- 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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。”
- Image Caption-Xiaowen Zhu, Strong Threads, 2015
photograph, inkjet print on paper, courtesy of the artist