Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Drawer # 1.5 : Stripey Mops

Despite my endless fascination with the human condition, I find the day-to-day business of dealing with actual humans a bit exhausting. 

Maybe it's because I'm an introvert. Or maybe it's that, as a maker, I believe in the secret life of objects. Whatever it is, I'm always thrilled to encounter an object that I can antropomorphize. In my pre-China days, it was the overlooked architecture of factories and agro-industry: watertowers, dust collectors, grain dryers...

These days, it's the Stripey Mop. 

The ubiquitous stripey mop, made from T-shirt fabric, which you might know from trying to clear up a spill with a t-shirt, is really not a great absorbent material. But never mind, at less than a $1US you can't beat the price. And so they hang out everywhere, from the most local courtyard to the service closet at the poshest hotel. And if I see a good one, even though I know the neighbors will be gossiping about why the foreigner has yet another mop tied to the back of her bike, I can't resist adding to my collection.

Once, in very early days here, I saw an old man with all his mop-making paraphernalia spread out all around him on a street corner. Wood handles, various colors of t-shirt strips, plastic wrap for the initial attachment of strips to handle, binding wire to secure the mop's topknot all precisely lais out like in a diagram of the procedure. To his amusement, I stopped to watch for a while but, in a rush to elsewhere, took no pictures. Given the ubiquity of the mops, I expected to see the makers often. But I never have yet again, not once. It's always interesting that: that when you are new to a place, a tourist, the place sometimes opens up to you in a way that it won't again once it has absorbed you.

                                     The View in Fragments: Mops, 2011
                                                 Mixed media in glass vitrine, 8.5 x 12.75 x 6.25
                                                 Courtesy Bruno David Gallery 
                                                 Photo credit all above: Bruno David 
                                                 Photos below: mine from the industrial sweeping supply shop. Note bamboo broom in use.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Drawer # 3.2: Double Happiness

Wouldn't want St Valentine, the Patron Saint of "affianced couples, bee keepers, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, happy marriages, love, plague, travelers, & young people" to get trumped by the God of Wealth so it's Double Up today... 

When you take the Chinese character for happiness (xi 喜), and you make it a couple, you get Double Happiness, (shuangxi 囍), the fabulously popular character associated with weddings & harmonious coupledom (& a certain brand of cigarettes & a million commercial products...) 

And because hǎoshì yào chéng shuāng 好事要成双 happiness comes in twos...

Chopstick holders from the most famous of Beijing Duck restaurants. Never mind that you are there to eat them,  mandarin ducks, thought to mate for life, are symbols of fidelity & lifelong love.

Somehow it wouldn't be a cabinet of curiosities if it didn't have a few shells. These are a little bit of a cheat on the China theme: these two (& just these two!) were found on the beach during our honeymoon in Thailand.

Debris from a favorite exploding thing, a long tube that when triggered spews out these bits of  tissue & foil & cellophane Double Happinesses. At weddings definitely but really any excuse is will do...

Full drawer photo credit: Bruno David

Drawer # 5.2 : Money & the chaos of memory

photo credit: Lisa Movius

We lay awake for hours last night, cloaked in a barrage of firepower, as the city hailed, on the 5th day of Spring Festival, the arrival of the God of Wealth. Though there were some spectacular fire blooms in the sky, on Money Night, it's all about the NoISE, noise, NOiSe, NOISE.

On the other end of the spectrum of seismic disturbance, are the moments preserved in the money drawer. Curiously packaged change handed over by taxi drivers; a coin flipped by the shop ladies at the corner convenience store to prove it counterfeit by the sound of its landing & the iron rust crawl under its silver surface (though the economics of manufacturing costs vs. just-over-6-cents purchase power elude me); jin mao/the golden cat, the Money Cat, beckoning silently at the back to draw in luck & fortune; a rubbing of Chairman Mao...

