conversations

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 

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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

Screening

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Organised by Rachel Silberstein

Rhode Island School of Design

RISD Museum, Providence

27 April 2016

INTRODUCTION

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

RS: I have some questions that I'd like to ask Xiaowen, but I was also hoping to really open up into a conversation. I wanted to start by asking how you came up with the idea, how you got to know about Mr Wong and the shop.


XZ: Back in 2013, I was doing an artist residency in LA. One day I was driving through the city and saw a sign said Oriental Silk. I went in out of curiosity. The store was not located in Chinatown but on Beverly Boulevard, close to Hollywood and Beverly Hills. It's not an area where you would anticipate to see an old-fashioned Chinese silk shop. I went inside the shop and was instantly fascinated by the atmosphere. It reminded me of the early 1990s when my mom used to take me to fabric shops in Shanghai. She let me touch silks and taught me how to distinguish silks from synthetic materials. I started chatting with Ken, the shop owner, and went back a few times. I asked him, how I would be able to find a tailor to make cloths with fabrics in his shop. He said that he used to know someone, but that person had retired a long time ago. Through our conversation, I thought that it would be wonderful to shoot a film about Oriental Silk. I proposed the idea to Ken, but he wasn't so interested. I left my card with him and asked him to get in touch if he ever changed his mind. Half a year later, I received an email from him. He said that his daughter persuaded him that it would be a nice way to tell the story of his parents’ legacy.




XZ: In the beginning, I just wanted to make a documentary film about the shop, but as I learned more about Ken and his family, I realized that he was the most important part in the story. Some people asked me, how I could understand his generation and nostalgic feeling towards China, given that I grew up in China and belong to a much younger generation. I said that when I first met Ken, he reminded me of literary figures in Chinese novels written in the 1930s. When I go back to China nowadays, it's rare to come across anyone like him. If you go to a fabric market in Shanghai, you can find good business people but not an intellectual like him. I was excited to finally meet a character whom I’d only read in novels written decades ago, prior to the New China.


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RS: I was really struck by Ken's words like handmade, hand-embroidered and quality production when he describes the past, and the words that he uses when talking about the future are mass produced, speedy and so on. For Ken, these silks represent the past and his relationship with his parents. He comes across as being alienated from the contemporary society. I wonder if it's something you've explored in your work more widely.


XZ: I moved away from China about eight years ago. I spent a few years in the States and am currently based in UK. One of the main reasons why I can relate to Ken's story is that I'm also overseas Chinese. The main difference, for me, living home or abroad, is the perception of reality. I feel like I have attained a better understanding of China since I've been living abroad. I've explored this topic via various projects. One of them is called DISTANCE BETWEEN. It is a 3-channel video installation ostensibly on the topic of long-distance relationships. The project begins by interviewing couples involved in long distance romantic relationships, focusing on particular traits and benefits of a mediated and technologically enabled exchange. Taking this source material, I then mixed spontaneous interviews with reenactments by 6 subjects based on quotes taken from actual interviews. Using staged scenarios, designed stenography and cinematography, the piece encourages the viewer to re-examine their notions of the Documentary Interview and to ponder the boundary between fact and fiction.




Audience: It's more of a comment. First of all, thank you for this really wonderful film. The film highlights for me two issues. One is his cultural identity as a Chinese America and this awkward relationship between how Chinese visual culture is perceived in the US. Given that in the one time the font was used in the sign Oriental Silk, to the traditional color scheme and design that represents how the orient is exoticised in the West. I don't know whether he thinks about this or not, things he sell are perceived very differently in the home country and here.


RS: I'm glad to follow up on that, because one of the things that the film really struck me is this Anna May Wong angle, and that she first came up with the idea behind the film. When you think of her, you think of the difficulty she had to face and the difficulty all Chinese immigrants had to face during that period and how hard it must have been when she was part of building that stereotype of dragon lady. These are ideas Ken seems to romanticize. It's very different from how I encounter these issues in academia. I'm just curious how much you think Ken is aware of his romanticism of the past. It's both this and romanticizing silks and its exoticism. XZ: I guess he's aware of it. Once I asked him, do you follow the Chinese contemporary art scene? And I told him that nowadays in China, there are also alternative shops selling boutique and vintage clothes, not everything is fast fashion and mass produced. But he said that he didn't follow the new trends anymore. I think he's just less interested in these new development than being nostalgic about the past. As I was making this film, I also did more research on Anna May Wong. I knew her as an oriental figure and the first Chinese American actress in Hollywood. But her life was incredibly sad. She was the daughter of a Chinese laundry owner and was never accepted by neither the mainstream American culture nor the Chinese society in her era. I'm not sure if Mr Wong is aware of that part of the history, but again, I think people just choose to narrate a certain version of the reality, what's more relevant to themselves.




