Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Drawer # 6.6 : Auspicious Phone Numbers

These days we pre-pay minutes by plugging our phone numbers into a credit card processing type of widget at our local convenience store. But it used to be that we needed to buy phone cards and so we’d head to the shops festooned with hand-painted lists of phone numbers. My preferred shop was not much more than a hole in the wall, its assortment of local & international (IP) phone cards displayed in a glass case, out front, on the sidewalk. The phone cards listed long strings of numbers, all of which had to be entered into the phone, with various press 1’s & press 2’s, instructions all in chinese. I relied heavily on the kindness of the phone card seller to get me thru this task; while he plugged away on my phone, I pondered the aesthetics of the painted lists.

Across the street from my shop was another, also covered in phone number paintings and a street or two further away was “phone number street,” its every facade bedecked in phone number paintings: long lists of cell phone numbers, the occasional number crossed out or checked, always drawn by brush in red paint with blue, sometimes black, embellishment, always arranged schematically in rows & columns in accordance with some established convention.  

Besides phone card sales, the business of these shops was a bit of a mystery to me. Why you would buy your phone number there rather than at one of the two phone companies, I didn’t know. Why were only one or two numbers crossed out or checked? Who actually knew what those few marks recorded: the signs never changed over time, no additional checks or crossings out from one visit to the next. And why would you make 150 0085 8588 your entryway number? (Though, admittedly, it's rather magical with its rhymes & symmetries.)

I never thought to ask; I just worked up an explanation to suit myself. Tying the Chinese penchant for numerology to the signs’ wealth of auspicious 8's & 9’s & 5’s and dearth of foreboding 4’s - go ahead, count ‘em - I concluded that they must be… Auspicious Phone Numbers! Since I never asked, no one told me different: Auspicious Phone Number Paintings they were & shall remain. Sometimes the imaginative flight is so much more satisfying than the plain truth.

I studied the patterns & the scripts endlessly, admired the fluidity of the vernacular Jasper Johns’ brushwork, pondered their organizational systems. The signs as paintings were a wonder to me, each individual sign on the verge of revealing something of its painter’s character. But what really sent me was what the paintings did to disorient the spaces they occupied. A different artist than me, one of greater energy & audacity perhaps, might have dismantled the best display (the one where they also made keys?) & simply re-installed it somewhere to great acclaim. 

Alas, not being that artist, I, instead, shrunk those spaces into the drawers of the cabinet. And then later, expanded them again, into glass vitrines. By virtue of which mimicry, I came to admire the signmakers yet more.

"The View in Fragments: Auspicious Numbers"  Cardboard, milk paint, glass vitrine, 13.5 x 14.25 x 9" Collection of
M-Restaurant Group, Shanghai. On view at Glam, Shanghai.

The newly arrived often say to me how much change I must have seen in SH in my time here. Now I get the dazed look that I saw on the faces of the “old china hands" to whom I had made the comment on my arrival. The changes have been huge, of course, but also, so continuous, so incremental that one can be hard pressed to quantify them. 

Back when my archiving began, locals, Chinese and foreigners alike, easily recognized the contents of the drawers and laughed at their nostalgic familiarity. Now, ten years later, there are things in the drawers that the newbies can’t recognize because those things don’t exist in the Shanghai anymore. 

The auspicious phone number shops are now all gone.

Before: My IP man.* (see below.)          After: The Q that replaced the auspicious numbers shop. 

I don’t know what my phone seller thinks of having moved in from the curb to the antiseptic, climate-controlled environment of the Q. Probably he’s glad to be part of the great Chinese accomplishment of pulling millions out of poverty into, at the very least, a modest middle class-ness. There’s no arguing with that. But me, I miss the liveliness of the street, the paintings with their telling scripts, the quirky spaces that evolved out of their owners’ needs & ingenuity, all those small moments of individual expression.

A Chinese friend describes spaces as "organized' & "not so organized." On the left,  the corner of the fruit & phone card sellers on Shan Yin Lu back in the days of  "not so organized"; on the right, same corner post-organizing. Better or worse?

In the end, I don’t think my miniature versions really capture much of what I loved about the Auspicious Phone Number shops. It turned out that the dizzying spatial effect of the number paintings requires a full-bodied scale and that the combination of chaos & order that is the street eluded me. What’s left in the drawers is maybe like the transcription of a lost language as rendered by the last remaining non-native speaker but, if only for me, it gives a bit of immortality to the anonymous sign painters & display constructors, recording & preserving just a trace of the endeavors that once gave me so much to admire.

