One of the sloppier—and disturbingly frequent—critical lapses on either end of the ideological spectrum is to confuse modernization with Westernization. Some 20 years ago, Leo Ou-fan Lee’s Shanghai Modern sweepingly linked Eileen Chang’s novels, Ruan Lingyu’s films, jazz music in the dance halls, and graphic design in advertising and popular magazines not as local knock-offs of Paris and New York but rather a distinctly cohesive expression of an unprecedented cosmopolitan Chinese sensibility.
I have sat through dozens of Chinese toasting banquets, raised glasses with Communist Party officials and even—God help me—gone shot-for-shot with soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army. So I can hold my baijiu. If you want to know if I enjoy it, that’s another matter entirely.
Mention Japanese film and responses will likely range from the 1950s Golden Age to today’s panoply of genre movies. The variance has less to do with conflicts between artistry and populism—even Kurosawa famously trafficked in samurai—than with context and perspective. International acclaim, whether past or present, offers only a limited vista on a country’s internal cinematic life; to make full sense of Japan’s giant dinosaurs, yakuza gangsters and animated princesses, you need someone well-placed on the ground. Someone like Mark Schilling.
Earlier this year, a fire broke out in the Chinatown archive of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America, spurring a tremendous outpouring of sympathy and support from those fearing that a crucial chapter in the nation’s history was lost forever. A few days later, newspaper reports from that normally bustling neighborhood indicated that, due largely to worries over the coronavirus, tourists and locals alike were staying away in droves. Much of MoCA’s archive turned out to be salvageable, and diners and shoppers began trickling back downtown, but that juxtaposition of headlines still shows the ambivalence much of mainstream America feels about its Chinese population.
It is no small irony that this survey of courtyard homes in the Asia Pacific region by Charmaine Chan, design editor of the South China Morning Post, has no inclusions from Hong Kong. For such a property-minded city where space is generally designated in vertical terms, one of Chinese architecture’s most traditional elements has become a near-inconceivable luxury.
More than a decade ago, when my wife and I first published a pocket-sized English translation of the Chinese almanac for the launch of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America, we reached out to a prominent Hong Kong publisher who held the rights. He immediately insisted on meeting us, partly intrigued that such a vernacular publication was worthy of museum interest, but mostly because he was curious about who would willingly pay for his content.
Author and memoirist Fatima Bhutto’s slender but potent volume for Columbia Global Reports (an imprint from Columbia University devoted to long-form journalism), surveys a shift in global popular culture in which America’s soft-power dominance is facing challenges from local art forms.