Late August, with the intel of a dear friend, I came across the double «Rote Fabrik». One is the cultural institution, a former factory located in the Wollishofen neighborhood of Zürich, Switzerland; the other is a Taiwanese beauty product company that sold skin whitening products. The brand’s website, which is now offline, claimed that it was named after a German rose-cultivating expert, described as «The King of Roses.» This fictional persona of Rote Fabrik seems to be somewhat a figure of authority since the roses he cultivated are award-winning in an also non-existing prestigious «German Rose Program.» As I was reading the description, I couldn’t help the urge to construct an equivalent image for this Rote Fabrik. If there was an advertisement of this Mr. Rote Fabrik, he must have been incarnated as a white man in his fifties, fiddling with test tubes in a spotless white lab coat with his serious face and piercing sharp eyes, which declare his German qualities. With the slogan on the website said, «Beauty Energy comes from Nature», everything looks like a coordinated and wholesome scam.
I was not at all surprised by such serendipitous and absurd contradictions. Growing up in China, I have habituated myself in such «Western-dominated» beauty standards, and well used to the idea of light skin tone being a part of it. We see stars and idols smiling and glowing in giant billboards everywhere, persuading us to renounce and even be ashamed of the natural color we were born with. Girls could have been rebuked by their parents and mocked by their peers for not being «white». Pale and unblemished skin is a central aspect of femininity and social identity among urban Chinese women. A report in 2009 indicates that skin whiteners play a significant role in the cosmetic market, accounting for one-third of all facial skin care products sold in China. As I searched the keyword «skin whitening product in china» on Google, the top results recommend 72,321 products for me, and that are seldom the ones sold on Alibaba, China’s biggest e-shop.
But what is truly appreciated in the West? It wasn’t until the thrive of social media and my own experience of studying abroad that made me realize that all skin colors are celebrated and can be equally beautiful. We seem to have missed something important in the East, I thought. And this was also when I found myself being the one surprised: not because of the so-called diverse beauty standards, but the tone of Western media tends to use when reporting how Asian women crave pale skin. It was hard for me not to sense the condescending and arrogant framing of such a phenomenon and the criticizing and castigating of people who are actually illy affected by such narrow opinions. How was the skin color we were born with sabotaged and replaced by an anachronistic, monologic, and appropriated pseudo-Western standard?
Historically, skin bleaching started back in the Victorian era, where European women paint their faces white with powder and paint, even with lead in it. At that time, when racial segregation was still strictly executed, whiteness was being defined as the symbol of purity and also embodied other good virtues. As much as we find it unbelievable of the fact that how women were poisoning themselves in pursuit of whiteness with lead paint and arsenic wafers, it may also be equally astonishing and worrying to view the efforts Asian women make to be white.
It is an inevitable byproduct of a long-standing male-dominated society, where women are commonly depicted as and expected to be obedient indoor housewives. Such oppression against women has been considered as a fine tradition in many East Asian countries and sadly still practices its influences, with an upsetting acceleration. Even in modern East Asia, the tanned darker skin tone is inevitably associated with social subordination, since it is regarded as a proof of fieldwork by the extension of poverty. The vivid memories of war, hunger, and the shame that comes behind are still ghosting above the continent. People reject them out of fear, as well as everything that signifies them. And when one fears, they come to find comfort and safety out of instinct, from whoever possesses the power of discourse. The mimicry, or even the fetishism, towards the West – or whatever appears to have a western root – came as a corollary and reached its apex in recent years. The pale skin became a symbol for the petite bourgeoisie, a persuasive appearance for the myth, as Roland Barthes may suggest, of wealth, social status, and internal virtues. These symbols are like the shadows cast onto Plato’s cave, luring consumers to reach for the luminous promises out of their range. But what projected such illusions? Who is pulling the strings for their own sake?
Although social stratification based on skin tone is not a novel concept in China, it has now indeed taken on a new dimension. This white skin ideal also grew with China’s exposure to Western and Japanese cultures, but not only: it was reinforced by the craze for the South Korean K-pop, where singers invariably have a snowy complexion. The growing popularity of K-pop and K-beauty became the power engine for the South Korean beauty product industry. According to the «2018 Global Cosmetics Industry White Paper» published by the state-financed Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency KOTRA, Korea’s cosmetics exports in 2017 totaled US$4.96 billion, a fourfold increase from 2013. Some of the most popular Korean beauty products are blemish balm (BB) creams, color correction (CC) creams, serums, essences, ampoules, seaweed face masks, and scrubs, most of which were designed for altering skin color and covering imperfections.
With the rise of digitalized commercialization and consumerism, cosmetic companies have capitalized on this opportunity to provide beauty products for women. Although the claims of the skin whitening function are somewhat dubious, consumers still strain for them. And capitalism and its ruthless operations seize every possible chance to profit and deepen this outdated and inappropriate doctrine. Luxury brands imported into China certainly adapted for such mania. Take Chanel’s popular CC Cream as an example: there is no packaging difference between the ones sold in France and those in China; however, when using the shade under the exact name – on the trade’s universal gradient – the ones sold in China would significantly lighten the skin. Korean Cosmetics La Neige is a well-known trademark in China, with part of its success coming from the use of a French brand name meaning «the snow» that guarantees consumers a certain level of quality and credibility. And it is for the very same reason that the name Rote Fabrik shall appear in such an altogether irrelevant context in the far East where it adapted a life as another indigenously reinvented myth.
