№1 Gaze at the Other, Gaze of the Other

Staging the Orient

29.12.2020, Professor Homay King discusses her thinking around the social and cultural construction of the East Asian imaginary, focused on her research on the manifestation of Orientalism in cinema—in particular the long-standing association of the Orient with the enigmatic and the mysterious. She reflects on her involvement in the exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass, held in 2015 at Metropolitan Museum of Art, offers a preview of her forthcoming memoir, set to unpack Silicon Valley’s hybrid cultural beginnings, and offers thoughts on present day negotiations of representation.

Illustration by Shuhua Xiong 熊姝华

Joël Vacheron (JV), Homay King (HK)
JV
Can you share some key moments that have shaped your (academic) journey?
HK
I grew up in Silicon Valley in the 1980s. My father was born in Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War. His family were Nationalists who escaped to Taiwan in 1949. He came to the United States in 1963, when there were still quotas restricting Chinese entry. The legend is that the family paid a fortune teller to ask whether he would get in, and the fortune teller said, “Tell them you want to study computers.” He did in fact end up studying computers, and had a long career in the semiconductor industry. My mother was born in the US and was of Irish descent. I am half-Asian, half-Caucasian. That mixture was not as common then as it is today; people were frequently confused when they met me and would ask, “What are you?” or “What is your nationality?” They did not mean my citizenship; they meant my ethnic heritage. In fact, I was never particularly offended or traumatized by this question (and still am not): in some ways I appreciated the curiosity. Still, it made me aware of how deeply ingrained people’s ideas about race and ethnicity are, and how deep the need to know—to the point that some people may even find it difficult to talk to someone else without knowing what race they are.
My father came to the United States in 1963, when there were still quotas restricting Chinese entry. The legend is that the family paid a fortune teller to ask whether he would get in, and the fortune teller said, “Tell them you want to study computers.” —Homay King
These frameworks are so powerful even though they are the product of socially constructed categories rather than biological truths. They are disseminated and naturalized through culture, especially cinema, television, and other forms of mass media. This observation led me to study Modern Culture and Media and Semiotic Theory at Brown University. My undergraduate thesis was on representations of dutiful daughters in Chinese American literature and film. I pursued similar research for my PhD at the University of California at Berkeley.
JV
The end of 2020 has been particularly eventful in American academic institutions. Can you discuss the strikes in support of racial equity at Bryn Mawr where you work, and what this told us about the situation in the US?
HK
I had seen so much student activism at Brown and Berkeley, but Bryn Mawr is a less radical, more politely liberal institution. I found the strike surprising, and also refreshing and inspiring. Essentially there was a long list of demands for resources that would help transform Bryn Mawr into an actively anti-racist institution, as opposed to a merely inclusive institution. One of these, relevant to readers of Ying Xiang, was to remove the “tax” charged on tuition for international students, most of whom are from mainland China. This demand was won. However, the primary impetus for the student strikes as I see it, in terms of timing, was the Black Lives Matter movement and the massive worldwide protests this summer in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia. The students actively connected these issues to what they experienced on campus, such as racial bias on the part of campus security or in the classroom, a lack of justice for victims of racial bias, and a general lack of diversity in the curriculum.
JV
What triggered your curiosity about the roles and manifestations of Orientalism in cinema?
HK
My book Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier (2010) combines two interests: the first is the representation of East Asia, or fictional versions of East Asia, in literature, art, and film, which I began studying as an undergraduate; and the second came from my graduate studies in psychoanalytic theory, especially how Jean Laplanche’s theories could be productively applied to questions of race, cultural difference, and otherness. Two books written around that time also inspired me: Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race (2000), which uses a psychoanalytic theory of loss, melancholia, and mourning to talk about the condition of diasporic or racialized subjectivity; and David Eng’s Racial Castration (2001) about race, gender, and sexuality, which uses psychoanalytic tools to think about questions of otherness, including Orientalism in the sense of Edward Said.
I focused on mise-en-scène, décor, and art direction to think about how these motifs borrowed several times over from China; not authentic Chinese aesthetics, but hybrid, distorted, or fanciful versions of Chinese aesthetics in the tradition of chinoiserie and similar.
I wanted to do a similar move, which was to use Laplanche’s theory of the enigma and how it is that others—cultures, languages, people, races—come to stand in as a kind of psychical enigma in the minds of their perceivers. This phenomenon could be traced through mass media examples of Hollywood films that depict the East as a space not just of primitivism, barbarism, otherness or for colonial or Imperial activity, but very specifically as a space of indecipherability or mystery: something unknown, that the West is desperate to find out. This relates to my own identity and being faced with the not knowing of others: where are you from, what are you, what's your nationality? When in fact what they really mean is: what's my ethnicity, where are my parents from? There were plenty of good books on characters and stereotypes. Rather than rehash that, I focused on mise-en-scène, décor, and art direction to think about how these motifs borrowed several times over from China; not authentic Chinese aesthetics, but hybrid, distorted, or fanciful versions of Chinese aesthetics in the tradition of chinoiserie and similar.
JV
Did you focus on specific barriers? Can you tell us a little more—like what kind of typologies of movies you were interested in, what periods?
HK
The earliest film I wrote about was D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919), made after The Birth of a Nation (1915)—a racist film nevertheless at the origin of cinema that pioneered many enduring techniques like cross cutting and point of view close-ups. Broken Blossoms was strangely his attempt to make some kind of recompense for Birth of a Nation. However, the film has its own problems. It's a story about a Chinese missionary who goes to London and ends up in an opium den. It's full of very strange reversals of the story of colonialism and missionary activity, which in fact went the other direction. It too creates that prototype for Orientalist art direction that I found very interesting: curios and decorative objects that employ a chinoiserie aesthetic loaded with mystery significance in the plot. That was a precursor to film noir, such as The Big Sleep (1946), as well as the Josef von Sternberg films set in Shanghai or Macau.

