Arts Of The Working Class Logo

INTERWEAVING 交织

  • Mar 08 2022
  • Xiaowen Zhu 朱晓闻
    is a Berlin-based artist and writer. In 2020, she published her bilingual book Oriental Silk 乡绸 with Hatje Cantz.
    www.zhuxiaowen.com

    朱晓闻是一位居住在柏林的艺术创作者与写作者。2020年,她的中英 双语书《Oriental Silk 乡绸》由汉杰·坎茨出版社出版。

“Sections of dialogue were translated by the author from English into Chinese with slight edits, before being translated back into English, so they should not be considered exact records."

Ken

This quilt cover is pure silk, including the embroidery. Each one of the hundred children on it was brought to life in thread, by hand. It is an exquisite piece. Most of the covers in our store like this one were imported from Guangdong, in the seventies and eighties, by my parents. Back when China was still a planned economy. A single needleworker hand-embroidered it, stitch by stitch, then moved straight onto another. The factory had staff sign their work in a corner, as a guarantee of the quality. You can still just about make out “Liu Shuanghua” along the edge of this piece, on the back.

Most textile mills nowadays use rayon or other synthetic fibers, and machine embroider, and the end product looks cheap. In our shop, we sell a whole range of traditional scenes— “Hundred Children”, “Hundred Fish”, “Hundred Butterflies”, “Hundred Birds” —all hand-embroidered, all full of life and done in distinct styles. They all show off the individual needleworkers’ eye for beauty. Take the color schemes: some makers are fond of sharp contrast; others prefer subtle tones. Both shine in their own way. On quiet days, there’s nothing I love more than studying all the different embroidery techniques across our range. You can’t import pieces like this anymore, it’s all mass-produced these days. Finding a piece as fine as this is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.


Lian

My mother was an embroiderer at the Suzhou No.1 Silk Factory. Her embroidery was brightly colored and precise. Her fish and butterflies seemed to swim and flutter across the material. She worked hard all her life, and before she was even sixty, she had become almost blind in her left eye, and had hands deformed by arthritis. In my memory, she was always at work, stooped over her embroidery, just going and going. Her handiwork traveled to Japan, Europe, America, but she never stepped a foot outside Jiangsu province, let alone left the country. She used to say that her goldfish and butterflies saw the world for her. They really did travel all over, tracing a dense map of lines across the globe with their journeys. And they didn’t only outtravel her, they also outlived her.

 
May

My Chinese face meant that I would never be allowed to appear on the big screen kissing a white actor. When I was seventeen, I played the leading role in The Toll of the Sea, the first color film out of Hollywood. Lotus Flower—that was the character’s name—was a sorrowful, tormented woman, unlucky in love. When the film debuted, The New York Times praised me for “a fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy” in the role, saying I “should be seen again and often on the screen.” I shot film after film in the five years after that, but despite my efforts I could never break free of the “China doll” and “dragon woman” stereotypes. None of my love stories had a happy resolution, and the few times they came close, the screenwriter simply killed me off…. At twenty-three, I had had enough! I left America for Berlin, a cultural capital I had long had my heart set on. There, people hardly ever mentioned my Americanness, they were mostly only interested in my Chinese heritage: Chinese, but metropolitan Chinese, maybe from Shanghai.

After a short but intense period of study, I—a young woman born and raised in Chinatown, Los Angeles—was suddenly a fluent German speaker.

 
Ken

My dad came to America long before I was born. He boarded a steamboat in 1941 with dozens of other Taishan locals headed here. Like him, they were all hoping to find a better life for their families. They landed at the port of Los Angeles. He’d never imagined that a year later he’d be drafted into the US military and packed off to the frontline in Europe. To stay alive, he got very good at cooking. That way, he could be a mess cook and indispensable to the military. It was a decision that saved his life. He followed the US military into Nazi concentration camps in Germany and was there for both the Sicily and Normandy landings, and still he returned to America in one piece. He got special treatment on account of his honorable discharge, and the army helped bring my mom and older sister over from China.

But that didn’t change the fact he was a Chinese immigrant, stuck on the bottom rung, treated as a second-class citizen. This was when Chinese people had only two choices for work—it was either open a restaurant or start a laundry service. He went for the latter, and to avoid the fierce competition in Chinatown, he opened his laundry on Beverly Boulevard. His was the only Chinese-run operation in the Jewish neighborhood. For thirty years after that, my parents worked like honeybees to raise six children on the earnings from that one place. Somehow, they still managed to send each of us to college.

