Friday, July 6, 2012

Steampunk POC: Connie Chen (Chinese-Australian)

The very dapper Connie Chen
Off we go to Down Under again! The last Aussie I interviewed was Stephanie Lai, a writer, and now we have a completely different angle to Aussie steampunk, from Connie Chen, local steampunk photographer for the Melbourne scene! Connie does so many things, I never quite know what she's up to. I definitely know she's an artist of some sort, and also does stuff in law. (The specifics escape me; things on LJ tend to be in one ear, out the other for me these days.)

How do you do steampunk?

I used to be a lot more active in the scene, but Life has been increasingly busy so recently it's taken a backburner to my career and my other creative projects. I used to be moderately active on various Livejournal communities and the Brass Goggles forums a while back. In my local scene I'd volunteer to help out with events and projects, as well as attending and socialising at the various events that were organised. For a little while I was known as the amateur photographer since I'd always be taking a lot of photos, and that was actually a great way to start a conversation with people.

How did you come to steampunk? What were your first impressions of it?

I can't remember exactly when I stumbled across the term and the community, but at the time I was involved with a lot of DIY and crafting. I was interested in reusing discarded and scrap materials to make new, functional objects, and naturally I became really interested in steampunk and the repurposed objects/clothing people made in the subculture. Most of my initial contact was with the Maker crowd and that was all about making waist cinchers from old trousers. My wardrobe already contained a lot of goth and Victoriana elements so I felt I fit within the aesthetic very well too.

My initial impression of steampunk was about deliberate anachronism and redefining historical tropes visually. Like a lot of other people in the community I felt like I'd been "doing" steampunk for a long time. I just didn't quite have a name for it.

So tell us your feelings about steampunk in general. What do you think of the existing / canon literature? The fashions? The communities that have sprung up around them?

I actually got into steampunk a bit before I was properly introduced to social justice, so there's been a lot of soul-searching and redefining what the subculture means for me personally. Previously I'd had a very "live and let live" attitude, although around the time I became aware of social justice issues, I became aware that steampunk not only had whopping issues with neo-colonialism, but that people within the community would sometimes express pretty unthinkingly racist and sexist sentiments. I don't know whether it's because I became more active after my social justice epiphany or if I just blanked out before, but there you go.

Unlike cyberpunk which has a strong dystopian aspect, it's very easy to feel a false sense of nostalgia for "what was" in steampunk, and I definitely saw that a lot on the forums. I always felt concerned when people said they wanted to "recreate" the past, even pre-social justice epiphany, since that sentiment seemed to stem from wilful ignorance of historical fact. For example, a lot of the roleplaying incorporates very Othering language and sentiments that people don't really understand. Also nostalgia for the past where only rich, straight white men had any rights? I had always been under the impression that steampunk, like many fan communities, evolved out of a frustration of the canon and wanting to improve it, and in this case, that canon is history.

I think a lot of the founding steampunk literature did actually explore social issues like technological advances and class and race, but as the subculture becomes more mainstream it's become more of a gimmick aesthetic than tied to any particular ideology. As more mass produced steampunk clothing and even "weaponry" come out, the subculture is becoming almost completely fashion-centric - closer to Elegant Gothic Lolita rather than maybe the counterculture it was first envisioned as. I don't have any problems with people who choose to engage with steampunk in that way (and I do really love the aesthetic myself), or even the direction the subculture is heading necessarily, but I think it's meant the community is much more fractured.

What is your local steampunk scene like?

Melbourne is a pretty small city of 4 million, and Australia's pretty small fry generally too. We don't get steampunk specific cons or anything like that, and most of us would have to travel around the world (literally) to attend them. There's a lot of overlap between the general geek scene, the goths and miscellaneous related subcultures, and steampunk. On one hand the intimacy is nice because it's all familiar faces and I've come to know some members of the scene very well. On the other hand, it means discussing the problematic aspects of steampunk (or even trying to make a more inclusive community!) is a lot more difficult because you're navigating between a bunch of interpersonal relationships that extend into different circles, and you can be seen as unnecessarily causing drama.

More recently, as steampunk has become more popularised, I've found that the emphasis is sadly less on community-building and more on "shows" and "events". I really enjoy the latter, but I'm missing a lot of the grassroots gatherings that happened earlier too.

