Hermes store window display on Orchard Road, Singapore. More photos in my online album.
Hermes store window display on Orchard Road, Singapore. More photos in my online album.

Singapore actually is a fairly tolerant place, except when it comes sexism, racism and a certain amount of ageism. There’s also materialism but it’s not anything near the levels of Hong Kong. Anyhow, I could not believe this store window display from Hermes. That they’re French is no excuse. Would this store window fly in America? I doubt it. Has it raised a peep in Singapore? Not that I can tell.

My Aussie roommate was shocked by these photos. Anyone is free to tell me that I’m over-reacting or taking this out of context (or even explain exactly what the context is). All I know is that my jaw dropped and I nearly tripped on the sidewalk when I first passed the store. I came back at night so the windows would be well-lit. Sorry about the humidity causing condensation on the glass.

I was planning this whole long post about the Singapore (and Asian) maid culture, but I really just wanted to post these photos!

26 thoughts on “singapore — bastion of enlightenment, sensitivity and tolerance

  1. Hey Roomie

    You forgot one “ist” with the majority of people here. They are some of the most Classist people I know.

    To all I am sorry to say bit it is very true there is such a classist mentality here.

    Now I feeling finding my old Jolson albums and banging out a bit of Mammy!

  2. I’m honestly not sure how to interpret that window and it wouldn’t be shown in France or anywhere else. In any event, it’s hella ugly.

    As far as blacks and travel and international perceptions, there are many elements and no one can make generalizations about any one part of the world. Asia, especially, it depends on where you go. In the main metro areas and around the under 30 crowd, who grew up watching and listening to Black music will be more welcoming. Depending on how “black” a black person looks will definitely dictate their experience in the countries of South America* and Africa as well, both positive and negative. I’ve had black neighbors, friends who have traveled to Asia and didn’t have a hard time, but experienced racism in Europe and were not warmly received** in the West African countries some of ancestors came from. *shrugs*

    *Certain parts of Brazil, especially. A person in the US who is considered “black” but is clearly mixed with European and/or Native heritage will be considered mixed or “brown” pretty much everywhere in South America, Africa, most of Europe, etc. However, a black person who has features that show a stronger West African heritage is going to have a difficult time in areas where race and class come together in a perfect shitstorm of isms. And that’s just Brazil where there are few people who are “unmixed”. Argentina? Ha! I hear it’s getting better but that is a country that had a very pointed campaign of near-genocide against its Native, African and mestizo-mulatto populations for sake of “purity”. Look up Domingo F. Sarmiento for more info on that.

    **There are, in my experience, many, many black Africans who resent those calling themselves African-American. They don’t consider those in the African Diaspora to be “one of them”. Could some of this be anti-American/anti-New World feelings? Possibly. There’s also some dislike of what many of them see as being the ultimate expression of “blackness” as lived in America, thanks to biased media, and they really don’t like it (ie. gangsta rap, thug life, etc.). Then again, I don’t know many black Americans who like it either. I had a neighbor when I was growing up who was rather Afrocentric….before she actually went there and was apparently “put in her place” and hasn’t been back with no plans of returning. Yet she went to Thailand and had no problems with discrimination. Go figure.

  3. My roomie,

    Yes, VERY classist society and often with no reason to be. God, laughing at your music choice!

    Aspasia,

    My first and only reaction is just shock. I don’t know what the fuck they’re thinking or what they’re trying to express. I found the window highly offensive.

    Singapore is quite racist and much of its racsim depends on skin color — the whiter the better. Unless you’re a Western white, in which case the racism is mixed with envy and resentment. Lovely, eh?

    There is not a lot of rapper/gangsta sub-culture here. Even if there were, I’m not sure the people following it would get this window. Frankly, I’m not sure that MOST people would get this window. Being American, I’ve no doubt I’m overly sensitized to these things.

    I have not explored the weird mix of Asian prejudices yet but they are there. They aren’t drawn along the same lines as American prejudice (different culture, different history, different values) — so I guess Hermes felt safe in putting this shit out for public consumption in Singapore but not America. I’m still curious what the hell they’re trying to express with it.

    I very much enjoyed your entire comment, BTW!

    XX

  4. 1. While I’m not jolly about the window, I’m not entirely surprised/shocked/stunned. We Americans have a lot of baggage (which our history has earned) WRT our, ah, involuntary immigrants from Africa. I don’t think there are many other countries who wrestle with it, or (outside the Western hemisphere) who have to.

