This is my third novel written in big felt tips when I first became visually impaired. Various errors in transcription but I have left them in as add flavour
Lost Son of the British Empire
By CP Gill
I live in an ancient valley that was invaded by the Angles in the Seventh century.
It is a beautiful mystic landscape, that inspired the poets such as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Its hidden woody grottos, mountain streams, with sheep and rabbits. But how do I tell my story, from this place, which is a story of the modern age, booming people, intrigue, massive cultural tsunamis and evolution, of art, and spies, money, blood sex and oil. Do I dip in and out of memory as things recur, or do I tell it in a linear fashion- where did it begin, the loops within loops, to interpret the tangle of lines that exist in my brain. I’m 45 now, so I will start with my birth.
I was born in Burnley, a pink smiley blob who lived in Waterbarn Street. My mother left school at 15 to work in the mills. My father was in the Merchant Navy, but he got seasick a lot. At age two I was on a big boat, dressed as an angel, crying, crossing the equator. My family emigrated to the new world, or the oldest world, of Africa. They were 20 years old.
Twenty years later I was getting off an Air China plane in Beijing. My first impression was a warm waft of cabbage scented air, that permeated everything.
Chaos, goblins, shabby mouldy buildings, close overgrown trees, the constant buzzing of insects and a truck ride into the city on the back of an open Liberation truck sat on my suitcase. This was 1992, the dust had settled after the Tiananmen massacre, the bullet holes in the walls had been grouted over. The psychic energy, the rawness, of humanity, scared, but proud, cautious, annoyed and confident, looking at us, foreign students, like aliens, just dropped of a space shuttle from a world they’d never touched. The curiosity, tinged with fear, fear of losing face, fear of being seen through, of avarice, the eyes, they wanted to look, and would stare, like a cat watching a passing bird.
This sometimes turned to hostility, or consciously ignoring you. It was a strange place to visit, to live for a while.
In a bare room, with a metal bed with a wood plank for a matress a gruff old man came to the door. He shouted, loudly, angrily, because I could not understand him. He thrust a communist green sheet, a blanket, a metal bowl and a thermos flask at me. Then I sat alone, in that dusty room, with cheap cracked glass panes in rusty metal frames, until I got thirsty. There was a strange, tangy smell, bitter, the root of a dead chemical tree drowned in plastic. There was dust, and cockroaches, but no water. The smells varied as I walked outside, burning egg and MSG, roasted gasoline and diesel mixed. A taste like chewed unflavoured anti septic. The shouts and cries, the rumbling traffic. As they laughed at me, as you would laugh at a puppy taking its first steps on grass, I went to a street vendor to try and buy water. I tried the word for water in four different tones. I pointed at the object in question. Was it fun at my hesitancy, amusement at the lost boy, I pointed left, they looked right, hilarious, the crowd grew. They finally relented and I walked back, pretending to be self confident and not lost. I sat on the hard wooden bed and drank, water. It tasted strange. Welcome to Beijing.
In my building it was the antithesis of Apartheid. Every nation, except China, was in the building, Norwegians, Ghananians, Koreans, Russians, Italians, Americans, Australians, Nigerians, Japanese, British, Germans, most countries, except French and Chinese. We all ate and studied together. We had a good time getting to know each other and our cultures. But apart from the Chinese, who really we had all come to see. Chinese students were not supposed to talk to us, except under controlled conditions. I sat waiting for class, an 8am start, watching 5 men watch 1 guy hang a washing line. How interesting. Why don’t they help him? They seemed very critical of his efforts, watching him struggle with the line.
Slowly we tasted the forbidden fruit, we sneaked Chinese people in through the back door while distracting the guards. The lifts were operated by a young man. We found our cupboard keys would operate the lift. We’d liberate the lift when the guy was called outside for something. Why does an automatic lift need an operator anyhow? The 12 story building was our new home. We had a lift, that was luxury. But it was turned off at 9pm. Get the hint?
The door was locked at 10pm. The old guy slept in front of it in a camp bed. You could bribe him with baijiu, the local fire water. But if someone else bribed him before you he would be unconscious. The hangovers probably explained his bad moods. He probably was a prince, in a former life.
No TVs, nothing, except the odd letter. Though letters often went astray in the journey. Tapes, cassete tapes, were the main entertainment. Ones brought from home. Then, the discovery of tapes in the market, cassete tapes shipped from the west to China for recycling. All the bands that never sold, all the music never heard, ended up in China. Customs cut a big hole in the tapes, but they often still played. We had treasured collections of these things, played cautiously so as not to break them. We swopped tips on where they were sold.
