Of Cheongsams, Cholas, and Henna

A series on cultural appropriation by Warda Nawaz, Christina Ong, and Karina Ruiz

Lately there’s been a lot of education and truth dropping on mainstream medias and people are speaking out for social change. Amongst these topics is cultural appropriation. Many articles have been built to educate white audiences; In response to this, we three womxn of color have collaborated on this series to not only call attention to the fact that cultural appropriation is in fact happening, but how it’s hurtful on an individualistic and personal level. The following is only my portion of the series, but I encourage you to go on and read all three as we share our own thoughts and encounters with the cultural appropriation of cheongsams, cholas, and henna.


Growing up as a Chinese American girl in a predominantly white neighborhood, I didn’t have the terminology for how it felt when there were no role models who looked like me on the silver screen.  Now, I understand cultural appropriation to mean my community’s misrepresentation or an entire lack of it.

Orientalism did its job well, relegating Chinese culture to punchlines.  It worked to otherize Asian bodies, speaking to white America’s fears about immigration and confirming its belief in eurocentrism.

Decades later, and we’re fighting a different version of the same battle.  White America, like all my friends thinking Panda Express was real Chinese food, continues to mock our traditions under the guise of paying tribute.

In 2015, the infamous Met Gala themed their festivities, China Whispers: Tales of the East in Art, Film and Fashion.  It was, in essence, an appropriative overtaking by Hollywood’s elite. Dresses worn were “inspired” by cheongsam (or qipao if you speak Mandarin), but were influenced by other Eastern Asian cultures, or were made into low-cut dresses for sex appeal.  Traditional Chinese cheongsam is actually tied to womxn’s liberation, as womxn were previously forbidden from wearing robes typically reserved for men. Wearing the cheongsam became a form of political expression–of our feminism and strength.  Sexualizing the cheongsam trivializes our struggles and re-emphasizes the false notion that Chinese womxn are subservient. People who do not identify as Chinese need to realize that cheongsam’s purpose is not an opportunity for an adult game of dress-up.  Someone’s sex appeal should not come at the expense of our dignity.

What happened at the Met Gala extends to all of the media’s representation of Eastern Asians.  Though we should know that Eastern Asian cultures are vast and its people are diverse, representations of our people in pop culture have been monolithic. While our men are represented as kung fu masters or desexualized sidekicks, our womxn are exotified.  These misrepresentations are steeped in a legacy of Western imperialism and militarization.  As Sam Louie writes, “the desire to sexually possess, conquer, and at times humiliate a subservient Asian womxn permeates our culture.” And even still with these limiting, hurtful representations, we were never even allowed to play ourselves. White America’s heroine, Katharine Hepburn played a Chinese womxn whose village was conquered by Japanese soldiers in the 1944 film, Dragon Seed.  Whitewashing, even in 2016, is a pervasive problem for the Asian American community.

The issue with cultural appropriation is that it consistently centers characters who have no right being in our stories. That is not to say non-Eastern Asians should not learn about our culture or history.  But, they need to know that their knowledge does not give them ownership.  If their intentions are to play the lead role in our own stories or parade around in blatantly sexualized versions of our cultural clothes, we need to tell them to take a seat.  We have for too long allowed dominant, oppressive behaviors to run over our self-esteem and acceptance of who we are.

Yet, there’s can be progress for us. Hollywood strongholds like Constance Wu and Margaret Cho have recently called for representation of Asian actors in more roles.

Until we are allowed to create and popularize our stories, culturally appropriative legacies will continue being a problem, and Chinese feminists will make sure you know we aren’t the hypersexualized womxn you write us to be.


Read about how chola fashion is being copied by celebrities; how it continues to marginalize Latinx communities; and how Chicanx individuals can reclaim this aesthetic.

Karina Ruiz is a Chicana researcher interested in Latinx-American identities and U.S. assimilation. She is a McNair and Sally Cassanova CSU Pre-Doctoral scholar applying to doctoral programs for the ‘17-’18 year. Karina currently lives in Gilroy, California with her chug and partner.

Read about how henna is being used to exotify women of color; how to avoid misrepresenting the art and practice; and how Indian and Pakistani women can stop it.

Warda is a Pakistani immigrant to the United States and a self-proclaimed feminist and women’s rights advocate. She studied art history at UC Davis and is now a graduate student at California Northstate University College of Pharmacy, where she hopes to learn the art and science of drug delivery and make an impact on minority groups including women and children in clinical and outpatient settings.

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