By Lauren De’Ath
In a V&A talk in 2015 cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling discussed the implied censorship of comprehensive, inclusive study of Sino-artefacts and peoples within arts, history and popular culture that must surmount to the Chinese being an ‘invisible minority’. These sentiments have been mimicked by professors of urban history and Chinese studies, John Seed (2006) and Anne Witchard (2012) as well as Cardiff historian Gregor Benton (2008) who further claimed that anti-Chinese sentiment far outweighs that of any other racial group. In the West (and beyond- through ideological imperialism) oriental cultural signs and signifiers have long been hounded by instinctive racialised and at times racist dogmas motivated by belittling Sinophobic ‘Yellow Peril’ agendas. Be it the cunning evil genius of the dragon-robed Fu Manchu or the submissive sexuality of Suzie Wong pictured perpetually straddling a bed in her mini-cheongsam, our perceptions of Chinese bodies and especially dress has become moulded and warped by a stereotyped racial filter.
This pigeonholing of Chinese dress as crass vaudeville of “The Orient” undermines the breadth and depth of a culture that has over fifty-five different ethnic subgroups in mainland China alone, and many more thanks to a global diaspora that includes the United Kingdom. This didactic, conservative approach to Eastern aesthetic in lacking actual Chinese testimony threatens to render dress as static and intangible; an approach already partially reflected in the work of several notable Chinese clothing historians to date whose focus has been on formal national dress, or ‘costume’. These studies lack a subjective, ontological approach that can reverse the estrangement felt by many ethnic Chinese from their cultural heritage. Chinese peoples were/are by no means a homogenous group and this thesis, by unpacking diasporic Chinese dress agency operational at micro-levels and analysed within the remit of the British-Chinese community, hopes to demonstrate that Chinese dress was in fact a multi-faceted and evolutionary process that varied between class, occupation, generation and gender as an ongoing process of assimilation and exploration in a rapidly-changing, imminently postmodern, postcolonial society. The overall research question I pose: what did Chinese people wear in those early migratory phases (1900-1960) also queries ethnicity as transient and relative to space and time with dress becoming one of the many battle grounds for self identification, but also self reinvention. In a mutating, multicultural state what was the relationship between dressed appearance and the Chinese identity?
In the opening chapter of Lao She’s ‘Mr Ma and Son’ (2013 ), on deciding to embark to England, protagonist ‘Ma’ notably ‘took his son to Shanghai, bought two first-class boat tickets, two Western-style suits [and] a few canisters of tea’ (p. 26). The suit here is essential in assisting with the conversion from Orient to Occident, and as important as tea and tickets, in a pseudo-ritualistic process of cultural conversion. Governed by strong Confucian notions of li, or propriety, Chinese workers endeavoured to consolidate good image and appropriate dress as centrifugal to an innate sense of self and, by extension, community. However this particular connection between clothing and the veridical extends far beyond mere courtesy, forging both an allegorical and symbiotic relationship.
Clothing as a personal form of artefact has a strong connection with the wearer’s identity and values and comes to be synonymous with the innate self. Relatively speaking, using clothing to facilitate discussion around society and culture we can use shifting style and garments to measure and read Chinese bodies and psyche as they navigated and negotiated British life in the early twentieth century. Did Western-cut clothing inhibit or alter behaviour? Western attire possessed great symbolic value for some aspiring Chinese travellers- Shanghai school girls would line the port harbour to watch the ‘Gold Valley wives’ from San Francisco descending in their American finery, but how did the perceived sartorial myths hold up in aesthetic reality? My enquiries are thus informed by a tripartite of approaches pulling from diasporic theories on cultural identity, anthropology and historical and cultural studies, using oral history and textual analysis from textile, filmic and photographic ephemera, literature and newspaper articles of the time from data in the London Metropolitan, Liverpool Maritime Museum, The Sudley Museum and Tower Hamlets archives.
Dress here becomes a conduit for remembrance, offering a unique way of narrating the past whilst promising a more visceral aide-memoire for interviewees. Actions and subsequently dress do not operate in a social vacuum but are tempered by ‘habit’ and the ‘cultural prescriptions designed to ensure survival in a particular society’ (Damasio, 1994, p. 200). In early stages of migration in the United Kingdom, these ‘cultural prescriptions’ delineated that the habitual or public wearing of Chinese dress on Chinese bodies constituted a direct challenge to occidental hegemony and a subversion of the dominant societal norms. Hence we can imply a degree of necessary sartorial assimilation and a synergy between dress and surveillance, environment and performativity. It is noted in a 1908 article for Limehouse thrill-seekers and tourists to East London that the Chinese ‘affect European garb for the most part and as such are not so easily spotted as one would expect’ (What’s On, 1908). Dress was both an aesthetic, but also protective tool for expat communities on foreign soil. As we learn this extends to more practical, geographical situations, what Australian sociologist Harriette Richards (2015) calls ‘sartorial demands’, as well as to deflect unwanted attention in existentially-threatening situations.
The aim of this study is to illustrate the breadth of Chinese culture and as a comparative counterpoint we must study their dress habits too. Through this work I hope to transcend the myths, legends and untruths that cloak and deny the realities of how Chinese people related to and utilised dress and dressing as a multifarious, performative process in the early stages of migration to Britain.
This research is kindly sponsored by both The Costume Society Yarwood Award and Warwick University History Department’s Pasold Fund.