Back in 1992 the overwhelming smell of boiled cabbage is my strongest memory. A dry, dusty, grey city, Beijing in those days was full of cabbages. Every apartment block got its own supply of cabbages allocated by the government and the cabbages were piled up outside in the winter. As no one had fridges, it made more sense to leave the cabbage outside in the freezing air. Cabbage for breakfast, dinner and tea, fried, sometimes in grease, but mostly boiled. There is something about communism and cabbages, they are even grown as decorative flowers. Any new foreign student in Beijing in those days would occasionally find themselves suddenly crashing their
Bicycle into a dark cabbage mountain on the way home, in the early hours there wasn’t
much electric lighting. But of course this was preferable to falling down a manhole, the cover stolen for scrap.
Hustled onto the open top of a blue liberation lorry, suitcases flung on, our host from the People’s University of China drove us into town. Xiao Wang, a petty official in the school administration, with his arbitrary ‘fees,’ told us to watch out or thieves. Thieves? Well yes, there were thieves, they usually restricted their activities to stealing bicycles and foreign students suitcases, as well as charging them made-up fees, as Xiao Wang did. This was my first introduction to petty official paranoia, a curious disease.
In the alley beside the school was a small arcade, which had street fighter. The buttons were worn and grubby, the joystick wobbly, but it played and I often won, killing the goblin, the monk, the weird Indian yoga fighting dude. Later, the English guy Morph, who had come to China to escape drug deals gone bad and to teach dancing, would throw beer bottles into this alley from the roof.
So where are we now? I would say sitting in the Uighyur village, just South. An enclave of Moslems from the far North West, a mishmash of alleys, they baked bread, made fat noodles, spoke a language like Turkish. They fiercely protected their little village in the city. There were fights, the cooks wrapping dishcloths round their hands, waving cleavers and fire, to chase off the drunk police or gangsters who tried to call them dogs or heathens.
I was sat in one of these places, my favourite one, that did thick noodles with a tomato like sauce, when a tattooed French man walked past. He turned and confidently came to talk. He was upset I wasn’t French. The French students were in their own ghetto and desperate for company, even fucking English.
Fabrious was a French Parisian punk band cello player. I was glad I didn’t speak French because he spoke Parisian. I think he gave me the best compliment of my life :’Chris, you are a fucking guy, but you are a really good artist.’ You have to take that as good from a guy who wears art on his skin.
And I kind of agree with his assessment of my personality. I have my weakness.’ I don’t really care what you think of me as a person.
By a string of circumstances I don’t recall I met a guy from Sichuan, who lived in the remains of an old mansion, and who wanted to be an art dealer. He had a small gallery and his rooms were stuffed with paintings. We somehow ended up in business, selling silk screened tshirts with sarcastic Chinese slogans.
He asked me if I wanted to rent a studio. By this point I was fed up with the language classes, four hours a day in class, then four hours memorizing Chinese characters. I was instead filling my room with painting. Paintings of Beijing, of Buddhas, of people, of ideas, of places. I was enjoying the material and spiritual world. I was experimenting with photography. Because I was poor, with a British student grant, I was suddenly relatively rich. I could afford to buy whatever I wanted in the Beijing art store. I bought wonderful papers, inks, paints, pencils, brushes, with abandon.
I hung out with long haired artists over steaming hot pots, discussing politics and philosophy in broken Chinese. I was living unconsciously in the moment.
I became firm friends with Chang Xi, an art teacher from the North East, who taught at the Minorities Institute. He was a great teacher, but he would not teach because the school was too corrupt. He hung himself on his own pride, he would not go back to them to get his papers. So he couldn’t really work, or get a passport. He is extremely well educated in western and eastern art. He would sit contemplating a work for some time, then make a low moan like an ‘uh’ if it was flawed or ‘good’ if it was better. He is stoic and silent most of the time. He was friends with all the high flying Tianmen protestors, such as Sui Jian, who had come out of the arts and music scene. By this time they had begin to sink in a haze of drugs and alcohol, pursued by demons and silenced by the state.
The singers were banned from singing.
So I opened my first studio in the front porch of Chinese contemporary art. Like a little boy scout I erected my canvas and paint, not really aware of the significance of what I was doing. My studio was in a ramshackle village built on the grounds of the Old Summer Palace. The artist all lived in the farmers huts with no heating or sanitation. They drank fire water to keep warm. They swapped girl friends. They fought. Some were too far gone, it was like an open air asylum. They were a lost aristocracy, their empire had fallen. Through sheer will and intellect they rebuilt themselves. For some it was too hard, or they weren’t hard enough.
