Being Like Them: Cultural Exchange as Theft and Honor

The tyrannical asymmetry of cultural exchange between Asia and the West.

7 years ago

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I once slashed dozens of immaculate knock-off Birkin bags with a box cutter in a 50th floor conference room above Manhattan with a lawyer named Gioconda. He was large — fat with pale baby skin, a droopy smile, and round-frame glasses propped up by a pudgy pointer finger. His cherubic appearance did not mask his aggression, but instead signified an insatiable appetite, a clue to where his aggression came from. A man that hungry is prone to anger, and behind his always sweaty forehead was a mind that channeled all that anger into deviously complex court motions and strategically timed phone calls. He was a good lawyer.

The U.S. Marshals busted up the trunk sale last night, Gioconda said. He recounted how the hotel manager unlocked the door, and the Marshals swarmed in ahead of him while he got to hold the warrant above his head. One woman fainted. This wasn’t a Canal Street sidewalk sale, he reassured me, these knock-offs go for as much as the real thing. The discount is simply finding one for sale. The Marshals gave him the entire haul to take back as evidence in a lawsuit by Hermès, but we were to “irreparably impair” the function of the articles in question.

Though I slashed the tasteful doctor’s bag-like contraband with a mindless glee, there was a tyrannical method to this madness. Gioconda was selling his venerable client a simple but deadly serious statement: they can’t be like you. Injunctions and money awards were not enough. These counterfeit class signifiers had to be disfigured and displayed in public, a humiliating example made of those who were too good at being a fake.

The knock-off bags were of Chinese origin. Their near-perfect craftsmanship was itself the great offense, their disturbing quality of stitching and dyeing the very cause of the raised eyebrows somewhere in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, and which led to an attorney engagement letter and a directive for the chubby American lawyer to melt the wings off of these faceless Chinese Icarii. They can’t be like us. We finished mutilating the bags and ordered dinner from Shun Lee Palace.

That was over ten years ago. This year, the year of worldwide irony, another Parisian fashion house with the Spanish name of Balenciaga — helmed by a Georgian prank artist who overthrew the stultifying originality of his predecessor, Alexander Wang —extended this tyranny: but we can be like them. Balenciaga’s creative director Demna Gvasalia is renowned for his provocatively brazen theft of low culture — particularly the kitschy ephemera of Asia — and selling it back to Asians at overpriced, over-hyped pop-up reenactments of Asia’s own native street bazaars. It is a partially complete symmetry of hawking Asian knock-offs of European luxury to desperate buyers: the sale of European re-creations of Asia’s artifacts to wide-eyed fashion fanboys.

People lined up to buy high fashion clothing from a DHL truck in Hong Kong
Hong Kong fans of Demna Gvasalia’s Vetements brand line up to buy clothing out the back of a DHL truck.

What is left out is the repercussions, the willingness to say ‘no.’ What is missing is an instinct akin to Gioconda’s own unquestioned mantra that they cannot be like us. And what is left out of this near-complete symmetry means everything. The theft of Asia’s culture is not theft, instead it is an honor bestowed upon Asia’s people. To think that a fashion house of such natural prestige as Balenciaga would bother to copy, or even to merely recognize, the significance of the hongbailan (red-white-blue) shopping bag in daily Asian life, is an honor. The theft and obscene mark-up is a subtle yet clear signal that the tastemakers of Paris recognize that the life of an Asian can in fact contain such evolved and complex emotions as nostalgia and kitsch. This mere recognition of mutual humanity is itself the validation of those emotions, without which Asians assume themselves invisible to Westerners. And for that Western validation, Asia’s youth will line up and spend competitively.

Police in Sydney investigating a suspected counterfeit goods dealer
Sydney police saying ‘no’ to cultural appropriation and the theft of Western intellectual property.

The Europeans copy Asians brazenly and sell it back to them at a markup. The Asians copy Europeans secretly and sell it back to them at a discount. This is the difference.

Western fashion industry watchers shake their heads at Gvasalia’s pranks-as-art sensibility, comment upon the ethical thorniness of cultural appropriation, and critique the originality of his stunts when compared to the more politically committed performance art of Banksy. The West’s own instinct for cultural property is so strong that sometimes it even takes on the consistency of an actual ethical system.

Image of Balenciaga bag next to original bag from Thailand
Balenciaga’s expensive knock-off of a cheap Thai original.

