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...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Drawer # 7.5: Pink String

Drawer 7.5 celebrates the hardest-working & most humble member of the Shanghai Material Goods Society, one of my very favorite Shanghai things: the ubiquitous Pink Plastic String. To be found for sale everywhere, in every hardware, stationary, housewares, you-name-it shop.

But, apparently, so much a part of the texture of the city that in my entire archive of photos, there's only the above two records of its existence. But, trust me, it's everywhere and it's used for everything.

Bundling up parcels, precious & scrap...

Stringing things up ...

(Cheating a bit re: pink on the far right but it's such an inspired use of plastic string!)


For additional "native" chair repairs, check out Photographer Michael Wolf's "Bastard Chairs."
The pink is sometimes coral (as in the drawer) which marks its quality as a bit dicer than that of the purer translucent pink. It can also, sometimes, just very, very occasionally, be found in delightfully bright green...

(No doubt this, my favorite product, is made of recycled plastic in some ferociously polluting/health-damaging way. Check out Journalist Adam Minter's Shanghai Scrap blog for a fascinating & horrifying look at the Chinese recycling industry: shredded reds here & fields of grey there. But it really is just about the only packing string you can buy...)

I hated pink, as a child, especially pastel-ly girl pink; I thought it a totally sissy color...maybe it was on principle, or maybe, it was early aesthetics as I thought pale blue was pretty yucky too. It wasn't until deep adulthood, when I became fast friends with a two year old who wouldn't wear anything but, that I really started to appreciate pink's special glow. Here in China, pink matches everything & itself in all its own varieties, doesn't have any gender connotations, & men wear it freely...but still, I kinda love that it's girly pink that's doing the yeomen's job of tethering Shanghai to itself.
Photo credit above: Bruno David; all others: Christina Shmigel
From the top: 1. Coral Pink string with that other hard Shanghai worker, the blue plastic hose  2. Coral pink string        3. Pink string: you can never have too much  4. Random bits of plastic string collected on the street. All the compartments are lined with Chinese brocades: this was the  first drawer in which I understood how to use them in a more collaged sort of way...

Friday, June 7, 2013

Things That Don't Fit in a Drawer #7: Color, Charity, Community

So absorbed am I in trying to complete the knitted blanket I'm working on, it's proving hard to think about anything other than color.

Here's the thing in progress, an insanity, a riot, of intense, disparate, discordant color (doubled, below, by a b&w shot as I try to understand about color "values"...)

The "squares"of my blanket are knitted by various hands in various wools by the international group of women that are the Shanghai Guild, a "knit-for-community-outreach group." The guild's site is down for the moment ( but you can get a great sense of the Guild's work from posts on the very entertaining & photo-rich blog of Kathy Pauli, who very graciously hosts the guild members at her lane house every Thursday afternoon. Kathy does a heroic job of gathering wool (literally), storing materials & made goods, distributing those goods to the various causes the guild supports & traveling to far-flung places to see the work those causes do, be it building libraries or funding heart surgeries.

The Guild was founded in SH over ten years ago by another prodigiously kind-hearted ex-pat, Sue Ferry. Twice a week, Sue would transform her dining room into a community center: on Tuesdays, by laying out her dining room table with sewing machines for quilting, & on Thursdays, by getting rid of the dining room table to create a circle of chairs for knitters. Walking into this room, you could find solutions to all your practical dilemmas & sympathy all around for your cultural ones. Finding Sue, & the community of makers she pulled together, saved my life in Shanghai. 

When Sue de-camped for London several years ago, we gave up the sewing machines. But we still had blankets to make for the Yi Minority girls living in the orphanages supported by the Jo Charles Foundation. And so, we were inspired to making knitted patchwork blankets. 

The format allows knitters & crocheters of all levels to contribute by making 24 cm/10" squares (not everyone gets the instructions exactly right...) & allows those of us with other ambitions to figure out how to bring all those random squares into some kind of coherent whole. Our hope in sending these blankets to these abandoned girls was that they might have something of their own, something warm & unique, & that they might feel that somewhere out there, there are strangers who wish for their well-being.

