A Bag of Remembrance: A Cultural Biography of Red-White-Blue, from Hong Kong to Louis Vuitton

Wessie Ling

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

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Abstract

Stamped with its renowned logo, could the 2007 Louis Vuitton laundry bag – a replica of the ubiquitous plaid plastic carrier bag – be an ironic visual pun in response to the countless Chinese market stalls that had relentlessly ripped off their infamous ‘LV’ design? With its little-known origin in Hong Kong via Japan and Taiwan, the striped polyethylene material of the laundry bag, or migrant bag, was first used for burlap-type sacks or tarpaulin in the construction industry of Hong Kong, where it was subsequently made into carrier bags. In the 1970s and 1980s, plaid plastic carrier bags were often used to transport food and necessities from Hong Kong to mainland China through Shenzhen, the first city after crossing the British-Chinese border. Today, it is the plaid carrying bag that continues to be used widely in China and throughout the world.

Commonly known as ‘Red-White-Blue’ in Hong Kong, the bag is imbued with symbolic meaning associated with the ‘local spirit’ of an industrious, trading city built by a ‘hardy and hard-working people’. In Hong Kong, the bag is emblematic of the city’s colonial days and serves as a potent symbol of an ever-changing city that seems to be perpetually under construction. The shortage of land and rising property prices in Hong Kong restricted the cluster of small producers of Red-White-Blue bags, who could not expand to develop economies of scale. Over the past two decades, the manufacturing of the bag has moved to mainland China to take advantage of low-cost labour and cheaper production facilities.

The worldwide dissemination of inexpensive products made in China means that the Red-White-Blue carrier bag has found a global audience. Its little-known origin in Hong Kong permits new users to imagine new meanings for the bag; because of its low retail price and widespread availability, Red-White-Blues primarily suit the needs of the migrant, and is found in different corners of the world. The bag has different names in different countries, and has taken on new meanings in various localities. In the United States, it is called the ‘Chinatown tote’; in Trinidad, the ‘Guyanese Samsonite’; in Germany, ‘Türkenkoffer’, which translates as the ‘Turkish suitcase’; in the United Kingdom, ‘Bangladeshi bag’; in South Africa, ‘Zimbabwe bag’; in Thailand, ‘Rainbow bag’, and in Nigeria and Ghana, ‘Ghana must go bag’. This chapter discusses the extent to which a Chinese export has played a part in the realities and identities of varied communities, as well as the re-fashioning of Chinese exports into a fashion commodity. It traces the origin and development of Red-White-Blue, and its connotations and cultural significance to Hong Kong and communities across several continents.

Through its biography, this chapter unpacks how various communities adopted and (re)interpreted their versions of Red-White-Blue bags. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Louis Vuitton’s replica of this plaid bag. The questions addressed here include authenticity, cultural identity, and the power dynamic between high and low culture. Specifically, the chapter juxtaposes Western fashion institutions and Asian street culture, and examines the relationship of Chinese production to the European-American fashion system. The analysis draws on empirical and ethnographic research, including interviews with makers and users, and detailed readings of the contemporary global fashion scene as represented in the traditional press and on the Web.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEuropean Fashion
Subtitle of host publicationThe Creation of a Global Industry
EditorsRegina Lee Blaszczyk, Véronique Pouillard
Place of PublicationManchester, UK
PublisherManchester University Press
Chapter12
Pages283-301
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9781526122100
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2018

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