Our quality of life started to improve when the whole family moved out of the pokey laundry into a house just like the average white family’s. By that time, my parents had put aside enough money over the years to start thinking about switching to a less work-intensive and more profitable business. It just so happened that another of the city’s Taishanese laundry owners had a smart and talented daughter, named Anna May Wong—the first Chinese-American film star in Hollywood. She didn’t have it easy either, she was always being sidelined because of where she’d come from: Americans looked down on her for the color of her skin, and Chinese looked down on her for her what her parents did. She used to spend time at my parents’ laundry talking with them. She had seen a lot of the world already and was resourceful, so when she heard my parents’ plan, she made a suggestion. America hadn’t imported Chinese silk since the Korean War. With how near my family lived to Hollywood and Beverly Hills, this was a real opportunity, she said. They would do well for themselves if only they could bring high-quality silk to Los Angeles.

 
Lian

Although I didn’t inherit my mother’s embroidery skills, my work and life remain intricately interwoven with silk. After graduating from the University of Foreign Studies, I found work as a German translator for an import and export company. In 2013, a Berlin documentary filmmaker, Hans, traveled to China to film a telecine piece about the Silk Road. I acted as his interpreter for a number of interviews with expert embroiderers at the Suzhou No.1 Silk Factory. When the interviews were done, I couldn’t help telling him that my mother had been an embroiderer at the factory too, but she had passed already. Hans frowned slightly, then after a moment’s thought, said warmly, “I imagine your mother created some incredibly beautiful art in her time.” I was taken aback. No one had ever called my mother’s work “art” before, not even me. She had been just one screw in the socialist machine, and she had ground herself down until she was as tough and keen as an embroiderer’s needle. We don’t have a single one at home of the Hundred Children pieces she often embroidered. They were all sent abroad for sale. My pillowcases and handkerchief are all I have left of her lotus flowers and butterflies.

 
May

The first time I went to Shanghai was in 1936. Reporters swarmed behind us all the way from the hotel lobby to the banks of the Huangpu, their flash bulbs going off endlessly. The newly cut qipao I was wearing hugged my figure like a second layer of skin, and I strutted with the utmost pride. All of a sudden, I was a modern girl of Shanghai, not an American flapper with a Chinese face.

The paparazzi and cameras at our backs, the film star Hu Die and I walked hand in hand to Wing On Department Store to buy silk. I had never seen such a gorgeous array of China silk before, but I didn’t want to appear small-town, so when Hu Die recommended to me in her soft Shanghainese accent a floaty, transparent georgette, I only inclined my head and smiled. But I couldn’t help my fingers reaching out to brush the stacked bolts of tapestry satin. There were colors and patterns unlike anything I’d laid eyes on. Soon, my gaze was going back to the superb embroidery, which not even the finest lace in London’s Mayfair could compare to. But it was the silk pankou knots that really stole my heart. The care, vision and functionality that had gone into making frog fasteners, out of silk no less, astounded me. Noting our interest, the store manager asked for the tailor to come to the shopfloor to show how they worked: how they cut the material, made the pleats, tied the knots, sewed the silk sections together. All of it done so smoothly. Hu Die’s smile bloomed on her face as two butterfly pankou knots fluttered to life in the tailor’s hands.

 
Ken

China was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution when my parents decided to go into the silk importing business, and it had no formal trade relations with America. Fortunately, one of my uncles was a professor at Tsinghua University and had former students in high places. He put my parents in touch with some officials, who were very much in favor of my parents’ plans to export silk. This gave them the confidence to travel to the Guangdong Silk Expo and buy a lot of silks and hand embroidered pieces. When it came time to leave, the officials ensured Chinese customs didn’t stamp my parents’ passports and told my parents to ship the goods to America via Hong Kong. This way, the goods wouldn’t be seen as coming from China.

Thanks to the Chinese knack for always finding a way, the Wong family’s Oriental Silk emporium officially started business in 1973. Its address was registered to 8377 Beverly Boulevard. That was forty years ago now, and almost as soon as we opened, we became the most sought-after supplier of China silk in Hollywood.  Over the years we have provided silk for costumes and sets for the Batman franchise, Superman Returns, The Last Samurai, Pirates of the Caribbean, Titanic, Minority Report, Rush Hour, Charlie’s Angels, Ocean’s Eleven, Shanghai Noon, L.A. Confidential, and Star Trek, and that’s just a few of the movies we’ve worked with.