RS: I read that in your documentary work you try to approach things in a non-linear manner, can you talk more about how you did it in this film?


XZ: My original plan was to make a dual-channel version. I felt that there were so many different bits and pieces in his narrative. At the time it didn't seem to be necessary to connect them in a linear format. These were memories and second-hand stories told by his mom. The interview was also quite informal. We would spend time in the shop, he would show me one piece and I would ask him about the story. I didn't set any deadline for the production, and he trusted me to be there. If I am to reduce the film to only one shot, I would choose the shot in which he's measuring the green fabric. In the dual-channel version, I actually have that shot for 7-8 minutes. The original footage was longer than 13 minutes, as he was measuring the entire roll of fabric. I was really fascinated by his gesture. It's simple but tells everything about his relationship with his parents and the material. The shop is of course a material world but also a spiritual world. When he's repeating that simple gesture, it almost felt like a meditation. RS: That's the sense you get from this shop with these objects that sell so slowly. Those images of the patterns have incredibly outdated style. It basically takes the life of a museum. He takes on the role of preserving these objects and the family legacy that goes on with these objects.




Audience: Thank you for making such a wonderful documentary. When I was watching it, I could really see the personal narrative of the shop, from his grandfather to his father then to himself. These are all interwoven into the longer history of the country and the history of migration. It also reminded me how invisible laborers were made sometimes. It's not easy to see how the Asian soldiers fought in WWII for the American army. The other layer was the shop's relationship with the entertainment industry in LA. When people watch movies like Titanic, they don't usually think where the fabrics come from. I'm also very amazed by his calm voice when he talks about these things...


XZ: It feels like every customer is equal. Audience: Exactly. I also realized how all these are interwoven into a bigger historical narrative. It really has a lot of depth. Is it part of your intention to reveal the history of immigration in this film too? XZ: I think that's pretty obvious. (laugh) First he told me about his parents, I thought that it's a great story, but once he started mentioning his grandfather, I realized that this single family really represented to some extent the history of Chinese migration in America. His grandfather used to work as a laborer for the continental railway– such story normally only appears in history books. It's just incredible to talk to someone like Ken.




Audience: Has he ever talked about where the silks were made and imported from?


XZ: His family used to go to Canton and Suzhou for silk fairs. A lot of his embroidery pieces are Cantonese style. His hometown is also in Canton. Another piece of information in the film is that they started importing silks in the early 70s, which is during the Cultural Revolution in China. There were no official trading between America and China during that time. RS: How did they manage to do it? XZ: He has an uncle who used to be a professor in Tsinghua University, so he was well connected. Through that connection, the family were able to import goods from China during that period of time.




Audience: I'm from Hong Kong. I just wonder if it's normal to have handmade silk in China. Why are they so important for him? What's the situation right now in mainland China?


XZ: Many of Ken’s embroidered pieces used to be more common in households in mainland China. Nowadays we obviously don't use things with 100 children embroidered on them. It's hard to find these pieces in China now, as they have become more expensive, collectable pieces. Audience: I'm also from Hong Kong, where temples are next to skyscrapers. I was wondering after seeing your film, what do you think will go next? Things like kite making are out fashioned. It's hard to find hand-embroidered silks even back home, I'm just curious what would be the future for his shop and many other shops like Oriental Silk? XZ: He has a large inventory that he needs to sell. It's hard to say what the future would look like.




Audience: I think it's a really critical film and really great. Going back to the aspect of history of Chinese Americans, the archival footages that you chose to include in the film are really wonderful. How did you do the research?


XZ: Mostly online. There are many resources nowadays for documentary filmmakers, so it's not as hard as we may think. RS: There are some really amazing images. Thank you everyone! Please join me in thanking Xiaowen. XZ: Thank you!





Oriental Silk

Screening

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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.

