The Shanghai Pearl
Seattle’s The Shanghai Pearl, known as the Tantalizing Temptress from Taipei, talks BurlyCon, cultural appropriation, advice for loving yourself, costuming, and the PNW Glitter PAC.
Interview: Divertida Devotchka
Q: You’re on the Board of Directors for BurlyCon, happening November 1-4 in Seattle. You’re the Guest of Honor Liaison for this year’s convention as well. Can you tell us about the preparation that’s gone into this year’s event and your roles on the Board and as a liaison?
A: BurlyCon would not happen without the vision of Miss Indigo Blue and a truly amazing group of volunteers. Over fifty volunteers work all year round planning and executing BurlyCon weekend. The love (and learningfest) that ensues is so worth it. This year’s BurlyCon takes place November 1-4 and next year’s Burlycon will take place from November 7-10.
One of my biggest jobs on the board is to help make sure that we as an organization are always working to serve our community at large. My official title is Director of Arts and Culture. My job description is pretty long but one my most important tasks staying abreast of the culture in Burlesque and other art communities to help us stay responsible and relevant.
As Guest of Honor Liaison I get to make sure our guests of honor are taken care of and happy. My focus is usually on our Living Legend Guest of Honor (In the past years we’ve had Toni Elling, Marinka and Ellion Ness. This year we are so excited to host Lottie the Body.) I spend a lot of time corresponding with our amazing living legend guest of honor to help them plan out their classes. During the weekend I accompany them to their classes and make sure they have all they need.
Q: You’re moderating a panel at BurlyCon called, “Race, Ethnicity and Color in Burlesque,” and discussion topics include “cultural appropriation tokenism” and “the Highlander Syndrome.” Do you care to touch briefly on either of these topics and how they relate to burlesque?
A: Sure! The Cultural Appropriation conversation has been happening for years and is a pretty big topic. So I’m not sure I can touch on it briefly. :)
I delved into this topic pretty deeply earlier this year. Not sure if you had a chance to read them already, but in case you haven’t- here is my note on the topic as well as the interview I did on Racialicious (with Chicava Honeychild and the ladies of Brown Girl Burlesque).
I think that a very important as performers, artists, media makers of any kind is to consider not only our intention but also our impact.
My note on the topic:
My original intention was to have one post with my experience and feelings surrounding Dita Von Teese’s Opium Den act and provide resources for anyone that wanted to read about why, but given the direction of the ensuing dialogue, I feel the need to expound and clarify.
First of all, I am not attacking Dita or the Strip Strip Hooray! Show. She has done a tremendous amount of good for burlesque and women in pop culture. I admire her greatly for the work she has done and the reach she has as an entertainer and businesswoman.
I am also not saying anyone should be offended or is a bad person for enjoying the act.
What I am saying is that I was affected negatively by the act and that I am not alone.
I was uncomfortable watching a white woman invoking two dimensional stereotypes of Asian women to convey the message of sex. Opium is also the subject of two vicious wars perpetrated against China and its people. In addition, many of the harmful stereotypes that still exist today stem from this terrible time in China’s history.
I have spent most of my life defending my three dimensional humanity and sexuality against these stereotypes. It is painful to see those stereotypes casually worn as a costume by someone who has not had those specific experiences.
I would have loved to have been able to enjoy the finale as much as the rest of the show.
But that’s not the point.
The problem is larger than my experience, Dita, or burlesque. The problem is the subtle and complex ways in which institutionalized racism pervades our everyday lives. It has everything to do with society, history, culture, pop culture, power, privilege, and responsibility.
My experience of offense and my choice of relatively neutral action is considered ‘unpopular’. My desire to ask questions, raise awareness, and provide resources has caused incendiary and polarizing commentary. These are symptoms of that larger problem.
And it will never get better if we don’t talk about it.
The Strip Strip Hooray show is spectacular and revolutionary in so many different and wonderful ways. However, I was stunned that the finale was an act that perpetuates harmful and negative stereotypes of Asian women. It was very incongruous with the rest of the show.
It would seem that throughout the conception of the act, all the tour planning, and all the press, not one person considered the possibility that the material could be insensitive, harmful, or offensive.
