Cultural compass: the habits of Chinese people

Having read this bullet list on Douban about the characteristics of Chinese people, I cannot resist writing a post on this. After all, I do agree with a lot of the observations, some of which I take the liberty to share here:

52. Enjoy giving mooncakes as presents, as well as eating them.

57. In a restaurant, they always compete to get the bill.

60. They like to live with the parents. Sometimes, even three generations of the family would live together.

starbucks-mooncake

These are habits that are so common among my friends and family, that sometimes it’s hard not to take those for granted. Having lived in Hong Kong for so long, I am used to the idea that the best way to show someone your friendship or goodwill is by buying them a gift or a meal. It is perfectly normal to treat a friend or the family to a meal, even if it’s not his or her birthday. It’s simply a way to show your care. When dining with close friends, family or relatives, it’s expected that you should try to get the bill to demonstrate how much you love them. During mid-autumn festival, it is quite common to buy several boxes of mooncakes and give them to your relatives, your in-laws, and business contacts. I remember feeling somewhat disappointed when I came to England to study, and realised that British friends around me kept to paying only for themselves. It felt as if there’s an insurmountable distance between people. That every person remains an island. The other day, a Chinese student that I have taught years before, sent me a very expensive gift (a silver necklace) to congratulate me on the birth of my child. This gesture is heart-warming, not because of the necklace itself, but because it reminded me of the value systems behind the Chinese cultural practices.

The article also mentions how family members, or even generations within the family, like to live together. Surely, it is in part necessitated by the exorbitant property prices in Hong Kong or some other well-developed Chinese cities. How can one ever save up enough to buy a property otherwise? More than that, however, lies the Chinese people’s priority of family life and their take on what happiness means. There is a lot less emphasis on becoming self-sufficient or independent. For a lot of Chinese people, life is not complete if the family members are not living together or within close proximity so that they can visit each other regularly. When a Chinese couple gets married, sometimes they’d also consider buying properties nearer to their parents’ homes so that they can visit the parents regularly and ‘take good care’ of them. The perfect, happy scenario is to have the joy of three or even four generations under the same roof (and ideally in a luxurious, spacious family home). Some children live far away from their parents because they are sent overseas to study, which is a different matter. However, anyone who chooses to live far away from his or her own family (i.e. parents), is thought to be somewhat unfilial and don’t care enough about their parents. It is not uncommon for Chinese couples to return to their home country after their studies or a few years of work overseas, so that they can ‘take good care’ of their parents. Perhaps because I have lived in that society for so long, this kind of cultural values still affects me. For those who decide to pursue their careers or dreams overseas, or have set up their own homes and families overseas, there is almost always a strong sense of emotional ambivalence or guilt that such a decision or situation makes it hard for you to ‘take care’ of the parents or show your filial piety.

In analysing these feelings, I have come to appreciate how salient cultural beliefs are. Despite having lived in Britain for so many years, these Confucian thoughts are still deeply entrenched in me and, to some extent, I am defined by such a hybrid of cultural values.

Writing blog tour

Thanks to Penny Boxall for inviting me to take part in this writing blog tour! What am I writing on?  At the moment I am obsessed with anything to do with identity, history and visual art: Matisse’s colourful cutouts, butterflies, lost keys, misplaced library books, children’s innocent remarks, train journeys when one looks out of the window and finds something totally unrecognisable…I also have this draft poetic sequence that is being reshaped. I hope all these will speak to each other in some way, and become a longer narrative. In time it may fill up all the pages there needs to be, then acquire some saddle stitches, a cover.   How does my work differ from others of its genre? I don’t think I am doing anything that is completely new. For me I write with a desire to be understood. I aim for poetry that will grow on a reader. If I have to analyse my own work, it is a tapestry of different personalities and cultural understandings. I am drawn to the gaps between people and between things. I like to turn poetry into a kind of curious stare and reveal the unacknowledged truth.