Unfortunately I can count the number of POC in the Melbourne steampunk scene on one hand, but I think that's just indicative of the larger subculture in general.


Community, creativity, passion to do and make things happen, and the appreciation for creative works and respect for their creators.


Like many fan cultures, a reluctance to acknowledge or engage in a meaningful way with the critiques of the subculture itself.

You mentioned that people unthinkingly express racist and sexist sentiments. Could you give a few examples of more common ones that get said?

The most common forms of subtle bigotry I notice are through microaggressions. During one recent event, the MC said something like (and I'm paraphrasing here) "Let's go back to a time when men were real men". What does that even mean? Do we really want to go back to a time of proscribed gender roles and the domination of gender essentialism?

I think most people get carried away with the fantasy aspects, and don't realise that roleplaying doesn't make their language any less hurtful or marginalising.

I feel I might count cultural appropriation as a form of microaggression at this juncture. Have you ever had to intervene and tell folks when they're doing something problematic? If not, what do you think you would do if you were confronted with something terribly appropriative? (I personally was utterly flummoxed the first few times.)

This has really only happened once in meatspace, and yeah, I was absolutely flummoxed. It was a white person performing in a "geisha" costume and the performance itself was also a shocking stereotype and a hark back to Orientalism. And that was really hard because it was a performance on a stage so I had no idea how to address it at the time. Now that I've had a bit more time to think about it, if it happens again I've decided going to email the organisers/performer. It hasn't happened again yet (this was a couple of years ago) so I've got my fingers crossed I won't have to do that.

I love the idea that steampunk is about revising a canon, and "the canon is history"... could you extrapolate on this? How do you see yourself fitting into this revised canon?

I'm also active in fandom where most fanworks come from a frustration with the canon. Often fanworks will give texts queer readings, there are "Rule 63" works that simultaneously insert more women into the text and question how women are commonly treated into mainstream media. Racebent casting is also getting more popular. I see steampunk as an alternative universe of the 1800s in a similar way - we can play with history to give marginalised groups more spaces with representation, and also question how those groups are being treated now (not just in the 1800s).

As for fitting into revised canon; the fact that I'm queer, female and Chinese and can incorporate these aspects of myself into a character or a history that otherwise wouldn't find those things acceptable is personally very liberating. I recently read two very good articles about Asian appearances (both about hair, but can be extrapolated to general appearance): Lia Incognita's "Why I have a queue" and linked from that, Mimi Nguyen's "My Hair Trauma". Basically they talk about the bind POC are in: if you embrace your cultural background then your appearance is read as a stereotype but if you become an antithesis of that stereotype and you're read as "trying to be white". (Lia's hair "solution" is pretty amazing.)

I would like to incorporate more of my Chinese background into my steampunk, but I wonder if I feel like I'm playing into other people's perception that I am (in their eyes) playing the Other character because I'm the token POC. And it's hard for me because I feel identify culturally more with immigrant Australian cultures than with Chinese ones. My "Chineseness" is not something that can readily be expressed through aesthetics or even easily distinguished from my experience of "Australianess".

I think I've gone off on a bit of a tangent from your question, but my point is that I think of my body and appearance as political. The fact I participate in steampunk (hopefully) reminds others that we're not aiming for recreation of those times, but for play and subversion.

Tangent? Naw, it's perfect, as Ay-Leen and I had that conversation too, about the bind POC are in when they're the token: do we play into stereotypes, or do we assimilate? Especially since most of us belong to migrant populations of some sort--Ay-Leen as Vietnamese-American, I as Malaysian-Chinese. When filtering Chinese-ness through Australian-ness, since it's not readily visual, is it more performative? How does Chinese-ness express itself in the Chinese-Australian context?

What I feel is most uniquely Chinese about myself is fairly private, just because I've most often had these shared experiences with my parents. It wasn't until recently I was actively reading, seeking and sharing with people from similar backgrounds, or even sharing these experiences with my non-Chinese and non-East Asian friends. I really like doing it now, but over the years I sort of hoarded this part of myself as a tie to my parents, so to speak about my experiences being Chinese still very a bit strange, like I'm revealing something intensely intimate.