Via Kathy Pauli Photo credit: Kathy Pauli
For my current blanket, sucker for complexity that I am, I gathered up a batch of awkward squares, misfits by color & size & shape. I set the rule that I would work only with available squares; where there were gaps between squares, I'd knit patches only with whatever scrap yarn I had on hand.  

Which rules have given me a challenging immersion in color theory, something I haven't thought much about since my freshman year at RISD...which I am now re-living with David Hornung's Color: A Workshop for Artists & Designers.  I mean, I can't even name some of the colors I'm working with (but the amazing color cloud can...) 

Of course, I'm working on this intuitively but still I wonder about things like, why sometimes the "wrong" hue (as in the brightest...lime green? leaf green? yellow-green?......) works better than a more analogous color (say, another pink)... The answer seems to be a similar level of saturation. But I didn't even have those terms fixed in place before studying up in Hornung's book...

Detail of Helen's flower be-decked blanket. Photo credit: Kathy Pauli
Many of these bright squares I'm working with now came from knitters in Taiwan. I've often piece together cheerful quilts out of the colorful squares made by another Sue, a lovely maternal-warm woman from India. On my last visit with the Guild, two crack-whip knitters, Fiona from England & Helen from New Zealand, were contentedly putting together a quilt of Fiona's squares, knit in the muted colors of an English seascape with a heathery grey violet mixed in for what Fiona felt was a bit of a "splash-out" of wild color.

I've been pondering how this comes about, the taste for color, whether there are "national" color senses, color palettes particular to place I'm hard pressed to explain to Chinese friends why the highly saturated, near fluorescent palette I see here in Shanghai is so different from an American one,. Except to say, that the wash basins & dust pans at my local Walmart in St Louis come in insipid chalky pale blues & beiges & baby pinks, never translucent hot pink or salmon or coral. Ha! In fact, here they are in my box of gouaches: light chinese green, oriental red deep, bengal rose-lake, english green dark, chinese orange...

It suddenly reminds me of an Indian friend in Rajasthan, some thirty years ago, warning me away from buying heaps of luminous mango-yellow-orange & pulsing pink-violet fabrics. While those colors glow so seductively in the light of the setting sun in India, he said from sad experience, they will merely glare vulgarly once they are moved to the cooler light of America.... 

You painters out there, any thoughts? 

By the way, you don't have to be an orphan to own one of the Guild's blankets. Recently, the Guild has dedicated itself to raising the money needed to sponsor heart surgeries for poor children thru Heart-to-Heart. A single surgery to repair a hole in a child's hear costs 25,000 RM (about $4000 US.)  For a premium donation to the Guild of 3000RMB (around $500 US) you can chose from among the most complex (i.e. labor intensive) blankets; for a donation of 1500 RMB ($245), you can choose from an array of simpler designs. We've already funded one baby! Here's she is successfully post-op in one of our blankets:

Please help us fund another child! If you'd like a blanket, there are some available at Santa Cecilia Music Cafe in Shanghai. Or you can contact me or Kathy thru the blogs. 

If you are looking for other opportunities to find community & serve a good cause, check out this guide to SH charities.

And please, do send your thoughts about color & color palettes!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Virtual Drawer #6: Shanghai Colorways

So I mentioned that I'm in reclusion with color lately...

Clockwise from top left: 1. Coils of  large plastic tubing for I know not what 2. my neighbor's bedsheets hanging below my bedroom window (personal space much?) 3. stacks of plastic tubs  (one of my favorite stripey sights)  4. the bench on our subway line  (line 10) , dubbed by the Shanghai architect/tour guide Spencer Dodington, as the LL line,  the "Lovely Lavender Laowai Line." (Laowai means foreigner & this particular line, passing as it does thru many neighborhoods favored by laowais, seems to carry an disproportionate number of us,) The red part is the "courtesy seat." In a city where commity is often lacking, people are really very conscientious about giving it up for those in need.