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Yin Xiuzhen


Essay in forthcoming book on Chinese women in the arts, Asian Cultural Council

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Yin Xiuzhen


Essay in forthcoming book on Chinese women in the arts, Asian Cultural Council

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YIN XIUZHEN: SOFT HISTORIES

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Expiration Dates


Expiration Dates


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Expiration dates

Sunday is overcast and hot, but that’s better than either rain or a blazing sun. The shops of Causeway Bay are open just as always, selling their version of cool Japanese fashion. Causeway Bay is sometimes referred to as Hong Kong’s Shibuya, and that’s not only due to the high concentration of hip boutiques and trendy cafés.

During World War II, this is where the Japanese occupation set up their government, and where there are still traces of that violent time. Nearby is the girl’s secondary school where, as urban legend has it, a Portugese nun refused to let a Japanese soldier touch her. So he cut off her hand, and buried it under a stepping-stone in the courtyard where it has (supposedly) remained to this day. It is interesting that, while China has retained a deep sense of outrage toward Japan’s actions in World War II, Hong Kong seems to have forgiven them wholesale (and retail). Maybe because after the Cultural Revolution, there was another source of unfathomable horror much closer to home.

I walk closer to the harbor on my way to Victoria Park, where thousands of people are already gathered. The Democracy March has occurred each July 1st since 1997, in some years swelling to encompass half a million participants (like in 2003), in others remaining a small, orderly protest about the lack of universal suffrage. But people come for all reasons—to demand legal rights for sex workers, to plead for more stringent environmental controls, sometimes just to show their solidarity as Hong Kong people. This year, the artist-founded gallery Para/site has organized a mobile show, in which five Hong Kong and five Mainland artists were asked to create banners that will be carried during the march. When I finally reach the group, I am assigned a banner that is all rolled up. My friend Ashley and I unfurl it, only to realize that ours is the most political of the bunch. It is a dark red image riddled with bullet holes, and the numbers 6, 4, and 1989. Before we have a friend translate the Chinese text (“Do not forget”), we know what it’s about, and jokingly say that if anyone is going to get arrested today, it will probably be us. But we won’t be, as Hong Kong is the closest place to China (the only place in China?) where one can publicly acknowledge the so-called “Tiananmen incident.” Victoria Park is always the site of the June 4th candlelight memorial for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and that was just a few weeks ago, so it’s fitting.

In the boiling park along with assorted artists and friends, Hong Kongers and foreigners both, we begin our march. We head West along Hennessy Road toward Central. I have never walked so far in Hong Kong before. Sometimes we are held up a long time behind the Falun Gong groups, who stop to do little dances or musical numbers with traditional Chinese drums, but that’s okay. We are in a sea of people: though the police, of course, estimate the turn-out at 20,000, the organizers put it at 68,000, and by the endless crowd, that number doesn’t seem impossible. We walk, and walk, and keep walking, holding our artist-made banners in the midst of all kinds of banners, watching the police watch us from the sidelines. Hu Jintao apparently knows about the protest, and while he’s not here, has approved of it on the grounds of the “civil order” of Hong Kong people. Today he is in Happy Valley Race Course, watching the “horses keep running”[1] in a CCP-approved gala spectacle (pop stars, synchronized dance moves, official speeches, confetti). But Hong Kong’s people are here. The marchers keep marching.

***

At night, after the march has finished, friends come to gather on my new apartment building’s rooftop. The roof (if not our flat) faces Victoria Harbour with a breathtaking view. Reflected on a glass building next door, even taller than ours, is the neon logo of the Excelsior Hotel, which still has a turbaned Sikh as a doorman and boasts a “full English breakfast” in the basement Dickens Bar. But it’s fittingly flipped in the mirror reflection. We wait, staring out over the dark, polluted waters toward Kowloon. Beyond the farthest mountains is China, and China is right here. The fireworks start, from boats in the middle of the harbor, blasting up and out: pink, orange, teal. Finally we see, right in front of us, the pyrotechnic feat we had heard rumors about earlier, and really thought was just a joke: up in the sky, the flames suddenly outline the characters for “Chinese people”, which in Chinese (Cantonese or Mandarin) is “Middle country people”. But instead of the traditional character for “country”, the simplified is used. Probably the traditional would be just too hard to form with fireworks. But still. A moment later, an X-shape, or a plus-sign, or “ten years” flares up. More puffs of light and color, more booms and crackles (a ghostly echo of the foreign cannon-fire across the harbor, on another dark night, that would have started this whole process in motion). And then just gray clouds against the black, and an anti-climactic silence.

