A nostalgic exhibit telling the story of a Chinese symbol
by Melissa Lam;, June 2007.

Born in Hong Kong, WESSIELING is a London-based visual artist and a Senior Lecturer at the London College of Fashion (University of the Arts London). Her Cheongsam project at the Hong Kong Arts Centre is particularly apt as the Arts Centre’s location is situated in the famous Wanchai area where “The World of Suzie Wong” story took place and the Cheongsam dress became a popular Chinese fashion symbol in the Western World.

At the time, young Marlon Brando’s very public obsession with actress France Nuyen or Suzie Wong on Broadway epitomized the West’s modern fascination with the Orient, particularly with the re-discovered sexy Hong Kong of the 1960s. Brando and Nuyen’s out-of-wedlock love child in the 1960s seemed not only to acknowledge the fashionable extent of the Asian fetish sweeping the West but to create a legalized and assimilated hybrid of the East and West in cultural montage.

This nostalgia is briefly evoked at WESSIELING’s “Fusionable Cheongsam” exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Each Cheongsam is a separate three dimensional exhibit placed on a plinth surrounding the small two room gallery in the Arts Centre. A spotlight shines on each of the dresses which are placed like historical artifacts in a museum.

The “One-Dollar Dress” is a dress with the pattern of the American dollar bill imprinted as fabric, signifying the American commercialization of the dress in movies. “Authentic Dress” perhaps more punningly has the red dress emerging from a suitcase with chopsticks holding it aloft as if to be consumed. Also see Message Dress, sporting a flag of the PRC on the back.

In the back of the second room, WESSIELING has made a bust of a woman’s torso and has created a multi-media installation showing images from different Western movies that feature the cheongsam such as “In the Mood for Love,” “The World of Suzie Wong,” and “Kill Bill.”This installation is strangely compelling; you can’t help but watch yourself hoping to recognize the famous actresses or dresses. The constant imprint and changes on the woman’s torso also draw attention to the cheongsam’s adaptability.

In this exhibition, although WESSIELING has concentrated on much of the sexuality and power associated with the Cheongsam, the dresses themselves are not concerned with being aesthetically pleasing, rather they are somewhat kitsch-looking and ugly. This makes a statement in itself about the artist’s refusal to engage with the myths behind the cheongsam and study its anthropological function more objectively. Case in point, accompanying the exhibition is a large book for sale detailing the history of the cheongsam in cinema, sociology and literature.

“Fusionable Cheongsam” is an interesting exhibition and one that is worth seeing on your own, whether you are interested in art, fashion or women there is something here for everybody.

This exhibit will be ongoing until June 28, 2007, at the 3rd Floor Experimental Gallery, Hong Kong Arts Centre.