Oriental Silk has been presented widely around the world. The following texts are edited from transcripts of panel discussions, question and answer sessions, and interviews with Xiaowen Zhu and various contributors. 

Oriental Silk

China Premiere 


Curated by Davide Quadrio

Aurora Museum, Shanghai

28 November 2015

Q&A with Francesca Girelli

FG: The estrangement from homeland is a facet appearing in Oriental Silk, a project you have recently premiered in Shanghai, at the Aurora Museum. What triggered this work? How did you come up with the original idea, and how did you develop it?

XZ: I started this project in 2013 and filmed most of it in 2014. Back then, I had received an artist’s fellowship to develop a work in Los Angeles after I graduated from Syracuse University. I was provided with a studio and an apartment, and didn’t need to worry about anything other than making my own project, a rather special situation for a young artist. LA was a completely new environment for me. I grew up in Shanghai, lived in New York and Europe for a while, so I’m used to dense cities. LA, on the other hand, was flat and spread out, therefore, driving became essential and it influenced the way how I discovered the city. One day, as I was driving around in the Beverly Hills area, I noticed a shop with a faded sign: Oriental Silk. It used a stereotypical “oriental” typeface, which was often seen in a Chinese take-out. I pulled over my car. As I stepped into the shop, I was immediately fascinated by the space. How everything was arranged inside reminded me of Shanghai in the early 1990s, when my mother used to take me to fabric shops. Back then, making tailored silk dresses, shirts and coats was in fashion. Such memory was almost buried in my brain, but it was triggered by the Oriental Silk shop. Naturally, I started talking with the shop owner, Mr. Wong. Born and raised in America, he didn’t speak Chinese. Even so, he felt to me more Chinese than most people I’d met in China. He could have been a character from an old novel written a hundred years ago. I think this was mainly due to his slow pace, peaceful gesture, and natural politeness. Little by little, he told me the history of the shop, his parents’ love story, the shop’s legacy, his personal story, all of which I tried to portray in the film later on.

FG: During the presentation of Oriental Silk at Aurora Museum, you mentioned that Mr. Wong is potentially afraid by the thought of visiting China, because of the differences between reality and his own idea of it. I imagined that maybe this could be something you have felt as well to some extent, having been based out of the country for quite a long time and not planning to move back, at least in the near future. Do you ever feel you’re missing out the ongoing flux of things, or fear the impossibility of going back to what was familiar to you?

XZ: Mr. Wong’s idea of China is to some extent romanticized, as he has never really spent much time there. It’s usually short business trips or visiting family members. Since his parents passed away, he doesn’t have strong reasons to go back anymore. His idea of China is very much tied to his parents’ legacy. I was born and raised in Shanghai. I usually go back once a year for a couple of weeks. Many places which used to mean a lot to me don’t exist anymore, or at least not in the same form that still matter to me. Actually, the Chinese title of the film 《乡绸》 [xiang chou] literally means silks from hometown, and its pronunciation is the same as another word in Chinese, 乡愁 [xiang chou], meaning nostalgia. Needless to say, Mr. Wong is a very nostalgic person. I think I am too. Since I was young, I always knew that I would live abroad, because it’s the only way how I thought everything could make more sense. I’m not afraid of going back, nor do I feel that I’m missing out on things. I think the most important things always happen internally anyway, so the question is where I find most possible to be myself. It doesn’t matter whether I was born in China or elsewhere, I’ll always need to have certain distance to my most familiar environment in order to be free.

Oriental Silk



Organised by Rachel Silberstein

Rhode Island School of Design

RISD Museum, Providence

27 April 2016


Rachel Silberstein: Hi everybody, welcome to the screening of Oriental Silk. I'm so glad that you can be here today. I actually want to start with thank yous, because organizing this has depended very much upon many kind people. So I want to thank them here. I want to start with Xiaowen Zhu, both for making this fantastic film and being so wonderful to work with. I really want to thank Cho Fund that has enabled us to bring Oriental Silk to the RISD community, especially Tracy Constantino. I am also very grateful to the curator of textiles, Kate Irvin for her help developing this project. I’d also like to thank Margaret Lewis, Deb Clemons, Janine Connelly, Matthew Berry, Pam Kimer, Peter O’Neill in FAV, Karen Montecalvo, Simone Solondz for her wonderful blog, Chaoqun Wang at the Design Guild who designed these beautiful posters, and Eloise Sherrid.


I also want to introduce Xiaowen. Described as a visual poet, social critic, and aesthetic researcher, she uses video, photography, performance, installation and mixed media as platforms to communicate the complex experience of being an international person and to wrestle with the notion of a disembodied identity. Born and raised in Shanghai, Xiaowen is currently based in London, UK. She is the first receipt of the TASML Artist Residency Award and Marylyn Ginsburg Klaus Post-MFA Fellowship. She is a mentor of the British Film Institute Film Academy, a member of the Los Angeles Art Association. Her work has been widely shown internationally.


I actually first heard about Xiaowen's film through a friend of mine in London, when Xiaowen screened her film at University of Westminster back in late last year. I immediately connected with a course that I teach at RISD called Interwoven Globe, which is basically all about textile from Asia built the modern world, or their contribution to building the modern world through really connecting people. I thought it would be particularly good to show this film in Providence. Like New York, Salem and Philadelphia, Providence very much built its prosperity upon the China trade. Companies like Brown & Ives, Providence’s largest merchant-importers who between 1789 and 1838 made forty-five voyages to Canton. In the last voyage in 1826 they brought back 212 cases of silks. Some of these silks entered museum collections, like RISD’s museum, which has a wonderful collection of Chinese silks. One of the things we've done here is to put some textiles to display at the Dongxia gallery, so if people are interested in being able to study those, they can go to the gallery and have a look.


The silks are part of the idea of what built the idea of China in the popular imagination and one of the things that connected China and America. In my course, we explore how Chinese silks really connected places like China and Europe, China and America, and how we can reconstruct ideas and concepts like exoticism, chinoiserie and hybridity through the textiles that brought these two cultures together.


In this film, we are going to see another side to what those silks meant. What we see is what those silks meant for one migrant family from China through the perspective of the current owner, Mr. Wong and his shop Oriental Silk.


Thank you.

[Film Screening]

Panel Discussion

Christina: How long did it take you to film and edit?

Xiaowen: This project was self-initiated and self-funded. In the beginning, I didn't have a deadline. I started filming and went back a few more times until a deadline came up, when I needed to leave LA. So I decided to shoot as much as I could. Then I left. Actually I finished editing and post production after I moved to London. The project has two different versions. One is this single-channel, 30-minute film version. The other version is a dual-channel film installation, and the duration is 60 minutes. That version is supposed to be shown in a gallery and would be more immersive. It also focuses more on Ken's state of being. For Ken, being part of the family played a major role in his self-identification. His idea and concept of China and orientalism is also very romanticized.

Thuy Linh: It's really interesting for me to watch the film. He sounds like a product of LA, such as “all the cheap products, only if we can bring back the craftsmanship...” I'm sure that Christina can also speak to this.

Christina: Just for context, most of the research I do is in downtown Los Angeles, so it's not in this neighborhood. It's interesting even just to see the panning as you see the West Elm and this really hip coffee shop. Then you see in this font – “Oriental Silk”. The community that I write about is south eastern part in downtown. There are over 6000 small shops bringing in mass-produced fast fashion coming into this country. Going back to what you were saying about the craftsmanship, so much of this film is about memory and how we narrate it as well. Alongside of romanticization of tradition, he's heard these stories from his parents and then what part of this is his own filling in of this story? Like his grandfather going back with two chests full of gold... Thuy Linh: Doesn't everybody have a grandfather with chests full of gold, right? Who eventually loses it all?