[1] “The horses will keep on running… the dancing will continue” “Mah jiu paau… mouh jiu tiuh.” This is a reference to Hong Kong’s legendary horse-racing tracks at Shatin and Happy Valley, as a symbol of the openness, gaiety, and most of all, capitalistic impulses of Hong Kong that Deng was pledging to preserve.

Title: “Expiration Dates (Sunday July 1, Hong Kong)”
(note: published in both English and French in the two editions of the journal)
Publication: Purple Journal
Date: Fall/Winter 2007/2008 (Issue #12)

Year of the Rat


Year of the Rat


YEAR OF THE RAT

February 8

Welcoming the Year of the Rat

HONG KONG, CHINA

Samantha Culp

 

“DA da DA da da DA da DA…” intones the familiar muzak, accompanied by the synthesized sounds of cymbals crashing. Over the loudspeakers in my neighborhood grocery store, the elevator music equivalent of Cantonese Opera is blaring out to prepare shoppers for the coming New Year. As if they could ignore it.

In early January, shops traded in their Christmas carols and grinning snowmen for cardboard fire-crackers, gold plastic lanterns, and posters of chubby-cheeked babies. The green pines of Xmas have been replaced with miniature kumquat trees (as they need to be produced so rapidly and in such great numbers for the season, the tiny orange fruits are mostly tied onto the branches, further enhancing the Christmas-ornament effect). Local advertising has been taken over by the animal zodiac symbol of the coming year—as 2008 is the Year of the Rat, the promotional tie-ins are a little bit more difficult than usual[1].

And then, just as the hyper-commercialism reaches a crescendo, everything goes quiet. The roaring city fades to a hush as shops close their shutters, postal service suspends, and traffic thins to a barely-perceptible trickle. Hong Kong families sequester themselves into their flats for several days, to cook, eat, make baai nihn[2] visits to relatives’ and friends’ homes, give and receive lai see[3], watch cheesy television, gamble on cards or mah jong, and just sort of relax in a bubble of domesticity.

The American New Year, by contrast, is relentlessly public, and must be commemorated with friends, loud parties, intoxication, and sexual tension (the New Year’s kiss when the “ball drops”). Followed only by a hangover, and the eventual breaking of New Year’s resolutions.

When I first moved here, I found the Lunar New Year a bit anticlimactic, compared to the Western model. But almost four years later (Monkey to Rooster to Dog to Pig, and now onto Rat), I’ve grown to love the hypnotic lull of the holiday. I’ve even come to see the consumer frenzy that precedes it as a necessary prelude, to give a contrast to the stillness that follows.

This year on Lunar New Year’s Eve, my boyfriend A. and I retreated to our flat like all Hong Kongers. We may have forgotten to open the window exactly at the stroke of midnight to let the old year out and the new one in, but we did avoid showering, sweeping, using knives or throwing away trash (symbolic of destroying good luck for the coming year). Last year, A. decided to break all of these superstitions for an art video, and had a run of very bad luck over the coming months. Better not to risk it, now that we’re older and wiser.

We bundled up in blankets and scarves (Hong Kong apartment buildings have no heat) and watched downloaded TV shows until we fell asleep, then woke up late the next morning to do the exact same thing. Later on New Year’s day (Choh-yat), A. went out to buy an elaborately-wrapped box of chocolates, a gift to bring to his great-uncle’s home in the Prince Edward district of Kowloon. With barely any cars on the roads, we got through the cross-harbor tunnel in record time.

At A.’s uncle’s flat, the TV flickered in the background as we helped make dumplings from a bowl of sticky pink raw pork mixture, and little rounds of dough, helpfully rolled flat by an aunt. Still, I was unable to make mine stick together with the elegant pinching motion that most Chinese learn as children. Trays of dumplings were taken away to be fried, and empty ones brought back to be filled. Family gossip looped around the small table in Cantonese and Mandarin, as a little shih-tzu dog aptly named Fluffy celebrated by showing his affections for my leg.

