Photoshoot: Pre-Disko Nouveaux, July 2012

Daniel and I did a little photoshoot last month before heading to my monthly dance party with Wren, Disko Nouveaux. I had just gotten a new cut at Vidal Sassoon :-)

I haven't had a chance to write much, but I need to get back in the habit! I have so many new projects in the works, and a whirlwind of a fall schedule planned for Dances of Vice. Between show business, cosmetics business, film business, and plans to start a family, I'm not sure how everything is going to work - but I always make time for the things and people I love. Full of optimism and excitement for the future.

I hope everyone is having a marvelous summer!

Carmen Miranda's Ethnic Masquerade in The Gang's All Here (1943), dir. Busby Berkeley

If you're in New York, you have until tomorrow to watch The Gang's All Here (1943), the amazingly over-the-top wartime musical by Busby Berkeley on a movie screen at Film Forum. You will laugh, cry, and burst into applause at the end of each routine because it has the power to transport you to such a wonderful world of surreal beauty.

With every scene, at every party (and there were many), I found myself thinking: I wish I could be at this party! Except… practically everyone in the movie was white. With the exception of Portuguese-born Brazilian performer Carmen Miranda, who, in one "comical" scene of the movie, was actually referred to as a "South American Savage". 

Like most stereotypes of foreign women, the popular press described Miranda in physical herms--as wild, savage, and primitive, like an exotic animal, "enveloped in beads, sawing and wriggling, chattering macaw-like…skewering the audience with a merry, mischievous eye." This primitive, ignorant stereotype of the foreigner who can't speak English is made worse by the few scenes where she's depicted with somewhat of an obsession with money.

Miranda's role was popularized partially as an advertisement for Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy. Hwoever, the 'exotic locales' fantasy contributed to the depiction of "harmonically exploitative relations between the US and Latin American countries." The opening number of the movie portrays American sailors unloading sacks of coffee and colorful fruit from a ship returning from Brazil. The friendships between Miranda and the other female actresses were also meant to translate into an illusion of international, economic and personal harmony between US and Latin America. However, film studios made her Otherness extreme, so that viewers couldn't relate with her. It was even difficult to understand her speech, and many of her songs were sung in nonsense syllables. Without a voice, she was purely an ethnic spectacle. Even more ironically, the language in the scenes where Latin characters were speaking to each other, were not Portuguese or even Spanish--they spoke gibberish.

Miranda played a great role in developing her own character as a parody and understood the advantage of her own ethnic burlesque, and the fantasy is so appealing even sheerly on an aesthetic level. This double masquerade raises many questions about feminine and foreign stereotyping during the wartime era. But as much as I loved this movie, a part that stuck with me is where some of the girls are joking about Miranda's character Dorita, and how she's "up to her clowning again", or something like that. And Miranda rolls her eyes sarcastically, and says, "Yes, clowning…" At that point, I felt it could have been the voice of genuine expression that slipped through her comic burlesque.

Although the film was undeniably racist and reductive of her character, Carmen Miranda's "spectacle of ethnicity" provides the oomph really steals the show, and I loved her performance as burlesque. Interestingly Roberts notes that her image was so popular that fans who perceived themselves as different or "foreign", and identified with her in this way, also mimicked her feminine and ethnic masquerade. Are you starting to see a trend in this blog? Fantasy, race, gender, propaganda, and power...

On a lighter note, if you're a fan of the Tex Avery Red Hot Hiding Hood cartoons, you'll see where the inspiration for Riding Hood's grandma came from! And I loved the music - Alice Faye really blew me away, especially her performance of "No Love, No Nothin'". I love the deep voice sirens of that era, along with Peggy Lee, Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich. I'll end this post with the epic Carmen Miranda performance, "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat". Feel free to leave your comments.

"Baby Love" 1960s Style Editorial in V Magazine

Chinese models Ju Xiao Wen and Wang Xiao, with Japanese model Rila Fukushima, channel one of my favorite bands, The Supremes, in the August 2011 issue of V Magazine. Unfortunately the models don't really show much personality here and don't channel the fun vibe of that culture (imo), but I love the wardrobe, colors and styling (maybe except for those sneakers in the first image.) It's fun to see the proliferation 1950s and 60s American pop culture influences in recent Chinese fashion trends.