    (Thanks to Britain’s early prohibition of slavery (early 1800s) and thanks to rising awareness in many ex-Imperial countries of their treatment of their non-“white” residents in years gone by, many in the former British Empire nations might also Take A Dim View — like your flatmate. But elsewhere in the world? Quite probably not., I think)

    2. I think the “artistic” intent of the window may have been to illustrate the range of scarves by that particular designer, which apparently ranges from “mythical” and “cultural” to “modern urban” and “stylized.”

    The very “Hello Tarzan, I’m Jane”-derssed female manikin probably illustrates the “modern urban” look. The stylized African manikins around her.might illustrate the “cultural” look; or they might illustrate the “stylized” look.

    To an artistic window designer who doesn’t care about being “correct,” the look of the stylized African manikins may perhaps borrow “enough” from native African self-representations to identify them “well enough” to the shopping audience as “savages from deepest darkest Africa.”

    Again, if the shoppers don’t have “chattel slavery of Africans whose descendants are now citizens” in their history, they might not feel that they need to pay attention to the … other nuances of that artistic choice.

    This is one of those places where differences in culture can shock us strongly.

  5. hi amanda,

    i enjoy your blog very much, especially as an asian male with a strong conservative upbringing. your articulated insights allowed me to understand the person behind the sex worker and taught me not to view such people as mere objects of sexual satisfaction.

    i agree with most of your observations on singaporeans, for i am one myself. but i must rebut the most singular prejudice you found in us: racism. we do not despise people based on skin colour. rather, true to your point on class-ism, we discriminate based on social status. you also brought up the point that we prefer white-skinned, and that, in my opinion, is true. our anglo-philia ends in idolising caucasians for the apparent wealth and status they flaunt when strutting among us, and this idolising is actually not limited to white-skinned people. it just happens that there is a higher proportion of caucasians who are wealthy and well-positioned than the proportion of asians who are similarly well off. so we worship caucasians more than any other skin colours but it does not translate to myopic discrimination against skin colours.

    if you observe us long enough, you will know that racism is minimal in our society. rather, like blacks in the western world, the perceptions which enveloped and distinguish the different races exist only because certain forces conspire to keep it that way. having made friends with many different cultures, i have learnt that a book indeed cannot be judged by its cover (or colour), and i believe many here, going through similar experiences, have cleared this hurdle of racism. nonetheless, the rest of the -isms have yet to be eliminated.

    by the way, i wonder if i have erased myself of the above stigmas when i so honestly bash down my fellow singaporeans. now, that is another peculiarity of people here: shamelessness.

    leo

  6. RSRD,

    After getting over my shock, yes I recognize Asian cultural history/values are different from American. I’m also hyper-aware that Asians do indeed judge someone’s worthiness based on shade of skin color. This isn’t neccessarily pointed at Africans but it IS there (it’s usually pointed at other Asians).

    I still think the window is tasteless and ugly and uncalled for.

    Leo,

    Singaporeans are racist. I have not yet gone into the maid culture or the way the Bangladeshi guest workers are treated. That’s prejudice and it’s based on skin color as a determination of class and worth. Singaporeans are racist but they are not violent racists and are quite tolerant of the many communities living in Singapore. Much more tolerant than many Americans (I speak about racism in America quite a bit on here). Racism certainly isn’t confined to Singapore; Asian culture is very blatantly racist and Singapore is much more mellow than what I observed in Hong Kong and what I’ve been told by people who’ve traveled to other Asian countries.

    I don’t see Westerners “strutting” around with designer clothes nearly as much as the locals! Hong Kong was shockingly materialistic and it wasn’t the Westerners who were judging people based on the designer labels they were wearing. Singaporeans are more laid-back than that (thank god) but the designer stores on Orchard Road are not filled with Western shoppers.

    There are many good things about Singapore’s melting pot: sharing each others’ food and celebrations and respecting the varied places of worship. I’m not aware that there are any laws restricting religious clothing. The racism I’ve seen (and experienced) is usually rather passive-agressive. It would be much nicer if it wasn’t there, of course.

    XX

  7. “Race” can be a slippery concept. We Americans are used to invoking it, because it poisons so much in our local world. But when Asians look at Africans in a negative way, are they negative in the same way that we Americans would be?

