Saturday, December 19, 2009

An Exciting Day in Twitter-Guo

Yesterday was a bit slow at the office, so I had time to do some playing on the internet. The internet, of course, is never short on fun little distractions, but the real action yesterday was in what I call Twitter-Guo, aka the Chinese side of twitterland.

Twitter has of course been blocked in China for many months, but it’s not really that hard to get past the great firewall. Though twitter lost quite a few Chinese users after the block, there are still thousands of users in the mainland, and they’re a very lively bunch. Not surprisingly, these people are often quite politically aware, and there are many dissident types roaming about. They often use the service to spread the word about protests and human rights issues.

The events that took place in Twitter-Guo yesterday are a fine example of why the Chinese government is so scared of social media tools. Beifeng (north wind) is a very active blogger and commenter based in Guangzhou. He is also one of the original signatories of Charter 08 . He describes himself in his profile as an “Internet observer who is dedicated to breaking China’s stranglehold on information”. Oh, and he has nearly 12,000 people following his tweets. Since he only tweets in Chinese, it is a fair assumption that the majority of these followers are Chinese.

Yesterday, at roughly ten o’clock, he posted the following tweet: “The police are at the door, wait for further info”. He then promptly went silent. Then Chinese tweeters went nuts. Thousands of tweets went out, spreading the word of Beifeng’s predicament. Within the hour, he had a dedicated hashtag (#wych for his handle @wenyunchao). People were spreading word that his computer was confiscated, his phone was out of service, and that he may be facing arrest. His home address was posted, and people were being asked to show up there and start asking questions. This was apparently aimed at letting the police know that the community was watching. People also began downloading Beifeng’s profile picture and using it as their own. I’m not sure if that was intended as a show of solidarity, or a move to confuse the police. At one point, I was getting over 100 tweets a minute about the unfolding situation

Roughly two hours after the police arrived, Beifeng began posting again from an internet cafĂ©. He was okay. The police, who had identified themselves as “internet supervision police”, came under the pretense of checking for explosives as a security measure for the upcoming Asian Games, hosted by Guangzhou. They had seized his computer and phone, and he was now scrambling to change all of his passwords. The fact that politically-aware people scattered across the country can hear about such incidents in a matter of minutes is something that the Chinese government didn’t have to contend with even just a few years ago. The Guangzhou police were quite lucky that Beifeng was able to send out the all-clear before the Iranian Cyber Army’s hack attack shut down Twitter yesterday.

Much ink and blogspace has been dedicated to the power of social media services such as Twitter, and their role in political events such as the Iranian protest movement. There is no revolution going on in China, but Twitter-Guo is definitely changing the game. It is becoming part of exactly the kind of diverse and assertive civil society that keeps China’s leaders up at night. Frankly, if I was one of them, I’d probably block it too.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sausage Party

(note: pictures below)

For all of the city’s endowments, the Kunming cultural scene is surprisingly weak. Many of the great artists, musicians and innovators produced by the province are lured to the big cities of the east coast with its promise of wealth, fame, or just exposure to more kindred spirits. Fortunately, though, this trend seems to be reversing. The past few weeks have seen a slew of art shows, music events and other fun stuff taking place in the city of eternal spring.

I was fortunate to take part two weeks ago in one of my more favorite local events, the Kunming Creative Art Fair. In a way, our involvement represented the convergence of two of the most heartening trends I’ve seen here recently, boutique design and craft food.


Though Chinese contemporary artists have shaken the art world with their work, and Chinese manufacturing has reshaped the global economy, there’s always been one component that’s missing: an explosion of Chinese style and innovation. That’s the case, at least, if you don’t live in China.

If you do live in China, you might have noticed something different though. In the side streets of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and a dozen other Chinese cities, young people are finding a material way to express their new ways of life, making all kinds of crafts from handbags to clothes, jewelry, stationary and household accessories. This has been followed by a profusion of creative fairs and compartment shops. The former is a kind of periodical flea-market where likeminded people come together to display, barter and sell their unique wares. First held in Guangzhou, this event has enjoyed growing popularity, and they are now regularly held across the country. The latter, what I call the compartment store, is a kind of collective design boutique business model where a shop owner rents out small compartments along the wall to creative folks that lack the money or market to finance a whole brand roll-out.

