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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