fun links

busy weekend that brought me to three folks doing interesting work in shenzhen. descriptions and links below.

Liang Xiaoling (梁小铃) has collected artifacts stored and hidden away in Hakka homes. These items are now on display at the Dawan Hakka Compound in Pingshan. Built in 1791, the Dawan compound, like others throughout Shenzhen´s Hakka areas is square, rather than round as in Meixian and into Fujian.

Huang Yu (黄宇) has opened 荒野, a fun bookstore located just outside the Shenzhen U gate into Guimiao. The space is part of the renovation of Guimiao´s factories into shops and cultural spaces.

Yao Xu (姚旭) a Shenzhen based filmmaker, who (in addition to his work with Courier Media makes documentaries about Shenzhen´s forgotten – beggars and street people. His most recent film is ¨Master Xia´s Funeral (夏爷的葬礼),¨ a biography of Guo Zhicheng, who ended up living under one of Shenzhen´s bridges after living through the Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War, jail time for political dissent and then again after a cultural revolution struggle session, and opening a restaurant that failed.

anxious masses: Thinking about Gu Wenda´s Ink Alchemy

Yesterday at the opening for experimental ink artist Gu Wenda, I was struck by the unfolding of scale in his work. His early work could be completed by one person. There were large paintings, like Surreal Horizon (超现实地平线) or images from Lost Empires (遗失的王朝) but nevertheless the actual works themselves conformed to a human-sized world as I have come to know it. I felt myself and the art to be at the same scale. Indeed, often I was larger than the pieces and some, like the Red Heart Series (红心系列) of seals on small, abstract ink paintings, I could hold in my hand. However the later work, such as the Ink Alchemy Series (水墨炼金术系列 – above image) was large scale industrial. As such, these pieces could not be completed by any one person or even by a group of people working with their hands. Instead, the artist became both an industrial designer and an organizer of human labor and machines over time.

Made entirely of died braids of human hair, Gu Wenda’s most recent installation Black Gold (黑金)  fills the entire OCT Art Terminal. In the middle of the cavernous room, a large rectangle of ink powder lies flat beneath a canopy of black braids. To the left and right of the canopy, evenly spaced sections of died braids hang from ceiling to floor in fine, delicate loops. The installation is deceptively simple – blocks of color shimmering neatly beneath gallery lights. However, Black Gold took three years (2008-2010) to complete and thinking about what would be necessary to complete such a project left me feeling both frightened and exhilarated. Frightened because I imaged thousands of woman, who had given several years of their lives to grow their hair, scalped to make an epic statement. Exhilarated because the level of coordinated precision needed to execute Black Gold spoke to me of how one might go about representing Chinese society – massive blocks that from a distance seem a well-organized whole, but which upon closer inspection dissolve into idiosyncratic anonymity.

Neatness or tidiness (整齐) of large groups or objects is one of the mass aesthetic values that I have had difficulty appreciating. Not that I don´t enjoy watching several thousands of people making the same motion at precisely the same time, but when I think about the level of work that is necessary to achieve such precision, I feel the same anxiety that I felt upon seeing Black Gold. Several examples of mass coordination come to mind: military marching, classrooms full of Chinese students taking tests over and over and over again to prepare for the gaokao, highways full of cars, miles of grazing pasture in the American West and wheat fields in the Mid. Massive, national bureaucracies. Each of these instances of mass coordination exemplifies the human potential to submit to external hierarchies that take sameness and repetition to be the signs of unity and belonging.

And here´s the rub: one what?

Military marching and mass test-taking provide living metonyms for the modern, industrial state. Nevertheless, these mass exercises also remind me of feudal traditions, in which being born into oneś place enabled large societies to hold their form for generations. In other words, for many to become one, for each to find her ¨place¨ takes a lifetime of practice. This taking one´s place in a larger order is natural insofar as to be human is to belong to various groups of various sizes. Indeed, as far as I can tell, this is the whole point of education – helping young people figure out how to inhabit diverse sets of coordinated relationships.

The anxiety I feel when thinking about Black Gold, specifically and mass coordination, more generally has to do with the means and goals of mass practices. Military marching, mass test-taking, driving on the highway, planting acres of wheat: each of these practices takes an abstract idea of what it means to be human and imposes it on the diversity of the world, creating conditions of idiosyncratic anonymity. Moreover, these practices aren´t particularly healthy. Armies go to war, Chinese students become test-taking machines, carbon monoxide kills as do the pesticides necessary to maintain wheat fields.

