Volume 96, Issue 90
Thursday, March 20,2003

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Buying and selling the Asian identity

Nicole D'Cruz
Gazette Staff

We live in an era where culture itself can be bought and sold. Recently, for example, the Asian identity has been at the centre of this marketing vortex.

From fast food sushi to Chinese tattoos, we've seen an unmistakable surge in Asian inspired trends of late. The fashion and food industries have immersed themselves in overseas cultures, providing an international flair to what we buy.

Before each season at Le Ch‰teau, the clothing chain's designers receive "trend books" from Europe covering five possible themes for the season, explains Le Ch‰teau designer Eddy How. Le Ch‰teau then decides on three themes, and designs their clothing accordingly.

"[The designer] sees a trend coming before mainstream grabs onto it," says Sue Glass, owner of London boutique Frilly Lizard.

How speculated that the Asian influence came from designers who travelled to Hong Kong and Japan.

"You see the kids [in Asia] wearing western clothes, [and it becomes] a criss-crossed influence. We [like to] take the Asian look and put it on white people," How explains.

Providing another perspective, Jacqui, an employee at Addictive Tattooing and Body Piercing, feels a lot of Asian-inspired clothing was influenced by the surge of Asian-inspired tattoos. "[Japanese] Congi designs are small, simple and have meaning."

"Although Asian art has been around for thousand of years, the information age has only now made it available to western culture," Jacqui explains.

Terry Deutscher, a professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business, notes that more people are now travelling globally.

If you are lucky enough to have Internet access, you can take a virtual global tour. "Barriers between cultures are being cutaway, [and] it doesn't take long for things to migrate," Deutscher says.

Critics of the corporate system might feel that, by selling a culture, we are not treating people with the respect they deserve. But Deutscher feels the opposite is true.

"It is an element of respect. We get to know people, and we want to see why they dress and behave the way they do," Deutscher says.

"[The] difference is between [what] an unreflective user [or] wearer of something that is 'cool' understands, and the actions of colonizing otherness through designing and marketing corporate capitalism," says Carole Farber, a Western media, information and technoculture professor. "Consumption is not simply buying. [It] is 'object appropriation' – getting [or] taking, working with or on and disposing of. [Therefore], we must consider what is not appropriated or what is not considered digestible of the other culture by the colonizing or cannibalizing appetite of consumerism [or] capitalism."

As a consumer, we must analyze the motives of a corporation and their censorship tactics when it comes to other cultures. How blurry are the lines between American beliefs and Asian beliefs when they are being sold on the market?

"Appropriation is generally taking and making use of something that is not 'ours.' It is very different from the 'other' expressing their own identity," Farber says.

Applying Farber's notion would be like comparing a designer from China using their cultural background to influence ideas and contrast their work to a North American travelling to Japan for a week, and simply drawing a design of what they see.

The remarkable difference between hip-hop culture and Asian culture is that hip-hop has become a mainstay. Asian-inspired clothing has graced store windows sporadically over the past few years.

Although trends only live for short periods of time, Deutscher believes this should be expected. "It doesn't take long for things to migrate," he says. "We're exposed to so many new ideas [that] wear out quickly."

When you wander down the aisles at Loblaws, you will see products from around the world. Farber believes this is a part of our Canadian identity. "[We have] a national agenda to change," she says.

In such a diverse nation, we must cater to new wants and needs everyday, but Farber stresses the importance of asking: "Who gets to appropriate for profit?"

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