Image : Cheryl Sim
Can the Cheongsam speak?
Originating as a combination of elements from Han and Manchu clothing styles , and further influenced by American fashion, the cheongsam or Chinese dress is a hybrid garment that has come to be recognized as a symbol of Chinese cultural identity. A few years ago I performed in a concert wearing a cheongsam . Afterwards, a Chinese journalist approached me to be a guest on her cable access television show about Chinese Montrealers. Being of mixed Chinese and Filipino heritage, I was amazed to be recognized as Chinese, when all my life I had “passed” as a foreigner within the Chinese community. When I asked what had led her to hypothesize that I was Chinese, she simply said, “It was the dress”. While I have always been convinced of the power of clothing to communicate messages, I had not fully understood why I had chosen to perform in a dress that is charged with such intense semiotic readings. My inability to fully articulate these impulses led me to embark on the creation of a video project entitled Ode to the Cheongsam. Poetic voiceover, interviews, family photos, and images of the making of a cheongsam weave throughout the piece to create a portrait of what this dress means for the Chinese female diaspora in the present day . What is reveal ed is how the cheongsam is a site of tension, where wonder and contestation as well as assertion and constraint are experienced simultaneously. This article will discuss the considerations involved in the making of this video piece, including a theoretical framework informed by historian Hazel Clark and artist/designer Wessieling among others, and will outline issues and challenges inherent in the development of this single-channel video work into a multi-channel digital video and audio installation destined for the gallery space.
A few years ago I sang in a show wearing a cheongsam , or Chinese dress that is typified by its collar, side slits and intricate fastenings. Afterwards, a Chinese journalist approached me to be a guest on a television show about Chinese Montrealers. Being of mixed heritage, I was amazed to be recognized as Chinese when all my life I had ‘passed' as a foreigner within the Chinese community. When I asked what led her to speculate that I was Chinese, she simply said, “It was the dress”. While I have always been convinced of the power of clothing to communicate messages, I had not fully understood why I had chosen to perform in a dress that is charged with such intense semiotic readings. My inability to fully articulate these impulses led me to create a single-channel video entitled Ode to the Cheongsam, which examines attitudes, ideas, impressions and wearing practices of this dress by first generation Chinese-Canadian women living in Montreal. Interviews, poetic voiceovers, clips from Wong Kar Wai's film In the Mood for Love , family photos, archival images and the documentation of the making of a cheongsam consist of the principal elements that weave together to form a multi-layered portrait of what this dress means for the Chinese female diaspora in Montreal at the beginning of the 21 st century.
For this article I will focus on the concept of ‘hybridity' as central to this video piece as well as consider hybridity in terms of theoretical/technological issues for a new media installation destined for the gallery space.
Strategies of Hybridity and the Cheongsam
‘Hybridity' is a term that I appropriate from post-colonial discourse that best describes my artistic approach from a conceptual and political standpoint. It is a concept that helps me to understand the desire to mix a number of media (both object and digitally-based) and genres (such as documentary and experimental film). I distinguish this approach from my understanding of Homi Bhabha 1's concept of hybridity that has often been criticized for not fully considering the material and historical factors that put limitations on those who have real agency through hybridity. Bhabha's concept has also been attacked for not constituting a truly subversive act that risks the re-inscription of a stereotyped ideal of a properly assimilated, ‘colouful' and visible, post-colonial subject. While taking these points into consideration, the type of hybridity that I am interested in refers to an artistic approach that reflects a conceptual inclination to use forms and genres in various combinations to allow for an ongoing mutability and flexibility in creation. From a political standpoint, the kind of hybridity that is useful to me employs tactics of mélange that can call attention to historically and culturally formed unequal relations of power.
Hybridity is also a concept that heavily underscores the subject of the cheongsam . Hazel Clark, a specialist in the history and theory of design provides an in depth account of the evolution of this garment from the Qing dynasty up to the late twentieth century in her book The Cheongsam . Clark also contributes the term ‘ hybrid' to the discourse on the cheongsam for the first time not only to describe its multiple Han, Manchu and Western origins and influences, but also to describe how its versatile design allows one to accommodate individual tastes while maintaining a Chinese identity. As Clark has written, the proliferation and popularity of the dress through print media “helped to identify the cheongsam internationally as the typical dress of Chinese women.” (14) As long as basic elements such as the Chinese collar are maintained in the basic design, one can play with fabric choices and other elements in order to make new combinations that put a twist on the messages the wearer wishes to convey. For Clark, not only does this make the dress appealing to the changeable fashion industry, it can also be adopted and adapted to be a reflection of a women's multi-faceted and mutable identity.
An example of this strategy can be found in the dress that was made in Ode to the Cheongsam. It included the basic elements of a Chinese collar, side slits, and hand-made fastenings. For the fabric however, I selected gray wool, as I associate this material with notions of British Imperialism. With this choice I wanted to make a statement about the post-colonial and patriarchal context that I am apart of and that informs me, as well as the wearing and display of an imperial past that continues to figure into everyday life, images in popular culture and the perpetuation of stereotypes and Othering that persist today. At the same time, I am proud to wear this dress and take great pleasure in its relationship with my Chinese background as well as the fantasy and play it offers to me. In this way I feel the dress brings awareness to the tensions brought about by its many ambivalences which is reflected in the experiences of racialized, diasporic people growing up in Canada who want to own their difference but also their belonging.
