, in the way that NGO’s consistently portray Africa as a continent populated by helpless victims, and in the way that China has been coerced to mimic the West in order to gain respect and acknowledgement on the world stage.

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    The West (Occident) and Orient . In today’s terms, the “The Developed” and the “Un-Developed” . Tomato, Tomahto.

    Photo cred: http://www.dylanfox.net/?p=995

    Globalization in Shanghai: An Outcome of Neocolonial Orientalism

                In 1980’s China, the early stages of “catch up” to the West characterized by market-oriented economic reform, the central government promoted the following slogan: ‘bringing China into the world’s orbit’. The phrase ‘the world’ referring, of course, to Westernized developed countries. Developed countries became the criterion against which China could gage its “success” as a modern nation (Bao, 2008). The echoes of Orientalism here blatant, unless China can perform economically at a competitive global level, it remains in the dark ages. In the case of contemporary China, the Orientalist gaze comes not only from Western pressures to “develop”, but also from Chinese elites themselves who then direct the pressure to “develop” onto the masses. This is a kind of internalized Orientalism. I see both external and internal Orientalist forces at work in China. Those who are exploiting the country’s environment, cheap labour force, and cheap cost of production, in the name of Western style development and Western hegemony, are both Western and Chinese. They include both the Western and Chinese businessmen and politicians who manage these development schemes, and the Western and Chinese consumers who continue to demand Western products, services, and lifestyles. Conversely, those who are being exploited are exclusively Chinese.  In this way, Orientalist discourse is still in use today as a means of capitalizing upon an “undeveloped” China in order to carryout a neocolonial economic agenda disguised as “globalization”.

    esprit Dior: Consuming Orientalist Ideals

           Western economies are not only able to produce a high level of lucrative goods and services, but are also able to consume a high level of lucrative goods and services. A new consumer class, or “petty bourgeoisie” class as they are known locally, has emerged in Shanghai as an offshoot of globalization. They consume a Westernized lifestyle comprised of Hollywood and French films, American-style steaks, British fashions, and highbrow cultural activities such as operas and art exhibitions (Bao, 2008). 

             The esprit Dior exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Shanghai, is an example of one such petty bourgeoisie event. From September 13 to November 20, the entire gallery space, including permanent exhibits, was cleared out to make way for this celebration of French haute couture, high culture, and privilege. Gowns embellished with gold, silk stilettos, diamond-encrusted jewelry, and luxury fragrances include some of the highlights of the display. The showcase included original mid-20th century works by Christian Dior and the works of his predecessors who have carried on the Dior label since his early death in 1957. It is clear that Western fashion has already brazenly invaded commercial space in Shanghai. With the coming of the esprit Dior exhibition, Western fashion has now exerted its power and dominance further through the shameless invasion of Shanghai’s highbrow artistic space, pushing local artists and fashion designers aside. The petty bourgeoisie are not interested in the works of Chinese fashion designers, they want to experience high fashion, they want Dior (Bao, 2008).  Indeed, the exhibition described Parisian couture as “synonymous” with luxury and elegance. In fact, the idea of Dior is so luxurious that the word “esprit”, which precedes it in the exhibition title, esprit Dior, is unworthy of capitalization. This veneration of Western cultural goods and lifestyles extinguishes the legitimacy of Eastern cultural goods and lifestyles and promotes the consumptive and lifestyle habits of the West: modern day Orientalism in a nutshell.

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            The esprit Dior exhibition further contributes to modern day Orientalism in the way it portrays Eastern dress. The Dior brand has appropriated elements of cultural dress from all over the Orient. There are designs that involve a black hijab-like veil modeled on a pale-faced woman, Samburu influenced beadwork, a Chinese rice hat, Egyptian headdresses and chest plates, amongst countless others. These cultural reproductions, taken out of their authentic context, are objectifying. The Chinese rice hat is no longer associated with a rich history of traditional farming practices, but is now something worn by the Westernized consumer as an expression of his or her incredible “cosmopolitanism”, despite the fact that the consumer has quite likely never spent a single day of his or her life in a rice field. Cultural appropriation mocks Eastern traditions by bastardizing the original meaning embedded in cultural dress, which could ultimately end up in the complete loss of that cultural meaning unless those to whom it rightfully belongs maintain it. In the esprit Dior exhibit, and in numerous other instances of Western fashion, elements of Eastern cultural dress take on new meanings that suit the West, meanings that convey mastery over the East. What remains hidden from the consumer, are the power relations underlying this form of cultural appropriation. The Western fashion industry does not openly acknowledge that the reason it is in the position to manufacture new cultural meanings from Eastern cultural groups, is because those cultural groups have been, and continue to be, exploited, forgotten, and discarded.

