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Oriental Silk : RISD Screening

Presented by Rhode Island School of Design. Following the screening, director Xiaowen Zhu and Professor Rachel Silberstein had a discussion about textile, cultural heritage, documentary, international identity and diaspora.


Rachel Silberstein is a historian of Chinese material culture, with a particular interest in fashion, dress, and textiles. She recently completed a D.Phil in Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, in the Department of Oriental Studies. Her dissertation, Embroidered Figures: Commerce and Culture in the Nineteenth-Century Chinese Fashion System, explored how Chinese women’s dress was transformed by the commercialization of handicrafts and the popularization of dramatic culture during the mid-late Qing period. Her interest in Chinese textiles began in the textiles market of Xi’an, where she spent two years teaching and studying at Xi’an Foreign Languages University. Returning to the UK, she studied an MA in Chinese language and linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, prior to beginning doctoral studies at Oxford in 2007. In 2012, she was awarded the Gervers Fellowship at the Royal Ontario Museum to study their collection of Chinese vernacular embroideries. Dr Silberstein has forthcoming articles in Late Imperial China (2015), Costume (2016), and Fashion Theory (2016).

R: 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. She describes herself as a documentary filmmaker, media artist, curator and writer. 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.


R: 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.

Z: Back in 2013, I was doing an artist residency in LA. Before I moved there, I had never driven a car in my life. When I was out there, I realized that it was impossible without a car. As I started driving, it changed my perspective of the city. Everything was much faster paced. 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 Blvd, close to Hollywood and Beverly Hills. It's not an area where you would typically anticipate to see an old-fashioned Chinese silk shop. I went inside the shop and was instantly fascinated by the space and atmosphere. It reminded me of 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, what would be the benefit of wearing silks and etc. I started chatting with Ken, the shop owner of Oriental Silk, and went back a few times. I asked him, how I would be able to find a tailor to make cloths with the fabrics in his store. He said that he used to know someone, but that person had retired long time ago. As he started telling me more stories about the shop, I thought it could be a really interesting documentary. So I asked him about it, but he wasn't interested in being in front of the camera. I left my card with him anyway 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 for people to get to know his family legacy.

R: For me, when I turned 21, I spent the summer working in a fabric shop in Wood Green. It's a very gritty, diverse part in London. For me, there is something deeply intoxicating about fabric shops: the experience of immersing yourself in all these different colors and textures and materials, each with their own siren call to touch them, combined with this library quietness, a fabric shop is a special place. And it is also a place that is increasingly hard to find today, that's today's world of online shopping and fast fashion seems to have little place for. You talked about your own experience about fabric shop in Shanghai. How did you approach it given your own connection in the past?

Z: I do want to point out the Chinese title of the film – Xiang Chou literally means silk from the town or hometown, but it also has the same pronunciation as Xiang Chou for nostalgia in Chinese. That definitely plays a big role in this film. As for myself, in the beginning I just wanted to make a documentary about the shop, but as I learned more and 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 am from a much younger generation. I said that when I first met Ken, he reminded me of literary figures in Chinese novels written in the 30s and 40s. When I go back to China nowadays, it's rare to come across a character like him, with this kind of slow pace and respect for objects. If you go to a fabric market in Shanghai, no one does business in his way anymore. On some level, I can relate to him culturally, even though I never lived in that era. I was just familiar with his character in literature but I don't really know people like him in China, so that's interesting.

R: It's fascinating the contrast between the past and present in China. Shall we open up for questions?

Audience: You didn't present his family in the shop, can you talk about that?

Z: In this version, he didn't talk about his children, but actually, the project also has a dual-channel version, in which two screens are shown simultaneously and the duration is 60 minutes. In that version, there's a fuller presentation of Ken. He also talks about his son and daughter, who are not interested in taking over the shop, at least not now. But in the single-channel version, I decided to leave that part out. In the end he talks about not knowing what's next and that he doesn't have a plan. It also shows the reality that he's just trying to manage it for as long as he can.

R: 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.

