Friday, September 7, 2012

Steampunk POC: Jeannette Ng (Chinese)

Jeannette Ng and the Steampunk Coat
It's July! It's the first Friday of the month! You know what that means: another steampunk POC feature interview! This month, we hike across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom... or across the Pacific to Hong Kong, depending on where she is this time, to meet Jeannette Ng, the Costume Mercenary! Jeannette is the genius behind my steampunk magistrate costume, and many others, such as this fantastic steampunk coat. I love exchanging emails with Jeannette; she is always thoughtful, and thoughtfulness is sometimes accompanied by lengthy paragraphs. She is also the originator of the term "ricepunk" which I rather like

Jeannette is an active LARPer and works with Character I highly recommend commissioning something from her!

Without further ado, Jeannette Ng! 
You're a larper! How did you get into that? Did it translate getting into steampunk easily?

Actually, it's quite a shift in paradigm and I still find it quite difficult to entirely adjust. Superficially, you would think larp and steampunk have a fair bit in common: interest in fantastical worlds, alternative history, character building, costumes and making things. But in fact there's quite a bit of difference in the thought processes behind it.

Larp, or at least my strand of UK larp (I certainly can't speak for all larp ever), has a clear In Character/ Out of Character divide. In Character opinions, feelings and relationships in no way translate directly to out of character ones. That is, a lot of us would play characters with opinions and attitudes that we would disagree with, or even condemn out of character. The larp games I play center around the conflict that arises between the cultural and ideological differences (as well as personality clashes) of the characters. They are, if you will, games about playing imperfect characters in imperfect worlds.

Thus I feel deeply ambivalent about the idealisation of steampunk worlds (and by extension, the Victorian world) in the steampunk subculture. It's quite a shift in perspective for me. For example, I don't see any of my characters as extensions of my own personality or even an alter ego. I don't see their actions as particularily laudable. They are heroes in their own story, but they are themselves very blinded by the prejudices of their own cultures (Ildico the troll particularly so). But in larp, you need that, because you need conflict to drive the game. By design the cultures are written to be insular and bigoted.

I'm certainly not the only one who's expressed ambivalence over idealising the Steampunk/Victorian world. I remember reading several very thoughtful articles about how adopting the social niceties of the past may be enforcing counterproductive gender attitudes, for example. Others have talked about how problematic ideas of the gentleman adventurer can be with the realities of colonialism.

But this also extends to little things. For example, I find posting as your character on forums about where to buy clothes in the real world deeply strange. Equally threads about mundane things being titled "steampunk blank" bemuse me. I suppose if you're a steampunk, then everything you do is steampunk, but it was hard for me to wrap my head around that at first.

Ricepunk Buckle Cheongsam
How did you first get to know about steampunk? What was your first impression of it?

Dom (aka "The Designer" on my blog) and I were browsing buttons at a Haberdashery Wholesalers and he saw a button. It looked like an inside out cog with a screw in the middle. He loved the button so much he designed a coat around it (the Steampunk Coat of my website) and as he sketched, he explained to me about steampunk.

Some time later, the coat was made in collaboration with the tailors of a sample room and, well, some time after that, the Costume Mercenary was born. The whole story is on the blog somewhere, complete with the original sketch. 

All because of a button.

I suppose I owe the existence of the Costume Mercenary to that button and, well, steampunk.

When I first came to the community, I got very invested in defintions and ideologies of steampunk. Definitions of the word itself is deeply divisive, partly because it's all still evolving. Some want it to mean the community, members of the community and everything it does. Some want it to mean an ideology as opposed to an aesthetic. Others want it to mean only Victorian-inspired things and relegate everything else to other branches of "retrofuturism" (I still abhor that word, I prefer "technological fantasy" but potatoes, potatoes).

I know now it's best to step back and ignore it. At some point, a definition will shake out, because that's how language works. And I'm good with that.

I see you do steampunk mostly through costuming. Could you tell us a bit about your costuming history?

It's all quite dull. I did years of afterschool needlework lessons and fiddled about with a toy sewing machine when I was young. I embroidered countless things and knitted numerous patchwork squares for orphan blankets. 

Proper costuming didn't start until I joined Durham University Treasure Trap and hand sewed a Viking tunic (off an internet pattern) for my character during the first couple of weeks of term. I keep saying I'll get around to posting pictures of it on the blog. 