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    Islamic Cultural Appropriation

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    Samburu Cultural Appropriation

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    Egyptian Cultural Appropriation

    Photo cred: http://blogs.staradvertiser.com/aggregate/?cat=392

    Sources

    Anonymous. (No date). My culture is not a trend: a dialogue about cultural appropriation. On reverse cultural appropriation [Blog]. Retrieved from: http://mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com/post/781005138/on-reverse-cultural-appropriation

     Bao Y. (2008). Shanghai Weekly: globalization, consumerism, and Shanghai popular culture. Inter-Asian Cultural Studies. 9 (4), pages 557-567.

     Jhally S. (Producer). (1999) Edward Said – On Orientalism [Motion Picture]. United States of America:Media Education Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwCOSkXR_Cw

     Paritosh K. (2012, January 24). Tools for Thinking About Development: Culture, Colonialism and Power [PowerPoint Slides]. Culture and Development – DEVS 240.

     

  13. Suzhou Creek Restoration Plan

           At the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center (SUPEC) located downtown in People’s Square, an area renowned for its touristy appeal, one can hear more German, Spanish, Italian, and English spoken than local Shanghainese (上海话 Shànghǎihuà) or Standard Chinese (普通话 Pǔtōnghuà). As China began the process of opening its doors to global exchange, Shanghai took to cultivating a new image for itself: that of an international metropolis on par with the likes of Singapore, Paris, Hong Kong, and New York (Hai & Fei). One could say that the type of clientele who frequent SUPEC are indicative of the city’s success at rebranding itself in this way. The Center, which opened in 2000 at the height of Shanghai’s epic transformation, is itself an artifact of this contemporary movement. The hyper-modern exhibits housed within include an extensive 3D scale model of the 2020 Shanghai core, a small movie theatre with a 360° screen, and a large display describing Shanghai’s recent environmental projects and policies. 

    image

    Photo cred: http://wowboyzglam.blogspot.com/2010/05/sustainable-shanghai-urban-planning.htm

                Being the chronic tree hugger that I am, I found myself particularly drawn to the exhibits regarding Shanghai and the environment. In Canada, it has consistently been my experience to see and hear China vilified in discussions regarding environmental stewardship. This type of discourse feeds into an existing narrative that characterizes the West as conscious custodians of the environment, and the East as irresponsible and uncivilized. Prior to this study abroad program, the messages that I heard from the media, friends, family, and professors alike included:

    “A day of breathing Beijing air is the same as smoking a pack of cigarettes”

    “ Due to negligent irrigation practices, the Yellow River in China no longer reaches the Pacific Ocean” (I would like to note that the Colorado River in the United States and the Murray River in Australia are facing the same fate.) 

    “The Chinese favor industry and economic growth over human and environmental health”,

    etc.

          Though, admittedly, the condition of the environment in China is far from perfect, my first hand experiences in this country have proven far more optimistic than the outlook of doom and gloom propagated in the West. For example, China is a key player in the global recycling industry, processing more scrap aluminum and steel for reuse than most countries produce brand-new; China plays host to a number of international environmental conferences every year; and China has invested heavily in fresh water cleanup and conservation (Minter, 2011).  

          One of these fresh water cleanup projects, the Suzhou Creek Rehabilitation Plan, is featured within SUPEC’s environmental exhibits. After National Week, I decided to investigate the project further so I returned to the Centre and read some papers about the ongoing cleanup. At this juncture, I found that although the Rehabilitation Plan has benefitted local citizens in terms of improved water quality and water saving, the “real” emphasized gains of this project are measured in terms of dollars and cents (Song, 2003; Vollmer, 2009). In other words, the creation of a financially attractive global city is the key driving force behind the formation and execution of the Plan. This way of describing the value of environmental rehabilitation projects in terms of their economic or monetary benefits, is a very Western framework. The Western imaginary has difficulty conceptualizing the inherent value of the environment and must simplify it into more intelligible fiscal terms. In an era of globalization and Western hegemony, it is no surprise that this  perspective has also been adopted in Shanghai.

    Suzhou Creek

    image

    Photo cred: http://english.shpt.gov.cn/Tour/MengqingPark/index.shtml

                Suzhou Creek (also known as Wusong River) winds its way from east to west originating at Taihu Lake in Jiangsu province, then snakes through urban Shanghai, and finally empties into the Huangpu River. Approximately 54 km of the 125 km long creek passes through the Shanghai municipality (Song, 2003; Vollmer, 2009). Suzhou Creek provides a number of essential services to Shanghai and the surrounding area such as: a steady water supply for industry and irrigation, a breeding ground for local freshwater populations, a buffer for flooding, a navigation channel, and a waste sink for municipal and industrial wastewater (Song, 2003; Vollmer, 2009).

