25-year-old Alison Kuo's Accidental Chinese Hipsters tumblr is full of pictures of ethnically Chinese people in various countries across the world, completely ignoring all the style dictats most westerners live their life by. Therefore looking pretty damn edgy or directional or avant-garde or modern or whatever it is that fashion people feel when they see people wearing unexpected combinations of clothing.
Obviously, the Chinese thing elevates it above the the usual street style milieu but it's the non-intentional nature of fashion-forward looks that's really exciting. The general idea behind this site is that these guys aren't trying to prove their renegade individualism, nor are they thinking beyond functionalism or trying to do anything other than appear pretty - it's an irony-free zone.
VICE: Hey Alison, what were you doing before you set up Accidental Chinese Hipsters?
Alison Kuo: I moved from Austin, Texas to New York a year ago. I am an artist and recently I've been thinking about cultural hierarchies and mixing a lot. I went from being a life-long nerd to being immersed in a world that was a lot hipper than me and in the process I think I made a lot of observations about hipsters. There is a lot of variety in that realm, but a few of my customers at the store were the type that I think get under people's skin - overly affected grooming, snotty, obsessed with knowing about things that were very hard to find the appeal in, always working on a mysterious, self-glorifying "project." Mostly, though, I think hipsters are great. A lot of my art friends dress adventurously and act weird and that's fine.
Right now, I am teaching English as a second Language, which is a funny twist on the site because my students are Korean, Japanese, and Chinese fashion students and art professionals. Even if they're not in that field they all dress way more fashionably than me.
What's your background?
My father is Chinese and my mother is from New Jersey. I have a lot more perspective on being mixed now thanks to the internet—and the fact that we have a mixed-race president—but needless to say I kind of troubled by my ethnic/cultural identity growing up. My favorite, sensitive, Texas-style question was, "What-are-you?"
What's your involvement with China?
I actually have a Canadian expat cousin in Shanghai who owns a sandwich shop called New York City Deli, which is sort of mind-blowing. I've been going to Hong Kong to visit my family there since I was a small child. I wouldn't actually consider most parts of Hong Kong to be very Chinese. I finally got to visit mainland China in 2007, which was when I got a real appreciation for native Chineseness. I loved the kind of dirty freedom—spitting anywhere you wanted on the street, life endangering rides every time you got in a taxi, cheap, delicious food prepared fresh right in front of you so you didn't even care what dubious animal the meat came from.
People really dress in ways that they must know look silly or ugly and they give off this gleeful vibe about it. Whatever they're wearing is probably functional for their life and maybe it has a crazy pattern or color because that's more fun. Also, China doesn't have the same cultural taboos that Western societies do about appropriation, so borrowing and maybe mangling something from an American trend isn't a big statement - it just is what it is. Some ladies like to dye their hair red and have feathered mullets because they like it. That's amazing to see because it's so uncanny and humbling.
Life in industrialized China is exciting but it's really hard too. I saw a lot of terrible living and working conditions there and in my group we were all sick with lung infections the entire time because of the pollution.
What's your main point with the site?
I guess what's important is including Chinese people in the conversation. It's nice that people want to go see movies about tiger flower song maidens and shit like that, but there is so much more to Chinese culture. I want to show a sense of love and understanding, but in doing that I want to share the most ridiculous things I can and make fun of them with people. I think that when you want to expertly make jokes about something it also leads you to understand it in a deeper way. Noticing people and appreciating them is so important.
In my experience growing up, there weren't a lot of acknowledgments of Chinese culture around me. We could joke amongst our group of "Azn" friends, which included a white guy and a black girl about the things that made us different, but it seemed that no one else was interested. Now, all kinds of people want to be in on the conversation and it's fun and liberating for "Azns" to be the experts in a cool, cultural sense. I get to use all sorts of lingo and assume a baseline of interest in Chinese culture when I write too.
Although hipsterism is a funny platform for jokes, thinking about authenticity when you're discussing subjects that aren't doing irony, or at least have a very different sense of irony, is way more interesting.
How have people reactions to the blog?
People have reacted really positively. They email me and say that they see accidental Chinese hipsters every day in their neighborhood, or that their mom, or child, or grandpa is one. Sometimes they just write to say that they can identify with being between the two cultures and that's really sweet. Or they say stuff like, thank you for spreading the word about the innate awesomeness of Chinese people. I got one today: "Thanks for showing me what I'm going to look like when I'm old." My friends tell me about someone they know who lives in another state across the US who heard strangers talking about the site at a party and it's crazy to me. It has a life of its own now. I just love showing the new pictures to people and watching them laugh.
How's Chinese style work?
An American living in China sent me an email about her theory of "double-pretty", which is that Chinese people choose one thing that they like, maybe with a very bold print or colors, and then they choose another thing they like, regardless of matching. Pretty plus pretty equals double-pretty. Regular clothes in China don't have to be muted or shy and old people aren't forced to fade into the background, so there aren't as many beiges. Chinese people wear socks and sandals. Ladies wear knee-high stockings under knee-length skirts so you can see the tops of their stocking cutting into their calves. If it's sunny out, people cover their skin because white skin is preferred to tan. Lots of ladies carry umbrellas for this and I think it's the reasoning behind giant visors too, although I can't explain the sideways baseball caps, except that maybe it's a comfort thing.
There are a lot of counterfeit clothing items floating around too. Plastic sandals might have the adidas logo and design with the brand name Sports. Older Chinese people who might not care one way other about this stuff would have no problem wearing something that was a bad knock-off, or had a children's cartoon character on it as long as it was cheap and functional.
As far as hairstyles go, most Asians have beautiful, thick, shiny, straight black hair. It must be hard to stand out in the crowd when everyone has great hair, so bad perms, spiky hair, female sideburns, mullets, and gross hair bleaching are must-haves.
Culturally, Chinese people aren't so concerned about bragging about themselves as individuals. Chinese identity comes more from the group and so that's one reason why I think the comparison to hipsters is really funny because hipsters put such a high premium on their personal quirks. People, in general, just aren't always aware of differences in conventions. Westerners think Chinese people are being unfriendly or passive when they do things like avoid too much eye contact, but really they're doing that not to be rude.
What have been the strangest mass trends of the last decade?
When SARS happened the fashionable people of Hong Kong started wearing designer protective face masks. That was pretty great - paranoia fashion...
Why does your site have the subheading I Am Not Racist?
I didn't want to write: I'm Alison and I'm a Chinese-American girl having a super-cute searching-for-my-identity moment on the internet. The blog has some "racial" themes and I am making fun of Chinese people, but I don't think it's fair to qualify that with the fact that I'm ethnically half-Chinese.