Western China is really in the middle of China, but the west of hospitable China. You can tell it’s at the margins of inhospitality because, while the wonderful, welcoming broadcasting students there will let you join their hot pot table to save you queuing for another 40 minutes, and even song you to the bar you’re going to afterwards, you’ll have to eat cubes of blood and numbing, spicy (mala) hot pot so belligerent that you feel like removing your mouth – pull down the roof and pack up the tongue – and steeping it in a 4 kuai recycled plastic bottle of plum wine.
Chongqing looks like what someone looking at Chongqing and thinking about how it looks like Bladerunner actually sees. (Kowloon is more Bladerunner, no? Andrea?) It’s also called the dirty Hong Kong, but of course Hong Kong is the dirty Hong Kong. It’s more like a hilly, steamy Shanghai with more bangbangmian and peanut milk. Chongqing also has an inflatable club fight to celebrate 00:00 Christmas Day, and a great live venue called Nuts Club, whose owner wants me to travel with him to conferences where I’d persuade Chinese people to sign up for study abroad programmes and we’d split the commission.
Chengdu, where I visited patriots, adventurers and total film nerds Derek and Catherine, had way better food – deep fried rabbit!! – and a way more Beijing vibe (ring roads, sad canals). The live music at 小酒馆 ended at 10pm, even on New Year’s Eve, but the mtof (pron. emTOFF) Irish crossdressers kept the party locked up tight as a consulate. Chengdu also has pandas, kept locked up tight as an Irish crossdresser’s NYE party.
Some panda facts:
Pandas have existed for 8 million years (the average life expectancy for a species is more like 5 million years), so stop giving them shit about how useless they are, unless you mean currently.
When baby pandas are born they weigh just 100 grams, 1/1000th of what their mothers weigh (100-115kg). At the same ratio, assuming your mother weighs about 60kg (sorry?), when you were born you would’ve weighed 60 grams, or about the same as an unAmerican Snickers bar.
Grown pandas eat 30kg of bamboo/disgusting ‘panda bread’ per day. They excrete 20kg per day. To put that another way, a biggish rugby player would have to eat 300 baby pandas and excrete 200 of them to sustain himself. (Note: wildlife is not food, necessarily).
I haven’t posted much here lately, with most of my writing turning up instead in Time Out Shanghai. For the art section, I’ve recently written about Zhang Huan, Douglas Coupland and Ding Yi, one a religio-philosophical conceptual artist, one a futurist, one an abstract artist. There’s also an interview with photographer Chen Man (whose work is pictured above) that you can find here (page 18-19).
Here’s a taste of each and links if you’re curious.
Artist, author and cultural clairvoyant Douglas Coupland is in Shanghai for a group show at Art Labor. He talked to Sam Gaskin about decoding and recoding the post-everything milieu. Portrait Yang Xiaozhe
‘If a UFO landed on Earth and it had one of these on its roof you wouldn’t know what it meant, but you’d know it meant something. We could even go into some sort of Mad Max future where all the scanners are dead but you’d still wonder what it said. That’s what I like about them. There’s wonder in these things.’
These ‘things’ are the Quick Response (QR) codes upon which Douglas Coupland has mapped his Memento Mori series of paintings.
On one level, the works are colourful abstracts reminiscent of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings, Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie and TV test screen patterns. Using a smartphone app, the paintings can also be scanned to reveal encoded messages. This fusion of image and text brings together two Couplands: the conceptual artist who got his start at a Tokyo art school and the novelist and aphorist who wrote Generation X and jPod.
Just the look of the QR codes, Coupland says, ‘depending on the chunkiness, can be really beautiful. It can have a sort of Mayan feel to it. The QR Aztec generator, which has one square in the middle, really does look like something you’d find in a temple in Yucatan or something.’ READ MORE.
We discussed much more than just the artworks, though, and here’s what the relentlessly quotable Coupland had to say about Japan, books, tech and Marshall McLuhan.
Fight at the Museum
Zhang Huan, who made his name with provocative, personal performance pieces, has turned social critic in his new exhibition. To help get his message across, Sam Gaskin learns that he’s enlisted the help of a robo-Confucius
Zhang Huan left Beijing in 1998 as an outsider. Having made astonishing art for eight years he was still impoverished and felt harassed by the authorities. When he was invited to contribute to a group show in Tokyo in 1997 he used medical tubes, traditional Chinese carriage wheels and his own 65kg frame in an attempt to pull down the museum. He later wrote that ‘museums represent culture and authority. For my entire life, I have wanted to pull them down, although maybe I would eventually be pulled into them.’ This month, Zhang is showing at the reopening of Rockbund, China’s most ambitious and well-resourced art museum.