Scene from Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl. 1919. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith.

Martha Vickers playing the character of Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep (USA, 1946, Dir. Josef von Sternberg).

In The Big Sleep, when Carmen is found drugged in a bordello-like house, she is wearing a cheongsam with dragons embroidered on it. It's gratuitous. It doesn't really make sense in terms of the plot. It's a way of sending a message, of signifying through objects.

Posters for Josef von Sternberg’s 1932 melodrama Shanghai Express, and 1952 film noir Macao.

JV
Can you say more on the back and forth between what this certain imaginary of Asia was, and how it was translated in American made film noir?
HK
There's also a back and forth with France and England. Film noir tends to be based on American hardboiled detective stories by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain. But the genre of film that comes from those adaptations was identified by French film critics and retroactively applied. It was the way they were received in France that created the genre.
JV
What were the classical ways of putting the Orient into film?
HK
You can divide it into interiors and exteriors. In the interiors you might see Buddhist statuary used in a purely decorative way, silk tapestries, incense bowls, a very cluttered, crowded mise-en-scène filled with porcelain vases. It’s a lot about textures. Critics saw that and said, ‘Oh you know this was just the fashion at the time, this was what people were, how they were decorating their homes.’ But that's not entirely true. It was a very specific aesthetic, and it is a bit unusual that so many film noirs use that aesthetic when something is amiss, when a crime has been committed. Costuming is obviously important. In The Big Sleep, when Carmen is found drugged in a bordello-like house, she is wearing a cheongsam with dragons embroidered on it. It's gratuitous. It doesn't really make sense in terms of the plot. It's a way of sending a message, of signifying through objects. Regarding exteriors, we can take the example of Lau Wai’s The Memories of Tomorrow (2018), featured in Ying Xiang. There's one picture with a collage of different Chinatowns, perhaps from around the world. There are signs everywhere, overlapping banners, a Labyrinth-like city space. This is the image of Chinatowns inherited from films like The Lady from Shanghai (1947) directed by Orson Welles, which was actually filmed in San Francisco's Chinatown but is edited in such a way that the space feels very confusing. There are Dutch angles, there are shots that take place through windows. It's difficult to tell where you stand in relationship to what. Why is this trope of being lost, or spatially disoriented, associated with East Asia? Over the holidays I watched Sudden Fear (1952), and there is a scene with Orientalist ceramics decorating Joan Crawford’s home. I thought: ‘There it is again.’ For no reason.
JV
What are the links between this cinematographic setup and previous forms of Orientalism, in particular in paintings?
HK
Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Snake Charmer (1879) is the example often taught in art history of a particular strain of Orientalism that has to do with the Near East as opposed to the Far East. You can analyze the figures in it, or point of view. You can also think about the mise-en-scène—mosaics, colors, tiles—that, in a way, dominates the painting, taking up more space than the figures. It’s a way of thinking with Said that gets away from that original text, which was not really about visual art and aesthetics, but rather the power dynamic of knowledge and how that could be used in a propagandistic way to support imperial activity and war. The history of the relationship between the US and China in the twentieth century is very different from that of the Middle East Said writes about. In a way, it's transposing the theory to another purpose.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Le Charmeur de Serpent (The Snake Charmer), c.1879, oil on canvas, 82.2cm × 121cm (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts)

