food-scape updates, closure

Closure on the foodscape project. Last Wedensday, Sept 16, 19:30 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, mccmcreations hosted a book launch for foodscape, the book. The book is on sale at the Bookshop of said Arts Centre. Please stop by, puruse, and buy a book!

Also, Milan Buttner completed Inter-view, his 30-minute exploration of inter-cultural exchange and multi-lingualism during the project. Click, view, and enjoy!

Temporal Dislocations

I have spent most of the past fifteen years of my life thinking about the creation of space in Shenzhen. However, the trip to Switzerland provoked me into thinking about time – the other half of that ever useful phrase “chronotope”.

Before I left for Switzerland, I sat in front of my computer and imagined what might connect Switzerland and Shenzhen and came up with rather banal pseudo-statistics like: (1) Switzerland has a population of 7 million, and Shenzhen has a guestimated population of 14 million, that means we can stuff two Switzerlands into one Shenzhen; (2) Switzerland is as large as the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone, which means (a) those 7 million people have a lot more room than we do in Shenzhen and (b) there are about 70 million living in the PRD, so we could stuff 10 Switzerlands into the Delta; (3) there are lots of fake Rolexes for sale in Shenzhen, possibly even more than there are real Rolexes for sale in Switzerland.

“Temporal Dislocations”, a two panel image-poem was the temporal unfolding of my thinking, travel, and reflection on Switzerland and Shenzhen. First, I made the panels: Swiss Times, which used maps of Switzerland and Rolex watches to map Shenzhen and note key historical moments in the creation of the SEZ’s chronology and Shenzhen Speed, which departed from Marx’s insight that in capitalist societies “all that is solid melts into air” in order to express the experience of capital accumulation in Shenzhen. Next, in Switzerland, writers and other food-scape participants, wrote various comments about time in general and/or our times together on the scrolls. Finally, back in Shenzhen, I made frames out of snapshots from the trip and the events that led up to the Swiss visit. So chronologically, one frame begins where the other ends.

However, as I have marinated in the idea of time, I have realized that there are at least three ways that the social production, use, and valuation of time in Switzerland and Shenzhen might be interestingly compared. So, a bit of anthropological musing, which might be understood as theorization without a literature review (and any real in depth fieldwork in Switzerland):

(1) Time as an expression of personal character. I’ve already speculated on the whole “以人为本” sense of time. Here, I’ll just mention another example of the personalized vs externalized experience of time in the public expression of “ability” versus something like “respect” (yes, I need a better word, please suggest). In Shenzhen, there is constant talk about “firsts” – the first person to do something, the first person to earn something, the first person to achieve something… that first sets the parameters for everything that follows. This means what is important is pride of place, rather than the actual means needed to grab it. However, In Switzerland, I had the impression that respect for the externalization of time through amazingly efficient clocks seemed to make punctuality function within discourses about respect and equality, so that vying for first place, especially elbowing one’s place to the front of the line, would definately come off as nouveau riche. So in Shenzhen, being first means one has “ability”, where it seemed that in Switzerland, being punctual meant one was “respectful of others”.

(2) Time as a way of making a living. The time as a way of making a living envolves different relations to the measurement of time. In Switzerland, people make watches, so they are actually involved in the mechanicalization of time. Click. Click. Click. Whereas in Shenzhen, the city has flourished because of high-speed mass production, which is in fact our competative advantage. The factories and assembly lines, the construction sites, all run 24-7, unless there’s some kind of electrical rationing going on or a recession in the United States.

(3) How history is materialized. In Switzerland, much social value was created by saving wonderful examples from the past. They invested much in preservation so that what came out of history were unique buildings and objects that could not be replaced. In contrast, Shenzhen focuses on being in front of developments, what is actually pursued is the future, which appears as blueprints and models. Once built, there is a sense in which the value is less than the next, great project.

(4) What needs to be theorized is the way in which it all connects through international finance. “Interest” is, of course, a product of rules about making money simply because life unfolds. (And once upon a Catholic time, wasn’t usury a sin?) All those Swiss banks. I don’t know how they’re connected to Shenzhen. I do know Switzerland was the first country to sign a bi-lateral trade agreement with the PRC (Feb this year). I suspect there’s lots of Chinese money in Swiss bank accounts. I know that many Chinese students attend Swiss schools, especially those that grant degrees in hospitality.

(5 – just because numbers make it all seem logical) What’s also interesting to me is that different kinds of city’s grow out of these different value systems. So, Switzerland has cities that are dedicated to the production of watches, and cities that are beautifully preserved tributes to past worlds – Romainmotier and St. Gall, for example. Likewise, the different areas in Shenzhen are defined by manufacturing and the next area to be developed – Gangxia and huge tracts of Houhai, for example.

Anyway, Temporal Dislocations may be viewed here.

sudden insight into 以人为本

A first insight after my trip to Switzerland: I now have visceral understanding of the ubiquitous phrase “以人为本” or “make people the basis”.

