Fatima Al Qadiri's Reversed Shanzhai: Reading Asiatisch as Translational and Transnational
Fatima Al Qadiri's debut album Asiatisch (Hyperdub) exemplifies the artist's open-ended yet deeply troubling provocations around the notions of appropriation, alienation and cultural fantasy. Asiatisch repurposes Western stereotypes of Chineseness to create a “simulated roadtrip through an imagined China.”1 In so doing, it challenges essentialist and reductive views of what it means to be Chinese and “Asian”. I argue that the album's potentially offensive sonic weaponry can be better understood via a discourse of transnationalism which acknowledges struggle and the failure to bring competing global information flows into a harmonious solution. Suspended in a state of in- betweenness, Asiatisch does not provide answers but, through its mistranslations, alerts us to regimes of power and the conflicting forces at play in intercultural (mis)communications.
Opening the album is “Shanzhai”, a pivotal track which highlights Asiatisch's contentious recycling of cultural signifiers. Shanzhai is a term that originally denoted a mountain stronghold for bandits and later adopted the meaning of the counterfeiting of Western brands by Chinese companies. New York art collective, Shanzhai Biennial, asked Al Qadiri to produce a cheap Chinese instrumental for a video which featured a cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2U”, regurgitated in nonsensical Mandarin by Helen Fung. Rejected by Shanzhai Biennial for sounding too sophisticated, Al Qadiri's instrumental became the catalyst for her to investigate the “weird complex of sonic interchanges between the West and China.”2 She tells The New Yorker, “[The album] encapsulates the idea of removal from the source, just constant layers of signal degradation.”3 There is indeed a sense of watering-down and fragmentation as the song is refracted through Prince's original, then through O'Connor's version, and again through Fung's a cappella until it is nothing more than a paradoxically heartfelt yet semantically-empty phonetic imitation. The thematic of Al Qadiri's album is, in essence, a reversed shanzhai through a blurring of Western R&B forms, sinogrime4 inflections and its reflexive “soft-synth pirating of Chinese musical signs.”5
Asiatisch is not concerned with accurate depictions of China but it portrays a hybridised and dystopian junkyard filled with clichés that plague the West's fetishisation of the East. More specifically, the production methods and tropes Al Qadiri has chosen to use create a cartoonish simulation of Chinese music. Using an “Asian” midi kit, Al Qadiri embellishes Asiatisch with virtual instruments (most probably designed by Western engineers) such as flutes, gongs, monastic voices, mallets and glassy pads that act as a synecdoche for a generalised “Asia” in the popular imaginary. The titles of the tracks are telling, invoking a history of the bastardisation of Chinese cultural experiences. For example, choosing the colonial spelling for “Szechuan” rather than “Sichuan”, Al Qadiri positions the work within a paradigm of Western substitution and cultural dilution. “Dragon Tattoo” appropriates the racist lyrics from Lady and the Tramp's “We Are Siamese” with its hypnotic: “I’ve got a Dragon tattoo on my arm/ And I mean to cause you harm/ Speak Chinese if you please.” The clichéd imagery is jarring enough but the superimposition of English on the supposed Chinese-speaking subject renders her/him even more strange and disjunctive. Chinese is an extremely proverbial language in which one character alone can conjure up a plethora of meanings and references. Using English in portrayals of Chinese mysticism strips the work of a semantic thickness that is specific to the Chinese language. The hybridised result appears like a perverse form of ventriloquism where the real voice of the speaker has been supplanted by an English intermediary. Indeed, Al Qadiri is well aware of how stereotypes are about control and authority: “demonizing a group of people in order to usurp their power somehow, or to create fear mongering to deflect from some from other real problem.”6 While Al Qadiri defends her work from perpetuating stereotypes, at times the sounds, images and ideas Asiatisch invokes in the name of critique too closely resemble the type of racism I've experienced throughout my life as a first-generation Chinese immigrant in Australia. Asiatisch thus risks eliciting the same feelings of cultural misunderstanding as other overtly racist texts, and that as such, the album does not necessarily represent a radical departure from the discourse of Orientalism as it stands. However, what can we gain from this discussion if fidelity is not the goal? What can we learn, or more pertinently, unlearn from a history of Western imaginative demonisation of the East?
