Film review published on china.org.cn
Documentary filmmaker and media artist Zhu Xiaowen was born and raised in Shanghai but has since gone on to live and work in the international arts community. Currently living in London, U.K., Zhu joined us for an interview on Dec. 19 to discuss what inspired her latest work, "Oriental Silk," and to probe some questions about identity and reality that arise from her poignant documentary.
Zhu's "Oriental Silk" follows American-Chinese businessman Kenneth Wong, owner of the Beverly Hills fabric store Oriental Silk.
The store, which Wong inherited from his first-generation Chinese American parents, seems oddly placed among the hipster cafes and boutiques of Hollywood; Wong also seems out of place as he reconciles the changing landscape of business and being the owner of a silk shop.
Asked what inspired this documentary about Wong and his store, Zhu says that it was a project that came about by chance.
Driving through Los Angeles, Zhu came across the store sign "Oriental Silk" written in a font usually typical of Chinese restaurants. The store’s location on a hip Hollywood street intrigued her.
"It was not a very stereotypical place for such an old timey shop," Zhu tells us, "I was intrigued so I went inside and I immediately felt like I was in a time capsule." Zhu felt like she had been catapulted back to the fabric stores of early-nineties Shanghai that she would frequent with her mother when she was young.
Kenneth Wong had a character and sense of being that Zhu could relate to and understand despite his lack of Mandarin and his background growing up in the states. It is this mixed identity -- at once American yet somehow Chinese -- that would later inspire Zhu to ask Wong's permission to make the documentary about himself and his store.
There is a sadness to the film and to Wong's story as he works hard to maintain the shop that his parents passed down to him as a legacy -- perhaps the last legacy of Wong's roots. With China's industrialization and increased manufacturing capacity, the fine silk work of yesteryear has either been replaced by cheap imitation or by increasingly costly prices -- prices that could drive Wong out of business.
"Through the film, the story of our family can be told," Wong told Zhu, further saying that he did not know how much longer the shop could remain open.
Zhu describes Wong as "very gentle, an intellectual, and also not a stereotypical Chinese businessman." He is like something out of early 20th-century Chinese literature, a character that is for the most part extinct. In “Oriental Silk,” Wong comes to represent people who seem not to belong to this era: an out of place shop, a man who is Chinese yet knows of his cultural heritage through an American lens and his parents’ eyes; and a man who, according to Zhu, is a Chinese man but unlike any that you would encounter in the modern day.
Asked whether perhaps Wong's idea of China was more like a fairytale, Zhu says that a student at a screening of "Oriental Silk" at Tsinghua University pointed out that Wong's China was like the dying lights of "oriental romanticism," an ideal that is fading as China's economic weight increases, and as traditions change.
"I think the China that [Wong] understands is very much romanticized," says Zhu. Wong has been to China a few times, but mostly for short trips, and besides that his interaction with Chinese culture comes through passed-down family tales.
Bearing in mind that the Wong that we see on screen appears to look backwards to a China that belonged to his parents, it is apt to mention that the name of the documentary in Chinese is steeped in meaning as it is a homophone for homesickness and nostalgia that seems to be one of the main themes of the film -- aren't we all nostalgic for an identity we think exists?
"Oriental Silk" currently exists as a single-channel documentary but has also been made into a dual-channel installation. "The film focuses mainly on [Wong's] story," Zhu tells us, "where as the installation focuses on Wong's state of being in the shop."
For more information on this brilliant documentary visit orientalsilkfilm.com.