    I think it’s commonplace for locals (everywhere) to mock, and sometimes fear, non-locals (foreigners, outsiders, people who are different). When I lived in London in the 1980s (for 4 years), it was still commonplace for comics to build their humor on stereotypes of “different” people, mocking those stereotypes: for example, the drunken feisty Irishman, the stingy “Scotch”, the lilting-voiced Welshman, and so forth.

    However, in London I found stronger divisiveness in social class than in race (though race could divide too); and even this was different than it is in the U.S. In the U.S., social class tends to rise *and fall* with family wealth. But in Britain, social class can persist as family wealth changes: old titled family often trumps new family money, in terms of “social rank.”

    I guess where I’m going with this is that foreigners can surprise us, just when we think we have them figured out, by thinking in patterns that are utterly foreign to us. “I hear you saying words, I recognize each individual word, but I can’t assemble the words into any coherent mental structure whatsoever!”

    After I had been living there for a few months, it began to drive me nuts. After about half a year, I learned to shrug it off. Onset, and surmounting, of culture shock.

    In the case of this window, if it had been placed in a store in the U.S., you and I know full-well that the designer would have been making a whole bunch of political and ethnic and social statements *in addition to* the statement, “These scarves are brilliant and you will want to buy them.”

    In Singapore? Dunno. In this setting, maybe “a cigar is just a cigar” and maybe the designer is just presenting an ad. This is a case where I would ask local friends what they think, and listen carefully to their answers.

    No question, though, it was a jaw-dropping display.

  8. RSRD,

    I’m fully aware of the huge problems we have in America with race — STILL. I certainly don’t expect another country to toe the line there. That I made this a public thing on this blog means it really REALLY shocked me. Deeply.

    If Hermes wanted to make a primitive African display, perhaps using actual African tribal art might’ve been a much better way to go about it. It could’ve been done in the “explorer” theme without exploiting the natives themselves. Choosing to express ugly stereotypes is a choice that someone in that store made. Other Westerners have been shocked by the window too. Singaporeans? Guess not.

    There is a thread going on this on my Facebook account. In thinking about this more and more, I’m guessing this really boils down to sheer insensitivity. Africans and American black people are not part of Asian culture in any real way. I’m guessing this window was done because it doesn’t even hit their radar in the slightest little bit. I’m hoping like hell it wasn’t because it hit the funny-bone of someone in Hermes.

    I’m still not excusing it though. Singapore prides itself on being a tolerant place. Whether it is or isn’t is subjective (obviously). I don’t think this window upholds the idea of tolerance.

    XX

  9. Bastion of tolerance – ironically, this is true! Here in NYC, this window display (most likely within seconds of its going up) would have been smashed, media would have been all over it, a bonfire of Hermès goods burned in Union Square.

    As window displays here are a spectator sport, with velvet ropes sanctioning off via inches who gets to view the Macy’s or Barneys Christmas offerings, I speak with a curious reverence that you were able to take these photos without picketers inviting you to join a movement. The indifference makes my jaw drop!

  10. To reinforce leo’s point, I think there’s some mis-perception among non-locals on racism and “classist” mentality here. There is social stratification (‘classist”) in this society, and it is generally ranked as follows:
    1. The amount of monetary possessions in liquid or fixed assets
    2. Level of education
    3. Personal conduct and civic behavior
    4. The social economic status of your extended family, your friends & associates
    5. Your country of origin – whether from a developed/rich nation or otherwise

    There is also a form of racism here, but it is more of a sublimal tribal instinct to seek support, comfort and similar cultural preferences. Thus, malays, chinese, indians or eurasians usually feel more comfortable with each other due to the inherent tribalism & shared sense of cultural identity. Very often however, through centuries of living and working together, inter-racial friendships & marriages have taken place, and for a lifetime. Racism in its western form is not overtly practiced here, except for the uninitiated and among the ignorant and lowly educated. One’s color also do not matter much, and locals do not carry the angst of associating color with slavery or class. (see the ranking on what constitute class). Thus, the locals here think nothing of race show window models on display, except that it shows different cultures and color of mankind. Black is just as beautiful as brown or yellow or white, but the whatever the color, the color of money, legal tender is best!