Christina: The memories he experiences in the space also makes me wonder about his family. I wonder if there's any interests among his children to continue, even though it sounds like it's difficult to survive.

Xiaowen: Not at the moment. He has a son and a daughter who are both in their mid 30s. They are young professionals and have their own life. So his plan right now, as he said at the end of the film, is just trying to run the store for as long as he can, and hopefully one of his children will change his/her idea. I also wanted to comment on your thoughts about how memories are narrated. I think that point is so crucial to this project. For example, I interviewed him multiple times and sometimes he'd repeat the same story but with different details. There are a few points like that. Once he admitted that he'd only heard these stories from his mom and he couldn't verify all of the details.

Thuy Linh: Did you talk to him at all about how he learnt trading? In the film, he talked about that he wasn't trained for this. It's a pretty technically sophisticated job, knowing all the different fabrics, how to cut, and how to advise the customers. How did he learn all of that?

Xiaowen: He learnt from his father. He also told that his father was great in self-teaching. He was a farmer and had to leave China in order to support his family. As explained in the film, he fought in WWII in different countries, during which time he picked up German, French, and Italian. He was even a self-taught carpenter, as all the shelves in the shop were hand made by him. He also taught himself all the knowledge about silks by reading in the community library. Obviously this family started out in a very humble way and they were just trying to survive and running the business with as little expense as possible. That's still pretty much how he runs the store, how he manages everything. I guess if he really wants to modernize the shop, he has means to support the financial investment. But at the same time, it's also so much more about this nostalgic feeling, not wanting to change, not wanting to let go... Thuy Linh: We can definitely talk more, but I don't know if people want to jump in with questions and comments.

Audience: You talked about how there was a sense of orientalism of how he sees China. Do you think it's orientalism or do you think it's nostalgia?

Xiaowen: I think it's both. The Chinese title of the film Xiang Chou, literally means silks from town or silks from hometown, but it also has the same pronunciation as the Chinese word for nostalgia. He sees himself as Chinese, even though he doesn't speak Mandarin. He talks about the Chinese tradition, but at the same time he doesn't go back to China anymore. perhaps he wouldn't like to see the contemporary China. It'd be hard to find things that he's attached to.

Audience: I'm just curious if he ever went back to China. I think he's born in America? So how exactly did he start to develop his identity? Did he have some exposure to his culture besides his parents?

Xiaowen: I'm just repeating what he told me. When his parents were running the Chinese laundry for 25 years, they didn't really have much social life. They were working 7 days a week, long hours every day. They raised 6 children in the back of the shop and they were able to send all of them to college. When Ken was in college, at first he was interested in pursuing an academic career, but later realized that being Chinese at the time was a barrier, so he became an engineer. He also told me that their family clang supported members from the community by giving scholarships to young college students.

Audience: He talks about how he's having this inventory. It sounds like he's not buying new fabrics, he's just selling old fabrics. If that's true, who's coming to the shop to buy things? What are they making with these items?

Xiaowen: He stopped importing in large stocks a few years ago, because the business was slow. He used to have customers like fashion designers, costume and set designers from the movie industry. As explained in the film, the industry has also changed a lot. Less and less films are produced in California nowadays. So his business is slow. Every time I write him, I ask how the business is. It doesn't sound too optimistic but at least he doesn't have much running cost. They used to have people helping in the shop, but now it's just himself. He's there five days a week.

Audience: What are the customers making? What do they buy?

Xiaowen: Everything you see in the shop is for sale. I actually brought two hand-embroidered coats to show people later. It's just up to the customers what they want to do with the materials, because he has so many different kinds. I'm sure that fashion designers can find many inspirations there.

Audience: Back to what you said about nostalgia, I think it'd be really interesting if you were able to get contact with his siblings, like how their relationship with the shop and with their parents were. My family goes back to Thailand. I recognize some of the resistance to incorporate a narrative that includes mundanity, like the extension beyond certain point. It's like they like to recount up until the success of something, and then everything...the children...and now there's the internet... There's all these things...It's really funny because you wonder if it's a little bit like escaping. In traditional Eastern Asian families, emotions are not really talked about. The narrative you were fed when you were younger, you know that there's some back story...I feel like you did a great job. I was very interested when you said there's two-channel version. You said that you noticed there are changes in story and how it seems over time, not in any judgmental way, perhaps the narrative that you were able to capture, somehow services the explanation why he's there, like not working for NASA. You know what I mean? So I feel like there's so much psychological complexity in your portrait of him and also in recognizing in an Asian family, there's a certain surface of tradition. It's able to pull everything into order. I was really happy to watch this.

Xiaowen: That's a very beautiful comment. I actually haven't heard a comment about putting everything in order. I think that's what it's about. It's not even honor. I guess in a traditional Japanese family it would be much more about honor, but in a traditional Chinese family it's more about order. Somehow the comment just really makes sense to me. But I get what you are saying about this surface and self-explanation why he's doing what he's going, why there's no other way... I guess for him there's no other way. Of course it's completely subjective, but that's precisely why it's so interesting. Audience: Another thing I felt was really interesting was in Thailand, silk began as sort of a poor man's fabric. What they made wasn't quite the high quality that people imagine today. I had this conversation with a friend only a couple of days ago. I think I heard a radio ad which said “as smooth as silk”. I feel like it's such a well-known metaphor for texture. Silk, nice and rich. But a lot of common silk is actually pretty knotty. I feel like his way of telling the history has this fine, pleasurable definition of something. And then there's this rougher, more accessible definition of the same word. The reputation that we somehow get priority is that pleasurable, smooth one, that puts everything beautifully into this romantic flow. Silk is a fabric that has such rich history in terms of representing both the lower classes and the upper classes, being something that at once very common and also very exotic, especially here in the States. Thuy Linh: I love that comment. I think that's the nature of memory. We don't remember things in order. We create an order out of our memory through the narratives that we present about our past. That's the only way we can remember, that's the only way we can constitute ourselves like whole, in continuous through time. I feel like what you just said about his daughter saying this is a good way to document our family – this is one of these moments where filmmakers and their subjects have a mutually beneficial relationship. Through you, he was able to reconstruct that story of family, of self, as he wanted to construct. But in another way, I see it as a story of Ken, and I see it as a story of intergenerational Asian dynamics. I also see it as a Mom-and-Pap story in America. It struck me that business was good until 2008, then the manufacture came in. But the manufacture was around long before 2008, of course it was when the economy totally crashed. I read it also as his resistance not letting go of the family memory and family heritage, but also not letting go of Oriental Silk taking up on that street, next to the fancy cafe or cross the West Elm, the refusal to give that up too. I think we see that kind of refusal which is made to be narrated as holding onto family legacy, even as holding onto some romantic traditional culture. But it's also about an economic landscape, where people like that can't exist anymore. Christina: The area where I study is further south, exactly the opposite of this. These families import textiles or design small clothing labels. Most of these are produced in China or South East Asia. One of the challenges about that project is the Korean community partially responsible for offshoring manufacturing to China. And also bringing in the fast fashion in Macy's or Nordstorm or Forever 21, where people shop to buy fast fashion and cheap clothing. They also are the legacy of this early industrial history going on in Asia in the 70s. For me, listening to his story, I'm positioning him in this Asian American history that I learned as an Asian American in this country. Let's begin with the railroads, let's begin with Chinese in America. Engaging with that history, then thinking that it's interesting that he's talking against this legacy of mass production that's being created right now and has an enormous economic impact on the entire region.

