Oriental Silk Panel Discussion

Xiaowen Zhu's solo exhibition Unrolled Silks had a panel discussion on the topic of “personal and collective memories” at Bloomsbury Gallery London on 22 September, 2016.

The following text is the transcript of the discussion.

Panel Chair

Gareth Evans is a writer, curator, presenter and Film Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery. He programmes PLACE, the annual cross-platform festival at Aldeburgh Music in Suffolk and has curated numerous film and event seasons such as ‘Romany’ and ‘JG Ballard’, ‘John Berger: Here Is Where We Meet’ and ‘All Power to the Imagination! 1968 and Its Legacies’.

Panelists

Chris Berry is Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London. His academic research is grounded in work on Chinese cinema and other Chinese screen-based media, as well as neighboring countries. He is especially interested in queer screen cultures in East Asia; mediatized public space in East Asian cities; and national and transnational screen cultures in East Asia.

Amy Ng is a playwright and historian. She was educated at Yale University and at Balliol College, Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. She is an alumna of the Royal Court Theatre’s Critical Mass writers’ programme and the British East Asian Theatre writing group supported by the Young Vic, and is currently on attachment to the BBC Writersroom and Tamasha Theatre.

Cangbai Wang is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies and Director of HOMELandS (Hub for Migration, Exiles, Languages and Spaces) at University of Westminster. His main research interests are in the areas of Chinese diaspora and cultural heritage. He is the author of Life is Elsewhere: Stories of Indonesian Chinese in Hong Kong (2006).

Xiaowen Zhu is a London-based artist, filmmaker and writer. Her work has been widely shown internationally. She gained her MFA in Art Video from Syracuse University. She was an artist-in-residence at ZKM | Center for Art and Media, visiting artist at Rhode Island School of Design, and a member of the Los Angeles Art Association. Oriental Silk is one of her recent projects.

Gareth: Thank you so much for coming, everyone. Many thanks to Xiaowen and Jane for asking me, Gareth Evans, the film curator of Whitechapel Gallery, to host this conversation around Xiaowen’s excellent exhibition here at the gallery. I’m delighted to have people responding to Xiaowen’s excellent show, both across media, across platforms and drawing on international concerns, also more specifically Chinese concerns, but I think what’s exciting about her work among many other things is that balance between that kind of national identity, although very strongly diasporic, but also belonging to the international – what does it mean to be outside of a particular national framework? How do we think about ourselves in an entirely globalised world now?

So, along side on this sofa is Cangbai Wang. He’s Senior Lecturer in China Studies and also Director of the HOMELandS of University of Westminster, which I hope you’ll talk about. It sounds fascinating. Xiaowen, of course. Next to Xiaowen, Amy Ng, who is a playwright and historian, currently attached to the both BBC Writers Room and Tamasha Theatre. How Amy tells a dramatic narrative is incredibly useful to this conversation, because the arch of storytelling across time and space is obviously very central to Xiaowen’s film as well. And next to her, Chris Berry, who’s just recovering from a serious head cold. He’s not shaking anyone’s hand, it’s not because he doesn’t like us. Chris Berry is professor of film studies at King’s College with a deep understanding and specialisation in East Asian cinema. It’s a great run-up we have for you this evening.

Obviously, you’ve all seen this show downstairs. I hope you would have read a little bit about Xiaowen here and her thoughts on how this piece came about. But first, could you just set us up, Xiaowen – about obviously your meeting with the project and your sense of what it could possibly do in terms of how you are thinking about your work, and this idea of a shop and an individual, and the history of this project?

Xiaowen: Sure, so just to give you a bit of background about where I am from and who I am. I was born and raised in Shanghai. I left China about 10 years ago. I’ve lived in different places, Upstate New York and Los Angeles. Now I’m in London. I also spent some time in Germany.

When I met Kenneth Wong, the character of this film, I was doing an artist residency in LA. It was the first time when I lived in a city where you absolutely have to drive every day, I was a little terrified but still tried to explore the city. One day, I was just driving on Beverly Boulevard. If any of you is familiar with LA, it’s a city filled with boutique shops and designer shops. Amidst all of that, all of a sudden, I saw an outdated sign saying Oriental Silk. I was very intrigued, as it obviously didn’t fit to the rest of the environment.

