Settler & pioneer “heritage hipster” styles in the age of Idle No More, Chinatown gentrification, &c.Tuesday, October 14th, 2014
Men in British Columbia, 1859, one in a newly discovered collection of early photographs of white settlers and First Nations in B.C. © Vancouver Sun
I am probably as bored of casual hipster-slagging as you are. In fact I may be as fed up with hipster-bashing as I am with the hipster phenomenon itself—in all its varieties. I think what bores me about most critiques of hipsters, though, is not that they predictably fixate on the easy target of a repetitive fashion, but that they are almost always superficial and ahistorical. Annoyance at the tribal codes of hipsters is too often itself just tribal. Either that or it never surpasses “if you’re going to look like a logger, best learn how to use a chainsaw,” not that I don’t have a lot of sympathy with that sentiment. But virtually no one seems to be talking about the fact that certain hipster aesthetics have some pretty troubling historical antecedents which, when juxtaposed with current realities, seem more disturbing with every passing day. In particular, I’m bothered by the fact that here in my own place and time, haunted as it is by its colonial past, I’m seeing men adopt a late 19thC white male, pioneer aesthetic. In short: WTF.
Why are political-historical critiques of this ubiquitous style so absent? Maybe it stems from the fact that if you even tentatively point out problems with hipster codes in a casual conversation, people get really exercised about it. Even some of those employed in cultural studies or related fields will disavow that retro aesthetic references actually mean anything, pop up for any real reason, or have any significant connection to any particular history. Try it. You will likely face defensive, condescending, eye-rolling reactions like “that was then, this is now,” or “anything goes these days,” or “but you don’t realize meaning is fluid!” or just because I’m wearing a haircut widely called the Nazi Youth doesn’t mean it has anything to do with Hitler; Hitler is dead and so on. If you propose that aesthetics aren’t purely random—if you suggest that aesthetics are in fact the thin end of the wedge of politics—you quickly find yourself in an unpopular minority in the room. I’m serious; try it.
Road to unpopularity or not, I want to talk about how jarring the “heritage hipster” phenomenon feels now that it has become the face of such things as the wave of gentrification hitting Chinatown and neighbouring areas of old Vancouver.
As anyone who has watched the satirical TV sketch show Portlandia knows, the “heritage hipster” style harks back to late 19thC white male North America. Portlandia has it as “the Dream of the 1890s” (see video below). The style’s historical referents are actually a little all over the place, being an amalgam of merchant or pioneer styles from 1850 to 1910, perhaps with some Depression-era 1930s and a little 1940s-50s overlaid on top. However the 1890s (that lesser known decade of catastrophic economic depression) seems to be its magnetic centre.
It’s interesting to note that the era 1850-1930 coincides with one of the largest waves of white European immigration to North America, largely facilitated by the advent of the steamship and availability of more affordable fares while also driven by increasing agricultural unemployment in Europe due to mechanization. In Canada this period was known as the second wave. It was also marked by increasing agitation in Canada against immigration from other parts of the world.
I have wanted to make an observation about the heritage hipster style for at least seven or eight years, but I kept thinking it had to be on its way out—why not just let it quietly fade away along with its homemade pickles, pies, striped canvas aprons, taxidermy and saloon decor involving rusty antique handsaws. Even two years ago I thought I’d missed the boat and that it was too late for even a post-mortem. Now however I see that news of the heritage hipster’s death was premature.
What I think about when I see you wear this stuff in my neighbourhood
I live in a diverse and historically conflicted part of Vancouver, right at the confluence of Chinatown and an area known as the Downtown Eastside (DTES). It is the oldest part of Vancouver and one of the poorest postal codes in the country. Because it is close to downtown, condo tower developers have recently set their sights on it in what can only be called a land rush, one that our developer-captured City Hall has done nothing to decelerate. In Vancouver’s infamous climate of rampant real estate speculation, this neighbourhood is now experiencing skyrocketing rents, renoviction and demolition which are quickly driving out the neighbourhood’s traditional inhabitants: Chinese and other elders, the urban poor, many First Nations people, low-income workers and the homeless.
Coincidentally—or not—much of this neighbourhood dates precisely from the 1890s. Chinatown was founded in the mid 1880s but only really grew to a noticeable size and population in the following decade. The same is more or less true for the whole Downtown Eastside, since Vancouver was officially founded there in 1886. The Uchida/Ming Sun building on Powell Street, one of Vancouver’s 18 oldest buildings and one we’ve been trying to save for housing, dates from 1889. It was a crucially important building in Nihonmachi (or Japantown) until it was confiscated by the government during the WWII internment of Japanese-Canadians. What I’m getting at is that workers of many different origins lived around these parts, all working in the colonial resource sector including at the Hastings Mill or in the service sector that grew up around it. In short, this neighbourhood was not solely populated by white guys with waxed moustachios who looked as if they’d just exited a barbershop quartet.
