Topshop: the go-to for cute dresses, trendy denim, and apparently offensive jewelry. Last week, a U.K. customer was appalled to find a "Head Charm Necklace" on sale, which featured a string of figurines depicting a racist, early 19th century stereotype of East Asians.
When confronted about the offending merchandise, the store manager allegedly brushed it off as "acceptable, because it was vintage style and not racist," according to a tweet by the displeased shopper. The response has been met with some backlash online: In a heated post, Angry Asian Man — a blog on Asian American culture — called it "bold, blatant racist bullshit," and tracked down a matching pair of earrings and a bracelet. The set is now removed from the brand's e-commerce site, however a reference to the products (called "eclectic Chinese mask charms") can still be seen on the jewelry collection's main page.
As a Chinese native, I can't ignore the racist undertones of these items; it stings even if the "vintageness" of the item calls to an era that — thankfully — has long since ended. Here's some context: The charms bear an uncanny resemblance to the caricatures in anti-Chinese propaganda cartoons of the 1880s, when the Chinese Exclusion Act and all its institutionalized, dehumanizing policies were in full effect. (In fact, Chinese people weren't allowed to immigrate to the United States until 1943, and many weren't able to own property until 1965, which makes the jewelry's "Freedom Found" moniker especially ironic.) The faces are also reminiscent of Fu Manchu, a fictional Chinese villain created by novelist Sax Rohmer. The portrayal of Fu in movie and TV adaptions — often by Caucasian actors — is closely associated with Orientalism.
If the shop's intention was an accessory with "eclectic Chinese mask charms," there's a wide array of Beijing opera masks that are both more aesthetically interesting, and celebrate a beautiful part of Chinese history and culture. Though some might argue that even those would be an example of cultural appropriation, I think that there's little difference between one opera mask and another we all know — both represent powerful, emblematic forms of entertainment that don't call up hurtful images used against an oppressed minority.
Giving Topshop the benefit of the doubt, the accessories were most likely inspired by those controversial Dolce & Gabbana Testa di moro-style earrings that also made us face-palm when they hit the runways in 2012. Even so, Yellowface, Orientalism, and the use of caricatures meant to neuter and mock a huge demographic of the world is a part of our collective history — and one that I hope we never forget, lest its significance diminish. Let's be clear: Using this type of imagery on a product meant to highlight exotic aesthetics is perpetuating harm, not educating about it.