 
Lian

Hans was determined to get footage of the original sericulture and silk production methods, so I accompanied his crew to Zhejiang, where we visited a silkworm farm and ecological education center. Through my role as interpreter, I learned that, using traditional methods, raw silk production requires months of hard work and care before the silk is ready. First, the moth eggs must be watched attentively from autumn until they hatch in spring, when the silkworms are to be fed fresh mulberry leaves so that they grow from little black larvae, barely larger than a needle point, to the width of a little finger. They sleep four times in the process. It takes a month of hibernating and molting for them to become plump white silkworms, which are ready to spin their cocoons. It’s then five or so days before the cocoons are ready, and the process of soaking and unwinding the silk cocoons by hand can begin. Hans’s lens captured even the subtlest movements, as the woman’s hands, gentle yet nimble, went to work. That fine, shimmering thread pulled at my heartstrings.

When the shoot wrapped, Ms. Yu, who oversaw the farm’s operations, gifted the members of the production crew a silk pillow each. Smiling, Hans said that it would be the most luxurious thing he owned. Back home later, I found the treasured pillowcase with my mother’s embroidery on it and turned it over, intending to swap out the pillow for this new, silk one. In doing so, I saw a line of characters along its edge, which was faded but still visible as my mother’s handwriting. The factory used to demand that she sign the back of every piece she embroidered, and years later it had become her habit. She had signed her name, “Liu Shuanghua”, onto silk who knows how many times in her life, and I realized then that, each time, she had been signing her artwork.

 
May

I was a bird. I flew from Los Angeles to Berlin, Berlin to Paris, Paris to London, London to Shanghai. I flew back to Taishan. I flew back to Los Angeles.

My life seemed to follow a Silk Road of its own, with me spending it forever shuttling back and forth between East and West. In Berlin, I learnt German in no time; in Paris, I learnt French; and in London I learnt to speak English like an aristocrat—wherever I went, it soon started to feel like home. But my identity was too complex. To the East, I was too western; to the West, I was too eastern. And just like how my love stories on the silver screen were always doomed to be brief, all romance in my life seemed destined to flicker out as quick as it arose. Freedom and loneliness were the twins I raised. In fact, they were the only children I ever had.

Toward the end of my life, I found myself watching a long take of it played back to me, from my ambitions to perform and love for fashion, to immersing myself in my travels and creativity, all these stunning scenes and cherished snapshots interwoven with homesickness and regret into a striking silk qipao, a qipao which told my story.

And when I looked closely, I saw pankou fastenings like butterflies taking flight.

Translated by Jack Hargreaves

 

 

***

以下陈述内容部分由笔者翻译自英文原文,略有删减。

 

Ken 肯

这幅真丝被面上绣着活灵活现的百子图,精巧异常,连绣线都是全真丝的。我们店里这样的被面大多在上世纪70至80年代由我父母从广东进口。当时,中国还处于计划经济时代,工人一针一线绣完一整幅百子图后,再绣另一幅。工厂出于质检的要求会让工人在边角处签名,比如这幅百子图反面的边缘处就依稀可见“刘双华”的字样。

现在的纺织厂大多使用人造丝和机绣,显得廉价。本店除了百子图,还有百鱼图、百蝶图、百鸟图等,每一幅都针法活泼,风格鲜明,散发着绣匠独特的审美细胞。就拿配色来说,有人喜好对比色;有人偏爱渐变色——可谓各有千秋。店里生意不忙的时候,我总是非常享受研究那些丰富多彩的刺绣技巧。如今,想要从批量进口的纺织品中找到如此精美的刺绣作品,无异于大海捞针。

Lian 莲

我的母亲年轻时曾是苏州第一丝厂的绣工。她的活计既鲜亮又精细,鱼若在游,蝶若在飞。她辛劳了一辈子,不到60岁左眼就近乎全盲,双手也因骨关节炎而严重变形。在我的记忆中,她永远都弓着背,弯着腰,不停地绣啊绣。她的刺绣出口过日本、欧洲、美国,尽管她自己一步也不曾离开过江苏省,更别提出国了。母亲曾说,她的金鱼和蝴蝶代表她走出国门。事实上,她们的行程遍及全世界,并且随着时间的推移交织成一张密集的航线图。她们不仅比她走得更远,也比她活得更久。

