ART, LANES AND MARKETS
22.11.2010 - 07.11.2011 15 °C
SHANGHAI. CHINESE QUEENS, SCRAPPING BUGS AND DEMOLITION
So time for the Yangshou departure tax to be paid and organise the exit strategy. Bus back to Guilin and the purchase of tickets to Shanghai for that evening. This having yet again been assaulted by the worrymongers saying that it would be nigh on impossible to get same day requested tickets. That meant we had four hours to kill in Guilin. Now Guilin turned out to be the most boring town in the world. If you remember from previous blogs, this was the place where we had the drama trying to locate the Wada hostel. All things considered I was highly delighted that we were thwarted that day and went to Yangshou instead. I gave Ludo one last chance at redeeming himself and on sighting a tourist info office I dispatched him hence to sort out a mini tour of the town. He came back with a map and info about some hot spots to check out.
A botanical garden was very close. Free entry. OK. Let's go and have a look. It was a palm tree and a couple of pot plants down a back alley of a shopping area. Oh yes. And a bench to sit on to get the botanical ambience soaked up. So that was totally crap. Next destination was the place the clueless taxi driver took us to that time before. Turned out it was a palace cum museum. Looked minimal and completely boring. No one could tell us anything about it except that it was £7 to go in. Not on your nelly. So that was Guilin. We wandered about tedious shopping centres bored shitless. No aesthetics, no personality, just consumerism at its worst. The people milling about were expressionless, devoid of passion for any of it. Going through the motions of what was expected of them when given this concrete world to occupy. It got to me. The term frigid dystopia came to mind. I got quickly depressed. Ludo started whistling through his teeth. He stood about twirling his hair round his index finger, mindlessly. This had been annoying me since Hong Kong. Minor irritations perpetrated by your travelling companions at the beginning of your trip turn into major offences punishable by murder a month later. Especially when the annoyed one is bored and disgruntled. We'd reached that stage. The “tune” he was whistling was searing through my central nervous system with barbs attached. It was Phil Collins. Against All sodding Odds. I'm afraid I cracked. There was the long overdue confrontation over the whistling. At last I'd told him to shut the fuck up with it. He was miffed. I knew the end of our journey together was nigh. It was all over bar the shouting. It was an interminable four hours in Guilin.
On the train I started to read Marco Polo. This is a deffo must read for anyone visiting China as it shows how things were run years back. Looks like the Chinese have always had a history of being a load of subservient plebs dominated by one strong character. Swiss Family Khan for example. Ghengis then Kublai ran the show and what they said went. For miles around. Then came the Emperors and various dynasties. All holed up in an enormous palace full of untold opulence and minions by the millions. These leaders discouraged impoliteness, interloping, insubordination and infidelity. They heartily encouraged prostration, adulation, the queueing up of gift bearers and you had to lay down your life for them when told to or they'd have you slaughtered. Maybe its in the DNA of the Chinese to do as they're told with no complaint or question.
Coming into Shanghai took an age. I remembered a conversation I'd had with a tour guide in the park at Yangshou. I'd asked him if there was anything interesting to do in between Guanxi Province and Shanghai. No, he said. Nothing. Now if you consider this is a landmass of some 1000 odd km it beggars belief that there's nowt to see therein. But from the window of the train it became rapidly apparent that this region was flatter than the Benelux Realm, devoid of trees and abundant only in what could be know as the Empty Highrise Isolated Enclave. Block after block of same same concrete nightmare scenario in the middle of what looked like Bum Fuck Nowhere. What are those places all about? Why were they there? Who was building them? HAD THEY HEARD OF lOW RISE? Where were the aesthetics? What would be the consequent suicide rate of the inhabitants. And who would they be the poor sods? God it was depressing. Frigid dystopia. Ludo and me sat on those funny little seats in the aisle of the sleeper carriage and looked at these dismal developments bewildered. If this was Shanghai I'd be on the first plane anywhere else. It wasn't Shanghai. We were hours away. And all we had to look at was that lot all the way in. An horrible racket ensued from the train tannoy. It was a three tunes and jingles on a loop and it went on worse than Ludo's whistling. We sat benumbed by the mindless landscape and the chinkpop for an age before we were eventually informed our destination was nigh. WHAT WOULD THIS KIND OF CONTINUOUS SUBLIMINAL INFILTRATION DO TO US IN THE LONG RUN?????? Read on and find out.
