Oriental Silk

Xiaowen Zhu

This video is no longer available

Xiaowen Zhu, Oriental Silk (still), 2015.

Artist Cinemas presents Oriental Silk
Xiaowen Zhu

30 Minutes

Artist Cinemas
Week #3

May 3–9, 2021

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Xiaowen Zhu’s Oriental Silk (2015), on view from Monday, May 3 through Sunday, May 9, 2021.

Part of a long-term project of the same name, Oriental Silk is about touch and tactility, craft and value, and the colors of memory. The Oriental Silk emporium, located in Los Angeles, was the first Chinese silk importing business in the United States after WWII. Established more than four decades ago, the shop, which has risen alongside the Hollywood film industry, becomes a productive place to reflect on the astonishing histories of twentieth-century migration and to critique the idea of the American Dream. Through the worldview of the shop owner Kenneth Wong, the beauty of silk and its wondrous craftsmanship stand for the human pursuits that link people and places—and provide purpose—across time and borders.

The film is presented here alongside an interview with Xiaowen Zhu, conducted by Francesca Girelli.

Oriental Silk is the third installment of Faraway, So Close, a program of films and interviews convened by Koki Tanaka, and comprising the sixth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

Faraway, So Close will run from April 19 through May 31, 2021, screening a new film each week accompanied by an interview with the filmmaker(s) conducted by Koki Tanaka and invited guests.

Threads of Nostalgia: Xiaowen Zhu in conversation with by Francesca Girelli

Francesca Girelli (FG):
Xiaowen, you premiered Oriental Silk as a film in 2015 and now it has become a publication, Oriental Silk 乡绸 (Hatje Cantz, 2020), as well. In the artist statement included in the book, you mention that these two declinations of the project—the cinematic and the written one—were conceived for different audiences. I am curious to know who these viewers and readers are, and how the film direction differed from the one with which you conceived the book.

Xiaowen Zhu (XZ):
The reader I had in mind for the book was someone who had an understanding of both Western and Chinese cultures, or who wanted to gain a wider perspective on them. There were all these different layers that I had been processing since the beginning of the project, that were already in the film but not necessarily apparent to every audience, and I tried to interweave these more concretely in the book. The book was also informed by the exchanges I had with the public after showing the film in different places. I would get all sorts of questions. Some people wanted to know more about the film’s protagonist Mr. Wong, while others were interested in understanding how to connect his story to historical narratives. The questions I encountered over the years helped me shape the book’s structure.

In the documentary film I didn’t actively question the origin and context of “oriental” or Orientalism, because the story was narrated through the protagonist, Kenneth Wong, and his oral history. I let the audience decide how to interpret and question that aspect. In the book, however, a transcript of a conversation recorded at the Rhode Island School of Design examined this notion with a critical view. Similarly, topics such as diaspora, labor, migration, racial discrimination, and financial meltdown, are called out explicitly in the publication, and were conceptually intertwined with various design decisions.

There are so many layers in this project such as diaspora, identity, the fabrication of cultural traditions far from the homeland, and the more intimate levels of family history. But the strongest thread, it seems to me, is the idea of nostalgia. What does nostalgia mean to you and what did the project give you on a personal, even cathartic level?

In the book, I describe how I stumbled upon Oriental Silk Importers, the shop that inspired this work, while driving around in L.A. The dissonance between the shop and its surroundings made me feel an instantaneous connection, perhaps because I was feeling at odds with the city myself. It was a place that felt particularly foreign to me; having grown up in Shanghai, I was much more accustomed to a vertical and dense urban fabric.

By the time I encountered Oriental Silk, I had been living in L.A. for more than a year, I had gained a degree of understanding of the dynamics of the city, but I was still feeling out of place. Oriental Silk instantly reminded me of where I came from. As I describe in the book, my first impression of the shop transported me back to the 1990s in Shanghai, when my mother used to take me to the state-run Silk Emporium on West Nanjing Road to buy fabrics. I think ultimately, it was a mix of feelings—being far away from home, feeling alienated and marginalized, and not being recognized for who I was but for how I looked—that prompted my instant connection with Oriental Silk. I could see myself reflected in it, and could recognize in this old-looking shop what others couldn’t.

Chinese silk represents memories of my childhood and my time spent in China. I come from a working-class family, but silk was always in our lives. When I was in elementary school, all the kids were encouraged to take care of silkworms as a science class assignment. For a couple of semesters, I had a shoebox of tiny black silkworms. I would feed them with mulberry leaves and watch them turn into white, puffy worms, and eventually weave silk cocoons and die soon after becoming moths. My classmates and I used to joke that silkworms were the pandas of the worm-world because, like them, they only ate one type of leaves. I have so many memories related to silk, from visiting places renowned for their silk production, to touching and trying on silk garments on various meaningful occasions. They are mostly good memories, same as when I miss China—I only see the positive side of my experiences there.

Silk for me is a tangible translation of nostalgia. The Chinese book title, 乡绸, literally means “silks from (home)town.” What people might not know, unless they speak Mandarin, is that 乡绸 has the same pronunciation as “nostalgia” in Chinese.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the variety of tones and genres across the different sections, including the very diaristic quality of the first nine chapters. What made you you choose that angle?

I allowed myself to be more personal in the book, letting the reader into my personal connection with the Oriental Silk project. I feel that one of the roles I stepped into with this project is that I became the translator of Mr. Wong's story. When you watch the film, it’s not necessarily evident that the filmmaker is Chinese, or that they have studied in the US—it could be anyone really. But I wanted the book to reflect my own personal narration and engagement with Mr. Wong’s narrative. If in the film I was stepping back to disappear and document behind the camera, in the book I stepped forward.

There are two versions of the film, a single-channel and a two-channel one. Why did you decide to have two versions and how do they compare to each other?

The two-channel version is a 60-minute installation that focuses, in a rather contemplative way, on Mr. Wong’s states of mind inside the shop, whereas the single channel is more narrative-driven. I was very interested in how one story could be told in multiple ways by employing different strategies. I made the two-channel one first, but it could only be shown in venues that had enough space to present it as an installation on two screens, whereas the single-channel version could be shown anywhere, including outside of art institutions—at screenings and film festivals, for example—and reach different audiences. Over the years the single-channel version has circulated much more than the first two-channel one.

In the book, you explain that it took Mr. Wong six months to get on board with the project of the documentary, but then you also mention that it took you two years to edit it. What made the editing such a long process? And what were the bigger questions and doubts in your mind in terms of conveying the story in the right way?

I was very emotionally attached to the story and for a whole year, after moving from L.A. to London, I kept editing many different versions. I became slightly obsessed with finding the best direction and pace to tell this story. At times, I would feel I didn’t want the editing process to end. Mr. Wong’s voice lives inside my head, echoing one of his sentences in the film, “it’s hard to let go…”

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Film, Migration & Immigration
Video Art, Documentary, Memory, Diaspora, China
Return to Faraway, So Close
Return to Artist Cinemas
I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.