A first-generation Chinese-American raised in Texas, Elizabeth Peng has always been something of a portal to the chicness of China, sharing stories and ideas of people and trends that we never hear about anywhere else. I always knew that China was booming in many ways, but now, Peng is presenting Chinese fashion and design with a humanity and curiosity that has historically been absent in most Western conversations. Liuli, Peng's website, is designed to chip away at the veneer of mystery surrounding China — the one that makes everything Chinese or China-related seem strange unless it's applied to a Western rubric for comparison.
London and Paris, Peng explains, are near and familiar to Westerners. "Istanbul?" she continues. "Not too far. China? Opposite end of the universe...Haven't you ever heard that expression, 'Oh, you might as well be speaking to me in Chinese' or 'You might as well go to China' to indicate extreme gibberish, incredible distance or foreignness?”
Through Liuli's quick-witted writing, in-depth features, and distinct, original imagery, however, Peng and others are communicating a very relatable brand of Chinese cool. “In my experience, there were always these two incongruent sides that never came together in a lasting, meaningful way," she explains. "On one hand, you had these Western luminaries visiting China for the first time...but not knowing whom to truly embrace or how to speak to their true demographic — everything's tainted by this exotic, unfamiliar lens.”
In direct response to what seems like a still-continuing, mass Orientalism involving China in the media, Liuli is a platform for the people who are affecting real change in China's creative class — people whom Peng has come to know well. “It's their talent, vision, and seamless ability to transcend traditional stereotypes and cultural barriers, to exist outside the confines of Western perceptions, which is awe-inspiring,” she enthuses. “Collectively, they comprise the 'Liuli layer' that's full of this intangible allure, creative dynamism, and authenticity that feels unlike anything anywhere. We try to bottle that raw energy that's transforming what it means to be creative and Chinese.”
I ask Peng when she first noticed this gap in the media — this need to represent the Chinese creative class. She answers with a smile: “I don’t know...always.” According to Peng, this content has been missing until now. Think about it: How many Chinese tastemakers can you name? Aside from, say, Ai Weiwei, do you know who is shifting the cultural sands of art and culture in this incredibly influential nation? Probably not.
“We're past East meets West; we operate on a third, cultural level whereby local actions and consequences have global implications,” Peng continues. “I, along with so many other insiders, am sitting on information about trends and...movements...that no one's picked up on or written about because, perhaps, they don't have the access or foresight.”
The preliminary cast of creatives featured on the site is formidable — heavy-hitting, even. Liuli rounds up people like Shaway Yeh of Modern Weekly Magazine (a glossy that the The New York Times said is “About as hip as it gets in China”) and Beijing's "King of Beats," DJ Wordy. "Everyone whom we feature on our site," Liuli explains, "is contributing to the scene...but really, they're also just extraordinarily normal people who've demonstrated this lifelong love affair with China and its creative future, which may also happen to be part of their own cultural heritage.”
Is there an underrepresentation, within fashion, of China and its designers? “I don’t think it’s underrepresented — maybe just misunderstood," Peng asserts. "I just have an issue with the word 'underrepresentation.' To me, that means that there are other standards that are being applied. And this is the whole misconception of China — where everyone thinks they are trying to take over the world. We are all just trying to work towards something, like everyone else. We don’t know what it looks like, what it smells like, what it sounds like, but we’re working on it.”