I was just a kid, practising, learning. I was a bit weirded out by the sounds of rampant sex while I painted. I turned up the volume on my cassettes. They offered to share their food, crusty rice, covered in flies. I ate it, it was dry, and hard to swallow. It reminded me of Africa, so it was a bit like being home.
I destroyed all my canvas’ because I thought they were no good. But I kept a lot of the work on paper, partly because they were easier to move around.
If you went up to the old art village now its crazy 30 stories buildings and office blocks and KTV parlous, but in those days, the early 90s, it was rice paddy fields and traditional courtyard houses. So when I first lived in Beijing
In Yuanminyuan, I remember the farmers there were pretty cool, they made all the painting stretchers and stuff, it was all sort of figured out, so I started doing oil painting when I was there. I had to ride my bike there everyday as I was not allowed to live there, and the police
would come over all the time to check on me, see what I was doing. It was a bit annoying. And a lot of people used to come around all the time, have a look what the foreign guy was up to. But basically I wasn’t doing good work there, I wasn’t very comfortable, but I did do some stuff. Most of the work I did that I really liked was what I did in the university campus. Now Yuanminyuan artist village has become very famous, but at that time everyone was so poor, that was the main thing. No money at all. Fang Lijun is a quite well known name now, when he was there I think he was living off something like 30rmb (£3) a month or something stupid, and you get all the foreigners that
would come through, and he once invited them for dinner, he spend his whole month money to buy them dinner, it was a very proud thing about face, he just paid the bill and sat there thinking that’s it, I got no money for the whole month. People just don’t realize this kind of sacrifices people make, when they come to visit artists sometimes. And also artists are kind of fools, they should tell people more clearly. But you just don’t know, sometimes you don’t want to embarrass people. So talk about my actual memories of that time, when I first wanted to get a place there, I had to show a bunch of artists to really
approve me to have a room there, I’d take some photos of paintings I had already done in Beijing, like paintings of police, people eating noodles, that really amused them that I painted policemen.
Basically I painted things I could see around me in Beijing. They were like ‘OK’, you are
alright, you can come here. Obviously I was paying a bit more money as the other guy was, helping them. I was just on a student grant, but all the money I spent there was not much,it was quite cheap, if I could manage on a student grant, you can imagine. So I shared this house with 2 other painters, one was painting weird 3 dimensional fish bones, and the other guy
was doing long very Buddhist type abstract compositions, but he was there with his girlfriend, so they were mostly romantically engaged all day long. The place was covered in flies and the toilet was the most disgusting toilet you would ever see in you life, it was basically out on the edge of the field, it was just a large pot of shit. When it filled up the farmers would go spread it on the field as field fertilizer. It was really humming. I think
one artist from that time he covered himself in honey and sat in one of the toilets, got covered in flies, and that was one of his works. It was quite interesting. That was Zhang Huan.
The place was quite mental, the energy of struggling artists, I didn’t stay there at night that much, because the police weren’t comfortable with a foreigner hanging around. I think living this ridiculous bohemian lifestyle the people there were from all over china, they had burned their bridges, they didn’t have hukous, which is the resident permit for Beijing. They were really migratory people, I couldn’t say they were like Hells Angels. After the Tiananmen square massacre there was a real desolate air there wasn’t much hope. So people were working but in kind of a desperate way. Some of them I could say, to be frank, had psychological issues. This was this one guy who used to do really disturbed paintings, I remember one guy showing me a painting of himself having sex with a woman. It was actually a well done painting, and he told me he sold it to a German. The Dutch curator
Hans van Djke organized the first exhibition of artists from China in Germany in the Kunst Haus of Hamburg in 1993. German Neo Impressionism had a big impact on the artists of this time, following visits by artists such Immendorf.
I guess you would say the Chinese artists were really living on the edge, I think, as I remember, what happened was they had one of these baijiu evenings. Baijiu is a very cheap and rough liquor that they drink in Beijing, the most famous brand is Er Guo Tou, brewed in a process used since the Qing Dynasty, and costs very very little. A small bottle, upto 70% proof, in those days cost only a few pence. It was very very rough, it was very very cheap. In the winter people would drink a bottle in the morning to warm themselves up, and work all day ,fueled on this very noxious liquor. As I remember, on one evening, some of the artists all got very drunk, and someone killed someone else. But who really knows what happened? Whoever was responsible then cut the body up and put them into suitcases, and then the police found these suitcases of body parts, and decided it was time to shut the whole thing down. That’s my understanding of what happened. And the artists all kind of moved on from there to different places. But it really was a crazy place at a crazy time, that’s all. But anyway, so, if I have dinner with a bunch of young artists, and it comes up I was at Yuanminyuan, everyone wants to cling glasses and call me an old revolutionary.
