Mar 1, 2012

"Different Points of Value"

Last night was the second “Les Fleurs de Shanghai” show at Duane Park and it was another sold out show. I really am totally head over heels for this show. I am constantly thinking about it, still researching and digging up obscure film and reading material about Old Shanghai, and last weekend I took a four hour crash course on classical Chinese dance at Lotus Dance Studios - just out of curiosity. The class was extremely informative especially for me since I have no idea what “classical Chinese dance” was. The little that I know was from my experience seeing Shen Yun at Lincoln Center. In this class, taught by Ms Ling Tao who was extremely knowledgeable with ten years of dance experience behind her, I learned the basic postures of Chinese dance and the idea of balance. To go right, you go left first. There’s a push, then there’s a pull. A “punch” (jutting one’s shoulder forward) and a “lean” (pulling the same shoulder back in the opposite direction). We also learned three choreographed routines covering the basic foot and hand movements, one using Chinese silk fans, and the last one using ribbons. It was a lot of information for a Saturday morning and I would do it again. I was able to integrate some of the delicate hand gestures and poses into my burlesque routine with modification. To me, classical Chinese dance for women is very “girlish”. The style from the way one walks to facial expressions all evoke a young girl’s youthful frivolity and naivete. I prefer sultry and sensual for my dance styles so some of the more “girly” movements I modified for the acts I did last night at “Les Fleurs de Shanghai”.

In all my research I naturally come across Anna May Wong all the time. For those who don’t know who she was, AMW was the first Chinese-American movie star who starred in over 18 films in her career including both silent and sound films. She starred opposite Marlene Dietrich in “Shanghai Express”, and I think she was the only truly visible Asian-American female figure in the American jazz age. Unfortunately her film roles were heavily criticized for depicting Chinese women as “dragon ladies” or as scheming, conniving seductresses. As if SHE had any decision in how the scripts were written back in the old, white Hollywood days! A sample of these images include

Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong
As a Chinese-American woman raised mostly in the US with a BA in English from Cornell, a MFA from Columbia University, and armed with the alumni badge from the New York School of Burlesque (haha!), I don’t find these images offensive or demeaning instead I think they are powerful, glamorous, and fierce. Militant “Model Minority” types will object undoubtedly to my interpretation which then begs the question, at what point in history can an image be reclaimed to reflect the values of the people who perceive them? Perhaps the Chinese American women during AMW’s times objected to these images because there weren’t enough Asian American representation in the media which would be just limited to film and paper circulation, and so naturally they did not desire to see exotified and “orientalized” visual images from a Western imagination. But as a member of a newer generation, a generation that is post-feminist that distant herself from the militant feminism ideologies of the 1970’s, I am inspired by these images. Naturally I am drawn to the costuming. They exude the feminine mystique. They seduce me in its power and exotic-ness. Why is it political to be exotic? I am different than the majority. And frankly I am tired to the “assimilation” discourse found in immigrant mentality. I WANT to be different, exotic, and foreign than you. You are “the other” in my book. Not I.



Anna May Wong
In the burlesque world we celebrate and honor “The Legends” at annual festivals. These women are in their sixties and some nearing their eighties. They were straight up strippers in their days because before strip clubs and poles “burlesque” was stripping. It was not what us new kids will defend to our death pastie beds as an "art form" - it was stripping. We honor these women for paving the road in an era where women’s roles were limited. These women were bawdy, brazen, and many are the classic textbook example of women who come from an educationally disenfranchised background and went into adult entertainment due to lack of a technical skill (twirling pasties and ass popping do not count). The rhetoric is seductive. Pioneers. Ballbusters. Rebels. But at the heart of it, we are honoring older strippers, because meaning is fluid and it has changed for this generation. Every year, thousands of burlesque performers both established and beginners along with fans of burlesque flock to Las Vega’s Burlesque Hall of Fame festival to meet other performers from all over the world and to compete in different titles. In the burlesque world, this event is a BIG deal. It’s the unofficial Oscars of burlesque. We are celebrating the public display of theatrically removing your clothes in front of strangers!


Tammi True in her heyday - featured dancer at Jack Ruby's strip club The Carousel in Dallas, TX. Photography Nancy Myers. From D Magazine.
Tammi True performing with the Ruby Revue in Dallas in 2010. Photo by Ben Britt.

Tempest Storm poses outside a theater marquee in 1954. Read the article >
Check out this amazing MSN clip on Tempest Storm performing in Vegas in her 80s! 


This reminds me of HSBC’s campaign ‘Different Points of Value’ that you see in airports. The campaign puts the same image side-by-side with a different caption over each one. The idea is to show you how the same thing can have different meaning based on the culture, socio-economic class, education, etc.
HSBC "Different Points of Value" Ad Campaign
HSBC "Different Points of Value" Ad Campaign
If a stripper from the olden days can become a Legend in the now days, then likewise the meaning of images like Anna May Wong’s can be fluid. These images deserve a new interpretation relevant to women now, to women like me. It’s time to celebrate what she has accomplished on her own accord in a challenging millieu rather than through the foggy, scratched lens of the old times.

3 comments:

  1. It's interesting that you bring up Anna May Wong. I found this clip of her from the film Piccadilly when I was doing research on a completely unrelated film a few months back.

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  2. Foxy Vermouth3/1/12, 10:25 PM

    Calamity, I'm so excited you wrote about AMW!! I have several photographs of her saved on my computer (mostly for costume inspiration, but also because girl can POSE for a photo!) I'm so glad to learn more about her. Great analysis, too--so well-thought out. Thanks!!
    ~Foxy V

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  3. I'm so glad you are also a AMW fan too, Foxy!!! She really is thought provoking for me, which is ironic because no one lives their lives thinking they would be thought provoking to the next generation. Artists just live their lives as they do. Anyway I'll see you soon at Nurse Bettie!

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