Interview and a Chinese poem on Urban Diary

Urban Diary, an online journal supported by Oval Partnership, has featured my Chinese poem ‘Turtle Jelly’ from my poetry collection Goldfish and an interview on writing poetry in English.

To read the full text in Chinese, please go to http://www.urbandiarist.com/012

For the benefit of non-Chinese speakers, an English version of the feature article is appended here: Urban Diary article in English

Photo credit: 123rf.com
Photo credit: 123rf.com

CFCCA Curating China conference

Despite the downpour, the trip to Manchester to attend the CFCCA conference on curating china, was highly rewarding. In fact, I wasn’t at all surprised to see that it’s a sold-out event. This is the first time I visited CFCCA after their rebranding campaign. I’m not sure if I like the branding colour (yellow) much, but it works, and it is young and cheerful. I like the modern and clean layout of the place, the addition of a souvenir shop selling artworks, scarves, notepads made by Chinese artists, and the provision of a user-friendly theatre.

Above all, the speakers they invited for the conference are really the kind of experts who should come to the UK more often to share their insights and experiences. Li Ning, curator at the China Art Museum in Shanghai, gave an impressive hour-long presentation on Chinese art history, with a focus on contemporary Chinese art, the diversity of art schools and their reception in China. The artworks she discussed in her presentation are most varied and interesting, from the use of colours and symbolic motifs in early poster art, to the new generation of Chinese artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Yu Youhan, Yue Mingjun and Liu Ye. What I really like about Li and her attitude as a curator is that she believes in what she does, and comes across as being very sincere in promoting the museum and Chinese art, which don’t always mean the same thing. I wish she could talk more about the relationship between Chinese art and the social demographics, but I suppose one hour is already testing the attention span of the participants.

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Aric Chen, design curator for M+ museum (within the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong), shared with the audience the latest development of the museum. As Chen humorously pointed out, this museum hasn’t even been built yet, it has – typical of how Hong Kong people work – accumulated over 300 pieces of artwork for its collection. Someone in the audience asked whether Chen has enough funding to invest in a quality, comprehensive museum collection from scratch. Chen replied that they were given, as a start, a 5-year budget of, em, US$200 million. Humbly, he said that this amount might seem a lot to some people and to some it might seem too little as there are always artworks out there that are astronomically-priced. There was a wave of suppressed excitement in the form of whispers: ‘it’s a lot’. Personally, I am convinced that the capital and lead time for planning the museum is more than sufficient. The ongoing buzz of mobile M+ activities is rather instrumental in building up audience and art education. I just hope that it can achieve more synergy and connection with other existing and planned museums in China, and to encourage new artists and collaborators rather than focus on the prize winners and bestsellers, and to aim at diversity and originality rather than formulaic success.

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Jiehong Jiang (Joshua), director of the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts at Birmingham City University, highlighted the importance of art curators (at least those in China) to have the ability to raise funds, in addition to the aesthetic judgment anod creative responsibilities. The Asia Triennial he curates for next year also sounds fascinating, bringing the works by leading and emerging Chinese artists on the international stage. He is also curator of the Fourth Guangzhou Trienial, the Unseen, with Jonathan Watkins of Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Catherine McDermott, Professor of Design at Kingston University and Donna Loveday, who heads curatorial design at the Design Museum, shared their insights on the development of design practice over the last decade, tracing its humble beginnings in the pre-Design Museum days, to the current design scene and the rise of design curatorial practice. They also highlighted some innovative collaborations on the diversity of international cuisine.

You can also check out the conference contents online on CFCCA website: http://cfcca.org.uk/index.php/Exhibition/curating-the-contemporary-in-china-conference

Xiaolu Guo’s UFO in Her Eyes

I have enjoyed Xiaolu Guo’s storytelling style: crisp, bold, full of humour.

UFO in her eyes
UFO in her eyes

The disjointed narrative and peasants-speak in UFO in Her Eyes serve a purpose. A record of a series of investigation reports centering on the appearance of a UFO above Silver Hill Village’s sky, Guo highlights the disinterested attitude of some individuals towards the UFO happening, each being too caught up with their own daily struggles. In the narrative, the mystery lies not only in the appearance of the UFO, but in the strange ways this UFO incident impact on the lives of the villagers, bringing progress and at the same time a new form of existential angst, and the nostalgia for a self-sufficient, idyllic China.

Initially celebrated as an event that brought unexpected windfall to the village, the discovery of the UFO and Kwok Yun’s rescue of the American catalysed the change of the village and soon led to problems: the uprooting of traditional values, the clearing up of farmlands for industrial and commercial developments, the rise of pollution and the artifice of technology.

