Cultural Appropriation: A Critique
There are millions of Thais who consider themselves ethnic Chinese-that is their family tree has roots in China. Chinese New Year is heavily celebrated in Thailand. Chinese temples and calligraphy are liberally strewn across The Kingdom. Many dishes of Chinese and Thai cuisine are culinary cousins. And Thai women are more than familiar with the Chinese cheongsam. But, Thai women don’t wear cheongsams! 1
I wish they did. I think the cheongsam is one of the most intriguing dresses ever.
Oh I’m sure that of the tens of millions of Thai women, some must have cheongsams hanging in their closets. But as someone who has spent over two decades not only closely observing and researching traditional Thai women’s apparel, but also designing, manufacturing and selling such apparel, I can attest that you will rarely see a Thai women wearing a cheongsam.
I’ve asked dozens of my Thai wife’s friends-old, young, professional, non-professional, rich, poor, urban and rural-if they have a cheongsam. “No”, is the uniform response. “Why not”?, I further press. “I dunno”, “Not my style”, “Meh”. Some just laugh and walked away. But no Thai woman ever responded that she doesn’t wear a cheongsam because she’s Thai, not Chinese.
I don’t. Thai women don’t. And Chinese women, if they cared, would be flattered that a Thai woman wore a cheongsam to a dinner party or special occasion. Why would anyone care?
But the politically correct fashion police care bigly. The fashion police scold that you must be Chinese to wear a Chinese cheongsam; or, when they’re not so rigid, they’ll allow a non-Chinese woman to wear it if she know its history, its cultural significance and wears it in a manner that satisfies their politically correct sense of fashion and behavior. I kid you not.
The phrase for this dictum of fashion political correctness is “cultural appropriation.” The fashion police accuse a women who’s not Chinese (or of Chinese descent) of stealing-appropriating-the culture of another. Especially White women who would dare wear a cheongsam.
“Get your hands off someone else’s culture!” they shout, as if culture could be owned.
And they don’t stop at cheongsams. Their definition of “cultural appropriation” includes food, music, language, literature, fashion, hair styles (Don’t even think of wearing cornrows if you’re not Black.), jewelry, architecture and nearly every other facet of life.
Before I place my head on the sacrificial altar of cultural appropriation, I should first define the term. That’s not easy to do because the definitions are varied and so ambiguous as to be nearly meaningless.
Google “cultural appropriation” and you’ll get dozens of articles that offer many nuanced definitions. But this definition best captures the basic soul of cultural appropriation:
“[T]he adoption of elements of one culture by another, especially in cases where a dominant culture exploits aspects of a minority culture outside of its original cultural context and/or at the expense of the original culture for personal gain. 2
The key to understanding their definition is that “appropriation” equals theft. Therefore, using anything tangible or intangible not from your culture is theft, especially if you’re culture is deemed “dominate”.
Huh? While I’m not sure how to parse such a definition, I can tell you as an American White male this isn’t going to go well for me. And I can also hear Jim Thompson, the father of Thai silk, turning over in his grave. But allow me to continue onward and look at some incidents of “cultural appropriation”, some of which I’m personally involved.
The “Cheongsam Affair”
The “cheongsam affair” blew up in 2018 when a White student, Kaziah Daum, wore a red cheongsam to her prom in Woods Cross, Utah. 3 The PC fashion police instantly declared her a racist for such a fashion choice and the Twitterverse smelled blood.
The proponents of cultural appropriation used their simple logic: A White woman can not wear an iconic Chinese dress to her prom without stealing from Chinese culture. The student’s response was based in an even simpler logic: “I simply found a beautiful modest gown and decided to wear it.”
Her response spurred more self-righteous indignation and accusations of racist cultural appropriation. But curiously enough, the indignation, anger and calls of racism came mostly from Asian Americans, not from Chinese nationals. Chinese women were largely flattered that a student in Utah would choose a cheongsam to wear to her prom. The Chinese had no problem with her choice of prom dress.