In contrast, if there is such a ¨one¨ out there, I’m Buddhist enough to believe that the point is to create conditions of mutual recognition. Creative collaboration rather than mass coordination, so to speak. I’m not sure what this means in terms of reorganizing nations or highway systems or college entrance requirements. Yet I trust the process. When I take the time to understand each of my students, something happens between us. And that state of sharing between – elusive, delicate, and quite beautiful – could transform mass culture in unexpected and wonderful ways.

Gu Wendaś Ink Alchemy retrospective is currently up at the He Xiangning Museum of Art and the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal. Worth a visit.

wutong mountain

wutong mountain

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

Went to a wedding yesterday at the Wutong Restaurant (梧桐山酒楼) in Shatoujiao, Yantian District. The wedding itself was fun and I’m grateful for the opportunity it gave me to visit Shaotoujiao, one of the more interesting parts of the city.

Shatoujiao is famous because its the location of Chung Ying Street (中英街), which explicitly actualized the One Country, Two Systems policy with Chinese stores on the southern side of the street and British stores on the northern side. For the historically minded, you can also look at boundary stones from the March 16-18, 1899, when the boundary was marked at the end of the Second Opium War. Chung Ying Street is also one of Shenzhen’s 8 contemporary sights (a direct quotation of Xin’an County’s 8 classic sights). Continue reading

a character is a universe

today, i met chang hongcai, a calligrapher. teacher chang’s studio is located in liuxiandong (留仙㓊),an artist colony of sorts. the liuxian village head has rented out (at cheap cheap prices) an entire six story factory to a group of artists, who use the building as studio space. importantly, these artists are not struggling emergents, but established artists whose work is shown throughout china and the world. teacher chang, for example, is a highly respected calligrapher whose work hangs in some of china’s top museums.

we talked about many things – tea, the book of changes, and taichi – but all topics departed from and returned to calligraphy as the essential philosophy of china. according to teacher chang, how one holds the brush, each brush stroke, the actual meaning of the character, all this together forms a universe. he used the character “one (一)” to develop his point:

to write a proper yi one holds the brush with the entire body, arms loosely held as in taiji, one’s qi flowing. the brush stroke itself (and it is one fluid motion) actually follows the contours of the symbol for yinyang, stretching beyond the limits of a line and returning into infinity as the brush circles, pauses, and then quickly flicks back into itself. according to teacher change, the process of writing is itself chinese philosophy; calligraphy cannot be rushed, but must be cultivated, like breathing.

teacher chang also spoke of 势 (shi) or immanent tendency of a stroke. his explanation of 永字八法 (the 8 methods in the character yong) focused on how each stroke was in fact in motion. a heng, for example, was pulled like a bow and a gou was kicked back, strongly and decisively. a stroke that just ended because the brush was lifted, was a stroke that had been cut off, was empty. fullness came from the motion of the stroke, which had its own rhythm and spirit. in fact, when teacher chang helped me see a character, he emphasized the moving brush such that it seems possible to understand shi as traces of the calligrapher’s spirit; her body, her hand, her knowledge, her state of mind, her understanding of the world – all this comes together in the stretch and flick of ink on paper.

practicing calligraphy helps us center the mind and cultivate a good attitude because the idea that “a character is a universe” reminds us that we constantly (re)create the world. indeed, that is all we ever do.

tangtou, baishizhou


tangtou old housing, new village

Baishizhou has the distinction of being Shenzhen’s “city that isn’t a city, village that isn’t a village (城不城,村不村).”

The first stop (bus or subway) after Windows of the World themepark, Baishizhou has come to refer to a 7.5 sq km sprawl of handshake buildings that was originally part of the “Shahe Overseas Farm (沙河华侨农场)”. This highly congested and irregularly built area is also the first stop for many new migrants to Shenzhen because of its central location, convenience, and lowest of the low priced housing.

