Long memories

What supermodel Gigi Hadid can learn from the Chinese survivors of Titanic


Forgive and forget please, Hadid asks the Chinese public

When Gigi Hadid announced via her social media accounts last week that she will be walking down the runway at Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in Shanghai in November (for more see last week’s issue), the model was shocked by the backlash that followed. Many netizens from China flooded her feed with negative responses like “go home” and “stay out of China”.

“Don’t come to Shanghai. We don’t welcome you,” one thundered.

“We like people who respect us, not you. What you have done made us unhappy. And Chinese do not welcome you. So don’t come to China,” another wrote.

What did Hadid do to offend so many Chinese internet users? The social media furore stemmed from a video her younger sister uploaded back in February. The clip saw the elder Hadid holding up a cookie in the shape of the Buddha and the American model was then seen smiling and squinting her eyes to imitate the Buddha’s face.

The video was later taken down, but it led to widespread anger amongst Asians who say the 22 year-old was being racist.

Hadid last week went into damage control, issuing an apologetic statement on her official Sina Weibo account. “It hurts me to hurt anyone, and I want you all to know that it was never my intention to hurt anyone through my actions and I sincerely apologise to those who were hurt or felt let down by me. I have the utmost respect and love for the people in China and cherish the incredible memories I have made while visiting in the past,” she wrote in English.

However, her apology did little to mollify angry netizens, with many questioning her motives. “Did Victoria’s Secret pressure her into apologising?” one sceptic asked. “If she wanted to apologise, she would have done so a long time ago.”

“Why did she only issue the apology on weibo and not on Instagram and Twitter? The reason is obvious: she wanted to make money but she also did not want the rest of the world to know what she did was wrong,” another wrote.

It wasn’t the first time the American model was called out for being racist (and her Chinese critics seem able to recall them all). The Global Times, for one, republished a clip of the American reality show The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in 2012, in which Hadid’s mother can be heard telling a make-up artist to put more eye shadow on her daughter so she ‘doesn’t look Chinese’.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are vexed by another case of American racism that took place more than a century ago. A documentary recently grabbed headlines for exposing the racial biases against Chinese on the Titanic. The film, called The Six, has shed light on a little-known story about six crewmen from Hong Kong who boarded the ill-fated ship. Eight of the men – two of whom did not survive – worked at cargo ships travelling between China and Europe before they boarded the Titanic in Southampton.

When the ship struck an iceberg on April 14th, 1912, the Hongkongers (working as stokers at the time) watched as freezing water started to flood into the third-class cabin. And because they couldn’t understand English, instead of heeding the instruction to stay in their room, they relied on their survival instinct to leave the ship. Miraculously, six of them survived the tragedy with five boarding a “tiny broken raft” they found on deck and another tying himself to a floating wooden door.

The latter, named Fang Lang, almost froze to death before being rescued by Lifeboat 14, the only vessel that returned to search for survivors. Although he was barely alive, Fang grabbed an oar and helped row the lifeboat to safety. “I’d save the likes of him six times over, if I got the chance,” an officer at the time was reported as saying.

But disaster did not end there. After narrowly escaping their fate, the six men landed in Ellis Island only to be deported to Cuba within 24 hours under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

“No one could tell where the Chinese came from, nor how they got in the boats, but there they were,” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on April 19th, 1912.

Rumours persisted that the men had snuck onto a lifeboat meant for women and children by disguising themselves as females. Others who were on the lifeboat claimed that the men were found stowed away under its seats (though later records show that the boat was guarded by an armed officer, which means it would have been impossible for unauthorised passengers to slip aboard).

They were called “dishonourable” and their actions were “symbols of an inferior nation” further confirming all Chinese are “selfish and cunning” and “don’t abide by the rules,” recounts the People’s Daily of the racist comments made at the time.

“Our research suggests that the six survivors waited their turn, and didn’t push their way into the lifeboats, or take the place of women or children. One of the six was plucked from the water and was later praised by other survivors on the lifeboat for being so helpful,” Arthur Jones, director of the documentary, told Sixth Tone, a news portal.

”It seems very unfair that these rumours persist, and we suspect they may be explained in part by the racist attitudes that some people had at that time,” the British filmmaker said.

Gigi should take note: if an incident that occurred over 100 years ago still rankles, it indicates that where racial slights are concerned, the Chinese have very long memories …

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