Given that Chinese women had no complaint, you’d think the fashion police would back down and give this silliness a rest. And you’d be wrong. They doubled-down on their outrage.
At the prom, the student posed for the above photo with her friends. They appear to be doing a Thai wai greeting-palms together with a slight bow. (I’ve wai’d a million times usually wearing shorts and a t-shirt.) The student probably was unaware that the Chinese don’t wai. But her apparent stereotyping a Chinese cheongsam with a Thai wai set off even greater accusations of racism. Not because she was mixing cultures, but because the “pose” was clearly intended to reinforce the image of Asian woman as subservient.
Let me get this straight. The PC police in their quest to call out cultural appropriation have just relegated the Thai wai, one of the most common practices of Thai culture, to be per se sexist and a put down of women. Wow. Now whose the ignorant, cultural racist?
Cheongsam History in Five Paragraphs
The cheongsam first appeared on the Chinese fashion scene around the turn of the 20th Century (circa 1900) and coincided with the end of Chinese dynastic rule. Chinese women considered this new fashion a break with the traditions of keeping women subservient through apparel. Chinese women saw the early cheongsam as fashion liberation.
The first cheongsams were A-frame dresses down to the ankles and sleeves to the wrist. By the 1920’s, designers were making the dress much more form fitting, unlike the original A-frame. A woman’s figure was something to emphasize, not hide any longer. The Mandarin collar was emphasized and designers began using complex embroidered “frog fasteners” in lieu of buttons. The Nationalist Chinese government declared the cheongsam the national dress of China in 1927.
The cheongsam hit the big time in 1930’s Shanghai. It was now a form fitting dress with slits up the legs going scandalously higher. Capped sleeves and sleeveless versions were introduced. Celebrities, upper class women, the Shanghai fashionistas all considered the Cheongsam a must have.
When the communists took control in 1949, they prohibited wearing the cheongsam as bourgeoisie during the Cultural Revolution. But the dress lived on in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei becoming ever more popular worldwide. In the 1980’s, the Chinese Communist Party relented and allowed the cheongsam to be worn again in public. Today, it’s probably the most recognized dress in the world.
Non-Chinese celebrities that have worn cheongsams: Nicole Kidman, Grace Kelley, Paris Hilton, Celine Dion, Uma Thurman, Elizabeth Taylor, Anne Hathaway, Kate Perry, Kate Moss to name a very few.
Seeing is understanding: Check out my Cheongsam Pinterest Board here.
A Blue Jean Cheongsam
A what cheongsam??? I thought the cheongsam was a Chinese dress? Made of denim? Not silk?
According to the purveyors of cultural appropriation, culture can never be borrowed, it’s always appropriated and therefore stolen.
Denim (blue jeans) was first woven in France, and so is considered a European cotton fabric. Levi Strauss began making denim work pants in San Francisco in the mid-19th Century for White laborers. The national uniform for an American male is a t-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. As a White man, if there ever was a fabric that I have a birthright to, it’s denim.
So it appears a Chinese cheongsam maker “stole” the use of French/American denim fabric to make a Chinese dress. Oh the outrage! I’ve been culturally appropriated. Go make all the cheongsams you want…from silk-its traditional fabric, but leave MY denim alone! That is the inevitable logic if you subscribe to the rigors of puritanical cultural appropriation.
The academic cognescenti of cultural appropriation will try to muddy the waters with talk of dominate vs. subservient cultures and claim subservient cultures can do whatever they want with another’s culture. But the truth is their theory of appropriation leads to ridiculous results. The blue jean cheongsam is an example.
Culture can not be owned, and so, cannot be stolen.
Hill Tribe Wares: A Landmine of Cultural Appropriation
I live in northern Thailand where Hill Tribe fashions are as common as sticky rice. Almost all northern Thai women have Hill Tribe wares-pants, blouses, tunics, handbags, jewelry, etc.-as part of their wardrobe. The market for Hill Tribe wares is huge, both tourist and Thai alike.