Finally the trays came back with cooked dumplings, and we sat down on small stools to properly eat the fruits of our labor. A.’s great-uncle cranked the TV volume, which was broadcasting the annual New Year’s parade starting at the Tsim Sha Tsui Cultural Centre. Pop stars shivered in parkas and chirped through their microphones, introducing various performing troupes from around the world (including, for some reason, my hometown’s UCLA cheerleaders) who sashayed in bright spandex through their routines, then moved on down Nathan Road. Several groups featured small children dressed as mice or rats, invariably fleeing from sexy “cats” while in pursuit of enormous foam cheese wedges. A.’s family mocked the program in a good-natured way, but we were all rapt as we ate copious dumplings. Every once in a while one of us would discover a dumpling that tasted particularly sweet—due to A.’s uncle mischievously putting lotus seeds[4] in some of the dumplings he filled.

At some point A. was called away by his great-uncle and uncle to go into the other room. I continued to watch TV with the non-blood relatives and domestic helpers, just as a troupe of fantastic Thai ladyboys took to the screen to vamp it up on a Thai Airways-sponsored float. When A. returned, I asked him what he was doing. “Just paying respect to our ancestors,” he replied. I was charmed that A., whose parents are from Hong Kong but who was born and raised a real American boy, was thrilling his great-uncle by joining this traditional New Year’s custom. And it made me remember that the New Year celebration isn’t only for the people in the room, but also for those who peer down from strategically placed black-and-white photos on the walls.

The past pops up in unexpected ways in Hong Kong, a city dedicated to its continued eradication. Though Disneyland commercials on TV that night shrieked about the “Year of the Mouse” (Mickey seizing a perfect advertising opportunity for their failing HK theme-park), the Lunar New Year is still one of the most traditional things in this city. At its core, it’s a celebration of the hope for prosperity, shaped over centuries by a shared cultural memory of endemic poverty. But like all New Year’s, it’s also about the symbolic rebirth of time.

The Rat is the first animal of the zodiac, and with him begins a new 12-year cycle. In some ways, 2008 is the New Year’s New Year. Unfortunately Hong Kong astrologers say that the Rat ushers in a period of more chaos, more change, more danger than any other year. So all we can do is wait to wash our hair for one more day. Give and receive red lai see filled with crisp new bills and small coins, to show that there is always something left over. Hibernate with family and friends; eat our own weight in dumplings. A.’s great-uncle’s flat was a bit chilly that night, but it was worth it. Leave a window open, to let the past float out as the future floats in. Just like breathing.

 

 

[1] Luckily this year McDonald’s has designed a French-fry box that looks like a rat, instead of trying to sell rat-themed burgers. Their 2007 Year of the Pig pork sandwich was just sort of depressing.

[2] Baai nihn is the practice of visiting relatives and friends in the days following New Year to celebrate together.

[3] Lai see or hung bao are the red pockets of cash traditionally given to children, young people and service workers during the Lunar New Year.

[4] Lotus seeds are traditionally eaten during the New Year as a symbol of virility and long life. 

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Beijing Indie Film Festival Under Fire


Beijing Indie Film Festival Under Fire


BEIJING INDIE FILM FESTIVAL UNDER FIRE

On Friday August 23, the 10th edition of the Beijing Independent Film Festival kicked off at the Li Xianting Film Foundation in Songzhuang, an arts district in the outskirts of Beijing. The schedule promises nearly 100 shorts and features across categories of fiction, documentary, and experimental filmmaking, as well as panel discussions and book launches. But the promotional poster itself illustrates the uncertain fate of the festival, and how, according to documentary juror Zhang Xianmin, “nobody knows what will happen.”

The poster (see right) features the actual hand-written sign that was hastily tacked up during last year’s event, announcing that, “as informed by related government officials, the 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival will be concluded today earlier than scheduled.” Despite the organizers receiving initial approval from the authorities, 2012’s festival was plagued by official pressure and eventually a mysterious power outage that plunged an entire residential block into darkness. Still, several screenings went ahead – some via battery-powered laptops, or in the homes of local artists. Kevin Lee, a Chinese-American filmmaker and critic who attended last year, described it as “a film festival as a moving craps game.”

For this year’s festival, as of 6pm Friday, sources at BIFF said that the afternoon’s opening ceremony was able to proceed, but they were not allowed to screen films today. They’re not sure yet if they will be able to hold the scheduled film screenings, or only forums and discussions.

