New And Unique? Donít Bluff

In which our fashion editor-at-large takes a trip to the Asian Civilisations Museum

BY JANIE CAI | Mar 28, 2017 | Fashion

Screenshot of The Simpsons, along with an image of a Ming Dynasty Imperial badge.

You see it too, don’t you? I bet Matt Groening would[i]. True, it’s also a square of centuries-old silk from the Ming dynasty, a badge of honour that is specially bestowed by the Emperor upon truly exceptional subjects. This particular one is supposed to be an animal but no matter how you twist your head and squint through the corner of your eyes, like you do at the Trick Eye museum, once you’ve seen it, it is impossible to un-see the goggle-eyed, green-haired, slightly crazed apparition, one that makes you suck in your breath like you’re about to blow on your hot kopi and whistle out, “¡Ay, caramba! It’s Krusty!”.

Our ACM museum guide, the exuberant Laura Solcha, had laughed as she asked us to guess what animal it was. And then brushed off the feeble replies of ‘Lion’ (nope!) and ‘Dog’ (no, guess again! Give up?) before her triumphant “It’s a bear!”. I wanted to shout “SERIOUSLY GUYS? IT’S KRUSTY THE CLOWN FROM THE SIMPSONS! COME ON!” But of course, not a peep, just a polite Asian smile-non-smile, and acquiescent nod that would have put Jeanette Aw on Little Nonya to shame, while my indignant inner Simpsons fan demanded a Mariachi band playing the theme tune to the Itchy & Scratchy show at museum-unfriendly levels.


The next silk square, this one a motif of a Flying Tiger with a Cape (see below) looked like it was straight out of Alessandro Michele’s Gucci Men’s SS17 runway show. I kid you not. Except it was also a Ming Dynasty Emperor’s actual battle flag motif. The fact that it also resembled a rotund Frosty the Tiger with a batman cape too, wasn’t lost on me.

Image of the Flying Tiger imperial military badge


Paul Smith famously said that inspiration can be found anywhere. Which is true, but what he didn’t mention was how that source of inspiration, quite rightly, was neither exclusive nor unique. And that was what I found so fascinating. The elegant lily covering both the interior and exterior of a wooden box believed to have belonged to the fifth Mughal emperor, the mighty Shah Jahan, was said to be his favourite bloom. Its supine motif decorated much of the interior of the famous Taj Mahal that he had designed and built. In fact, the flower was so favoured by the illustrious emperor that it was engraved on both his and his beloved wife’s tomb, proving that the line ‘till death do us part’ doesn’t apply to horticultural obsessions. Almost 200 years and 7000 KM later, the same genus (species) of flower inspired the celebrated gardener Joseph Paxton in his design submission for the iconic Crystal Palace. He won the bid and his behemoth glass and iron sculptural ‘palace’ became the memorable venue for the Great Exhibition back in 1881[ii]. Today it’s also the name of a British football club, which goes to show that the thread of inspiration can fray out in all sorts of interesting and unexpected ways.

From left to right: A close-up of the lily motifs decorating the interior of the Taj Mahal in India, an illustration of Crystal Palace designed by Joseph Paxton, which was also inspired by a lily, and the Crystal Palace Football Club emblem.


Walking through the Asian Civilisations Museum, I saw proof, time and time again, of the myriad talents of humankind. Superfine porcelain, China’s secret for years before Europe finally caught on and starting producing their own, hand-painted biographies or carved screens denoting scenes of Instagram-worthy splendor, refinement and inebriation, ebony and ivory marquetry from 17th Century India that looks better that what we can create in our modern 21st century, with all our CAD/CAM technology. But, it was also reassuring, as the art and objects on display proved that humankind really hadn’t changed much over the past 500 years. We were still a group of egotistical, talented, creative, vain and cheeky monkeys. We still want everyone to know if we’re indulging in something rare and exclusive that might incite a touch of envy (#) and hanker after immortality in the form of fame and idolization (Whereas previously we venerate kings as Gods, now we salute celebrities as (Victoria Secret) Angels. Or Kanye.) Still, what really struck me was the cyclical nature of style, design and fashion all around us—the repetition and recycling of pre-existing ideas, whether purposely, accidentally or surreptitiously. Nothing wrong with a bit of inspired heritage-diving, it only becomes an issue when we are so caught up in our inspirations that we forget that important little bit—innovation, which if left out, will basically result in us living in nothing more than a glorified museum. 

[i] And maybe he did, who knows. Maybe underneath all that clown makeup, Krusty is actually Chinese.

[ii] Lily by Marcia Reiss, 2013