Twenty years ago, you could go to the markets in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai and easily find authentic Hill Tribe wares-that is wares made by the Akha, Hmong, Karen and Lisu (the main producers). But as their popularity increased, the Hill Tribes couldn’t keep up with demand and so more and more “Hill Tribe wares” were made and sold by Thais.
Please see my post: “Hill Tribe Wares: Where Culture and Couture Collide“.
Today, Thais so dominate the manufacturing of Hill Tribe wares, it’s difficult to go to a market and find wares handmade by a Hill Tribe. If you go to the Chiang Mai Fabric District you’ll find shop after shop selling rolls of embroidery with Hill Tribe motifs; colorful pom-poms, sequins, beads and silver pieces used to adorn Hill Tribe wares along with the fabrics favored by Hill Tribes. I’ve even seen Hill Tribe women shopping these stores for material to make their wares.
These stores cater to small Thai businesses that make Hill Tribe STYLE apparel and couture and sell wholesale to a variety of retail shops in Chiang Mai and throughout the country. These small manufacturing businesses are scattered throughout Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Lamphun Provinces. I know. I live in Lamphun Province and have visited dozens of these businesses. Almost always, they’re small family run businesses run by ethnic Thais.
Pursuant to the rules of cultural appropriation, these Thai manufacturers are guilty of stealing culture. And Thai women that buy the wares are also stealing culture with their purchases and use. Thai is the dominant culture and the Hill Tribes subservient by any social criteria-wealth, power, demographics. There is no one lower on the socio-economic ladder in Thailand than the Hill Tribes.
So with Hill Tribe wares we seem to have an open/shut case of cultural appropriation. But again, only if you believe culture can be owned by someone and borrowing against the rules.
But Hill Tribe style wares are in itself a fusion of cultures. When a Thai or Hill Tribe manufacturer makes a pair of fisherman pants and sews Hmong embroidery on it as applique, that’s not Hill Tribe culture. Fisherman pants are of Thai origins. Hill Tribes don’t wear fisherman pants. When Thai manufacturers adorn a Western style handbag/purse with pom-poms, bead work, and sequins in Hill Tribe style, that’s not Hill Tribe culture. Hill Tribes rarely use Western style purses; they use yaams.
What’s a yaam? Please read my post: Yaam! A Hill Tribe Shoulder Bag???
I could go on and on, but my point is that both Hill Tribes and Thais have borrowed from each others culture to produce wares for profit. Thai manufacturers have expanded the market which the Hill Tribes profit from and made authentic Hill Tribe wares even more valuable.
I love laab. Thais use ground chicken, pork or beef to make this signature dish. Add lots of lime juice, onions, fish sauce and chilis. In Esan (northeastern Thailand) they often dice up pigs ears and add those. Traditionally, laab is eaten with sticky rice.
For me, it was love at first bite. And I knew laab would taste great as a Mexican style taco. So I put some laab in a hard corn taco shell, added shredded cheese, cabbage and tomatoes, then poured Cholula Mexican hot sauce over it. Gastronomic Nirvana found.
Simply enjoying my private fusion Thai/Mex tacos at home would probably not offend the cultural appropriation crowd. But if I opened a restaurant, I would be accused of cultural appropriation.
In the view of the cultural appropriation police, food is center-square. Indeed, what could be more cultural than food. I agree. But hear what the purveyors of appropriation (stealing!) say in an essay “What is Cultural Appropriation?”:
“Food is a particularly touchy topic when it comes to appropriation, given how intricately tied it is to cultural history and context. In addition to being a necessary source of sustenance for humans, food plays an instrumental part in shaping the structure of our societies [their bold]….” 4
and they continue with more specificity:
“Utilizing food for one’s own gain — whether that be an organization or a person — without offering proper history, origins, or nuances of that food, also threatens to erase important context of a cuisine and culture.”
Good god! I just want to serve laab tacos at my putative restaurant. I’m not erasing anyones’s culture! So as a White man, I must offer the “proper history, origins and nuances of my laab tacos before the PC food police will leave me alone? Do I type up a primer on the history and origin of tacos and laab, mandate my customers read it and pass a pop-quiz before accepting their order and serving them?