This time around, the organizers have purchased an electric generator, but are also trying other strategies to help the events run smoothly. Screenings have been scheduled not only in Songzhuang, but in more central Beijing venues ranging from a hip Gulou cafe to 798’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. With a wider geographic scope, artistic director Dong Bingfeng hopes the festival can be protected from interference and “can attract audiences of different backgrounds”. The programmers have included two programs of films from outside China, namely Iran and Indonesia, to drive more international discourse, and the festival will also emphasize the importance of a counterintuitive platform for cinema – books. Several forums will center on the Li Xianting Film Foundation’s new publication initiative. “Over the past 20 years, mainland China has generated a lot of independent films, but there’s still a lack of theory and criticism about them,” says Dong. “This year we’ll premiere three new books as case-studies on the international film artists Yang Fudong, Tsai Ming-Liang and Raqs Media Collective.”

Still, the core of the festival remains the same: fiercely independent, low-budget documentaries and narratives from all across China, especially those that reveal the country’s marginal voices. Over the past decade, this is what made Songzhuang a destination for delegates from festivals in Rotterdam, Vancouver, Berlin and Cannes. Selected from a record 300 submissions, this year’s slate ranges from the conceptual mischief of artist Chen Zhou (I am not not not Chen Zhou), to Li Luo’s acclaimed feature Emperor Visits the Hell, a deadpan retelling of Journey to the West in China’s contemporary bureaucracy. One member of the documentary selection committee, New York-based curator Jane V. Hsu, notes a specific thread in the wide breadth of films submitted. “A theme that seemed to pop up was being without a home – documentaries looking at the individual not belonging to the group,” she said, with films focusing on those marginalized by homelessness, disability, disease, ethnicity, and sexual identity.

One such documentary is the powerful I’m the Lucky One by activist-turned-filmmaker He Xiaopei, in which an ordinary woman terminally ill with AIDS and cancer narrates her own life story. After mainly screening the film at NGOs or online, He considers the BIFF a significant platform to share these challenging stories with an audience. “I think it’s very important – it doesn’t matter how many people turn up,” says He. “The festival will be on, some people will see it.”

In a year that has seen the more absolute cancellation of two other mainstays of the local festival landscape (Nanjing’s China Independent Film Festival and the Yunnan Multi-Culture Visual Festival), the organizers of the BIFF have taken a leap of faith in proceeding with the festival. For the moment, documentary director He Xiaopei says “we are expecting more cops than audience.” One can only hope that someday, this ratio will be different.

The Beijing Independent Film Festival runs from August 23-30, in venues around Beijing and Songzhuang. More information available on Li Xianting Film Fund’s Weibo, or download a PDF of the screening schedule here and forum schedule here.

Originally Published in Jing Daily, August 2013.

 

Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style


Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style


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About

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Flu Season


Flu Season


flu season

JUST A WEEK BEFORE THE OPENING of ART HK 09, hundreds of international travelers were quarantined at the Wanchai Metropark Hotel—a stone’s throw from the Convention Center hosting the fair—and most passengers landing at HKG were having their temperatures screened by hazmat-suited officials. Luckily, the specter of swine flu didn’t faze most players in an Asian art market stricken with its own ailments. The hordes descended on the city as planned, perhaps reassured by a statement from ART HK promising “hand sanitizers at the entrance and at strategic points within the fair.” Or maybe, as one Beijing artist joked, people were just hoping to get quarantined at the five-star Grand Hyatt.

At the vernissage, the mood was cautiously buoyant; the fair’s unofficial motto of “better than last year” seemed to hold up at first glance. Near the entrance, new additions Gagosian, Lisson, and White Cube were working big and splashy looks (with Lisson showing wall-to-wall Julian Opie), while farther back, usual Beijing suspects such as Boers-Li, Galleria Continua, Urs Meile, Red Gate, and ShanghART mixed with a host of pan-Asian galleries like Kukje, Tomio Koyama, and Eslite, each of which showed consistently polished work. Prominent collectors and local visitors all nodded their heads approvingly and tossed about buzzwords like quality, professional, and potential. The only complaints were about the white walls (plastic instead of wood) and the white wine (undrinkable).

