Friday, 29 July 2016

Chinese ANSI art from the 604 -- the missing link between the artscene and Big 5?

What does that even say? I have no idea!

Something struck me while I was putting together yesterday's (well, it was yesterday -- writing these things takes a little time 8) massive gallery of "Big 5" Unicode art of video game characters from China, by which I mean... Taiwan. There was a feeling I got, poring over the sum of the artwork, the inscrutable characters folded into it, and the blade of grass I had to hold on to, Latinized filenames. That feeling was: this was not the first time I've been made to feel exactly this way -- baffled and bewildered -- while poring over textmode art, a domain that I thought I had well in hand.

If you turn the clock way back to the very moment of my induction into the digital underground, you find me circa 1994 in area code 604, a land at the crossroads -- in Caucasian-colonized North America, but with easier access to Pacific Rim countries than to the heartland of my own country; also, chronologically situated between Vancouver's debutante ball to the world, Expo '86, and the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China.

What this meant was that the ethnic makeup of Vancouver was in transition; still a painfully white town with a nonetheless historic Chinatown that anti-Asiatic riots and the head tax had failed to erase earlier in the century, alarmist local media made it feel like virtually every other house (at least, those without covenants not to sell to Chinese) was being torn down in order to put up a square-footage-maximising, feng shui-optimised "monster house" (larger, to accommodate multigenerational families from Hong Kong who would include a second master bedroom for revered grandparents... the monsters!) I don't know if most area codes saw a substantial influx of Chinese immigration in the '90s -- it wouldn't surprise me if San Francisco, Seattle and New York also saw it, but it most definitely would surprise me if Kansas, Chicago and Orlando did. (As for Hawaii, the most Asian state? Probably I ought to go take a look at some early TeklordZ artpacks. Oh? Huh. How inconvenient: I see this piece as a pinnacle of classic ANSI art -- but do I only embrace it thus after ts had established that it wasn't his default mode?) All I can report is that it definitely was in effect in Vancouver, and we kind of got the impression that it was happening here moreso than anywhere else. So I don't know if what I'm describing was a wholly localized phenomenon or something felt to varying degrees in other areas. I figured that these kinds of subjects were being drawn everywhere at this time, while my recent research suggests that everyone else was drawing ANSIs of Public Enemy and Eddie the Head. Had I realised I was in such an extraordinary Petri dish at the time, I surely would have paid closer attention to the specifics.

In elementary school I had Chinese friends -- the only two such boys in my class, Alan and Albert, rare cohorts at an exceedingly white school in an exceedingly white neighbourhood. They won me over on the basis of their drawing giant robots (racist trope warning: with the seemingly genetic ease and effortlessness we'd come to expect from East Asians) all over their schoolwork, which suggested that we might share some common interests -- a suggestion confirmed when Albert invited me to his house where we snacked on fried rice and played Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari on his imported Famicom. (This is to say that I was acclimatized to Chinese culture to the extent that I had favorite dishes at weekly dim sum, but duck feet were not among them.) But then I switched streams into a bilingual program (French! How can we make the student body just a little whiter?) at a different school and, after a few years of playing D&D with my 100% white nerd bros, found my way online. Not into the bleeding-edge beating heart of things, mind you, but to such local Public Domain BBSes as would accept calls from my borrowed 1200 baud modem circa 1992.

As we've seen in regards to their musical tastes (and as we will see in regards to their enthusiasm for professional sports!) the Public Domain scene basically just held up a mirror to the dominant culture, which was painfully white and blandly seasoned with artifacts of mainstream baby boomer culture like Garfield, Gilligan's Island and Archie Comics. With very few exceptions (such as a seeming obsession with Cindy Crawford swimsuit .GIFs and the dictates of FidoNet Zone Coordinators) the online culture was entirely an echo of what had come before in the wider world -- it had no culture of its own. (Of course, the underground begged to differ.)

