A new film reveals the UK’s failure to retain young international fashion talent.
This story was originally published by i-D UK.
Georgina Yi Wan left her native China to study at Central Saint Martins, recently graduating from the prestigious institution with a First Class Honors degree in Fashion Journalism. For her final project she produced China Heart, a sumptuous-looking and devastatingly topical documentary that boldly investigates the problems facing Chinese students and graduates.
The issue surrounding them being that: if they wish to stay and work within the UK upon completing their education, they are now faced with a strict immigration and work visa system that makes doing so absurdly difficult. For many of them, returning to China is therefore the only immediate option — a realization that prompted Georgina to highlight their collective plight.
Can you sum up China Heart?
I wanted to weave together the impact of Brexit and wider immigration issues with portraits of young Chinese fashion students and recent graduates who've had their bubble burst by the reality of not being able to find jobs in the industry post-graduation. The film focuses on Chinese students' perspectives, but I hope wider audiences and many more international students in the creative industries will relate to it. It's a situation myself and many of my friends will have to go through this year, and even more next year, so I dedicated the film to them.
What made you decide to investigate the subject through film, rather than as a written article?
There were so many individuals I wanted to feature and I don't think words can express each of their own stories, personalities, and emotions as powerfully as film. I wanted people to relate to different characters, a face to their name, not just, "Oh, a Chinese person," when they recall the content.
Why did you to choose this particular subject to explore?
It's about so much more than me as a person and Central Saint Martins as a school. It's about the UK's diplomatic and immigration policies, the level of saturation of the fashion industry in the UK, how these companies react to and coordinate themselves around the restrictions and regulations implemented by the government.
My flatmate at the time, Dylan, who is featured in the film, was one year above me and struggling to find a job, desperately trying to stay in the UK. In the end he had no choice but to move back to China, a place where he has to suppress his sexuality to not be regarded as a deviant in the society. It really agitated me to see the natural freedom he enjoyed every day taken away from him.
Witnessing Dylan's helpless last few months in London really affected me, so when deciding what to do for my final project I decided I wanted to make a — you need to earn £30k to be considered for a working visa. It's tough, especially after the amount we spend on our education and hoping that we would be able to get the opportunity to build a life here. It makes me feel angry — you pay and you go.
I wanted to inject something positive into the film, to make people understand why we want to stay. The rapid development of the fashion industry in China is certainly true, but the "market" and "opportunity" isn't everything, especially for those of us who left our country at a young age. I understand I'm in no position to really fight the system but at least I want our struggle as a whole — all international students — to be acknowledged.
Do you feel let down by the UK government?
I've been lucky to witness and experience London's diversity and the multicultural exchange seamlessly woven into our everyday lives. The current political environment towards immigrants is quite hostile and unfavorable, but at the same time, as an individual, I think it's crucial to not dwell on it and waste time being let down. I can't control what Theresa May says in her cabinet pillow-talk. The best way for me to act would be to make sure I am just grateful for what life has given me and make the most out of it.
What have the reactions been like since you first screened the film?
In the beginning I wasn't expecting much of a reaction outside of our small Chinese fashion student circle. Then I started to receive responses from different people from other parts of the world, emailing me saying that it's their story and thanking me for the film. I thought I was fighting this thing and feeling so conflicted all by myself, but it turns out so many others share the same feeling, no matter whether they are from Korea, Japan, Brazil, it has been completely beyond my expectation. I was very touched that my mom cried after she saw this documentary. She finally understands why moving back to China, where I grew up, has been such a back-breaking case for me to accept. And she feels for my fellow Chinese friends that are troubled by their own sexualities and that they wouldn't be able to simply wear what they feel like — something that's considered as a normal human right in this country. The most rewarding thing about making this documentary has been realizing something I made that is so personal to me has had a certain effect on others as well.
Text James Anderson