Inquiring minds ask, “How did (one of) Shenzhen’s most beautifully landscaped high end residential, tourist and arts area (OCT) end up next to what is acknowledged to be one of the city’s largest slums?” Continue reading

futures – yuanling 2

jijian kindergarten

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

even as yuanling’s factories are upgraded to retail storefronts, the old neighborhoods – especially the old courtyard residential areas – are being razed to make way for highrise developments.

watching the chickens feed in the courtyard of new yuanling village remind us (1) that shenzhen was imagined and built in a very different social economy and (2) that value is not simply a matter of upgrades, but nevertheless remains tied to how we imagine the future.

new yuanling village is not an actual village, but an example of the first generation of work unit courtyard residences in shenzhen. in the early 80s, homes here appear in some of the first corruption scandals as early cadres scrambled for homes, which they used as investments and rewards (in turn).

housing in yuanling is still some of the most expensive in the city because with each home comes one elementary and one middle school seat (学位). this is important because yuanling schools are ranked first provincial (省一级), a ranking that suggests students from yuanling do well in the national college entrance exam (高考).

although much of the old housing is rented out, those school seats are coveted and circulate not only with the sale of the house, but part of rental negotiations. not unexpectedly, many have bought in yuanling, but live elsewhere, simply so their children can go to school there.

in addition, the area has been approved for redevelopment, which means that within the next two years, all this will be razed and new housing built. homeowners in yuanling will be compensated with replacement housing (based on square footage conversions, but i’m not sure what precisely the terms are.)

housing and education are two of the great goods in shenzhen. indeed, many women will not marry unless they have a home; many parents spend time, energy, and money trying to provide for their child’s education. consequently, it is useful to think about what new yuanling village signified to early shenzhen residents because housing and education are sites where we actively and vigorously create the future.

yuanling looks battered and worn, but the shenzhen dreams of a house and providing for one’s only child still resonate. moreover, the importance of this future to shenzhen identity explains how corruption may have been built into the city. it is hard to imagine how communist cadres may have been reduced to scrambling for moldy bits of concrete and in retrospect, the object of their scrambling appears ridiculous. however, it is more than easy to understand how private hopes and dreams for their families’ future might have gotten entangled in what those cadres saw when they drew up blueprints, laid foundations, and built a post-mao, post cold war future at yuanling.

when i asked if there were any other benefits to buying a house in yuanling, the salesman looked at me somewhat confused – after all, is there anything more important than a new house (even if many years down the road) and a child’s education? – and offered lamely, “you could open a ground floor store.”

i like yuanling in its current incarnation. the streets are narrow, quiet, and clean, the buildings shaded by banyan trees, and the occasional palm tree straggles into the sky above working class residents. pictures, here.

do not remove sketch

do not remove sketch

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

’nuff said.

for a wonderful gallery of shenzhen grafitti, visit the western bank of the shahe river bridge at binhai road. the old new coastline has been filled in, roads laid, and the river securely cemented in place. all is in place to continue extending the park. before that happens, visit.

to get to the gallery, it’s best to go to hongshulin park and walk west until you reach the shahe river: if you follow the water, you’ll even get a nice view (on a clear day) of the western corridor bridge and one of our many connections to hong kong. you’ll also have a view of the edges of land reclamation and the remnant wooden boats that anchor at docks strapped together out of styrofoam, bamboo, and plastic string. the eastern bank of shahe is at the furthest edge of the baywalk park that hongshulin is growing into.

(yes, just last week i realized that xiasha is renovating with an eye to integrating into this extensive park and wanke has donated strange log cabin / guard stands to hongshulin.)

if you walk from the west (as i did), begin at coastal city. walk past the kapenski, shuffle across the binhai on ramp and follow the wall that says “western district land reclamation area”. at different points, you can jump onto the landfill. keep your eyes open for granite posts. these were once the safety chain links along the former coastline and proposed extension to baywalk park. pay attention to the names of the buildings – not just “coastal city”, but also “river’s edge” and “bayview”. many of these residences and shopping areas were undertaken before the coastline was redrawn. be sure to notice the motley crew of puppies that guard another patch of squatter gardens and chicken coop. bring water. the walk takes about 90 minutes and the sun is hot.

unexpected encounters with tradition…

Entry gate to Shazui

Shenzhen villages are places of unexpected encounters with tradition, living and reworked. Indeed, these encounters are reason enough to meander through the villages. Just to the left of the entry gate to Shazui, for example, is a temple to Hongsheng (沙嘴洪圣宫), which is kept by an older Shazui couple. I asked about Hongsheng and they invited me to sit and chat.