Out of curiosity, I pulled over my car and stepped inside. At first, I wasn’t even sure if the shop was open, because the blinds were down. But it was indeed open. After Ken let me in, I started looking around and became very fascinated by the space. It just instantly reminded me of my childhood in Shanghai in the 90s, when my mom used to take me to a fabric shop. She taught me how to distinguish silks from synthetic fabrics. Ken’s shop reminded me of that time.

Ken was quite easy to talk to. As a documentary filmmaker, sometimes when you meet someone, you just get this feeling that there’s something behind it. There are stories.There are layers. So I just started a conversation with him. Then in a couple of months, I went back a few more times and eventually asked him what he thought about me making a documentary film about him, but he wasn’t very interested. Obviously, he’s in LA and there’s the movie industry... He couldn’t see why he would want to be part of something like that. Still, I just gave him my card. Later on, I guess that he checked out my website and understood that I wasn’t a commercial director and my work wasn’t particularly entertaining. So he emailed me six month later, saying that he had been reconsidering and would like to participate.

This is just how it started. Then later on, during the process, I didn’t always bring my camera with me, because sometimes I just wanted to spend time with him. I was interested in seeing if he would act differently without the camera. But it turned out that he was very consistent. It doesn’t matter with or without a camera.

Actually, he liked to repeat the same story, which is the other aspect to it. It also triggered my intention to create a dual channel piece, because I started thinking about these differentiations and various versions. For example, he would talk about the shop being the first Chinese silk shop since WWII, or another time “since Korea War”. That’s of course a huge difference. So which war was it? Then he would also admit that most of the stories were in fact second-hand information. He heard from his mother. Although in the film he revealed a very strong emotion to his father, when his father was still alive, it was a very traditional Chinese family. They didn’t talk that much to each other. Also, his parents were so busy making a living. They raised six children in the family and never had much time chatting with everyone in the family. It was only after his father passed away, Ken slowly got more information about his life through his mother.

In a way, I could definitely relate to that, and it started making me explore more and more of my own identity and life choices. Obviously we are from different generations. The difficulties and hardship his family and parents experienced, I don’t have those experiences, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t draw a connection. As a result, you see this exhibition downstairs.

I made the dual-channel film installation first. Then I also created a single-channel version, a 30-minute documentary which was also shown at the Whitechapel Gallery. But the dual-channel version was closer to my original intention, as I was very interested in capturing his state of being inside the shop.

It’s just something that I can barely find nowadays in China. Of course I can’t say from a personal perspective that it doesn’t exist, but I definitely haven’t seen it in contemporary China. It’s something like appreciating time, being nostalgic but at the same time respecting old objects, being emotionally attached to them, and running a business that’s not for profit. It’s just a personal choice.

Gareth: Thank you very much. That’s incredibly helpful. Let’s just talk a bit about the arrangements downstairs. There’re of course objects, clothes, beautifully made. Now, how did they fit in? Are they coming from US? Are they coming from China? Just give us a sense of that.

Xiaowen: That’s also an interesting part of this project. I’m not a person who’s very used to making objects. I take photos, time-based media, films and etc. I rarely make textile-based stuff. But the reason why I made those clothes was that he has those pieces that he also talks about in the film, such as this 100 hand-embroidered children on a piece of fabric that was purchased by Madonna for her daughter — that sort of story. He has a few of those left. They were all originally handmade and imported from China in the 70s. It was in fact during the Cultural Revolution.

What this family managed to do was really quite incredible, because during the Cultural Revolution there was no official trading between China and the US. In fact, it was illegal. But they managed to import these handmade goods and make great profit from it. Nowadays, these pieces are hard to find in China. They are no longer produced. If you manage to find things of similar quality, they are usually very expensive. So I bought these fabrics from his shop. I had them for a couple of years, but I didn’t know what to do with them. One piece had one hundred butterflies; the other one had one hundred goldfish. Each one of them was different. I was told that each piece was embroidered by a single worker. She would just spend however much time she needed to complete that piece. It was still during the planned economy, not the market economy yet.

