dmp: Taking a stroll in my finery (Default)
[personal profile] dmp
Note: This was originally written in my personal blog, but I’ve revised it and initially posted it on my steampunk persona blog on MySpace in participation with The Asian Women Blog Carnival. This post had no relation to the rest of my MySpace site which is a fictional blog for my steampunk character.

I've re-posted the essay here to consolidate more of my thoughts on steampunk. I’m interested in having fellow steampunkers (and other curious folk!) read this, however, and add any contributions to the discussion I’m starting here.

Essay history:
Originally written 3/22/2009
Revised and posted to MySpace: 3/25/2009
Reposted onto Dreamwidth: 6/25/2009


I finally sat down and started to read through the whole whole big RaceFail09 drama over in the sci-fi writing world. I had read the first bits on Elizabeth Bear’s blog back in January, but now saw now much it had morphed into this huge, sleep-depriving read.

When I first read it, it brought up a lot of concerns I had been having about steampunk. Particularly about “Where am I?” in steampunk culture. After all, steampunk is all about the sci-fi, and if people of color (PoC) are having issues with sci-fi in general, then would the turf here be any better?

Now I’ve only been gaining interest in steampunk since the end of last year, because a bunch of friends I knew had a steampunk crew and I was always hearing about the cool stuff they did. And so, I looked into steampunk and realized how awesome it simply was.

There are waistcoats and coattails and tall boots and lovely lace patterns and pocketwatches and all that glorious fashion and cool gearwork! I mean, I’ve been wearing and squeeing over this stuff for years and now, look! There was a whole movement about it that I never fully realized!

So, back in January, spurred by the RaceFail debate and my own curiosity, I tried to find what steampunking Asia was like. I did a lot of Googling. I did a lot of LJ-journal reading. And, well, what did I find?

I found some awesome examples, but those were few and far between. There was some general overview of Asia during the time period, and a focus on Meiji Japan. A lot about Japanese and Chinese culture (the “Big Two”), but only two references to Indian culture and none for Southeast Asia, which where I identify as being from. For the most part, I found…. Nothing. Or what I did find, upset me.

Like this website:

The text on this steampunk site gives this opinion about Asia in the Steampunk world: (Bold parts are my own emphasis)

“With the increasing contact with the East and its ensuing colonization, people in the West became increasingly fascinated by this strange new world. For centuries adventurers, novelists and romantics had been interested in these lands beyond the horizon. Europe had all been explored and people became more and more familiar with the world they lived in. The Orient was still a realm of mystery, inhabited by alien people, exotic and sometimes cruel, with customs that Enlightened Europeans thought of as barbaric; a place where time had apparently stood still."

An age-long orientalist tradition of those who studied the East has in our times been criticized for its presumed bias and even racism.In the realm of steampunk fiction however, we can safely recreate the Orient as it was described and depicted by nineteenth century authors and artists who might never have actually seen it. In steampunk all the myths and miracles of the East that enchanted the Victorians can come true."

Safely recreate the Orient? That’s like saying now that lynching African-Americans is frowned upon today, we can “safely recreate” pointy white hoods as a fashion statement. Or that we can “safely recreate” half-naked men in deerskin loincloths and feathered headdresses as “Indians from the Weird West” because, since we know that image is racist, so it’s okay to use today.

And then I realized something that made me sad about this cool, geeky subculture that I’m so eager to participate in: The steampunk movement romanticizes a time period where imperialist and racist attitudes prevailed and many people were oppressed as a result of them. When Queen Victorian sat upon her throne, a lot of other Western powers were doing not nice things to people in Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa and the Western US, and now, a over hundred years later, people want to live in that time period again, or at least use it as creative inspiration.

And so, questions arose.

By participating in steampunk, am I further endorsing it and shunning my family history as an oppressed colonial? Silly question at first, until you realize that my family history does not mean I’m coming from somewhere generations past my ancestors were surfs or something. I’m talking about my parents. I’m talking about my aunts and uncles and how they were treated. I’m talking about not only that, but the idea that steampunk, could be, just could be, rooted in an attitude that promotes European/American culture, once again, as superior to other cultures. That every other culture, once again, does not count.

And now, enter my conflicts.

If I cosplay as a Brit-influenced wear, do I see myself as being assimilated into Western culture? If I decide to “go eastern” and wear Chinese/Japanese influenced clothing, I’m promoting the stereotype of “only two countries in Asia” (which is already present in current steampunk culture)? Is it fair that in order to participate in a subculture that appeals to me, I have to either pretend to be European or Chinese (while I’m not either)?

