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.