I went to Shanghai recently and visited a fabric market. I found a tailor there and I asked her to make two bomber jackets, American style. As the result, these are what you see downstairs in the exhibition.

Gareth: Thank you. The most important question is, I guess, has he seen the film? And if he has, what does he think of it?

Xiaowen: He really likes it.

Gareth: Good.

Xiaowen: He has also read your text, and he really likes it too. He’s just been so extremely supportive, not only because he appreciates what I did for his shop, but also because he truly appreciates the work. He has shown it to his friends and his family. I recently had a screening in the US. It was at the Rhode Island School of Design. Ken’s cousin actually lives in the area. It was almost scary, because his cousin looks just like him. When he stepped into the auditorium, I thought, did Ken fly from LA? Then he introduced himself: “I’m Ken’s cousin.”

Gareth: Very good. Also have you shown it in China yet?

Xiaowen: Yes, the premiere of the 30-minute version was in Shanghai. It was very well attended and it was presented in a beautiful space. Some of the reactions that I received was quite different from what I received overseas. What I realised is that for the general Chinese audience the difficulties and hardship that the overseas Chinese have experienced seem very distant to them. For example, nowadays it’s more and more common for young Chinese to go abroad for study or pursue their career.

Back in the 80s and 90s—Cangbai would know better than me—if you had family member who lived abroad, it’s something you brag about. You know, it’s like “I have this rich cousin. He has a silk shop in LA.” No one knew where LA was, it just sounded very glamorous. When I showed the film to the Chinese audience, some of them said: “I had no idea that they went through so much.I didn’t know that it was so hard to maintain a business. I thought that they were all rich.”

Gareth: Very interesting. Thank you very much for setting the exhibition and work out for us. Cangbai, in terms of that relationship between the Chinese at home, shall we say—and of course the diaspora and the whole sense of migration which are under place over the last century or so—you will see all sorts of echoes and refrains of a much wider scale of this particular story? For you, does it reflect some of the main concerns for you here?

Cangbai: The reason why I like this film is because Xiaowen and I share the same kind of conception and understanding of Chinese diaspora and the movement of people. Coming from a background of studies of Chinese migration, I’d like to say that the focus is not to put on people only, but also on objects and materiality. It’s not only about Chinese migration studies but also about international migration studies. When we talk about migration, we think about people, right? People on the move. But we tend to forget that people move in a material world. The migrants’ world is made up by both people and things, particularly the interaction and intersection between people and things. So migrations’ stories are told not only from but also about and through objects.

You can see from the film that Kenneth Wong recalls the memories about his family and himself all through his relationship with the shop, particularly with fabrics. Without fabrics, there’s no story about him. Because fabric exists the tangible things, then his story becomes alive, real and touching. So this medium is very important. It’s something missing in the study of migration and diaspora. It opens a new window for us to look at the devotion, the inside world of migration, the inside emotion is actually externalised through objects. It’s a very important angle.

I think this film and perspective on silk, which is symbolic culturally as well, ask the audience: what is silk? It could be just fabric. But to me, silk is Mr Wong himself as well. His touching and dealing with fabric actually is also dealing with himself. Xiaowen just told us that when you interviewed Mr Wong that the way he recalled his memories is not coherent. It’s fragmented. There are gaps. That’s very interesting. I’ve watched the film several times. It’s like him being in his own Chinese universe. His dealing with the buttons, silks and fabrics are just like (recollecting) his pieces of memories. He enjoys picking them up, because in this process, he’s trying to record his inconsistent memories in relation to faraway China. I think through silk, we see a very rich world.

Gareth: That’s tremendous. Thank you for the incredibly instructive and useful comment. There’s also this idea which is coming out of your observation about objects and material. Following on from Xiaowen’s point about the silence in the family: not necessarily a difficult or hostile silence, but just this sense that the family unit, which of course we know from other cultures as well, seems to have a particular quality in Chinese families that is not wanting to have ideas and emotions to show and express. Do you think this idea of object to the heart of his business is a fundamental means for him to communicate—not just to Xiaowen of course—among his larger family? The conversation would be about silk. Is that right?