*Re the IP man:
 Inside the shop , maybe 5x7',  were sodas for sale & a tiny side room in which the man's wife cooked. Their little boy sat on a small chair inside the shop at tiny card table that served as his desk & their dining table. A ladder led from the tiny room up to a sleeping space. We were almost the only foreigners in the 'hood then: the man, off to somewhere on his electric bike, gleefully waved if he buzzed by me like he'd spotted a favorite stray cat. One day, just back from the States,  I found the small shop transformed into a Q, a chain convenience store. When I went in & congratulated the IP man, he didn't much respond. Apparently, there's still some market for phone cards, as his old case is now just inside the doorway (you can see the IP behind the bike wheel in the photo.) The pitched roof above the Q sign is the space that was the bedroom for the old shop; perhaps it still is...

From the top: 1. Collection of IP cards for international calling 2-4. Variations on a theme...
Photo credits: Vitrine & full drawer: Bruno David; all others are mine. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Drawer #7.3: Mop Knobs Tutorial

So here’s how it goes if you are me: you’re planning just a quick simple post - a visual ode to the humble stripy mop - sparked by something you’ve heard on the “radio,” (1) which leads you to thinking of a certain Chinese artist’s Mop (2) and when you look him up, you find his planning drawing (3) which leads you to wondering: exactly how are those mop knobs made anyway? (4) which leads to taking one apart (5, 6, 7) and which then - you can’t very well leave it undone, 
can you - is harder to reassemble than expected…and so on until the afternoon is done & the post is not.

1. The spark, a story from Adam Gopnik as told to On Being's Krista Tippett:
John Updike was once asked why — for an ad, I think, like a whiskey ad or some crazy thing — why are we here? Why do we live? Sounds like a ridiculous question, but he had an instant answer for it. He said, “We’re here to give praise.”  We’re here to give praise.
2.  Black Broom, 2000, by Chen Zhen, a Chinese artist from the 90's, drawn to the same sorts of humble objects that I love - street chairs, mops, t-shirts - but who infused them with great scale & explosive energy, creating exuberant, life-affirming installations…and sadly, passed away too young.

Chen Zhen images via design boom
3. Chen Zhen’s drawing for Black Broom depicting how the mop “strings,” attached at the top in the direction of the mop handle, are flipped over - like a chignon! - to form the mop knob.

4. But that, as it turns out, is not how the real mop is constructed.

5. Mop dissection shows that the strips of stripy t-shirt material are actually laid in both directions from the end of the handle. It’s the strips laid along the handle that make the mop full & dense; use Chen Zhen’s drawing as a guide, you end up with a very stingy mop.

6. A thick band of an alternate fabric, folded on itself & wrapped around the intersection of the two sets of strips, is nailed in four places into the pole. This is the part where you wonder what tools the maker had at hand: it’s a right pain getting that cruddy nail to pierce thru all those t-shirts layers & then it all bounces back as there’s no hard resist on the opposite side of the handle…

7. And then, stripy strips in place, you flip, and voilá, the chignon/knob! Wrapped twice around with…ha! aluminum wire! So there’s no rust! (You are probably bored to tears by now, but me, I am so pleased to discover this detail…)

The great John McPhee, in his wonderful essay, Writing By Omission, makes the argument for putting less than the writer knows into an essay, leaving more “white space” for you, the reader. I’m here to say that I did leave a few things out - the man occupying a street corner, all his mop-making supplies laid out on the ground beside him (but you can read about him here), and the university student w a mop on his head (who is here.) 

From "The View in Fragments," the Stripy Mops vitrine. Shmigel 2011,  Mixed media, 8.5 x 12.5 x 6.25"
Photo: Bruno David
But what I still must tell is what I realized while writing: that I need to turn one of the knobs in the drawer on its side; while the stripes & colors give me great pleasure, it’s the knobs that really make me love these mops.  

Quietly handmade, crafted where so little here is, crafted just to the level they need to perform their function, therefore elegant but entirely humble. And ubiquitous: in the entryway of every household goods store, & there must be at least one to a street, over stacks of bad-quality plastic bins & all matter of cheaply manufactured goods, there they are, reminding me of some one individual maker, some “fellow traveler” out there working away by hand.

So there you have it. If you are me, your sense of life purpose is confirmed & renewed: we are here to give praise. 

