Sunday, June 04, 2006

A Few Trip Reflections

All good (mild) manic phases must come to an end (dammit!), so I am back to sleeping a normal amount and not getting nearly as much done as I try to wrap up this book. Call it post-vacation let-down. I'm particularly susceptible when I have a vacation with as much variety and stimulation as this one. I went to my old haunt, Beijing, then on to Xiamen and Shanghai. For whatever reason, I found Beijing a little overwhelming this trip - the traffic, the huge, faceless buildings. I did have the pleasure of staying with a very dear friend of mine and getting to visit with her and her family. But I was happy to leave Beijing for Xiamen. I'd heard so many wonderful things about it.

I'm pleased to report that Xiamen is as good as advertised. It's a small (for China) city, built around a harbor, a beautiful setting. Formerly known as "Amoy" in the West, Xiamen was one of China's treaty ports. The old part of town is replete with traditional European and Chinese architecture - I'm told that the local government is more progressive than most and has a policy of historic preservation and sensible growth. From what I saw, I believe it. Old Xiamen is truly charming. It's one of the few urban environments I've been to in China where I would go to relax - I think you could spend a couple of weeks there, just hanging out, taking walks, eating all the great seafood...

After that I was concerned that Shanghai would be a disappointment. I'd been there once before, in 1993, but I was too busy scraping my jaw off the ground from all the changes in China since my stay in 1979/80 to really take in much about what the city was like. And I really wasn't in the mood for another frenetic, mega-city.

"Frenetic mega-city" was certainly my first impression of Shanghai from the train station. This might have had something to do with the fact that I was coming off a 26 hour train ride, on an older train whose crew was among the "no smoking" scofflaws - though no one in our compartment smoked, I had a sore throat and stuffed up head from what was circulating through the over-active air conditioner.

Or it might have had to do with Shanghai's being a frenetic mega-city! It's no wonder that filmmaker Michael Winterbottom chose to make a science fiction movie there.

But Shanghai was far more pleasant than I would have expected at first glance. Once you get into the neighborhoods, you'll find that many areas are built to human scale, fun to walk in, full of character. I'd never considered that I might want to live in Shanghai before, but I'm open to the possibility now. Shanghai Slim, one of my e-friends from Peking Duck, certainly provided an example of how to live in that city the right way.

After that, I returned for one final day in Beijing. This was one of the highlights of my trip - in spite of the fact that I managed to sprain both my ankles that morning (which did contribute to the day's memorability, I suppose). I went with a driver I've known for a number of years around to various artists' communities, to see the art and get a sense of what these places are like. The most interesting stop was Suojiacun. I'd read about Suojiacun in an LA TIMES article earlier this year. It had been a thriving community of artists from all around the world, living and working together, until the government declared the occupation illegal and demolished a section of the studios.

The article and the people I talked to had different explanations for this. The settlement didn't have the right permits, my driver said, and that's how the government deals with such things, by just destroying them. According to the article, the artists had tried to deal with the permits and had thought they had reached an acceptable agreement. My guess is that as happens so frequently in China, one faction (or individual) in the government might have agreed, but someone else with more power felt otherwise.

Oddly enough, an official-looking placard still informs you at the compound gate that you are entering "Suojiacun International Artists Encampment."

When I visited, nearly all of the artists had left. Many had gone to another abandoned factory space, some further out into the countryside in the hopes that they could find a place where they could live and work as a community without government interference. But as one artist I met put it, "the government doesn't like it when too many people live together" - meaning, they fear the political potential of an intellectual, artistic community. And it's true that a lot of Chinese art has a political implication. Not necessarily because it is directly political, but because it is honest, portraying what is going on in today's China, personal, depicting the struggles of individuals and the artists themselves in a society where rapid change and tradition don't so much collide as they do reflect each other in an endless hall of mirrors. Alienation, satire, brute realism abound in the best of what I saw...well, the stuff I liked the best, anyway. I'm so far from being an expert that I hesitate to even state an opinion.

There were so many other highlights: the taxi driver who lectured me on my unmarried state and the problems with contemporary society, the wonderful blogging community I finally got to meet in person, traveling with my buddy Richard, the delicious jiaozi and great conversation I shared with my friend Susan...overall, the opportunity to improve my Chinese, to talk to people and hear about their lives in their own words...and as always, the intrinsic excitement of being in China, of watching the changes there occur before my eyes.

I hope for the best for China. There is so much potential there, such a rich cultural heritage, so much energy and drive to create a better future. I can only imagine what might be created, when people like Hao Wu and the artists I met are free to express themselves and contribute to the political process.

I hope for the best.

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