Cangbai: I think you are right in that the specific topic may not necessarily always be about silk. Silk is not just a communicational medium between siblings and family members but also a trans-generational passing, especially since his father passed away. From his parents’ generation to his generation, we see different directions of transmissions. Oriental transmission and vertical, trans-generational and transcultural transmission. It’s a very critical role. Traditional Chinese people are not used to hugging and kissing each other. Still, they do have very rich emotions inside. They need something to be like an emotional outlet.

Gareth: Tremendous. That’s a perfect bridge I think into you, Amy, your stories. You are a playwright and historian. Both of those disciplines absolutely centred around how we tell each other about our lives and lives of our community. So this sense of unstable stories that he has revealed to Xiaowen as a result of a conversation is very interesting, isn’t it? For you as an internal playwright, storytelling between generations and across time and space interests you as well.

Amy: I really like the dual channel Xiaowen chose to be the medium to communicate the unreliable narrative. I also feel that some of the objects she chose to present in the film almost contradicts to what he’s saying in the moment.

For me, I’m actually very ambivalent about nostalgia. I guess it’s a very powerful emotion. It’s something I like to explore in my play, but I also find it to be a kind of toxic emotion. What I find amongst overseas Chinese community is that often certain traditions and objects are treated differently. They live far longer in China or in Hong Kong, where I’m from. I frequently felt that they are constructing a museum. I think museums are very unstable institutions.

You were saying that he’s using silks to objectify his emotions. I felt that it’s a very dangerous thing to do. It was almost like “fetish.” When he was talking about losing his job and coming to the silk shop, it reminded me of the death of the American dream. He was also talking a lot about silk being used in Hollywood movie industry. It makes me think that perhaps in his mind, he’s sort of constructing a set and an imaginary homeland through his silk. I thought it was the perfect medium to convey the sense.

Gareth: Silk has many qualities. But of course as you said, it’s metaphoric and symbolic; it carries all these extraordinary ways of association, particularly to do with the craft and the nature of its making. I absolutely take on board with what you said. Do you think there’s something in the idea that given he is the only carrier of the business forward? All the other siblings abandoned the project; his parents are gone, but he has to enforce the inherited value of what he’s doing. And it’s highly unlikely, as he says, that the business will continue. It’s almost half century old but not yet. So is there something justifying and underlining his own identity? Of course he has to give it this way.

Amy: I think we all do. We all construct meanings of our own lives. I am just slightly alarmed as a child with British Chinese parents. I know many parents really want to pass it on to their children. I just think what a way of tradition to have to carry on. He’s obviously very concerned about his legacy. He was saying that he’d rather give it away. I can really see why he loves Xiaowen’s movie. It’s so still and capturing his own rhythm of time. This is the way he wants to be remembered. It’s a very powerful form of grieving and nostalgia. I think it’s a legitimate to build meanings through the shop. I’m just questioning it when people say things like “all this is lost, nobody makes it anymore. Nobody embroiders silks screen from a photo...” But a part of me thinks that it’s surely a good thing. It was hard work in poor condition.

I went through a phase like that myself. I realised that I was probably not going back to Hong Kong. Every time I went back to Hong Kong, I sought out all these traditional shops. My friends who never left Hong Kong just thought I was crazy. Then I realised that I was constructing a path which I had never been. I’m sure that there’re always these elite silk makers but there’s also always the mass market. I think the idea of silk makers as a collection of artisans is quite misleading. As a historian I’m always worried about finding a path that way.

Gareth: Thank you very much. It’s fascinating to get these diverse perspectives. Chris, you are coming from a hybrid space of observation, both from outside of Chinese community but hugely immersed and engaged with its cinema. How would you place yourself in this kind of spectrum of response and material?

Chris: I guess I was just listening to what everyone was talking about and thinking about what you were just saying. In Ken’s particular case, it is very melancholic kind of structure. He’s built his personality around it. He’s using fabric and memories associated with it.

In fact, I worked in China in the planned economy. We had a quota. You have to produce your “ding’e” (定额). Whether you like it or not, you still need to produce it. So actually it was again the romanticisation of what was supposed to be not a market economy. But still, it was a command economy, in which way it was worse. Because you had to fulfil the command, whether it made any market logic or not. So it is extremely complicated to trying to think through that. What interested me looking at this work was trying to think about it as both something very Chinese but also saying about a condition that many of us experience under globalisation, as you alluded to in the beginning.