That’s what an old revolutionary is. And Yuanminyuan has in art history taken on an
importance beyond what it was like at that time, you didn’t realize this was important, we
were just hanging out. The way I looked at it, there was no market, there was nothing. This was people creating art work to deal with whatever issues they had, doing things they wanted to do. It wasn’t this whole commercially driven enterprise that we have today, people just wanted to do things. But some of them were still quite commercial, there was this guy who came to my studio, who had this marketing thing all going, he had a name card, and he was from ‘Snowland in Tibet’, he would do paintings of Tibet, and sell them to
tourists. People would buy that kind of art and take it home as a souvenir. Souvenirs are fine, but the proper contemporary artists wouldn’t take that kind of thing too serious. They were making social commentary, and Fang Lijun was painting mostly skinheads, the whole liumang thing, liumang means hooligans, the hooligans culture are lost hooligans as I think you can describe them as. The work is a kind of ironic, wry facial expression with a skin head that says “ I’m screwed”, “ we are all screwed after that”. To be frank, I think China is still screwed. But the mythology of Yuanminyuan has been built up over time. It was a sort
of halcyon age, but it wasn’t actually that pretty. They have published list of names, and
someone still remembered I was there, and put my Chinese name in it. Yunfei, meaning Flying Cloud. So someone remembered there was this English guy called
Flying Cloud knocking around.
When I had that studio, I was supposed to be in Chinese classes from something stupid like 8AM in the morning, and I really couldn’t be bothered with that, so I used to ride my bike to my studio, I was still on this Apocalypse Now trip, I thought it was really cool, I had a Flying Pigeon bicycle, one of those really old style big black Chinese bicycles, and I used to trundle up the road from the People’s University where I was to my studio to Yuanminyuan, it was
a 40min bike ride, but was quite a long ride, especially in the summer when it was really
hot. But I was young and it was cool and I was happy. So I biked through these paddy fields, and yes, it was very Apocalypse Now, I had got out of the boat. I did some paintings of the paddy fields, which have kind of a weird romanticism for western people, you see all these
films about Asia and paddy fields are something uniquely Asian. So for us western people paddy fields are a symbol of Asian-ness. But now when you know they are covered in shit and they are not very nice, and they’ve got snakes and other things going on in there, they are not that romantic. But I did enjoy that. And I imagine it was quite weird for Chinese people to see this foreigner trundling on his bicycle through their paddy fields. So that time
in Beijing I did do an awful lot of painting, I had so much energy I painted my walls, and roof even, because there was basically nothing else to do, there were no bars, there was very little going on. There were a few restaurants, there was a night club in the Foreign Language University, and that was about it, unless you went all the way down to the Embassy district, which was crazy money, and full of diplomats and Reuters journalists.
Later things changed a lot, but at that particular time it was like the beginning of a lot of things, like a seed of something. What you can see now, I mean right now, a lot of Chinese artists are in trouble, for mucking around with auctions, and this and that and the other, but artists from that period don’t seem to be having those issues. Fang Lijun went on to open a restaurant. So I guess that 30rmb he spent on buying foreigners dinner really influenced him that he decided to open a restaurant, quite a successful restaurant, on a lake shore.
At that time I was studying in the People’s University and living in the foreign students
dormitory together with people from all over the world, all locked together in this one place. I remember the days in China when they would have loudspeakers dotted around the place, sometimes they’d say things to you through these speakers like “ stop doing that”, which was surreal, I remember ripping speaker wires out on more than one occasion. It was very regimented, and communist, old style communist. I eventually showed about 80 of the works from that time in Shanghai in 2012, and it was a big trip down memory lane to see all that old work. I was working through themes such as Buddhism, relationships, learning to work with Chinese materials, landscapes and language, and was really enjoying the discovery of Chinese inks. Beijing, and China, was such an avalanche of sensations, the work just came flooding out.
The economic reform process began shortly after 1989. By 1992 the students were still very angry, the majority of students in Beijing were shipped off for military training for year after the 1989 uprising. By the time I arrived in Beijing in 1992 the wounds were still very fresh.
I went travelling, first to Shanghai, we will come back there, but it was so cold, freezing, with no heating. So I ran to Hainan island. What a paradise found, a group of young Italian girls sunbathing topless on an empty 10 mile beach, palm trees, coconuts, a bunch of German stoners who amused themselves by doing Hitler parodies. The Italian girls took me on a cruise to an island on a fishing boat, we ate seafood kept fresh in cages hung in the coral. I fell in love with a girl from Rome. The sky was blue. I got tanned. The Hainan people were characters out of a Vietnam war film, with straw hats, skinny shorts and flip flops, eating sharks and chicken. They moved around on scooters with sidecars. I built huge sandcastles on the beach. As I left with the Germans the Italian girls sang us a song from the pier and flashed us. The locals eyebrows rose slightly. The boat put putted through the South China Sea.