Without this, despite a flood of consumer goods and an array of options that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, young people in China would really have a paucity of choice in terms of fashion. The other options are highly generic mass-produced Chinese clothes and accessories, or overpriced foreign brands that for complex tax and anti-piracy reasons, are manufactured in China, exported to the US, then shipped back to China for retail at exorbitant prices. Of course, you can always save a few bucks buying the knockoffs and “factory overruns”, but that only works if you want to dress like either Allen Iverson or Zhang the salaryman. Now, thanks to the compartment stores and creative fairs, all kinds of new styles are sprouting up, and they have a strong market to support them.

This trend is particularly strong in Yunnan, for a few reasons. First, Yunnan, especially Dali, is a kind of testing-ground for the Chinese version of the bohemian life. Slackers from across the country come down here and encounter new forms of music, cheap, laid-back lifestyles, and certain types of plants that became popular in the West in the ‘60’s. Secondly, they enjoy a wider market than most places, fueled by the tourists who come down to Yunnan and fall in love with the bohemian culture that blossoms here, bringing a piece of it home in the form of hemp handbags, tie-dye skirts and Tibetan-inspired jewelry. That brings me to the third factor at work; in Yunnan, conformity-oriented Han Chinese culture encounters the diverse artistic styles of Yunnan’s minorities, and exotic aesthetics flowing in from nearby South and Southeast Asia, usually in the bags of backpackers. This makes for a unique mix, and it’s actually had a strong influence over hipster culture across China (thanks, for better or worse, to tourism).


The other trend I mentioned was craft food. Yunnan is blessed with beautiful weather, and the mountainous topography has ensured that most agricultural operations are small. The great weather means wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, and the small operations lend themselves to experimentation. Recently, Yunnan has seen a rise in small organic farming operations, something which the foreigner scene and the traveler scene have started to put to use. We have less access down here to the luxurious imported food selections that well-heeled expats in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou enjoy, so we’ve always had to figure out how to make do on our own foodwise.

Now, one group of Kunming-based expats, Green Kunming, is arranging regular deliveries of fresh organic veggies. A foreign family in Dali is making excellent mozzarella and feta cheeses, as well as a range of foreign agricultural products such as raspberries, artichokes and lemons. The Bad Monkey Bar in Dali is starting to make some truly excellent western food. Phil Willson and I are making our own handmade sausages.

Sausages? The variety of available western fare in Kunming has been steadily increasing over the years, and the food at the cafes is getting better, but some key things have always been missing from the equation. I’ve always loved gourmet sausages, and that’s one thing you just can’t get here. I brought a few batches of foreign sausages back from Kunming last year, and we shared them at a barbecue. They were disappointing. Phil said to me, screw it, we should be making our own sausages. And that’s how we began our quest. It’s always fun scouring the Kunming markets for this or that, but this mission turned out to be more complicated than we expected. Though there are plenty of sausage makers in the city, they prefer the Chinese dried variety, which I find particularly dreadful. Also, none of them was willing to go through the trouble of finding proper skins for us, preferring instead to wrap them up in plastic. We found this unacceptable. Finally we found a street-vendor selling his own (albeit crappy) sausages, and Phil convinced him to help us make ours.

The first batch was, well, mediocre, but exciting. We had done it, and with a few tweaks, we’d be able to fatten ourselves up in no time. Word started getting around about our wacky little venture, and the requests, and advice, started pouring in.

Liu Lifen, a founding member of 943 Studio, which runs the Kunming Creative Fair at Nordica, was ecstatic. “We’ve been trying to get people to make food for the fair since it began, but no one ever does. Please come and sell your sausages!” So we loaded up my gas grill into a van, and made a massive 20 kilo batch of sausages, figuring we could eat any leftovers ourselves.