The largest paper bill in China is the 100RMB note, about $6.20US now, down from the $8 it was worth when we first arrived. In those days, banking was still pretty rare here - even the US/China joint-venture that He-Whom-I'm-Trailing was running, operated on a cash economy & it was the norm for a person purchasing a flat or a house to arrive with a suitcase or two full of 100 RMB notes. Consider  $150,000 in $10 bills. Consider walking around a US city with that much cash in hand.

There must be a good market in counterfeiting, anyway, as the 100RMB note with its portrait of Mao Tse Tung has dozens of secret detections built into it, including an invisible watermark also of the Chairman's visage. Pay with a Chairman Mao & the shop girl with hold it up to the light, examine it at great length from several angles until satisfied that it is safe to add to the cash drawer. A series of gestures once mimicked by a visiting colleague of ours, on receiving 100 RMB change from the shop girl, to great general hilarity.

One unusual day, instead of the scripted choreography, the girl grabbed a scrap receipt lying on the counter. In the blink of an eye, she'd placed the receipt over the 100RMB note, rubbed a coin across the slip of paper & there, to my great amazement, appeared, like Christ on the Shroud of Turin, Chairman Mao. Before she had a chance, I swept the receipt into my pocket.

"Every passion borders on chaos, that of the collector on the chaos of memory," wrote Walter Benjamin while unpacking his library. It's these entirely miniscule moments that make up one's existence, moments at once utterly absurd & truly miraculous, and so easily lost into the myriad of details that make up a lifetime. There, in that moment of the revelation of the Chairman, the vague notion of the Cabinet suddenly coalesced into a collection of the fleeting.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Things That Don't Fit in a Drawer #4: The Big Bang

We were warned, when we first arrived in Shanghai, to get out of town for Spring Festival:
it's what ex-pats were meant to do for the ten day long break from work. And so we did, joining the 225 million people who, during the holiday, reverse the migration pattern that brings workers from their rural villages, their "laojia," to the urban centers.

A few years in, we just couldn't face the frenetic airport/railroad scramble of that exodus & decided to see just how dire it really was to stay in town...

As the city emptied, the streets became eerily quiet. Unimaginably, capitalist enterprise utterly shut down... well, except for the fruit vendors doing a hopping business in the oranges that are the requisite host gifts (today's homophone: good luck.) Negligible car traffic.

And explosive noise! Wild ecstatic primal noise! For hours at a stretch & for days on end! We loved it.

So, ever since, on New Year's Eve, we can be found on the 18th floor balcony of a friend's apartment.

But this year's celebrations seemed a little quieter than usual, the "smoke flowers" a little skimpier. There's a lot of attention in the english-language press about the new government's attempts to curtail extravagance:  large banquets have been banned, luxury watch sales are down severely (details here on Evan Osnos' great "Letter from China" blog) & the Propaganda officials want it known that the new President, Xi Jingpin, has cut his menu down to a modest "six dishes and one soup." 

Could it be that in the past there was extravagant spending on New Year's Eve explosives by a certain Party, speculates our posse on the 18th floor. 

Here it is in all it's glory, shot from that balcony several years back by Artist Kurt Perschke (of the wonderful globe trotting Red Ball Project.) Just 1 single minute out of several hours of pure unmitigated ecstatic profligate extravagance...


And from this year, a view on the frontlines:

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Things that Don't Fit in a Drawer #3: Sounds like Fish


Seems just yesterday I was posting about signs of winter & here they are already, the signs of Spring. Or at least of Spring Festival as, entirely unusually, it is snowing today in Shanghai.

Gigantic fishes, splayed flat and dehydrated  - some as long as 6' - hanging in formation in the market streets, chickens & sausages & mysterious pork parts suspended outside windows & from the bamboo poles of the neighbors' clothes racks. The first winter we lived here I watch with horror as the strung-up chicken of our neighbor turned blacker & blacker over the course of several weeks, then mysterious donned a newspaper cape for several more. Now I know that chicken as the Iberico Ham of Shanghai. (Though I'm still sort of glad not to be invited for dinner given the particle pollutant count around here...)

