Analyzing transnational material culture stemming from the interaction of American rap culture and Hong Kong capitalist society complicates simplistic narratives of contemporary global American hegemony. In this blog, I will analyze the clothing, setting, and lyrics of the rap music video “Rep Hard (HK)”. The song is by a white American-Hong Konger, Skibs, and reflects his sense of pride in his “hometown” along with his tumultuous (and occasionally problematic) career as an expatriate rapper. I argue that this music video supports Maira’s critique of the late-capitalist commodification of culture, yet undermines her simplistic presentation of American imperial culture and hegemony.
On my first reading of Maira’s article, “Indo-Chic and Imperial Culture”, I found myself unsatisfied. Reflecting on this reaction, I first wondered if it was simply white fragility or an inability to critically analyze systems of power from my privileged perspective. However, the more I reflected, the more I realized that this reaction stemmed from my irritation with her overstretched claims of U.S. global hegemony. Despite her worthy critique of globalized, late-capitalist forms of cultural expression, she ties her argument with inaccurate claims of American imperial hegemony.
Returning to “Rep Hard”, the music video strongly supports Maira’s discussion of late-capitalist marketing of culture, after all, the opening scene presents Skibs on a street late at night filled with neon advertising. This image places Hong Kong within the global capitalist system. An analysis of the signage provides an intriguing glimpse into late-capitalist material culture. Following Maira’s analysis, culture is clearly commodified: a Hong Kong-owned cosmetics chain, Bonjour, utilizes a French name due to associations with beauty culture, while a food store advertises itself with the outline of Taiwan flag due to the nation’s (?) reputation as a foodie-paradise. Clearly, culture is marketed as a good on the late-capitalist market.
However, this scene also contradicts Maira’s claims of American imperial hegemony. Surrounded by advertising for Chinese firms, Skibs, the only American subject or object in this scene, raps:
Hey where’s my home?
My dad raised in New Jersey
My mom raised in Virginia
Yeah where’s my home?
Tokyo at six months old. Then to London, I was four
Back to New York. At twelve, I finally found my home
Skibs claims that despite his transnational childhood, he has found his home in Hong Kong. It is important to note that he is from a privileged expatriate background in which he feels entitled to claim a sense of belongingness in society. Regardless, his lyrics and socioeconomic background suggest that global expatriate culture transcends all national boundaries, including the US. In summary, the neoliberal order which brought Skibs to Hong Kong in the first place is not a simplistic America-dominated one.
Beyond the setting of the music video, Skib’s clothing furthers my critique of Maira’s overemphasis on US global hegemony in late-capitalist material culture. In “Rep Hard”, he wears two outfits: a black mandarin collar shirt with a baseball hat and a mandarin-collar hoodie, both from the clothing and lifestyle brand, G.O.D. (住好啲) that he designs for. The company is known for its retro Hong Kong aesthetic and often tongue-in-cheek hybridity. After all, G.O.D.’s clothing line is named “Delay No More”, a phrase, which, while motivational in English, is a homophone of “diu lei lo mo”, a Cantonese slang insult. See (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/05/travel/05foraging.html for more details).
An analysis of Skib’s G.O.D. mandarin collar hoodie is a fascinating subversion of simplistic narratives of “Western” cultural hegemony in post-colonial society. The mandarin collar itself has a tumultuous history: it was forcibly implemented in the Manchu conquest of China, but by the 1920s had become a marker of East Asian “modernity” through the cosmopolitan fashion culture of Shanghai. After being banned by Mao Zedong, it lingered in colonial British Hong Kong as an expression of “traditional” Chinese culture in defiance of the Cultural Revolution. Thus, the mandarin collar has been the attire of various dominant and subordinate groups over the last three centuries. Furthermore, the combination of a mandarin collar and a hoodie, an article of clothing popularized through American rap and global youth culture, provides an interesting cultural product of hybridity. Yes, it very much commoditizes cultural difference, as Maira states, yet this interaction hardly stems from unipolar U.S. cultural hegemony. After all, from a political economy standpoint, G.O.D. is owned by Chinese-Hong Kongers and is marketed to a diverse range of consumers. Thus, the mandarin collar hoodie is a result of the historical interactions of many hegemons: the Qing Dynasty, ROC, PRC, UK, and USA.
Overall, in “Rep Hard”, cultural difference is commodified for the late capitalist marketplace, yet American hegemony is not nearly as universal or stable as Maira claims. This has greater implications in our discussion of Asian-America. Hegemonic white Americanness strongly influences US popular culture, but transnational cultural exchanges with an increasingly non-US dominated world order provide alternative means of cultural expression within the global neoliberal framework.