    My personal take on the “African American” label: this is just silly because Americans are supposed to be Americans, and Africa does not comprise of just black people. Africans comprise of berbers, arabs, egyptians, indians from india who emigrated there for millineums, whites, including descendants of white slaves, and mulattos. In short, there is a whole spectrum of mankind’s colors there. Describing a black person (and black is as beautiful as any other – notice the number of men & women who would like to get into the sack with a black : ). As for the slavery label, black people should not have angst over a tragic past – there was slavery worldwide practiced by the dominants. For those not in the know, black Africans practiced white slavery – notably in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia for several hundred years, and there were quite a few million white slaves. The slave owners, like any in the world also practiced breeding of white and mulatto slaves – to generate profits and replace existing slaves. Thus creating a label of “African American” is in my view, a reflection of a chip on thier shoulders, and a lack of inherent pride in one’s own color. Balck, Brown, yellow, White, or even Avatar’s blue, if you cared to notice, is beautiful!!

  11. Bao,

    No one walking by the store paid any attention whatsoever, except to avoid getting in front of my camera. They had no interest in WHAT I was taking a photo of. Probably just considered me another tourist! Which I guess I am.

    I’m still waiting to see if they run this window in America. If they don’t, then that (to me) is a sign they’re aware it wouldn’t work. Then again, I don’t know how window displays are structured within the franchise system for the store either.

    kt,

    I’ve just noticed that Singaporean “class” prejudices very often fall along the lines of skin color and ethnicity. That’s racism. It is subtle but it’s there. Again, as an American, I might be more sensitive to it than Singaporeans themselves.

    However, the Singaporeans who have traveled a bit and expanded their lives tend not to be very classist or racist. Much like Americans who go beyond their own country. Or someone from any culture who bothers to travel elsewhere and see what a culture other than their own is like. Mixing and matching tends to be a good thing — as you noted with melting pot of Singapore (except for those who don’t wish to melt).

    Black people in America often wish to be called African-American (or just black). Start a conversation with a black American if you think that’s silly. Or are you black?

    XX

  12. Amanda: Sadly, I do know many American blacks – many have the shoulder chip & needless complex. Correspondingly, I’ve also known a number of blacks from Africa & the Carribbean from my student days, and work/travel. The non-American blacks I’d known, do not seem to have the shoulder chip, nor a color complex. There is less of a skin color prejudice in Singapore, the government has a national pledge against racism, and integrates all races from a young age. However, it’s a social economic one-upmanship due to the competitive climate here, starting from pre-kindergarten schools. To my best knowledge from knowing many from the different races – I speak malay, chinese & dialects & some tamil & hindi, and their swear words; color, in my life’s experiences todate is not the key issue here, nor the basis of class. Class, is perceived by many I know here as mainly monetary worth, followed by education levels & skillsets with one’s job, profession or vocation, and one’s family standing & civic conduct. These are listed above. I’d once mentioned my personal view of what should constitute class: There are only two classes of people – one that gives help, and the other that needs help. We belong to both, for we give and need help in our lives. Think we should lunch together for some titillating intellectual discussions & some laughs. : )

  13. kt,

    I agree with you re: real class. Truly classy people are those who care about others’ comfort and well-being. That is the definition for both ladies and gentleman. It crosses cultural and monetary lines.

    Singapore is not nearly as material-driven as I found Hong Kong to be. As I put it to a friend, “Thousands of years of enlightenment and it all comes down to whether or not you have a Gucci bag.” Or any name-brand items whose logos can be seen from outer space. Sigh.

    As for American blacks “having a chip on their shoulders” might it simply be that they feel they can freely express their dissatisfaction? They have experienced horrible racism in America’s recent past. Blacks in America experience racism and prejudice still — like illegal search and seizures by police (Google: Tenaha Texas). I can’t speak for the history of Carribean or African blacks or how they are treated today (Africa is a pretty big country with a varied history).

    For all I know, the American blacks you spoke with had experienced prejudice from Asian people in America (which certainly happens) and lumped you in with that category because of the way you look. Yes, that’s racism too!

    Truth is, people all over the world like to put anyone unfamiliar or scary in the category of “Others.” The majority of the time, “othering” is based on physical features. Othering leads to a lot of ugly problems, like all the isms, like war, like creating a sub-class of people in a country.

    XX

  14. I’m fascinated! Me, I wouldn’t take my Visa card anyway near Hermes, these days, because it would probably melt, but the window certainly doesn’t offend me.

    I’ve got used to US friends quaintly calling a bitch a “female dog” because apparently the correct English term has been misappropriated. I do rather think that sometimes we are all too hyper sensitive about others’ perceived sensitivities.

    Black, coloured, negro, african-american, mulatto – they all change and come and go. I’m not allowed to refer to a cripple as a cripple these days!

    aaaaagh!