Sukhdev: I have a question about the sonic challenges of being in this place. You are talking about this shop closing down. There are lots of films about sentimental, and I know about this kind of dustiness, quirky what strikes me is that it seems very clean, it's quite slightly horrible stripe lighting, but it doesn't necessarily land itself to that kind of nostalgia of a memorial store, slowly quirking its way into extinction. And it seems you didn't quite want to make that film. So when you went in there, when you just stood and moved, what sort of resonance or frequencies is the space to you?

Xiaowen: For me, I see the space like a temple, and he's like a monk meditating and worshiping his parents, not buddha or god, but his parents who are god in his life, especially through gestures like unrolling and measuring that piece of fabric. In the 2-channel version, I included that shot for at least 8 minutes on one screen. In reality, I shot it for 13, 14 minutes. It was a big roll of fabric. It was also the last roll of this particular green fabric left in the shop. A light shading company acquired this piece. His gesture was very peaceful. I wouldn't even use the word “enjoying himself”. I think it's more mundane and more natural than that. Sometimes when I watch him, I just feel like there's no other way. His being is meditative. Xiaowen: I guess the resonance is also in the fact that I could relate his personality and character to literary figures in Chinese novels written in the 1930s and 1940s. Nowadays, when I go back to Shanghai, I almost never meet a person like him. It's more about this pace, patience, and modesty that's very rare to find in our contemporary society. Sukhdev: It seems that those rhythms and repetitions you talk about was audible in his voice. They are constructed in every of his sentence. It's not like he's trying to dramatizing with funny stories or making extreme events. It's exactly this modesty. Xiaowen: The shop is very quiet. On a typical day, he perhaps has 2-4 people coming in, some of them ask for direction, “How do I get to Beverly Center? Thank you.” The rest of the time, he's just there reading. That's why I included the shot of this pile of magazines and books twice in this film. It's just how he spends time there. He doesn't have modern technology in the shop. He uses computer at home.

Audience: I also wonder if the location of his store is attracting sales. What if he moves his location centered around other fashion shops? Here near FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) we have so many fabric stores...

Christina: There is an area that's exactly like this. It's a garment district full of fabric stores. But he's kind of sitting on a real estate gold mine next to the Beverly Center. Xiaowen: Yes, a premium location. Also, the fashion district in LA mainly sells cheap fabrics. It's a very different style. He wouldn't give up his location, also, if he's willing to sell the shop, he can instantly make a fortune. I don't think that's his concern. It's not even about better marketing but perhaps just opening the blinds. In the film, there's one shot from outside showing that the blinds are always down. People can't see through. I asked why he wouldn't open it, he said that it's because of the sun. He doesn't want the fabrics to lose color. Christina: It's really hilarious when the camera panned the images of the store from the 70s, you saw the porcelain vases in the front, then he's pulling the same one from the shelf. It really looks like it hasn't changed much. Thuy Linh: I was intrigued also by the fact that you don't see much LA in the film. There's hardly any exterior shots. There's something very claustrophobic and very quiet about it. Audience: Like you said, it's like in a temple. And it definitely feels like he's a little stuck in the past. Also the title Xiang Chou, like you said, indicates that he's suspended in this no where, in-between place, not quite China, not quite LA, not quite past, not quite present... Thuy Linh: You mentioned temple, but I more picture it as a bunker. Xiaowen: A bunker temple. Thuy Linh: The lights, the stains on the ceiling...

Sukhdev: It's a terrible thing to say, but I don't want him to sell much. I don't want him to make much profit. I think it's perfect. I think it captures a certain kind of sensibility, which is not just about retail or about shops, about migrants, it's about beauty of managing your own decline, and about an understanding of your own limitations and perhaps just very gracefully accepting that. I envied him.

Christina: It's funny that you said it, because it's true in the end when he says, I'll just take it year by year. Maybe because he's sitting on a real estate gold mine and has children, it's still striking to hear how calm and self-assured he sounded. Thuy Linh: I think the fashion industry will find him again. It's a certain market sector that wants to reclaim silk from this part of China, like who eats that nostalgia with a giant spoon will find him. I think he's going to be ultimately...I think he has a long life. Christina: He's next to the industry where ultimately the designers will go out and find the best silk in LA.

Sukhdev: Has he sold since your film came out?

Xiaowen: I personally introduced a few businesses to him. One of my friends in Shanghai has a vintage shop, she bought quite a few hand-embroidered coats and jackets from Oriental Silk, and these are incredibly popular among young fashionable people in Shanghai. It's truly hard to find similar pieces nowadays, or they'd be too expensive. For customers in China, it's less about the traditional embroidery, they are just beautiful clothes and you can't find them anymore. Thuy Linh: One of the things that's happened to silk is the destruction of silk worms. There has been massive loss of silk worms. So you really can't get that kind of stuff anymore. Xiaowen: He also has many beautiful hand-embroidered scarves. I recently noticed a name signed by a pencil on the corner of a white scarf, then I realized that it's signed by the worker who embroidered the whole piece.

Oriental Silk



Organised by Sukhdev Sandu

New York University, New York

11 May 2016

Presented by the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture and the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program in the NYU Department of Social and Cultural Analysis. Co-sponsored by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU. Organised by Sukhdev Sandu, Associate Professor of English , Social and Cultural Analysis; Director, Asian/Pacific/American Studies.


The screening was followed by a conversation with the director Xiaowen Zhu, Christina H. Moon, Sukhdev Sandu, 

and Thuy Linh Tu.

Sukhdev: I was recommended to watch this film, Oriental Silk, by a friend of mine, Gareth Evans. He's the film curator at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. I met Xiaowen a couple of months ago in London. I couldn't believe that she would be in the States anytime soon. I asked her, if you want, it'd be absolutely great if you might consider showing this film at NYU. I'm really grateful to you making your time in your schedule to show this film. Xiaowen Zhu is many many things, including documentary filmmaker, curator, writer, media artist, social researcher. She's born and raised in Shanghai, and is currently based in London. She's the first recipient of TASML artist residency award and Marylyn Ginsburg Klaus Post-MFA Fellowship. She was the artist-in-residence at ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, also at V2_Institute for the wonderfully named “Unstable Media” in Rotterdam. She's a mentor at the British Film Institute's Film Academy, a member of the Los Angeles Artist Association, and she's also been visiting professor for media art at Syracuse University. Her works have been shown in many settings and contexts internationally in Switzerland, Netherlands, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Canada, almost too much. This evening we'll the show the film then we are going to have a conversation between Xiaowen and Christina Moon, who's Assistant Professor in Fashion Studies at Parsons the New School. Also in conversation will be my colleague Thuy Linh Tu, who's Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and Director of the American Studies Program at NYU.



Panel Discussion

FG: The estrangement from homeland is a facet appearing in Oriental Silk, a project you have recently premiered in Shanghai, at the Aurora Museum. What triggered this work? How did you come up with the original idea, and how did you develop it?