Los Angeles in 2019, as depicted in Blade Runner, 1982, Dir. Ridley Scott (Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Warner Bros)

JV
How did the period you focused on evolve within contemporary cinema? How is this feeling of lostness translated into a more contemporary version of East Asia?
HK
There's a chapter in the book about Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), made during the Hollywood Renaissance. It's a neo-noir film, a revival of the film noir genre and set in the 1940s. This chapter also includes Blade Runner (1982), which has some of the tropes of film noir: Harrison Ford's voiceover, a search to solve a mystery that turns out to be within oneself. That's the plot of a lot of these stories: the Western, usually male detective searching for the corruption, crime, or mystery in Chinatown, or a woman, or a Chinese character, when the mystery is in fact within himself. Details in the mise-en-scène provide clues throughout; the clues in Blade Runner that Deckard is in fact a replicant are these little origami figurines left like bread crumbs, indicating that he is a fabrication, a fantastic imaginary creature.
Technicolor was a brand-new technology then. By demonstrating it with the story in China, they associated these two things. If you look at the 80s and beyond, there might be an economic, historical reason for this, which has to do with shifts in high-tech manufacturing to that part of the world.
In The Big Sleep there's this classic scene where Humphrey Bogart opens a Buddha sculpture to see if there's a hidden camera inside. A very similar sculpture is on display in Deckard's apartment. There are so many details: the geisha who appears on the giant LED screen in those establishing shots of the city.
JV
It sets up a certain kind of imagination of Asia, and a projection of the future—a future that takes place in Asia, or is closely related to Asia. We see that a lot in the cyberpunk literature, for instance. Did you dig deeper into these speculations about the future being something that happens somewhere in Asia?
HK
I just finished writing an article about a film called The Toll of the Sea (1922) starring Anna May Wong. It was the first Technicolor film to be widely distributed, using the Technicolor Two process that could be shown on a regular projector. To me it was fascinating that they chose the Madame Butterfly story for this film that was in a way an advertisement for Technicolor. The medium was about the future—the equivalent of 3D Cinema or IMAX or virtual reality. Technicolor was a brand-new technology then. By demonstrating it with the story in China, they associated these two things. If you look at the 80s and beyond, there might be an economic, historical reason for this, which has to do with shifts in high-tech manufacturing to that part of the world.
JV
And also, with respect to the rise of video games, manga—these new objects of consumption, consisting of animated images linked to the Asian side of the world?
HK
Absolutely. Atari, an American company, had a name that sounded Japanese. Many of those companies had that cutting-edge sense of being the latest thing from Japan.
JV
Can you talk about China: Through the Looking Glass (2015), at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York?
HK
In 2014 I got an email from Andrew Bolton, the head curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met typically does a huge annual show put on by the Costume Institute, opening the first Monday in May, which corresponds to the Met Gala, which is the huge fundraiser that Anna Wintour organizes and celebrities come to. The theme for the next year's exhibition and gala was going to be something to do with China. The idea was that it would not be actually about China, but Chinese influences on primarily Western fashion designers. In the end they did include a number of Chinese designers, most notably Guo Pei who designed a beautiful golden embroidered gown that was the centerpiece of the exhibition. She also dressed Rihanna for the gala. They also had some Asian American and Asian diasporic designers: for example, Vivienne Tam was represented in the show. It was not about authentic Chinese fashion; it was about the way Chinese motifs had migrated into other cultures— France, England, the US— and influenced fashion in those places. In some ways, it was about fantasy, which drew Bolton to my book because it provided a framework for explaining that.

