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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.2 (2003) 261-269

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Guest Editors' Introduction

16 June 2001
Yan Bingbing's studio
Nicoletta Sileno is trying on an elegant black silk suit as Yan Bingbing's two young assistants flutter about her in front of the mirror. The small space is filled with multicolored silks. From cluttered racks hang iridescent jackets, qipaos, skirts, and scarves. As the Italian woman explains in English the modifications she desires, three Chinese American clients (father, mother, and daughter) in shorts and sneakers wait impatiently for their turn. Meanwhile a Hongkongese woman continually interrupts the dialogue between Nicoletta and the seamstresses by asking when the designer will be in, how much a certain piece of clothing costs, how much time it will take to have it made, and so on. On the walls of the crowded space, pictures hang of the shows of Yan Bingbing and her designs, modeled by young, attractive Chinese and [End Page 261] Western models. As I step in to help Nicoletta explain in Chinese one particular modification, I discover that for about fifteen hundred renminbi, and a ten-day wait, I could have a Yan Bingbing qipao made, all Suzhou silk guaranteed. A few hundred meters from Yan Bingbing's studio, in a clothes market frequented by crowds of foreigners and Chinese alike, one can buy Burberry's silk shirts or a pair of Fendi shoes for about fifty renminbi (forty if one bargains).

May 1997
Boarding the train in Beijing for Shenzhen
Dressed in brown T-shirt dress bought for twenty renminbi from a vendor in Haidian district, I find my hard sleeper on the train, remove my short black boots that I am wearing because they will not fit in my overstuffed suitcase, and slide them under the lowest bunk. I climb up to my middle berth and have only just settled in when the people around me begin to look curiously. “You are not Chinese, are you?” one abruptly asks. I begin the familiar exchange: I am Canadian; my father was born in Burma, although his parents are originally from Fujian; my mother is English from northern England. I ask how they know that I am not Chinese. Two quickly say it is my clothes while a third points to the boots I have just removed. I am on the verge of pursuing how my cheap Beijing-purchased clothes could reveal me as a foreigner, as a fourth person pipes in that I do not move like a Chinese.

20 June 2001
Shanghai, morning
An alley in the old city
Two women dash out of their house, each wearing what looks disturbingly like pajamas. They jump into a taxi and disappear in what I take to be an emergency ride to the hospital. Farther down the street, approaching the Bund, I start encountering more and more women—young, middle-aged, and definitely elderly—all wearing their pjs in broad daylight on the street. Some are wearing simple cotton ones; others sport frilly, lacy ones; some choose daring shades of purple and pink; others appear demure in white. There are many little shops selling all sorts of different models, for as little [End Page 262] as fifty renminbi. Later I ask a friend, a Shanghai sojourner of long date, to solve the puzzle. She smiles and says it is a long-standing Shanghainese fashion that never ceases to attract the attention of foreign visitors to the city. Then she asks me if I have noticed how well-dressed and elegant women appear here in comparison with Beijing.

March 1997
An alley near Beijing University
The cool winter air seeps in through the split seam along the sole of my black leather Nine West boots. I ask the shoemaker sitting with her hand-guided sewing machine in the alley if she can repair it. She tells me to sit on the low wooden stool, one boot on and the other in her hand, as she explains that she will insert a piece of leather inside the boot. My stilted Mandarin and dubious Chineseness draw...


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