Photo: Bruno David
Drawer 7.3 from top:
1. Mop knob, bought in a cranky old neighborhood in the north of the city, at Qiqiuha’er Lu,
irresistible during lunch break from an project planning meeting at an architecture studio 
2. Medicine tin (see post on TCM 
3. The rest of the mop #1
4. Another irresistible mop due to classic pink & orange color scheme, from a shop on Jixiang Lu,
just around the corner from home & a bit of found wire, one part I always pick up scrap metal bits on  the street, one part homage to Henrik Drescher's Nervenet

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Drawer #3.4: Our Founder or the Laoban Brand

A miasma, according to the dictionary, is "a poisonous atmosphere formerly thought to rise from swamps and putrid matter and cause disease" and today Shanghai is wrapped in one. My lungs hurt and my head is thick. I’m hacking like a local. 

I duck into the closest Family Mart to pick up some lozenges & there's the Ricola right next to the cash register. But no, I think, what I really need is “Golden Throat.” A box of which I find in the rack of chinese remedies across the way. I’m a little shocked, a little stricken even, to realize that my preferred brand of throat lozenge is a local one. It might be a sign that I have been here too long, that I’ve actually acculturated.

At least I think it’s the Golden Throat Dule Lozenge [sic] but the little portrait photo on the box is All Wrong. 

Who’s this woman? What’s become of the black & white guy, the one with the comb-over, whom I've come to trust as the almighty reliever of cold misery? My suspicion-wrought-by-fakes meter kicks in: maybe it’s not Golden Throat at all but an imitation, an ineffective pirated version. But, on close inspection, the colors of the box, the [entirely un-soothing] moire striping of green & yellow & blue & white, seem exactly familiar & so I purchase the box. Inside the box, in the gold foil wrapper, the lozenges are in hermetically-sealed packaging rather than in their former sticky glob but the old soothing vapor is still the same & my hacking subsides…

Once, in my first months in Shanghai, I bought some vials of lord-knows-what for their stripy packaging & the grainy pokerface portrait that graced them. “Who’s this guy?” I asked a friend, thinking I’d learn of some cultural icon, some Chinese Betty Crocker or Quaker Oats guy.  But no, after scrutinizing the portrait, the friend handed back the container & shrugged, “Lao ban." (老板.) 

Lao ban is the Chinese word for boss and/or proprietor and also the title by which you address said person. It's a word you learn early on & use all the time: is the laoban here? Laoban, how much does this cost? Lao 老 is the word for old but in an honorific sense: if you, in your transaction with the laoban, are the lao pengyou (老朋友/the old friend), you get a sweeter deal. 

If it’s a woman boss, like our new Golden Throat chickie, she’s a lao ban niang/老板娘. Sometimes - it comes with another twinge of shock - I overhear our driver referring to me as the lao ban niang.

There’s a portrait of another lao ban niang on the awning of a restaurant that's on my bike route.

                      Before                                             After

I think of her as the Lao ban niang of Pig Sty Alley before she let herself go, maybe when she was just beginning the training that transformed her into the ferocious Kung Fu Mistress of Steven Chow’s hilarious send-up, KungFu Hustle. 

The force of that lao ban niang’s “lion’s roar” can bring her whole neighborhood to a stand still & she’s hell on her meek little husband.  [Spoiler alert: she's secretly one of the Good Guys.]

My chest’s feeling a little clearer after a few dule (?) lozenges but my stomach’s a little queazy. Maybe it's just Pig Sty Alley on my mind, but what’s the Golden Throat lao ban niang done with the lao ban? A hostile takeover? Or something even more nefarious?  And this, ladies & germs, is how the Cabinet turns into Historical Record: for soon maybe no one will even remember the Lao ban with his big forehead & his aviator glasses. Soon even I might think I made him up. But here he’ll be in the drawer of Lao ban Brands, preserved for however long plastic foil might last… (oh but why ever didn't I save the box?!?)

Drawer 3.4 from the top: 

1. You know, I still have no idea what these are: shreds of something jerky-like that tastes vaguely licorice-y, vaguely sweet, vaguely salty...The large character on black background is tian meaning heaven which these are not exactly. Yo! Late breaking news! I just read/translated the characters for the very first time in 12 years (I am sooo slow!!) : wu hua guo gan. Dry fig!! 

2. Also no idea but it's here for the poetic look of the laoban with his classic chinese round eyeglass frames (known at our house as "PuYi style" after the ones worn by the last emperor of China.) The back of the box is graced with little "putti," a very un-Chinese image. Manufactured in Hong Kong so the characters are written in traditional Chinese characters, not the simplified ones used on the Mainland. 

