Recently, there has been a new trend on TikTok. Somehow, in between its niche of dance videos and social justice advocacy, a new genre of viral video has popped up. You might have seen a few videos featuring the trademark figures of this trend-- incredibly tall, excessively stoic, and surprisingly well-dressed Chinese individuals walking down the street in almost slow motion. Chinese street fashion TikToks have been taking off -- so much so that even Vogue has taken time to write about them. With their bold colors, unique layering choices, and unbothered demeanor, it makes complete sense that these videos have captured the attention of millions across the internet.
However, despite the virality of Chinese street fashion on social media, there might be broader political implications at hand. On July 21st, TikTok user @brittany.xavier posted her take on the Chinese street style trend as a fun mother-daughter moment. While the original video on TikTok gained over 2.4 million likes and 29.8k comments Twitter users didn't hesitate to jump in and ridicule the video on their platform. Users commented on how the "American girls really don't have it" as well as chipping in that the mother and daughter duo were "colonizing street fashion" in their video. Some users even followed up on the TikTok by sharing Chinese TikTok videos to “cleanse the timeline” of Xavier's video.
One could attribute these responses to the light-hearted internet humor of social justice advocates combating whiteness and white supremacy. But, the celebration of Chinese street style feels almost like fetishization when we consider its similarity to '90s Black fashion. Though some of the outfits feature traditional Chinese design, many others run along the lines of a '90s Naomi Campbell. Considering that Black people influenced Chinese fashion, it is puzzling as to why the internet has deemed Chinese people as the original blueprint.
Let's consider a few things happening in China right now. Besides viral fashion videos, China has been gaining media attention for two other reasons: human rights violations of Uyghur Muslims and the scapegoating COVID-19. Although both issues are a far cry from short videos of entertainment, they are all entangled with how the West has a habit for gate-keeping the East.
First, let's turn to Xinjiang, China where the Chinese government is facing intense scrutiny for its treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other minorities. Numerous major news outlets have written about China's horrific human rights abuses -- including, but not limited to -- cultural genocide, forced labor, and organ harvesting. Even rising Asian activism pages on Instagram like @thepeahceproject and @asian.actiivist have taken the task of identifying the issues in Xinjiang. While each platform has its articles, the consensus remains that China is mistreating its Muslim minorities.
Still, we must be critically analyzing where these news outlets are getting their sources. While this is neither to prove nor to disprove what's happening, many continue to cite Falun Gong, a Chinese cult, and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, a UN identified terrorist organization, as sources for the events in Xinjiang. Other sources have ties to the US-feds, such as CIA-backed sourcing. With all these ambiguous sources, it becomes pertinent to analyze the source for bias. Western society has no hesitation when it comes to blatant anti-China propaganda.
Moreover, let's factor in how COVID-19 plays a role in furthering not only anti-Chinese but anti-Asian ideology. Since the first identified case of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, there has been no shortage of individuals blaming China for the global pandemic, with comments such as the "Kung flu" and "China virus" that scapegoat Chinese people as the cause for the pandemic. One such perpetrator of this rhetoric is President Donald Trump who tweeted about the "China virus" as recently as August 2nd, 2020.
The scapegoating of China isn't without consequence. A recent Pew Research Center study finds that racism directed towards Asian Americans has increased since the start of the pandemic, but that had become apparent before the study’s findings were released. Asian Americans, even those who aren't Chinese, are reporting increasing feelings of worry from others for wearing masks in public, fear for being attacked in public spaces, and have reported higher incidents of racism. While the rhetoric is directed at those of Chinese descent, the perpetrators of the hate crimes don't stop to ask if you're Chinese before acting out of COVID-19-related fear. Since March, there have been reports of a stabbing, an acid attack, and even being set on fire. The anti-China propaganda of Trump and others has dehumanized Asian Americans and increased the likelihood of hate crimes.
Now, what does all this have to do with the Chinese street style trend on TikTok? Chinese culture, and more broadly, Asian cultures are no stranger to exoticization. The fast fashion industry perpetuates the cultural appropriation of traditional garments far too often: the sexualized qipao, the reduction of the bindi as a Coachella accessory. Likewise, the otherization of the model minority myth that paints Asians as untouchable contributes to this as well. Treated as an unrealistic aspiration as to what a “good” person of color is, Asians are often cherry-picked to defend whiteness. Still, with TikTok, there's an added distinction to the traditional anti-Asian racism.
Coming as a form of gate-keeping, this nuance of anti-Asian racism allows the West to define what versions of being Asian and Asian American are acceptable. It reduces an entire nation of rich diversity solely into its government. Americans act like Chinese people are brainwashed, as if our government doesn't perpetrate violence against its own people through the prison industrial complex, voter suppression, or the blatant racism of the president. In this way, the West is allowed to decide how much "Asian" is okay. The teenage girl wearing a qipao to her prom is "acceptable" until she shows too much pride for her heritage. Japanese culture is trendy and cool but Japan's imperial and colonizing past is ignored. Why are countries like the United States given the power to decide for us, for Asians, what is or isn't acceptable? How much of our identities are allowed to be shared? Are we allowed to be seen as full people or only as the tolerable facets that the West pushes onto us.
Consider this about Chinese street style: the wearing of face masks is common across East Asia. Many reasons for wearing masks include: being sick, trying not to get sick, having allergies, covering facial imperfections, hiding, keeping a face warm, or even, just for the aesthetic. This was a common occurrence long before the rise of COVID-19. If you've Googled a picture of your favorite K-Pop idol, you might have seen them wearing a mask pre-pandemic too.
While it is a good move for Western countries to begin adopting the wearing of face masks to stop the spread of COVID-19, it's ironic that Asians still receive mixed treatment for behaviors normalized in their culture. The viral street style videos could help to promote the wearing of masks as after seeing someone dressed head to toe in Balenciaga, it becomes fashionable to wear a mask. On the other hand, it doesn't dispute the fact that 36% of Asian Americans feel worried that others will treat them as suspicious for wearing one.
The past six months have shown Asians and Asian Americans across many lights. While viewing a TikTok might be fun, what larger implications does it have for the treatment of Asian Americans? How far is the West and Western media allowed to gate-keep our identities and decide what aspects of them are permitted?