I have been aware of Steampunk for some time but it was not until the tail end of the summer of 2011 that I decided to take a closer look and learn more about Steampunk. As I delved into the culture I noticed how it was very Victorian, based in the 19th century British culture. That was understandable seeing how it was based off of many early literatures that were set in those areas. However, the world does not revolve around one geographical location or ethnic background for that matter, and while life progresses in one location it invariably continues on elsewhere.
So for Steampunk to be only Victorian or only British I found that rather stifling and ethnocentric, which from what I had started to learn of the subculture was not what it wanted to do, but rather be an inviting and accepting one. Perhaps it was the fact that people were uncertain of how to approach other ethnicities with the Steampunk culture without being offensive. Especially in a time period where racism was not only prevalent but well practiced.
Being new to Steampunk and wanting to take my own twist to it I looked at my own heritage of Chinese culture and doing some cursory research as to what was going on in China during the 19th century. It was the time of the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and in America the railroads were being laid down by my ancestors. It was a time period I was somewhat familiar with albeit slightly romanticized and dramatized from all the Hong Kong and Chinese cinemas I watched growing up as a child. Still the clothes and some of the basics of the culture at the time were there.
As I researched further into Steampunk to find connections to Asian culture I looked to see if others had gone down this path before me. It would seem that for the most part when looking for Asian and Steampunk on the internet more often than not it was found that Asians were in a European/British style outfit or even perhaps a person wearing a kimono with a corset over it. This does not detract from the fact that even during that time period there were indeed many Asians who wore European/British stylings back then as Western culture was placing its influence over the native Asian culture. What it did was inspire me to find a way to express what it would have been like in Asia without the western influence.
It would be during my research that I would happen upon an artist who would be my catalyst and inspiration towards my goal of expressing a truly Asian themed Steampunk outfit. James Ng and his Imperial Steamworks series is truly awe inspiring and a solid foundation for which Asian Steampunk can develop from. It was the discovery of his work that allowed me to feel not alone in the ideas and concept of Asian Steampunk and legitimized for me this evolutionary path for it, and that I hope to see this path flourish by spreading it any way I could.
With his permission I took it upon myself to bring one of his creations to life, his Imperial Sheriff.
Through regular correspondence with James and the assistance of some friends slowly but surely the Imperial Sheriff was brought to life and would premiere at San Diego Comic-Con. James would help me better understand his artwork with explanations and additional views of the piece so that a better understanding could be grasped. Overall he had given me a lot of creative freedom to do as I pleased, but I wanted to try to be as true to his artwork as best I could within my friends and my skill sets. I would do my best to log and record the experience as each piece was being made and completed. It was a rather arduous journey filled with setbacks, but from them, lessons learned and experience gained.
The process of bringing James’ Imperial Sheriff to life took planning in terms of assessing my own skills and figuring out what I was capable of making and who I could find to help me in skill sets where I lacked the expertise. I would rely on one friend to create the coat since he had costume experience with a sewing machine. I had decided early on that the material to create the arm would be leather and so another friend was brought aboard who had some experience in leatherworking to craft the arm. He would admit that he did not have the skill to create the ornate shoulder, but would be able to create the rest of the arm pieces. It was very late in the creation of the costume that I would find another person who offered to create the shoulder for me. With those pieces assigned I would go on to create the hat, sword and scabbard, necklace, belt, and trinket. Knowing that I would be wearing this in the summer I decided to forego the mantel piece.
The pieces that my friends would be making provided their own unique challenges, fitting since they were rather unique custom pieces. The coat was interesting to deal with, to create a Chinese long coat as worn in the artwork without an actual Chinese long coat pattern to use. Inspired by a jacket I own with removable sleeves I suggested to my friend to create a long coat in a similar fashion. This would allow for it to be functional for street wear and be easily converted for costume use.
With the arm pieces instead of leather as I had thought of, my leatherworking friend suggested a plasticized rubber which worked better. He also managed to work some wiring into the forearm where the yellow window lights up with an LED. He is a self-proclaimed “craftsman not an artist” so he did not feel comfortable creating the faces, but he would make the bases and foundations of the arm pieces while the ornate faces on the arm, painting, and detail work were up to me when he finished.