Carl Fredricksen's house from UP, creation by Alan C mocpages.com
Carl Fredricksen’s house from UP, LEGO creation by Alan C mocpages.com

Why do I write what I do? I have always enjoyed writing that crystallise truth or feelings in a simple yet complicated way, and I want to write in that context. In my teenage years, I got into poetry from reading works by Larkin, Plath, Heaney, Pablo Neruda, Carol Ann Duffy etc found in anthologies (you cannot find so easily the works by emerging, contemporary poets in Hong Kong’s public libraries or bookshops back in those days) and I liked their storytelling, their layers of meaning, their uncluttered cadence. I read some experimental poetry and enjoy their exuberant energy, but this is not to say that I can really write that way. I suppose we can only be ourselves, learn to be really good at expressing the hidden springs within us, and then just go from there.   How does my writing process work? I usually reflect on ideas in a dreamy sort of way any time I can afford to – which can be in a cafe, on a train, while having a sandwich, washing dishes, or in between different sorts of work.  I enjoy making use of information or new knowledge that comes my way and transforming it into something strange or uncomfortable. Generally I enjoy writing at night or early in the morning but out of a need to juggle roles I usually am happy thinking and writing away whenever I get a chance. The good thing though is that I can concentrate quite easily when I am on my own. Usually I’ll buy a coffee, pick a seat and then the background noise of the cafe becomes like a soundtrack, and then I visualise an object that intrigues me or remember a loose thread of conversation or invent a line, and then the rest follows from there, surrounding the story. I type things up and leave the materials before coming back, tossing lines or stanzas around, replacing one word with another. It’s simple but not immediate. It’s a bit like playing advanced level LEGO. What happens next… Two stellar poets, Matt Bryden and Anna Wigley, have agreed to the challenge and will be posting their responses on how to write well in their blogs, in a week’s time. Watch out for the answers!

Carl Randall at Daiwa Foundation House: the artist as outsider

In his conversation with Andrew Stahl from The Slade School of Fine Art, UCL at Daiwa Foundation House on Thursday, Carl Randall explained how his meticulous paintings evolved from a simple sketch. It might originate from some movements or people’s facial expressions that intrigued him, and then he would make a few quick sketches on the move, and consider the composition. Then over time the quick sketches became more serious sketches, and slowly the overall impression deepened. Finally the characters found their ways into the picture. He would consider the light, tone and texture, making one layer after another. He approached his subject as if he were an outsider, so that he could observe and create, make a documentation of the reality, even if his play on the dimension and proportions of figures betray the artificial nature of a painting.

Listening to his talk, one sees that art is never a coincidence. Talent and perceptiveness are key, of course, but the contents and style come from hard work. Randall conceded that he never used photographs to make portraits, even though he had no intention of making a statement against portraits based on photographs. It just did not appeal to him. He would like to be able to meet his model, speak to him or her, and in those three hours he would observe keenly and feel the model’s presence or personality, pin down his impression of him or her, and to adopt the portrait in the larger urban landscape he was working on. Over the ten years he was in Japan, Randall estimated that he had drawn nearly a thousand faces.

image credit Carl Randall
image credit Carl Randall

He mentioned Edward Hopper as an influence. I have always felt a vague hint of Hopper in his work: the distance between individuals in a familiar yet slightly surreal urban landscape, the unflattering palette of reality, the way time seems to have frozen in the poetic moment, the impossibility to know someone or tell what they feel from just gleaning the surface, and how the mood of an individual seems to enter the colours, the lights, the environment. He said he liked Japan and found it a very calm, orderly city, and though the city is incredibly busy, filled with movements and skyscrapers and neon lights, it is a place where lost things are found.

Stahl asked Randall how he thought about the discipline of the artist. The key, according to Randall, is to treat your work as a job. “You have to get on with it, every single day, otherwise nothing gets done really.”

For more, click here. Exhibition continues at Daiwa Foundation House, 13/14 Cornwall Terrace, Outer Circle, London NW1 4QP until 12 March.