And despite the 604's growing Chinese population, this demographic was virtually invisible online. Among 2200 BBSes listed, there is one entry tossing them a bone --

604-736-2694 VANCOUVER, CANADA Chinese Connection, The Chinese Connection (1993-1995) Yen-Zon Chai
-- and of permutations of the ten most common Chinese surnames we find about 15 separate appearances among the roster of PD SysOps there. However slim a minority group they may have been here at that time, they certainly amounted to more than the fraction of one percent represented here ... and as anyone who spent any time in local computer shops could have testified, it wouldn't have been surprising to see their demographic segment over-represented. But not in the Public Domain BBS sphere.

Basically, it seemed that there was no Chinese Public Domain, and what I always figured (hypothesized or, who knows, imagined out of thin air?) was that their community of hardened teenage nerds, already organized for mutual support in a wider culture in which they were still outsiders (here, brother, you're tired of watching crappy Schwarzenegger action movies and want to know where to find some good old Jackie Chan VHS dubs in the PAL standard? Maybe you'd like to look at some of Victoria Harbour's most beautiful swimsuit models to help you think about the kinds of girls you grew up with?) (I was quite a bit less flattering about that latter case in an early Kithe interview), took an express route to a Chinese piracy underground (long a glorious Hong Kong tradition.) (Even if not entirely a figment of my imagination, this theory is expressly incorrect; you can ask me some time about Bernard Wu and The Synthesizers, area code 604's least hip music tracking group, who briefly surfaced in promotion of their venture to, as best as I can tell, sell MIDI arrangements of cantopop tunes for karaoke machines... which seems about the most PD undertaking imaginable. Hey, don't laugh -- unlike what we were doing it had an immediate commercial application!) The only one who knew the score was local science fiction writer William "Neuromancer" Gibson, who handily foreshadowed both cyberspace and the importance East Asia would play in it.

Once the path forward was revealed, it was hard work getting me up to speed with the culture of the digital underground -- why is Renegade a more elite BBS software than Telegard, which letters should I replace with numbers, which vowels get capitalized, and who are all these Image Comics characters? But once I was able to pass a New User Verification quiz on an elites BBS, I kind of figured that I now knew everything I needed to know about maneuvering through this strange subculture. OK, that's Maxx, that's Grifter, that's... who's that?

Which is fine, the computer underground didn't exist exclusively to cater to my comfort zone. I was happy to do what I could to get up to speed, but not having been raised with a certain multi-cultural literacy, I couldn't shake the irritating feeling that even here, where I'd earned admission, there were still some aspects I just didn't understand and was never going to be shown the significance of. (Guess what, kid? You're enjoying the experience of being alive. You're never going to come anywhere close to understanding most of it!) It would be more to my credit if I'd even been able to appreciate the distinction between when I was looking at something Chinese and when I was looking at something Japanese, but at that point I suspect that Hong Kong was our main shared Commonwealth vector through which they were both transmitted over here.
All of my examples in this piece date from early areacode-604 artpacks of NWA and iMPERiAL, not just because those were the milieus where I got my start and where I saw these perturbing artefacts in context, but because... I haven't noted the phenomenon turning up anywhere else, which feeds my pet theory that this was something unique to area code 604 -- and to be fair, probably more the Richmond end of it than the North Vancouver end.
Simply not recognizing the subjects of the pictures was one thing (there just weren't many otaku around North America at that point, when people were still saying "Japanimation" instead of "Anime"), but the alienation hit home with a double whammy when you'd see logos being rendered in hanzi, as if to say: if you can't read this, we didn't want you here anyway. I appreciate that Darkforce did include translated subtitles, but the courtesy is only on the level of an afterthought. This piece simply isn't for the benefit of people like me! (Which, fair enough: ANSI art simply isn't for most people overall, either. As I age and encounter incomprehensible youth slang and trends, it's both a little disappointing and a little refreshing to be out of the loop, dismissed as irrelevant, but at age 15 I wasn't ready to be irrelevant yet 8)
Even the Anglicised translation couldn't help me here -- getting up to speed would require me to be conversant with manga: comics that weren't available for sale at my local shops (and may not have been available translated into a language I understood, period!) It's curious how many of these sterling examples of the unusual phenomenon I describe come from the desk of Darkforce, an artist I had a very complicated relationship with. (In a nutshell: both emerging from iMPERiAL, I ended up running the inclusive Mistigris and he ended up running the exclusive Integrity, which enjoyed great success with a roster largely formed of local ANSI artists who had been plucked, seemingly sadistically, from our ranks into a new echelon where we could not follow.) I wonder if it's possible that due to our estrangement subsequent to these explicitly Chinese pieces, long after he'd gone whole-hog mainstream in his artistic themes, I haven't been Othering him all these years, exotifying him as an Orientalized, Fu Manchu nemesis mastermind, and none of what I'm examining here is that unusual or interesting -- and that actually here I'm just writing hundreds of words saying "I'm a fucking racist" over and over again. But I don't think that explains all of it!