I was a fool, the Italian girl wanted to sell her car in Rome and we’d go live in Mexico.
I went back to Beijing, and winter.
Damn it was cold. The people thought I was Russian and looked like Yuri Gagarin. Nobody knew who Neil Armstrong was.
After a year it was a sad departure from Beijing. I had a few hundred paintings. And memories. Cooking lasagne in a toaster oven for a mother who’d lost her son in Tianmen. Of being asked to spy for the British Embassy. Of my friend going to the toilet and disappearing out the window. Of drunken French people dancing in a circle and walking down the street eating 1000 year eggs. Of trading money illegally with black market traders, smoking hashish sold hidden in bread by the Moslems, of my neighbour getting hooked on heroin and playing mah-jong all night, every night, the clatter of tiles a constant echo from his room, Hiruyuki wanted to be the greatest player in Japan. Of the American guy who went to Thailand and died of an overdose. Tranquilino, who died of Aids. Of the Chinese students, who once rebelled, throwing bottles out the windows and blaring trumpets. The not so secret policeman selling ice cream at the school gates, a walkie talkie in his cooler.
The UK was grey. And full of descendants of Angles, smashing into cars, fighting. The was a riot at the end of my street in Newcastle. They stole the radiators and tried to sell us shoplifted shell suits. Police helicopters chased the joy riders and ram raiders all night long, the thwok thwok of the helicopter kept me awake at night, wondering why I wasn’t in Mexico.
I had no inspiration, a silent scream that declined into depression and an unknown illness.
I closed down, the vents shut off. I felt an alien in my home.
I didn’t belong here. So I left Tory Britain, got on my bike, like a paranoid druggie running from the police. I took the first crappy job that came up, I did so many they are a blur.The British class system was suffocating. I could not breathe.
Once I was back in China it was like a kaleidoscope reopened in my brain. Away from the annoying trumpeting of England, I was back in a vacuum where I could breath. I lived in a factory with rats next to a chemical plant, yellow sulphur air, a man dead by his bicycle hit by a coal truck. My wage was so low I’d spend it all in the first week and live the rest of the month on air. The rats trying to chew their way in.
I had my first exhibition, in Sanlitun, in a bar. Gangsters came and beat up the owners and took over the place. I never got my paintings back, but luckily I sold two, which now live in Malaysia.
My job was so crap I ran away with my friend Wenti. He was a DJ, and he taught me the trade. We worked in the remote province of Guizhou. It was a strange town, hidden in mountains, and the people were short. Everything we ate was covered in chilis. Wenti is also a photographer, so he taught me that too. We had Peking Opera troupe dancing to techno while I was dressed as Monkey King. It was very surreal, and intense. The rival gang sent a guy saying he was going to chop my hands off, so I decided to leave. He traced his finger over my hand with an unmistakable gesture. I don’t like gangsters.
Wenti went on to Yunnan to play there. But it was too tiring for me, playing seven days a week. I lost a lot of weight, not eating. He met the love of his life in Yunnan, now they live in Paris.
I remember getting on the plane with a film case full of hash. I was patted down and the lady saw I was worried and pulled it out my pocket. Then she pulled out a condom, guessed that was my problem, and sent me on my way, film case unopened. I have never done that again.
Then I got another job, this time it turned out to be Taiwan mafia. Why is every Chinese firm got some mafia connection? They were borrowing money off a Beijing mayor, who was supposed to be building a subway system. The Taiwan guys, who had cadillacs and Ferraris, were slow payers. One day all the door handles were gone. I kicked the door to get out, only to find myself flying into a group of Beijing toughs. I think they thought it was a scene from a Bruce Lee film, but I demurred and wandered off. Later unpaid workers laid siege to the place and I left, to Shanghai.
I got a job in Shanghai the year of the Hong Kong handover, and on the sleeper train the conductor announced Comrade Deng Xiaoping had died. I exited Shanghai railway station with about £10, a portfolio of paintings, a suitcase and a duffle bag. A migrant worker arrived in the city.
Shanghai had a smell of musty, sad nostalgia mixed with swanky confidence. Dressed in black Prada, with heavy eyeliner, and pale cheeks. She won’t look you in the eye, though she definitely saw you.
