I woke up in late January, reached for my phone and opened Instagram. I saw Gemma Chan in a pale pink, one-shouldered dress. The caption read: Last looks… My heart sank.
The dress signalled the end of awards season, but in other ways, it was only the beginning.
It all started with the Golden Globes and that dress: petrol blue, shorts, pockets, train, halter-bow neck, plunging back, pockets. Gemma wears matching heels, red lipstick and diamond earrings. Her hair is swept into a low bun.
I spend weeks reading interviews, red carpet recaps and exclusive behind-the-scenes.
Gemma’s outfits of the day look effortless. I wonder how many photos she takes on publicity tour and who takes them. Someone is taking the photos. Someone is looking.
In Sally Wen Mao’s poem ‘Anna May Wong Has Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, the speaker declares:
Because being seen has a different meaning to someone
with my face.
Google tells me that ‘People also ask’: What is Gemma Chan nationality? Is Gemma Chan Chinese? How old is Gemma Chan? How tall is Gemma Chan?
Gemma confesses in an interview:
But there’s very much the media image of who you are—which in this industry you just have to accept exists—and then there’s who you are […] That other Gemma is the one with the perfect facade and it’s completely inaccurate because I live most of my life in complete chaos.
The interviewer notes the intense eye contact she maintains with the lens during the photo shoot and how ‘her face visibly loosens as she slips out of the role of model and back into herself’.
One of the earliest lessons I learnt as a writer was to separate the page self from my other selves.
Mao describes her second poetry collection Oculus as: ‘obsessed with smartphones, and webcams, and this kind of gaze. It’s obsessed with spectacle and being looked at, but it also is aware of all the violence that comes with being looked at.’
I read Franny Choi’s Death by Sex Machine and Soft Science while listening to her playlists.
I am making my way, slowly, through the poetry on her website. I post ‘SM’ on Facebook. A friend comments: I am not that into poetry but this was very good.
Like Oculus, the dedication page of Soft Science reads: for all my sisters. My heart catches.
I have always wanted a sister.
In an interview by Anne Anlin Cheng, Mao muses:
I am interested in this specter of the ‘yellow woman’ and how she pervades and haunts objects, cultures, memories—even when disembodied. This does give her a certain amount of power, and I’m interested in harnessing that.
The interview leads me to Ornamentalism. I read it over the course of a week, jotting down lines and page references. Drawing from feminism, critical race theory, legal studies, art history and film studies, Cheng presents a theory for understanding Asiatic femininity in western culture. The images and ideas, from the nineteenth century to the present day, explain so, so much. My visual lineage.
I’ve long been uneasy about the racism I experience as an East Asian woman. The violence/threat to my body/self was subtle, insidious. Supposedly flattering, but not. I can’t stop thinking about this line:
What does it mean to survive as someone too aestheticized to suffer injury but so aestheticized that she invites injury?
The chapter on Anna May Wong provides context for Mao’s poems, while Cheng’s analysis of the film Ex Machina reminds me of Choi’s on cyborgs. Sister texts.
I finish Ornamentalism and tell Zhi over brunch in June, ‘I want to write about Asian female bodies.’
‘Welcome to the club,’ she replies.
I read about Gemma on my phone as I squeeze onto the City Loop train, on the way to work. From The Hollywood Reporter, I learn that 100 hours of hand pleating 30 yards of silk taffeta went into creating the pale pink dress. The look was inspired by the golden age of Hollywood and the timelessness of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. ‘The original gown idea was going to be black,’ says Gemma’s stylist Rebecca Corbin-Murray. ‘But we really loved the idea of pink. Pink is feminine and powerful.’
Shortly afterwards Corbin-Murray is recognised as the third most powerful stylist in Hollywood. In an interview, she describes the ‘standing practice’ each actress undertakes before walking out the door:
It’s basically posing. Stepping out on a red carpet is terrifying—people are screaming at you from all angles, there are lights going off. I want the girls to go into autopilot so that they’re not panicking about where to put their hands, for instance.
I watch a video where the photographers scream: Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Here! Here! Gemma, look up! Gemma! Hold on! Hold on! Gemma, love that shot! Gemma, looks good!
The messages come in cycles. Someone has shared my work or handle somewhere.
[24 April] @mcgrew_philip: Hello, I viewed your page and decided to write you a few lines to get along with you dear. I’m Dr. Philip from Florida. And you? Hope you don’t mind please i really have a purpose okey
[28 April] @kimlee50832555: Hello friend
[1 May] @lee_huiliang: Hello dear friend
[16 August] @mandixxx: hello ni hao
[2 September] @Davidandy147: Hello how are you doing today!
[3 September] @Davidandy147: Are you busy
I write for literary journals, rather than mainstream media, so am relatively unknown. Others more prominent, more ‘outspoken’, receive death threats. My skin protects me, even as it exposes me. The injury I endure differs from that of the ‘angry black woman’ and the ‘angry brown woman’.
My first viral piece (if 47 retweets and 104 likes count as viral) concluded:
The experience of being stripped of my identity and agency melds into the threat of violence and being sexualised against my will. As a woman of Asian appearance, I am screwed twice over.
As it turns out, I have been writing about my body, and the way it is looked at, for years.
That dress transformed Gemma from ‘actress who played Astrid in Crazy Rich Asians’ to someone I have spent hours reading about. It made Gemma real, while also making it clear I will never meet her.
Cheng suggests Anna May Wong’s subtle performance in Piccadilly, her character Shosho’s self-absorption, reflects both ‘an absence that may be fundamental to the making of stardom’ and ‘the active production of a presence made for witness’. This builds on her critique of Arnold Genthe’s late nineteenth century portraits, taken in San Francisco’s Chinatown:
The Asian female body, by virtue of what is on its sartorial surface, is posed teasingly as liminality itself, connoting both inaccessible interiority and inviting exteriority, inscrutable and yet all too legible.
Reading this, I think of Gemma meeting the eye of the camera, her Instagram followers, the readers of Vogue. Her cool, distant look draws us in, even as it pushes back. Those most aware of the world’s gaze develop an armour, a kind of self-protection.
As a writer (and as a yellow woman), I too am constantly negotiating what, and how much, to reveal.
I am subject, object and audience.
The closing poem in Soft Science is titled ‘Kyoko’s Language Files Are Recovered Following Extensive Damage to Her CPU’, a reference to Ex Machina.
More and more, there are things I do not want to share, or explain. Language, I am learning, has limits.
Something, between poetry and theory, takes root.
Shu-Ling Chua is an essayist, critic and poet. She is working on an essay collection exploring the intersections between life and art, with a focus on self-narrative(s), image and personas.