Now presumably I could just ASK DF about all this, what it was about, what were his experiences with racism in Canada and online in the 604, and was it a bold assertion of pushing back... but I haven't been in touch with him since Friendster. I am looking forward to picking the brains of a few Chinese BBS locals I am still in touch with for a follow-up, because I'm sure that there is a story to be told here... only it isn't really my story to tell.

Around this period, mid-1994, probably the single most celebrated ANSI artist in the 604 scene was a fellow who went by the nickname of "Asian Knight". I was always captured by the anonymising potential of cyberspace, whereby teens could present themselves as mature and be taken for adults (my beard furthered this illusion at a late-night Happy Fetus Records get-together, adding a decade to my apparent age 8), women could present themselves as men and thus avoid being subject to the vilest abuse imaginable, and any racial difference could also be easily obscured. So why, I always wondered, would someone make the choice to play up the difference? Maybe I just suffered from an inferiority complex and never understood why anyone would trumpet or celebrate any aspect of their self... but was this really so different from my explicit "hurrah for underdogs and outsiders" posturing in Mistigris' branding?

Even in Mist, rooted in Vancouver as we are, we did end up with some of this material in our packs. It wasn't prime artscene material, but we kind of got the feeling that it wasn't measuring itself by artscene standards. Either way, though the contributions were welcomed, the artists were never full peers -- not quite operating on the same wavelength, rarely if ever coming out to meets or being active in the discussion boards, and for most of them I never even knew their real names, making them impossible to look up again this far down the road. These are by Kurama / Kingyo! of Mistigris.
And one more. Go, Kingyo! A reader wondered out loud whether there might have been Chinese artscene denizens who learned English through BBS / artscene jargon (much as Mobygames' international contributor community is filled with non-native English speakers who picked it up through endless rounds of Zork, Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island) and I suspect that we may be seeing a hint of that in Kingyo's header banter here. (Of course, anyone arriving from Hong Kong in the '90s would have had some prior exposure to and experience with English through its colonial government.)
(As a coda, Young -- a contemporary from Quebec -- was drawing anime and manga-inspired pieces contemporary to these, and far from being rubbed the wrong way by them, I ate them up like candy. Damning! Could I only appreciate the popular visual culture of Asia when moderated through European sensibilities? Or was Young just better at it? 8)
In conclusion... we have learned nothing. The headline is a lie: there is almost assuredly no link between the ANSI artscene of the early '90s and the Big5 art in Taiwan that emerged later (well, PTT, the biggest and oldest, launched in 1995, so maybe it was more contemporary), even though both could occasionally be put to Chinese subjects. I must conclude that any similarities are merely the result of parallel evolution, both artforms emerging for similar reasons -- a desire to be visually expressive in a low-bandwidth textmode environment.

Edited to add: one reader has already commented extensively on the contemporary Japanese presence on the US West Coast and the difficulties inherent in rendering kanji on computers. Over here!