The creative fair was awesome, with all kinds of cool people creeping out of the woodwork. The Dali contingent came out in full force, bringing products, impromptu performances and a cool vibe. Locals scattered in boutique shops from across the city converged on the place, and plenty of people with nothing to sell just came to hang out. There was a lot of dancing and drumming, and even a graffiti wall by the gates of the loft. The festive atmosphere was no doubt fueled by our wonderful sausages. We were worried that 20 kilos was too much, but having almost completely sold out on the first day, we had to make another, even better batch of at least 15 kilos on the morning of the second day.


I’ve never been a street vendor before. Now I have a lot more respect for them. It’s tiring standing there and cooking all day, and dealing with change is a drag. But we had a blast talking to everybody, making them happy with our little segments of fatty goodness. Phil and I had help from Satchi Willson, his wife, and Georgia Xiong. Best of all, there was a real feeling of community, of kindred spirits coming together to do something for themselves. I don’t think I’ll ever try to make this sausage thing into a real business, but I’ll definitely be back for the next fair.

Musician Han Ying's handmade instruments and self-published album

Rongjie from the Bird Bar (Dali) struts her stuff

Music by the Dali crew. Han Ying at front

strangely, we didn't have a group picture taken. That's Satchi to my left

Graffitti wall

Phil behind the wheel. Notice the burning "fire" character behind him

Most of the photos are courtesy of Liu Lifen at 943 studio. Thanks!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Anything else would be uncivilized

I had an interesting encounter on the phone yesterday. A local magazine called to interview me about my thoughts on Kunming's latest push to "civilize" its citizens. Seriously. The city plans to engage almost all of its residents in civilization training courses, and has recently released what it calls the "civilization compact", which is actually a list of behaviors, such as spitting, pushing and cursing, that will now bring fines.
The party has been putting this word to some interesting uses recently. Walking around town, you see it everywhere, from billboards exhorting passersby to "construct civilization", to plaques asserting that such and such company is a "civilized work unit". There is a sign on a street corner that labels it a "civilization index observation point". But my all time favorite is posted over urinals in men's rooms around the country, saying "one small step closer to the urinal is one giant leap for civilization".
Anyway, the obviously inexperienced reporter wanted to know my take on the whole thing. I've dealt with a lot of Chinese reporters before, and I have learned the hard way to be very careful about what I say. Interviews such as these are hazardous, as they're almost never quoted verbatim, and the reporter is almost always interested in having you make sweeping, uninformed generalizations about China and your home country. You can select from the following possible outcomes: a) sound like a bigot, b) sound like a mindless pro-China running dog, or c) sound like a total idiot.
Here are some of the hard-hitting journalistic gems that were tossed my way: 
- In your opinion, how civilized is Kunming?
- How civilized is China compared to the United States?
- Which uncivilized behaviors in China annoy you the most?
- What do you think civilization training should focus on?
In the end I broke down and gave the reporter a bit of a lecture on civilization. We started with the distinction between "civilized" and "civilization", adjective and noun. Though people may say that certain actions such as spitting and cutting in line are "uncivilized", that has nothing to do with civilization. Civilization is a blossoming of high culture, literature, the arts, technology, etc that blossoms from complex societies. The only part any government can play in making that happen is provide a bit of order and then step aside and allow it to flourish. I also told her that in my humble opinion, Kunming is a rather civilized place. In fact, I just wrote an article in Yunnan Magazine about Kunming's outsized contributions to modern Chinese thought.
I went on for quite a while, but it all went in one ear and out the other. I'm actually a bit worried about how the interview is going to look when it hits the press.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What's Going on at 798?

There have been a lot of rumors flying around China about the collapse of the art market, mass gallery closings at 798 and other mayhem. I haven't been up to Beijing for a while, so I don't exactly know the details, but let's face it, the art market has taken a turn for the worse since the financial crisis. On the other hand, I think that rumors of the death of Chinese art are premature and far overblown. Here I'll try to shed a little light on the issue.