Dita herself has stated that she smoked opium in researching this act. Then, didn’t the first and second Opium Wars come up in her research? Wouldn’t this be clearly loaded territory?
Her reach and power as a prominent member of pop culture is exactly why this needs to be addressed.
A few ripples to consider:
- The casual burlesque audience thinking that the best in the best of burlesque is an outdated orientalist act.
- The casual showgoer thinking that burlesque is irrelevant and not a legitimate artform because of the outdated or culturally insensitive material.
- An audience member that finds burlesque uncomfortable and/or disempowering.
- The audience member who already harbors negative Asian stereotypes and watches it glorified and reinforced.
- Fans and followers thinking that cultural appropriation is not only acceptable, but popular, trendy, and fashionable.
It’s these considerations that seem to be missing entirely. This kind of consideration is a responsibility we have to each other as humans, especially when you are in a position of power.
Yes, there is value to classic burlesque, challenging art, and nostalgia, but there is also value to progress. Burlesque has come a long way. We can do better.
I am not saying artists should not tackle controversial or challenging subjects. However, If we choose to take on challenging material, we should be prepared to have challenging conversations. I absolutely believe that art will not suffer from sensitivity. Sensitivity should make us work harder, research more, and think more. Art can only benefit from that.
We could do well to be more sensitive and aware of our individual privileges and other people’s experiences. It is not only our responsibility to one another, but common courtesy to consider others in our actions.
There are many damaging stereotypes and behaviors that used to be widely acceptable and now thankfully, no longer have a positive presence in mainstream thinking. This change is due to people asking speaking up, taking action, and raising awareness.
Regarding choice, one of the reasons Burlesque is so empowering and potent is choice. We serve as our own directors and we choose the stories we tell. That sort of agency with our sexuality and bodies is rare and powerful.
I don’t have a choice in my sex and my race. I don’t get to choose the complex and rich human histories that precede me. I certainly don’t have a choice in how and why sexism and racism is so institutionalized in our society. Examples of racism are sometimes overt, clear, and tragic. Often however, they are subtle, complex, and challenging.
What I do have a choice in is when I see a symptom of this larger problem, I can choose to act or not to act. I can choose to speak up or stay silent.
Silence is the only choice that will keep us from doing better.
Again, if you are interested in the what’s and why’s such an act can harm, here’s some reading for you:
Here are some recent news items and blogs on this topic:
I love Jay Smooth’s take on talking race:
Video and photos of the act in question:
Here is the racialicious article:
Q: I was reading a past interview of yours and saw that like many other performers that I’ve interviewed, you’ve mentioned that somehow by accident your involvement in burlesque has simultaneously helped you grow a love for yourself as well as your body, which you’ve stated you didn’t always love. Do you have any advice for gals out there who are struggling with loving their “soft, curvy and juicy body” as you put it?
A: Ha! It’s just going to get softer and curvier over here as it’s just become very wintery over here and my body wants all the carbs and all the sweets!
Here’s the advice I would give:
- Be gentle with yourself and LOVE YOURSELF. I think that’s one of our most important jobs as humans, to love ourselves and each other.
- Be open to the possibility that all the negativity, self loathing, shame, hate, etc is a product of billions upon billions of dollars of propaganda (and an extremely unhealthy society) and is not your authentic, true self talking.
- I would ask ‘How is this self loathing, shaming, hate, negativity serving you?”
I would also echo the advice of World Famous BOB who says “If you find yourself on a negative train and can’t get yourself over to the positive train, at least try to get to a neutral space.’
Q: Let’s talk the development of Shanghai Pearl. You were a painter and theater major, and if I’m not mistaken, your first burlesque show as an audience member was Tease-O-Rama 2002 in San Francisco. You graduated from Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque in 2006 and you began interning at the Academy during your first year as a performer. You interned and assisted for years and you’re now a lead instructor at the Academy. Like many of us, you became obsessed from day one, but you’ve stated that you were “full-time from the very beginning” and that burlesque immediately “took over [your] life.” Can you describe the whirlwind that it must have been to go from being an audience member to full-time burlesquer seemingly immediately? What a story!
