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March 2, 2017

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OBJECT: QiPao | COLLECTION: China

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Entering the China collection, the gallery is dim, soft yellow lights casting objects to make them glow. Everything looks mysterious, artful, and – dare I say it – "exotic" (no doubt deliberately so). But the one object that really stood out to me in this entire collection was this blue-green qí páo(旗袍)here. The reason why? Because it’s so damn ugly.

According to the description, this qi pao was made in the ’60s-’70s, late into the birth of the qi pao (1920) and well into the golden years of Hong Kong colonialism, where this particular qi pao was manufactured. Cut and tailored in "the Western way", it was apparently designed for those seeking to be the "modern, dynamic woman in China". But with the added shoulder seams (versus none), overbearing cool colours (versus warm yellows and reds), printed synthetic velvet (versus embroidered silk), and meaningless geometric patterns (versus beautiful scenes and stories), it barely resembles a traditional Chinese qi pao. Much like the systematic destruction of perfectly good Chinese dishes in Western restaurants claiming to be Chinese, the result is a somewhat horrifying concoction broadly labelled Asian. It’s a piece of clothing that has been carefully, grotesquely, transmogrified (designed?) into something familiar enough to be safely imperial, Asian enough to be "exotic".

And while that may have been the reality of the time, it doesn’t make the whole thing less problematic – least of all the V&A’s decision to display it next to two more Westernised qi paos. Why?? Under the entire "Living" section, the only 3 qi paos displayed were qi paos-turned-Western, as made clear by all 3 descriptions (descriptions available in the images’ captions). Not a single traditional qi pao is shown, even for reference. Instead, the V&A chooses to focus on how these Chinese dresses "displays the influence of imported Western style fashions of the 1920s" (QiPao for Young Woman, 1920-30) and "it still embodies femininity and modernity… also has an international appeal" (Dress for a Woman, 2010). And when the V&A is a (Western) institution designed to be a showcase setting the standards of good taste, Western views should not be granted the right to dictate what is considered "good taste" in Chinese culture.

And again, with the word modernity. An overwhelming number of 20th century objects in the V&A’s collection has the word "modern" and "Western" sprinkled throughout their descriptions. With it comes the uneasy implications of my Chinese past being backwards, strange, and definitely not the way forwards. Because disturbingly (but unsurprisingly), what the V&A is saying is that West = Modern. West = Future. West = Status, quality, international. Because let’s face it, when it say international appeal, it mean Western appeal. And this is what "history" will tell us.

It’s an incredibly colonialist view that has persisted to today through the V&A’s (conscious? unconscious? but certainly deliberate) display of this object here. And so, who on earth is curating this collection? Because yes, the Westernisation of China was certainly a part of its history, but not the exclusive and only part of it, as one would be tempted to assume from this display. But someone in the museum has decided that these are the most interesting, relevant, and tasteful objects to display. And I can’t help but feel that they’ve subverted China’s history with the message of "yeah, they had cool stuff – but we made it better".

Looking into the curators for the East Asian department, it’s reassuring to see that there are some Chinese curators. But of the 11 there, 4 are Asian: 3 of them being Chinese, 1 being Korean (Victoria and Albert Museum, "Asian Department"). There’s a clear imbalance of East Asian curators to European, and even more so between Chinese curators and curators from the rest of East Asia.

But returning to this particular qi pao, it belongs to the collection of a British woman named Valery Garrett, who’s dedicated over twenty years of her life to writing about Chinese culture and living in Hong Kong (Garrett, "Biography"). And as amazing and meaningful that is, it is inevitable that she experiences the Chinese culture through white eyes – that she will be treated differently because of her skin colour. That she will be seen and treated as a 鬼佬 (gwai lo – ghost person).That she will thus interact with, understand, and even live within Chinese culture differently than someone in my skin would. And that of all the Chinese people who no doubt have their own artefacts and stories to tell the world, the V&A chose to exhibit the objects as interpreted through a comfortably familiar Euro-centric perspective. As diverse as they claim to be, the museum itself is still a very much white institution. Society, culture, and design as a discipline is dominated (and made better!!1!) by the museum’s white voice. And it’s heartbreaking.

Works Cited
Garrett, Valery. "Biography." Valery Garrett. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. <http://www.valerygarrett.com/about.php>.
Victoria and Albert Museum. "Asian Department." Victoria and Albert Museum. Victoria and Albert Museum, 10 Nov. 2015. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. <http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/asian-department/>.

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