After navigating our way out of yet another gargantuan railway station known as Shanghai South; its mother was an Olympic sports arena with a tendency to tedium and its father was an underground torture chamber at the Politburo in Moscow, we got a metro over to the Couch surfing birds gaff. Ludo was looking at the metro map. Get one of these at the tourist information office. Necessary.
“I'll have to get the hang if this if I'm going to be meeting these people.” Oh hallelujah. He'd scored of Gay Romeo. Not like him not to have mentioned it. What's the big secret? But who the fuck cares? Some time to myself at last. Our French girl wasn't due back until 7pm. So we had a couple of hours to kill. We found her area. Part of Puxi district near to Xiaonanmen metro station. It was great. How I imagined China to be in the cities. Little streets with tiny shops and vendors selling all manner of stuff, street food being cooked up, oldsters milling about in pyjamas and evidence of houses off down darkened alleys. There was a real atmosphere of community and an essence of life. A delight of the heart and a smile to the chops was induced from this ambience. A proper contrast with the dystopian hellholes in the making we'd seen on the way in whereby a prompt slash to the wrist had been induced. I couldn't wait to come and check all this lot out in the daytime.
Turned out we were staying on the 28th floor of one of the new high rise blocks overshadowing this sweet little community. A community ear marked for demolition, we learned off Cecilia our CS host. I could have cried. What right has any monster got to come round a persons dwelling and bash it all down for the sake of a few dollars more. And sling up high rise hell holes!! Greedy stupid morons that's who. I have to say though, the view from the 28th floor was staggering. You could see Pudong district lit up in all its glory. Another rival to Hong Kong. Pudong reeked of big banking, power and a quest to show the rest of the world China was on the way up. The apartment was very swish. But the tower block lacked character and essence which is what all human habitation should aim to produce surely. I'd got altitude sickness and my ears still hadn't popped from the trip up in the lift after half an hour.
Cecilia was fantastic. Frankly The Hunch Back of Notre Dame or Norman Bates would have been appreciated after a month solid with Ludo and his ruddy whistling. Cecilia worked as some sort of tax advisor and had been in Shanghai for nearly two years. She also loved the Lanes and told us that plenty of ex pats wanted to get somewhere to live in that community. We went out to get some won ton soup and it was delicious. A lot of people in Chinese cities don't bother cooking. Get their grub in the Lanes. Its cheap and easy enough to find a local place. So great food and incredibly, a room of my own, A Ludo free zone. Thank you God.
We'd to go to the Cop Shop in the morning and register that we were staying with Cecilia. I told her I was mad for art and she pointed us in the direction of a place en suite to her yard. Taikang Lu is also known as Art Street. Now what's happened here is the Lanes have been saved due to poncification. And turned into art galleries, posh eateries and boutiques. Yes its touristy and its clientèle were largely ferrangs. Much of the art here was commercial stuff, not great quality and had been shipped in directly from the fake oil paining enclave of Da Fen in Shenzhen. The Laughing Faces were everywhere. This bloke Yue Mingjun paints self portraits with a massive smile. God it's horrible. Frightening even and in gaudy pop art colours. Also the crying baby by Yin Jun which is equally tacky was all over the shop too. Who the hell wants any of that shit on their wall? Mr Fish paints pictures which have a repetitive feel and you can see his stuff in other art enclaves of China and Hong Kong too. He uses very thick oil paint to create formations of zillions of people doing the same movement often overlooked by some emblem of power. This sums up China. Millions of people repeating the same stuff since way back when. And Mr Fish is continuing this theme with his art as he paints the same three pictures over and over again. Whilst initially intriguing, it soon wore thin as this artwork appeared again and again thus got boring.