[Screening]

INTRODUCTION

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 music...here 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

Panel Discussion

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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 CHAIR

PANELISTS

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Panel Discussion

RS: I have some questions that I'd like to ask Xiaowen, but I was also hoping to really open up into a conversation. I wanted to start by asking how you came up with the idea, how you got to know about Mr Wong and the shop.


XZ: Back in 2013, I was doing an artist residency in LA. One day I was driving through the city and saw a sign said Oriental Silk. I went in out of curiosity. The store was not located in Chinatown but on Beverly Boulevard, close to Hollywood and Beverly Hills. It's not an area where you would anticipate to see an old-fashioned Chinese silk shop. I went inside the shop and was instantly fascinated by the atmosphere. It reminded me of the early 1990s when my mom used to take me to fabric shops in Shanghai. She let me touch silks and taught me how to distinguish silks from synthetic materials. I started chatting with Ken, the shop owner, and went back a few times. I asked him, how I would be able to find a tailor to make cloths with fabrics in his shop. He said that he used to know someone, but that person had retired a long time ago. Through our conversation, I thought that it would be wonderful to shoot a film about Oriental Silk. I proposed the idea to Ken, but he wasn't so interested. I left my card with him and asked him to get in touch if he ever changed his mind. Half a year later, I received an email from him. He said that his daughter persuaded him that it would be a nice way to tell the story of his parents’ legacy.




XZ: In the beginning, I just wanted to make a documentary film about the shop, but as I learned more about Ken and his family, I realized that he was the most important part in the story. Some people asked me, how I could understand his generation and nostalgic feeling towards China, given that I grew up in China and belong to a much younger generation. I said that when I first met Ken, he reminded me of literary figures in Chinese novels written in the 1930s. When I go back to China nowadays, it's rare to come across anyone like him. If you go to a fabric market in Shanghai, you can find good business people but not an intellectual like him. I was excited to finally meet a character whom I’d only read in novels written decades ago, prior to the New China.


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RS: I was really struck by Ken's words like handmade, hand-embroidered and quality production when he describes the past, and the words that he uses when talking about the future are mass produced, speedy and so on. For Ken, these silks represent the past and his relationship with his parents. He comes across as being alienated from the contemporary society. I wonder if it's something you've explored in your work more widely.


XZ: I moved away from China about eight years ago. I spent a few years in the States and am currently based in UK. One of the main reasons why I can relate to Ken's story is that I'm also overseas Chinese. The main difference, for me, living home or abroad, is the perception of reality. I feel like I have attained a better understanding of China since I've been living abroad. I've explored this topic via various projects. One of them is called DISTANCE BETWEEN. It is a 3-channel video installation ostensibly on the topic of long-distance relationships. The project begins by interviewing couples involved in long distance romantic relationships, focusing on particular traits and benefits of a mediated and technologically enabled exchange. Taking this source material, I then mixed spontaneous interviews with reenactments by 6 subjects based on quotes taken from actual interviews. Using staged scenarios, designed stenography and cinematography, the piece encourages the viewer to re-examine their notions of the Documentary Interview and to ponder the boundary between fact and fiction.




Audience: It's more of a comment. First of all, thank you for this really wonderful film. The film highlights for me two issues. One is his cultural identity as a Chinese America and this awkward relationship between how Chinese visual culture is perceived in the US. Given that in the one time the font was used in the sign Oriental Silk, to the traditional color scheme and design that represents how the orient is exoticised in the West. I don't know whether he thinks about this or not, things he sell are perceived very differently in the home country and here.


RS: I'm glad to follow up on that, because one of the things that the film really struck me is this Anna May Wong angle, and that she first came up with the idea behind the film. When you think of her, you think of the difficulty she had to face and the difficulty all Chinese immigrants had to face during that period and how hard it must have been when she was part of building that stereotype of dragon lady. These are ideas Ken seems to romanticize. It's very different from how I encounter these issues in academia. I'm just curious how much you think Ken is aware of his romanticism of the past. It's both this and romanticizing silks and its exoticism. XZ: I guess he's aware of it. Once I asked him, do you follow the Chinese contemporary art scene? And I told him that nowadays in China, there are also alternative shops selling boutique and vintage clothes, not everything is fast fashion and mass produced. But he said that he didn't follow the new trends anymore. I think he's just less interested in these new development than being nostalgic about the past. As I was making this film, I also did more research on Anna May Wong. I knew her as an oriental figure and the first Chinese American actress in Hollywood. But her life was incredibly sad. She was the daughter of a Chinese laundry owner and was never accepted by neither the mainstream American culture nor the Chinese society in her era. I'm not sure if Mr Wong is aware of that part of the history, but again, I think people just choose to narrate a certain version of the reality, what's more relevant to themselves.