In Chinatown, the 1890s and early 1900s were marked by constant conflict with a city government that habitually imposed on it repressive and racist laws: curfews, bans of traditional BBQ (a restaurant and social mainstay), and other regulations that were clearly targeted at a specific cultural group. (And I’m not even getting into the issue of the oppressive federal Head Tax here.) Tensions ran high and anti-Chinese racism, only legitimated by all the racialized regulations, carried with it the threat of intimidation and violence. Finally on September 7, 1907, “members of the white Asiatic Exclusion League marched to Chinatown where they beat up dozens of Chinese, wrecked stores and smashed windows. Order was not restored for several days.” (Read more at Simon Fraser University’s “Vancouver Chinatown 1886-2011.”) That’s what it was like in Chinatown around the turn of the last century.
And the history of Chinatown is only one element here. Vancouver was in the 1890s a new colonial city only several decades old. It was built on land taken not long before from the Coast Salish people—Musqueam, Tseil-Waututh and Squamish—without even so much as a treaty. Today Vancouver still sits on this unceded aboriginal territory. More broadly speaking, Vancouver’s settlement in the late 19th C was part of a systematic Canadian process of clearing the West for the railway and settlement, driving First Nations from their land and way of life using forced removals, deliberate starvation, residential schools and other tactics that are relatively well-known. The photo at the top of this post, the one showing bearded white men in BC in 1859, was taken smack in the middle of this era, as was the photo below (both via Vancouver Sun).
To be fair, while some of this racist local history is known, many of its most glaring elements are not. When writers Ali Kazimi and Henry Yu gave some historical background at the launch of Kazimi’s book Undesirables (about Vancouver’s Komagata Maru incident of 1914), even an informed local audience was visibly surprised. I question why it is not fully understood that this was an era of overt white supremacism appearing in all levels of government, from local Vancouver city politics to the provincial capital to Prime Ministers John A. Macdonald and William Lyon Mackenzie King. Still, enough is known about Vancouver’s racist history that anyone who lives and works in this neighbourhood, and who doesn’t at least vaguely sense these histories, would seem to be indulging in some degree of studied oblivion.
Now that this heritage hipster aesthetic has clearly entered the mainstream, I think it is fair to start asking a few questions. Even if you could, for yourself, surgically remove the settler aesthetics of that time from their origins, how can you guarantee that others will deem your efforts a success? What fantasy 1890s are you in, exactly? More importantly, what identity are you asserting? Do you care that your getup might have uncomfortable associations for local descendants of our undeniably brutal colonial history? Or that you might be (inadvertently or not) helping to whitewash, mythologize and perpetuate consent for the undemocratic, toxic, resource extraction-based, profoundly colonial economic structure we still live under in Canada in general and BC in particular?
Top, B.C. MP R.G. MacPherson’s remarks about Punjabi immigrants to the province. 1906. Above, future Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s dream of a white Canada, from a 1908 report.
Before the recent wave of gentrification in Chinatown, the few non-Chinese shopowners in Chinatown made at least some attempt to fit in and honour local history and aesthetics. There weren’t that many of them and they did a good job of bringing some activity to the area in a way that seemed creatively sensitive to context.
But a couple of years ago as buildings in Chinatown and the DTES emptied out in advance of condo developments, and as shopfronts become available either as placeholders or as deliberate window-dressing for future condo locations, hipster joints full of antlers and beards began to appear overnight. There was zero visible attempt to work with the local historic context. Shops with ampersanded anglo names (Jones & Smith? Smith & Wesson? Bear & Buck? I can’t remember) arrived and so did restaurants with turn of the last century butcher shop aesthetics and lots of generic settler/pioneer decor that looked more Brooklyn or Manitoba than Vancouver. Meanwhile, at the very same time, resistance to the social and architectural destruction of Chinatown was growing. (See David Wong on loss of Chinatown culture in La Source.)* I am not suggesting that incoming merchants should have adopted a twee Chinois appropriation aesthetic and everything would have been fine. I am just pointing out that to many of us local residents, all this dressing and decorating like a white 1890s settler in Chinatown, while also giving convenient cover to the incoming condo developers, looked pretty effing audacious.