Not seeking to represent anyone, Al Qadiri states that she is posing questions about the serious othering of China in the Western imagination.7 In Edward Said's seminal work Orientalism, he argues that Orientalism is not concerned with the “correctness of the representation nor its fidelity to some great original.”8 As the Orient cannot speak for itself, these representations were constructed by and for the Western consciousness and are “governed not simply by empirical reality but by a battery of desires, repressions, investments, and projections.”9 While Asiatisch risks repeating the Orientalist tendency of speaking on the subject’s behalf, I propose that a more effective reading is through a framework of translation rather than representation. Although Al Qadiri has often positioned herself as Asian in an attempt to highlight how the word “Asian” problematically subsumes different nations into a monolithic whole, she is not Chinese and had not even visited China until after the album's release. Her subject position thus makes her an unreliable translator as she can only draw upon performative and imaginative utterances of Chineseness in cross-cultural contact, rather than anything embodied or authentic. Nevertheless, as Lawrence Venuti has argued, translation should be made “visible” and Asiatisch purports to do so. What Venuti calls the “foreignizing” method is a failure to achieve a pure translation, choosing to present a more publishable and edited version. He posits:
Foreignizing translation signifies the difference of the foreign text, yet only by disrupting the cultural codes that prevail in the target language. In its efforts to do right abroad, this translation method must do wrong at home, deviating from native norms to state an alien reading experience.10
Further, drawing on Julia Kuehn's notion of “suspension” and struggle in the concepts of transnation and translation, it may be more fruitful to interpret Asiatisch via its “mistranslations” which inhabit the space between two languages and “their differences become even more obvious, as does the fact that these two languages may converge but will never merge either formally or semantically.”11 Titling the album Asiatisch, German for “Asian”, Al Qadiri reinforces a sense of displacement, twice-removed, to the extent where she wants people to feel alienated: “I want people to mispronounce it. I want it to get stuck in their mouth.”12 Considering that translation can expose systems of power, specifically the dynamics between Self and Other, Al Qadiri employs ambivalence and miscommunication to undermine essentialist views of China in the Western imaginary.
Al Qadiri is not interested in closure but in the idea of non-resolution.13 In an interview with The New Yorker , she uses the analogy of Scheherazade’s story-telling in One Thousand and One Nights to help illuminate Asiatisch. 14 Things are seldom stable or resolved in what Al Qadiri describes as “a digital age of viral interchange and the hi-speed trading of cultural bytes.” 15 Although she attempts to embed some presence of the real China by sampling Chinese Classical poetry in “Jade Stairs”, “Wudang” and “Loading Beijing”, one can’t help but feel that its appearance in the form of robotic or gibberish incarnations is not so much edifying as it is threatening and dehumanising. Chinese is a tonal language and hence the use of a monotonic voice is not an innocent aesthetic choice but a deliberate move to erase meaning from the lines of Classical poetry. None of the instrumental pieces properly flesh out the subtleties of most Asian music that is not harmony-oriented but is driven by timbres and microtonal inflections, influenced by the contours of their language. Traditional Chinese music, especially vocal music, is mostly heterophonic and the pitch-set is more nuanced than the typical “black notes” on the piano via pitch bends and slides. Al Qadiri’s album is a flattened-out place of in-betweenness, an anti-homage through its hauntingly beautiful emptiness. As in Said's conception of Orientalist texts, the effectiveness of Asiatisch is enabled precisely by the absence of, or at least the untempered voice of the subject explored. The album enters a non-place, neither truly Western nor Asian, and demonstrates how hybridity, as Ien Ang suggests, is “not the solution” but emphasises the “difficulty of living with differences, their ultimately irreducible resistance to complete dissolution.” 16