May 梅

因为我的中国脸孔,我永远都不被允许在荧幕上和白人男演员接吻。17岁那年,我在好莱坞第一部彩色故事片《海逝》中出演悲情女主角莲花。影片上映后,《纽约时报》盛赞我的表演天赋,说我面对艰巨的角色,展现出“拿捏准确的分寸感与出色的哑剧精确度”,还说我“未来应当经常出现在大荧幕上”。此后五年间,我不断地拍新戏,然而无论我怎样卖力演出,永远都挣不脱“中国娃娃”或“龙女”的刻板印象,我所有角色的爱情都没有善终,或在即将修成正果时,被编剧生生写死了……23岁这年,我受够了!我离开美国,来到向往已久的欧洲文化中心——柏林。这里,很少有人提及我的美国身份,几乎所有人都只对我的中国血统感兴趣:中国的,却是大都会式的,像上海。

经过短期高强度培训,我,一个在洛杉矶华埠土生土长的女孩子,居然能流利地说德语了。

Ken 肯

早在我出生前的1941年,父亲为了来美国赚钱养家,和数十名台山同乡一起搭乘轮船,抵达了洛杉矶港口。怎料,翌年父亲就被美军应征入伍,派往欧洲前线打二战。为了活命,他苦练厨艺,让自己成为军中不可或缺的伙夫,因而尽管他随美军在德国解放过纳粹集中营,在意大利参加过西西里登陆,又在法国参加过诺曼底登陆,却能全身而退,四肢健全地回到美国,也凭借在二战中的杰出表现,受到军方关照,帮助他将远在中国的妻女接到美国。

战后,父亲作为华人,在美国社会低人一等,谋生的选择极少——要么开中餐馆,要么开洗衣店。为了避免中国城的激烈竞争,他把洗衣店开到了比弗利大道,成为当时这个犹太人社区里唯一一家华人洗衣店。此后整整30年,父母像蜜蜂般劳碌,靠着一爿洗衣店养育了6个子女,并且让每个孩子都接受到高等教育。

伴随生活水平的提高,我们全家不仅从洗衣店的狭小空间搬进一幢跟普通白人家庭无甚区别的住房,父母也凭借多年积蓄,想转而从事劳动强度低而收益好的生意。恰巧父亲的台山同乡中有另一位洗衣店老板,他的次女叫黄柳霜(Anna May Wong),是好莱坞第一位华人女影星,人很聪慧,天赋极高,却一辈子受尽排挤:美国人嫌弃她的肤色;中国人轻视她的出生。柳霜经常来我父母的洗衣店坐坐,她见多识广,听闻我父母的打算,便建议道:“自从朝鲜战争以来,美国就不再从中国进口真丝,你们离好莱坞和比弗利山庄这么近,如果把中国高级真丝运来洛杉矶,一定大有收益。”

Lian 莲

虽然没能继承母亲刺绣的技艺,我的工作和丝绸还是保留了千丝万缕的联系。从外国语学院毕业后,我在一家外贸公司担任德语翻译。2013年,一位柏林的纪录片导演汉斯来中国拍摄关于丝绸之路的电视电影,他在苏州采访了几位第一丝厂的刺绣专家,由我陪同翻译。采访结束后,我不禁告诉他,我的母亲也曾是这里的一位刺绣工人,但她已因病离世。汉斯微微皱眉,思索片刻后,用温柔的口吻对我说:“我想象你母亲曾经创作过非常美丽的刺绣艺术作品。”我一愣,因为没有人,包括我自己,用“艺术品”来界定母亲的工作成果。她曾是社会主义的一颗螺丝钉,把自己打磨得如同绣花针一般坚韧、极致。我们家甚至都没有母亲最常绣的百子图,因为它们在完成后便远销国外。唯有我的枕套和手帕上,存有母亲刺绣的莲花与蝴蝶。

May 梅

1936年,我生平第一次来到上海。 蜂拥而至的记者从酒店大堂一路跟随我们来至黄浦江畔,闪光灯连绵不绝。新裁的旗袍贴合着我的身体曲线,像是第二层皮肤,我每一步都走得甚为得意,自己俨然就是一位上海滩的摩登女郎,而不再是长着中国面孔的美国摩登女郎。