Chinese Designer Guo Pei Creates Fashion That Is Not Fashion

There are times that a work of art stuns the viewer to silent awe, where you feel you've come into contact with the divine - and that is certainly my feeling when viewing the fantastical work of Chinese couturière Guo Pei. 

Many of her designs draw inspiration from the mystical splendor of ancient Chinese empires, artifacts from the decadent Ming and Qing Dynasties, and images of nymphs and deities from Chinese fairy tales. They are re-imagined with a futuristic flair, and extravagant in their embellishments. I love this dress, the folds of which remind me of the lotus flower.

As European fashion houses have subtly begun cutting back on handwork due to rising labor costs, Guo Pei takes the opposite approach. One dress, made entirely of golden panels, logged over 50,000 hours in embroidery work. Guo Pei was raised during the time of the Cultural Revolution, when the only fashion being worn was the revolutionary uniform. Now, 40 years later, the Chinese fashion industry is experiencing a revolution of its own, as if to make up for those decades of political dress, and utilitarian fashion.

"I always have a desire to create something that is fashion and is not fashion," says Guo Pei. ‘‘So a dress ends up weighing 50 kilos! Every piece is not fashion anymore. It’s sculpture; it’s painting. I want to put all that into a dress.’’ You can tell from the 1002th Arabian Night runway show that many of the pieces and shoes are extremely difficult to move in, which to me adds to their majesty in a way. I think the models pull it off beautifully, and I am so excited to see what she creates next.

Ralph Lauren Fall 2011 Collection Shows Asian Inspiration

While I was searching for pictures to feature with my last entry about the Lo Heads, I remembered how much I absolutely love the dresses in the Fall 2011 Ralph Lauren collection, and wanted to share a few of these beautiful images. Pictured above is Chinese model Sui He in one of my favorite dresses from the collection, a cheongsam-inspired black dress with dragon embroidery on mesh in the back. Here are some additional photos of it from the runway:

Another dress from that collection I love is shown below, worn by Kerry Washington. I love the retro-futuristic art deco look (the hood and breastpiece makes me think of chainmail armor) that is at once powerful and feminine:

I also recalled seeing the dress on actress Rooney Mara in her recent November 2011 cover feature on Vogue. The editorial shots of her in that issue are incredible, and Rooney Mara is absolutely otherworldly in her beauty:

You can see a lot of Far Eastern inspiration in the rest of the collection, which of course I love. Unlike Elisa Palomino’s fanciful and colorful collection featured a few entries ago, the Ralph Lauren Fall 2011 collection is mostly black or darker tones, and incorporates a slightly masculine flair, with many outfits featuring pant suits, bowties, etc. Read Hamish Bowles’ review and a slideshow of the collection on here. What do you think? Leave a comment.

Fashion Designer Elisa Palomino's Enchanted Garden

The world of Valencia-born fashion designer Elisa Palomino is like an enchanted garden that evokes a fantasy of an Orientalist paradise, infused with opulent Deco-era and Victorian Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics. Elisa’s passion for the art and culture of past eras is evident in her style, but her lavish designs possess a distinctively original, even futuristic, flair. She is deeply inspired by Asian prints and motifs, and like the Asian objects of art she avidly collects, her designs are exquisite in their detail.

Last month, she unveiled her latest collection at London Fashion Week A/W 2012, inspired by the epicurean lifestyle and work of American artist and designer Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944), as well as the fashionable bohemians in her social circle of the time, which included Peggy Guggenheim and the beloved Sarah Bernhardt. Elisa explains, "All of them were cutting-edge icons: painters, poets, novelists, dancers and lesbian lovers. They dressed for their own satisfaction, with enthusiasm and ingenuity, in order to provoke or to horrify, replete with crimson red lips and dresses of Oriental inspiration."

I met Elisa in 2009 the way I meet almost all of my friends—through Dances of Vice—and it was impossible not to be swept away by her exceptional grace, beauty, and generous spirit. She embodies the romance of the world she creates, from the way she dresses and carries herself to the way she curates her surroundings - her work is an extension of her beautiful lifestyle. Before she left New York early last year, I had the honor of working with her on various projects that made me marvel at her ability to tell stories around original embroideries, prints and patterns she would create, to transform girls into goddesses, and inspire others to dream. She will forever be a role model, friend, and endless source of inspiration.