XZ: I started this project in 2013 and filmed most of it in 2014. Back then, I had received an artist’s fellowship to develop a work in Los Angeles after I graduated from Syracuse University. I was provided with a studio and an apartment, and didn’t need to worry about anything other than making my own project, a rather special situation for a young artist. LA was a completely new environment for me. I grew up in Shanghai, lived in New York and Europe for a while, so I’m used to dense cities. LA, on the other hand, was flat and spread out, therefore, driving became essential and it influenced the way how I discovered the city. One day, as I was driving around in the Beverly Hills area, I noticed a shop with a faded sign: Oriental Silk. It used a stereotypical “oriental” typeface, which was often seen in a Chinese take-out. I pulled over my car. As I stepped into the shop, I was immediately fascinated by the space. How everything was arranged inside reminded me of Shanghai in the early 1990s, when my mother used to take me to fabric shops. Back then, making tailored silk dresses, shirts and coats was in fashion. Such memory was almost buried in my brain, but it was triggered by the Oriental Silk shop. Naturally, I started talking with the shop owner, Mr. Wong. Born and raised in America, he didn’t speak Chinese. Even so, he felt to me more Chinese than most people I’d met in China. He could have been a character from an old novel written a hundred years ago. I think this was mainly due to his slow pace, peaceful gesture, and natural politeness. Little by little, he told me the history of the shop, his parents’ love story, the shop’s legacy, his personal story, all of which I tried to portray in the film later on.

FG: During the presentation of Oriental Silk at Aurora Museum, you mentioned that Mr. Wong is potentially afraid by the thought of visiting China, because of the differences between reality and his own idea of it. I imagined that maybe this could be something you have felt as well to some extent, having been based out of the country for quite a long time and not planning to move back, at least in the near future. Do you ever feel you’re missing out the ongoing flux of things, or fear the impossibility of going back to what was familiar to you?

XZ: Mr. Wong’s idea of China is to some extent romanticized, as he has never really spent much time there. It’s usually short business trips or visiting family members. Since his parents passed away, he doesn’t have strong reasons to go back anymore. His idea of China is very much tied to his parents’ legacy. I was born and raised in Shanghai. I usually go back once a year for a couple of weeks. Many places which used to mean a lot to me don’t exist anymore, or at least not in the same form that still matter to me. Actually, the Chinese title of the film 《乡绸》 [xiang chou] literally means silks from hometown, and its pronunciation is the same as another word in Chinese, 乡愁 [xiang chou], meaning nostalgia. Needless to say, Mr. Wong is a very nostalgic person. I think I am too. Since I was young, I always knew that I would live abroad, because it’s the only way how I thought everything could make more sense. I’m not afraid of going back, nor do I feel that I’m missing out on things. I think the most important things always happen internally anyway, so the question is where I find most possible to be myself. It doesn’t matter whether I was born in China or elsewhere, I’ll always need to have certain distance to my most familiar environment in order to be free.

Oriental Silk

Panel Discussion


Moderated by Gareth Evans

Bloomsbury Gallery, London

22 September 2016

Xiaowen Zhu's solo exhibition Unrolled Silks had a panel discussion on the topic of Personal and Collective Memories at Bloomsbury Gallery London on 22 September 2016.

The following text is the transcript of the discussion, edited by Cangbai Wang, Chris Berry, Kelly Liang

Gareth Evans is a writer, curator, presenter and Film Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery. He programmes PLACE, the annual cross-platform festival at Aldeburgh Music in Suffolk and has curated numerous film and event seasons such as ‘Romany’ and ‘JG Ballard’, ‘John Berger: Here Is Where We Meet’ and ‘All Power to the Imagination! 1968 and Its Legacies’.


Chris Berry is Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London. His academic research is grounded in work on Chinese cinema and other Chinese screen-based media, as well as neighboring countries. He is especially interested in queer screen cultures in East Asia; mediatized public space in East Asian cities; and national and transnational screen cultures in East Asia.  


Amy Ng is a playwright and historian. She was educated at Yale University and at Balliol College, Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. She is an alumna of the Royal Court Theatre’s Critical Mass writers’ programme and the British East Asian Theatre writing group supported by the Young Vic, and is currently on attachment to the BBC Writersroom and Tamasha Theatre.


Cangbai Wang is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies and Director of HOMELandS (Hub for Migration, Exiles, Languages and Spaces) at University of Westminster. His main research interests are in the areas of Chinese diaspora and cultural heritage. He is the author of Life is Elsewhere: Stories of Indonesian Chinese in Hong Kong (2006).


Xiaowen Zhu is a London-based artist, filmmaker and writer. Her work has been widely shown internationally. She gained her MFA in Art Video from Syracuse University. She was an artist-in-residence at ZKM | Center for Art and Media, visiting artist at Rhode Island School of Design, and a member of the Los Angeles Art Association. Oriental Silk is one of her recent projects.



Panel Discussion

Gareth: Thank you so much for coming, everyone. Many thanks to Xiaowen and Jane for asking me, Gareth Evans, the film curator of Whitechapel Gallery, to host this conversation around Xiaowen’s excellent exhibition here at the gallery. I’m delighted to have people responding to Xiaowen’s excellent show, both across media, across platforms and drawing on international concerns, also more specifically Chinese concerns, but I think what’s exciting about her work among many other things is that balance between that kind of national identity, although very strongly diasporic, but also belonging to the international – what does it mean to be outside of a particular national framework? How do we think about ourselves in an entirely globalised world now?

So, alongside on this sofa is Cangbai Wang. He’s Senior Lecturer in China Studies and also Director of the HOMELandS of University of Westminster, which I hope you’ll talk about. It sounds fascinating. Xiaowen, of course. Next to Xiaowen, Amy Ng, who is a playwright and historian, currently attached to the both BBC Writers Room and Tamasha Theatre. How Amy tells a dramatic narrative is incredibly useful to this conversation, because the arch of storytelling across time and space is obviously very central to Xiaowen’s film as well. And next to her, Chris Berry, who’s just recovering from a serious head cold. He’s not shaking anyone’s hand, it’s not because he doesn’t like us. Chris Berry is professor of film studies at King’s College with a deep understanding and specialisation in East Asian cinema. It’s a great run-up we have for you this evening. Obviously, you’ve all seen this show downstairs. I hope you would have read a little bit about Xiaowen here and her thoughts on how this piece came about. But first, could you just set us up, Xiaowen – about obviously your meeting with the project and your sense of what it could possibly do in terms of how you are thinking about your work, and this idea of a shop and an individual, and the history of this project? Xiaowen: Sure. When I met Kenneth Wong, the character of this film, I was doing an artist residency in LA. One day, I was just driving on Beverly Boulevard. If any of you is familiar with that particular neighborhood, it’s filled with boutique and designer shops. Amidst all of that, all of a sudden, I saw an outdated sign saying Oriental Silk. I was very intrigued, as it obviously didn’t fit to the rest of the environment. Out of curiosity, I pulled over my car and stepped inside. At first, I wasn’t even sure if the shop was open, because the blinds were down. But it was indeed open. After Ken let me in, I started looking around and became very fascinated by the space. It just instantly reminded me of my childhood in Shanghai in the 90s, when my mom used to take me to a fabric shop. She taught me how to distinguish silks from synthetic fabrics. Ken’s shop reminded me of that time. Ken was quite easy to talk to. As a documentary filmmaker, sometimes when you meet someone, you just get this feeling that there’s something behind it. There are stories.There are layers. So I just started a conversation with him. Then in a couple of months, I went back a few more times and eventually asked him what he thought about me making a documentary film about him, but he wasn’t very interested. Obviously, he’s in LA and there’s the movie industry... He couldn’t see why he would want to be part of something like that. Still, I just gave him my card. Later on, I guess that he checked out my website and understood that I wasn’t a commercial director and my work wasn’t particularly entertaining. So he emailed me six month later, saying that he had been reconsidering and would like to participate. This is just how it started. Then later on, during the process, I didn’t always bring my camera with me, because sometimes I just wanted to spend time with him. I was interested in seeing if he would act differently without the camera. But it turned out that he was very consistent. It doesn’t matter with or without a camera. Actually, he liked to repeat the same story, which is the other aspect to it. It also triggered my intention to create a dual channel piece, because I started thinking about these differentiations and various versions. For example, he would talk about the shop being the first Chinese silk shop since WWII, or another time “since Korea War”. That’s of course a huge difference. So which war was it? Then he would also admit that most of the stories were in fact second-hand information. He heard from his mother. Although in the film he revealed a very strong emotion to his father, when his father was still alive, it was a very traditional Chinese family. They didn’t talk that much to each other. Also, his parents were so busy making a living. They raised six children in the family and never had much time chatting with everyone in the family. It was only after his father passed away, Ken slowly got more information about his life through his mother. In a way, I could definitely relate to that, and it started making me explore more and more of my own identity and life choices. Obviously we are from different generations. The difficulties and hardship his family and parents experienced, I don’t have those experiences, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t draw a connection. As a result, you see this exhibition downstairs. I made the dual-channel film installation first. Then I also created a single-channel version, a 30-minute documentary which was also shown at the Whitechapel Gallery. But the dual-channel version was closer to my original intention, as I was very interested in capturing his state of being inside the shop. It’s just something that I can barely find nowadays in China. Of course I can’t say from a personal perspective that it doesn’t exist, but I definitely haven’t seen it in contemporary China. It’s something like appreciating time, being nostalgic but at the same time respecting old objects, being emotionally attached to them, and running a business that’s not for profit. It’s just a personal choice.