But I'm not actually that good at sewing. I know a lot of people who are just better than me when it comes to making things. I rely quite heavily on subcontracting tailors and borrowing sample rooms. I'm lucky in that various family members have been in the clothing business for some time (the stories my aunts and uncles tell of the glory days!). One heard that I was doing something involving costumes and they said, "huh, we can make that." It sort of grew from there.

I dabble, I suppose. I've knitted sock hats for revolutionaries, made goggles out of beer cans, strung chicken bones together for troll jewellery, dip-dyed dresses in my kitchen and helped Dom dye leather. And of course, I embroidered that mandarin square. 

How do you feel about steampunk being predominantly Anglo for the moment?

I suppose it depends on what you mean by "steampunk", which I know is dodging the question.

Quick Anecdote:

I want to start with a quick anecdote about how we accidentally did non-White steampunk without realising it: Early on, we were rather bemused by various people asking if the Steampunk Coat (designed Dom, worn by men in the photos) took inspiration from Chinese sources. This baffled Dom because his sources of inspiration (as far as he can tell) was Doctor Horrible's labcoat, his own leather jacket, velvet housecoats, Girl Genius and Warhammer 40k. Dom wondered it the percieved "orientalness" was more due to my face being in the photos than any actual aspect of the design. We shall never know, but it was one of those moments that made me feel I shall never be able to escape my own skin. What I do will always be "Chinese Steampunk" in that I will always be Chinese and someone will alwasy ask. I wonder if people ask other people if they write English or American steampunk, but I suspect not.


I've no idea if steampunk would self-identify as a relative of general geekery, but general geekery and its many bastard offspring are, by and large, white and male, to differing degrees. In terms of community, I see the debate about minorities in steampunk as part of of the larger debate about minorities in geekdom (if indeed that is term we should be using to refer to the plethora of loosely related, somewhat overlaping subcultures). 

Which doesn't really answer the question, but it's a huge and thorny topic that feeds into nebulous theories about the kyriarchy I'm not sure I need to go into. And to top it all off, I'm not sure how I necessarily feel about it, more that I have a bundle of loosely related opinions about it.

Me and My Culture:

In terms of aesthetics and inspiration... I confess now that I never found Hong Kong or Chinese culture as a whole very interesting growing up. No one voluntarily seeks out the tourist attractions they live near, as they say. I read almost every fairy tale and myth and legend I could get my hands on. I was deeply apathetic about any book set in the modern era and luckily, as I was running out of books, Amazon with its international shipping came to the rescue. Romantic Fantasy (see ), and especially Mercedes Lackey, had huge impact on my teenage mind. 

That's all just a long way of saying I understand if the East doesn't look very interesting because I thought it was dull too. Temples meant those dingy, pungent places my family dragged me to. I thought of the gods as my (literal) godparents. Tea was that thing that interminable meal that happened every sunday afternoon at which I wasn't allowed to read. And that's all too mundane to be interesting.

The Wuxia Scholar
Except Wuxia, of course, that falls into the excellent category of things set in the past where Everything Was More Cool.

I only really found my own culture interesting when I took Dom around Hong Kong and suddenly I saw it with his eyes. It wasn't just "normal", well it was, but he was able to make me see it as interesting as well. 

Sprawling Worlds and Unspoken Assumptions:

Again, perhaps this links back to how odd I find it that steampunk exists as this sprawling shared world setting which is slightly different to each of its members and the community is still hashing out the ways in which they can talk about the details. It's odd to me as a larper because when I create characters and their costumes, they exist in very specific worlds, where the details are more or less immutable (or mechanisms are in place to deal with "regional variation").

And yet, when any given person on the internet is designing a steampunk X, many of the worldbuilding questions that that X should open up are never answered. The world setting of this object never need be clearly articulated and it is assumed that its steampunkness is self evident. Often, the objective is to create a cool looking thing incorporating the elements of the steampunk aesthetic. 

That is when it can get very thorny for me. A lot of unspoken assumptions go into this complex shared world we term "steampunk". It's not a specifically defined world setting, but we sometimes talk about it as though it is. We will ask each other what would steampunk X look like, as though we can answer that without answering all the underlying questions about the world. 

"What would a steampunk vampire hunter look like?"
Surely it would depend on what sort of vampires they're hunting, where they are hunting them and so forth... And yet we can find an answer. We can work off the cultural archetype of the vampire and vampire hunter.