Exhibition at Daiwa Foundation House
Daiwa Foundation House exhibition                           image credit: Carl Randall

Goldfish reviewed in Magma Poetry – Multiple Sides of Everything

Matt Merritt has reviewed Goldfish alongside two other poetry books – Pretty by Ahren Warner (Bloodaxe Books 2013) and Selected Poems by Peter Hughes (Shearsman Books 2013) – in the current issue of Magma Poetry (Issue 57) edited by Ian McEwen and Hannah Lowe.

Below is an excerpt:

It takes a little time in this lengthy second collection by Jennifer Wong before you start to appreciate exactly where her considerable strengths are taking you. That’s because, on first reading of the opening dozen or so poems, her restrained, pared-down style threatens to tip over into the prosaic…and then her delicate, unshowy language begins to feel like her greatest asset. In poems such as Photographs and Itinerary, it’s used to create pictures of a world seen through lenses or in mirrors, which act as boundaries or barriers between different states. So, the latter poem asserts: “In the pivot of glass everything/ is so small and manageable”, but by the end of the poem, reality is far more unsettling to deal with:

It is not easy anymore

to forget or be free of the bear

that roams the place where I come from.

The place referred to there (Wong’s Hong Kong-born) plays a key role. There’s a fine series of English versions of Chinese poets, and more than once Wong makes connections between the bilingualism of her home and the way poetry itself recreates familiar scenes in a different language (not always positively). […] Her ambiguous relationship with Hong Kong itself becomes an extension of that ability to see multiple sides of everything…

*Matt Merritt is the author of The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches Press 2013)

***Buy a copy of the magazine from magmapoetry.com to read the full text.

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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

Musings on the BP Portrait Award 2013: Carl Randall

Among the exhibits this year, what touches me most is the set of commissioned work by Carl Randall, featuring modern life in Japan.

Having spent years in Japan, his paintings of Japanese city workers are marked by keenness of observation and his authentic interpretation of Asian lifestyle. Frequently using flattened images and creating crowds out of homogeneous faces, his paintings such as ‘Shinjuku’ recalls what it feels to live in Asia, or Japan: a pent-up feeling of isolation and homogeneity arising from the lack of personal space, as one dissolves into the crowd, into the world’s busiest metro station, like ‘petals on a wet, black bough’.

I am especially drawn to the figure of the contemplative young girl sitting by herself in the cafe, positioned in the top right corner of the monochrome painting ‘Shibuya’.

ShibuyaLRG

Wearing a striped t-shirt and holding a cup of tea, there is a dreamy gaze about her, as she looks out of the full-length window at the colourful skyscrapers and billboards. Around her, other city workers and a young couple are immersed in their own conversations, and yet this particular girl in the corner seems to be a pivot in the picture, a figure that represents the complexity of the hidden self, the suppressed loneliness and unspoken dreams within. The geisha-looking actress featured on the skyscraper billboard deepens the sense of nostalgia and the surreal. ‘Shibuya’ engages in a very interesting dialogue with ‘Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar‘, a stark portraiture of Japanese diners. The diners all look rather worn out and bored, and the bowl of freshly prepared ramen seems to become a poignant symbol, a comforting ritual, as food consumption becomes a welcome escape from sheer boredom and life’s worries.

As seen from his documentary made in Japan, his paintings are based on numerous close-up observation sessions and sketches of subjects in real life settings, rather than from photographs or replica:

As a wonderful contrast to his realist, caricatured paintings of city workers, the exhibit ‘Fireflies’ is perfect in form and technique. In the darkness of the night, far away from the built-up area of the city, the two girls look at the glow of the fireflies. The motif of the fireflies recalls the animation Grave of the Fireflies or ‘Hotaru no haka’ (1998), directed by Isao Takahata, which highlights the struggle of young children in wartime Japan and their unvanquished, persevering spirit. The faraway moon, the reflection from the glowing fireflies on the girls’ faces, and the mellow light coming from countryside houses, are imbued with a poetic sense of harmony, celebrating the value of innocence, tenderness and hope.

