Teenager’s Cheongsam Prom Dress Sparks Debate

In Malaysia and Singapore, everyone wears each other's traditional costumes. Is that cultural appropriation?
Friday 4 May 2018
Photo: Keziah Daum

And here we thought crispy chicken rendang would be the year’s biggest debate.

Keziah Daum’s choice to wear a cheongsam as a prom dress has sparked controversy, receiving mixed reactions from the public. Some accused the 18-year-old Utah resident of cultural appropriation while others praised her for promoting Chinese culture.

“Very elegant and beautiful! Really don’t understand the people who are against her, they are wrong!” one person commented, as quoted by the South China Morning Post, on an article by Wenxue City News. “I suggest the Chinese government, state television or fashion company invite her to China to display her cheongsam!”

Others, including Chinese Americans, weren’t so accepting of it.

Cultural diversity is a defining feature in multi-racial nations like Malaysia and Singapore. In schools, the Malay baju kurung is also worn by students of other races. Ask any locals, and they’d probably say they’ve seen a Chinese woman wear an Indian sari before. And it’s no big deal. In fact, cultural exchange is celebrated.

The Peranakan people (or Straits-born Chinese) in Malaysia are a fine example of the assimilation of cultures. They were born and raised in Malaya, and so adapted Malay culture. In the olden days, most wore traditional Malay clothing.

Would you argue that only people who live in a certain culture, even though they are not of that race, have the right to borrow from the other culture? If that’s the case, we need to take a second look at the Asian Americans criticising Keziah. Were they raised in the US with a strong Asian influence or are they western in all but their appearance and name?

Where do you draw the line? In most countries today, modern western clothing styles are so common. So are we Asians, in our western jeans and western shirts, appropriating western culture? Or is it only loudly argued about when it is anything other than Western cultures that are being borrowed from? (We could start arguing about the exoticising of Asian culture, but that’s a different battle.)

Tell us which side of the fence you’re on.

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