年年有余 Nian Nian You Yu is the New Year's blessing that accompanies the fishes. In my bad Chinese, that means Year Year Have Fish. But the sound of Yu/Fish is also the sound of Yu/Abundance or Surplus. And so I wish you: May every year be abundant. May every year there be extra.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Drawer #1.4: Chinese Zodiac Animals

Even though Chinese New Year isn't until Feb 10th, the Year of the Black Snake begins today. It's a mystery how that works but that's par for the course.

We arrived in Shanghai in the year of the Monkey but the whole Chinese "zodiac" thing, the Shengxiao, (生肖)didn't really get on my radar until the following New Years's, when my Chinese teacher gave me  a set of postcards with papercuts for the Year of  the Rooster.

The next year was the year of my animal, the Dog. You might think, like I did, that the year your animal rules, you'd rule too. Not so. In fact, that's the year when things are most likely go askew for you & dangers lurk. I learned this the hard way: when the ladder to our top floor slipped out from under me, leaving me dazed for the next 4 months, everyone said knowingly, "oh, it's because you're a Dog." Only then did I learn that I should have been wearing protection. As in: red underwear.

I'm not making this up, people: by this time next week I'll now exactly which of my neighbors is a Snake by what's on their clothesline. No secrets here in the lane.

By the time the Year of the Pig rolled in, I was firmly sucked into the Chinese New Year kitsch market.

And when He-Whom-I'm Trailing's animal, the Rat took over the following year, we were fully armed & prepared: a drawer full of red underwear emblazoned with giant gold good fortune characters & a neck amulet bought in Hong Kong by the mother of a friend who knows about these things. A cow charm on a red string: all the decoy needed for spirits to go looking elsewhere to ruin a Rat's day. (Zig-zag bridges, foot high door jams, decoy charms... it's good to know that one's demons are so easily out smarted, says He-Whom-I'm-Trailing. One can imagine them all slamming themselves around like a bunch of Wile E. Coyotes.)

Next up was the Ox, carrying a sack of wealth, inscribed with the Fu of good fortune.

Fu is everywhere this time of year, often up-side down. That way, when you spot it  & say, in Chinese, "Fu is upside down" you are also saying "Good Fortune has arrived" as upside-down and arrived sound exactly alike in Mandarin. Which might also explain why I'm always a little turned around round here....

And so the twelve year cycle continues, each Animal ruling in the order in which it won the mythic Great Race: Rat, that cheater, conning the Cat out of participating & hitching a ride on the unsuspecting Ox, diving in to race to shore in the final stretch; Dog distracted, despite being a great swimmer, coming in almost dead last... (See The Rematch staged amuzingly last year in Zhujiajiao by American artist Duke Riley for SmART Power.) The years go by: Tiger, then Rabbit, then Dragon & now Snake.

We came to China thinking we'd be here two, maybe three years.... it's nine now. I'm saying that I'm not staying into the next cycle. I'm getting out before it's Monkey's turn again...but the Animals might have other plans...

Friday, February 1, 2013

Virtual Drawer #2 : Ghost circles

After a very long hiatus... family & holidays on both coasts... jet lag & re-entry... I return to the time when I left off... Dongzhi, the "arrival of winter" in Shanghai.

In the days leading up to, and on the evening of, the winter solstice, chalk circles appear, drawn on the pavement that runs down the center of our lane. These circles, unlike those for the dead, have escape routes: sometimes the clean open channel, sometimes the odd little gate like the one on the bottom left. Joss, an offering to family ancestors, is burnt inside the circle, then its ash remains swept up. I rarely see anyone actually drawing these so when I step out of our front gate & find them in the lane, they seem to me to be the work of spirits. It's hard to follow the seasons in Shanghai like I might at home, by watching the changes that nature brings. Here it's man-made signs that year in and year out announce the arrival of winter: these ghost circles, the lovely drifting scent on the air of a street vendor's sweet potatoes roasting in his portable 50 gallon drum oven...