I'm not saying it's a terrible approach at all. I'm sure I've done it as well, but the problem is, fundamentally, there are a lot of assumptions about this world that are problematic.* Particularly when it is talked about as though it were Victorian Reenactment, without the icky bits. I have read countless threads asking for such-and-such inspiration for costumes where someone would reply with "well, in Victorian England..." There's no need to preface the post with caveats about how steampunk doesn't begin and end with Victoriana (and that, no doubt, they welcome other interpretations and aesthetics), but those statements remain unspoken and often there isn't much added to how to steampunkify Victorian fashion. In other situations, scorn would be poured onto certain trends within steampunk because the Victorians did things differently. Take the debate about colours. Someone would cite that the Victorians actually loved colours and didn't actually look as though they lived in a sepia photograph, seemingly completely missing the point that if steampunk is (for some) a hyperreal world that is supposed to evoke the Victorians (rather than a historically accurate representation of them) it doesn't matter what colours the actual Victorians wore. (I'm sure most will agree that these mittens: just aren't very steampunk.)

What I'm building up to here is the uncomforable feeling I get sometimes that the "icky bits" that gets left out includes colonialism. (I'm sure Jaymee can write more on cherrypicking the history). Not unlike the many, many Chinese railway labourers who often get left out of Westerns or how Blache Ingram's "shawl turban of some gold-wrought Indian fabric" hardly ever makes it into film adaptions of Jane Eyre. In the same way, perhaps, Chinoiserie, Japonisme and other such Orientalist aspects of Victorian culture are ignored. We can often forget how diverse, how complex and how cosmopolitan the Victorians were. And I include myself in this "we" - I'm not sure I realised how international the various elements of high tea were until I revisited that HorribleHistories picture (in which everything was labelled with its origin). 

A lot of steampunk deals with a hyperreal past (that in some ways never was) and that's part of what it is. Every culture reimagines the past to suit themselves (see: the middle ages for the Victorians and the Romans for the Regency) but I would like to think us self aware enough to be able to separate the playground we build of the past from the actual past. And it is not that I claim to know exactly what that past was like (because I don't and in some ways we can't), but we can make some pretty good guesses and we certainly shouldn't be rewriting the past to suit ourselves. 

(Especially when that past is within living memory. I'm looking at you, Hollywood.)

* I find it rather interesting as many (if not most) notable Steampunk Novels aren't actually set in the "vanilla" steampunk setting (as defined as Victorian London plus fantastical steam technology). Many add fantastical creatures (werewolves, zombies, vampires), others are set on other worlds. Others deal with non Western countries or stray from the Victorian time frame.

Idyllic Steampunk
I think Steampunk is going through a shift at the moment. Perhaps because it's more overtly drawing from history (more than generic medaissance fantasy does, at least) it's attracting a lot more attention from people like Jaymee, and I suppose, me. You pretty much substitue the word "steampunk" for the word "fantasy" in Ursula K Le Guin's speech "Some Assumptions About Fantasy" and every word said would hold. It's very moving and I would recommend you read it instead of me. 

And because of how closely it is tied to history (and more recent history at that), I think education is important and much as it pains me to admit it, perhaps more important than with generic medaissance fantasy.

I'll quickly add that I'm writing some (hopefully) non-generic medieval inspired fantasy and have various steampunkish projects in the background.

Steampunkish. I think on some level I do resent it that I feel like I should add that caveat. That what I write isn't, strictly speaking, textbook steampunk.

Which I think is a battle that at least has been won in Fantasy. No one would dare claim non-medieval non-western fantasy isn't fantasy or add a caveat that it is only fantasyish. No one would add on a recommended reading list that it's "not quite".

I love the concept of writing English vs. American steampunk. But I felt the same way you did, about how My Culture Is Totally Boring! until I came to Canada and went home every so often, with different eyes each time. I feel it's kind of common for quite a few of us! (I still don't get the thing with the tea, but in Malaysian-Chinese restaurants it is That Free Drink that is cheaper than water for some reason.) With these new eyes, though, how would you go about conceiving Chinese steampunk? We did a bit of this while discussing the concept design for my costume--the gears in the Mandarin square symbolizing the machine that is the Imperial Bureaucracy--but have you thought more on how a Chinese technofantasy trajectory would look like?

Amused by the tea.

Obviously my Chinese steampunk would be different from any other person's Chinese-inspired steampunk. So I'll that caveat first.