Carl-Randall---Firefiles-LRG

BP Portrait Award 2013 exhibition from now until 15 September 2013 at National Portrait Gallery London. Free admission

Frances Ha: to take life with a pinch of salt

Frances_Ha

Quirky, fun and philosophical, Frances Ha is a rare gem in popular cinema. The film charts the friendship and conflict between Frances and her flatmate Sophie, and highlights the life of Frances as a struggling dancer. The black-and-white cinematography creates a strange yet satisfying mood. Instead of relying on dramatic plot or the change of scenes, the film rests on a solid, tender narrative: the intense bonding and competitiveness between the two friends. The girlish intimacy between Frances and Sophie appears slightly awkward at the outset, and it takes some time to warm up to the story. As it unfolds, however, the film gathers momentum, and the complexity of the characters becomes evident. Frances’s naive persistence in life and her lack of self-confidence make her vulnerable, authentic and likeable, while Sophie – who decides to leave the flat and move in with her banker boyfriend in a ‘better neighbourhood’, Tribeca – represents another way of adapting. There is a lot of attention in the making of dialogue, characterisation and pace. Frances’s struggle with her dancing career, friendships, with rentals and bills as one tries to make her way in an expensive city, will no doubt resonate in the hearts of many.

The scene where we see Frances socialising with her middle-class friends – mostly mid-career professionals- is affectionate and hilarious. There is an unmistakable air of pretentiousness going on as each other brags about his or her success in life, and yet Frances’s less-than-glamorous stories, or nearly-ramblings, come across as more endearing and genuine. She is almost embarrassed to admit that she is a dancer, afraid of being judged. When asked about the difficulty of achieving her goal, or her job, she confronts her own fears: by confessing ‘because I don’t really do it.’

One of the most touching moments in the film is when the director of the dance company offers Frances a junior office role, and she decides to turn it down even if she has no better option, fearing it to be a compromise to her dream. The director remarks that she would really like Frances to work more on choreography. Frances said, ‘You make it sound so easy.’ ‘I’m not saying it’s easy.’ Gerwig has delivered the artist’s inner fears with tremendous grace. Her reconciliation with her best friend Sophie, who has also gone through dramatic changes in her life, helps her regain her foothold and confidence. Frances’s life changes direction as she reconsiders her options and fights for what she really wants, caring less the opinion of others.

The script, co-written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, stands out for its unconventional, un-Hollywood treatment, witty dialogue and refreshing soundtrack. The first part of the film might take some time to warm up to, and at times feels a bit awkward, but all in all, it’s an inspiring and thoughtfully produced piece.

See Trailer

Thoughts on Taylor Wessing portraits: framing the everyday

Among this year’s Taylor Wessing photography prize shortlisted entries, the portraits that draw me most are those that frame and articulate the offguarded moments of people, revealing the poetic quality in off-stage, everyday rituals. James Russell Cant’s picture Heather and Her Friends captures a candid moment of teenagers fascinated by online contents: the hypnotised looks in their eyes, coupled with the clever manipulation of light coming from the computer, reflect people’s attraction to mainstream consumption, to  readymade information… I am also very fond of Maru, a piece by Annie Collinge, showing a close-up portrait of a young Japanese girl. The character’s permed hair and flushed face combine with the inquisitive, dreamy look to conjure an impression of youthful adventure and self-fashioning, emphasising the power of individuality in a fast-paced, indifferent cosmopolitan society. It is definitely worth checking out the artist’s remarkable portfolio on her website, especially Scottee and The Underwater Mermaid.

Kamil Szkopi‘s portrait, Jenny, offers a refreshing interpretation of the offguard moment of a fashion model. The pure blue background is strikingly effective, and frames the model’s introspective and expectant gaze.  One can find an interesting dialogue between this portrait with Alice Pavesi Fiori’s Lola Smoking, an impressionistic painterly piece that focuses on self-narrative and history. Hilary Mantel‘s portrait by Michael Birt, however, is slightly disappointing. A lucid image of the Man Booker prize winner posed on the beach of Budleigh Salterton, Devon, the red hat, bright lipstick and chic cape are too distracting, making the portrait appear rather upstaged and deliberate.

The Ventriloquist by Alma Hasler, which has won the fourth prize, stands out as a strikingly original piece, with the unsettling intimacy between two people with identical haircut and similar facial expressions.

