Thursday, June 20, 2013

Things that Don't Fit # 8: Shanghai on Film & in Hackerspace

(It's a very long one but there are super fun links all the way thru...)

Way back in the spring, NYU Shanghai Instructor, Dr. Anna Greenspan, presented Episode 6 of a great series of public conversations that she has initiated. "All Tomorrow's Parties: Summoning Creativity in Shanghai" brought together a wide range of people working in a diversity of "hacker" spaces/hackerspaces in both China & in the US...oh heck, it's too hard to put in my own words so here's from the publicity...
This event probe[d] the connections between the informal networks of shanzhai production and the open innovations of DIY (do it yourself) Maker culture in order to explore the fertile zones of creativity emerging between the dense commercial webs of cheap ‘copycat’ electronics, and the back-room tinkerers playing with the latest developments in open source hardware.
To decode that a little, shanzhai, the Mandarin word for "copycat," is used to describe the small Chinese factories that create knock-off versions of well known electronic products, often with great innovation and speed, and at much lower cost. (For an abstract of Anna's paper on the subject, click here.) The DIY Maker Culture refers to a mindset of self-sufficiency that is credited to Punk culture's production of zines & private recordings but that now adds the dimension of new technologies like 3-D printing & robotics. (Sorry if I'm over explaining but I knew none of this pre-event...)

Among the speakers was Tom Igoe, the co-founder of Arduino,  a... yea, again, better I just quote... "single-board microcontroller designed to make the process of using electronics in multidisciplinary projects more accessible."  Since even just writing a blog is a technical challenge for me, I'm a little hard pressed to explain Arduino except to say that it has opened the doors for lots of artists to bring animation of light, movement, sound & sensors into their work.

After the panel, Anna, finding me in a blaze of fascination, remarked what half of me had been thinking, "What you could have done with the Cabinet if you'd known about Arduino!" And I replied what the other half of me was thinking, "Thank god, I didn't know about Arduino."


If I had known about Arduino...

I'd still be working on the bloody drawers & I would definitely want to put in microcontrollers so that  opening a drawer would trigger a video of one of the great Shanghai films to which I have just been introduced.  (Ha! Finally some visuals for those of you who hung in there thru all that tech talk!)

Like Labourer's Love from 1922, in which a fruit peddler falls for the daughter of a chinese medicine man. To win her father's approval, he must increase the father's business. His neighbors, upstairs, are driving him nuts with their carousing & their mahjong playing (an experience all too familiar from our own lane living!)  And so (spoiler alert!) he cuts thru the stair treads, the badmashers all come tumbling down, the doctor gets them as clients & the fruit peddler gets his girl...all with great sound effects!

Click here for the video.

In her recent lecture, "Shanghai on Film," Linda Johnson, the owner of Madame Mao's Dowry & a great collector of Chinese propaganda posters & High Communist era journalistic photography,
pulled together an amazing set of clips depicting Shanghai from the early days of film thru the 1990's.

Here's Linda's whole film list...(a few links to films online follow below...)

Linda did a fantastic job of illuminating a number of fascinating themes - how film stories were tied to prevailing political ideologies, how the modernity of the city was depicted in celebration and in shame, how prostitution acted as a metaphor for oppression. But the idea that really opened my eyes to Shanghai afresh was how the density & complexity of the living space in the lanes lends itself to street theater - one watching what one's neighbors are up to across the way as though a spectator at a [comedic] opera - and how cinematographers really used that theatricality of Shanghai's urban space to great advantage.

Here from "Street Angel," 1937, across the space of the lane, a romance grows by bird song. The young girl is played by Zhou Xuan, whose famous voice creates the atmosphere of yearning and nostalgia in Wong Kar Wai's great film, In the Mood for Love (or check out drawer #6.7.)  I, of course, love this scene for its dormer window... (see drawers 2.7  & 2.3)

For the whole film, with English subtitles, click here. In her research, Linda discovered that the director,Yuan Muzhi, must have been really pleased with the sequence that plays behind the opening credits in "Street Angel" as he'd already used it earlier in his "Cityscape/Scenes from a City", 1935.  Though things like the wedding procession of the cross-eyed(!) bride & magic tricks with coins of Mexican silver are no longer to be seen in Shanghai, so many other things in the film - the neon lights, the bronze lions, the ear-cleaning - are entirely familiar to anyone living here 78 years later.

One of my favorite visual tropes from these Shanghai movies is the sectioning away of the facade of a lane house to reveal the occupants of the various floors, the camera panning from top story down to bottom as though on an elevator, documenting the diversity of economic and social classes.  Zheng Junli's 1949 classic, Crows & Sparrows, begins in the posh top floor apartment, where the rich wife of a corrupt government official awaits a potential buyer for the property. The camera pans past the floorboards down to the next lower floor, into the chaotic & lively family space of a happy food peddler, who sings raucously away as his wife stacks his merchandise; meanwhile, in the room across the way, the schoolteacher & his wife are anxiously setting all his subversive radical literature on fire (a great moment in which he slides the smoldering mess under the bed to appear not-so-innocently reading with his daughter just as the prospective buyer arrives...) Finally, on the ground floor in a small backroom, is the former landlord....who, judging by the expression on prospective buyer's face, is living in stinking squalor...& the smell must be pretty bad as Mr Buyer totally missed the smoke in flat 2B...

For the whole film, click here.

Hmmm, just occurs to me that all that stacking of types of occupants, divided by floors, is conceptually not too far off from 4 Related Objects sorted out into the Compartments of a Cabinet Drawer... one can't get very far away from oneself, can one.

If you are in China, you might as well save all these links until you're back in the Lands of Unblocked Youtube.

Because, after all, who needs the movies when the neighbors are no doubt up to something easily as amusing...


  1. thanks for compiling all the film info and clips. i look forward to sharing this post with others. . .. and the correlation between the lane houses and your cabinet is great! maybe there will be another cabinet in your future? or. . . something. . . . ?

  2. Thanks, Julie! Having had the thought, it really is a little tempting to do some sort of cabinet that has these little clips in it...