Gareth: Thank you very much. That’s incredibly helpful. Let’s just talk a bit about the arrangements downstairs. There’re of course objects, clothes, beautifully made. Now, how did they fit in? Are they coming from US? Are they coming from China? Just give us a sense of that.

Xiaowen: That’s also an interesting part of this project. I’m not a person who’s very used to making objects. I take photos, time-based media, films and etc. I rarely make textile-based stuff. But the reason why I made those clothes was that he has those pieces that he also talks about in the film, such as this 100 hand-embroidered children on a piece of fabric that was purchased by Madonna for her daughter — that sort of story. He has a few of those left. They were all originally handmade and imported from China in the 70s. It was in fact during the Cultural Revolution. What this family managed to do was really quite incredible, because during the Cultural Revolution there was no official trading between China and the US. In fact, it was illegal. But they managed to import these handmade goods and make great profit from it. Nowadays, these pieces are hard to find in China. They are no longer produced. If you manage to find things of similar quality, they are usually very expensive. So I bought these fabrics from his shop. I had them for a couple of years, but I didn’t know what to do with them. One piece had one hundred butterflies; the other one had one hundred goldfish. Each one of them was different. I was told that each piece was embroidered by a single worker. She would just spend however much time she needed to complete that piece. It was still during the planned economy, not the market economy yet. I went to Shanghai recently and visited a fabric market. I found a tailor there and I asked her to make two bomber jackets, American style. As the result, these are what you see downstairs in the exhibition.

Gareth: Thank you. The most important question is, I guess, has he seen the film? And if he has, what does he think of it?

Xiaowen: He really likes it. Gareth: Good. Xiaowen: He has also read your text, and he really likes it too. He’s just been so extremely supportive, not only because he appreciates what I did for his shop, but also because he truly appreciates the work. He has shown it to his friends and his family. I recently had a screening in the US. It was at the Rhode Island School of Design. Ken’s cousin actually lives in the area. It was almost scary, because his cousin looks just like him. When he stepped into the auditorium, I thought, did Ken fly from LA? Then he introduced himself: “I’m Ken’s cousin.”

Gareth: Very good. Also have you shown it in China yet?

Xiaowen: Yes, the premiere of the 30-minute version was in Shanghai. It was very well attended and it was presented in a beautiful space. Some of the reactions that I received was quite different from what I received overseas. What I realised is that for the general Chinese audience the difficulties and hardship that the overseas Chinese have experienced seem very distant to them. For example, nowadays it’s more and more common for young Chinese to go abroad for study or pursue their career. Back in the 80s and 90s—Cangbai would know better than me—if you had family member who lived abroad, it’s something you brag about. You know, it’s like “I have this rich cousin. He has a silk shop in LA.” No one knew where LA was, it just sounded very glamorous. When I showed the film to the Chinese audience, some of them said: “I had no idea that they went through so much.I didn’t know that it was so hard to maintain a business. I thought that they were all rich.”

Gareth: Very interesting. Thank you very much for setting the exhibition and work out for us. Cangbai, in terms of that relationship between the Chinese at home, shall we say—and of course the diaspora and the whole sense of migration which are under place over the last century or so—you will see all sorts of echoes and refrains of a much wider scale of this particular story? For you, does it reflect some of the main concerns for you here?

Cangbai: The reason why I like this film is because Xiaowen and I share the same kind of conception and understanding of Chinese diaspora and the movement of people. Coming from a background of studies of Chinese migration, I’d like to say that the focus is not to put on people only, but also on objects and materiality. It’s not only about Chinese migration studies but also about international migration studies. When we talk about migration, we think about people, right? People on the move. But we tend to forget that people move in a material world. The migrants’ world is made up by both people and things, particularly the interaction and intersection between people and things. So migrations’ stories are told not only from but also about and through objects. You can see from the film that Kenneth Wong recalls the memories about his family and himself all through his relationship with the shop, particularly with fabrics. Without fabrics, there’s no story about him. Because fabric exists the tangible things, then his story becomes alive, real and touching. So this medium is very important. It’s something missing in the study of migration and diaspora. It opens a new window for us to look at the devotion, the inside world of migration, the inside emotion is actually externalised through objects. It’s a very important angle. I think this film and perspective on silk, which is symbolic culturally as well, ask the audience: what is silk? It could be just fabric. But to me, silk is Mr Wong himself as well. His touching and dealing with fabric actually is also dealing with himself. Xiaowen just told us that when you interviewed Mr Wong that the way he recalled his memories is not coherent. It’s fragmented. There are gaps. That’s very interesting. I’ve watched the film several times. It’s like him being in his own Chinese universe. His dealing with the buttons, silks and fabrics are just like (recollecting) his pieces of memories. He enjoys picking them up, because in this process, he’s trying to record his inconsistent memories in relation to faraway China. I think through silk, we see a very rich world.

Gareth: That’s tremendous. Thank you for the incredibly instructive and useful comment. There’s also this idea which is coming out of your observation about objects and material. Following on from Xiaowen’s point about the silence in the family: not necessarily a difficult or hostile silence, but just this sense that the family unit, which of course we know from other cultures as well, seems to have a particular quality in Chinese families that is not wanting to have ideas and emotions to show and express. Do you think this idea of object to the heart of his business is a fundamental means for him to communicate—not just to Xiaowen of course—among his larger family? The conversation would be about silk. Is that right?

Cangbai: I think you are right in that the specific topic may not necessarily always be about silk. Silk is not just a communicational medium between siblings and family members but also a trans-generational passing, especially since his father passed away. From his parents’ generation to his generation, we see different directions of transmissions. Oriental transmission and vertical, trans-generational and transcultural transmission. It’s a very critical role. Traditional Chinese people are not used to hugging and kissing each other. Still, they do have very rich emotions inside. They need something to be like an emotional outlet.

Gareth: Tremendous. That’s a perfect bridge I think into you, Amy, your stories. You are a playwright and historian. Both of those disciplines absolutely centred around how we tell each other about our lives and lives of our community. So this sense of unstable stories that he has revealed to Xiaowen as a result of a conversation is very interesting, isn’t it? For you as an internal playwright, storytelling between generations and across time and space interests you as well.