First, let's tackle the reasons behind this rumor. Obviously reason number 1 is that the Chinese contemporary art market has never faced a downturn before. For many years the art scene was hot but the market was not. That all changed in about 2003, when leading Chinese artists were holding exhibitions around the world, and they started to garner higher auction prices and attract big name collectors. Then, domestic Chinese investors, pockets full of hot money with nowhere to put it, started playing the game, and the market exploded. For a while it seemed that if any artist could reasonably argue Chinese heritage, he could add an extra zero or two on his pricetag. Now that this isn't the case, people are reasonably freaking out.

Reason number 2 is a lack of transparency. There are no publicly listed galleries out there, and many of them work on an almost exclusively cash basis. The only way to take a peek at the market is through the small, highly distorted lens of auction results, which represent but a fraction of the transactions going on. Auctions haven't been doing well recently.

Reason number 3 is the one that is feeding the mainstream rumor mill. Last year, when the market was full of euphoria, the 798 art district was chock full of galleries, and every weekend the place was mobbed with people. Galleries averaged a new show once a month, and even mediocre artists could expect a dozen group exhibition opportunities and three solo shows a year. Now the place is empty, new openings are rare (bad news for the free booze schmoozers), and a lot of places haven't been open for a while. So everyone who strolls through there says, gee, this place has tanked.

As an aside, there was a lot of badmouthing going on about 798 last year. People said it was too commercial, too simplistic and too noisy. Most of those accusations are correct, but I think most of the detractors were secretly (or subconsciously) angry that the place had made art so accessible to the public. The loudest complaints were heard from art communities way out in the outskirts of Beijing, impossible to find by outsiders. For political reasons, Chinese contemporary art did much of its development beyond the prying eyes of the public. I for one think that art should engage the broader public, but what do I know.

Back to the topic, what's really going on out there? To be frank, things are bad. One of China's most prominent private collectors put it to me this way: "basically, western collectors started buying, expecting a newly affluent China to one day pay top dollar to buy back all their art. Chinese collectors started buying in hopes that they could sell it to western collectors for lots of money. Now the music is stopped, and no one wants to foot the bill". There was a lot of speculating going on, and it was full of irrational expectations based on past performance. Back in the '80's, artists would sell great paintings for a few hundred dollars to pay the rent. Some of those paintings have garnered hundreds of thousands in recent auctions, with better specimens breaking the million dollar mark. Based on that expectation, the painting I spend several thousand dollars to buy from a mid-range artist today should be worth hundreds of millions in 2020. Seriously, guys, did you really stop to think this through?

So let's sift through what we actually know. Yes, galleries have closed, but it's impossible to tell which ones have gone kaput, and which ones have cancelled some exhibitions to cut costs. Of the ones I can confirm, the closed galleries were all either newcomers or just businessmen out for a quick buck. The real pros are still around. Second, auction prices are down, but they're not falling through the floor. This makes sense. Much of the auction heat was stoked by all the new money floating around, namely finance and natural resources. So it makes sense that auction prices have taken a hit.

But I still feel that all of the rumors are overblown. Writer Xia Yanguo broke it down pretty well in a recent article on artnow.cnHe brings up a point that many others have ignored - that winter is a really slow season anyway. I think that galleries are cutting costs, and taking an opportunity to give out all those vacations their employees piled up during the last two cutthroat years of 24 hour workdays. This mirrors my recent experience. All last year we were working at over 100% capacity to provide translation for our slice of the art market, and then saw a major slowdown after the first poor auction results in November, and an almost total halt at the end of the year. Then, like magic, my inbox began to fill up two weeks ago. One day, nothing, the next day, five new jobs. The galleries (luckily I deal with the serious ones) are all gearing up for spring season with its festivals, expos and spring auction offerings. 