Another tasty tip from a White guy in northern Thailand: Try nam prik noom, a spicy northern Thai green chili mash, slathered on a cheese burger.
Trick or Treat: My Culture is NOT your Halloween Costume
My wife’s friend called her and started the conversation with how much she loved my wife’s Thai silk sarongs-the colors, patterns, and especially the handwoven Thai silk. She loved the intricate silver lattice belt my wife often wore with them. She loved that my wife’s outfits were “so Thai”. And then she asked if she could wear one to a Halloween costume party that she had been invited to….
I was angry when my wife told me of the conversation. My wife was insulted. Traditional Thai fashion is not your Halloween Costume!
Wearing traditional ethnic apparel for shits and grins is many things: Insulting, ignorant, condescending, stupid, and yes, perhaps racist. But is it really cultural appropriation? Why use an ambiguous academic phrase when we have better words to characterize this behavior. How’bout: ‘Wearing my Thai silk sarong as a Halloween costume is personally insulting and condescending to Thai women. No!”
Many academics often point to Black Face and minstrel shows where White people pretend to be Black as an example of cultural appropriation. But is that the real sin of Black Face-that Whites are appropriating Black culture for their benefit? Hardly not. The real sin of Black Face is its mockery of Black culture which is racism pure and simple. Just call it what it is.
Had my wife’s friend said she was going to attend an important occasion and wanted to wear a Thai silk sarong, our reaction would have been completely different. My wife would have been flattered. I would have offered my collection of Thai silk sarongs for her to wear. Attitude and intent are everything.
Which gets us back to the cheongsam as prom dress in the “Cheongsam Affair”. The student chose the dress because she liked it, it was cheap (she bought it at a 2nd-hand store), it fit, and she looked good in it. Bottom line: She didn’t wear the cheongsam for shits and grins. No harm-No foul.
If interested in traditional Thai sarongs, please read my blog post: “Anatomy of a Thai Sarong“.
It’s A Wrap
I could go on and on with misguided and wrongheaded accusations of cultural appropriation.
I largely reject the main assumption of cultural appropriation that culture is something that can be owned and therefore “appropriated”. I reject the idea that if someone uses another’s culture that they then must genuflect at the altar of the politically correct and seek permission from the “culture police.”
When someone takes a cultural touchstone from another culture and mocks, defames, ridicules and trashes it, I don’t need the prism of cultural appropriation to condemn such behavior. I simply denounce it as racist, insulting, stupid, disgusting, revolting, or whatever word best fits. Black face in not cultural appropriation-it’s racism. Call it for what it is!
In 2021, the China National Silk Museum sponsored a year-long exhibition of contemporary cheongsams in Hangzhou City, China. Forty cheongsams were chosen for display from both Chinese and foreign designers. 5 The director of the exhibition, Zhao Feng, stated:
“My mission is to make this yearly exhibition a get-together of people from different countries so that they can engage in cultural dialogues. At the end of the day, it’s all about understanding one another in a culturally sound atmosphere.” 6
I doubt Zhao Feng had any problem with a White student wearing a cheongsam to her prom in Utah. Now if I could just convince more Thai women to wear that Chinese dress.
- Cheongsam is the Cantonese term for the dress. Qipao is the Mandarin word for the same dress.
- Emily Chen, Edric Huang, Jenny Dorsey, “Understanding Cultural Appropriation”, (Feb., 2021)
- Cassey Cho, “This Teen Wore a Chinese Dress to Prom and Caused a Huge Controversy”, Buzzfeed News (May 1, 2018)
- Emily Chen, Edric Huang, Jenny Dorsey, “Understanding Cultural Appropriation”, (Feb., 2021)
- Wu Huizin, “Designers take a unique approach to qipao“, Shine (Nov., 2020)
- Nag Mani, “What’s Behind the Global Appeal of China’s Qipao Dress?” Jing Daily, (Aug., 2021)