May 19, 2010

The Fabled Chinese Hipster – Part 1

Tyler Bowa

Lunzi Lun by Tyler Bowa of People's Bike

I meant to comment on J. David Goodman’s (of the TimesSpokes blog) Are There Really No Hipsters in China? when it was first posted on Slate three weeks ago, but (what I intended to be) a brief note has somehow mutated into yet another discursive piece on the ever-vilified subculture that I seem to have buried myself in.

Hence, a three-part discussion on a point I mentioned in passing in my previous open [read: incomplete] comment on hipsterdom: are Chinese hipsters more or less authentic than their Western counterparts? Well, it depends on your definition of hipster—which I glossed over in the aforementioned essay—and whether hip(ster)ness and authenticity are mutually exclusive.

Photos via Ines Brunn

Ines Brunn

The Chinese certainly have history on their side when it comes to bikes; whether or not this is counts as authenticity is less clear. Conversely, there is certainly some degree to which hipsters abuse irony to validate a contemporary subculture that is parasitic on, well, history.

Though there are examples of ironic style on display in China—Mao’s face, red stars, military regalia are today worn with something less than earnestness—there is also more at stake in young people’s fashion choices, making them “less likely to ‘play’ with their dress in a cynical or ironic manner,” Wu explained.

–J. David Goodman, Are There Really No Hipsters in China?, Slate, April 21 2010

In some sense, the overarching pragmatism that permeates Chinese culture seems to preclude irony on principle. Irony, as a fashion statement, falls on deaf ears: it is, in a manner of speaking, like learning another language. Whereas the Western world is one where we (hipsters or otherwise) can afford to be impractical, I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that 99% of the Chinese population would find it inconceivable to spend upwards of two months’ pay on an ostensibly outdated machine for transportation… especially when they are saving up for a car or, at very least, an electric bike (related video).


Ines Brunn

In other words, biking, in and of itself, simply is not subject to irony: it is a way of life, a symbol of tradition—or rather, the past.

A 20-year-old New York hipster can smoke a pipe or drink a really naff drink because it’s funny, but for someone in China, many of their equivalent peers don’t have the history and past knowledge of trends to understand what has been cool in the past.

–Nicole Fall, co-founder of Asian trend consultancy Five by Fifty
(in Are There Really No Hipsters in China?)

To Fall’s point, I would assert that the very concept of the hipster is founded on a highly ‘evolved’ (for lack fo better term) pop/consumer culture, where irony qua hipness is at least one generation removed from brand saturation. (I also have issues with her implication that [New York] hipsters can do things “because it’s funny”; more on this later.) As far as I can tell, Chinese mass culture has just crossed the threshold of postmodernity, at least to the extent that an emerging middle class has recently discovered the joy of brand fetishism.

They prefer brands that are recognizably luxury—Louis Vuitton, Prada, Bottega Veneta, etc.—over more ambiguous fashions.

A bike is not associated with luxury, no matter how expensive its vintage Italian frame might be.

–J. David Goodman, Are There Really No Hipsters in China?, Slate, April 21 2010

Nino by Tyler Bowa for People's Bike

Nino by Tyler Bowa for People's Bike

So perhaps the Chinese concept of irony is not yet afflicted with the knowingness of the Western sensibility: once again, we face the question of whether Chinese hipsters are more or less authentic than, well, us. For them, hipster couture is simply another facet of the uncanny process of selective Westernization—even as the process is accelerated in a globalized/digital world—which is at once ahistorical and hypercontemporary.

There is a saying in Chinese: ‘Laugh at the poor, not the prostitutes… Hipster fashion only really works by communicating your irony—in other words, someone needs to ‘get it.’ Hipster irony in dress would most likely be misinterpreted in Chinese society as simple poverty or weirdness.

–Juanjuan Wu, author of Chinese Fashion From Mao to Now
(in Are There Really No Hipsters in China?)

Hipster culture, on the other hand, still seems slightly beyond their comprehension: the values and evolution of rebellious independent music, street art, cyclic fashion, etc., are lost on the Chinese. In effect, the funhouse mirror of Chinese hipness reflects China’s reaction to cultural imperialism in the broad sense, i.e. where Shanzai (cheap Chinese knockoffs) represent a sort of bizarro world of innovation through imitation.

Ines Brunn

Ines Brunn

So yes, ‘bike culture’—as independent of traditional Chinese culture—has a growing following in both Beijing and Shanghai: (mostly Western expat) advocates have planted the seeds of a grassroots movement, but it remains to be seen whether Chinese youth themselves will embrace fixed-gear biking to catalyze a full-fledged trend.

For many young Chinese today, the bicycle stands for much more than just a means of transportation. It is now a fast-growing culture, that consists of a large community dispersed throughout China. This is especially the case for fixed gears.

–Tyler Bowa, Can Hipster Youth Reinvigorate Bike Culture in China?, January 24 2010


Sandy Ley by Tyler Bowa of People's Bike

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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