Last week my hair was shoulder length, straight, black, with a red streak to the left (something like my political orientation, then). I wanted to cut it short, partly for one of the acts I’m performing this weekend as part of Shanghai Club at the Spiegeltent. Last time I performed the act, I had a shaved head, and I felt some of the dramatic effect was lost by having long hair. But I thought I’d also miss having sleek swishy locks and the possibility of braids, buns and beehives. It felt like having “straight girl hair” was some kind of visual testament to finally feeling secure and self-assured in my queer identity without worrying about whether I was visible to others.
Every time I think about my hair I turn to Mimi Thi Nguyen’s essay, “Hair Trauma”. I was the one who requested that Mimi repost this essay because apparently I need to read it at least every six months – the frequency of my own hair crises. She writes:
I cut off all my hair and damaged it with all kinds of fucked-up chemicals because I was sick of the orientalist gaze being directed at/on me. Having “unnatural” hair was supposed to be an oppositional aesthetic tactic, a “fuck you” to the White Man, not an attempt to be the White Woman. I wanted to be an aggressive spectacle, a bodily denial of the “passive” stereotype, the anti-lotus blossom, because when I was young it was always just a simple matter of “fighting” stereotypes by becoming its opposite. I thought to embrace my difference, to expound upon it, to expand its breadth.
I said to myself, “Now I will be what they least expected. I will be scary, I will be other than the stereotype of the model minority, the passive Asian female.”
In some circles a shorn skull is a sure sign of dyke-ness. I marked myself accordingly.
But whatever we mean for our style choices to signify politically, none of it means that we’ll necessarily be read that way by “illiterate” audiences. For the next four years, my bright green locks were an “excuse” for some whites (male and female) to continue to eroticize my difference without indulging the “obvious” orientalist signifiers. […]
– Mimi Thi Nguyen, “Hair Trauma“, 1998
For African-Americans, natural hair has been associated with Black Pride and Black Power. For East Asian women, “natural” hair is usually understood as long, black, straight and flowing – pretty and politically powerless. It actually says a lot about racially specific stereotypes. Secret Asian Man in one webcomic retorts to a hairdresser who says Asian hair is so easy to style, “Did you just call my hair submissive and obedient?”
Partially-shaved hairstyles are pretty cool right now, especially in queer scenes. I don’t have any objection to looking cool but I don’t like to wear subcultural allegiances on my body too much — no tattoos, no piercings besides my ears, no vocal hair. Maybe it’s that being visibly Han, being asked if I’m Chinese no matter where I go, has made me crave being able to slip into different spaces without anyone being able to guess my political or subcultural background. I have a wardrobe full of disguises.
But there was one partially-shaved hairstyle I kept thinking about. It’s a hairstyle I’d only seen on men, in photographs, on film (like Jet Li in Fearless, above). Shaved from front to middle, the rest in a plait. I thought it’d look ugly. I wanted it. I did it.
Having a queue doesn’t at all resolve my hair issues. It’s the same kind of clumsy resistance Mimi mentions above, an aggressive spectacle. But satisfies a lot of my hair-related anxieties. I can still braid it or put it in a bun or do other fun things with it. I can still whip my hair back and forth. I have the world’s best comeover, and the shorn part of my scalp is as strong as velcro. It’s an interesting archaism. While I’m sure a few women have adopted it before me, it’s very much a men’s hairstyle, and yet on me I think there’s something feminine about it too. If a mullet is business at the front, party at the back, I think a queue is something like monk at the front, warrior at the back. It makes me think of Qing Dynasty scholars with plenty of tricks up their wide sleeves. It’s bookish yet fearsome.
It’s also a haircut with a rich history.
The queue was introduced to China by the Manchurians, who ruled China in the final Qing Dynasty, and who in 1645 instituted an ordinance where Han men were required to adopt the queue in ten days or be executed. By 1873 in San Francisco, Chinese men (largely Han I’d imagine) were protective of their queues as a symbol of national or cultural identity. They were targeted by the Pigtail Ordinance which declared all prisoners had to have their hair cut within an inch of the scalp, a law designed to prevent Chinese men from becoming willing convicts to get food and shelter. The law was eventually overturned in 1879 in what I would think was a fairly early instance of the US Supreme Court judging racial discrimination to be unconstitutional.
For me, it’s the hairstyle of Yellow Peril. It’s what Chinese people looked like when white Australians were still shit scared of us, before all that model minority crap which is intended to divide people of colour from each other. The queue makes me think of martial arts movies, yes, but also Bulletin magazine cartoons and countless faces staring at me on The Real Face of White Australia website. The website collects photos from immigration documents in a display which enables you to explore the records of the White Australia Policy through the faces of people who were monitored and restricted by it.
I guess this is me accepting that I’ll always, everywhere, look Chinese. But that can mean so many things in different places and different times. I want to remember all my rage. I wear it in my hair.