I subbed some money from my new boss, a Swede. I went out and got drunk on cheap beer the puked over myself in the back of a taxi. This was still pre-boom Shanghai, and someone had shot the Asian tigers that year. My job had me teaching English to office workers in multinationals. I was bored, they were bored, so I tried to entertain them, that was the way it went. The multinationals were all pretty similar, offices with polystyrene ceilings, little cubicles, a bit of chrome, or whatever. The Cocacola people were nuts, their office rooms were called ‘Fanta’ and ‘Sprite.’ The Nike people all got fired. The Unilever people were really dull. The Siemens people were ambitious sluts. The bank people had no personalities. I crossed the lost and languid, purple Huangpu river, several times a day, shuffling papers in the back seat of a taxi, pretending to wear a shirt and tie. Some people said the students just wanted to have sex with the teachers, but that never happened to me. One colleague used to sneaks boys into the meeting rooms, until someone complained. Another guy got fired for pool hustling. I managed not to get fired this time, but I quit. Corporations are really one of humanities worst inventions.
My old boss, a tall Swede, not the short Swede, introduced me to an English guy starting a magazine. He was ex-UK military, and had got the writing bug after starting a small paper in Guangzhou. In Shanghai he was more ambitious, but with very little funds, he had an office lady called Miss White, who he would march around like one of his squaddies ‘feet White! Pick up your feet!’ As she slopped in her shoes. I wrote my first ever article on a clapped out old computer in a rented room in Shanghai Music Conservatory. It was about art, it was a bit like a school essay, and I interviewed two artists, Chen Yi Fei, a renowned realist painter with a penchant for models and young men, and Mi Qiu, a former government official turned artist, turned architect. A drunk, who never paid his bills, and a bon vivant who died of liver failure, very representative. An American Chinese lady appeared, who it turned out was the publisher. I wrote the article, but there was a power failure and lost the lot. So I re wrote it, remembering to press save. Two pudgy guys, one English, one American, arrived on scooters. They were sales and distribution.
There was a panic, as nothing seemed suitable for the cover of the first edition. The designer pulled a photo I had taken, thrown in the bin by the publisher. A blurry photo of a drunk artists paint splattered shoes. A reader commented, its so cool to use blurry photos for the cover, you should make it a feature of the magazine.
The magazine became popular fast, in an information vacuum. But the government weren’t happy. There was a constant struggle, until the government finally just took it over, locking the English guy out his own office. What a drama. Almost two decades later its still a successful magazine. A Potemkin of itself. Very strange other realities exist, where things like that do happen. And there is no come back.
I started my own small business, in a bright yellow office, publishing a strange amorphous magazine that was something between Smash Hits and the Mr Men. I got some investment via an internet company, as I had got in a punch up with a film director. It really was just a waste of money, but it was interesting my job was to deal with a corrupt government guy whose English name was Herman.
Having burnt the venture capital I had to get another job. I was married, with a child. I couldn’t really paint. I just drew in sketch books. There was a small ad in the Shanghai Daily looking for journalists. So I applied, and weirdly got the job, as a China correspondent for a Russian news agency.
I worked with the Russians for eight years. I had the idea, having grown up towards the end of thecold war engagement was a far better idea than nuclear war. Surely to work in a way to increase peace and understanding is the core value of an artist.
I was called a spy, for who? For Russia? For China? For Britain? Everything I wrote was published on Bloomberg, its all there. But I was sent a letter by Mi5 in the open post. The words ‘fucking’ and ‘idiots’ come to mind. To be honest, I think I had a Christmas tree by my after I innocently attended a meeting of the communist party in the 1980s. I was curious. I have a degree in Politics. A 2:2, no less. A sad tale, but I had my second episode of MS inmy final year.
Working for Russia’s biggest news agency was intense, in a way.
I was hired by two guys, we met in the Jinjiang Hotel. We talked over bone china coffee cups. One chap set up Moodys Russia, the other the former press attache in Pretoria. They first wanted me to cover IT news, with my experience of a dot com startup, why not? I never mentioned art in these circumstances.
I was sent to Moscow for training. ‘Always tell the truth, that is the easiest and only way,’ my new boss told me. He had held an equal position to Putin in Yeltsin’s cabinet. Him and Putin were friends. He had photos of him and Putin giving each other flowers.
The sprawling office was a former Tsarist brothel, close to the Bolshoi. Moscow was freezing. I had to get drunk with my colleagues, four shots of vodka time. ‘We don’t trust anyone who can’t drink.’ When I went to get a glass of wine ‘wine is for the women.’ I rushed through the speeding traffic, nearly getting run over. The homeless people hung about drinking near the subway. It was cold. I was asked if I wanted to go shooting at the Kremlin gun range. I declined.