Better alcohol was on offer at Gagosian’s opening-night afterparty at the Pawn, which sadly seemed a victim of its own exclusivity. The historic Wanchai pawnshop-turned-lounge actually had elbow room at midnight—all the better, perhaps, for the dedicated few dancing to the’80s playlist put together by the gallery’s Nadia Chan. (Though Gagosian opened a local office last year, there’s still no word on when they’ll launch an actual gallery.) At a slightly livelier Pawn party hosted by Schuebbe Projects the following night, a few attendees offered their early assessments of the fair. Beijing/Lucerne dealer Urs Meile remarked that ART HK’s ambition to become the Art Basel of the East is not out of reach. He compared Hong Kong to Switzerland (“Same population, very practical people, forced to become very international because they are so small”) and also explained why it’s a good contrast to Beijing: “Beijing is hell––interesting hell, but hell.” Of course, art sold in China is also burdened with a 34 percent luxury tax––one advantage that tax-free Hong Kong holds.

A highlight of the fair’s programs was the Asia Art Archive’s “Backroom Conversations,” a series of screenings and panels that aimed to give an intellectual counterweight to the market madness. The afternoon premiere of the AAA’s new documentary, From Jean-Paul Sartre to Teresa Teng: Contemporary Cantonese Art in the 1980s, was standing-room-only, and even Sir David Tang (founder of Shanghai Tang and the China Club, art collector, and general cultural pundit) was in attendance. In her introduction, AAA chair and art historian Jane Debevoise discussed the “complex and important reasons” that Guangdong is overlooked in art-history books. It’s a topic close to the hearts of the Hong Kong artists, curators, writers, and dealers who have also felt left out of the narrative (and/or bubble) of Chinese contemporary art. When Sir David in effect called Hong Kong artists lazy for relying on the government to support an arts scene while the ’80s Guangdong artists created their own, an irate woman shouted him down, telling him he didn’t know anything about Hong Kong art.

The state of Chinese contemporary art was clearly on everyone’s minds, and it was specifically explored in another panel, “China Focus: Reinvesting in Contemporary Chinese Art.” Moderated by dealer Johnson Chang, critic Hu Fang, artist Qiu Anxiong, collector Uli Sigg, curator Pauline J. Yao, and Artforum’s own Phil Tinari, the group weighed in, agreeing on certain points: Everything is in flux, artists will be tested, and Mainland criticality has to step it up. In a more combative panel later that evening, the London debate forum Intelligence Squared made its Asian debut with the polemical topic “Finders, Not Keepers! Cultural Treasures Belong in Their Country of Origin.” Inspired by the recent YSL auction debacles regarding the Old Summer Palace bronze animal heads, several distinguished men with British accents (including Sir David, again) spoke for and against the motion, which was moderated by CNN anchor and Twitter enthusiast Kristie Lu Stout. In the end, the audience voted 110 for, 247 against; apparently, people like the Elgin Marbles just where they are.

As the fair plunged into the weekend, visitors were lured farther afield by various openings: Li Qing at Hanart TZ, Yan Lei and MC Yan at Tang Contemporary, and two interrelated shows at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery: photographs by Dinh Q. Lê at the Soho space, and, at the gallery’s annex in the Chai Wan Industrial district, a group show of young Vietnamese artists curated by Lê and Zoe Butt. The latter’s warehouse after party stretched late into Saturday night, mixing young Hong Kong artists like Lee Kit, Chow Chun Fai, and Warren Leung Chi Wo and his wife, Sara Wong Chi Hang, who compared the annex space with the sizes of their own studios with artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Michael Lin.

By Sunday evening, the fair was all but over––except for those who were staying for the opening of the Louis Vuitton exhibition, “A Passion for Creation,” opening at the Hong Kong Museum of Art several days later. News circulated about big purchases of works by Damien Hirst, Opie, and Gilbert & George, but most galleries went home with few sales. Robin Peckham of Boers-Li Gallery twittered a glum summary of the scene: “Art HK winners: major Western galleries, local Hong Kong galleries. Big losers: major mainland galleries.”

Title: “Flu Season / Scene & Herd Column”
Publication: Artforum Online
Date: May 2009
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POOR MAN'S GEISHA


POOR MAN'S GEISHA


Photo: A. Osei

Photo: A. Osei

WORKING AT A HOSTESS BAR

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