Z: I moved away from China about seven, eight years ago. I spent a few years in the States and am now based in UK. One of the main reasons why I can relate to Ken's story is that I'm also overseas Chinese. When I grew up in China, comparing with the past few years spent abroad, the major difference is in the perception of reality and different versions of reality. When I was a teenager, I became more critical in interpreting the form of reality that I was told through education. I feel like I have attained a better understanding of China since I've been abroad. I've explored such topic via various projects. One of them is called DISTANCE BETWEEN. It is a three-channel video installation. It explores people who experience long-distance relationship. It deals with self-identification, individual perception of home and travel, ideology of life and understandings of love and trust. I also combined fiction and documentary in the approach, because I was very interested in telling a story shared by a group of people. I started by interviewing 13 international couples, then I highlighted similar experiences that they shared. Though they came from different backgrounds, when it comes to the frustration with technology and communication, it's very similar. Also, fundamentally it's about what these people were pursuing in their life. I then reconstructed a script based on these similar experience and invited 6 people to reenact in front of the camera. Fiction and documentary interwave with each other. When audience watched it, they'd be constantly questioning what's real and unreal. In a way, I don't have answers to many of the questions that I raised, but I'm very interested in presenting these different perspectives through time-based work.

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.

R: 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.

Z: I guess he's aware of it. Once I asked him, do you follow up with the Chinese contemporary art scene? And I told him that nowadays in China there are also alternative shops that sells boutique and vintage clothes, not everything is fast fashion and mass produced. But he said that he didn't follow up with 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.

R: 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?

Z: My original plan was to make a dual-channel version. I felt that there were so many different pieces of 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 be showing me one piece and I would ask him about the story behind that piece. I consider it to be a privilege to be able to spend so much time with my subject. I didn't have a deadline, and he trusted me to be there. I could ask any question. If I have 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.

R: 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.

Z: There's no purely objective documentary, or even intended to be purely objective. Especially nowadays, most documentary films have very clear messages to convey, and also depending on the funding options, which point of view to take and etc. This project, on the other hand, was self-funded.

I don't have to make it for anyone. I try to tell his version of story, but at the same time, I also have an emotional attachment to the story. I definitely try not to be too linear about it or forcing a singular viewpoint to the audience, but let them think about it by themselves.

Audience: Earlier today you showed me a picture of a coat that Mr Wong had. I'm curious about other treasures he has. What does he have in his own archive?

Z: I haven't seen everything. In the beginning of the film, Ken showed the 100-children hand embroidered pieces. In fact, he has many different versions of that, such as 100 gold fish, 100 butterflies, 100 flowers... He also has many hand embroidered jackets with different motifs. He has so many different things. Most of them were produced in the 70s and 80s. He said that starting in 2000, it has become too hard to find similar pieces or they'd be too expensive to purchase. Another detail in the film is that the price tags were all hand written by his father, which he hasn't changed for 20 years, meaning that the price also hasn't changed for 20 years.

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...

Z: 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?

Z: 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 migrants in America. Stories like his grandfather used to work as a laborer for the continental railway were something I used to read on books. It's just incredible to talk to someone who's actually from this kind of family, yet they also represent the majority of first-generation Chinese American immigrants in this country.

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

Z: 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. Meanwhile, he also showed me pieces from Beijing, so it's not limited to Canton. They were one of the first silk importers on the west coast after WWII, so from a business point of view, they would import goods from different regions in China. Another piece of information in the film, which I didn't highlight but is there, is that they started importing silk in the early 70s, which is during the culture revolution in China. There were no official trading between America and China during that time.

R: How did they manage to do it?

Z: He has an uncle who used to be a professor in Tsinghua University, so he was very well connected. Through that connection, the family were able to import goods from China during that period of time.

Audience: I'm from Hongkong. 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?

Z: Many of the embroidered pieces he sells used to be more common in household 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 are less produced and more expensive as collectable pieces.

R: When was the last time he went back to China?

Z: Many years ago.

R: So it's also this turning away from the present.

Z: He also mentioned that nowadays the prices of Chinese silks have doubled. So even if he keeps importing silks from China, he's probably not in a good position to compete with the Chinese market. People would just buy directly from China, whereas when they started importing, there was no trading between America and China.

Audience: I'm also from Hongkong, 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?

Z: He has a large inventory that he needs to get rid of. 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?

Z: Mostly online. There are many resources nowadays for documentary filmmakers, so it's not as hard as we may think.

R: There are some really amazing images.

Thank you everyone! Please join me in thanking Xiaowen.

Z: Thank you!

Kate Irvin, Curator of Costume and Textiles at RISD Museum, showing ancient embroidered textiles from Asia

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