                Prior to industrialization, the Suzhou Creek was quite clean. With the onset of industrialization in the 1920’s, however, the Creek became one of China’s most polluted waterways on historical record (Vollmer, 2009). From the 1950’s onward, the situation became further exacerbated by many long decades of heavy industrialization and population growth. Under Mao, Shanghai transitioned from a center for light industry to a center for heavy industry and was labeled a “producer” city  (Hai & Fei). As industrial output and city population swelled, the Creek suffered to the point where there was no longer any living plant or fish life left in its waters. Suzhou Creek had become a dumpsite, a place where residents disposed of their domestic waste and sewage (Song, 2003). Dating back to the late 1990s, relatively recent times, the smell of sewage emanating from the Creek was so bad that residents had to keep their windows closed at all times and leisurely walks along the Bund were undermined by the foul smell. Descriptions of the Creek’s waters from this time include, “…black and opaque, full of sewage” and “A glass of water with half a glass of dirt” (Song, 2003).

    Government Response: Suzhou Creek Rehabilitation Plan

                Confronted with worsening water pollution and pressure to develop a more modern global image for the city, the Shanghai Municipal Government established the Suzhou Creek Rehabilitation Plan (Vollmer, 2009). The project became a key issue on Shanghai’s environmental development agenda in the 1990s. The fist phase of the Plan took place between 1998-2003 with US$84 million of investment, partially financed by the Asian Development Bank (Song, 2003 ;Vollmer, 2009). Some highlights of the first phase include: the introduction of a water resource management scheme, the beautification of the downtown Creek-side landscape, the input of oxygen into the once dead river, and the reduction of sewage input into the waterway (Song, 2003; Vollmer, 2009). The Asian Development Bank deemed this first phase a success in terms of both water quality and economic returns (Vollmer, 2009). The subsequent phases, carried out between 2003-2012, have yet to be assessed.  With funding from the Municipal Government alone, the final goals of the Plan included: further improvement of water quality, restoration of aquatic life by 2010, and the construction of more green space along the Creek (Vollmer, 2009; Song, 2003). Complimentary to the Suzhou Rehabilitation Plan, the city has also invested in a number of sewage treatment facilities and water saving technology such as low-flush toilets (Song, 2003).

    Critique of the Suzhou Creek Rehabilitation Plan

                In the case of the Suzhou Creek Rehabilitation Plan, it appears that economic growth has taken precedence over environmental health. Although it is positive to see Chinese cities such as Shanghai engaging in environmental issues, one of the key reasons that they do so is to appear more Westernized and to boost economic growth. Indeed, Vollmer writes that environmental rehabilitation projects in the East are used as “catalysts for economic development” (2009). This sounds counter-intuitive, was it not rapid unfettered economic growth in Shanghai that led to the deterioration of the environment and the subsequent need for environmental rehabilitation in the first place? Economic indicators, rather than environmental or human health indicators, are frequently cited to demonstrate the “success” of the cleanup plan. For example, reports quote that real estate prices along the waterway have since gone up, and that the total economic benefits of the project (including real estate development, tourism, commercial opportunities, etc.) were at an estimated US $490 million as of 2009 (Song, 2003; Vollmer, 2009).  Meanwhile, Taihu Lake, one of Suzhou Creek’s main sources, remains severely polluted. In addition, many locals, who have not been taught the importance of environmental stewardship, continue to dump waste into the Creek (Vollmer, 2009). But investing in environmental education initiatives does not have the same immediate impressive effects as creek-side beautification projects. 

    Sources

    Hai . Y, and Fei. Y. (No Date) A Story of Shanghai Space: From the Maoist to the Dengist Era.

    Minter. A. (2011, June 7). Don’t Trust the UN with Your Recycling (rates). Shanghai Scrap.Retrieved from: http://shanghaiscrap.com/2011/06/dont-trust-the-un-with-your-recycling-rates/

    Song, Y. (2003). Report on Shanghai Water Projects. Shanghai Flash, 4, pages 1-6.

    Vollmer. D. (2009). Urban waterfront rehabilitation: can it contribute to environmental improvements in the developing world? Environmental Research Letters, 4 (2), pages 1-7.

     
  14. West Lake

    Hangzhou, China. November 2013.

     
  15. Zhōng guó  hěn piào liang 中国很漂亮

    West Lake, Hangzhou, China. November 2013.