TAIPEI, Taiwan — When Keziah Daum wore a Chinese-style dress to her high school prom in Utah, it set off an uproar — but not because of its tight fit or thigh-high slit.
After Daum, 18, shared pictures on social media of her prom night, a Twitter user named Jeremy Lam hotly responded in a post that has been retweeted nearly 42,000 times.
— Keziah (@daumkeziah) April 22, 2018
“My culture is NOT” your prom dress, he wrote, adding profanity for effect.
“I’m proud of my culture,” he wrote in another post. “For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.”
Other Twitter users who described themselves as Asian-American seized on Daum’s dress — a form-fitting red cheongsam (also known as a qipao) with black and gold ornamental designs — as an example of cultural appropriation, a sign of disrespect and exploitation.
“This isn’t ok,” wrote someone with the user name Jeannie. “I wouldn’t wear traditional Korean, Japanese or any other traditional dress and I’m Asian. I wouldn’t wear traditional Irish or Swedish or Greek dress either. There’s a lot of history behind these clothes. Sad.”
When the furor reached Asia, though, many seemed to be scratching their heads. Far from being critical of Daum, who is not Chinese, many people in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan proclaimed her choice of the traditional high-necked dress as a victory for Chinese culture.
“I am very proud to have our culture recognized by people in other countries,” said someone called Snail Trail, commenting on a post of the Utah episode by a popular account on WeChat, the messaging and social media platform, that had been read more than 100,000 times.
“It’s ridiculous to criticize this as cultural appropriation,” Zhou Yijun, a Hong Kong-based cultural commentator, said in a telephone interview. “From the perspective of a Chinese person, if a foreign woman wears a qipao and thinks she looks pretty, then why shouldn’t she wear it?”
If anything, the uproar surrounding Daum’s dress prompted many Chinese to reflect on examples of cultural appropriation in their own country.
“So does that mean when we celebrate Christmas and Halloween it’s also cultural appropriation?” asked one WeChat user, Larissa.
Others were quick to point out that the qipao, as it is known in China, was introduced by the Manchus, an ethnic minority group from China’s northeast — implying that the garment was itself appropriated by the majority Han Chinese. In its original form, the dress was worn in a baggy style, mostly by upper-class women during the Qing dynasty, which ruled China for more than 250 years, until 1912.
It was only in the 1920s and ‘30s, when Western influence began seeping into China, that the qipao was reinvented to become the seductive, body-hugging dress that many think of today. For many cinephiles, it has become inextricably associated with Maggie Cheung, the actress who wore a stunning array of cheongsams in Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film “In the Mood for Love.”
These days, it is rare to see Chinese women wearing qipaos in the street. Western “fast fashion” has taken over, though the qipao has made something of a comeback among some official figures, like the country’s first lady, Peng Liyuan.
“To Chinese, it’s not sacred and it’s not that meaningful,” said Hung Huang, a Beijing-based writer and fashion blogger, in an interview. “Nowadays, if you see a woman wearing a qipao, she’s probably a waitress in a restaurant or a bride.”
The uproar surrounding the prom dress highlights America’s growing — and increasingly complex — conversation about race.
Several recent episodes have shown that Asians and Asian-Americans do not always see eye to eye.
Diversity was certainly on the minds of the filmmakers behind the 2016 Chinese-American coproduction “The Great Wall” when they filled the movie with so-called Chinese elements — a predominantly Chinese cast, story line and filming locations. In doing so, they addressed a diversity concern in China, where moviegoers are increasingly sensitive to Hollywood’s tendency to cast Chinese actors in bit parts. But after the release of the movie trailer, another diversity issue arose: Several prominent Asian-Americans criticized the filmmakers for casting Matt Damon in the lead role, as one of the leaders of a Chinese army, likening the decision to “whitewashing.”
More recently, the debate has resurfaced with the planned American release, in August, of the film adaptation of “Crazy Rich Asians,” based on a series of novels about the lives of wealthy families in Singapore. The casting has generated some controversy, in part over the biracial actor chosen as the male romantic lead.
While the film is promoted as having an all-Asian cast, the Singapore journalist and activist Kirsten Han wrote in a 2017 essay, “the focus is specifically on characters and faces of East Asian descent (as dictated by the book).”
“This is already a misrepresentation of Singapore at the most basic level, obscuring the Malay, Indian and Eurasian (and more) populations who make the country the culturally rich and unique place that it is,” she wrote. “A continent as massive as Asia can never be as simple as the stereotypes imposed upon us.”
Back in the United States, Daum, overwhelmed with the sudden wave of both praise and condemnation, was not backing down.
“To everyone who says I’m ignorant, I fully understand everyone’s concerns and views on my dress,” she wrote on Twitter. “I mean no harm. I am in no way being discriminative or racist. I’m tired of all the backlash and hate when my only intent was to show my love.”
To everyone who says I’m ignorant, I fully understand everyone’s concerns and views on my dress. I mean no harm. I am in no way being discriminative or racist. I’m tired of all the backlash and hate when my only intent was to show my love.
— Keziah (@daumkeziah) April 28, 2018