Killing off Kipling

Article excerpt

'East is East, and West is West,' wrote an English poet a century ago. He was wrong. A new fusion is changing the world.

WHERE 61ST STREET crosses Madison Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side, two stores face each other. On one side of the street stands Barneys --cool, restrained, the place where New York's fund managers buy their Donna Karan power suits. Across the street is Shanghai Tang, the city's hot new store, a riot of lime green and tangerine, selling padded suits in velvet and cheongsams in embroidered silk. Not much in common, on the surface--except that one store is already owned by a Hong Kong Chinese entrepreneur, and one store soon may be. Dickson Poon, who made his money from boutiques in Asia, is trying to take control of Barneys. Shanghai Tang is the brainchild of David Tang, flamboyant, cigar at the ready, with an English accent that would impress a duchess. In the United States today, says Tang, "there's a tremendous acceptance of China and things Chinese."

Not just Chinese, either. Look anywhere in New York this year, and you could see an Asian influence on culture, fashion, food-- even, during those fall days when everyone wanted to know the level of the Hang Seng index, the conversation of cabdrivers.

Video stores stock manga and kung fu; Nobu, a downtown restaurant serving Japanese food, is stuffed with celebrities, and Michelle Yeoh, Malaysian martial-arts star of the new James Bond movie, "Tomorrow Never Dies" (and ex-wife of Poon), does her "don't mess with me" look from billboards.

Yet explore this a little, and the picture changes. This isn't the pure Asia. Nobu's food is really a blend of styles from Japan, South America and the United States. Yeoh's movie has its roots in a mixture of British novels and Hollywood spectacle. David Tang's clothes may proudly say they are MADE BY CHINESE, but it's not clear how many Chinese wear them. "If I walked into Chinatown now," he says, "they'd think I was an alien." Dress designer Vivienne Tam, a Hong Kong-born New Yorker, puts it simply. "Everyone is influencing each other," she says. "Of course we are interested in Asia, but what ultimately comes out is a cross-cultural esthetic."

Cross-cultural estheticism: sounds like a nice way to end a year, century or millennium. Never has Rudyard Kipling's old line about East and West seemed more wrong. The sporadic contacts that started when Chinese silks made their way across the steppes to turn up, mysteriously, in ancient Rome have become an interpenetration so constant it is hardly noticed. Moving in one direction, Indian novelists like Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie rejuvenate English; Chinese director John Woo and Ang Lee, and stars like Gong Li make films in America. The West, meanwhile, takes its own sensibilities to the East, bringing barbecue to Beijing rap to Bajasthan. And it's a truism that economies have become more integrated--that widows and orphans in the United States have investments in Indonesia, or that workers in Valenciennes, France, might be employed by a Japanese company.

On the surface, there's a nice equality about the trade. At even the most symbol-laden events, it's hard to figure out who is dominant, and who subservient. Take perhaps 199Ts most dramatic moment: the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China at midnight on June 80. The flag came down on the British Empire. ("Seven hundred million people in 1947 to 700,000 in 1997," muses David Tang. "That's quite a collapse.") Prince Charles and the colony's last governor sailed away as fireworks showered the harbor, and China rid its territory of the official successors of those barbarians who had once forced "unequal treaties" and opium down its throat.

And yet... take a look at Hong Kong. The city's skyline owes everything to Western styles. The limousines shuffling Chinese officials up and down the Peak, wrecking their transmissions, have their roots in 19th-century European technology. …