Below is a photo from a photoshoot we did together in 2010 with one of my dearest friends Anna and our wonderful photographer friend Martin Scott Powell (who also shot the default slider image above, cropped), which brings back many fond memories from that season.

As a female designer that creates clothing exclusively for women, Elisa emphasizes the power of femininity, which tends to be excluded more and more in contemporary society as women compete with men to appear strong and masculine. She rejects the need to hide behind a guise of masculinity or stifle feminine sensuality and expression to present an image of a modern, affluent, and fearless woman. I love her philosophy of dressing for one's own satisfaction, and that fashion should provoke. I believe that beauty provokes unrest and attracts the most attention when it is presented with ingenuity, and Elisa inspires me to stay true to that very ideal.

You can see photos from Elisa's latest collection on Vogue UK or watch the runway video on Vimeo. Videos from past collections can be found on at Elisa Palomino. Share your thoughts with a comment.

The Hunger Games: All We Want Is A Good Show

The Hunger Games movie provoked some interesting philosophical questions concerning morality, popular culture, gender, personal identity, politics, and authority. While I don’t have time to go into all the themes that interested me in the movie, the one that grabbed me most was the critique of entertainment as a political strategy of propaganda and public pacification. The Hunger Games was established with a political agenda to terrorize citizens from ever trying to rebel against the government; however, despite its dehumanizing content, the way it's presented--as a form of popular entertainment--validates its existence because it's celebrated and enjoyed by the masses. This mass Schadenfreude, or pleasure derived from the suffering of others, grotesquely justifies the game’s existence. 

The Hunger Games takes place in a future dystopia called Panem, where the government keeps the downtrodden populace intimidated and the pampered elite entertained with an annual televised battle to the death among teenagers selected from the outlying industrial districts. A Google search reveals that the name of this fictional nation of Panem was derived from the Latin phrase panem et circenses, meaning “bread and circuses”, which is invoked to describe how the populace can be controlled if they are fed and entertained.

Residents of the highly stylized, hyper-commercial, decadent and aesthetic-obssessed Capitol are pacified into blindly accepting the crimes committed by the government because they are too absorbed with entertainment and the instant gratification of pleasures and desires (ie, opulent food and material luxury) to consider the morality behind the games. As Gale exclaims in one of the most-quoted clips of the film: “All they want is a good show.”

The way the tributes are glamourized, objectified, and used as commercial and propaganda tools also distracts from the ethics of the game. One can draw parallels to our society, where people accept all manner of cultural propaganda in the name of entertainment and “public relations”. Just think of how commercialized and degrading reality TV shows are today, with shows like Extreme Makeover or Temptation Island which capitalizes on the suffering and insecurities of other people. Seeing women tear each other apart over men, money, and fame? It's almost as bad as watching kids butcher each other, and yet, people can't look away.

Edward Bernays presents a powerful argument in the book Propaganda (1928), in which he speculates how the U.S. government uses public relations for political and corporate interests by manipulating the public subconscious into feeling as though they’re doing what’s best for them (ie, I shop, therefore I am), when in actuality it only serves the interests of the social elite. In the beginning of the film, Gale questions whether or not the game would exist if everyone would just stop watching. But Katniss' response: "That's never going to happen."

I haven’t yet read the books, but according to my sister, the movie didn’t quite do it justice, so I look forward to reading more into the world. What do you think about entertainment’s place in society? How effective is media literacy education in challenging cultural propaganda? Will people ever "stop watching"? Leave your comments below.

May 5th: Dances of Vice Celebrates Japanese Art Deco In Roaring 1920s Fashion at Japan Society

Last night, I attended the gallery opening of DECO JAPAN, the newest exhibit at Japan Society featuring a wide variety of collections from the Art Deco movement in Japan. It was absolutely gorgeous! I’ve come across many art deco objects infused with Asian design, especially in Shanghai, but the craftsmanship of many of the objects in this exhibit were remarkable and reflected the social expressions of the time.

As a big fan of Asian art deco, I am deeply honored to have been invited to curate a special evening program in conjunction to the exhibition, to be celebrated in Roaring Twenties fashion. The event will take place at Japan Society on May 5th, 2012, and details can be found on the Dances of Vice website.