Amy: I really like the dual channel Xiaowen chose to be the medium to communicate the unreliable narrative. I also feel that some of the objects she chose to present in the film almost contradicts to what he’s saying in the moment. For me, I’m actually very ambivalent about nostalgia. I guess it’s a very powerful emotion. It’s something I like to explore in my play, but I also find it to be a kind of toxic emotion. What I find amongst overseas Chinese community is that often certain traditions and objects are treated differently. They live far longer in China or in Hong Kong, where I’m from. I frequently felt that they are constructing a museum. I think museums are very unstable institutions. You were saying that he’s using silks to objectify his emotions. I felt that it’s a very dangerous thing to do. It was almost like “fetish.” When he was talking about losing his job and coming to the silk shop, it reminded me of the death of the American dream. He was also talking a lot about silk being used in Hollywood movie industry. It makes me think that perhaps in his mind, he’s sort of constructing a set and an imaginary homeland through his silk. I thought it was the perfect medium to convey the sense.

Gareth: Silk has many qualities. But of course as you said, it’s metaphoric and symbolic; it carries all these extraordinary ways of association, particularly to do with the craft and the nature of its making. I absolutely take on board with what you said. Do you think there’s something in the idea that given he is the only carrier of the business forward? All the other siblings abandoned the project; his parents are gone, but he has to enforce the inherited value of what he’s doing. And it’s highly unlikely, as he says, that the business will continue. It’s almost half century old but not yet. So is there something justifying and underlining his own identity? Of course he has to give it this way.

Amy: I think we all do. We all construct meanings of our own lives. I am just slightly alarmed as a child with British Chinese parents. I know many parents really want to pass it on to their children. I just think what a way of tradition to have to carry on. He’s obviously very concerned about his legacy. He was saying that he’d rather give it away. I can really see why he loves Xiaowen’s movie. It’s so still and capturing his own rhythm of time. This is the way he wants to be remembered. It’s a very powerful form of grieving and nostalgia. I think it’s legitimate to build meanings through the shop. I’m just questioning it when people say things like “all this is lost, nobody makes it anymore. Nobody embroiders silks screen from a photo...” But a part of me thinks that it’s surely a good thing. It was hard work in poor condition. I went through a phase like that myself. I realised that I was probably not going back to Hong Kong. Every time I went back to Hong Kong, I sought out all these traditional shops. My friends who never left Hong Kong just thought I was crazy. Then I realised that I was constructing a path which I had never been. I’m sure that there’re always these elite silk makers but there’s also always the mass market. I think the idea of silk makers as a collection of artisans is quite misleading. As a historian I’m always worried about finding a path that way.

Gareth: Thank you very much. It’s fascinating to get these diverse perspectives. Chris, you are coming from a hybrid space of observation, both from outside of Chinese community but hugely immersed and engaged with its cinema. How would you place yourself in this kind of spectrum of response and material?

Chris: I guess I was just listening to what everyone was talking about and thinking about what you were just saying. In Ken’s particular case, it is very melancholic kind of structure. He’s built his personality around it. He’s using fabric and memories associated with it. In fact, I worked in China in the planned economy. We had a quota. You have to produce your “ding’e” (定额). Whether you like it or not, you still need to produce it. So actually it was again the romanticisation of what was supposed to be not a market economy. But still, it was a command economy, in which way it was worse. Because you had to fulfil the command, whether it made any market logic or not. So it is extremely complicated to trying to think through that. What interested me looking at this work was trying to think about it as both something very Chinese but also saying about a condition that many of us experience under globalisation, as you alluded to in the beginning. I saw this first as a single channel work, and then I saw it as the dual channel work. I was immediately struck by how much I felt a stronger response to the dual channel. And I realised immediately that it was something about his personality–the personality of anybody who lives some sort of transcultural, trans-border kind of way. We are all multiple channel people now, right? We’ve got part of us here, part of us there. It’s how I feel anyway. People are laughing. You agree with me, don’t you? So just the form of the work immediately captures that. And of course one of your earlier works, which was about long-distance relationships, was also three channels. So again, you get different voices and so on, but the very form of the three channels captures this very condition of being together, being in a relationship, and yet, being separate. I felt that this works very well here. I think it’s a really brilliant idea to work with the actual fabrics from the shop. In the exhibition, a part of the shop is here; a part of the shop is still in LA. It’s an American style clothing, but it’s Chinese fabric, it’s exactly this kind of condition that we live in. And yet, at the same time, this condition is something we clearly experience a strong reaction against it at the moment, right? The whole Trump thing, the Brexit thing, “taking back control,” a lot of that is articulated from the position of people who feel great, nostalgic for a single nation state, a single culture, or a single unified state that they are missing, whether it ever really existed or not. They wished it did. So we are clearly caught up in this. I was interested in what you said about the reaction of the audience in Shanghai as well, because it does seem to me that part of those Chinese specificities is around the issue of mobility versus being born and raised and dying in the same place. In Chinese history, recent and long term, there has been tremendous tension around that. There are parts of China, like Fujian, where people have been going all over the place for centuries. Then there are other parts of China, where until very very recently the vast majority of people never really moved. I think of you, your background and in terms of the PRC in Mao’s era. Right up till the 1980s, certainly people had very limited mobility. Once it got into the 1980s, if you look at the culture from that period, there’s this dream of mobility. See, look at early Jia Zhangke films for example, something like Platform, they always desperately want to get out of somewhere; they are always looking at the trains leaving; they wish they were on the train. Now you have a situation where everybody is mobile, searching for jobs, and also mobile internationally. So I love the fact that the work not just in its content, but its form also captures that condition. I think many of us have this situation where our families have this kind of mixed history that goes back to different places that we only know indirectly, yet are very important to us.

Gareth: Those notes are incredibly helpful. Thank you very much. Just thinking of him, Jia Zhangke as a filmmaker of The World, in which the world is both created as a minimal space within China, the high point of global architecture. Also, from the perspective of the UK, people are going to China, moving in the other direction of course for the future economy of the world as it appears to be. Where does that Chinese image of placement and displacement sit? Is it happening much more widely across Chinese cinema? And is that tension kind of going both directions?

Chris: You touched on what I’m planning to do a bit more research on, which is that China now has road movies. And this didn’t exist before. But now there are numerous different kinds of films. Some are classic road movies like Han Han’s The Continent. Also Kaili Blues, I’m sure some people have heard of that film. Poet on a Business Trip–these films are classic, like a guy seeking out his identity on the road. But then, also Ning Hao’s films are much more commercial versions of that. Then there are also other travel genre films by so called ethnic minority filmmakers, like the Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden and the Korean Chinese Zhang Lu. To me it’s no surprise that all these films are also journeys through territories. I think we also have the genre of the tourist romance films. There’s a whole kind of genre of a bunch of cities trying to attract Chinese tourists. We go to Prague, Israel and Seattle to fall in love... The new one is in London. The poster is actually London in the rain! There are a variety of these films happening. If you go back 20, 30 years, they couldn’t happen. Those films couldn’t be made simply because very few people had the opportunity to travel so that the ideas of films about traveling was unlikely.

Gareth: Thank you very much. Just before we open it up, Cangbai, can I come back to you? Chris explained very articulately about the idea of moving through place. But this sense of moving through time which are across generations and you explored as well. Where does Mr Wong’s experience fit into the larger Chinese diaspora of businesses that last and then stop? He inherited his business from a first-generation setup from his father. It’s nearly fifty years old, it looks unlikely it’ll continue. We hope it will. Is that a natural path of the diasporic business movement?