Half way through the story, we catch a glimpse of the super-structure, the invisible hand in the socialist regime, shadows of doubt and hidden motives: even Chief Chang and the investigation officer are questioned and put under secret surveillance.

The characterisation in the novel, however, is slightly disappointing. There is not a conscious effort in differentiating the voices to convey different messages, and sometimes it seems that all of the characters are there simply to participate in the collective tragedy of industrialisation. There remains so much unexplored in the protagonist, Kwok Yun. In the previous Guardian book review, Maya Jaggi describes the form, hovering between novel and screenplay, as somewhat frustrating (click here), while Neel Mukherjee points out that the book is undermined by the disproportionate weighting given to the formal high jinks and the elaborate design of documents, lists, investigations etc (click here).

Moreover, while being semi-tragic and a suggestion that socialism has backfired against itself, the sexual incident between Kwok Yun and Headmaster Yee can only at best be seen as a titillating episode that distracts the reader as to what role Kwok Yun plays. Or perhaps we simply find it unsatisfying that Kwok Yun does not end up the heroine we expect her to be.

Personally, I would prefer that the ending be more ambiguous. The over-conclusive clash between socialist ideals and industrial progress, as well as the evident unhappiness of the Kwoks and the villagers, have undermined the poignancy of the plot. Compared to the refreshing dialogue and characterisation in the earlier book The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, here no real risks are taken. Perhaps this has partly to do with Guo’s identity as a writer as well as a film producer: the highly cinematic quality of the work is both its strength and weakness.

Hong Kong’s favourite: Instant noodles

I was always teased for my love of instant noodles. The midnight cravings for the unhealthy food. The other day I took a close examination at it and manipulate the perspective, with some fascinating findings.

The first image shows cooked instant noodles in its original, pure state. The choice of wooden chopsticks is used intentionally.

instant noodles art

The following image gives the instant noodles and the food consumer a context. The hint of an intellectual magazine immediately alters your idea of the person and quite possibly, towards the meal itself.

instant noodles art 2

This is what that underlies many of our prejudices. Try to pare down and evaluate people or events in their true light.

The Chinese internet I

There has been a surge in stories of late about the Internet search in China, sparked by Google’s call to move their search engine to Hong Kong. The Guardian has published an article on March 24 (see article), saying that companies in China sometimes get called up to remove online contents or have their websites suddenly removed. Financial Times (see article) has very comprehensive behind-the-scene reportage on this matter.

Chinese users can correct me if wrong, but I have never used Google too much when in the Mainland, simply because it doesn’t seem to provide as much as other engines such as Yahoo, Sina and Sohu. Perhaps it has to do with this ongoing row? In terms of design layout, the local Chinese search engines really suck, they are always so wordy, lacking in design and taste.

Look at Sina.com.cn:

And Sohu.com.cn

You will know what I mean.

I feel sad sometimes that Chinese users have to tolerate these really ugly and uncontemporary search engines. Everything is only in Simplified Chinese and I don’t know how its archiving works. The websites are also juxtaposed with flashing and colourful ad banners. It gives you a headache when you look at it for a long time. But if they are the better channels to retrieve information that they want…

In an attempt to poach Google’s customers, Google announced that its Bing searches are to stay in China. Okay…thanks for that. I also did a quick desktop search trial using Bing.com.cn, but it doesn’t work very well, and seems to trawl up very randomised, official-version websites. The globe image on the Bing homepage is rather ridiculous as well.

I would say, currently, that I like Baidu.com.cn much better in terms of searching for Chinese information, other than the popular but Hong Kong-based Yahoo.com.hk. In fact, Baidu looks like a Chinese-adapted version of Google, with more visual photos and a cleaner structure for finding what you need:

They use QQ (and for some, MSN) instead of Facebook. I remember several times, when I was in Beijing, and even in the UK, I asked some Mainland Chinese friends for their Facebook names so I can look them up, and they looked at me and said, what is Facebook? I don’t use it. I have QQ.

Not many of Mainland users like googlemail so much as hotmail or 163.com or yahoo.com.cn. This is highly related to the proliferation and user-friendliness of these website searches.

In China, the Blackberry devices are being launched without WiFi capabilities. The Blackberry to be sold by China Telecom is powered by the e-surfing function from the fixed line operator.

It is as if there is no one internet: there is a western internet, and a Chinese internet. These two worlds sometimes overlap, but for those who may only be able to access one world and not the other, it is a confusing experience to synchronise what one knows about these worlds.

According to Reuters, the Chinese internet user population has exceeded 384 million, with 86 million added in the last year. I am not surprised. Internet is a great way for the Chinese community to have access to the world of opportunities – for business, entertainment and education. With added wealth, higher living standards and the inevitable globalisation phenomenon, the trend is set to continue.