Some good photography exhibitions including the work of Zeng Li. He's actually a stage designer and worked on the brilliant film, Raise the Red Lantern. When he saw the systematic destruction and rebuilding of Beijing he started to make a photo documentary. Anyone interested in the social changes in China should check out this blokes stuff. You can find him on Art Zine on the good auld www. The hutongs in Beijing are very similar to the Lanes here in Shanghai. The Chinese wiped nearly all of them out and replaced them with high rise apartments and glitzy plaza style shopping centres. Thus copying the worst of the west in a bid to impress the world and its media when it came for the 2008 Olympics. I can tell you this China. The common consensus from the West is that you fucked up. We'd have been more impressed if you'd let those people stay where they were and improved their existing communities instead of bulldozing community spirit. But you won't listen to me like you never listen to your own people either. Your FACE has shit on it over that China government man. And let Ai Wei Wei speak his mind too. He built you that Birds Nest stadium. He's a brilliant artist. Because he has the power of expression which you don't like. So you can either have crap architecture, which you have plenty of, or let people speak and it gets more creative. AND THEY DONT WANT HIGH RISES AND CONCRETE.
It was here in Taikang Lu that I met the Artist. I'll only call him the Artist because I don't want him arrested and tortured by the thought police for what he told us. He very kindly invited us to sit down and we spent nearly an hour talking to him about China, the psychological effects of its history on the people and therefore its art. He said that the Chinese had been brainwashed. That the level of brainwashing was so deep that it may take generations to recover. He told us there was a peculiar hierarchy regarding social command. People had to consider the response of four different mediums before they acted on any impulse. The first level was what he called the Paradise but this could be translated as God. (Also cosmic stuff which explains why so many Chinese put faith in astrology) Secondly came the Emperor or the Leader anyway. For he was God's representative on Earth. Thirdly came the teacher then lastly the parents. Think about that for a moment, If you had to give respect to that lot before sticking your neck out you'd never have time to do anything let alone the inclination. There was perhaps not so much a fear of expression, more a reticence of it. And that's why it was difficult to find any art that was radical. The fear came later as an added factor inflicted by Mao's megalomaniacal/psychotic dictatorial repression systems and the Cultural Revolution.
So Chinese artists mostly copy western techniques or stick to traditional methods. In fact, China are copy cats in every respect because they have no sense of invention or design due to this chronic wariness of self expression. So this means fashion and architecture, music, and of course art are affected. Let me tell you, their new music is Boy Bands meets Europop on a repetitive loop from merry hell.
The artist had been out of China to the States in the early seventies as part of his training. All of the artists who went with him stayed in America but he came back for his wife and child. He said he bitterly regretted coming back and that all those who stayed in America managed to get their wives and children out too. His life would have been completely different had he stayed in America. He'd sent his own son to Berlin to train as an artist and told him never to come back to China.
His son paints images of Mao. Interestingly he's not a fan of this barmpot dictator yet paints him anyway. The father thought that Mao was just doing his job and was not a bad man. That still today people idolise the man though he's been dead for over thirty years. He evidently hadn't read the Mao biography that claimed the man had murdered up to 60 million people through various means. He also didn't accept that Mao starved his own people whilst sending the crops they'd grown to survive on to support the Communists in Hungry. Then again, like he'd pointed out, the folks of China have indeed been utterly brainwashed.
The Artist was super cool. I felt like crying for him and all the Chinese people like him. With so very little complaint he'd told us his story. He's accepted his lot but made sure his son was out the frame. He gave me a lot of food for thought that day but it was the look on his face that stayed with me the most. Inscrutable. They were facts he told us and that was it. I got a sense of helplessness and inevitability and saw a beautiful deer stuck in a trap. For the real artists in China it must be an absolute nightmare to live in such a repressive society. Artists, the real ones, are sensitive souls and should be respected as such. They need freedom to think and create their unique vision. I think in China they're just put to work, like everyone else.