The office hero was a young blonde girl, who had secretly made phone calls during the Moscow theatre siege. She worked in the oil and gas news. She smiled at me shyly when we met. I still have my Russian press card.
I met the boss in his office for lunch, everything swimming in basil. Russian sausages and potatoes I do not recommend. He pressed a small green button on the lip of his desk. This is it I thought, the shark tank. A hidden door opened and a middle aged lady came in with the next course. At least I look like the locals, I mused. No you don’t I was told, ‘you look too happy.’
I think a good part of the firm was ex-KGB. But I guess back in the day everyone was KGB. I shared an office with a guy who screamed down the phone all day. He never said hello or goodbye, he’d just bark something then slam the phone down. He was organising the annual New Year party.
The office also had a press conference room. The room where a balaclava clad Litvinyenko spilled the beans on the FSB. I was told ‘this is what we do.’ The firm was established during the riotous times of Russia’s rebirth, typing under tank fire. I was suitably encouraged to do the same in China, but sensibly.
I explained the term Quango to a colleague, a quasi autonomous government organisation. ‘Ah, that’s what we are,’ he said.
I did a few nice drawings in Russia. I gave them to a Chinese vice minister of Culture at some meeting or other where you are supposed to give gifts. He was surprised.
My new colleague, based in Beijing, had been in Tiananmen during the massacre. He had driven a car with photos of Gorbachev pasted on. ‘The people cheered us,’he said. He had lain prone on a balcony, watching the tanks roll up Chang’An Boulevard.
My chief editor had been in Angola, with the Cubans. When I was a kid in Johannesburg. My friends brothers coming back in body bags. Peace was much better than war. We could drink together andswap tales, and all tell the truth. There was more honour in that.
I had avoided conscription in South Africa. But I could never return, until Mandela got in. But I never returned.
I miss it in a way. But what I miss no longer exists. In South Africa I was beaten for refusing to march. When ordered to do a right wheel I went left. I was put in the bum squad.
Back in China I was basically managing an investment of £20 million to build an independent news agency. At the same time I managed to rent a new studio. I would work all day, then paint all night, do a tour of the bars, then do it again. I travelled constantly. Building and moving. I was living three lives at once. I interviewed politicians and CEOs. Jessie Ventura said I spoke good English for a Russian. I wrote the questions for the only interview conducted with the Chinese President Hu. I bought a chair that had briefly been sat in by Chinese President Jiang. I arranged press conferences for Russian political leaders.
It was busy. I trained dozens of journalists. During the SARs epidemic and the anti-Japanese demonstrations it was almost close to being bigger. The only story I wrote at that time which went global viral, apart from SARs stories, was about a factory using human hair to make soy sauce.
My cleaning lady to me her cousin, who worked in Ruijin Hospital, told me they were secretly hiding SARs patients in the liver cancer ward. I pretended I had a cough and a fever and went to the hospital. They freaked out. I was taken to room like a jail cell in a western movie. An old man was sent in to take some blood. He had obviously never done that before as he tried to inject me with a syringe full of air. They decided I didn’t have SARs so I left, none the wiser.
I published a story on iron ore, not something most people would get excited about, which caused some concern as China was breaking WTO rules. I think that story ended up costing China about £3 billion. I write that number now with some awe, as I am unemployed now, on disability benefit.
Once that hit, the Chinese secret police started taking a very serious interest in my operation. I didn’t trust anyone, not even my wife. I asked my boss what to do. He said ‘don’t worry about it, talk to them, they’ll go back and write whatever they like in their files, its all bullshit.’ But I did worry. If I had dinner with someone, I wasn’t sure if they’d be pulled aside to ask what we talked about. I started creating fake realities. Loops within loops, a trail of confusion, the essence of random.
I was complicated. At the same time I was writing for the Guardian.
But mostly only lame rewrites of wire stories, because I’d answer the phone at 9pm.
It was a 24 hour job. But I was still painting. I had a growing mountain of work in my studio. But I didn’t want to exhibit.
I painted over and over.
The editor of the Guardian came tomy house for a BBQ. We got on well. He became my Facebook friend. But then I accidentally deleted him. What a moment of shame. I was finished with the Guardian after that. Accidents of fate.
I was obviously headed for overburn. In 2006 I had an exhibition in a friends gallery. It sold out. ‘Are youthe gallerist?
‘No I’m the artist.’ ‘But you don’t look Chinese.’
Then a mysterious offer- as it was the year of Sino Russian friendship would I Iike to show at Shanghai Art Museum?
