When is it 'cultural appropriation' v appreciation?

31 Jan 2021

Straits Times, 31 Jan 2021, When is it 'cultural appropriation' v appreciation?
An American company recently launched its own line of refashioned mahjong sets - sporting symbols as eclectic as lightning bolts, Arabic numerals and sacks of flour.

The idea, its website explained, was to give the centuries-old Chinese game a "modern makeover". It said that for Kate, one of the company's founders, "the artwork of the traditional tiles, while beautiful, was all the same - and did not reflect the fun that was had when playing with her friends. And nothing came close to mirroring her style and personality".

Earlier this month, after the mahjong sets had hit the market, cries of "cultural appropriation" ensued. Asian Americans on social media lambasted the company for being " insensitive" and "condescending". This drew an apology from the company's founders - three white women - who said they were sorry for their "hurtful" actions.

Watching all this unfold from Singapore, I felt people were making a mountain out of a molehill.

The mahjong sets looked silly, yes, and were ridiculously priced- what sane person would pay US$425 (S$565) for them - but the situation seemed more like a failed marketing strategy than an act of disrespect to Chinese culture. I was bemused, but not offended, as a Chinese person.

But as the news appeared on regional and Singapore news sites and made its rounds in my WhatsApp circles, I tried to understand what the fuss was about. Was this really cultural appropriation, I wondered?

Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as "the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture".

A more helpful explanation comes from American comedian Franchesca Ramsey, who says it is "when the majority group deems something that's a cultural artefact or practice of a smaller group as uncivilised or just wrong completely but then find some ways to co-opt it and usually make a profit off of it".

Acknowledging that cultural appropriation hinges on a power imbalance, she quips: "Cultural appropriation is like taking a test and getting an 'A'. And then someone else copies off your test and gets an 'A' plus extra credit."

Not everyone sees "cultural appropriation" in the same way. In recent years, several New York Times articles have extolled the beauty of cultural appropriation, choosing to interpret the term in a more neutral light, almost as a kind of cultural fusion or mixing. By their definition, culture is a messy, living thing, and cultural appropriation a potentially fruitful chopping and changing of influences - the sort you might see in the fashion world, Singapore's "rojak" cuisine, or Paul Simon's African-inspired Graceland album.

The term "cultural appropriation" is used mostly in the West, but has also been invoked in Singapore, often as part of an online backlash against one public misstep or another.

This happened last year when Violet Oon Singapore, known for its Peranakan food, named one of the items on its menu "nyonya nasi ambeng" without acknowledging the dish's Javanese origins (the restaurant later apologised).

That same year, then-Nee Soon MP Lee Bee Wah was also accused of cultural appropriation when a picture of her in a tudung, or Muslim headscarf, appeared on a Selamat Hari Raya banner.

"To the adopter, this is well-intentioned," explains Dr Nazry Bahrawi, a senior lecturer in comparative and world literature at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

"However, it does not acknowledge the gravity of what the tudung means for the tudung-wearing individual and her society. Wearing the tudung is more than just a dress code or fashion statement. For many, this is a decision not to be taken lightly.

"Such banners also fail to reference the serious public discussion over the use of the hijab at work and school."

Given Singapore's multi-racial society and its long history of mixing cultural practices in everything from food to fashion, just how meaningful is it to use the term "cultural appropriation" in Singapore?

Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan believes it is not a particularly useful label, given Singapore's multicultural environment and the fact that there is not much that is "pure" about its different cultures.

Dr Nazry, meanwhile, feels the concept - and the fact that it resonates with some people here - is worth examining.

"The term 'cultural appropriation', like 'Chinese privilege', has been received by some Singaporeans with scepticism because it is seen as an unthinking adoption of an 'American' or 'Western' concept... But, concepts like 'democracy', 'secularism' and 'multiculturalism' too were not conceptualised in Singapore. Yet, we take them to be formative to Singapore."

One way to foster meaningful dialogue, he adds, is for Singaporeans to acquire a deeper understanding of how the cultures of this region have evolved.

This could be done through humanities courses on literature, culture and history of the region - taught with an interpretative and critical approach, and offered in schools or as a SkillsFuture module.

As for me, I'm inclined to agree. Having encountered articles by commentators who choose to interpret the term in different ways, I wonder if discussions of "cultural appropriation" are often really outlets for other sentiments - simmering feelings of being discriminated against, a rant against PC (politically correct) culture, or just overzealous virtue signalling.

So is the American mahjong incident an example of cultural appropriation? During the time I spent reading up on the issue and reflecting and writing this column, my views have swung from "no" to "yes", and then "maybe".

Now, I think it really doesn't matter. What matters is respect, curiosity and a willingness to learn more about things we don't fully understand.

We can quibble over semantics forever. Perhaps we should see freighted terms like "cultural appropriation" as blunt tools - and instead channel our energies into tackling the underlying issues that may be fuelling such labelling - for example, to address any underlying sense of upset in minority communities over being overlooked or disrespected; and instead work towards celebrating each other's cultures.