From his shop we left Taikang Lu feeling that was enough. I felt kind of heavy minded after all that. Like Taikang Lu was a fake façade and mostly just horribly commercial. We wandered about and found some Lanes at the end of the street that were in the process of being destroyed. Amazingly, the remaining community was carrying on as usual whilst buildings were being bashed down en suite. It looked like men with lump hammers were taking the buildings apart systematically rather than just doing it over with a bulldozer. Seemed like they were saving the best bits of the construction for recycling and indeed, men with barrows and handcarts were showing up and carting off bricks, roof tiles, wood and bits of metal. I was to see this resourceful sight again and again all over Shanghai.
In fact, in Cecilia's district, people were still living in houses that were half demolished. I often wandered round these areas feeling mixed emotions. Helplessness for the inhabitants. A sense of inevitability that doom was coming. The passing of an era. Utter sadness that a community was having its essence sucked out of it by faceless property developers and cash crazed Capitalists who'd bribed the corrupt, hypocritical Communists to get what they want. Thoughtless twerps who couldn't see that this place was alive with character and community whereas the overlooking high rise blocks that would be replacing these dwellings with this frigid dystopia that China seems determined to create for itself. God it was depressing. Signs everywhere of the last residents in situ. Half a packet of soap powder, An old handbag. A half demolished wall with a teenagers magazine clippings still pinned on them, A letter in a letterbox never to be opened again. It went on and on. From the 28th floor of Cecilia's block you could see huge swathes of the Lanes half gone and it was like the rest was waiting on Death Row.
On the second day in Shanghai. I inadvertently ended up doing all the touristy shite I loathe and detest. I went to the main museum which is in the Peoples Square. Once you've been in one museum in China you've been in them all. It was free. It killed less than an hour. The People's Square was a concrete monument to Communism, its architecture and its soulless upshots. The Museum of Modern art was in the People's Park right next to People's Square. In what was actually a great space were utterly mediocre exhibitions which could have been so much better had China encouraged its artists to shout a bit freer and louder. What was here looked like it was sourced from the skip behind the local art college. At two quid to go in I expected far more. The staff were apathetic and although they spoke English knew nothing about the exhibition. It was pants.
From there I had the address of an art gallery down by The Bund. This is the waterfront and to get there I had to walk through Nanjing Road shopping centre. God it was horrible. All fast food gaffs and more shops. Hasn't Shanghai got enough shops??? The Bund, which if you research anything to do with Shanghai tells you to go directly to this marvellous spot, was just a walkway on the Humpuo river where you could watch boat loads of slag ferry by. Oh yes. And look at the disgusting Pearl Tower by day and all the other high rise nonsense they slung up in the space of five years on the Pudong peninsula. So that was The Bund. This I presumed was what the new Shanghai was aspiring to be replacing the Lanes with. God, what a horror story.
The art gallery I found eventually on the third floor of the Georgio Armani building was better than the previous one. Minimal but a barmy expo within. The girl was also apathetic, thoroughly entranced by the computer and I might as well have not been there. But when prompted she did give me some information about the artist who paints people with no faces. Blokes in suits lying down submissively with just a sphere for the head. This was the most expressive art I'd seen so far. And if the staff of the galleries were anything to go by, it depicted them. Not so much no faces, but no personalities. Or a mind.
I was reminded of a painting I'd seen in Hong Kong by a Taiwanese artist called Yao Jui Chung. The painting was part of a series called Honeymoon. It was called Facebook Talk. It was a take on the Madonna and Child approach from the Renaissance period. It showed a baby suckling at the breast whilst the mother was showing it an Ipad that was connected by a golden line to a distant father figure who was perched over a laptop. The baby had horns and was effectively being nurtured by technology. And the whole lot of this was placed within the traditional karst mountain landscape of Chinese paintings. I saw later in the subway every single passenger was tuned into their mobile phone or Ipad. Anyway, technology of some description. Frigid dystopia. What's going on with the Chinese kids that they have no voice? Just clicking away and no verbal communication. Intriguing.