Cangbai: China... [The question] is: what is China? How do we define China? 15-20 years ago China was defined by territory. China is there with a border. Actually, since at least 150 years ago, a lot of Chinese people started moving abroad voluntarily or involuntarily from particularly the “hometowns” of overseas Chinese, or Qiaoxiang, in Guangdong and Fujian, southern China. It’s the home of overseas Chinese including Hong Kong. Hong Kong played a very crucial role bridging territorialized China and overseas Chinese. If defined beyond the territorial term, Chinese from mainland China and overseas Chinese are all a part of China, starting from Guangdong, Fujian, to Southeast Asia and the US as well. Kenneth Wong’s family is from Taishan. 95% of the (Chinese emigrants from Taishan) moved to United States. It’s through chain migration and family ties. It started with the gold rush in California and then the railway construction. After that, they started to run laundries or restaurants. That’s the general story that also applies to Wong’s family, the same trajectory. That’s part of the bigger story. So the film is not only on immobility but also on mobility. We start to redefine China based on the connections and interactions between mainland Chinese and overseas Chinese. This film gives us a bigger picture to look at. Gareth: Fantastic. Thank you very much. Wonderful series of reflections and insights to think about the work through and around. We’d love to hear from the audience. Your own thoughts and different perspectives, Chinese and otherwise. Please do share your thoughts with us.

Audience: One of the most interesting aspects is how the film portrays the way Ken decides to show his identity. He’s American, born and raise, his parents are Chinese of course. But I feel that there’s something that people with international backgrounds have in common. It’s like either you decide to be international and don’t explore much into your national identity, or you search deeply into your identity. Like Cangbai said, without the objects, his story can’t be told the same way. I wonder how much the object contributing to him deciding on his identity. Before, when he was an aeroplane engineer, it felt like he was pursuing his American dream, but it didn’t really work out. Then there’s this shop with all these objects and stories attached to them. Maybe that’s a reason for him to decide as well – perhaps I’m also Chinese. At the same time, he chose special type of silks that are no longer available in China, so that he can claim them to be closer to his own identity. I’m wondering, for people who don’t have special connections with these objects, how do they create their identities? Is it something that comes naturally or you have to decide by yourself?

Cangbai: We have diasporic subjects that come from all kinds of backgrounds, like Arabic people, Italian, Polish, Korean, Japanese... In the United States, everybody has his or her own past. No matter how they chase the American Dream, which is also a standardised dream, at the end of the day, they all have their own private history. Particularly because of Ken’s age, it’s like when we move to a certain life cycle, we start to look back and look for our root. It’s like root searching and soul searching. Who am I? Where do I come from? It doesn’t matter if I’m successful or not. We have the same common questions, the same common motivation to ask ourselves: who am I? People make sense of themselves and the world through something, such as filmmaking. For me, it’s through research and writing. I think Ken’s story exemplifies the relationship between subject and object. This object can be anything. It helps to establish a link between now and past, between you and the outside world, between internality and externality, I think this story gives us a very good visual example (of it). Gareth: Thank you. Xiaowen, do you have any comment? Xiaowen: Yes, just a short one. In reality, Ken spends a lot of time by himself. When I spent time with him, it felt like the shop was like a temple to him. That was extremely interesting to me. It’s obviously also very different from the experience of my generation, like how we are used to interacting with the space and environment around us. Cangbai: Is he the elder son or younger son? Xiaowen: He’s the youngest. He has five siblings, but none of them was interested in taking over the shop. Gareth: So he knew that he had to do it. That was it. Also his engineering career must have been challenging, I’m sure when he was considering taking over the shop actually provided him a kind of way out of the pressure of the American dream. As we talked about a lot, we have different forms of space, identity and history and so on to release that pressure and then to maintain other kind of aspiration forwards which is potentially limited in time. Do you think it’s something you can see in him, a form of relief from something else? Xiaowen: I think so, because the reason why I created the American flag was also because he talks about America a lot. He would mention that America is the only place where if you have the will, you can make it. Then I thought: okay, I’m going to make an American flag for you.

Gareth: Exactly. The idea of the gap and knowledge between mainland Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese, that obviously can go back the other way. The diasporic community who have no idea what it means to grow up in China. Amy, where do you think that is sitting, given the huge expansion of the diaspora and the sense of China’s global importance of course? How do you think about that – the other way, the other traffic?

Amy: I find it very interesting that diasporic Chinese seems to also view China as a threat. A generation ago, that would have been like “great, China is strong. We wouldn’t be despised.” I find it especially among Chinese American now that they very much view China as a place that dumps cheapest deals, takes away jobs and whatever. So I find it identify very much with contemporary American political discourse. If they go back to visit, they find places in China still very dirty and polluted. Chris: There’s also that very strong movement right now in Hong Kong and in Taiwan. They say that they are not Chinese. One thing that I find very interesting in Hong Kong, which I’m very surprised by, has come up three or four times in a public context. People in Hong Kong are now comparing their experience with those living in Tibet. They know they are very different, but structurally they see a parallel. So now it gets this multiple “Chinese-ness.” Amy: Also I think the older generation of Chinese people abroad would make their fortune then go back, I find this generation very much settled wherever they ended up. So I feel that they’ve taken up the point of view of the whole society in many ways.

Chris: I have a question of terminology. Cangbai, you referred to him as “diasporic subject”. I was wondering, in his case, how do you define the term “diaspora”? Does it have to involve flight? Or does it involve voluntary migration? And then, was he born in the US? Do we think about different generations of diasporic experiences? If he not actually experienced the process of movement, the migration itself, like he was born in LA, I’m just wondering what kind of terminology we should be using for these rather different kinds of conditions?

Cangbai: It’s very complicated. We can use a wide range of terminology to refer to people who are going to move, on move or have moved, in the first generation, second generation, third generation, and so on. In Chinese, we differentiate them by huaqiao or huaren. Huaqiao is someone who moves out but ultimately looks for returning later. Huaren is settled. I think diasporic subject refers more to subjectivity. It’s about you simultaneously belonging to different places – like dual-channel. You simultaneously belong to place of birth, place of origin and maybe a third place or something in between. No matter if you acknowledge it or not, you are. I think I am diasporic subject because I also feel that I belong to different places at the same time. It happens to everybody. Some people say, even if you are not moving, you are a migrant. Everybody is a migrant. Everybody is a diasporic subject in a sense.

Gareth: Thank you very much. Chris, you talked about the very identity shifts in Chinese cinema. Is there substantial identifiable diasporic cinema?

Chris: You can say that the whole Hong Kong cinema was, in certain sense, right? Gareth: But let’s move completely away from East Asia to Chinese American or anywhere else. And if there is, how does it identify to these questions? Chris: Okay, I haven’t thought that through. I would need to think about it more. Of course there is this substantial relation, especially in North America and less here. There is a smaller number of British Chinese films. Of course, the film everyone cites is the first Chinese American feature film – Chan Is Missing by Wayne Wang. And of course that idea about somebody present but missing, again captures this kind of condition of being here but also being somewhere else – present and absent all at once. How to negotiate this condition runs through all that kind of work in one way or another. But increasingly, when you start looking around, maybe not in feature films, but when you look at documentary and other kind of works, we are discovering Chinese Italian and Chinese whatever filmmakers working in various places who we maybe haven’t been expecting are beginning to emerge. But I have to say that I haven’t looked a lot into that.

Audience: I am very interested about the market during Cultural Revolution, could you say something more about it?