To return to the unceded aboriginal territory issue, during the past few years we have seen in BC and across the country a marked resurgence of actions by First Nations, notably against resource development on traditional lands. Idle No More, a movement initiated by First Nations activist women in December 2012, was a clear sign of a FN population increasingly organized and lawyered against a colonial system which, like the Indian Act of 1876, clearly still persists.
In fact 2014 was a year of reckoning and “reconciliation” not just for First Nations but also in three key non-white communities in Vancouver and B.C. While there has been discussion within all these communities of the problems with ideas of “recognition” and “reconciliation” because those concepts remain embedded in a colonial discourse, the point is that we are currently seeing a racist and colonial history (past as well as recent) brought to the fore. So in addition to the ongoing First Nations Truth and Reconciliation Commission over issues including residential schools as well as a key Supreme Court win for BC First Nation with the Tsilhqot’in victory, this year also saw the 100th year anniversary of Vancouver’s Komagata Maru episode, which included a federal apology; there was a City of Vancouver apology for the WWII internment of Japanese Canadians; and a BC apology to Chinese Canadians for the 1885 Head Tax. All these well-publicized processes—you’d have to be living under a rock to have missed all of them—are concurrent with the accelerated luxury condo development in neighbourhoods associated with these communities. And now into that complicated matrix blithely walks a neatly-coiffed Paul Bunyan.
It is the confluence of all these things in 2014 that has suddenly made the 1890s white male hipster aesthetic so flat-out intolerable. In light of both the history of Chinatown and the DTES and what’s happening here now, the sheer obliviousness of this mode of self expression and boutique chic seems staggering. Context is everything, and in this context, the heritage hipster aesthetic actually looks worse than oblivious: disingenuous at best, aggressive at worst. Its whitewashing nostalgia obscures our own history here. And the defense that it’s ironic doesn’t wash. I don’t detect any real irony in it, but if irony is the intent, who are they performing that irony for, exactly? Each other?
As an aside, I would also add that even without the racial and colonial issues, I’d have a problem with this style for reasons involving its disingenuousness around gender and class. Why does no one talk about this style’s near–100% male adoption? I’ve asked many friends about this and none of them can think of a true female equivalent. Indeed, how could women (white, let alone non-white) adopt an 1890’s style in the same casual way? Somehow I don’t feel like wearing long dresses and not having the vote. For that matter, the heritage hipster is only one of many traditionally masculine styles that are currently being dusted off with way too much enthusiasm and all of which seem nostalgic for some old school, white masculinity or other. Secondly I haven’t dealt with the fact that the heritage hipster is a largely working class style affected by white boys who grew up middle class. This spree of class tourism isn’t justified by the fact that even though their upbringings were middle class their futures may not be. The “slumming” issue has its own complicated history, one I can’t deal with here but that has been well-covered elsewhere. I’ll just ask this: if you are a disenfranchised millennial or Gen Y man, is there no other means of signalling that you are DIY and libertarian than these retrogressive and worker-alibi trappings? But I digress.
There are always exceptions that prove the rule, so I should point out that not all critiques of hipsterism are depoliticized. See Bill Deresiewicz’s excellent Generation Sell, which identifies entrepreneurialism as the affect-free heart of the hipster ethic, and I also liked A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’ from Jezebel in 2012. Here’s an interesting observation from its comment stream:
“What no one seems to talk about are the racial politics of hipster culture, which is odd since the early hipsters were engaged in a dialogue with amongst other things BeBop and therefore black culture, just as the Skins in the 60’s were addressing ska and Blue Beat and the Punks in the 70’s were influenced by reggae. Hipsterdom today seems like an unapologetic return to unmediated, sartorial proletarian whiteness. Troubling.”
Are our historical aesthetic references innocent or not? It seems to me that fashion is a language or at the very least a mode of cultural expression, and that people make aesthetic choices because consciously or not they chime with their aspirations, fantasies and values. Maybe some would find this juxtaposition of 1890s heritage hipster aesthetic with actual on-the-ground 1890s local history somewhat tenuous. Maybe they think I’m oversensitized to these things having taken too many university history courses. But I just don’t buy it. I just don’t see how it’s possible to avoid making the connection between this aesthetic and the realities of its not-so-distant origins. Its implications just seem very, very stark. For the sake of argument, though, let’s entertain the idea that culture consists of items that spin meaninglessly in a blender and can be conveniently unmoored from history. In that case, how is one style chosen over any other? Are our choices purely random? Is is just that we like shiny—or plaid—things? Is it merely an accident that people have retained this aesthetic for eight straight years (highly unusual in fashion), and in this place? I find it impossible to believe that this is not a deeply meaningful code, and a code designed to assert a particular type of entitlement (I use that term in the general sense as well as pertaining to land use). If dressing in the style of a white pioneer from the late 19thC means nothing, why defend it so vigorously when challenged, year after year? Methinks the men in suspenders doth protest too much. In short, this is one of the few instances when I agree with the otherwise idiotic New Age maxim that “everything happens for a reason.”