I'd had enough of The Bund. From this place I tried to take a metro back to the couch surfing gaff but was thwarted at every turn even though I had a map. People kept sending me in what turned out to be the totally wrong direction. No metro. I found myself in a horrid tourist spot around a place called Yu Garden. It was totally fake old China. This New Old China has a plastic sheen on it that shimmers in the sunlight and makes it look ghastly. Its not well done and the pagodas and temples and all the old style roofs are just facades for tourist tat shops. The atmosphere was heartless and totally hard sell. The herd were there behind the flag waving controllers. Or getting their photos taken doing the victory V sign again. Seems they're easily satisfied the Chinese tourist. Just give them a vile plastic geegaw to pose in front of and they go home happy. Do they know any different? It seems not. Chinese folks that I have consequently met who have been out of China go in the herd. The exit visa in fact comes with a herd clause. They may do twelve different countries in two weeks, Stopping just two hours in Belgium then half a day in Paris for example before off to Amsterdam. They don't have time to feel the vibe of a place, check out art galleries or museums or interact with the local populace even. Just get off the bus, pose next to the relevant tourist attraction and back on the bus. That's fucking insane!!!!!!!!!!!!
On the subject of tourist tat in Shanghai there is a market up Tibet road where they sell a load of fake antiques at grotesquely inflated prices. And I'm sure some gormless morons pay those prices probably thinking the stuff is the real deal. Well its not. A Chairman Mao alarm clock should only cost 20 RMB but 80 will be the first price.
You will also find the Bug and Bird market thereabouts. Believe it or not they sell incredibly large grasshoppers and other insects which they then train in the same was as cockfighting. Well this is the only thing I can think of that has any similarities to what they do here. They also sell quaint little bug huts for your prize fighting flyweight creature to inhabit in between scraps. This has been a tradition in Asia for years and wouldn't it be great to find a bug fighter to hang out with to see exactly how he trains his bugs. With crickets, the victor will be the one who is able to do a cart load of jumping and get his opponent out the ring. Beetles use other tactics. The Bug market has a vibe of its chirrupping own. Visit this place if only for that. The place is heaving with smoke and you can hardly breathe unless you get an oxygen tank on your back and a mask on your fizzog. There is also an interesting array of birds for sale. This is another Chinese phenomena. They do love a bird tweeting in a cage outside their front door. You can see them tuning into the birdsong having a quiet moment with their pet all over Shanghai, especially down the lanes. Puppies, kittens, hamsters and other cuties on sale here too. God only knows what the ALF would have to say about this place.
These markets are an interesting gateway to the French Concession and get off into that area whatever you do. Fuxing Road is fantastic as are all the roads on the periphery of it. Tree lined boulevards, art deco architecture and a style of Lanes all of their very own abound here. As do art galleries. Use the indispensable art map which you can pick up all over Shanghai in arty venues to locate the smaller but very interesting galleries here. I can tell you I felt like a right tramp, bowling about this locale in my backpackers bog standard combat shorts and boots. The women folk were incredibly chic and the blokes were nothing other than gorgeous. Well groomed, well heeled and obviously some sort of elite of Shanghai frequenting shops making hand made shoes, top of the range cuisine and bank account shagging haute couture. Its all part of Chinas rich tapestry. And I'm sure its safe from the bulldozer brigade too.
696 Wei Hai Lu is on the periphery of the French concession and has the art gallery/studio complex where you can see expos and maybe meet the artists. I met a Chinese artist here. He spoke hardly any English, gave me a fabulous book and let me hang about his gaff for a bit. He seemed inspired by the Berlin wall. Unfortunately the language barrier prevented me from ascertaining exactly why this was. Which was a crying shame. A lot of the work in the book was pseudo political. I had to use my own imagination to interpret that lot which is what art encourages one to do surely. Will have to go back there with a translator. Sculptors and photographers were there and I think the frame changes all the time so its always an interesting spot to check out. Hit an opening to see the OK yah brigade chuffing Chinese wine.
Stay tuned for part two of the Shanghai excursion.