Zhang’s early works were brave and difficult. After covering himself in fish juice and honey he squatted naked in one
of Beijing’s public toilets for an hour as thousands of flies crawled over him (12 Square Metres, 1994). He suspended himself from the ceiling while 250ccs of his own blood dripped onto an electric hot plate, intensifying its stench (65 Kilograms, 1994). He also asked a machinist to cut screws so that hot sparks spilled over his body (25mm Threading Steel, 1995). Yet the artist who began by aggressively confronting chaos and discomfort says his upcoming show is concerned with ‘how to make the world more harmonious’.
The works in the show, Q Confucius, include a giant bust of Confucius, an installation featuring a Confucius figure and a painting of ‘Confucius and his Students’. Zhang’s interest in the philosopher is indicative of his work’s new social emphasis, but in his role as reformer he hasn’t lost his sense of spectacle. The bust is mechanical and made of silicon, the installation includes monkeys and a robo-Confucius, and the painting is rendered in incense ash recovered from temples. Millions of ants and termites are also involved. ‘I still hope that I can pull museums down,’ Zhang says. ‘I’m trying to break the boundaries of the museum space.’
Zhang grew up poor in Henan province. White bread was an annual treat and he didn’t try cow’s milk until he was 20 years old. He moved to Beijing in 1991 where he created art expressing his daily hardships, as well as beautiful meditations on the urgency and smallness of human endeavours. One such work was To Add One Metre to an Anonymous Mountain, in which ten people, arranged in a metre-high pile, lay on top of a mountain. Another, To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond involved more than 40 migrant workers standing in a small lake.
‘I was under great pressure just to survive when I was in Beijing striving to create art,’ he says. ‘I didn’t make any difference in my career during those eight years, so I decided to change my environment.’ Zhang moved to New York where he began by making pieces like My America (1999). He asked dozens of people to throw bread at him after the shame of being offered — and accepting — food he needed to give to his pregnant wife. He’d been just as impoverished in China, but he says he was always seen as an artist, never a beggar. READ MORE.
Why did the Arist Cross the Canvas?
More than 20 years ago, Ding Yi began his project of ‘crossing out’ representational art in China. He tells Sam Gaskin how his abstracts have become expressions of his home city, Shanghai. Portrait Yang Xiaozhe
If you look for metaphors in Ding Yi’s paintings there’s a lot you can see. His paintings and drawings, which vary greatly although they’re all painstakingly composed of small crosses, suggest woven fabric, circuit boards, flags, military camouflage, cultures brawling in a Petri dish and much more.
Although Ding first adopted the cross as a way to avoid representational painting, he doesn’t recoil at the mention of these connotations. ‘In 1988 [when he began his Appearance of Crosses series], I wanted to make art not look like art. So when others thought I was a cotton-print painter, I felt happy because I was no longer a traditional painter. I had a new language and new technique, so I feel it’s acceptable to me if people think my works look like carpets or wallpaper.’
Unlike most carpets and wallpaper, though, Ding’ s works are not only vibrant but full of movement – up and down, in and out, slowing at intersections, and slowly dilating, like creeping urban sprawls. The larger canvases, over two metres by two metres, also choreograph the movements of their viewers, changing completely as we walk towards them, their intimidating mathematical complexity, like maps of DNA or Google Earth cityscapes at night, becoming much more human as individual brush strokes appear.
With almost no Chinese abstract painters before him, Ding has become one of Shanghai’s most revered artists. He is praised by Zhou Tiehai, another of Shanghai’s big name contemporary painters and the executive director of the Minsheng Art Museum, for the ‘persistence and patience’ evident in his solo show, which features 61 works spanning 25 years.
When he was starting out, Ding experimented with various methods, including performance art, but says, ‘I had to choose my own artistic road. At that time, the whole of Chinese contemporary art was expressive and discoverable. I wanted to make my works rational but without too much concrete explanation or connection with reality.’ Taking the road less traveled, as advertised, made all the difference.