“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Farcical as the costume design may be, given the fact that we’re talking about gentrification, land grabs and rapidly widening inequality, farce may be giving way to a second tragedy.
For your reading pleasure, or not, here is a plethora of links on heritage hipsters and related topics (list will be periodically updated):
The Great Heritage-Hipster Clusterfuck of 2009/10/11 (… it didn’t end in 2011 – Ed.)
The Rise of the Lumbersexual
How Straight World Stole ‘Gay’: The Last Gasp of the ‘Lumbersexual’
Out of the Woods, Here He Comes: The Lumbersexual (Guardian)
Vancouver people dress poorly, by IHateVan
Why do people hate hipsters?
Piss Off You Hipster Git
Will Self: The awful cult of the talentless hipster has taken over
Will Self, keep your cardigan on. Blanket disdain for hipsters is so tired
Is it OK to Hate HipstersBeware of cupcake fascism
The pernicious realities of artwashing
The Heritage Hipster Matrix 2010
The racially fraught history of the American beard
Vancouver Lexicon: The Lumberjoke
Hipster Business Name Generator
Charting the rise of Generation Yawn
I Spent a Night at the Urban Cowboy, Williamsburg’s Hip, New Western-Themed Bed and Breakfast
“In other words, he looked entirely typical of the kind of 21st-century hipster conformist who has adopted a wild-man-of-the-woods look even though he works in marketing and only leaves the city to attend music festivals.” (Guardian)
Review of the taxidermy cuisine in Chinatown
I strongly recommend watching this video of a panel of short talks for the launch of Glen Coulthard’s book Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Excellent introduction to First Nations issues, strategies for undoing persistent colonial structures, and a political approach to the land (which also addresses such problems as urban gentrification and land use).
Also see So NOW: On Normcore for a good discussion of where critique is now & the question of “post-criticality.” Much of that article will stand as a challenge to some of my own arguments and method above.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971, Robert Altman. Shot in Vancouver in 1970, set in 1899
*Re Gentrification: Before my discussion is derailed by the sidestep argument that it’s really artists who are responsible for gentrification, and why blame a few hipsters, let me say this. First, neither is the prime mover of gentrification here. The culprit would be the pairing of Vision Vancouver, the current ruling party in Vancouver, and its developer donors who now effectively own City Hall. But as for the hipsters and artists and the cover they give to developers: while some art galleries have moved into the area, in my view it’s not so easy to say they’re agents of gentrification in the way the posh hipster restaurants are. Centre A and Gallery 221A are part of the Chinese community and have furthermore been highlighting and even opposing rampant luxury development in Chinatown. Last week I went to the best community meeting I’ve ever attended at Centre A, in which diverse members of the community were brought together to talk about how to stop a tower slated to tower over Sun Yat Sen Gardens. And that’s only a tiny part of the community building activities that these art centres have been involved in. While it’s always impossible to avoid artwashing entirely, I see the role of these centres as somewhat distinct from the new restaurant and real estate entrepreneurs.
UPDATE: This Guardian article on the “Lumbersexual” theorizes that the lumberjack look is straight white guys borrowing a gay bear style. It also argues that the style is ironic. I think those are two separate issues. I don’t buy that this gear is truly ironic (except in an unintended sense), but I think she’s probably right about the influence of the gay bear look. But the thing is, this is still a form of hypermasculinity regardless of the sexual orientation of the wearer or how over-coiffed the rendition. And the gay bear reference just sits like an extra layer on top of the style’s whitewashing of the settler era, rather than contradicting it. Anyway, I think the article is somewhat guilty of the type of light, de-historicized analysis I reference in my essay. There’s also this similar piece in The Daily Beast PS: Given the gay fashion connection I’m quite amazed that a English writer would fail to mention the Monty Python lumberjack sketch:
“I never wanted to do this job in the first place!
I… I wanted to be…
Leaping from tree to tree!
As they float down the mighty rivers of
I cut down trees, I eat my lunch,
I go to the lava-try.
On Wednesdays I go shoppin’
And have buttered scones for tea.“
— Monty Python