What do you think of when someone mentions Dolce & Gabbana? For me, I picture a lot of flowery, exquisite patterns, the renaissance, and vintage decors, etc. Then again, these thoughts are usually followed by this other thought: “something I could never afford!”
It all started with Dolce & Gabbana’s “Great Show” that was supposed to kick off on November 21 in Shanghai. It was meant to be an unprecedented fashion show hosted by the Italian luxury brand in China, with an estimated turnout of over 300 models and dozens of Chinese celebrities.
The brand must have evidently put in lots of effort into its marketing, but threw their efforts all down the drain with the premiere of a commercial in bad taste before the show. The commercial in question showed a typical Chinese model eating three traditional Italian meals — pizza, pasta with tomato sauce, and a cannolo siciliano, using chopsticks in a purposefully clumsy way. She wore a shiny red dress and decorated herself in jewelry from Dolce & Gabbana.
Bad Taste, Arrogance, and Misunderstanding
Understandably, the commercial was meant to be a video that depicted the cultural differences between Italy and China, as the official account of the brand dubs it as “a tribute towards Chinese culture”. The original words were “Let us show you guys how you’d eat the great Italian Margherita Pizza, with this little stick-shaped tableware.” Mind the word “great” here. Chopsticks are the essence of Chinese food culture. Chinese people have, since ancient times, prepared food and ingredients in a delicate way. Ingredients for cooking were usually chopped into small pieces, and thus came the invention of chopsticks. This fine tradition was then widespread to other Asian countries like Japan or Korea.
What’s most disturbing about this video for the Chinese audience is the way the model behaves. She moved with exaggeration and had an awkward, embarrassing facial expression on her face throughout the duration. Not only that, her over-exaggerated makeup accentuated her facial features, in an awful way, that made her eyes look like slits.
As if this wasn’t bad enough already, the actress proceeded to be served three comically large dishes with a serving portion for about a whole family of ten. “Isn’t this size too big!”, “it (cheese) is going to flow down.” The whole commercial was drowned in narration filled with sexual implications. The little blushing expressions on the model’s face when she picks up some white cream with her chopsticks is not only ridiculous but also downright insulting. And to put the nail in the coffin, she is seen later greatly astonished by the huge size of the cannolo siciliano, a popular baguette-shaped Italian dessert. It’s obvious at this point what the shape and size is symbolic of, or trying to insinuate.
Apart from the fancy dress-ups, the actress looked like a person who’d just walked out of an opium den in the late Qing Dynasty. The setting in the commercial was also decorated with red lanterns, as if the shoot took place in old China Town in western movies.
Such stereotypes are not something uncommon, as we also see it in Disney’s Mulan, who is taken from the Chinese folk tale of Hua Mulan. Americans tend to blend their vision of Chinese culture with other similar Asian cultures. The heroine Mulan, has that typical Asian slanted eyes, that extend all the way up to her temples.
Similar to the famous Asian actress Lucy Liu, who with the typically preferred Asian looks in westerners eyes, has a successful career in Hollywood.
The commercial also reminded me of what we often see in Hollywood blockbusters. For instance in Marvel films, the Asian faces are either peddlers along the street, or small business owners that are always being bullied (like the Asian lady in the recent movie Venom). The scenes taken in China Towns probably had the inspiration from the Kong-Fu films of the last century, which are the early windows for westerners to learn about modern China.
Racism and narrow-mindedness
Now we could all perhaps give D&G some credit by saying that they were perhaps misinformed or had a misunderstanding of what Chinese culture was really about. But the benefit of the doubt could not be given this time due to what happened after the airing. What really flared people up was the Instagram records of a conversation between Stefano Gabbana, one of the brand’s founders, and a user who questioned him about the commercial.
“You think we are stupid to come to China and post a wrong video?? It’s a tribute. If the Chinese feel offended by a girl who spells pizza or pasta with chopsticks means that those Chinese feel inferior…and then it’s their problem, not ours!!! The whole world knows that the Chinese eat with chopsticks and that the Westerners with a fork and knife!!! Is this racism?? Hahaha you are not comfortable with the brain.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘racism’ as follows: “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”. As seen from previous media exposures, Stefano Gabbana is a person who will invariably voice his opinion and contempt for anyone or anything that’s not up to his own standards. He designed a pair of white shoes on which the words ‘I’m slim and gorgeous’ were printed. Unfortunately, he is not the only narrow-minded of the two. His partner Domenico Dolce used to refer to surrogate children as “synthetic” humans, which needless to say, brought along backlash from people such as Elton John, who has a happy family with two surrogate children.
“It was deleted from Chinese social media because my office is stupid as the superiority of the Chinese… it was by my will I never cancelled the post. And from now on in all the interviews that I will do international I will say that the country of shit is China… and you are also quiet that we live very well without you.”
He attempted to justify himself later by claiming his Instagram account was hacked. I inquired an Italian friend about the awkward wording throughout his replies, to which she explained that it was fairly clear and obvious that it was an Italian-style broken English. Stefano literally translated the Italian expression“Paese di merda” into “country of…”.
At the Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference on November 22, a reporter asked how one should proceed to deal with the D&G incident. The spokesperson of Chinese Foreign Ministry Geng Shuang responded that this is not a diplomatic issue in nature, and China does not want it to be escalated into diplomatic issues. “Instead of asking the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, it is better to ask ordinary people in China to see how they see this issue.”
After a massive boycott among celebrities and e-commerce platforms towards D&G in China, the two founders realized, at last, the severity of the situation. On November 23, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana issued a formal apology. They said, “In the past few days, we have seriously reflected upon ourselves. We are saddened by what our words and deeds bring to the Chinese people and the country. Our family education teaches us that we must show respect towards different cultures in the world.”
In addition to an apology, the two also stated that they have always “loved China”. Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana said, “Our love for China has never changed. Over the years, we have paid countless visits to China, which made us more deeply in love with Chinese culture. Of course, we still have a lot to learn. We must apologize for the mistakes in our previous remarks, we will never forget this experience and lessons, and such things will never happen again. At the same time, we will do our utmost to understand and respect Chinese culture. Finally, we ask for your forgiveness from the bottom of our heart. Duibuqi (lit. ‘sorry’ in Chinese).”
I mean stereotypes are everywhere. True or not, people often hold over-generalized beliefs about a particular category of people. For example, Americans always wear Jeans and shirts; the British only eat fish and chips; Germans are workaholics; or Italians are passionate and romantic and have pasta everyday. It’s one thing to joke about these, and another to claim that you truly ‘love and respect’ a culture but deep down hold a completely biased view. One should at least try to know more about a certain culture if you really love and respect it, other than mingle it with bad jokes. China is not the same as it was a few decades ago. We have the four great new inventions, high-speed rail, mobile payment, e-commerce, and bike-sharing. We have an economic growth rate in the past three decades that’s three times higher than that of the United States.
And if possible, perhaps next time you could use some more innovative, or rather more civilized, words to voice your opinion other than ‘the country of shit’.
Featured photo credit to sputniknews.com