In late 1960, the film “The World of Suzie Wong,” based on the 1957 novel of the same name, premiered in New York. The film might be best summarized as being about a mediocre white man who turns up in Hong Kong hoping to find himself, doing so by falling in love with a prostitute working under the name Suzie Wong who inexplicably sees in him all the talent no one else has seen so far, and therefore, as his muse, inspires him to finally paint art that sells so he can become famous. Oh, and conveniently for the plot, the film ends with the death of her infant, leaving her free from all prior ties so she can marry him. This post isn’t really about the film.
Instead, this post is about a dress I recently bought, one that was made with “The World of Suzie Wong” clearly in mind.
Readers more familiar with my twitter feed will know that sometimes I poke around online auction sites just to see what sort of things from China show up.
A few weeks ago, I came across a qipao, made in Korea, still in its original 1960s packaging.
The qipao (or cheongsam) as an item of fashion and/or Chinese national dress is a fraught topic in discussions about cultural appropriation (see here for one that exploded earlier this year), conversations which make the qipao in the 21st century a key site for pointing out how non-Western cultures are too often reduced to costumes and caricatures even by those who intend to be well meaning. See below, for example, how I found these qipao in the Halloween section of a nonprofit thrift store in Colorado.
PSA: if you donate your A-ma’s qipao to the local thrift store in the US, they’re probably going to get put in the Halloween costume section 😕😕😕 pic.twitter.com/ETjaxXtuz8
— Dr. K. Alexander 亞天恩 (@thian_un) October 11, 2018
Researching the history of the qipao, however, enables us to grasp how this complex item of clothing, only barely recognizable as such in the late 19th century, was itself shaped and continuously reshaped through China’s own questions about what it meant to be modern, both for men and women. What creative ways could fashion trends from elsewhere be adapted and reinvented for Chinese audiences? What did these innovations say about China’s place in the modern global exchange? When did Chinese women define their Chineseness through this dress, when in the 20th century did this become problematic within China until it wasn’t problematic again, and why does this dress continue to inspire much-needed conversations roughly one hundred years after it began to develop out of traditional styles of clothing? Where does Chinese fashion intersect with global fashion?
I can’t answer all of those questions, but I’ve added a few links above to some sources that you can read to further complicate these already complicated issues.
Instead, how might I even begin unpacking my newly acquired piece of Cold War era fashion/geopolitical history?
First, of course, by actually unpacking it…
By borrowing the “Suzy” Wong name, the Korean makers were clearly looking to capitalize off of the film’s popularity, orientalizing it further with the choice of typeface we most often see on Americanized-Chinese restaurant menus for this clothing line made by Shi Lee Hung Eup., Ltd. of Seoul.
At the same time, they saw no reason to obscure the brand’s roots in Korea, printing the country’s name twice on the outer box, and adding to the exoticism by printing “Land of the Morning Calm,” itself a name created by late 19th century romantic ideals about the Far East while purporting to be an accurate translation of 朝鮮 (Joseon, also romanized Choson/Chosun), the name of the dynasty which ruled Korea from the late 14th to the end of the 18th century.
This was clearly aimed at tourists, English-reading audiences who wouldn’t know that the Hong Kong of Suzie Wong was far removed from Seoul, Korea, or that qipao-style dresses had nothing to do with Korea either. Even so, a tourist would want to bring home a souvenir of their trip to “the Orient” and what better than a dress promising to be the embodiment of all the exoticized femininity of the other? And what better than for some post-war Koreans to make money off their abilities to sew and market clothing to people who don’t know the difference between distinct East Asian nations or traditions?
Within this battered box, we then find the dress that Judy of Ohio (I assume, since the Goodwill I bought it from was there) never even bothered to take out of its packaging.
The packaging has another line drawing on it, this one without a body, just a dress posed as if the recipient of this tourist gift shop dress might imagine herself into that faceless form, transformed into “Suzy Wong” herself by an original Oriental Creation.
Whenever I buy vintage clothing (and I do this more and more lately, but that’s a topic for a non-academic blog), I spend time online looking for other examples from the makers, most often by searching Etsy and Ebay. I actually managed to find two other dresses with this specific “Suzy Wong” label sewn in them, here and here. But finding those took sifting through hundreds of listings for qipao-style dresses that were listed as “Suzy Wong” simply because the name itself, to American audiences, immediately calls up all the associations with Chinese-style dresses firmly implanted in cultural memory thanks to the astounding popularity of a nearly 60 year old movie. Working to uproot embedded misconceptions about East Asia, the long running misunderstandings, exoticized stereotypes – isn’t that what makes up the core mission of my job teaching about China and Chinese culture in the US?
Will I ever wear this dress? Maybe. It certainly fits, although I have better fitting qipao than it that were actually made in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
If I do wear it, it will be with the care to tell its stories – from the development of the dress style itself over the past hundred years, to the way a story about a white male fantasy of finding himself in the east with the perfect exotic woman came to embody an entire culture in the minds of many, and to the way in which the hybridized name of that fictionalized woman came to be shorthand for an entire aesthetic. Fighting against the erasure of real, true representations of Chinese cultures requires pointing out just how these erasures have been accomplished, maybe one dress at a time.