Ding chose crosses as the atoms of his oeuvre after noticing their use checking the alignment and colour in publishers’ proofs. The publisher’s cross is a formal construction, functional but meaningless, which is exactly how Ding sees his own crosses.
Five years after finding a cross to bear, in 1993 Ding represented China at the Venice Biennale, his first trip abroad. While the other participating Chinese artists’ works were all representational (with the exception of Xu Bing’s), Ding was exposed to other art that helped him sharpen his vision. In particular, he was moved (and physically unbalanced) by German artist Hans Haacke’s installation Germania, Hitler’s name for Nazi Berlin, in which Haacke had the marble floor of the German pavilion smashed up. READ MORE.
A man was killed this morning while fighting with a public washroom keeper over a 2 jiao (US$0.03) washroom fee. The fatal event occurred in the Gaoqiao Area of Pudong New Area. A witness surnamed Fu said a mid-aged man who is a wet market vendor rushed into the washroom, but didn’t pay the fee to the keeper, who was about 70 years old. The keeper held the man and drew out a long lettuce root to beat him with. While they were wrestling, the man suddenly fell over and lost consciousness. People called the police, and found the man was dead.
- Shanghai Daily, Sept 15
My new magazine gig at this fine publication is going great. I’m really impressed by the talent, dedication and professionalism of my colleagues, all of which is apparent when you read their work, but it’s nice to see it manifest in human form.
Finding writers in and then outside their writing is something that happens plenty writing in a fairly small scene like Shanghai. Here’s how it happened when I got my first magazine job in 2008.
The previous employee’s name was still stuck to the wall of her cubicle when we moved into the office, a horseshoe half-storey suspended above what was once a factory floor. They had hired two of us to replace her, although the editor, a tired-eyed Australian, hinted that we may not be enough. The last writer had been so prolific on so many different subjects that he had asked her to write under several pseudonyms, an attempt to disguise the skeleton staff that actually produced the magazine each month.
Her back-catalogue included interviews with chefs, designers, musicians, television personalities, photographers and artists based in Shanghai and elsewhere, the sum of which we referred to as “the Pantheon,” riffing on the writer’s unusual name. We half-jokingly stuck “WWPD?” notes to our monitors, reminders to consider how she would approach the stories we were struggling with.
We often read her work. Although she rarely stepped into her stories, each conceded some detail about her interests or sense of humour. It was an oblique way to look at someone, like searching through her web browser’s history.
What we really needed was to meet her in person, to put an end to our mythologizing and the irony that we sent chasing its tail. That would happen soon enough we figured, and not just because she attended every worthwhile event in Shanghai. There was a parcel in the office for her to pick up.
After several months our imminent meeting still hadn’t eventuated, despite the parcel’s quiet disappearance from the office. We talked to friends of hers about the sheer improbability that we hadn’t met her yet – what were the chances?
We began to think of our not having met her as a grave responsibility. Perhaps we knew her better than anyone else who had never seen or spoken to her? What if seeing her turned people to stone, making statues of them scanning the street as they stepped off buses, or looking up from their dumplings as they chewed. We would be the best people left to find her and fight her, maybe using the reflective metal back of my eight year old iPod Photo, like we’d already fought to find her in her writing.
A year after we started the job, still in the same converted factory with its facade of sunset-coloured tiles and the staircase that grudgingly let us up floors one half at a time, we still hadn’t met her, but we no longer much cared. We had our own stories to read over, our own styles to echo, abandon or adapt.
The one expansive moment in which we waited to meet her had lasted fourteen months when finally, at a graphic design event across town, we met her for the first time. We didn’t turn to stone. In fact she was a doll, a dame, busy but sweet. It was this story that grew heavy. Petrifaction seized its syllables, bringing them to a cold, black stop.
Instead, I wrote too long on just one of them, about Factory Girls author Leslie Chang.
The Chang article inspired a jealous response that, while it’s just a single, anonymous, online rant, probably isn’t that uncommon. Thirty years after China’s ‘opening up’, and with hundreds of thousands of expats living here, plenty of people still feel like they own ‘the China experience’, as if there is such a thing.
To put my own cards on the table, yes, I think Chang’s book is a sensitive and intelligent work of journalism and, uh huh, that she has a sense of humour, and, right, right, that everything in the comment below is nonsense, but I want to republish it as a case study in PRC player hating.