Historically, Shazui villagers made their living fishing in the northern section of the South China Sea, beyond the mouth of the Pearl River Delta. Hongsheng, as his name “Flood Victory” suggests is a god who protects fishermen of the South Seas. Hongsheng is also sometimes thought to be 祝融 (Zhurong the god of fire) and THE god of the South Seas, suggesting that Hongsheng is either a local manifestation of a more general god, or was a specific god that was absorbed into a larger tradition.

From a decidely brief net surf, I have gathered that Hongsheng is very local. Most of the temples I came across were located in Hong Kong and this temple is the only one that I (thus far) know about in Shenzhen. Indeed, the Ou Family Association from Hong Kong (沙嘴[香港]欧氏宗亲会) had provided the computor printout with information about Hongsheng, which again suggests how local this god is. I’m wondering if this is because Hongsheng protects ocean fishermen? That said, throughout Nantou, most temples are dedicated to Tianhou (天后) with the largest temple at Chiwan.

So a post that begs more questions than it answers. Why Hongsheng and not Tianhou? Why only in Shazui? How important is the Hong Kong connection to the temple’s maintenance?  And why is the temple located at the gate? Questions, questions. More to follow as I stumble across answers…

chiwan 2009


Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

today was the 15th of the 10 month of the lunar calendar, so i did what all good girls do – went temple hopping. chiwan is one of the natural harbors that constitute the port of shenzhen. before reform, chiwan could only be reached by way of a boat launched from shekou, heading north up the pearl river. today, chiwan is easily accessible by the 226 or 355, but still retains something of a backwater feel. indeed, chiwan has the scruffy feel of a potentially hip artist colony, except for the lack of artists and the vanishing coastline.

that said, chiwan is fun because it also boasts some of the oldest sites in shenzhen – the tianhou temple (technically the oldest in the area. zheng he reputedly stopped here, and emperors from the ming and qing gifted stele to commemorate upgrades and rennovations (!) to the temple). chiwan is also site of the grave of the last song emperor – a child who was drown with and by a loyal follower so he would not be dishonored by the yuan. the little emperor’s tomb is maintained by the zhao family.

hop, hop.

中国观澜版画基地: What is a cultural resource?

Yesterday, Wenzi and I visited her classmate, Zhao Jiachun who works at the Guanlan Woodblock Print Base (中国观澜版画基地). Jiachun generously showed us the Base and briefly introduced its history.

Guanlan interests me for three reasons (in addition to the beautiful setting, pictures here):

Guanlan is, at the moment, a purely municipal government funded project. This points to the growing ideological importance of culture in Shenzhen’s identity – both domestic and international.

Guanlan is part of the movement to recuperate elements of Shenzhen’s pre-reform history as a cultural resource. What’s interesting is that this recuperation is happening village by village. Consequently, what emerges is a loose network of sites, rather than an overall “history” of the city. In this case, Guanlan is the third Hakka site incorporated into the municipal cultural apparatus. The first was Dapeng Suocheng (大鹏所城), a military installation in the eastern part of the city. The second was Crane Lake Compound, which is now the Hakka Folk Custom Museum (深圳客家民俗博物馆鹤湖新居) in Luoruihe Village, Longgang (罗瑞合村).

Guanlan is an example of using pre-modern architecture to incorporate international art production into local identity. More specifically, the experience of architectural difference (such as living in a Hakka compound) bridges even as it creates cultural difference. Thus, the Base invites foreign and Chinese artists for residencies. These residencies allow foreign artists to “understand” China / Shenzhen and incorporate these new experiences into their art. At the same time, these exchanges also refigure a local art form (woodblock printmaking) as international cultural heritage. Importantly, this kind of “experience” of the local past as a cultural bridge seems a global trend. In Switzerland, we visited Romainmotier, which also offers artist residencies in a beautiful, restored, pre-modern setting.

This has me wondering about the ideological relationship between past and present urban settlements: Is “history” now the location of “culture”, while the “present” is all about one’s location on a scale of relative modernity? In other words, do Shenzhen and NYC participate in the same “culture”, their real differences explained away as “levels of modernity”? While their cultural “difference” must be found by excavating the past?

Continue reading