Thursday, May 24, 2012

Hong Kong and China were niu bi // Shanghai off spray paint

I am back in Chicago, almost too jetlagged to be a functional member of society, wondering if the less-than-87%-humidity will dry out my skin, and missing Hong Kong dreadfully (I may or may not have typed that with a slight British accent in mind—damn you, remnants of Colonialism, telling me to “mind the gap” and “queue for lifts”!).
Oh, just kickin' it with my uncles. No big deal.

Finally, I’ve uploaded my photos of the art in Shanghai and Hong Kong to Flickr and Facebook! (Beijing photos can be found in these two posts.) I’ll focus on Hong Kong in my next post. In Shanghai…

Respirator mask, dude.

…I’d been crashing in a room my cousin and his flatmate use to dry their laundry and stockpile their liquor (seems reasonable). My cousin’s girlfriend Maggie had the following to say about art in China: that “Beijing is more political,” whereas “Shanghai is more international,” and that, because of its political bent, “Beijing is more passionate about art and music” (the Chinese are all about rock, and I thank my Shenyang-living friend for introducing me to a colloquialism young people shout at rock concerts: “niu bi,” which is slang for “awesome” and literally translates to “cow vagina,” which makes the phrase even more awesome).

Second city syndrome, anyone? As a local, Maggie obviously has a much more nuanced assessment of Shanghai and its relationship with the arts than I would. My explorations of the city, however, led me to believe that Beijing’s art scene has a formidable rival.

Shanghai’s main art hub is the Moganshan Road art district, which, like Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, comprises a complex of old warehouses converted into art galleries and studios. It’s less grandiose than 798, unsurprisingly, but it feels more accessible, and it isn’t without its fair share of provocative art. Moreover, Shanghai’s “international” character permeates its artistic community; among the first artists and gallerists I met there, for example, were expats from Seoul during an art opening at a Korean restaurant in the French Concession.

But what I loved most was ambling beyond the central gallery cluster and losing myself in graffiti, whether it coiled along a wall or punctuated a vast expanse of vacant lots populated by squatter homes, roosters parading in and out of garbage piles, and urban ruins long forsaken, crumbling, simultaneously weighed down by time and held up by color, by paint, suspended in a silently beautiful balancing act.

I spoke with a couple of the graffiti artists writing in broad daylight, and they explained that graffiti is, more or less, “tolerated.”

What I also loved: When Maggie asked if Chicago still has gangsters “like in the movies.” My cousin and I told her that was almost a hundred years ago and that they bootlegged alcohol. Her response? “That’s not very gangster.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Like a Wong Kar Wai movie // except less color saturated

Greetings from Hong Kong! The beautiful big city where people treat you like you’re family. Probably because they really are your family. (My dad’s side of the clan greeted me at the airport yesterday with fruit, biscuits, umbrellas, and an Octopus Card.) (The MTR is arguably the best subway system ever, but just the fact that its card is called an Octopus already means all’s right with the world.) How do you like the new header?

This is a quick postbefore I head to the ART HK Vernissage—to say that I’ll be posting the following soon:
  • Photos and words from Shanghai, a.k.a. Graffiti Heaven (well I made that up but really it is) (teaser below); and

  • A post about art’s intersection with class. (Class as in rich vs. poor. And while I’m on that topic, let it be known that all VIP events and activities, including access to the fair itself, are free. I find that ironic.)

In the meantime…
  • Are you following me on Twitter? You should! I’ve been microblogging about this trip.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom // The Outsider

I’m on a bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai and the guy behind me is watching / loudly listening to some epic Chinese war movie (truly the best kind of movie) and I’ve got about an hour on my laptop battery and it’s 106 miles to Chicago and I got a full tank of gas and half a pack of cigarettes and it’s dark and I’m wearing sunglasses so I’ll do what I do: write.

I’ve spent the past couple days speaking in pretty much nothing but Cantonese, as one of my Hong Konger uncles, a talkative retired elementary school teacher, was in town. Cantonese was my first language, a fact I always forget (as a baby, I taught myself English by watching Sesame Street, and because of that, I will always love you, television), but Mandarin is Chinese and Chinese is Mandarin, and I don’t speak or understand it at all. Yet here I am. What follows, then, is a reflection on language, on identity, on identity crises, on the diasporal disconnect and angst of first-generation Americans, and on vague pronouns.

In Beijing's 798 Art Zone. Photo by Andrew Scheineson, 2012.

I am a true outsider.

But allow me to start from the beginning.

Or, at least, Saturday, my first full day in Beijing.

I’d reunited with an old friend from college for the first time since graduation. He’s living in Shenyang and had hopped onto a train to Beijing—a 5-hour-long ride—to see me …and because he’s turning into That Guy who disappears on the weekends to kick it in a big city where there’s grass (this is not a euphemism) and where coffee shop owners aren’t baffled when you ask them if you can use their “community bulletin boards” to post your handmade flyers for an improv group you’re starting (apparently DIY culture is nonexistent in Shenyang).

We’d made good use of the beautiful day, wandering around the 798 Art Zone; lazing on a lawn while catching up on each other’s lives and then getting yelled at by men in golf carts to get off said lawn; drinking too much sweet tea; eating great food, at one point alongside Buddhist monks donning designer sunglasses and sneakers; succumbing to our weaknesses for Communist kitsch (come on, who can resist adorable plush pigs in Red Guard uniforms?); playing China Bingo (“ah, there’s another middle-aged man with his shirt pulled up over his paunch”); and being bemused by the number of young women wearing cat ears (a fashion / style trend that hopefully will not catch on in the West).