Rihanna's Met Gala dress in 2015, designed by Guo Pei for the theme: “China: Through the Looking Glass”. In an interview for The Cut, the fashion designer stated: “The focus and the attention paid to this dress will make it remembered by the world—[what] I want is to make them remember. ... It is my responsibility to let the world know China’s tradition and past, and to give the splendor of China a new expression. I hope that people do know China in this way”. (Kathleen Hou, Exclusive: Chinese Couture Designer Guo Pei Releases M.A.C Collaboration, The Cut, 2015)

JV
How do you do such a show and build in a dimension of critique and an understanding that these are misperceptions, these are things often lost in translation, that they're not authentic? How do you make reference to the history that makes such representations come to be, whether it's the Opium Wars, unequal trade situations, the history of Shanghai as a city with concessions that are controlled by other nations? How do you make clear all of that negative history, while still being able to think about how fashion is not always merely propaganda for that, or to answer that question?
HK
Looking back I wish that I had thought more carefully about the distinctions among different forms of appropriation. On the one hand you have, say, outright racist propaganda, or pseudoscience, or disinformation that is deliberately circulated in order to perpetuate negative stereotypes. That would be the worst case of this phenomenon. And then you might have characterizations that come from mass media that propagate these stereotypes for fun or profit, reinforcing a colonial or imperialist attitude, making money through theft and distortion. It gets more complicated with unconscious, unintentional examples, even fetishistic or exoticizing ones, where the problem is ignorance. It’s still a problem, but some contemporary social media commentary lumps all those things into the same basket. I think we need to have a slightly more nuanced view, first of all so that we are on firm ground when we do make a legitimate critique and call for a boycott, but also because every culture is hybrid. There's no such thing as a pure authentic culture. If we say, this isn't pure, it's not authentic, it's canceled, we end up with really not much left. It ignores the material conditions of production. If we want to talk about inequality in the fashion industry, rather than criticizing a designer who borrows a certain aesthetic motif, why not think about labor practices in sweatshops? We can and should do both, certainly.
If we want to talk about inequality in the fashion industry, rather than criticizing a designer who borrows a certain aesthetic motif, why not think about labor practices in sweatshops?
HK
I talked to Andrew Bolton about ideas for the show. He sent me some images of possibilities for the galleries. Notably they wanted to include a film component. There was a collection of film clips, with reference to cinema’s influence on fashion and vice versa. There was clip of Broken Blossoms. There was a gallery in which they had some of Anna May Wong’s costumes from Limehouse Blues (1934), Piccadilly (1929), and Shanghai Express (1932), gowns she had worn in that era were placed in vitrines paired with images from her films. In addition, it wasn't entirely a show about the Western view of the East, but also the East’s view of itself. There were film clips from Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), which in my catalog essay I argued is also about an imaginary East. It’s about a Chinese imperial past that is not fully historically accurate, a story of palace intrigue with a mise-en-scène that looks like a disco, with everyone wearing gold. You might compare it to a Hollywood Western, as a mythologized depiction of a nation’s past.
JV
Did this exhibition give you some keys to understanding the influence of Western culture in the Asian fashion world?
HK
Absolutely. You can think of Occidentalism. What does that reverse gesture look like? There is a Bollywood film in which characters visit Las Vegas, then get in a car, and in three miles they're in New York City. I have always thought that imaginary geographies are interesting and worthy of analysis.
JV
Did this exhibition also target the Chinese market, and Chinese people visiting New York?
HK
Absolutely. The main corporate sponsor was Yahoo, which at that time was about to acquire stakes in Alibaba.
JV
After Black Lives Matter the perception of race in fashion has been completely reconsidered.
HK
Yes, and definitely in the museum world. A show like China: Through the Looking Glass could probably not be done today. You would have to do it differently and include a majority of artists of color or Chinese artists. In a way that’s why Guo Pei became such a central part of the exhibition, and Wong Kar-wai ended up doing the art direction editing for the film clips—to have that involvement of those voices in the show. Today we are seeing actual increased diversity and representation in the museum world: directors stepping down, other curators being hired, other artists being brought in, deaccessioning works by old masters to make room for new voices. It seems like a very quick response that is not necessarily a guarantee of long-term structural change. We'll have to wait and see.