My favorite subject of the exhibition was the focus on the Japanese modern girl, or moga, the female icon of modernity. The moga exemplified the hedonism and consumer capitalism of 1920s and 30s Japan, her image frequently used in advertising campaigns cigarettes, cosmetics, and alcohol… Her carefully curated and commoditized body was also a spectacle to be consumed. The moga were Japan's equivalent of the flappers of America, Germany's neue Frauen, France's garçonnes, or China's modeng xiaojie. War and depression quickly crushed modern girl culture around the world.

At a time when the government sought to discipline and control the individual to serve the state, the liberated body of the moga signified a rebellion against the constraints of patriarchal society. Displays of the body that emphasized individual pleasure were deemed subversive and anti-nationalistic. The coy sensuality of the moga can be seen pictured in the songbook cover below, after which our event is named.

So come and join us in exploring the heart of the modern girl and her kaleidoscopic world of dancing, drinking, and late-night revelry! If you aren't able to make it to Dances of Vice: Deco Japan, I hope you'll have the opportunity to see the exhibition while it's in town - I think you'll find it every bit as inspiring as I did!

What are your favorite deco-era works and images? Share your thoughts below!

1950s Rockabilly Culture in China - Fashion & Film

 {We Go Together – Captured by Lincoln Pilcher, models Wang XiaoLily Zhi and Zhao Lei get caught in a love triangle for the March edition of Vogue China. Garbed in 50′s style outfits from labels such as Alexander Wang, Dolce & Gabbana, Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein selected by stylist Morgan Pilcher. Whether at an ice cream shop or in a vintage car, the trio keeps it cool in the retro attire. / Hair by Jordan M, Makeup by Tamah K -Excerpt via Fashion Gone Rogue}

The stunning 1950s rockabilly styled spread in this month’s issue of Vogue China (shot at some familiar favorite hotspots in local Williamsburg!) made me curious as to whether there was a rockabilly scene in China, and to my surprise, there certainly seems to be an emerging subculture in this genre, with bands such as DH & The Chinese Hellcats (pictured below) and Black Cat Bones performing regularly in Beijing and Shanghai. In Shanghai, groups like Banana Monkey and The Beat Bandits dominate the 1960s garage rock scene with local concerts and a surf rock, rockabilly and punk club night called Trash A Go-Go.

But did rockabilly make its way to China in the 1950s? I had always thought the answer to be no. The Communists had just come to power after a long and cruel civil war (which was preceded by an even more brutal war with Japan), and the country was absolutely devastated. China, including British-colonized Hong Kong, continued to be in a state of political chaos throughout the 50s and 60s; so, unlike the “rokobiri-bumu” (rockabilly boom) that swept through Japan in the late 1950s, rockabilly in China had to have been ignored in China. Or so I thought... until, thanks to one of my now-favorite blogs, Soft Film, I heard about the now-lost move "Young Rock", directed in Hong Kong in 1959 by Chow Sze-Luk.

Young Rock, with its subversive depictions of knife fights, abductions, dance hostesses, and triads was introduced as a film about juvenile delinquency in the February 1959 issue of Southern Screen:

"What are the problems of the youth of today? What turns them into teddy-boys and teddy-girls? Shaw's latest production 'The Joy of Youth' answers these questions boldly and unreservedly. It gives a frank and penetrating analysis of the problems of the younger generation."

The social climate in Hong Kong in the 1950s was ultra conservatiive, so I was surprised by this discovery. On the other hand, perhaps these wild expressions of rebellion and dancing were a response to China's long history of oppression and repression. The body represented a liberated site of rebellion and self-expression. In the Hong Kong motion picture hit Mambo Girl (1957), my favorite screen diva of the time, Grace Chen, calls out to a mambo rhythm: "shaking bodies drive everyone wild… dance as crazy, crazy, crazy as I am!”

With the US currently experiencing a strong retro culture revival, I'm excited to see more and more retro culture and trends in China, always infused with a stylish modern perspective. On the topic of rockabilly in Asia, I'll end this post with a photo of rockabilly dancers in Yoyogi park Daniel took during our Tokyo trip this past winter! I'm excited to return to Shanghai this summer and report my observations.

What are your thoughts on the rockabilly scene in China and Japan? How is the style similar or different from the US? Leave your comments here!

