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Oriental Silk: Screening and Conversation


Presented by the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture and the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program in the NYU Department of Social and Cultural Analysis. Cosponsored 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 .

Oriental Silk is a film about touch and tactility, about craft and value, about the colors of memory. The screening was followed by a conversation with the director Xiaowen Zhu, Christina H. Moon, Sukhdev Sandu and Thuy Linh Tu. Christina H. Moon is Assistant Professor in Fashion Studies in the School of Art and Design History at Parsons The New School for Design. Her research looks at the social ties and cultural encounters between design worlds and manufacturing landscapes across Asia and the Americas, exploring the memory, migration, and labor of cultural workers. Her work has appeared in journals such as Vestoj, The Baffler, and Pacific Standard Magazine.

Thuy Linh Tu is Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and Director of the American Studies Program at NYU. She is the author of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economies of Fashion (Duke UP, 2011), and is currently writing a film on the social life of Asian skin.

Sukhdev Sandu is Associate Professor of English , Social and Cultural Analysis ; Director, Asian/Pacific/American Studies. He is the author of Night HauntSukhdev: A Journey Through The London Night (winner of 2008 DH Lawrence International Prize For Travel Writing). He makes radio documentaries for the BBC, runs the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture at New York University, and is a film critic (he was named Critic of the Year at the British Press Awards in 2005). His writings have appeared in a number of publications including the London Review of Books, Suddeutsche Zeitung, Du, The Wire, Sight and Sound, Bidoun, Gastronomica, The Australian, Modernism/ Modernity, New York, The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement.

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.


Thuy Linh: Do you want to start by giving us some context about how you came to this project?

Xiaowen: Sure. I did an artist residency in LA from 2012 to 2013. I had never lived in a city like LA before. I was born and raised in Shanghai. I used to spend some time in Europe and Upstate New York. In LA, you absolutely have to drive everywhere. That really changed my perspective of the city, how I saw things and etc. One day I was driving on Beverly Blvd. There was a big sign of Oriental Silk that caught my attention. I was quite surprised to see it, because it's not a typical neighborhood in which you would anticipate to see such an old-fashioned fabric store. I went inside and chatted with Ken, the shop owner. I was just really fascinated by the space and the story. I returned a few times, initially as a customer. I even took my girlfriends there. They all loved it. Some of them had spent their whole life in LA but never knew that place. The first time when I asked Ken to make a documentary film about the shop, he wasn't very interested. But half a year later, he emailed me and wrote me that his daughter had convinced him, as it would be a good way to capture the story of their family.

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, that's when I needed to leave LA. So I decided to shoot as much as I could. Then I left. Actually I did editing and post production after I moved to London. Then I spent a few months on the editing. 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 set up and would be more immersive. It also focuses more on Ken's state of being. Its narrative is non-linear. The single-channel version which you just watched here is the 11th version. So I had 10 different versions before this one. Some of the differences are very nuanced. I think for this particular piece, it just requires time of reflection in the process of making. If I only had two months to make it, I don't think it could have turned out this way, because my understanding of him and his history has also developed throughout the process.

Thuy Linh: In what way?

Xiaowen: Well, my family background is very different. I couldn't emotionally related to a lot of the thing he was talking about, but at the same time, it was interesting for me trying to understand his perspective. For example, he used to be an engineer for 17, 18 years then suddenly gave it up to take over the shop. For him, it's so much more about the family responsibility. Being part of the family played a big role in his self-identification. For younger generation, we just don't think this way. The other thing is that his idea and concept of China and orientalism is very much romanticized. As I was spending time with him, I also developed a romanticized idea about all the things he was talking about. Only later on, when I was editing the film, I realized the distance between his concept of China and the reality of China. To me, it was another fascinating layer.

Thuy Linh: When you say “romantic”, what are some of his romantic notions of China?

Xiaowen: Such as the traditional craftsmanship. For example, people would spend a year on an embroidery piece and it's all about the quality, which was of course true but at the same time neglected a bit how the workers were treated, how much they were paid and etc. It was during a socialist time, so we can't really compare it with our standard nowadays. I was also curious whether or not he would be interested in knowing more about the current situations in China. For instance, I mentioned to him that there are shops in China promoting craftsmanship and artisanship. I asked if he'd like to be put in touch with these contacts. He wasn't very interested and just wished his old customers to come back.

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 in 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 because for example, in the dual-channel version, sometimes I'd have him appearing on both screens, detailing the same story but with variations. Obviously, I interviewed him multiple times and sometimes he'd repeat the same story. Sometimes on one screen he'd be saying “this is the first Chinese silk importer since WWII”, while on the other screen, he'd be saying “the first one since Korea War”. There is a huge difference...(laugh) There are a few points like that. Once he even admitted that he'd heard these legacies and stories second-hand from his mom. He also said that he couldn't verify many of the details in the storytelling. He'd pass on this knowledge to his children.

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 self taught himself many different things. He only had six years of education in China before he left. 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, and 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 modest 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 feeling of nostalgia, not wanting to change, not wanting to let it go. That's why I find him such a fascinating character.

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 silk from town or silk from hometown, but it also has the same pronunciation as the Chinese word for nostalgia. His feeling of nostalgia is also related to his cultural identity. 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. I think he wouldn't like to see the contemporary China. It'd be hard to find things that he's attached to. It's not that they don't exist. It's just hard to find.

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 were really just trying to survive. They raised 6 children in the back of the shop and they were able to send all the children to college. I think it's very remarkable. 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 for him to achieve that goal, 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: I want to know how we can see the 60-minute version of the film.

Xiaowen: If I have a show in New York...(laugh)

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 has such a large inventory that he tries to get ride of. He used to have customers like high 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 due to the increasing cost. On the other hand, people only buy ready-made clothes nowadays. So his business is just going very slowly. Every time I write him, I ask how the business is. It doesn't sound too optimistic but since he doesn't have big running cost due to the fact that he owns the property. They used to have people helping in the shop, but nowadays it's just him. 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. Solid color, patterned, old-fashioned, universal, timeless, hand-cut embroidery, many many different things...I'm sure that fashion designers can find things there that are inspiring to them.

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're 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. It's not objective. Of course it's completely subjective, but that's why it's so interesting, because it's very subjective and personal.

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 on to 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 off shoring 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.

Christina: Even his voice is like a temple, where you can sit down and settle in to.

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 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 cheaper 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. He just wouldn't want to do it.

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 bold 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 for him. One of my friends in Shanghai has a vintage shop, she bought quite many 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 that whole piece.

Xiaowen Zhu showing a hand-embroidered jacket from Oriental Silk shop

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