I think this quirk is possibly unique to me, although I've never really spoken to anyone else about. And, to be honest, I never really thought deeply on the question either, so thanks for asking Jaymee!

You bring up a really good point on community-building versus events and fashion. What are some practical things to do that works towards community-building? How did that community-building occur?

I feel like I've been too critical about this now! Let me make it clear that I love the fashion and going to the events, and it takes a lot of people's hard work and effort to plan these things. So I completely appreciate the fact we have these Nice Things. But as an example of community-building, we recently had a steampunk art exhibition opening in Melbourne with food, music and entertainment, but with a very casual vibe. It was a great way to see what other people were doing - not just the artists but to have the opportunity to chat with anyone who showed up. I think community-building is about being able to share your experiences and passions with other people, but when you have a more traditional performance that sharing is predominantly going one way.

I has many thoughts on neocolonialism within steampunk, but I'm curious to know yours: how do you see neocolonialism expressing itself in steampunk?

Cultural appropriation is probably the first thing that comes to mind. I think a lot of steampunks enjoy beautiful things and want to express their appreciation by showing them off, so don't necessarily understand what is problematic about "borrowing" certain looks or objects from different cultures. The alternate history part of steampunk can sometimes hinder that understanding, because people seem to think that appropriation is okay because we're playing pretend in a fantasy world.

Second is the commonly-heard insistence, or even repeated definition that steampunk has to be Victoriana or Western-centric or ur doin it rong. Thankfully I've only encountered those people online from afar.

Our last Australian steampunk POC, Stephanie Lai, mentioned how Australian literary steampunk has some clearly Australian themes. Do ou feel that there are clearly Australian strains in the cosplay nd Maker communities?

To be fair, I've never read any Australian steampunk literature, or at least nothing that is deliberately being labelled "steampunk". Mayve this makes me a bad steampunk? While I'd love to see steampunk literature with a more distinctly Australian theme, I guess I'm also concerned about two things: first about erasing the Indigenous histories and stories (I feel like non-Indigenous privilege exists in Australia on top of white privilege), and second about appropriating or um, perhaps "claiming" histories that were never mine to begin with? For me embracing my Chinese background means exploring my own history - which is about my parents' immigration during the Cultural Revolution and feeling most at home in Australia than China. I would love to incorporate this into steampunk, but I haven't quite thought through how I might do that.

What would you consider a distinctly Australia theme that you'd like >to see more in steampunk?

The fact Australia used to be a penal colony! I feel like all sorts of alternative histories could branch off of that.

It's pretty difficult being the token POC in any given area. Do you feel that where you are located, there is a possibility of reaching out to other POC to enjoy steampunk? What ought to happen for more POC to join? Do you feel there is something stopping POC from being part of steampunk?

Because Melbourne's so small, the steampunk community here overlaps with the geek and goth communities and both those groups are pretty white so that in itself is obviously a bit of a barrier. Just increasing the visibility of POC in steampunk, both locally and globally, would really help I think. As for if there's anything stopping POC being part of steampunk - I would guess the focus on Victorian England would be a major problem, since I doubt many POC here would have a personal connection to that (and I've always been more a fan of the post-apocalyptic dystopian aspects). I'm not really sure if it's one particular thing.

For all its flaws, what makes steampunk compelling to you?

I'm only really an active participant locally right now and that's because Melbourne only has 11 people so I'm just participating in existing social networks. There are a lot of wonderful and generous people in the subculture here, and I'm just glad that I know them. Online, I tend to only follow the social justice contingent of the steampunks because I haven't found the time to dip my toes back into the main movement. I think we're amazingly lucky to have such a strong social justice voice within the subculture and that's probably the main reason why I'd still consider myself "steampunk". Blogs like Beyond Victoriana and publications like Expanded Horizons have really highlighted the position of POC and non-Western cultures within the subculture, and have contributed to the education of and as well as the direction of where I'd like to see the subculture go in the future. Despite all my talk about steampunk becoming purely aesthetic, I think it's made some people to become more innovative (to be "different" from the crowd if anything else) and that includes projects that's pushed the boundaries of what steampunk can be.

Connie Chen can be found various places online, with an Alice in Wonderland reference. She will be attending Steam Up II, a steampunk cabaret extravaganza in its second year, and Steam Pump III

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