Has CNNGo become Hessler-Chang’s own private PR service? It seems like every other article on here is touting Peter Hessler and his wife. I understand they have written 4 books between them, but I do wonder why CNNGo feels they are deserving or so much over-exposure?
I read Factory Girls and thought the central theme was interesting, but Mrs. Chang acts like she herself “exposed” the entire industry, kind of like how Mr. Hessler goes on like he discovered China. Got ego?
Regarding Hessler-Chang’s upcoming move to Egypt, I understand that they are both journalists, but I find it extremely insulting, almost to the point of anger, that Mrs. Chang would say something as insensitive as “We almost wish that [protesters] had waited a year, just for the sake of our careers,” which says alot about her journalistic intentions. I see nothing admirable about getting paid a big advance by an American media company to go to places like China or Egypt and write about their contrived experiences there as the expense of the people suffering around them. Some “career!”
So basically, Mrs. Chang has already decided, without having ever been to Egypt, that “it’s going to be hard in many ways being a woman there, not having access to a lot of things and being harassed at various times…”, which is what we can probably expect her next book to be about: the hardships of a western women in a Muslim country. What a bunch of sensationalistic hooey!
And let me guess, Mr. Hessler’s publishers are already preparing to market his next book as the memoirs of “the first expat in Egypt.”
These two need a reality check, and their egos need to be taken down a few notches.
And… (sic). If you empathised with that comment, you won’t want to read the following gratuitous (fanboyish?) outtakes from the interview transcript that didn’t make the article.
On the Foxconn Suicides
“My feeling about the suicides is I don’t know, obviously, what specifically were the stories behind these young workers who tragically took their own lives, but in general, talking to workers and factory owners about suicides, they tended to come from just incredible emotional and personal pressures inside the factory. I mean, picture being 17 years old, being away from your family and your village for the first time, being in a dorm with nine other girls, nine other guys, having to deal with roommate conflicts, colleague conflicts, fighting with your boss, boyfriends, girlfriends, families giving you a lot of pressure at home. There’s a lot of personal pressures on these young people and that can be very, very hard to deal with.”
“When you think about it, if you hear about somebody that commits suicide you don’t automatically say oh god, his job situation must have been really terrible, you think he must have a lot of really huge personal burdens that he couldn’t deal with, or that combined with some sort of mental illness.”
On the pressures of development
“One of the reasons I loved writing about migrants was because I felt like it gets to the feeling of the emotional climate in China right now. People have this incredible opportunity – they’ve never had it before in their whole lives -but the result is not necessarily contentment and happiness. The result is often more pressure, more stress, this feeling that I have to do everything, I have to keep improving, I have to get my kid enrolled in piano lessons and English lessons and this and that otherwise I’ll fall behind, otherwise I’m going to lose out.
“So there’s this great sense of adventure and freedom but it’s often experienced by individuals as stress and pressure. I think that makes sense when you think about these people who’ve grown up with very stable, not at all inspiring or opportunity filled lives, but very stable and suddenly to have this chaotic freedom that so many people have in China now, I think it’s very easy to lose your bearings. I think people do surprisingly, remarkably well.
“When you talk to any Chinese person in their 30s or 40s, the life they grew up with is so different to the life they have now. And the life their children have now is so different from the life they grew up with.”
On the changing nature of migration in China
“I think it’s somewhat changing in that there are more and more interior cities that are developed enough to support their own industries and offer employment to young people from nearby villages, so now you’re seeing people who don’t have to go all the way to Dongguan or Shenzhen or Shanghai for work but they can go to Changsha or Chongqing or Hefei or whatever and that’s only a few hours from their home and they can go home on the weekend.
“So you’re seeing that, and I think that’s obviously very helpful because it means that economic growth is spreading out and it’s not just concentrated on the coasts. It’s possibly healthier and easier for young people not to have to cut ties with their family to work – they can sort of have it both ways. So in that sense I think migration is probably less dramatic than it is for people going hundreds of miles from home. But in terms of the general trend I think that migration still has miles to go.”
On the new middle class
“I do think a lot of the migrant workers will and are moving into the middle class, it’s just they don’t do it through college and the education system. They’re doing it through moving into the city, working and saving up some money and then getting married and buying an apartment, having a child and then they move into the, you know, not middle middle class, but a lower middle class in a big city. I do see that huge transformation and huge social mobility happening through migration and employment rather than education.
