XING subverts the stereotypes of East Asian female sexuality
Focusing the lens on East Asian women, Chinese Singaporean photographer Elizabeth Lee deconstructs the limits of western narratives with the aim of shifting perceptions
In recent years, zine culture – peddled by the democratisation and widespread reach the internet can afford young creatives – has experienced a powerful resurgence as a form of social activism. In the past, zines have provided youths with a platform to subvert the dominant structures of mainstream press and self-publish through the confines of an underground DIY scene. Underrepresented and marginalised communities could voice their frustrations and outsider perspectives through an unfiltered channel that didn’t have to conform to the traditional notions of established media outlets.
We’re currently at a strange place with the dichotomies of race. The western world has seen the rise of white nationalism and also the emergence of complex racial discussions within the media on topics related to cultural appropriation, whitewashing, identity and getting ‘woke’. Many ethnic communities and individuals have turned to self-publishing through zines and homegrown mags as a way to carve out their own safe spaces online and, through organised zine fairs, meet like-minded individuals.
XING is a photo book and online archive that’s emerged from this disruptive form of publishing. Helmed by photographer and curator Elizabeth Lee, the stylish red-bound book with gold lettering bears a volume of images transgressing western stereotypes attributed to East Asian women. Lensed by an international roster of photographers, the visuals simultaneously mimic and satirise western notions placed upon the hyper and de-sexualised East Asian female form. By focusing the perspective on a community that’s largely underrepresented, it explores the concept of Otherness whilst aiming to normalise and spotlight women, and their forms, to viewers. Cultural layers projected onto East Asian women are pinned, unpicked and shifted. Accompanying the physical book is its online counterpart – an Instagram account that acts as an archive of images conveying facets of East Asian representation and youth identity.
23-year-old Chinese Singaporean artist Elizabeth Lee, aside from creating XING, has worked for Antenne Books and is currently the online co-ordinator of PYLOT Magazine, a fashion and fine art publication championing analogue photography and the absence of beauty retouching. Below, we catch up with the artist to discuss XING, her personal reflections on representation and which photographers we should be looking out for this year.
Could you tell me a bit about your background and how your environments have shaped you?
I was born and raised in Singapore. Growing up in the city had its fair share of opportunities and disadvantages. I never considered [myself] to be academically inclined, and the emphasis that was put on academia was difficult, especially for individuals like me who struggled with math and sciences. I soon left for London after completing a diploma in Mass Communication where I specialised in journalism, with the hopes of gaining experience and exposure to the diverse art scene that London finds home in. I soon picked up photography professionally, using the still image as a vessel of expression and communication. I have since developed a keen interest in exploring the postcolonial and the subaltern body, focusing on femininity in our contemporary world.
London has been an incubator for my personal growth professionally and personally; [there’s] a diverse port of individuals supporting one another amongst the creative community. I still have hope for the art scene in Singapore, and this is what I wish to contribute to in the future. In the most unexpected sense, Singapore and my Chinese upbringing provided me with the foundation for my work today. Growing up in a multicultural city fostered a worldview that was slightly rose-tinted [as] there was a strong emphasis placed on racial tolerance and understanding other cultural practices. The Singapore landscape, with its tenacity and emphasis on hard work, equipped me with a sensibility which I approach my work with today.
Can you explain what XING is?
XING is a photo book. It’s a collection of ideas surrounding the theme of East Asian female representation. The project began when I had an epiphany about how Otherness was, and still is, perceived in the west. I was always particularly drawn to the depiction of women and XING is a result of the combination of the male and Orientalist gaze. Stereotypes are rife, even in our so-called ‘modernised’ world today. Too often, Asian women exist in polarising archetypes – the subservient housewife, the tea-serving geisha, the dragon lady, the ingenue schoolgirl. Considering the state of where our world is today, there could not have been a better time to address misconceptions of lesser-known cultures and racial groups. The book explores a facet of East Asian female identity, with an aim to shift the perceptions of this group, whilst providing a window into understanding the psyche of East Asian females today.
Why is the book titled XING?
In Mandarin, the pinyin word ‘xing’ takes on various meanings. It means ‘sexuality’, ‘sex’, ‘essence of a person’, ‘to wake up’ and ‘to grow aware’. I thought it was rather fitting to have a name that could take on various meanings, allowing one to interpret it in their own way.
The Instagram features images of Japanese erotica. What are your thoughts on sexuality and representation in relation to East Asian women?