The irony that lies in here is how naturally we perceive this as merely another funny anecdote of «the East plagiarizing the West», rather than a chance to reflect on the influence of Eurocentric aesthetics. This form of color colonialism is nevertheless a portrayal of consumer capitalism and the design or the tech giants which have co-opted it. We have witnessed in modern history how the extraction of wealth takes many forms: the pillaging of indigenous lands, cultural appropriation and invasion, by whatever means.
Acknowledge it willingly or not, design has been an indispensable catalyst of such malevolence. I do not intend to attack those who designed the website or package for the Taiwanese twin of Rote Fabrik, or any designer in specific. Instead, think about the global post-war modernization movements: isn’t the idea of building a universal, neutral visual standard itself an expression of erasure and consolidation? One example is how its essential tool kit, the Latin script typefaces, is inherently inaccessible to billions of people, including the visually impaired, non-literate, and who uses other languages. And its prevalence is because of nothing but the history of western imperialism and the extended white supremacy. As much as designers may proclaim the divorce of visual aesthetics and content, their practice is exactly what combines the two. It can be as destructive as how influential it can be, and this is the reason why we should have such reflections and be vigilant about any universal ideology: are they truly inclusive and considerable enough for its targeted audiences, or merely another attempt of consolidating the existing white supremacy? This kind of internally-favored established rhetoric is not only detrimental to the profession itself but also deepens the insidious gap between those who have the power of discourse and their nonhomogenous audiences.
For someone like me who has not yet had the chance to visit the Rote Fabrik center, I imagine that it must be a pity not to be able to enjoy its scenery, programs, and live performances. And it may be equally a shame for only having known the brand Rote Fabrik and its products. What would a faithful customer of their whitening products feel when accidentally discovering the cultural venue, like I happened to stumble on both? Would they denounce the brand’s authenticity, or would they continue purchasing their products and living with all this behind? Or they had already acknowledged the glamorous fraud of commercial branding and advertising yet regard this as criterial programming for a local but whiteness-promoting company. What is both saddening and intimidating is that we seem to no longer respond to such cultural appropriation as we perceive the appropriated one as culture itself. The contemporary Tower of Babel falls not only because of language but neoliberal capitalism. Culture and cultural communication seem to be one of the pillars that are still supporting this grand illusion of humans as a whole.
I can’t help wondering that if the building of Rote Fabrik was indeed demolished in the early 1970s for widening the adjacent street, would this Taiwanese brand still be? Or would it have simply taken on a different name and lived the life precisely the same as it has? It could have been Usine Verte or Azul Fábrica, as the Rote Fabrik was sacrificed to urban renovation and eternally gone in history. The leftist gatherings and movements could happen anywhere else, but could there have been another place that bears such a powerful and exciting name from its appearance, as well as a profound proletarian history? Between what walls would the sound of vibrant music and theater echo and spread today if Rote Fabrik was never opened as a non-profit-driven cultural center for the rioting young people who protested in the in the summer of 1980?
At this point, it is needless to point out the contradiction that poignantly did not shake my numbness at the beginning: the ideology that Rote Fabrik stands for and the one represented by its Taiwanese double. Reincarnated from a silk mill, later a home for the marginal youth with long pent-up anger when «Züri brännt», the cultural center itself has been cultivated and operated in the opposite of consumerism, advocating for inclusion and social issues. Taking its name for promoting an essentially morbid ideology is not yet evil, but at least an arbitrary and careless action. This denial and repurposing of the name Rote Fabrik is not only a manifestation of the capital consumerism but also an offense that tramples upon almost every virtue such a place can embody.
But let’s take a step further: what does it mean to be a cultural center? Solely according to its definition, it should be an organization, building, or complex that promotes culture and arts. Being more than a home for music and theater, what culture should it promote exactly? As someone who unfortunately grew up without such a space (or place, more accurately) this idea sounds so distant yet exciting to me. Unlike commoditized art galleries or performance venues, it should be a place for ALL cultures, which challenges commercial entertainments, welcomes, accommodates, and embraces multicultural expressions while connecting and representing the local community’s voice. More significantly, it should be a platform for cultural communications, despite any linguistic barriers, like an envoy who sails fearlessly across all seven oceans and builds bridges upon unfamiliar territories, using the only common language that all human beings share: culture. And this includes the underrepresented ones: Eastern, Latin, African, immigrated, and etc. Who else would speak for them if not cultural centers? Through what other means would they be recognized and discussed if their voices are not conveyed and amplified through organizations like cultural centers?
It indeed sounds like a sublime and noble mission. To a certain degree, I would propose that such action itself is a path to decolonization, at least an attempt to break the closed loops in both Western and Eastern cultural scenes. Both loops are well-established, self-sufficient systems, inclusive and accessible mostly to its own kind. While the influences of the West still possess hegemonic power over every single continent, becoming a myth itself, most other voices remain unheard or at least under-recognized. As people outside of the mainstream Western loop, we often tend to romanticize and project ourselves onto those seemingly superior myths, fantasizing of becoming part of them, without realizing the fact that we can never be. And we should never be.
And so should the cultural centers. Rote Fabrik should be nothing else but its authentic self as well. It should be irreplaceable and unrepresentable, and an identical name would never be sufficient enough to carry its abstract significances. The Taiwanese cosmetics brand, whose principal signification is the opposite of the cultural center, rendered this name into a decorative emblem – a hollow invention – with only a void attached to its name.
Sixuan Tong is a design practitioner from China. She currently lives in Brooklyn for her graduate studies in Communication Design at Pratt Institute, New York. – Jiahui Feng is a China-born graphic designer based in Shanghai. The focus of her work is a conceptual implementation through a strong use of typography and graphic in the fields of print, motion design.