So while I'm not totally optimistic about the 2009 season, I think things will be okay. Here's what I expect to see: less exuberance at the spring auctions, but also more conservative offerings; a weeding out of flighty speculators; a culling of the expos (way too many of those last year if you ask me); and finally, some more professionalism among galleries and collectors. China is and will continue to produce a lot of great art, but there was a bit too much in recent years. 

Some artists with good ideas simply made or sold too much of their work (seems Zeng Fanzhi dodged that bullet). Over-eager collectors jacked up prices for mediocre work, and allowed for a blossoming of the counterfeit trade. Some galleries, pumped up by seemingly limitless market demand, spent a lot of money on flash and not a lot of time cultivating their collectors or budding new artists. All of these people need to take a closer look at what they're doing, and hopefully a more professional class of art people will emerge.

So what am I looking forward to this year? I'm looking forward to a lot of things. One, I'm definitely planning on expanding my chunk of the market. Two, I'm hoping that all those Yunnan artists who flocked to Beijing in recent years will come back, and that we can start having fun down here again. Three, I'm hoping for the Chinese art scene to do some growing up. Besides, scars give you character...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Some rare good coverage of China

Over at Telegraph, Shanghai bureau chief Malcom Moore has been travelling through the Yangtze Delta, China's second largest manufacturing corridor, to try and get the skinny on China's lot in the financial crisis. I read most everything produced by major western media outlets on China, and I must say I'm impressed. Though I don't agree with the Anti-CNN crowd about some grand conspiracy to demonize China, I am getting tired of seeing every little tidbit of information getting filtered through a lens of Chinese repression and every single economic statistic being pointed out as the potential spark for a future uprising of disgruntled peasant masses. Mr Moore has been poking around factories, wholesale markets and workers' dorms talking about shrinking export orders, laid-off workers and the like, and his prognosis is that things aren't all that bad after all. In fact, he chimes in with Morgan Stanley to say that "China will be the first major economy to recover from the recession". 
The basic gyst of his argument is that orders are down, people are getting paid less, but things aren't as bad as they're made to look in other media outlets. I'm not angling for an apologist or blindly flattering stance on China, I just think that his coverage shows a rare mix of balance and hard work. There's no sensationalism to be found here. Anyway, his special series is worth a look, and I'm looking forward to seeing what this guy produces in the future. Now you know...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On the AP and Artistic Freedom

As the New York Times reported, artist Shepard Fairey, maker of the iconic Obama campaign poster, has preemptively sued the Associated Press over image usage rights. Fairey's poster, pictured above in it's new home at the National Portrait Gallery, was based on an AP photograph taken by freelance photographer Mannie Garcia. The AP has been threatening to sue Fairey for copyright infringement, demanding part of any proceeds from the image.

First off, any judge following fair use precedents will most likely decide that Mr. Fairey's artwork fits pretty snugly under all categories of fair use. The image is definitely transformative, using the photo merely as a reference for a pose in a very good piece of art. Though it has generated a bit of money, it was originally made to support a political cause, not to profit off of. It doesn't use the entire content of the image, and finally, it has not negatively affected the value of the original photograph. In fact, the photograph is certainly more valuable now. 

Having that out of the way, I have a deeper psychological and emotional reaction to the AP's jack move. One widely accepted explanation for the rise of pop art is that it was in response to the deluge of images hitting us with the rise of the media age. Before commercial advertising and the widespread enforcement of copyrights, artists were free to engage, copy, transform and respond to anything that entered the visual field. Now everywhere we go we are barraged by images meant to convince us to buy certain things, and these images, mass produced, "belong" to corporations. Pop art appropriated this new flow of images, taking them out of context or transforming them to make statements about society and or the nature of this new commodity culture. This also extended to the appropriation of mass-produced objects, such as Duchamp's Fountain. The nature of mass production itself has become a medium and topic of art as well. My favorite example is Piero Manzoni's "Merda d' Artista", literally cans of his own shit.