A lot of steampunk that draws on other non-European cultures feel the need to make synchronism and colonialism prominent themes. I certainly have toyed with smooshing together Victorian and period Chinese aesthetics. It also makes sense because it is often done by people who live in two or more cultures. It's a good thing to explore and I do think I'll be returning to that sort of thing as I read more about the Shanghai Bund and colonial Hong Kong. 

But I think it would also be interesting to do it without the whole East Meets West aspect, to develop stories that aren't just not about the West but simply without the West. So how do I do: Reduce steampunk to its themes and tease out corresponding themes in the culture we're examining.

So we're talking about themes of technology, industrialisation and the change they bring; class warfare and social change; building Wonders; repression and societal taboos; exploration and invention; transcendent science; colonialism and imperialism; etcetc

There are a lot of early Chinese inventions, like the printing press and the South Pointing Chariot that are fascinating and so it's easy enough to take that theme and carry it through. A lot of fiction set in Ancient China, including fiction written by Chinese people, downplay the technological aspect so bringing that into the fore would be the start. You could work in more technology (bringing in the fantasy aspect) and ask how the culture would be changed by it. 

Red Wuxia Robes
We talked about the symbolism inherent in a lot of Chinese clothes and daily wear. I sometimes wonder how true it all is ("Yes, this also means good luck!"), but regardless, the Chinese sure think symbolism is important and that ornamentation should have meaning. This sort of thinking is quite convenient since building a costume with cultural depth relies on the culture valuing things like symbolism. That said, it did feel as though we took a long walk in the theory park and came out at exactly the same place: I stick a cog on it.

Now granted, those are deeply symbolic gears and they reflect a number of important aspects of the character and the culture they come from. It's about the idea of the perfect bureaucrat and how they are a part of the greater whole, part of the machinery of the civil service. 

A lot of that takes elements and themes of Chinese history and weaving them around the technofantasy and then asking oneself how they would work together. Civil Service, of course, being a cornerstone of China and it seemed easy to fit that with ideals of machinery. But the thing is, with costumes, I don't need a fully articulate world, just an idea. The rest of the world is really just evoked by it. The costume can fit in a world, but it can often fit into many worlds. The steampunk coat, for example, has been worn by alchemists in more traditionally magitech settings. And I daresay Jaymee does a lot more to build the world of the magistrate outfit than me. 

It would be a mistake to pretend China is a monoculture - the Han Chinese certainly aren't the only people, much as we often use the words Chinese when we mean Han Chinese - and how to build a technofantasy to reflect that would be important. I have no idea how to do it, but it's on the To Think About list. I do think the filing-off-serial-numbers approach helps, but it's really only part of the answer.

One more thing about building Chinese-inspired technofantasy for me is gender. A lot of the themes I think of a Chinese are very gendered. The Forbidden City with its thousands of concubines, for example. Certainly there's no rule saying I'm only allowed one setting. I can write one that is heavily gendered and features a Forbidden City equivalent and write one that isn't heavily gendered. Problems arise in fiction when you expect one character or even setting to be wholly representative (simple example, see all the debates about Tiana). 

But that is all very ambitious. I've not written a word of the actual books that will be set in all these hypothetical worlds, so perhaps it's all very premature.

Do you feel good steampunk sticks as closely as possible to recorded history? How opposed are you to alternate history?

Alternate history is cool, but I prefer large deviations. Small ones can trick the reader into thinking it's actual history (see, for example The Other Boleyn Girl, which tampers with Tudor history). 

And as a personal preference, I prefer that we file off the serial numbers or at least give overt cues to the reader that they are not reading something set in the actual past (say, calling England "Albion" being the classic). It frees us from the expectation and assumption that we are actually writing history and gives us greater scope to just make things up. And you could do a lot more with that because you won't get someone asking about when exactly the point of divergence was and how what-we-know of a certain period evolved into what you are writing about.

On top of that you can be a lot more impressionistic, stylistic or hyperreal once you've filed off the serials numbers. It's jarring to have everyone in Victorian London inexplicably wear only brown, for example, but it's fine if it's InsertRandomNameHere.

This is not to say I'm against all alternative history or refuse to read or watch it. It's just that it is very likely to frustrate me.

Please ramble on about "ricepunk."

Long Rambly Introduction:

The lost ricepunk traveler
Ah, ricepunk.

It is a very silly word for my band of steampunk (with a Chinese-inspired aesthetic). I don't expect it to catch on, really and I confess I only persist in using it because it amuses me.

