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Janice Li

MA work

Cultural Cross-Dressing and the City: Fashion and Photographs of Transnational Chinese Elite Women in London, 1919-1937

The presence of Chinese women in the discourse around London urban and cultural history is readily neglected, often assumed to be restricted to theatrical and circus performers, or wives of working labour in Limehouse; but in fact, pioneering Chinese female architects, diplomats, activists, feminist writers, and doctors had resided in London as early as the interwar period, and led active social life in the public sphere. Fashion choices of these Chinese women have not been studied in great length, giving rise to a stereotyped racial filter to mainstream perception of Chinese bodies and dresses, both in the historiography of Chinese in London as well as how Chinese were perceived in the first few decades of the twentieth century. By investigating how these women negotiated their identities through cultural cross-dressing and portrait photography in a displaced urban environment, this research utilises design history to re-examine and reconstruct the currently ambiguous existence of Chinese elite women in London during the interwar period, reclaiming their place in the urban landscape.

Visual representation of photographs cannot be taken at face value as it is often performed with various agenda to achieve both westernisation and self-orientalisation, resistance to orientalism, or self-identification. The class and ethnic background and diasporic experience of the protagonists in the photographs, and their way of cultural cross-dressing pre-migration are inquired into, deconstructing the complexity of being 'modern Chinese women' in the Nanjing decade. The three thorough case studies of Madame Wellington Koo, Lu Bi-cheng, and Phyllis Lin’s act of cultural cross-dressing will be argued as a tool of rebellion against the stereotypical perception of Chinese women in London. Through fashion and portrait photography, they continually reinvented their de-ethnicised, transnational identities. Their way of taking ownership over their bodies and their existence in a foreign metropolis not only defied the expectations at the time, but also supplied an alternative imagination of local/global cultural exchange in a momentous narrative of history. 


  • Janice Li
  • MA Degree


    School of Arts & Humanities


    MA History of Design, 2018

  • Janice Li is an exhibition curator and design historian interested in modern and contemporary design of urban life, transnational fashion, photography, and museology. Janice's passion lies within the city — the space, the people, and the clothes they wear — particularly in a transcultural and migrational context through a post-colonial lens. With a rare combination of background in museums, history, food and nutritional sciences, and photography, she endeavours to push discourse forward through an interdisciplinary approach: to explore multisensory experience design within exhibitions as an alternative expression of historical research.

  • Degrees

  • BA History, University of British Columbia, 2015; BSc Nutritional Science, University of British Columbia, 2013
  • Experience

  • Independent Curator and Researcher, London, 2016 - Present; Exhibition Research Placement, Fashioned From Nature, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2017 - 2018; Freelance Research Assistant, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2017 - 2018; Collections Placement, Photographs Department, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2017; Editor, Unmaking Things, V&A/RCA History of Design, London, 2016–2017; Freelance Research Assistant, Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Massachusetts, 2017; Exhibitions Officer, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Vancouver, 2016; Curatorial Assistant, Richmond Museum & Heritage Services, Richmond, 2015 - 2016; Events and Social Media Coordinator, Art Works Gallery, Vancouver, 2016; Research Assistant to Canada Research Chair, Prof Carla Nappi, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 2014-2015; Collections Assistant, Museum of Vancouver, Vancouver, 2013 - 2014; Tour Liaison & Auction Assistant, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2013 - 2014; Freelance Photographer, Vancouver, Hong Kong, London, 2011 - Present; Junior Floral Designer, Garden Party Flowers, Vancouver, 2016; Personal Shoppers, Collectors at Nordstrom, Vancouver, 2015; Editorial and Photography Contributor, Time Out Magazine, Hong Kong, 2011-2012; Marketing Intern, Eco Fashion Week, Vancouver, 2011
  • Exhibitions

  • Exhibition Research Placement, Fashioned from Nature, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2018; Museum on a Bike, Beyond no. 186: Embodying History in Interactive Designs, David Parr House, Cambridge, 2018; Curator, Designing Craft Crafting Design, Arts & Crafts Fair / Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, Hamburg, 2017; Installation, Food Symphony, Hello Tomorrow Summit at CentQuatre, Paris, 2017; Curator, Designing Craft Crafting Design, Vienna Design Week, Vienna, 2017; Installation, Food Symphony, ff Food Futures - BioDesign Challenge, London, 2017; Installation, Race in Space, A Toolkit for Provocative Practice, Hockney Gallery, London, 2017; Assistant Curator, Small is Beautiful, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Vancouver, 2016; Assistant Curator, Eastern Echoes, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Vancouver, 2016; Assistant Curator, Where in the World is Richmond?, Richmond Museum, Richmond, 2015
  • Conferences

  • 'Cultural Cross-Dressing and the City: Fashion and Photographs of Transnational Chinese Elite Women in London 1919-1937', Fashion, Costume and Visual Cultures Annual Conference, University of Zagreb, July 2018; 'From Great Exhibition to Department Stores: A Victorian Spectacle of Commodified Social Lives', British Association of Victorian Studies’ Annual Conference, Cardiff University, September 2016; 'Weapons Aestheticized and Commodified: Display in the Great Exhibition', International Sports and Leisure History Colloquium, Manchester Metropolitan University, February 2016; 'The Victorian Spectacle and the Metropolitan Mind – Commodified and Panoptic', British Society of Sports History South Winter 2015 Symposium, University of Chichester, December 2015; 'From Great Exhibition to Department Stores: A Victorian Spectacle of Commodities and Social Lives', AUS Humanities and Social Sciences Conference, University of British Columbia, January 2015
  • Publications

  • 'From Great Exhibition to Department Stores: A Victorian Spectacle of Commodities and Social Lives', UBC Atlas: Undergraduate Journal of World History 10 (2015), 41-62.