在记者的跟拍下,影星胡蝶与我手挽手地前往永安百货采购绸缎。我还从未见过如此琳琅满目、精美绝伦的中国真丝,但我不愿显得小家子气,当她用吴侬软语向我推荐一款轻柔通透的乔其纱时,我淡定地侧头微笑,手指却忍不住抚过一排织锦缎,那些花样和配色我都没见过。很快,我的目光又被巧夺天工的刺绣吸引,她们比我在伦敦梅费尔见过的最精巧的蕾丝还要细致。不过,我最钟爱的还是那些真丝盘扣——用面料做扣子,既美观又实用,我赞叹不已。百货公司经理见我们兴致很高,特意请裁缝师傅现场演绎,如何裁切,作褶,打结,缝合,一气呵成。胡蝶笑靥如花,因为裁缝手里做出一对精致曼妙的蝴蝶盘扣。

Ken 肯

当我父母决心做真丝进口生意时,中国正值文革时期,缺乏中美之间的官方贸易渠道。好在我有一位伯父是清华大学的教授,桃李满天下。通过他的关系,父母联系上几位支持开辟进出口贸易的中国官员。随后,父母前往广州丝绸博览会,采购了大批真丝面料和手工刺绣。为了顺利将货品运往美国,他们途径香港,而在那几位官员的关照下,中国海关没有往他们的护照上盖出入境章。于是,这些货品在流程上就成为从香港进口到美国的贸易商品了。

凭借中国人的灵活变通,我们黄家的东方丝绸进口公司在1973年正式开门营业,地址是比弗利大道8377号。这一开,就是40多年。我们也一度成为好莱坞最炙手可热的中国真丝供应商。多年来,我们为《蝙蝠侠》《超人归来》《最后的武士》《加勒比海盗》《泰坦尼克号》《少数派报告》《尖峰时刻》《霹雳娇娃》《十一罗汉》《上海正午》《洛城机密》《星际迷航》等众多影片供应过丝绸面料。

Lian 莲

汉斯坚持要拍摄原汁原味的古法养蚕与生丝制作,于是,我陪同剧组前往浙江一座生态教育蚕业农场。我边翻译,边了解到,按照古法产丝,大约每4两蚕丝的生产过程要经历一整个秋冬对蛾卵的仔细呵护,来年春天静待蚕出生后用新鲜桑叶悉心喂养,经过4次休眠,4次脱皮,一个多月后,等来比绣花针头还小的黑色幼蚕逐渐长成小指头粗细的白色成年蚕,再继续等待3至5天,蚕结茧完毕后,才能最终开始手工剥茧抽丝的过程。汉斯的镜头细致入微,女工的双手温柔灵动,我的心被细腻的丝线撩动了。

拍摄收工,农场负责人余姐送给剧组每人一个蚕丝枕头,汉斯笑说,这将是他最奢侈的一件生活用品。到家后,我找出珍藏已久的母亲绣的枕套,翻向反面,正要去装新枕头时,只见边缘处有一行小字,虽已褪色,却无疑是母亲工整的字迹。曾经,工厂要求她在每一幅刺绣背面落款,多年后,习惯成自然。她的一生,在丝绸上写下多少遍“刘双华”,便成就了多少件艺术作品。

May 梅

我是一只鸟,飞跃了洛杉矶,飞跃了柏林,飞跃了巴黎,飞跃了伦敦,飞跃了上海。飞回到台山。飞回到洛杉矶。

我的一生,就像一条丝绸之路,永远在东西方之间往来。我在德国没多久就学会说德语,在巴黎学会说法语,在伦敦又学会用英式贵族腔——无论我走到哪里,都能很快找到家的感觉。然而,我的身份过于复杂,对于东方来说,我太西方了;对于西方来说,我又太东方了。正如我在荧幕上找不到天长地久的配偶,生活中的每一段缘份也都注定旋踵即逝。自由与孤独就像我的一对双生子,尽管我一辈子都没有孩子。

站在人生的尽头,我看到了悠深的长镜头,从我对表演与时尚的向往,到我在旅行与创作中的沉浸,如诗如梦,将我所有的乡愁与遗憾交织成一袭华美的真丝旗袍,上面绣满了栩栩如生的人物与景致,讲述了我一生的故事。

定睛去看,那些盘扣分明是翩翩起舞的蝴蝶。

 



  • Image Caption
    -Xiaowen Zhu, Strong Threads, 2015
    photograph, inkjet print on paper, courtesy of the artist

    朱晓闻,《强韧的丝线》,2015,摄影,艺术微喷,图片由艺术家惠允

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