Xiaowen: I would just elaborate more on his particular case. First, his parents had a Chinese laundry for 25 years. Back then, they could either do that or run a Chinese restaurant. No other employment opportunity for Chinese. So they had the laundry, saved up some money but couldn’t continue the labour-intensive work anymore. So they decided to do something else. In the film, it says, which I think is also an important part that Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star in Hollywood, was from Ken’s hometown. She was friends with Ken’s parents. She suggested them to open a Chinese silk importing shop. His parents were farmers from China. They never worn silks in their entire life. It was purely just a business decision. So they opened this shop, knowing that they would have difficulty to import silks from China. But because they had a cousin who had connections. So through that they were able to import. Chris: There was always the Canton trade fair throughout the Cultural Revolution. In fact, they were very actively promoting those sort of very high-end artisan and crafted goods like the embroidery and so on. There was no problem with exporting, but there might be a big problem importing into America. But if you said “it’s from Hong Kong…” Cangbai: China was not 100% cut off from the world, even during Mao’s era. China managed to have some connections [with the world] through Hong Kong or somewhere else, which was beneficial to the leadership as well. So there are flows of objects. It’s not a black market. There were legal channels. Chris: What made it not legal was getting into America. Xiaowen: I remember when I was young, there were so-called friendship shops in Shanghai. They sold goods produced solely for the foreign market. If you were a foreign tourist visiting China back then, you could go to the shop and buy things. For me as a Chinese, I could look but couldn’t purchase anything. Also, the quality of goods sold in those shops was much better. Chris: If you had family from overseas, you could buy them. If they sent you foreign currency or foreign exchange certificates, you could buy them, too. Again, there were always different mechanisms. Cangbai: The embroidered silks of high quality is related to the idea of authenticity. It’s authentic China. Why embroider 100 birds? You can’t find it anymore, it’s related to a lost China, a lost youth and a lost homeland. Xiaowen: But those embroidered pieces like what we saw downstairs in the exhibition were exclusively made for the foreign market. Cangbai: So it’s sort of like performing authenticity. Chris: China is one of those cultural formations that for centuries have been trading goods. The Silk Road, for example. This is not something new. It’s interesting that around the world the idea of China is so much associated with certain kinds of trade. Silk, tea, porcelain, and often special forms for the export market. When you see Chinese porcelain in the museum, it’s interesting how often you see Arabic on it, because it was made for the Persian market.

Audience: It’s really interesting how you brought up performance and authenticity, because that obviously is present in the film. You feel like he’s inherited an identity, but also that is selective. He’s sort of staging a performance. And the silks he’s selling is not from his experience, but from an inherited collective experience. That’s really interesting. I wonder if we can pick and choose inherited identity and selective identity. I was born and raised in the UK, I’m Chinese originally but sometimes I find myself picking and choosing, how Chinese I am and in which aspect I am Chinese. I feel like everyone actually does this to some degree. So I wanted to ask you, when you were talking to him, did you get a sense of him outside of the shop, and to what extent did it integrate to his American lifestyle?

Xiaowen: I’ve been to his house. It’s like a stereotypical middle class white house with a garden in the front. It looks very generic. The reason why I didn’t include the footage in the film is because I feel like outside of the shop, he’s a bit like everyone else. I want to just show the way he wants to be portrayed. Gareth: I think it’s absolutely a right decision that you keep him in the shop. The implication is much stronger, isn’t it? Wonderful contributions from yourself, as well as from our great panel. I’m perhaps closing this now with a question to Xiaowen, this is a very rich project. Obviously it has taken many different forms and will continue to travel, I’m sure. What are the implications for your future work? It does feel a little bit like a precious piece for you, in terms of how you place yourself creatively and your own identity. Xiaowen: I mean, it’s difficult. It’s also a bit tricky. On one hand, I kind of try to avoid being seen as a Chinese artist making stories about Chinese people. On the other hand, characters like Ken are hard to come across. A current project that I’m working on is a commissioned project about an art conservator at the British Museum, just next door. She’s the only person in the whole country who’s able to restore Chinese silk paintings from very ancient time. She has restored, for example, the oldest and most important silk painting in the world. She’s originally from China as well. She works with silks, right? Because there are many holes in these paintings, if you see them before and after, there’s a huge difference. For example, if it’s a painting from Ming Dynasty, she has to use silk fabric with the same texture, wavering structure from the same period of time to fix the holes. Just imagine, there are not so many pieces left. She’s been using forgeries from these old times, especially since many Chinese paintings leave blank space, she’s so happy to find a piece with just two trees and all blank. Then she can use them to fill the holes. I’ve spent some time with her in their studio, which is of course highly secured. Everyone is paying attention to what you do, because a small painting in that room could be worth a billion. I didn’t film her just because she’s Chinese. I’d like to work on more abstract way how I construct my next film. Perhaps it’s Chinese specific, but not necessarily through a Chinese channel. That’s quite important to me personally. Gareth: Thank you. As this conversation has provided evidence, your current work has led to a fascinating aspirations of these issues. I’m hugely inspired by what’s said tonight, and I’m sure everyone else is as well. We watch your future projects with great attention and eagers, so I hope we’ll be back at some future point to talk about the next work. Please do thank Amy, Cangbai, Chris, Jane the gallery of course for hosting the exhibition and the conversation. Please thank Xiaowen and her work.

Oriental Silk



Moderated by Melissa Mei-Lin Chan

USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena

13 October 2018

Melissa Mei-Lin Chan is a PhD candidate in East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California and USC Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow.

Kenneth Wong is the owner of Oriental Silk Co.

In the film, you mentioned finding "value in your culture." This phrase was extremely impactful to me. How can we move forward with this in mind? Is it about cultural preservation?

To answer your first question about the value in your culture, I believe that culture shapes who we are as a people - it give us our identity and values.  Heritage is more important as we get older, especially if we are raising a family. We begin to understand the wisdom and thoughts of previous generations.  Every developing country sees the new as exciting and is quick to adopt it and leaves the old behind. We think of the old as antiquated but as we age and become wiser we suddenly realize that the new is not so exciting and we long for the old.  Modernization is alluring but it has a price. You sacrifice such things as quality, values, and craftsmanship as well as the lessons of the past. I am an American of Chinese heritage who wishes to understand my roots and where I came from.

The film seemed to tie family history with the history of the business as well as hints of Hollywood and Los Angeles. How did it feel to reflect on your family's history in this context?

To answer your second question, my father came to Los Angeles because it offered the opportunity to raise his family and have a better life.  He and my mother had a laundry for more than 20 years before he retired. He did not like retiring so early in life and decided to start another business.  Eventually, he settled on importing silk from China. It was made easier because of his cousin Uncle Ben in Hong Kong. Uncle Ben had access to many of his former students in China and was able to provide my father with introductions to the various silk factories in China.   Because Hollywood is the center of the movie and television industry, it gave our silk business the opportunities to grow whereas it might not have elsewhere. It has turned out to be a mutually beneficial relationship with the movie and television industry. We also were a source for silks for many fashion designers and interior decorators as well.


Oriental Silk is my parents’ legacy.  Watching them over the years devote time and sweat to grow the business was like watching them raise another child in the family.  I just could not turn my back on them when they asked me if I wanted to give up my career as a software engineer to take over the business.  The business offered them a chance to show their pride in the silk legacy of China. My mother would always talk about how their generation had seen the worst in China growing up -  seeing sickness, poverty, famine, and war. They relished the chance to see China emerge from all that and develop into a strong thriving country. During the seventies, China used to send people of my parents’ generation abroad to study and bring home what they learned to help China develop.  My father would help many of them find housing here in Los Angeles while they were studying. He would drive them to Chinatown so that they could shop for groceries since they did not have any transportation. They would talk to my parents about how far China had come. They would say that their job was done but they would worry about where the next generation would take China.







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