While in Switzerland, I was impressed, shocked, and actually somewhat confused by the precision of their clocks. My friend’s watch, the clock on the bus, the clock in the plaza, the clock in the bell tower – all kept the same time. I watched an empty bus pull away from a stop while two girls ran across the street to catch it. Had the driver waited another minute, the girls could have caught the bus and been on their way. Instead, they had to wait precisely 16 minutes for the next bus.

Back at my post at the school, I began to notice that none of the clocks on campus, none of our wristwatches, and few of our cellphones kept the same time. Instead, the time that matters is the time kept by the highest ranking person in the classroom or office. So if there’s a meeting, we all gather more or less at the same time, but start when the leader says to start not when the clock shows a “time”. Likewise, in the classroom, students arrive at more or less the same time, but classes start when the teacher starts teaching. The upside of this 以人为本 arrangement is that bus drivers to wait and often stop (even after they’ve started to pull away from the stop) for running passengers. The downside is that whether or not a student or staff member is “late” is highly arbitrary.

This has me thinking about how communities build our assumptions into the world, which thereby continues to confirm them at even the most minute level of experience, begging the question: what does it take to escape from cultural presuppositions and “know” something else? Yes, this is a rather quaint anthropological insight suddenly made fresh in light of the juxtaposition of times (!) experienced in Switzerland.

Here’s the point: Yesterday afternoon, I encountered  my cultural unconscious in a way which has suggested that I only begin to question my “instincts” when they have failed consistantly for an extended period of time.  What’s more I suspect my response time (15 years to figure this out) falls somewhere in the middle of a cultural learning curve, which means many of us live our cross cultural lives in potentially destructive ignorance.

At work, I sit at a desk in an office to which students have free access. I am fortunate to have warm relations with many of my students and so they come and go at will. However, lately, I have been busier than usual, which has meant that when they come to see me more often than not they interrupt my work. Yesterday, five minutes before class started (according to my office clock) and 90 minutes before I would give an hour lecture to over 200 students, one of my favorite students swept in, dropped his books on my desk, and asked me if I wanted to look at some of the paintings from his father’s portfolio.

I snapped, “I don’t sell steamed buns!”

He, in retrospect, looked understandablyconfused.

Me, in retrospect, felt understandably irrate and grumped, “Every morning, I line up for steamed bums at the stand just outside my housing estate gate. Every morning, someone pushes ahead of me and shouts at the bun vendor, ‘quicker, I’m in a hurry.’ Every morning, the vendor calmly serves the volatile customer and then returns to me. Cutting in line is rude and disrespectful both to me and the vendor.”

He, still confused, asked, “What did I do wrong?”

Me, still irate, said, “In the United States it’s rude to interrupt someone when they’re busy. You should first say ‘excuse me’ or wait for them to finish what they are doing before speaking.”

He, “Can’t you work and speak at the same time?”

Me, “No.”

He, “Why not? Chinese people just keep working when someone talks to us.”

Me, internally, “A-hah.”

Me, trying to be conciliatory but probably coming off as pedantic, “In the United States, when someone speaks to me, it is considered polite to stop what I am doing and give them my full attention. This means that when someone, like a student, just starts talking to me, I experience it as a command to stop what I am doing and listen. When student number three or four issues the same command, I become angry.”

He, “Oh. So its a cultural difference.”

Me, “Yes.”

He, “Do you want to see my father’s paintings.”

Me, exasperated, “We have class in five minutes!”

He, “I’m leaving.”

As I write this post, I’m wondering how power relations also contribute to my experience of being interrupted. I don’t become as angry when my boss interrupts me. At the same time, my current boss is British and tends to interrupt in a way that conforms to my expectations of how interruptions should occur. There’s also my vanity. When I said, “I don’t sell steamed buns,” I clearly (well maybe not crystal clearly) implied that my status as teacher needed to be recognized through corresponding forms of student courtesy. More soberingly, I wonder how much of my reluctance or disinclination to reflect on my anger at students has arrisen out of my “experience” that Chinese people tend to “live for others” within intimate circles and  “live for themselves” outside those circles. What part of my unconscious was comfortable glossing my students’ behavior as collective rudeness, rather than trying to understand why a particular action by usually considerate and well-intentioned youth made me uncomfortable?

Sigh. Fifteen years in Shenzhen, 8 months in a new job, and a 2-week trip to Switzerland later, I have 1 sudden insight: if I am going to live in Shenzhen, I need to “make people the basis” of my daily interactions, rather than uncritically following the  “陈习陋俗 (outdated habits and despicable customs)” of my native land.

food related note

two food related links.

the first is a chinese introduction to the food-scape project, here.

the second is a story about belo horizonte, a brazalian city that has ended hunger through innovative policies, here.

mar 30 – arrival in switzerland

Have just returned from twelve wonderful days in Switzerland as part of the Food-scape project. While there, Yang Qian, Debby Sou (苏慧琼) and Lo Kwai-cheung (罗贵祥), and I joined Margrit Manz, Martin Zeller and many other wonderful people to get a taste of Swiss food and culure.