3. My man, Laoban Golden Throat, may he rest in peace. 

4. Close-up of the portrait in #1: why would something that looks like a mug shot of the Cambodians done away by Pol-Pot seem like a enticing sales pitch?        

Photos: Full drawer, Bruno David; all others are mine.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Things that Don't Fit in a Drawer #12: To Give or Not to Give Up

In the days of old, when He-Whom-I'm-Trailing & I first lived in Shanghai, before Skype & pre- weChat, in order to make an international call, we needed something called an IP card.

The IP Card gave you a super long string of numbers that you had to punched in to your phone in order to access an international line. Somewhere in the course of the sequence of numbers, you inevitably screwed up which meant you had to punch that whole incredibly long set of numbers, sometimes several times, before you finally got a [crackly] line thru to the States. It could drive you nuts. If you needed help in [so-called] English, the IP card gave a number for that too. That help number gave you two options: you could "press 1" to hear...umm... something not quite intelligible... Or, you could "press 2 to give up."

Which also became the code for "having a really bad china day."


So, yesterday, on the street, I tried to decipher the meaning of this t-shirt ... If it's advertising a help line, then, painfully, the phone number is one digit too long.

You might as well "press 2."

Which is the gallows humor way around to the real point of this post: to say how proud I am of two "Everyday Heroes" who are putting their time in on Not Giving Up On Yourself: my nephew, Tim Shmigel, who raised $41,000AUS to date for Lifeline, an Australian crisis support and suicide prevention organization, by walking 6000 kilometers from the bottom to the top of Australia (and then biking back down to Sydney!) and my brother, Peter Shmigel, who has just taken on the challenge of growing Lifeline's outreach by becoming its CEO. Amazing beings, both of them!

Tim's goal is to raise $60,000 so, if you've the inclination to help, here's the donation link: https://give.everydayhero.com/au/tim-56 Any size contribution is deeply appreciated!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Drawer #66: Pinwheels!

A video posted by @cshmigel on

The summer blew by without blogging but the Cabinet itself, in its new NC home, did not go unattended. After several years of only opening drawers digitally, it was interesting to re-install all the curiosities back in the drawers & give the whole project a good think.

There were several drawers that were empty when the cabinet shipped out in the late fall of 2010 and several small book projects that were meant to be in the drawers that never got done and a box of things in Shanghai that have been wanting to get into those empty drawers... & so that's what the next months are dedicated to as I get the Cabinet ready for a show opening April 1 in Washington D.C. at the Hillyer Art Space.

Along the bottom of the cabinet are 3 large drawers.

And  it occurred to me that one of them would be a good home for my Shanghai Daily book, seen below as installed in my first "chinese" show, Chinese Garden for the Delights of Roaming Afar, at Laumeier Sculpture Park back in 2005.

The book is a collection of articles & photos extracted from the Shanghai Daily, the government-run English language newspaper, the newspaper scraps taped into the study notebooks used here by school children. In my first years here, I loved reading the Shanghai Daily with its strange facts about things like the percentage of cookware at the market found to be faulty & the obstructive dangers of laundry displays & the doings of the Beijing Opera school (above) & moralizing editorials about visiting your elderly parents...I mean, with all that is going on the world these days, how can you not love "Chicken & Chatting prove keys for long life" from today's edition:

I also loved the little notebooks I taped my selections into, with their retro-futuristic covers (as Shanghai's urban philosopher, Anna Greenspan, might call them) and their interior pages gridded & lined in various ways appropriate to their subject.

Eventually, I bound all the little notebooks together into a satisfyingly chunky paperback.

Traditionally, Chinese books are soft-covered with stab bindings. Their profiles are relatively slim, perhaps 1/2- 3/4" thick, which means that a long text might require several volumes. These volumes are then encased in a hard board case wrapper that leaves the top & bottom edges exposed. An example with just a single volume:

My friend Petra Johnson has been making great use of this format to document her Walk With Me project & she graciously took me along to the Chinese Art supply store on Fuzhou Lu where she has her cases made. Not only did they make a beautiful wrapper for the Shanghai Daily book - though it must have been mystifying why one would put a beautifully crafted case around such a mess of a book! - they also sold the kinds of papers I'd been looking for when I first started lining the drawers...Not being able to locate those papers then, I resorted to chinese brocades with their acidy bright colors & I suppose it was for the best...they certainly put the noise & the flash, the neon, into the cabinet in a way these papers wouldn't have.  As seen below: the original version of Drawer 66 on the left & the new drawer in progress with the encased book & new papers on the right...

But those violet sequins are going to have to go somewhere; they are just too luscious!