By contrast, Thailand’s national government reassured Balenciaga by way of an unprompted official statement that their handbag would not be treated as intellectual property theft of the ubiquitous tote the Thai know affectionately as the “rainbow bag.” And in a final despairing act of official clarification, the government reassured its own people that traveling abroad to Europe with an authentic rainbow bag (costing 75 baht, or roughly $2) probably does not violate Balenciaga’s intellectual property rights in Europe, though for such matters it is not the authority.One can see in this a kind of post-traumatic stress response to a modern history in which Westerners can freely take and adapt and resell Asian culture, and celebrate their own ingenuity and open-mindedness, whereas Asians must approach Western culture as if in a museum. Look, but don’t touch. Except maybe in the gift shop.

Photo of Naomi Wu
Naomi Wu, aka RealSexyCyborg, who cannot exist in the Western mind.

In this year of irony, we have also seen the DIY hardware hacker culture of America — or, more accurately, the nostalgic revival of it — reveal its one-way-only policy towards the same hacker ethic of Asia. In Asia, the hardware hacking culture known as shanzai first took root in Shenzhen, the “world’s workshop” (it’s where your iPhone was both conceived and born). It is a kind of electronic moonshiner culture, where rogue employees of the great corporate electronics manufacturers — which infamously outsourced their handiwork to southern China — realized they could make this stuff themselves, at a small scale, and in a bazaar setting (I wrote a little bit more about shanzai culture here, including a link to a great primer video). The outcome of shanzai was to fundamentally recenter the global tech economy in southern China.

In America, the mid-century hardware hacking culture that gave birth to Hewlett-Packard, Apple, ham radio enthusiasts, and Radio Shack was lost almost entirely to Asian outsourcing, only to be found again by hobbyists as a revivalist hardware hacking culture. As is de rigeur in the America of today, it was commercialized and corporatized into a niche media and events company called Maker Media. Maker Media considers itself to be a social movement, and acts as if it were the big brother to shanzai. The Chinese government has partnered with Maker Media, and allows it to hold a giant Maker Faire, its signature convention event, in Shenzhen.

The irony of course is that the Maker movement was born out of the vacuum created by Shenzhen’s shanzai economy itself. One of the more famous Chinese social media figures of China’s Maker culture is Naomi Wu, aka RealSexyCyborg, who combines computer-controlled devices and lighting elements into futuristic clothing concepts. She has big fake breasts and a penchant for wearing next to nothing in public. She’s also highly outspoken about the Maker movement’s distaste for women like her, and calls attention to the conspicuous lack of women in a supposedly egalitarian social “movement.”

Dale Dougherty, Maker Media founder and CEO, was so angered that a Chinese woman would criticize his movement, that he simply denied her existence via Tweet* and destroyed her hard-won reputation in an instant:

I am questioning who she really is. Naomi is a persona, not a real person. She is several or many people.

*Author’s note: for more background on this, I suggest reading Andrew Huang’s insightful blog post.

China’s hardware hackers are, by definition, thieves. They’re understood by the West to have stolen its intellectual property, only to make laughably inferior knock-offs. It is the land of ePads, Pear phones, and fake Apple Stores. What was stolen from America by the Chinese was then corrupted into an unrecognizable culture of bandits, thieves, and cheats. Shanzai is, in the eyes of America, the very embodiment of dishonesty and dishonor. America’s hardware hackers are, by contrast, leaders of a social movement. They cannot steal, because everything within the movement is shared. It is the culture of authenticity, self-empowerment, and ingenuity. It is the very embodiment of Western exceptionalism and ethical intellectual culture.

This, again, is the difference.

Shanzai has nothing to teach America. But shanzai must learn the refinements of a foreign revivalist corporation-cum-movement which exclusively retains the spiritual essence of innovation, if not its revenues and industry. And if you are a Chinese woman who dares to say something like this:

I don’t have a problem with foreigners but FFS you don’t need to lick their boots clean the moment they step off the plane. People here in the tech community have zero self-respect.

Then you simply cannot exist. That’s the result of trying to be like them. Slashed and mutilated, “irreparably impaired” like a knock-off handbag seized by federal authorities. Asians can never be like the West, because by its own act of self-definition the West is off-limits to everyone else, yet without limits of its own. The West is not leather craftsmanship or electronics ingenuity. It is Gioconda insisting: they can’t be like us. And it is Balenciaga demonstrating: but we can be like them.

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Published 7 years ago

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