A second issue, besides flawed (and lack of) representation. Whenever I see Asian steampunk mentioned in steampunk journals or fashion websites, the word “oriental” pops up a lot. In fast, in the steampunk fashion comm on LJ, all Asian-inspired steampunk wear is tagged as “oriental.” Is it un-PC to use this term to describe Asian-influenced steampunk fashion? After all, you can’t call an Asian-American “oriental” in today’s world. And the site has it’s own basis for using the term “orientalism”: it could refer to an artistic movement at the turn of the century, when Western nations became obsessed with the Near East after the British and French built colonies there; later on with the open contact with the Far East lead to Japonisme . But as a result of that obsession, many portrayals of the Middle East and Far East Asia emphasized those peoples as the eroticized, backward, morally corrupt, and racially inferior “Other.” (I encourage you to read more about this definition of Orientalism by prominent post-colonial academic Edward Said.) From a “steampunk historical” perspective, then, is it still offensive if someone is simply being faithful to the Victorian attitudes during this time period?

I say we should own up to the fact that steampunk takes place in an “alternative” universe, and not use old terms, such as “oriental” to describe Asian steampunk, even if it was in reference to “orientalism.” Yes, because aspects of the artistic Orientalist movement had been patriarchal and racist, and, even in a fantasy-world, we don’t have to promote these same “White Man’s Burden” concepts about people of color and about non-Western cultures. Not only is it insulting for People of Color, but, in my opinion, dangerous, to promote these ideas. Because portraying “orientalist” attitudes, even if the original steampunker knows better, will lead to stereotyping and generalization by people who don’t know better. And, with so much of that ignorance already rampant in modern, mainstream culture, reinforcing it in minor, geeky subcultures won’t help.

But then I wondered: In the end, does it really matter?

Sure, here I go ranting about how much of steampunk portrays Asian culture inaccurately and possibly offensively, but what about how steampunk portrays the entire Victorian era in general? It isn’t all accurate; sometimes, it isn’t even meant to be accurate. Essentially, steampunk is artistic expression, rooted in fantasy-escapism and based on a cross between Victorian pulp fiction and a wave of New Romanticism. It’s freaking running around in top hats and waistcoats firing souped-up Nerf guns at each other. If taken as simply a fashion concept and entertainment trend, why should people be concerned? Why should it matter? Should white fans suddenly have to worry about Bigger Implications, and thus, spoiling the fun they’ve having?

But a realization: Oh YES it matters, and YES other white steampunkers should take note (and Steampunkers of color should consider, if they haven’t already). Because every time someone says it doesn’t matter, they’re further promoting that outdated attitude that a diverse and complex portrayal of Asia does not matter. That it can be packaged into chopsticks, jade dragons, and kimonos for general consumption, to conform to any fashion trend, to mold to any entertainment purpose. And I’m not comfortable with being part of a packaged deal. It is the cultural epidemic of misrepresentation all over again, just like what those Western artists and writers did in the nineteenth century: Orientalism 2.0. And steampunk shouldn’t be that way.

Steampunk bucks a lot of the norms concerning actual Victorian culture, such as their attitudes toward gender roles, sexuality, and class. If steampunk can have women wear trousers and become sky pirates, endorse the public mingling of street urchins and aristocrats, then steampunk can – and should – treat ethnicity with the same modern respect and understanding towards diversity. So if we’re going to go steampunk in a non-Victorian, non-Europeancentric/America-centric sense – drawing from not only Asia but Africa, the Middle East, or the aboriginal peoples of America, as well – we should also take some revisionist thinking along with it.

Epilogue: Putting the Punk Back into Steampunk

A lot of people play off the steampunk movement as a lot of “steam” and not enough “punk”—that is, all dress-up and fetishization of Victorian culture and not enough deconstruction and challenging the establishment.

But I want to change that perception, at least in my own way here. But, at the same time, be an outrageous, ironical character to boot – became damn, I want to have fun too. And not have to be British or Chinese.

So, a proposal to my fellow steampunkers, Asian and non-Asian alike: Steampunk subverts so much, so let’s have it subvert our histories too. Steampunk can be about airships and clockwork and the Crown and Nikola Tesla. But let it also be about the Boxer Rebellion and King Chulalongkorn of Siam, and fighting the British Raj. Or let’s see what happened if China never had that policy of isolation and developed its own steam technology. Or have Indian sky-pirates shipping their tea and spices into England themselves. Or, more interestingly enough, play out imperialism within Asia: the China’s battles against Korea, Mongolia, or Vietnam. Or what about the rising competition between China and Japan? And not to mention outside of Asia; I want to see techno Aztecs or steampunk in Liberia or Sitting Bull with an arm cannon.

Possibilities are out there; help me create them.


Wanna leave a comment via e-mail? E-mail me at attic [dot] hermit [at] gmail [dot] com with the subject line "Steampunking Asia Feedback" in the header.

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