Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Racism, of course, but what else is going on?

This post was originally written on 1st September 2010.

Reading the Atlantic today, I came across the controversy about Dior’s latest advertising campaign — “Shanghai Dreamers”. Produced by the Chinese artist Quentin Shih, the images show striking white women amidst short Chinese models dressed in homogeneous-looking cultural revolution-style clothing. That the Chinese models in the pictures are just the same person Xeroxed has led many critics to criticise the images as racist, i.e. they all look the same. While racism is clearly apparent in the pictures (and the effect is of course intentional) (big yawn), I think Dior is also trying to exploit class elements. Take, for example, the following image:

In my opinion, what Dior is doing here is playing on the desires of China’s new wealthy class, who are of course their market. To me, the image says ‘distinguish yourself from the faceless and plain masses’. This is intended to convey a sense of the ancient Chinese aristocracy who lived lives of luxury over the peasant classes. The artist’s use of a Western woman here as the sole unique individual in the picture has led many people to read the image as a stereotypical view of the differences between Western and Chinese culture. True enough, but while the image is racist, it also speaks to the fact that many privileged Chinese seek to demonstrate their wealth and power through Western styles, especially older European ones. (Think, for example, of the Chinese businessman who has recreated a French palace.) Indeed, the model looks like nothing so much as a French Queen of the Ancien Régime. What I see, therefore, is Dior cleverly mixing Chinese and Western views of power and wealth. Currently, the modern Chinese tycoon wishing to possess the power of an ancient Chinese emperor may imitate Western models. Undoubtedly, however, this will change as China becomes more self-confident and develops its own international brands and images. At that time, I am sure we will see a much more Chinese view of glamour. Until then, we may be stuck with Dior and Shih’s vision — the Empress Dowager Marie Antoinette. ‘Let them eat cake’ has become ‘let them wear Dior’.

Likewise, although the following image can be read as a Western woman among a group of faceless Asian men, can it not also be seen as an Empress among the eunuchs of her court? A subversive comment on the ‘traditional’ gender relation in China?

What do you think?

By the way, the artist laments: ‘I was not lucky enough to shoot a Chinese model wearing Dior—if I did I would have put her in my work.’ How hopelessly naïve. Or how scarily cunning. I do not think it’s a matter of ‘luck’ — I am sure there are plenty of beautiful Chinese models available — they are just not white-looking enough for the ethos of the campaign.

Also, some people might think that because the artist is Chinese (he was born in Tianjin), he cannot be racist — this is bs. Although in this case the artist might not be racist, do not for a second think that Chinese people are incapable of self-racism.

Does the artist really know what meanings his images convey? Or is he just another Chinese artist obsessed with Mao and the related aesthetics, blindly reproducing stylised aspects of Chinese Communist past without really thinking about what they are saying.

My friend Gwyneth mentioned another ‘doggy’ 'dodgy' photo shoot.

In retrospect, some of these Dior pictures are much like a company photo with all the employees stiffly sitting or standing there, while the CEO stands out. The pictures suggest it takes this many Chinese workers to make a Dior dress. If the model wearing a genuine Dior article is Asian, the pictures would still be problematic.

9 Responses “Racism, of course, but what else is going on?” →

Yamabuki [Link]
September 2, 2010
Racial Identity
All are present here

Just because
The creator
Is an ‘artist’
does not make
these pictures art

This is not to say
That an ad photo
cannot be art
But ads are alway

I can almost hear
The ‘artist’ saying
that he is reminding
his audience
of the forbidden
‘cultural revolution’

Or even of the workers
in Shenzhen
where life is regimented
even now.
Think of Foxconn
Where Apple
And other electronic
products are made
look at the picture here:
All the workers dressed the same

Yet these same workers
On their days off
Dress uniquely
Read Leslie Chang’s book
“Factory Girls”
You will read of great individuality
And breaking with the past.

I certainly understand
the ad is Elitist
aimed at
‘Nouveau riche’
But I think this will change
When, as you say:
“China becomes
more self-confident
and develops its own
international brands and images”

September 2, 2010
“Let them wear Dior”? Not good. Given the poverty gap in China, this line would be quite insensitive. Remember how “Let them eat cake” caused Marie Antoinette to lose her head.

September 2, 2010

September 2, 2010
I think what Tammy was trying to say is that, like Marie Antoinette, many of the new super wealthy in China are probably not that sensitive to the plight of the poorer members of society. I guess the question is whether this wealth gap will eventually cause serious problems in China, or whether, as long as millions continue to be lifted from poverty, the huge disparities in wealth will be tolerated and accepted as necessary.

September 2, 2010
I think the fashion spread in vogue is not exactly racist – it depends on how you view it, really. Some people are just overly sensitive over these things!

September 2, 2010
‘doggy’ ‘dodgy’….

September 2, 2010
Gontran drew my attention to this:

Gwyneth [Link]
September 4, 2010
I think I said ‘dodgy’ – in fairness to dogs …
The whole thing makes me very uncomfortable. Even if I could afford Dior, etc, this kind of advertising would hardly persuade me to buy it.

September 4, 2010
Oh of course — my bad….!


  1. Elbert said:

    T: Despite all the make-up differences, the fashion trends, the changes in hairdos. I think behind the facade of graphic commercials, the individual's the same and the individuality is lost--as much as we try to pump it up--ironically so.

    The consequence of us trying to become that beautiful and outstanding lady in the the crowd of clones, we become a clone of the crowd of "outstanding ladies". this goes beyond the commercials.

    Racism is at its strongest when individuality is compromised...

  2. Tammy, you know chanel also has a campaign in Shanghai in 2008?
    it also makes uses of the cultural revolution elements, the army uniform, the hakka grass hat and so on. if you've seen the promo video, you'll find it quite creepy, as the models are inside a dark chamber, like those in the old Chinese ghost stories. Think they pick China not just because its exotic east appeal to the euro/ am but also because it is the big current and future fashion market.

  3. Sickly Advertising at it's best!

  4. Casey said: "Love the Bill Hicks vid."


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