On November 21st, 2018, Italian fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana were forced to cancel their “Great Show” right before its launch on November 21 in Shanghai. The reason for this sudden cancellation was a commercial for the brand’s “D&G Loves China” campaign which aimed to reach the lucrative the Chinese market. Dolce & Gabbana is the eponymous brand name for duo comprised of Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana—the latter of whom demonstrated an unapologetic and controversial response to public outrage over the ad on social media. Gabbana’s response to an already heated situation further led to guest celebrities and models to withdraw attendance, which led to the cancellation of the promised “Great Show.”
The ads presented a Chinese model in a glamorous red dress trying to eat a variety of Western (i.e. popularized Italian) foods—pizza, spaghetti, and cannoli—with chopsticks. She occasionally laughed at her difficulties in picking up these foods, while hiding her mouth behind hand. She looked very shy. Her exaggerating clumsiness was meant to be ridiculous and funny, but the male narrator of the video provides patronizing and clueless suggestions like "don't attempt to use the chopsticks as knives" while she keeps poking at the abnormally huge plate of food. The ad, by design, leaves the audience with the choice of two feelings: humiliation after witnessing the reinforced stereotype of submissive and innocent-to-stupid Asian girls or confusion as to what message the video was even sending.
Among all the reasons for the outrage that prevailed in both the Mandarin and English-speaking Asian community, the least relatable to someone who’s not familiar with Asian culture is that people are offended by the ad because it is appropriating chopsticks for Italian cuisine. Chopsticks are the symbol of Chinese national pride, after all. This exemplifies the ignorance and cultural misunderstandings of the luxury design industry, and makes us aware of the changes it needs to make in response to a globalizing market—especially in terms of communications as certain buying markets (here specifically referring to China) require culturally customized messages and products in response to their growing economy and buying power. The traditional tactic of winning customers’ hearts by adding some local decorative elements to the original product/service will be considered half-hearted or even aggressively rejected.
Designed products are political. Take chopsticks for example. I recall a few years ago when I first landed in the US from China, the feeling of disappointment when walking around Chinatown and witnessing everyone’s mastery of chopsticks—Chinese or not. I thought the practice was unique to some Asian cultures but had lost its symbolic meaning in such a diverse place. I secretly mourned for losing something I thought was mine. Since then, chopsticks are not a homesick reminder of my country, but rather the object continually represents the feelings of culture shock and disconnection I experienced daily.
Chopsticks also witness a special kind of friendship. In Korea, chopsticks are made of iron so they won’t take in the smell of pickled vegetables, while in China and Japan, most chopsticks are made of wood. The world of chopsticks as objects is narrowed down into the category of one type of utensil based on their utility, and I wonder if the same principle applies to the fact that my Korean friend and I shared the same ambiguous identity as being “Asian” in America, even though its political and ethnological meanings vary from one mind to another. Being “Asian” has utility, too, mostly in conversations of equal rights where the Asian diaspora is narrowed down to a uniform group of people seeking the same things. It seems to matter less how one individual’s character differs from another.
Intellectuals in the field of design prefer to step away from identity conversations so that their work won’t be evaluated on their nationality or cultural origins. I can’t help but wonder if this type of self-protection will generate a psychological mysophobia of personal stories, leaving design studies an empty field, supposedly to be filled with efforts of inviting marginalized groups into the conversation? Can we still hold the assumption that we can talk about design without considering its political context? If design professionals have certain responsibilities to society, then accepting one's identity (or proactively making changes to improve these identities) as a minority shall be part of the conversation.
After graduating from the MA Design Studies program at Parsons, I started a panel series called IN SYNC, inviting Asian female designers to tell their stories of their experiences with identity crisis, how they communicate using a second language, what helped them to overcome self-doubt, and how do these experiences assist them in their design practice? I expected a singular group of people in the audience, but the turnout was more than “Asian.” The experience of being marginalized or living as a minority is quite universal, as long as there is a power dynamic, there will be a group potentially feeling oppressed.
The hope is that crisis is temporary. In a session on “self-knowledge,” a Chinese-born designer who studied in Finland and later worked in the US shared an anecdote with the audience:
When I was in Finland, one day I finally gave up socializing after 10 pm. I thought I would lose my friends since clubbing is a local social activity, and I was trying to fit in until that moment. But this was really not me, and I decided to quit. Surprisingly, I kept a few friends, and I made some new ones by staying true to who I am. The takeaway is that sometimes you can free yourself if you don’t label your own decisions and preferences with external factors such as identities or region of birth.
She experienced a process of which we can learn from to resolve identity crisis: recognize, address, have a new perspective.
It is very difficult to switch from a mindset of collectivism to one of individualism, all while keeping oneself open-minded. It’s like working out a muscle; it's demanding. But these conversations are empowering because they are told by an Asian female to a group of Asian females in the audience, among others. To free yourself from the constraints of identity, you have to first acknowledge it.
The same day the Dolce & Gabbana show was canceled, the major Chinese television network CCTV published a high-quality video titled “Do You Really Understand Chopsticks?” featuring families from both the north and south, cities and suburbs, gathering together in celebration of the family. The video went viral, whoever was annoyed at the D&G ad found peace. But even now, I can’t help but wonder if chopsticks ever really belonged to me.