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China Man In A Bag Costume For Your Japanese Culture Party

Last week’s Deco Japan Dances of Vice event at Japan Society was a great success, and it was wonderful to see hundreds of guests show their appreciation for Japanese culture by donning beautiful vintage kimono, Asian-inspired fashion, and Deco-era evening attire.  Pictured above are some of my stylish friends Julius, James and Tzipora, all avid collectors and experts of fashion history and vintage style. 

Photo by Michael and Kamila Rutkowski

Past the sea of elegant revelers, however, my eyes set upon one middle-aged Caucasion man dressed in a “China Man In A Bag” costume, complete with a cap and fake Manchu queue. The only thing needed to complete this caricature was the Fu Manchu mustache and flowing beard. As if further reassurance were needed that this outfit was not donned in a spirit of cultural appreciation, photos of him were later seen using the queue as a mustache, or with palms held together in “Ching Chang Chong” reverence.

How could someone fail to acknowledge the element of degradation in this form of cultural burlesque that conjures up the caricature of a subservient and silly, yellow faced foreigner? Ironically, he became his own caricature, a stereotype of the culturally insensitive white appropriator.

I tried to be lighthearted about it and acknowledge that caricatures, like cartoons, can be funny, and that this person surely did not mean to offend. However, it wasn't a Halloween party where burlesque is expected and understood as such. Imagine if someone dressed as a Rabbi to a Jewish social function to be funny. I decided it would be wrong to bury my feelings by trying to justify the incident. Some may think nothing of it, sure - but no one can dictate how offensive or painful a stereotype should be to someone else.

Some might raise the question of whether or not it’s appropriate, then, for a white girl to wear Japanese kimono. Pictured above is my friend Candice at the event serving some moga realness. I’m going to continue this conversation in a future post. In the meantime, please feel free to leave your comments

I'll have a video spot from the night to share in a few days, but I'll end this post with a picture of the girls in the Allure Original Styles moga fashion show taken by Mark Shelby Perry. They are beautiful and I can't wait to share more photos from the event!

The Ethics of Fantasy and Cultural Exoticization

I recently had a discussion with my girlfriend and fellow Chinese blogger Calamity Chang (above, right) about being criticized for perpetuating cultural stereotypes of the sexualized "dragon lady" or "china doll" in our photos. I find that when someone attacks another woman for presenting herself in a stereotyped or sexualized way, it reinstates, rather than dismantles, cultural misunderstanding and the gender hierarchy. 

Ironically, it seems like women are more uncomfortable when another woman sexualizes herself for the pleasure of her own fantasy (which is empowering), than when a man objectifies a woman. Similarly, I find it ironic when I'm blamed for promoting stereotypes based on my fantasy representations, because it reminds me that there are people who clearly perceive my marginalized status. I am not perpetuating inequality; you're making it an issue because the inequality exists, and you are projecting the negative image you've learned onto me. No thanks. I'm not your china doll.

The exoticization of reality does not demand the sacrifice of intelligence. Our fantasies can and usually do function autonomously from our desires, beliefs and intentions. A WWII re-enactor, for example, probably doesn't really wish he could fight on enemy front lines in 1944 or subscribe to colonial expansion any more than I wish I were languishing in an opium den in Shanghai in 1930.

Many decry cultural exoticization as something that devalues and contributes to the misrepresentation of a minority culture. But ethnic minorities (myself included) exoticize and re-imagine their own culture and history all the time. Take the work of Guo Pei from my previous post as an example. Could it possibly contribute to cultural stereotyping? Yes. It's important to reverse these misunderstandings among people who are not familiar with another culture. However, the solution is not to prohibit the propagation of fantasy, but to encourage individuals to learn about and actively participate in the cultures they appreciate, and take an evaluative stance to cultural representations. An intelligent and mindful person will be able to question the intent of an image and distinguish between a fabricated fantasy and cultural reality, appreciating each in context.  

There's so much more to say about the ethics of fantasy, and this topic also ties into cultural appropriation. Why does it raise eyebrows when a non-Asian appropriates Asian culture into their fantasy? If we get started now, it'll never end, so we'll take little bites for now. Join the conversation by leaving a comment!

Photo: Shien Lee by Don Spiro (left); Calamity Chang by David Bowles (right). The image is the flyer for our monthly vintage Shanghai jazz event at Duane Park. The next show is on April 25th from 8pm!