With her exhibition Fusionable Cheongsam, Hong Kong based artist and fashion designer Wessieling also investigates the cheongsam 's hybrid nature, which she contends puts forth a blend of east/west, modern/ancient, and male/female aspects. In a series of installations, Wessieling presented the constantly evolving and multiple identities of the cheongsam that have emerged through popular culture, history, fashion production, global circulation and consumption. A few examples include Authentic Dress (2007), which consists of a red brocade cheongsam that looks as if it is being lifted out of a Chinese wok by a pair of floating chopsticks. While formally engaging, it also makes a strong comment on the notion of cultural assumptions and ‘ethnic' consumption. One Dollar Dress (2007) is a cheongsam made out of fabric printed with the American one-dollar bill that appears as if it is being packed or unpacked from a well-traveled suitcase. This work cleverly imparts a reading on the current state of Chinese migration in pursuit of the American dream while at the same time commenting on Western capitalism. Wessieling's one media piece entitled Nam Kok Staircase (2007) consists of clips from a variety of Hollywood films that feature images of the cheongsam which are then projected onto the torso of a female mannequin. Through this work, the viewer is offered insight into the cultural construction of the dresses' identity and its link with popular culture.
Fusionable Cheongsam is of major significance to my research as it confronts ideas around the impact of cinema on the imaginary and the creation of dress objects that communicate the central concept of hybridity. It will therefore serve as a crucial reference for the media installation to be created as part of a PhD dissertation.
Making alterations or Cutting a new pattern?
For this new installation, tentatively entitled The Fitting Room: The Cheongsam and Chinese Female Diaspora in Canada , my research involves the further gathering of interviews with Canadian-born women of Chinese descent, as well as the process of exploring the possibilities offered by media installation. The reasons for departing from the single-channel model are again related to strategies of hybridity which manifest themselves in a desire to deploy sound and image throughout space in the form of mediated objects as a way to add meaning to the multiplicity of voices/stories that will be discovered by the viewer as she moves from one work to the other. I am also interested in multiple screen and alternative screen strategies that consider its materiality in order to contribute to a conceptual aspect of the subject. At this early stage I have outlined three components; 1) The history of the cheongsam to be relayed on multiple screens 2) Cheongsam that “talk” and 3) A fitting room that underscores the relationship between clothing and identity.
The use of media technology for artistic endeavors offers powerful and immersive ways to engage the senses. In her essay, “Reflections on Some Installation Projects”, media installation artist Judith Barry offers some valuable insight into her use of media technology which speaks to some of my own goals. She writes:
Certainly, I have used technology, in the most general sense, as a kind of instrumentality (as in transforming the natural world through some human intervention) in all of my projects. However, I have often sought to interrogate multiple and competing technologies both from the standpoint of their ideological implications and through an examination of the forms that they might take within the specific subject matter of my work. (279)
It would seem that Barry has taken a lot of time to think through her use of technology, so that her work is not technologically determined. Rather, she is aware of the power dynamics inherent in certain media technologies and endeavors to reveal them in ways that also underscore whatever subject she may be exploring in her work. I wish to explore multi-screen possibilities as a way to break free from the single-channel model that often falls prey to dominant viewing regimes imposed by the cinema experience. How might I get away from the tyranny of the typical screen as a way to consider its materiality and the power dynamics that inform its apparatus? How can my use of the screen underscore meaning related to the subject matter while making a statement about the technology itself? It is questions like this that will pre-occupy my process in the coming months.
A further consideration for this new project is linked with the critical stance of revealing or concealing audio/video systems. Michael Snow's well-documented 1974 film installation, Two Sides to Every Story displays the structures of the shooting and presentation processes as a way to call the viewer's attention to the basic workings of production and projection that commercial cinemas and Hollywood work so hard to hide. In contrast, I would like to explore the hybrid tension of revealing and concealing the apparatus of the video/screen or audio/player. Perhaps there is a way to play with the deep space of illusion as well as offering the knowledge behind its creation as suggested by Andrew V. Uroskie in reference to a work by Robert Whitman. He writes:
Rather than aiming to annihilate illusion in the name of a fully transparent and self-conscious reality, it speaks to the importance of the affective and the imaginary, drawing concrete, material space together with affective, fantasmatic space in order to explore their structural interdependence in an increasingly mediated age. (Uroskie, 151)
I am intrigued by the prospect of working in between the polemic of illusion and disclosure. As Uroskie contends, this blending can add to our understanding of how viewing regimes are again mutating. It is considerations like this that will contribute to my choice of how to use technologies and practices that support an expression that is critical of dominant languages while underscoring concepts related through the subject matter.
Ode to the Cheongsam is preoccupied with questions pertinent to clothing and its impact on the expression of identity, how it is informed and how to grapple with its communication. In this way it is alive with the concerns that inhabit contemporary life in the face of globalization and the changing landscape of identity formation. The ultimate challenge for this new project will be in the design – one that strikes a hybrid balance in form and function, technology and theory as well as research and creation.
Barry, Judith, “Reflections on Some Installation Projects” Women, art and technology, Ed. Judy Malloy, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location Of Culture . London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Clark, Hazel, The Cheongsam , Oxford, New York, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Uroskie, Andrew V., “Windows in the White Cube” Screen/Space: The Projected Image in Contemporary Art , Ed. Tamara Trodd, Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press, 2011.
Wessieling, Fusionable Cheongsam , Hong Kong: Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2007.
1 Bhabha, Homi K. The Location Of Culture . London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Cheryl Sim is a media artist based in Montreal whose work as been shown in festivals across Canada. Current research interests include the diaspora condition, critical approaches to the screen, spirituality and the notion of hybridity . She paid her dues at the National Film Board of Canada before working for almost a decade at artist-run centre OBORO. In addition to media art, Cheryl has developed a body of work as a singer, composer and musician. She presently works as Associate Curator at DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art and is a doctoral candidate in the études et pratiques des arts program at UQÀM.