I saw this first as a single channel work, and then I saw it as the dual channel work. I was immediately struck by how much I felt a stronger response to the dual channel. And I realised immediately that it was something about his personality–the personality of anybody who lives some sort of transcultural, trans-border kind of way. We are all multiple channel people now, right? We’ve got part of us here, part of us there. It’s how I feel anyway. People are laughing. You agree with me, don’t you?

So just the form of the work immediately captures that. And of course one of your earlier works, which was about long-distance relationships, was also three channels. So again, you get different voices and so on, but the very form of the three channels captures this very condition of being together, being in a relationship, and yet, being separate. I felt that this works very well here.

I think it’s a really brilliant idea to work with the actual fabrics from the shop. In the exhibition, a part of the shop is here; a part of the shop is still in LA. It’s an American style clothing, but it’s Chinese fabric, it’s exactly this kind of condition that we live in. And yet, at the same time, this condition is something we clearly experience a strong reaction against it at the moment, right? The whole Trump thing, the Brexit thing, “taking back control,” a lot of that is articulated from the position of people who feel great, nostalgic for a single nation state, a single culture, or a single unified state that they are missing, whether it ever really existed or not. They wished it did. So we are clearly caught up in this.

I was interested in what you said about the reaction of the audience in Shanghai as well, because it does seem to me that part of those Chinese specificities is around the issue of mobility versus being born and raised and dying in the same place.

In Chinese history, recent and long term, there has been tremendous tension around that. There are parts of China, like Fujian, where people have been going all over the place for centuries. Then there are other parts of China, where until very very recently the vast majority of people never really moved. I think of you, your background and in terms of the PRC in Mao’s era. Right up till the 1980s, certainly people had very limited mobility.

Once it got into the 1980s, if you look at the culture from that period, there’s this dream of mobility. See, look at early Jia Zhangke films for example, something like Platform, they always desperately want to get out of somewhere; they are always looking at the trains leaving; they wish they were on the train. Now you have a situation where everybody is mobile, searching for jobs, and also mobile internationally. So I love the fact that the work not just in its content, but its form also captures that condition. I think many of us have this situation where our families have this kind of mixed history that goes back to different places that we only know indirectly, yet are very important to us.

Gareth: Those notes are incredibly helpful. Thank you very much. Just thinking of him, Jia Zhangke as a filmmaker of The World, in which the world is both created as a minimal space within China, the high point of global architecture. Also, from the perspective of the UK, people are going to China, moving in the other direction of course for the future economy of the world as it appears to be. Where does that Chinese image of placement and displacement sit? Is it happening much more widely across Chinese cinema? And is that tension kind of going both directions?

Chris: You touched on what I’m planning to do a bit more research on, which is that China now has road movies. And this didn’t exist before. But now there are numerous different kinds of films. Some are classic road movies like Han Han’s The Continent. Also Kaili Blues, I’m sure some people have heard of that film. Poet on a Business Trip–these films are classic, like a guy seeking out his identity on the road. But then, also Ning Hao’s films are much more commercial versions of that. Then there are also other travel genre films by so called ethnic minority filmmakers, like the Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden and the Korean Chinese Zhang Lu.

To me it’s no surprise that all these films are also journeys through territories. I think we also have the genre of the tourist romance films. There’s a whole kind of genre of a bunch of cities trying to attract Chinese tourists. We go to Prague, Israel and Seattle to fall in love... The new one is in London. The poster is actually London in the rain!

There are a variety of these films happening. If you go back 20, 30 years, they couldn’t happen. Those films couldn’t be made simply because very few people had the opportunity to travel so that the ideas of films about traveling was unlikely.

Gareth: Thank you very much. Just before we open it up, Cangbai, can I come back to you? Chris explained very articulately about the idea of moving through place. But this sense of moving through time which are across generations and you explored as well. Where does Mr Wong’s experience fit into the larger Chinese diaspora of businesses that last and then stop? He inherited his business from a first-generation setup from his father. It’s nearly fifty years old, it looks unlikely it’ll continue. We hope it will. Is that a natural path of the diasporic business movement?

