The Story of the Cantonese Cowgirls 


Tsz Kam

Among Hong Kongers, there has always been a debate between the generations about how “Chinese” we should feel. When our oppressors have co-opted the idea of “Chinese culture” and the idea of a single Han Chinese ethnic identity to create propaganda and convince us to fall in line, wouldn’t it make sense to abandon these false traditions and just run the other way towards a Western, modernized identity instead? This method of using “Chinese-ness” as a tool for unification and assimilation is not the invention of the CCP, it was used by emperors in imperial China long before Marxism was invented. Monolithic Han Chinese identity has always been a fiction, after all, how can one expect so many different peoples and tribes across such a vast stretch of land as China to have any sense of unity amongst each other before the age of the internet? 


So I ask myself, what does it mean when I take ownership of traditions that are familiar to me in my upbringing? What exactly am I taking ownership of? Is it even real or just a tool invented by people in power throughout history to convince me of who I am and where I belong? 


Similar things can be said about a lot of different cultures across the world. In this day and age, we hear people making very firm claims regarding the symbols and traditions from their heritage and what they mean and how they haven been passed down for generations. The truth is, all traditions are fiction, and they only continue to have meaning because we believe in them. There will always be those from the outside looking into the tradition of another and finding meaning in it, and there will always be those on the inside who choose to exile themselves from traditions when they begin to feel like shackles. 




I like a romanticized version of cowboy culture. The idea of the Wild West is so romantic, though the history buff in me knows how gnarly the reality was in the early 1800s. My grandfather before me loved spaghetti western when he was alive. He watched them with subtitles. Maybe it wasn’t that deep to him, lots of young men in his time liked spaghetti western and romanticized the cowboy - the first action hero archetype in cinematic history. I think people liked them because people used to have less choices in life, and the romanticized cowboy symbolizes ultimate freedom. 


Is it silly for me to put on Western wear? What I am asking is, is it funny to see an Asian person wearing Western wear? There have been several examples of Asian characters in pop culture wearing western wear as a comedic punchline. The combination of an Asian and a cowboy hat has always been somewhat comedic in the American mind. 


Is it silly for me to paint girls in my image wearing hybridized Cantonese opera costumes / Western wear? Worse, they are in these lovey-dovey couples compositions making eyes at each other, unironically in love. 


I have been painting myself in full nude since I was about 20 and an art student in college. I find designing these hybrid costumes for my Cantonese cowgirls and painting them with such seriousness much more vulnerable than painting myself in various compromising positions. What’s the big deal about painting some tasteful tits and crotch after all? That’s just most of art history and a little postmodernist feminist body positivity. But giving people a glimpse of my fashion ideas? If I possess an ounce less of shamelessness, I might shrivel up into a dot and disappear into thin air. 




My grandmother used to make Barbies and fake flowers in the 60s in Hong Kong. That was back when Hong Kong was still a major factory hub before mainland China eventually took over. When I painted my first Cantonese cowgirl in 2020, I told this story in writing. My grandmother had a small industrial accident where the tip of her forefinger was cut off by a machine. They were able to save it and stitched it back, but that part of her hand has since been slightly deformed. She often showed it to me when I was little, probably as a motivational story for me to study harder so I won’t ever have to take on a manual labor job. I would then show her the callous on my right middle finger where it is also permanently slightly deformed from having so much homework at a young age. 


My grandmother was never formally educated, instead, she taught herself how to read by following the script when the opera came to her village. It’s not unlike learning a new language from subtitles, except there was no such thing as closed caption and one can only imagine the focus it took for an illiterate village girl in rural China to accomplish such a feat as teaching herself how to read a language that is made up of over 50,000 unique characters. Writing was a different beast entirely, especially for such a specific language as Chinese. No one ever taught her how to hold a pen. She never learned how to write. 

So this village girl went on to have six kids with my grandfather after they fled mainland China to Hong Kong. Coming from a land owning family, my grandfather was formally educated but not very good at making money. She made Barbies and fake flowers. 


Luckily, she gave birth to three daughters first and then three sons, my father being the last. The two oldest girls helped with house chores, caring for their siblings and assembling fake flowers at home. 

The two oldest girls applied for green cards after the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened in 1989, and Hong Kong was due to be returned from the British to China in less than a decade. They moved to Houston, I have a hazy memory of saying goodbye to aunts and cousins I barely knew at the airport. 




Barbies can be whoever they want to be. They put on a costume and then they become whatever the costume says they are. 




If I was born two generations ago, I would have been that illiterate Chinese village girl. 


If I was born one generation ago, I wouldn’t have much choice but to prioritize making a living at all cost. There wouldn’t have been any sense in even speaking of making a living as an artist. Hong Kongers like my aunt, they left their birthplace to start over on foreign soil so their children could have more options in life. They were born in the 60s, they still had an opinion on what are acceptable career choices for my generation. My current career choice is obviously not on that list. Luckily, my dad was the youngest of six and a 70s kid. 


My parents have always told me their only mission for me in life is to be happy. It has been a privilege for me to be able to choose freedom over obligation. 




The cowgirls are like Barbies. They are the opera characters my grandmother saw on stage, who taught her how to read, line by line. They are my grandmother. They are my aunts. They are also me, because I was made by these women. They are not ashamed to be in love with themselves and the choices they made in life. They are proud to wear clothes that make them feel more naked than being naked itself. 




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