Later on we met up with his expat friends and friends of friends for dinner (at a Uyghur restaurant) and drinking (everywhere).

Guided by the supermoon, it was, overall, a wonderfully crazy night that ended up with us crashing a Canadian expat bachelor party van [with overly friendly Frenchmen] that took us to a seedy nightclub with Russian whores and hookah and gold-plated toilets (my friend and a friend of his and I bounced within five minutes and instead opted for the great American staple of searching for drunk food—we kind of succeeded). And they were / are all lovely people. But…

And now I shall switch tenses. (And inconsistently switch between first and second person. It’s my blog! I do what I want!)

In Beijing's 798 Art Zone. Photo by Andrew Scheineson, 2012.

Every single one of them is fluent in Mandarin, and every single one of them is white. They laugh over puns based on Chinese homonyms, over Chinese politics and public figures. They know how to navigate the city by bike, by cab, by train, by foot. They can converse effortlessly with the locals. I, meanwhile, am an ABC and speak not a word of Chinese. As I sit with the group, white kids joking in Chinese, the irony is not lost on me. (In fact, it oppressively hangs above me like a Russian stripper nightclub hookah cloud.)

“In China we don’t talk about anything other than China,” they explain good-humoredly to try to include me in the conversation when I haven’t chimed in for an achingly awkward amount of time. (Suddenly it’s like an undergraduate seminar all over again; the less you speak, the more profound you’re expected to sound.) To have these white American expats know more about your motherland than you do, know your motherland more than you do… Really, you’ve come to realize, you don’t know your motherland at all.

But even though you somewhat, sort of, maybe feel more at home in America, you are an outsider there as well. To most Americans, you look like a foreigner, even though you were born there and have lived there your entire life and most likely have a better grasp of the English language than they do. They ask you where you’re from, no where are you really from, no you know what I mean. They ask you what you “are” (human? about to run away from you? trying really hard not to kick you in the face?).

Here and now, in China, the people look like me. They are, essentially, “my people.” Shouldn’t there be solidarity? Shouldn’t we be brothers and sisters? Shouldn’t there be tearful hugs and clasps of the hands? “Right? We built their fucking railroads, the ungrateful bastards.” But instead, I sheepishly shake my head and dig out a typed page of Chinese phrases while they smile confusedly and apologize.

This is no Lost in Translation understated overrated nepotistic Coppola emo old fart pink wigged PYT Othered Asians as the backdrop hipster bullshit. I don’t want to hear it, Bill and ScarJo. Bitches, you’re white. You don’t need to say or do anything. You’re a walking “HELP ME” sign. Me? I have to endure a painful exchange of broken communication and broken expectations before they come to the realization that I am Not One Of Them.

Here, my difference is invisible. In America, where I will always be labeled a foreigner, my sameness is invisible. In this sense, Asian-Americans aren’t the invisible minority; our faces scream without sound. Invisible are the real and imagined identities we struggle with every moment of our waking lives.

Such is the inner anguish of the outsider.

No matter where you go, you don’t belong, and you never will.

But because you don’t belong anywhere, you are untethered. Because you are alone, you answer to no one. Because you have no place to call home, no place calls for you. You are free. You can roam. You can drift like a seed from the hero tree.

Perhaps you belong everywhere.

You are a child of the world.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

That’s So R[i]ven // No really Beijing’s 798 Art Zone is like Riven in real life, minus the impossible puzzles

Hello from Beijing! First things first: The Gozamos video interview of me at the I CAN DO THAT closing reception is up. Watch me misuse the word “corkscrew” and talk with my hands / via hand flailing here.

All right. This. Place. Is. Unreal. I’d visited before as a teenager on a family vacation, hitting up all the requisite tourist attractions, and back then, Beijing felt like just another stop on a grand tour of the motherland. Or something. Coming here now, I didn’t expect to love it this much (no offense, Beijing), perhaps because my allegiances lie with Hong Kong, where I have family and have been visiting throughout my life. Well, I am absolutely enamored.

Feathery white seeds from hero trees drift through the hutongs, an unceasing summer snowfall. People walk arm in arm with one another—men with men, women with women—slowly, leisurely, almost deliberately. There is a general sense of lingering, and because of this, there is life on the streets, manifesting itself in an intense outdoor game of Chinese checkers or…

The art. The highlight is the 798 Art ZoneTake notes, Bushwick; 798 is an enormous industrial district of factories and warehouses converted into galleries, studios, and art spaces. (A friend told that me that he’d heard “they [nameless and faceless ‘they’] pour a lot of money into making it look run-down.” Sounds familiar [and reminds me of Williamsburg American Poorgeoisie / Fauxhemians with their grainy desaturated photo filters spending a fortune to dress like hobos]. But even if it’s true, I don’t care. I fell for the ruse and I fell in love.)

One could spend hours and hours wandering—it took me two days, and I still haven’t seen it all. Not even close. Photos of this art paradise here on Flickr and on Facebook.

More details in my next post.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


How did the artwork of I CAN DO THAT evolve over the course of two weeks? These are your creations and contributions! (For reception photos, check out this album.)

My first art-related trip of the summer begins today! In a few hours I’ll be flying out to Beijing, next week I’ll be in Shanghai, and the following week I’ll be in Hong Kong, my parents’ home city. I’ll be exploring the Chinese art scene, looking slightly out of place among the other VIPs at ART HK, and trying not to get into [too much] trouble. See you on the other side!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...