A: Actually, the whirlwind happened my first year attending the Academy of Burlesque. For a few years I was very happy being in the audience. After a few years of regularly attending burlesque shows, I started to notice that I rarely saw any performers of color and I wanted to find out why that was. So I originally signed up for the course to explore that, I had no intentions of becoming a burlesque performer myself.
Throughout that first year, several things just ‘clicked’ and it really just took over my life. It’s definitely been a whirlwind ever since.
My first few years I had some pretty extraordinary moments where not only did I have a chance to meet some of my burlesque idols, I got to take classes from them, and then before you know it I would be sharing a backstage with them! It was a truly amazing and special experience.
I feel extremely lucky to have the life I have. The choices I have, the places I have been, the people I have met through Burlesque are nothing short of amazing.
Q: You have years of experience as a costumer, even prior to your burlesque career, and you’ve said that you’re “not a trained seamstress” and that you were and still are “very D.I.Y.” Please share with us your pre-burlesque costuming experience. Regarding burlesque, have you always and do you still make all of your own costumes, or do you ever commission items from others? What has been the most challenging costuming undertaking you’ve tackled thus far?
A: My costuming experience pre-burlesque was limited to going to thrift stores religiously to dig around for oddities and treasures to deconstruct and reinvent them. In high school I used to make costumes for concerts (fairy costumes for Tori Amos concerts and punky/gothy outfits for The Cure).
I have always designed all of my costumes, but the meticulous math behind patternmaking is not one of my strengths. Usually I’ll plan out a new costume and if an article is too difficult for me to find or make I will commission work. I have worked with extremely talented local designers including Danial Hellman, Jamie Von Stratton, Esther Garcia, and Jady at Steamtropolis.com.
Hmm, most challenging undertaking? The first thing that comes to mind is my most recent headdress. I had a lot of fun working out some of the technical details (positioning, distribution of weight). It’s quite large and features many delicate details. I spent a considerable amount of time working out how to stay true to my design while protecting the delicate decorations and keeping it comfortable to wear.
Q: I read an interview from Northwest Asian Weekly from 2010 in which you spoke about a common issue with some performers – the difficulty of sharing your performance career with your family. As of that interview, you stated that you hadn’t told your mom much except that you were in theater because you didn’t think she would “get it” and how she hadn’t been to a show but you were hoping to one day change that. I was wondering – does your mom know more now than she did? Has she been to a show yet?
A: It is hard to talk about. This particular kind of embodied, empowered, sexy lady love is not really a part of traditional Asian lifestyle or even language for that matter. My blood family is also quite old fashioned and along with that come some very outdated notions of women’s roles and narratives of success. I think that is a pretty common theme among immigrant families. Immigrants are occupied with survival and fitting in, the last thing on your mind is choice and empowerment.
My mom might know more than she did five years ago (she does have internet access and I don’t hide what I’m doing in the world) but I wouldn’t know about it. It’s not something we talk about. I took her to a pretty tame cabaret (it was mostly cabaret and acrobatics with a little burlesque) show once and she wasn’t particularly excited by it. So I don’t push it.
I think that on some level she is happy that that I am happy, but my impression is she’d be over the moon to see me married with children.
Q: I’ve read a little about your Pacific Northwest Glitter Political Action Committee and I’d love to hear more. Can you tell me a little more about the committee and its mission?
A: The PNW Glitter PAC is made of up of smart, socially conscious artists that want to make a difference and raise money for causes we believe in and politicians that have our interests at heart. There’s no reason why artists can’t be as powerful and effective as some of the irresponsible businesses and corporations out there. The difference in tax bracket and capital will just have to be made up by some extra organization of our smarts and sass. Over the summer we raised over $4500 for the Obama re-election campaign.
PNW Glitter PAC: Pacific Northwest Artists, Freaks, and Radicals organizing to make a difference.
Q: What’s next for Shanghai Pearl?
A: I am starting to plot out a busy 2013. I travel widely to perform and teach and currently I have plans to hop around the West Coast early next year and the East Coast in the Spring.
I am also very excited that to have just completed my new website: www.theshanghaipearl.com