Xiaowen Zhu is a documentary filmmaker, media artist, curator and writer. A master of various mediums, the Shanghai-born and raised artist is currently based in London. Her work has been exhibited in a variety of platforms, including the Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum in Beijing, China, Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, USA, and the Toronto Urban Film Festival in Toronto, Canada. Exploring the complexities behind being an international person and clashing, complimentary and interacting cultural narratives, Zhu became captivated by Kenneth Wong and his little fabric shop, Oriental Silk, based in Los Angeles, USA. From this coincidental meeting, emerged a poignant, beautiful and charming documentary about Wong’s upbringing, memories and relationships with China, the USA and his family.
The film, Oriental Silk, will be playing at Whitechapel Gallery, 77-81 Whitechapel High Street, E1 7QX London on 19 June. For more information, please visit here. This is to mark the United Nation’s World Refugee Day, celebrating the lives and culture of all immigrant communities. Nee Hao Magazine’s Deputy Editor, Yinsey Wang, interviews Zhu on the film and her background and aspirations as an artist.
How did you get into filmmaking and the arts? What triggered your journey? Tell us about your first film.
I have always loved books, painting, drawing and playing music. My parents encouraged me to pursue all these interests, especially reading. Growing up, I was curious about the many things that I read and my interest in films and moving images came some years later.
I felt a natural pull towards different types of media. I wanted to gain a better understanding of the world, while exploring outlets to sufficiently communicate my ideas and emotions. However, I also never felt that one medium was enough for me. When I was in high school in Shanghai, I spent a lot of time watching European art house films. It used to be a very popular thing to buy cut-out CDs and DVDs on the street. These remaindered copies with punched holes were the major and often the only source of foreign subculture in China in the 1990s and 2000s. I was fascinated by many European filmmakers and started dreaming of making my own films.
You have toured the world, exhibiting your work in various cities. Tell us about your most memorable experience showcasing your work and why.
I recently showed Oriental Silk at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and it was a great experience. It was wonderful being able to show this film in Providence in New England. Like New York, Salem and Philadelphia, Providence built its prosperity through Chinese trade. Companies like Brown & Ives, Providence’s largest merchant-importers, made forty-five voyages to Canton between 1789 and 1838. In its last voyage in 1826, they brought back 212 cases of silks. Some of these silks entered museum collections, like RISD’s museum, which houses a rich collection of Chinese silks. One of the things that they did for my screening was to put some textiles on display at the gallery, so students and audience members could admire the beautiful silks.
It is hard to pick just one memorable experience, because our memories evolve, change, and fade away. What appeared to be special at the time may be easily overlapped by an experience occurring later. The RISD experience was very memorable to me in that it was very community-based and generously supported. As the top design school in America, they have some of the most talented students who are both curious and enthusiastic. I enjoy in-depth discussions with my audience, so that was really wonderful. A number of audience members told me that my film made them think differently about their own cultural identity and heritage. For a documentary filmmaker, this is very encouraging.
You have secured a wide range of recognitions for your work. Tell us which one is the most meaningful and why.
They are all very meaningful. Perhaps there are a few awards, residency and exhibitions that are mentioned more often than others, but every small bit of recognition pushes me to keep making work.
A very special experience would be the Marylyn Ginsburg-Klaus Post MFA Artist Fellowship that I received in 2012 when I finished my MFA program in Syracuse University. The award provided me with a one-year residency in a beautiful and spacious condo in San Pedro, the Port of Los Angeles and a Visiting Professor position at Marymount College. I was very immersed in the local art community in San Pedro, had a solo exhibition there and curated a few exhibitions together with my students. Ms. Marylyn Ginsburg-Klaus, the sponsor of the fellowship, supported my practice in every possible way during my residency and introduced me to a very vibrant art community. This was possibly the best thing that could have happened to a recent MFA graduate. Now, I have not been back to LA for two years but I still feel inspired by my experience there.
Which artist or filmmaker has had the most significant impact on your work?
Some of my favorite artists/filmmakers are Pierre Huyghe, Maya Deren, Julian Rosefeldt, Yasujirō Ozu, Joshua Oppenheimer and Errol Morris.
In terms of Oriental Silk, what have you gained personally from creating the movie? How did you go about coming up with the idea and gaining the trust of the subject?
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 realised 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 popped in, out of curiosity. The store was not located in Chinatown but on Beverly Blvd, close to Hollywood and Beverly Hills. It is not an area where you would typically anticipate seeing 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 so on.
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 clothes 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 whether he would be up for it, but he was not 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.
Over the past years, my work has interrogated the topic of being an international person in the contemporary world. I was instantly inspired by Oriental Silk’s state of being, in a sense, a time capsule. Wong’s story is fascinating in that it unfolds his state of being inside Oriental Silk – a shop that serves as a museum and place of worship for traditional craftsmanship and the attendant cultural values that are largely now lost or even actively undermined in contemporary China. For Wong, these themes are intimately interwoven with his own history and the history of his family.
Through him, I gained a fuller understanding of how older generations strived for their freedom, rights and dreams. I am interested in portraying his attachment to traditional culture in such a way that is greatly remote from contemporary values. The film becomes an observation of Wong’s state of being, occasionally presenting the incoherence in his narrative to provoke meaningful debates on authenticity, memory, belief and identity.
In developing a relationship with your subject in Oriental Silk, you learn about the many layers of the Chinese immigrant experience in America. Was there anything that you felt most drawn to when receiving these insights?
One thing that really struck me was how, for Ken, the owner of Oriental Silk, his experiences are tied so closely with filial piety. Being part of the family played a big role in his identity. For the younger generation, we do not tend to 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.
The film tries to reveal the complex relationship between people and objects in “migrant worlds” by telling a short story of a Chinese silk shop. What it shows to the audience are not only the colors and designs of Chinese silk, but the meanings associated behind these items. For Ken, these silks from distant China are more than just commodities. They embody his affections for his hometown, parents and youth, which he can never part with, and thus have become part of his inner world.
What do you want Oriental Silk to achieve with your viewers?
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Making better work, hopefully!