Starting with the hat I chose to go for a more historically accurate look as opposed to James’ image as it would be easier to do. So I did some research on what soldiers wore during the Qing Dynasty finding several different styles of hat were worn depending on the season. I also learned that the finial of the hat also denoted the rank of the person. So I went for the summer wear which would be the same conical hat worn by the sheriff and utilized a plain gold finial indicating an officer of the 7th rank. As per the drawing I added peacock feathers, but learned from research that they were considered medals of merit awarded by the Emperor himself. Just from the historical standpoint of the costume a deeper story behind this character was developing and I had yet to figure out how or why he gained such prestigious honors or how he had risen through the ranks.
The belt trinket was my next project to work on for this costume and instead of the emblem that was in the image I re-imagined it as a scroll case instead to hold important imperial documents. In character it could have been imperial decrees, edicts, laws, warrants, and wanted papers. From a functional standpoint it would be holding some of my correspondences I had with James during the creation of this costume. It would also contain a copy of the Imperial Sheriff artwork as well to show others who were interested in my costume.
Creating the scroll case was easy enough, but making it Asian and on top of that be Imperial was where I had to become creative. As gold and red are important colors in Asian culture I started that as my base and then made the end caps have an iron look to it to coincide with the arm. It is at the end caps that I decided to add a special detail to them. In Asian culture there are four legendary creatures in the constellations: Azure Dragon, Vermillion Bird, White Tiger, and Black Tortoise. It would be these creatures that would act as guardians to the scroll case if it were to hold important documents that needed protection. So they were inscribed in relief into the end caps of the scroll case.
In homage to the original art work a jade bead was attached to the bottom of the scroll case along with a tassel to mimic the jade and red ribbon in the artwork. I would further pay homage to the trinket in the artwork by transcribing the face that was on the trinkets belt attachment to the belt buckle of the waist harness.
The final major piece that I would craft is the sword and scabbard. I would work with James in trying to find an appropriate wooden Chinese broadsword to convert for the costume. Finding one was easy enough online and converting the sword was relatively easy as well. The base of the blade would require some work to match the artwork, but instead of the design of the picture I decided to honor the artist instead. The artwork that this costume is based off of is actually a tribute to one of the artist’s favorite comic book “The Stormriders” by Ma Wing-Shing. So I carried that homage into the costume by having the name of the two protagonists from the comic written at the base of the blade a character on each side. The scabbard would also carry a bit of homage to James as the name of the Imperial Sheriff was Iron Kirin so a stenciled design of a Kirin was placed into the top band of the scabbard while the other bands had Asian based lattice designs put into them.
The premiere at Comic-Con was rather daunting; here I was a mere novice in costume making cosplaying at one of the biggest conventions of them all. Still, I did meet a few people who were rather interested and intrigued by my take of Asian Steampunk. I could only thank James by making sure credit was properly given to him when conversing with those interested in my outfit. As it is his artwork that inspired the creative process and which the costume was based off of. I was happy that I was able to offer a glint of possibility of what Steampunk could look like in Asia, but a lot of work still needed to be done. The artist in me knew I could improve upon the costume and make it even better, but also something else grew in me and that was making sure that China alone was not explored but Asia as a whole.
As I mentioned before in China there was the Boxer Rebellion, Opium Wars, as well as the decline of the last Dynasty. In Japan there was the coming of Commodore Perry and the US with the subsequent Meiji Restoration as well as Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War. This only takes into account actual historical references however, and Steampunk takes into account a fantasy and fictional aspect of what-if? Recall that many inventions we take for granted today first developed in Asia such as paper currency, noodles, and one of the better known inventions, gunpowder. One aspect of Steampunk is the advancement of the world from steam power to the communication era bypassing the industrial revolution to a degree. Many countries in Asia did not have industrial revolutions until Western culture was brought to them. So what would have happened if instead Asia leapt forward on steam?
That is the wondrous part of the human imagination, the creativity that flows from one idea to the next. As I figure out improvements to the work that is based off of James’ artwork I make plans to make a new original piece as well. As he and I correspond to this day our creativity feeds off one another and I hope to inspire others in exploring what possibilities the world of Asian Steampunk would behold.
Steampunk Panda is a geek of many trades, master of none of them, but loves them all the same. He’s like a 20-sided die, you can only see various facets of him at any given time, and when it comes to life sometimes you roll the 20 sometimes you get the 1. It is how we handle those rolls though, that truly defines us as who we are.