Cangbai: China... [The question] is: what is China? How do we define China? 15-20 years ago China was defined by territory. China is there with a border. Actually, since at least 150 years ago, a lot of Chinese people started moving abroad voluntarily or involuntarily from particularly the “hometowns” of overseas Chinese, or Qiaoxiang, in Guangdong and Fujian, southern China. It’s the home of overseas Chinese including Hong Kong. Hong Kong played a very crucial role bridging territorialized China and overseas Chinese.

If defined beyond the territorial term, Chinese from mainland China and overseas Chinese are all a part of China, starting from Guangdong, Fujian, to Southeast Asia and the US as well. Kenneth Wong’s family is from Taishan. 95% of the (Chinese emigrants from Taishan) moved to United States. It’s through chain migration and family ties. It started with the gold rush in California and then the railway construction. After that, they started to run laundries or restaurants. That’s the general story that also applies to Wong’s family, the same trajectory. That’s part of the bigger story. So the film is not only on immobility but also on mobility. We start to redefine China based on the connections and interactions between mainland Chinese and overseas Chinese. This film gives us a bigger picture to look at.

Gareth: Fantastic. Thank you very much. Wonderful series of reflections and insights to think about the work through and around. We’d love to hear from the audience. Your own thoughts and different perspectives, Chinese and otherwise. Please do share your thoughts with us.

Audience: One of the most interesting aspects is how the film portrays the way Ken decides to show his identity. He’s American, born and raise, his parents are Chinese of course. But I feel that there’s something that people with international backgrounds have in common. It’s like either you decide to be international and don’t explore much into your national identity, or you search deeply into your identity. Like Cangbai said, without the objects, his story can’t be told the same way. I wonder how much the object contributing to him deciding on his identity. Before, when he was an aeroplane engineer, it felt like he was pursuing his American dream, but it didn’t really work out. Then there’s this shop with all these objects and stories attached to them. Maybe that’s a reason for him to decide as well – perhaps I’m also Chinese. At the same time, he chose special type of silks that are no longer available in China, so that he can claim them to be closer to his own identity. I’m wondering, for people who don’t have special connections with these objects, how do they create their identities? Is it something that comes naturally or you have to decide by yourself?

Cangbai: We have diasporic subjects that come from all kinds of backgrounds, like Arabic people, Italian, Polish, Korean, Japanese... In the United States, everybody has his or her own past. No matter how they chase the American Dream, which is also a standardised dream, at the end of the day, they all have their own private history. Particularly because of Ken’s age, it’s like when we move to a certain life cycle, we start to look back and look for our root. It’s like root searching and soul searching. Who am I? Where do I come from? It doesn’t matter if I’m successful or not. We have the same common questions, the same common motivation to ask ourselves: who am I? People make sense of themselves and the world through something, such as filmmaking. For me, it’s through research and writing. I think Ken’s story exemplifies the relationship between subject and object. This object can be anything. It helps to establish a link between now and past, between you and the outside world, between internality and externality, I think this story gives us a very good visual example (of it).

Gareth: Thank you. Xiaowen, do you have any comment?

Xiaowen: Yes, just a short one. In reality, Ken spends a lot of time by himself. When I spent time with him, it felt like the shop was like a temple to him. That was extremely interesting to me. It’s obviously also very different from the experience of my generation, like how we are used to interacting with the space and environment around us.

Cangbai: Is he the elder son or younger son?

Xiaowen: He’s the youngest. He has five siblings, but none of them was interested in taking over the shop.

Gareth: So he knew that he had to do it. That was it. Also his engineering career must have been challenging, I’m sure when he was considering taking over the shop actually provided him a kind of way out of the pressure of the American dream. As we talked about a lot, we have different forms of space, identity and history and so on to release that pressure and then to maintain other kind of aspiration forwards which is potentially limited in time. Do you think it’s something you can see in him, a form of relief from something else?

Xiaowen: I think so, because the reason why I created the American flag was also because he talks about America a lot. He would mention that America is the only place where if you have the will, you can make it. Then I thought: okay, I’m going to make an American flag for you.

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