While I don’t think it is fruitful to create binomial oppositions of “us” verse “them” or East versus “them” or East versus West, I do think it is extremely important that we question who is benefiting from the cultural critique in Asiatisch. Most of the album's reviews I have read are from non-Chinese commentators and have neglected to effectively interrogate what is a very clever piece of cultural appropriation. This is perhaps because Al Qadiri herself is female and comes from her own particular subject position, rendering her somewhat immune to accusations of insensitivity. However, I am not convinced that clumping subaltern identities together and in turn, blessing Al Qadiri with the right to speak on behalf of some kind of Chinese experience, is redeeming or helpful.Asiatisch becomes problematic when we realise that the intended audience is most likely a Eurocentric one, and without the presence of a reliable Chinese narrator to provide balance the album risks propagating stereotypes within a predominantly Western sphere. In today's globalised milieu where transcultural flows of information constantly reshape the discourse of national and ethnic identity, it is even more important to unpack notions of belonging, desire and representation in intercultural communications. It seems difficult enough for Chinese people, particularly diasporic subjects, to define what “Chineseness” mean. As Elaine Yee Lin Ho succinctly postulates, “the contestations with essentialism develop further profundity and global extension as ethnic Chinese subjects strategize against their minorization in different nations of settlement. Their strategies put a premium on mobility, and draw upon the imagined, actual or virtual transnationality of different generations.” 17 While discussions around authenticity tend to be slippery, I hope this article has contributed to the dialogue that Al Qadiri wishes to start, and illuminates the fact that Chinese people are not figments of some hegemonic cultural fantasy but are a hyper-diverse group, many of whom inhabit heterogenous, transnational identities and might be better placed to make kind of cultural inquiry.
Given the non-didactic approach in Asiatisch, the onus is placed on the listener to delve deeper and beyond the space of the album in deciphering and repudiating the system of problematic ideas at play here. Only then does Asiatisch work as a meaningful piece of commentary. As a person who can’t help but hear residual “ching-chong Chinaman” undertones in some of these tracks, I encourage you to examine Al Qadiri's shanzhai with both awe and suspicion.
1 “Asiatisch About,” http://fatimaalqadiri.com.
3 Sasha Frere-Jones, “A Non-Resolution to Elect Fatima Al Qadiri to Non-Office”, The New Yorker, May 12, 2014. 4 Sinogrime is a sub-genre of dance music that emerged in London around the early 2000s. Although artists creating
this style of music did not necessarily define their works as such, the term “sinogrime” was coined by Hyperdub
label head Kode9 to describe a thread of Asian musically-influenced grime tracks.
5 “Asiatisch About.”
6 Ruth Saxelby, “The Many Worlds of Fatima Al Qadiri: "I never have any fear with anything I do." The Fader, May 13, 2014.
8 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003), 21.
9 Ibid, 8.
10 Lawrence Venuti, “Translation as Cultural Politics: Regimes of Domestication in English.” Textual Practice 7:2
11 Julia Kuehn, “China Abroad: Between Transnation and Translation,” in China Abroad. Travels, Subjects, Spaces, edited by Elaine Yee Lin Ho and Julia Kuehn, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), 39 – 40.
12 Saxelby, “The Many Worlds of Fatima Al Qadiri”.
13 Frere-Jones, “A Non-Resolution”.
14 In order to stay alive, Scheherazade tells stories to The Sultan but she intentionally does not finish them, so The Sultan, eager to hear the ending of each narrative, spares her life from one day to the next. Enthralled by her tales, The Sultan falls in love with Scheherazade and ultimately marries her.
15 “Asiatisch About.”
16 Ien Ang, “Together-In-Difference: Beyond Diaspora, Into Hybridity.” Asian Studies Review 27.2 (2003): 150.
17 Elaine Yee Lin Ho, “China Abroad: Nation and Diaspora in a Chinese Frame,” in China Abroad.