Back to the topic at hand, what AP is trying to do is turn this tradition on its head. If they were to succeed, then artists would no longer be free to respond to the imagery that invades our visual field and are quickly coming to dominate our perception of the world. The artist would be forced to engage in a commercial relationship with the image owner, literally selling out before his brush even touches the canvas.  Our visual field has expanded vastly since the birth of mass media, but the AP wants to make that part of the visual field off limits to artists. 

The AP pays for its photos, and rightly demands payment when those photos are used in newspapers and websites around the world. But this has just gone too far. Nothing that enters our commons, nothing that affects our lives should be off limits to artists. Period. If you can't deal with that, keep your images to yourself.

Besides, there's still some dispute about who owns the image. Mannie Garcia claims AP never paid him for the photo. He has also praised the artwork, and said that he wouldn't pursue damages against the artist. Good on him.

Fairey is also the creator of the iconic "Obey" image that popped up in cities across America in the '90's. Here's my favorite derivative of that one. 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Partisan Gods

This just in: in an apparent PR coup, China's door gods have joined the ranks of the PLA. The afterlife communications secretary declined to comment.

Happy Chinese New Year

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama coverage on CCTV

This is great:

For those who don't understand Chinese, here's a rough transcript:
Obama: "Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism..."
[simultaneous translation]
[cue startled looking anchor] Wang Haiying (a correspondent), Wang Haiying...
Wang: yes?
Anchor: what economic challenges does Obama face?

Apparently they tried to do live coverage of the inaugural speech, but someone freaked out and pulled the plug when they heard that bit about facing down communism. If they had just left it alone, no one would have noticed, or better yet, it would have sparked a debate among ultranationalist youth about Obama's "attack" on Chinese ideals (actually, some people are arguing about that on the youtube page for this clip). Instead, they freaked out, and now it's all over the place. If they had stayed, though, I wonder what would have happened when Obama started talking about those who would crush dissent being on the wrong side of history.

The next question is, of course, who is going to get fired for this mess? Will it be the guy who thought it was a good idea to have a live broadcast of the speech without an advance copy? Maybe. But it's more likely to be the interpreter taking the blame. That's rough. We've got enough to worry about without having to do political analysis at 80 words a minute.

PS: props to for their coverage, and to Hoiking for posting the video.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Colors in Chinese!

I was very pleased to see this copy of Colors magazine for sale in Beijing the other day. I've been able to grab a copy or two before, but usually older issues in specialty stores. This issue is different for two reasons: it was at a regular bookstore (O2 Sun at Xiandai SOHO), and it's in English and Chinese.
I am happy to report that Colors has set up operations in China, and apparently has plans to publish regularly in China. If you haven't read a Colors magazine before, be sure to pick up a copy. It will change the way you see things.
This actually wasn't a huge surprise for me. Last year Colors put out an issue on Beijing, and I noticed that it was almost entirely done by local editors. That is a great issue and it's worth tracking down if you haven't seen it yet. I wondered at the time if they weren't taking the steps to set up shop out here.
We've seen some previous foreign magazies fail out here, as with Rolling Stone (twice, despite the efforts of the esteemed Hao Fang). I hope that Colors is here to stay. Spread the word, people.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Update on the Bombing and its Coverage (or lack thereof) has been doing a great job of keeping everyone posted, but I feel a need to do a followup on my last post regarding the bombing at Salvador's Coffee House.

Police have released evidence that clearly links the deceased bomber to the bus bombings of July. Evidence also shows that Salvador's was most likely not the target of the attack, and that the bomb was inadvertently detonated as the bomber left the bathroom (after ordering, I've been told, coffee and waffles).

Several days after the incident, Reuters finally picked up on the story. The headline was something like "Bus Bomber confesses on his deathbed". Basically, the bomb at Salvador's wasn't a story, and was barely mentioned. New York Times followed the next day with a short blurb to the same effect in their back pages. My letters to several major news outlets, including NYTimes and Wall Street Journal, all went unanswered, which is very disappointing.

So I guess we can all breath a bit easier now, knowing that there's one less maniac out there.

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