The Ventriloquist by Alma Haser © Alma Haser (4th Prize)
The Ventriloquist by Alma Haser © Alma Haser (4th Prize)

The winning portrait by Ruiz Cirera, a 28-year-old London-based Spanish photographer, features a woman in Bolivia seated in front of a kitchen table, looking directly at the camera, her gaze tinged with curiosity and uncertainty, her left hand partially shading her lips as if showing her reluctance to be photographed. While I find quite a few of the other portraits in the exhibition equally well-composed, this realist portrait requires an active response from the viewer, and conveys authenticity as a piece of photojournalism.

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Margarita Teichroeb by Jordi Ruiz Cirera © Jordi Ruiz Cirera (1st Prize)

I also adore the texture and storytelling in the work Christopher and Harriet by Laura Cooper. The self-assurance and expression in the young girl’s face against the home setting is powerfully rendered. There’s something in her inquiring, precocious look that generates mystery, and makes one curious about her childhood dreams and experiences.

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 from 8 November 2012 – 17 February 2013 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

images courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

The Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged by the very talented poet Kirsten Irving to give this interview for an expanding blog project called The Next Big Thing. You can read her interview here!

The idea is to post mine and tag other writers to do the same on 9 January 2013.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I suppose the writing follows from Summer Cicadas, my previous book, even if the two books are quite different in style and voice. I’ve always been trying to understand what it’s been like to emerge from our families, childhood, education and impressionable years, being a product of where we came from, and yet choosing to be who we want to be. I grew up in a rather conservative Chinese community where there’s a clear sense of what’s good and what’s not, and that superstitions make up reality. I ate steamed fish with ginger slices and I would avoid going out on ghost festival day. When I came to England to study and to work, I felt that nothing’s the same anymore: I needed to modify my beliefs or make up rules as I went along. I think the book is a response to the tectonics of growing up, and the need to understand what’s going on.

What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry!

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I’d love to see poems turned into films, for poetry has a very sensual and cinematic quality to it. I’d love to see Faye Wong or Tang Wei play the female protagonist in some of the poems set in Asia, say ‘2046’ inspired by Wong Kar Wai’s movies. Norah Jones or Lea Seydoux for the more sensual poems such as ‘Entwined’: their faces express such strength in character, such vulnerability. Yu Aoi will be great for ‘Roppongi Hills’.

2046 whisper into tree

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Time travels in a bottle, bobbing up and down the vast ocean: time marked with fairytales, taboos, childhood dreams and shaken truths that build our characters.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

More than I envisaged! Some of the poems are more recent, some have drafts dating back to a few years, and they keep changing. I keep coming back to the work, adding and transforming it, changing the characters and the narratives, and above all trimming away. I  want to make it easy for anyone to get something out of my work: those who normally read poetry and those who don’t. In time these ideas grow and evolve. Sometimes people I get to know or new encounters would change my mind about the way the poems should travel.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Childhood, dreams, and works of art inspire me. They give me hope, yearning, and strange ideas. Think of a music box with a ballerina, a hot air balloon, games invented by kids, Chinese superstitions, conversation overheard in a local pub…When I was in primary school, there’s a girl in my class who liked to keep a scrapbook full of ghost story clippings from newspapers. She used to tell me those stories when we walked home after school. They used to give me such goose bumps.

When I was writing this book, I come across works of the others that really speak to me — Heaney, Kay Ryan, Simon Armitage, just to name a few — their poems make me understand that there is something very mysterious and global about poetic language, that well-considered words put together with such economy can be shared and understood among complete strangers.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

This is a coming-of-age book, something about being Asian and yet not quite. It’s about what you struggle for, the authenticity of self-beliefs. I’m also interested in how class affects or changes people.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 
Goldfish will be published by Chameleon Press in early 2013.

***

It’s new year time when everyone is away, but I think these amazing fellow writers will be posting up their own responses to the questions soon! Make sure you check them out on/after 9 January 2013.
1. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
2. Rob Mackenzie
3. Nikola Madzirov (soon!)
4. Marisa Sd

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