“One of the most interesting things about Dongguan was this informal, commercial education system that had grown up to make up for education they hadn’t had in school. I think the Chinese education system is extremely not pragmatic, and then this Dongguan commercial system is extremely pragmatic, just hyper pragmatic – everything is just focused on getting a job, not even really on learning anything, skills or ethics, but just talking your way into a job. So yeah, there’s a lot of education in Dongguan that’s completely opposite to the elite classical education system.”
On Hessler’s influence
“Definitely, he influenced me more if you want to quantify it just because he was more developed as a writer at the time that I started working on Factory Girls. He’s a huge influence and he was encouraging me for years to leave the Journal and write a book – this is the only way to go, keep your eyes open.
“When I started thinking about the migrants, initially I was working on another project and I said maybe I could talk about my colleagues and we could each do a piece about a migrant, have a series – five different people, five different stories . And he said you know writing is not a group activity. You should do this all yourself, you know.
“The minute I started working on it I realized that there was probably a book in it. So then I started working on it and when I finally finished the research and started writing the book I wrote the first three chapters and gave them to him to look at, not to edit, but tell me if you think it’s on the right track and he said, yeah, you’re fine, just keep going. At key points all the way through he was always encouraging and always interested.”
On their decision to move to the Middle East
“We didn’t want it to be a place that was like China but less so, so that ‘X’ed out a lot of places. And then we wanted it to be a place that was of interest to global readers and Western, American editors. So that narrows down the places you might wanna live in but don’t have a lot of selling power when it comes to magazines and books.
“We decided that the Middle East is a fascinating and probably misunderstood place and we had a feeling that it’s similar to how China was when we first arrived, in that the coverage seems to be largely political. In fact, there are certainly a lot of economic and social stories going on there that are probably fascinating but that people are not writing.
“Probably it’s just because they have their hands full and because they’re not spending a lot of time places and really getting to see the story that might be more subtle and take more time because the political stories are always big and pressing. There are probably a lot of fascinating personal stories, a lot of humour, a lot of quirks, a lot of interestingness and hopefully we can study Arabic and get to know these stories.”
A major Chinese film about an HIV positive couple is due for release on May 10. Till Death Do Us Part (the Chinese title is 《最爱》) is directed by Gu Changwei and stars Zhang Ziyi and Aaron Kwok. A topic this contentious couldn’t be dealt with without CCP support, so the release suggests a conscious effort to raise public awareness about the disease.
(Raising awareness of basic sexual health and contraceptive measures is also much needed in China.)
Yan Lianke’s novel Dream of Ding Village, which deals with the outbreak of AIDS in Henan Province during the 1990s, didn’t receive the same support when it was first published in Chinese in 2006. The book was banned, probably because of Yan’s criticism of corrupt officials and sensitivity over how slow China was to admit and respond to the tragedy.
I reviewed the new English translation of the text for the New Zealand Listener (April 2 issue), and I’ve included the review below.
Dream of Ding Village, by Yan Lianke
In the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of people in Henan, one of China’s poorest provinces, sold their blood as part of a government sponsored programme. It was bought not just by clinics but also unregulated agents to sell to pharmaceutical manufacturers. Unsterilized equipment was often used and, in some instances, blood was pooled together, its plasma extracted and the remaining soup of different donors’ blood was reinjected into them, supposedly to prevent them becoming anemic.
While Henan officials were slow to admit it, HIV spread quickly. “Dream of Ding Village” is a fictionalised account of this tragedy.
The story is told from the perspective of Ding Qiang, a 12-year-old boy poisoned in revenge for his father’s deadly dealings trading blood. Qiang’s ghost watches as the village’s AIDS victims continue to pursue romance, power and status despite the rapid progression of their disease. He witnesses the village’s decline and his father’s corresponding rise as he profits first by selling blood and then by embezzling state-provided coffins and making posthumous marriage matches to ease parents’ worries about their children’s social afterlives.
The author, Yan Lianke, has a reputation as a satirist. His initial plan for the novel included massive pipelines filled with Chinese blood flowing all the way to the West, a parable of rampant exploitation, but he obliged censors by removing that material. The book was banned anyway when it was published in China in 2006.
The finished version, recently translated into English, is sadly lacking in the hyperbole we expect from satire. It’s not sad for the novel, which is all the more powerful for its plausibility, but for those people in Henan who really did have relief resources – including sacks of flour – stolen from them by corrupt officials.