I’m still thinking through what happened. This is one of the upside/downside effects of my life in Shenzhen. I seem able to think about experiences in Shenzhen faster than I am able to think through my experience elsewhere. However, I am not alone in thinking about the exchange. A teaser from Milan Buttner’s Interview gives a sense of the inspirations of and from the project.

fusion food-scapes

This weekend a group of Swiss writers visited as part of the food-scape / 食事风景 project. Representing the four Swiss languages, the writers were: Vanni Bianconi (Italian), Arno Camenisch (Romanch), Odile Cornuz (French), Peter Weber (German), and Martin Zeller (German). Margrit Manz organized the project. Three film-makers also came: Xia Tian from Tianjin by way of Basel, Janos Tedeschi, and Milo.

The importance of food in creating and nourishing human relationships is a truism in both anthropological theory and Chinese culture. We don’t just eat with intimates, we also create intimacy by sharing food. Moreover, when a group lacks common topics of conversation, talking about food easily segues into childhood memories, strangest food I ever tasted bravado, journeys through cultural landscapes, and perils of world domination by American fast food chains.

Saturday afternoon, day one, started awkwardly but ended with the sensual pleasures of a Hunan restaurant,where I was most struck by how good food facilitated conversations that had previously been stilted and dry. Pre-food, we approached conversation intellectually, each of us rehearsing arguments and theses we had clearly developed in other contexts. However, the flavors, the baijiu, the chewing, the swallowing, and the communal digesting of Hunan food gave us a world in common. We talked about tastes, what was special about Hunan food, the different types of chili peppers in China. We enjoyed Peter and Vanni’s enthusiasm for new dishes and suddenly the distance between people dissolved into laughter, stories, and arranging another workshop, which would be held after visiting Dongmen and City Hall the next day.

Sunday morning, day two, Winnie Wong joined us for morning tea at the revolving restaurant at the top of the National Commerce Building (国贸). This building is a particular favorite of mine because the inexpensive morning tea (48 per person on weekdays, 58 on weekends) is not only tasty, but also an easy opening to talk about Shenzhen history (the National Commerce Building was the first skyscraper built in reform China) and view Shenzhen (at 49 stories the building is tall enough for great views but low enough to be able to see and identify other buildings). Again, food, its presentation, and the dim sum fun of selecting baskets of dumplings, braised chicken claws, and cow stomach created commonality, so that presence in the present could anchor conversations that might otherwise have drifted into the tenuous connections of abstract thoughts.

We then visited the street markets of the remains of old Hubei Village (湖贝村), an urban village that occupies downtown land as yet to expensive to appropriated. Rows of and two-story traditional houses create narrow lanes, which are wide enough for a person to walk through open onto wider main lanes, which are wide enough to accommodate small carts, bicycles, motor scooters, and tables of fresh meat, vegetables, seafood, fried breads, imported fruits, tofu products, and displays of preserved eggs. Most of Shenzhen’s migrant workers live with their families in inner city villages like Hubei Village and these street markets both reproduce the feel of local markets elsewhere and provide convenient access to food. More importantly, the street markets create food-scapes, where migrants can inhabit Shenzhen by making neighborhoods out of grocery shopping, haggling over prices, sharing recipes, or simply walking around and noticing what’s available.

These three very different food-scapes provided the backdrop to our short visit to experience the monumentality of the central axis, where Martin bought pastries for our afternoon workshop, which itself was a food-scape of another kind. Martin arranged the pastries in the center of the table, I added the box of Swiss chocolates that Xia Tian had given me as a meeting gift, and the hostel workers served cups of hot coffee and tea. The group was now ready to talk about art. And we did. The conversation touched upon individualism, Chinese familialism, the materiality of language, and the performance of written works. Odile and Janos provided an impromtu reading of my translation of Yang Qian’s “Neither Type Nor Category”, and then Peter read his poems in German and Yang Qian their Chinese translations.

I left the table thinking about the importance of shared intimacy through eating to nourishing mutual understanding. Indeed, eating together made spaces in which conversation was meaningful and viscerally pleasurable, allowing real cultural differences to explored, rather than skipped over. During the food-scape exchange, for example, two of the most obvious moments of cultural ignorance appeared as lack of knowledge about Shenzhen (among Western artists) and indifference to Dada (among Chinese students).

On the one hand, over the past thirty years, Shenzhen has touched the lives of every single Mainland person. To have lived through Reform and Opening is to have seen its possibilities tried out, tinkered with, and transformed in Shenzhen. Indeed, migrating to Shenzhen, especially before 1997, defined a particular kind of courage and ambition that all Chinese people recognize. Thus, in the context of the contemporary PRC, ignorance about Shenzhen is unimaginable because it would mean having missed an entire historical era.

On the other hand, modern art movements like Dada have impacted and made possible all kinds of Western lives, ranging from aesthetic experimentation to philosophical interrogation of the limits to objective truth. Many of us, including myself, have created lives out of these possibilities. Thus, in the context of Western individualism, indifference to Dada is puzzling because to learn about Dada is to deepen one’s understanding of the self.

Definite food for thought.