I love Victorian-inspired clothing to start with - the lush lace, the splurge-driven dresses, the elegant waistcoats, the delicate act of removing gloves, finger by finger, the corsets, the hats and feathers and veils. The wife of a photographer I shot with once showed me a coat made in that era - thick (broadcloth?) fabric handsewn and still looking none the worse for wear, with extra material at the small of the back for the bustle.
The problem with steampunk, though, is that it's pretty much white territory. I read Girl Genius, which in itself is a fabulous comic, and as much as I enjoy the sleek mecha of Robotech and Evangelion, the clunky robots, steam-powered with levers all over the cockpit, attract me more. The problem with Girl Genius is, although it does quite well on the PoC front, there are no real representative Asian characters (except for one doctor and his granddaughter). The only person in the comic with actual yellow skin that matches my own is Zeetha, who has green hair and belongs to a country that is unidentifiable from maps of our own.
My thoughts were crystallized further by Ay-Leen the Peacemaker's Carnival of Asian Woman entry:
... I realized something that made me sad about this cool, geeky subculture that I’m so eager to participate in: The steampunk movement romanticizes a time period where imperialist and racist attitudes prevailed and many people were oppressed as a result of them. When Queen Victorian sat upon her throne, a lot of other Western powers were doing not nice things to people in Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa and the Western US, and now, a over hundred years later, people want to live in that time period again, or at least use it as creative inspiration.
I grew up in Malaysia, which was colonized by the British until the 50s when they finally let us go. (And we had to be invaded by the Japanese first. See, the Brits had really convinced us Malayans that we needed their protection, and the ruling classes let them do as they pleased - look, they had fucking guns, okay? - and then the Japanese came in and kicked their asses, and we realized we, too, could have our own fucking country and not have the British there.) Despite Independence, the influence of British culture remains - it is desirable to go do our A-Levels (based on Cambridge A-Levels) after high school. (Form 6 has gained ground as a cheaper, local alternative.) Many of us still think going to the U.K. is desirable. Many of my generation and class (middle-class, particularly non-Malay) speak English better than we speak the national language (Malay) or mother tongue (Chinese in my case). When I was in school, Malaysian history was sooooo much more boring than world history (which focused mainly on Europe, with whole chapters dedicated to the English and French Revolutions.
(Personally, I liked reading about Malaysian history, particularly the whole bit about WW II, but that was because my grandfather was involved. I found his logbook.)
Anyways. So, steampunk. A punk genre I could get into. I like the Victorian aesthetic. It pleases me. I never really liked the goth style, nor the general punk with the leather and the spikes and giant stompy boots. I like industrial music, but my fashion style leant towards the British mod (which appears to be purely male territory. I couldn't find anything on what female mod fashion was like. Perhaps I was looking into the wrong crevices of the Interwebz). Steampunk, though? Frills and lace? Totally. Let me at it.
The most recently Masq event (held by those who enjoy industrial music but there isn't really a singular venue for that kind of music) was steampunk-themed, and I had to go to see who participated, what they did. And it was, indeed, awesome. Couple of live bands, fire-eating performance, good industrial music, dance floor which wasn't too crowded.
I was also, very clearly, the only PoC in the entire room.
While I looked into the mirror and saw me dressed up fab, I wondered just how much I was buying into the Brit-is-better way of thinking that my own people must have thought during the era, how much I was giving in to imperialism, and what people in Asia were wearing at the time that they were referred to as "Orientals". Couldn't I also wear those kinds of clothes and be called steampunk? Steampunk is also about the tech, the revisionist histories, the ideas.
The Chinese were way ahead of the English Victorians in a ton of things - we'd previously discovered gunpowder, and our ships could move pretty fucking faster than their ships. We were torturing folks by putting them on giant kites and flying them up into the air. If they didn't die from fright, they died of starvation (yes, we, too, had our evil overlords). (I read a story, as a child, of a Chinese prince who stole a shiny jewel from a dragon by using a kite to fly up to the mountain where the dragon lived, stole the jewel, and tugged the rope of the kite to tell his men to pull him back to the ship.)
Can I wear the Victorian aesthetic without giving up my clearly-visible Asian identity? And if I did, would I be commodifying the aesthetic, since I could simply buy Victorian-looking stuff and clockwork gears, and what problems does commodification have?
The problem, of course, with going to Asian fashion during the Victorian era in steampunk is that I end up wearing clearly "Oriental" stuff, which also ends up stereotyping myself as "Asian". Wow, I can't win!
Obviously, I need to see what my other Asian peers are doing within the steampunk movement. The problem with my circumstances is that, while quite blissfully content, I'm not exactly surrounded by the people who share where I'm coming from.
It sucks being the only Asian in a whole roomful of steampunkers. =/