"Ricepunk" comes from, well, rice. The food that fuels the empire in the bellies of its workers. Needless to say, rice is very important to Chinese culture, I would venture to say moreso than bread or pasta is to any given European culture. The world "Rice" is synonymous with "Food". The standard greeting isn't "how are you?" but "have you eaten rice/food yet?" (There was, in the day, textbooks that taught Chinese students that as a literal translation of the everyday greeting and they came to the West asking everyone about their most recent meal.) We have half a dozen words for different sorts of rice and differentiate between cooked and raw rice. Rice is a measure of time as old people would say "I've crossed more bridges than you've eaten rice." Rice would be given away at important festivals - especially at the Hungry Ghost Festival - and these used to be substantial several kilo bags. You even feed rice to the dead as you leave cooked rice in a ricebowl at their grave and stab three sticks of incense into it (which is why you should never rest your chopsticks vertically in your ricebowl). I could go on. But I think the point is clear, Chinese people like rice.

It's not a particularly glamorous or marketable part of our tradition and I can see why we don't talk about it very much. But it's there and I want it to be the symbol of my own strand of steampunk not simply because it amuses me but because it stands for the mundane. I like that in my fictional worlds. For it to be real and solid to me I need a sense of the mundane, what the world does in between the epic moments.

I think I got it from larp, a love for the in-between moments, but not everyone has a taste for it. Some larp for the big thousand-people battles, others for the interpersonal relationships, others for the sense of story and narrative, still others for the embodiment of a character and the immersion... like many media, it's very diverse.

But I should stop talking around the subject and talk about ricepunk itself, though it does get rather more ill defined. I haven't worked on it that much, but I have the outlines for various world settings (that would, with a little luck, become dead tree novels in time). 

Jade and Stuff:

One of the ideas centers around jade and it as a conduit for "qi" (or "chi"). Qi literally means "breath" or "air" (I'm sure someone else can write about how concepts of soul and breath often overlap) and is  the life force of the universe. It is what martial artists use to power their magic and what fung shui is supposed to align you to the flow of. And assuming a world where all that works, it becomes easy to imagine the use of qi-conducting jade being quite the breakthrough.

You can, for example, have mills powered by the flow of qi if you build the mill built in an area where there is a great deal of qi flowing. Or power your factory with an ancient wizened master, I suppose.

Then of course, I remembered the existence of jade bi (aka "discs") which date back to the neolithic in China, but no one knows what they were originally used for. They then come to symbolise moral integrity, used to ward off evil and get dangled off bits of red string, but really, we have no idea what they were originally for. There are these theories about rituals and symbolism, of course, but, well, you can see how it invites speculation.

And for my ricepunk China, I would like to make it the cog. Symbolically serving the same function as the cog seems to in "normal" steampunk.

The idea that jade conducts qi-flow and that it's circular means that it can also be the cog on a more basic level, glossing over the fact that jade is an awful material to make mechanisms out of. Maybe qi spiritually strengthens it or something.

The roleplayers do take themselves quite seriously! Are you involved in much UK steampunk at all? Or just online?

It's really not serious at all! I can get very serious when I'm trying to explain larp theory and IC/OC divides, but really it's an overly complicated way to say you can kill my character and insult them, I won't be offended and we'll have a drink together afterwards at the pub. Larp is really very silly. We put on silly clothes and run around in the woods. But crucial to any game of pretend is the understanding that its not real. 

Jeannette wearing...
my magistrate costume! lol
I keep saying I'll look more into actually be involved physically in UK steampunk, but I've not found the time. It'll be easier with the car (soon, but not today) and I'm looking forward to it.

The costume you made for me was and still remains an awesome piece of art that I love walking around with. It's pretty much a mainstay. What's your process for commissions?

It's simple enough. I get an email with a description or an idea from a customer and I write back with ideas and sketches of my own. Sometimes people are very specific and there isn't much of a creative process, and at other times, I get to play with a character concept and develop an outfit for it. The latter is admittedly more fun, but there is only so much time.

Afterwards, I pick out cloth, buy buttons and talk to tailors. I sometimes send back pictures of the cloth and buttons to the customer, sometimes I don't need to... it is all very mundane. 

Jeannette Ng posts prototypes, sources of inspiration, reviews and models finished costumes at her blog, the Costume Mercenary. Go check her stuff out! 

1 comment:

  1. "And yet, when any given person on the internet is designing a steampunk X, many of the worldbuilding questions that that X should open up are never answered."

    Yes! This! It's starting to drive me bananas, and I've only just thrown together my first outfit.