Anna May Wong in The Toll of the Sea, USA, 1922, Dir. Chester M. Franklin (courtesy: UCLA Film & Television Archive, Los Angeles)

JV
What new questions did this show open for you?
HK
I was fascinated with Anna May Wong as the first star Hollywood actress of Asian descent, on whom I recently wrote an article mentioned earlier. She starts off as a poor girl in Los Angeles and then spends time in London, Berlin, and Paris. She crosses between film, fine art, and fashion and is transgressive. Sometimes these figures from the past show that history is not always a narrative of progress. She became a camp icon: Andy Warhol, Ray Johnson—many post-War artists took up her image and her persona.
JV
Regarding social media and the way influencers get a grip on the fashion industries or trends, what do you think of these new types of promoting motifs? For example, Rihanna wearing Guo Pei’s dress at the Met—a designer who most people might not know is given a big window to the world, creating new dynamics and hybridizing control.
HK
I'm a bit of an internet pessimist. There are wonderful things that happen there in the arts and culture—for example, Guo Pei deservingly placed in the global spotlight. But the algorithms that sort content are designed to addict users to react to sensationalized, provocative stories. The internet needs to be regulated—not just by censoring or removing particular content, but by changing the algorithms themselves. Or at least making them transparent.
I am writing a book about Silicon Valley that is partially a memoir of growing up there at the dawn of the computer era. Silicon Valley is a suburban place that was labeled a cultural wasteland. In fact, there's much fascinating history there.
JV
There is a general feeling that these technologies are mostly made by white hetero men. When you say it's actually an area that is very diverse, is that something that you want to put forward?
HK
That is exactly what I'm hoping to do. I am writing a book about Silicon Valley that is partially a memoir of growing up there at the dawn of the computer era. Silicon Valley is a suburban place that was labeled a cultural wasteland. In fact, there's much fascinating history there. It was an incredibly diverse place because it drew immigrants from all over the world who had specialties and who were able to work in the computer manufacturing industry, designing circuit boards and silicon wafers, semiconductors, in a very specific kind of hybrid culture. My book is really about the hardware era. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s and even into the early 90s, Silicon Valley was about hardware. Today when we think of the tech industry, 99% of that is software or app development. We don't think about the people who, like my father, were physics majors who studied solid state electronics and designed the machines. The people who flocked to Silicon Valley initially were scientists and engineers. It wasn't about necessarily making a quick buck on a startup with venture capital; it began with older companies that had been making vacuum cleaners or what have you and shifted. That’s the early part of the story that I want to tell, and to talk about how diverse that industry actually was—maybe not in terms of gender, there weren't very many women involved—but it was it was an industry full of immigrants. There's a chapter about a woman named Sarah Winchester who was the heiress to the Winchester Rifle Manufacturing Company—one of the first companies to create an automatic weapon, which was used heavily in the war against Native Americans during the Western settlement of the American continent. After her husband and daughter died, she became an eccentric woman, a spiritualist who held seances in her home. She moved to San Jose, CA and bought a ranch. She was also an entrepreneur and inventor. She had hydraulic elevators in her home. She was also a real estate developer. In a way, she anticipates the odd mixture of mysticism and capitalism that’s associated with contemporary tech culture: these guys who take mushrooms or LSD and dream up new companies. This Silicon Valley culture, I want to claim, originates in the nineteenth century, and even perhaps before that. There's also a chapter about the phrase ‘Go West, young man,’ a rallying cry for settler colonialism in the US in the nineteenth century. It has undergone many different transformations. It is the title of several films: one by Buster Keaton, another by the Marx Brothers, and one by Mae West. In the 1970s, the Village People created a disco song called ‘Go West,’ which was in turn covered by the Pet Shop Boys in 1990; they made it about the fall of the Berlin Wall. What is this West that everyone is supposed to go to? It’s quite similar to my Orientalism book, because I’m claiming it’s a fictional West—it is a fantasy West, not a real place.
This discussion took place on 29 December 2020.
PROFESSOR HOMAY KING
Professor King’s fields of specialty include American film history, global post-war film history, and global contemporary art with a focus on lensed and time-based media, with expertise in critical theory, including film theory, psychoanalysis, semiotics, and twentieth-century continental philosophy. Her essays on film, photography, contemporary art, and theory have appeared in the journals Afterall, Camera Obscura, Criticism, Discourse, Film Criticism, Film Quarterly, OCTOBER, and Qui Parle, and numerous edited collections, including the exhibition catalog for China: Through the Looking Glass (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015). She is a member of the Camera Obscura editorial collective and a co-founder of Bryn Mawr College’s Program in Film Studies.
JOËL VACHERON
is co-founder and editorial director of Ying Xiang 映象 Journal.
SHUHUA XIONG 熊姝华
is an airbrush illustrator from Shanghai, based now in NYC. She likes to consolidate emotions and unspoken words into her artworks, manifesting them beyond just canvas.
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