RS: I read that in your documentary work you try to approach things in a non-linear manner, can you talk more about how you did it in this film?


XZ: My original plan was to make a dual-channel version. I felt that there were so many different bits and pieces in his narrative. At the time it didn't seem to be necessary to connect them in a linear format. These were memories and second-hand stories told by his mom. The interview was also quite informal. We would spend time in the shop, he would show me one piece and I would ask him about the story. I didn't set any deadline for the production, and he trusted me to be there. If I am to reduce the film to only one shot, I would choose the shot in which he's measuring the green fabric. In the dual-channel version, I actually have that shot for 7-8 minutes. The original footage was longer than 13 minutes, as he was measuring the entire roll of fabric. I was really fascinated by his gesture. It's simple but tells everything about his relationship with his parents and the material. The shop is of course a material world but also a spiritual world. When he's repeating that simple gesture, it almost felt like a meditation. RS: That's the sense you get from this shop with these objects that sell so slowly. Those images of the patterns have incredibly outdated style. It basically takes the life of a museum. He takes on the role of preserving these objects and the family legacy that goes on with these objects.




Audience: Thank you for making such a wonderful documentary. When I was watching it, I could really see the personal narrative of the shop, from his grandfather to his father then to himself. These are all interwoven into the longer history of the country and the history of migration. It also reminded me how invisible laborers were made sometimes. It's not easy to see how the Asian soldiers fought in WWII for the American army. The other layer was the shop's relationship with the entertainment industry in LA. When people watch movies like Titanic, they don't usually think where the fabrics come from. I'm also very amazed by his calm voice when he talks about these things...


XZ: It feels like every customer is equal. Audience: Exactly. I also realized how all these are interwoven into a bigger historical narrative. It really has a lot of depth. Is it part of your intention to reveal the history of immigration in this film too? XZ: I think that's pretty obvious. (laugh) First he told me about his parents, I thought that it's a great story, but once he started mentioning his grandfather, I realized that this single family really represented to some extent the history of Chinese migration in America. His grandfather used to work as a laborer for the continental railway– such story normally only appears in history books. It's just incredible to talk to someone like Ken.




Audience: Has he ever talked about where the silks were made and imported from?


XZ: His family used to go to Canton and Suzhou for silk fairs. A lot of his embroidery pieces are Cantonese style. His hometown is also in Canton. Another piece of information in the film is that they started importing silks in the early 70s, which is during the Cultural Revolution in China. There were no official trading between America and China during that time. RS: How did they manage to do it? XZ: He has an uncle who used to be a professor in Tsinghua University, so he was well connected. Through that connection, the family were able to import goods from China during that period of time.




Audience: I'm from Hong Kong. I just wonder if it's normal to have handmade silk in China. Why are they so important for him? What's the situation right now in mainland China?


XZ: Many of Ken’s embroidered pieces used to be more common in households in mainland China. Nowadays we obviously don't use things with 100 children embroidered on them. It's hard to find these pieces in China now, as they have become more expensive, collectable pieces. Audience: I'm also from Hong Kong, where temples are next to skyscrapers. I was wondering after seeing your film, what do you think will go next? Things like kite making are out fashioned. It's hard to find hand-embroidered silks even back home, I'm just curious what would be the future for his shop and many other shops like Oriental Silk? XZ: He has a large inventory that he needs to sell. It's hard to say what the future would look like.




Audience: I think it's a really critical film and really great. Going back to the aspect of history of Chinese Americans, the archival footages that you chose to include in the film are really wonderful. How did you do the research?


XZ: Mostly online. There are many resources nowadays for documentary filmmakers, so it's not as hard as we may think. RS: There are some really amazing images. Thank you everyone! Please join me in thanking Xiaowen. XZ: Thank you!





Oriental Silk

Screening

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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.

MODERATOR

CHAN

WONG

PARTICIPANT

CHAN

WONG