Feed on Posts or Comments 01 October 2023

Monthly ArchiveAugust 2008

Media newlight on 16 Aug 2008

Open your eyes

When I first saw the Spanish basket ball team’s slit-eyed photo, I was baffled. I couldn’t work out what the gesture was about. Slit-eyed people? Do they mean us?

This may somewhat explain the muted response from China. People are largely puzzled by the gesture. When reporting the story, the editor of the Beijing News even felt necessary to add some explanation of what the gesture means, “a common gesture can be suspected as racist, which is not often seen in Asia.”

It may also have something to do with the timing. Chinese media only caught the story after it was raised during the daily news conference during the Olympics. Search “Spanish basket ball team” in Chinese and you get dozens of results all saying “Spanish basket ball team apologized for the guilian (making a face) photo”. One blogger commented that if only the story was broken 24 hours earlier, before the two countries’ basket ball team met, then the Chinese team might be more motivated to resist Spain’s comeback.

The slit-eyed gesture may take some explanation for Chinese to understand, but that does not say we don’t make fun of other people’s look. Cantonese use ‘gwailo‘ (ghost man) to call foreign people because their deep eye sock and funny coloured hairs. You can say it’s disrespectful but over the time it has become neutral, even affectionate. I guess Spanish could use the similar line to defend that photo. Indeed a Chinese blogger living in Barcelona felt moved to defend the locals. “A friendly gesture between close friends to be interpreted as racist. No wonder Spanish people are angry.”

Something deemed to be friendly may not be felt the same way when seeing the light. I guess like gwailo, the slit-eyed gesture was originated at a time of ignorance, when mocking people’s racial characteristics was more acceptable. Whether those participated in this public display thought the time hadn’t changed or the viewers would think the same I have on idea. The advertiser who insisted to take this photo may think it was harmless fun to mock Chinese in such a way when they only thought the Spanish-speaking population as the targeted audiences. But in a globalised world, this is insensitive to say the least.

I frowned on the photo when I thought I finally worked it out, some of my fellow countrymen would shrug it off, but I can understand others may be furious and hurt. Spanish media seem to think all the fuss about this is storm in a tea cup, a misunderstanding of Spanish culture, or even a witch hunt. However, whether stereotyping is playful or hurtful can only be decided by those are being targeted. In this instance, the Spainish may well do their image some good by opening their eyes.

Media newlight on 13 Aug 2008

Price of perfection

The Olympics has truly become showbiz when the headline is an adoring young girl lip-synced a song by another young girl at the opening ceremony. In the director’s mind, the girl with the best voice has to have the cutest complexion as well. The more baffling part is the director of music of the opening ceremony, Chen Qigang, only revealed this fact as one of the “behind the scene” stories when being interviewed on the radio, as if giving away some “making of” extra like those coming with a film’s DVD releases.

Let’s not forget the opening ceremony was directed by Zhang Yimou, a film director renowned for his pursuit of visual perfection, which is not only about striking prime colours and stuning special effects, but also, perhaps more importantly, the perfect face expression and image composition. Zhang Yimou obviously took the latest challenge of directing the opening ceremony performance as if he was shooting a film watched by 4 billions people simultaneously. Image perfect is the holly grail while conventions and rules were something could be bent and ignored.

And lip-syncing is not so unusual in Chinese cinema. In early Chinese cinema, there were those actresses, like “Gold throat” Zhou Xuan who could act as well as sing, but Chinese audiences largely accepted, even expected, the song they heard was not sung by the leading actor and actress, but someone with better voice. During 1950s and 60s when sing-song movies and musicals were hugely popular in Hong Kong’s mandarin film scene, there was a mixture of popular actresses who did and who did not sing. The fact that an actress could not sing wouldn’t dent fan’s affection, only advanced the career of the singer behind the screen. This tradition continued to 1980s Chinese cinema. When Joan Chen, still a budding young actress, played a soprano and sang “I Love You China” in the film Loyalty (1979) (《海外赤子》), of course everyone understood that was a song by a famous soprano Luo Tianchan.

This may somewhat explain the relaxed attitude Chen Qigang displayed. He certainly didn’t expect such a clever act would be ridiculed, mostly by Chinese internet users. What he seemed not to realize, was that audiences enjoy spectacle and perfection in sports, yes, but a performance replying on unfairly borrowed ability isn’t the message the Olympic Games want to sent out.