  15. Richard,

    I’m not being sensitive on behalf of black people — the window offended ME. Growing up around a bunch of racist rednecks probably did leave me more aware of racism than people who didn’t have that experience. So yes, I react poorly to bigotry.

    Being aware of what hurts other people’s feelings isn’t being hyper-sensitive, it’s being a real human being (which includes traits like empathy). We all fail taking others into consideration with our actions but there’s no reason not to try. Not trying is what makes this world an uglier place — not a better one.

    XX

  16. This window is actually an interpretation of an Hermes scarf by an African artist called George Lilanga. I seriously doubt the designer meant any harm, though it probably is shocking if you don’t know the context.

    Check out Mr. Lilanga’s site below:

    http://georgelilanga.com/

  17. Alli,

    Thank you for that bit of Hermes history. While that does explain what they were thinking with the display, the only historical context that popped into MY mind was a terribly negative one (but then I’m not a fashionista). I am also curious to know if this window was ever displayed in America.

    On a side note, the recent flooding in Singapore likely flooded the Hermes store as it was set slightly below ground. My flatmate tells me the windows are boarded up. Hee hee!

    XX

  18. Don’t know if it is true or not but I heard that it is difficult to obtain Singapore citizenship unless you are ethnic Chinese. Other ethnic groups are to remain happy as a PR.

  19. Andy,

    I’ve heard that too. And there are many who aren’t even PR but simply go in and out of Singapore every 90 days.

    Singapore’s “Mother Tongue” is Mandarin and the culture is predominantly Chinese, even though it is quite a melting pot and is really made up of 4 main cultures (Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and Malay).

    XX

  20. Thailand is the same way. People of Chinese descent wield most of the financial and political power there. And the taller and lighter-skinned folks are perceived as more desirable, if not squarely superior.

    A lot of Asia is very xenophobic, period. The reticence to say “no” and the permanent smiles are just a cultural veneer.
    So until Asian countries become completely open to the rest of the world, we’ll keep seeing things there that’ll shock our western sensibilities.

    Green-lighting those displays would be a career-ending faux pas for any Hermes-USA executive, BTW.

    I’m still not sure why the company doesn’t see that, in our information age, its image can be hurt by what it does on the other side of the planet, regardless of local cultural blind spots.
    But the French are not overly conflicted over their colonial past and probably don’t see anything wrong with such representations.

  21. Hobbyist,

    Oh yes, I’m finding this out. Quite. It can be tiring to navigate all the prejudices and class cues.

    I find the French and Singaporeans very similar in so many ways. Their attitudes toward life is very much the same — both positive and negative. It’s actually very funny to observe. I don’t think either country has any idea how they are so similar.

    XX

  22. And they see us as clueless barbarians because we’re free of most of their social constraints and mental blocks. To be honest, there IS a “bull in the china shop” thing about most Americans abroad, though.

    As for much of the rest of the world, having a rich culture and long history is great. Staying stuck in the status quo and refusing to open one’s mind… not so much.
    The French love to think that their country is the center of the world. I saw “scientific” theories based on the center of gravity of land masses, etc.
    Hard to have any respect for others when one takes themselves as seriously.

  23. Hobbyist,

    I haven’t run into many American tourists (usually the ones I see are military). The REALLY annoying tourists are mainland Chinese. Brits and Europeans can be annoying and self-important. But then, they’re Westerners and I know we all look alike to Asians.

    LOL about the French!!!

    XX

  24. I understand that in the context of American race relations this display could be considered derogatory and offensive. Outside of the history of American race relations I don’t find it offensive at all. I think it’s cute, as a matter of fact. They are caricatures. They have big lips and wide noses because that is the way Africans look. Why is a true representation of ethnic facial features considered an insult? Their animal features are of animals that would be found in Africa, of course. These just seem like cute little cartoons having fun that this explorer came across on his safari. I don’t see how it’s any worse than the looney tunes cartoon animals. I would love to live in a world logical enough that I could say “I’m white and that guy is black” and people would say those are facts, instead of calling me a racist. Maybe I’m missing something, but there doesn’t seem to be a particularly condescending message that I can see.

  25. Anna — It’s Singapore and they’re racist. (Asian cultures tend to be racist toward pretty much everyone beyond their own country and maybe the Japanese.)

    I found it offensive and other non-American Westerners who saw the pictures found it offensive. I didn’t get to ask any black people in Singapore what they thought as they’re aren’t many of them but I’m betting they wouldn’t find it cute.

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