Personally, one of the most major, if not the most pressing, issues of the representation and preconceptions of Asian women lies with sexuality. More often than not, the Asian female is either hyper-sexualised or hyper-desexualised. Based on generalisations, the exotic-erotic can be commonly referred to as Otherness, and applied to the parameters of XING. She is assumed to be an underworld sex vixen, proficient in the art of seduction, or the cherubic virgin – but still sexually available and brimming with provocative potential. She is amorous yet dangerous, seductive yet blasé. The exotic-erotic was a main factor that influenced XING’s creative concept, and it still remains to be problematic. With the current movement in racial and gender representation in photography, Asian female sexuality is a catch 22 in contemporary practice; but it is this challenge that continues to fuel me to motivate change.
In what ways is XING a personal project?
XING is a project close to my heart due to my ancestry, my gender, and position living as a globalised ‘Other’ in the western hemisphere. Since uprooting myself from Singapore, I have encountered instances where my racial and gender identity has been challenged. Phrases such as ‘yellow fever’ and ‘rice kings’ were first distant illusions but has since become a reality – even in the multicultural melting pot of London. Since delving into this project, I have developed a deeper fondness and appreciation for my heritage and eastern cultures. In a sense, it is a rekindled love for my roots that has led me to pursue this project, with a desire to share the strength and beauty of Asian femininity. More so than anything else, the content is a reflection on my thoughts and experiences faced as an Asian woman living in a foreign environment, almost a self-examination of my identity at large.
Could you share some of the standout experiences you’ve had as an Asian woman living in a foreign environment?
Most of the experiences that particularly stand out to me have been sexual in nature. Walking down the street in broad daylight sometimes stirs unwanted comments and rather uncomfortable eyeballing, mostly advances from men who would throw out a “ni hao” (Mandarin for hello), or a “konnichiwa” (Japanese for hello). Though it might seem harmless, it reflects a generalised perception of how all Asians look the same, especially to those who have never had much contact with different Asian nationalities.
On the Instagram, a caption states that the book “presents one aspect of EA female youth identity”. Which aspect does the book aim to present to readers?
As with all cultures, nuances are ubiquitous. Just as how all women refrain from adopting identical personalities, the profile of the East Asian woman remains a territory to be fully explored in detail, or in impartiality. XING explores an aspect of identity in this demographic, where its young adult subjects project modernity, empowerment and subversiveness. Through their actions and thought, the book focuses on how their identities have been informed by globalisation and fourth wave feminism. Of course, this is not to say that the subjects depicted in the book are the quintessential East Asian woman. Many other aspects of this demographic remain to be explored and discussed, and this could be a starting point for future dialogues.
Is there any significance behind the book’s design and red and gold colour scheme?
In Chinese traditions, the colour red is associated with good luck, prosperity, fortune and wealth, while gold denotes brightness and fulfilment. This combination of red and gold is ubiquitous in most East and Southeast Asian cultures, adopted by people of different heritages and religions in the area. The colours reflect a strength and tenacity in modern Asian females in the world today, but also pays homage to ancient traditions and practices. In terms of design, I was inspired by the passport and its connotations. With XING inspired by different geographies and ethnicities in the region, I looked at various motifs that could best epitomise the notion of identity. The passport is very much a literal method of distinguishing one nation from the other, and it felt appropriate to incorporate some of its design elements in the design of the book. The majority of the world’s passports are covered in red and gold text. Using the combination of red and gold was a nod to the idea of a global community, a utopian vision of a harmonious and cohesive community.
Can you detail some of the highlights from the book? Which shoots have you worked on and which photographers should we be looking out for this year?
I’ve worked on two stories. ‘Anti-Oestrogen’ documents the anxieties of Asian women, emphasised through beauty regimens and standards that permeate society. The other story, ‘Twin Flame’, illustrates the turmoils of a relationship between a couple, as well as the tension between passion and animosity. Lin Zhipeng – aka No.223 – is a Beijing-based photographer who’s contributed a series titled ‘China Peaches’ in the book. The courage and spirit that he channels into his images is something to be admired. He has been making waves amongst his contemporaries in Asia, and I believe it will only be a matter of time before the global arts community sets sight on his work. Another would be Tammy Volpe, a Tokyo-based photographer concerned with female body image and modernising Japanese traditions into the everyday. Her series, ‘Beauty of Imperfection’, in the photo book is a vivid mural of Japanese female youths, a playful but conscientious portrayal of the landscape of young adults today.
Where do you hope to take this project and do you already have plans for the next chapter?
I currently have plans to focus the next chapter on the women living in Southeast Asia. That said, I am keeping options open with the form, and the next chapter of XING might evolve into a different outcome that might not necessarily take form in a book.