So of course, thinking myself very smart I did. I showed a bunch of subversive paintings with nocemsorship whatsoever. At the same time Fang Lijun, who was from the Old Summer Palace artist village in Beijing, had the main exhibition. It was just about the busiest exhibitions they ever had. I was the only living foreigner to have a solo show there. I was called a second class Matisse and Picasso by the Chinese critics. The weird resentment was huge. But some people understood what I was doing, commenting on how China was rebuilding itself, physically, spiritually and even their own bodies. It was cartoonish, but I felt the need to state the obvious, as everyone was obscuring their meanings due to censorship fears. I grew a beard. I didn’t care. I arrived in their town with £10 in my pocket. I called the exhibition ‘the city of gold.’ I think I got the idea from some cartoon I watched as a kid. I even had some pretty openly anti-communist party pieces, inspired by East European art. I even repainted a drawing I did aged 10, which was published in the Johannesburg Star. It was an anti-apartheid drawing, I just changed the monster to red.
At the same time my Mother died, young, of a brain tumour. I spent a month with her, in the same spot I am sitting now in her living room, writing this, the same space where the cancer took her life away.
I had a meeting with China’s state news agency Xinhua, the guy commented I looked young for a Russian general.
The following year was the economic crash of 2008. Our major client was Lehman Brothers. It was intimated I’d have to fire most of the staff, so I resigned.
Then I started writing for the Art Newspaper, an eccentric outfit out of London. The Chinese secret police were confused, wasn’t I a spy for Russia? Was I now some kind of triple agent? My trails of confusion, as the Shanghai phrase ‘daojianghu’ describes– to put glue in the brain- was bearing fruit.
I had the most wonderful studio, in the best community of artists I have ever worked with.
It wasn’t wonderful in the physical sense, but in its energy. I was much more mature by this point. I’m not sure if my work was better, my younger works were very pure spirited, uncorrupted by life. I was fighting a lot of things by this point, the market demands, like a nagging wife, a style. But for me, there is no style, only essence. I stole that line from Bruce Lee, who was a quarter white, by the way. Humans, we are mixed, we are all the same, the only difference is the overlay of culture. The software on our hardware. But culture is a virus, much more powerful than weapons. I think the dickheads in the west have forgotten that, though very much not in the east.
If you parachuted artists onto a culture instead of bombs the results would be much more promising. Not of course, the Third Reich type countries, they are too far gone. But Russia and China are still open, they are willing to engage. Less so than before. Like the Star Ship Enterprise cut off from Star Fleet Command, artists have been left to wither, with no fuel for the plasma drive. For a very long time.
And then the art world itself, it operates like a cult. That doesn’t help.
By now I had broken up with my wife.
In 2009 I arranged an exhibition in Beijing and Shanghai called ‘Stolen Treasures of Modern China.’ It was about cultural appropriation and artist identity. It was a mirror on art. It was actually very well put together. But I got sick again, I could hardly stand at the opening.It was like I had been poisoned.
The following year I arranged another show in Beijing called China Dream. It was closed down almost immediately. How was I to know China Dream was the main ethos of China’s new incoming President? A drunk agitator came in the gallery screaming. The nervous gallerist said ‘nothing like this has happened in twenty years.’
I interviewed Ai Weiwei, I introduced him to twitter. It was very surreal a year or so later chatting with the Twitter CEO on CNN.
I was charting the destruction of China’s art communities, while simultaneously charting the rise of the art market in my work. Long features on ’what is Chinese art?’ And ‘HongKong- the new art destination in Asia.’
I was also having a disastrous affair with the Chinese wife of a Japanese shipping tycoon. Like Russian sausages, affairs don’t sit well with me. It was a bad idea, but I somehow got sucked into it. It introduced me to a darker side of life in Shanghai, where everyone has something to hide as they drop a few thousands on another bottle of champagne.
In 1995 when I was DJing I met a blind fortune teller in Guizhou province who told me that when I was 40 I would have problems with my eyes and become a famous writer. I arrived in China in 1992.
I lost my eyesight in 2011, when I was 40. I did though continue painting.
I was in Shanghai when it happened, I just woke up a couldn’t see.
Shanghai is the city of Chinese dreams. Most of these dreams revolve
around getting rich.
There are a myriad of sensations you can feel while sitting in a room.
The low mummers and hum of conversations permeate the air.
Shanghai’s bars, restaurants, tea houses, streets, parks and also hospitals, with which I have
become very familiar.
The massive hustle and bustle of twenty million people on the make. The world’s largest subway system hurles people around the city on the world’s fastest trains. Elevators shoot people up and down the world’s tallest buildings. The world’s richest people moor their yachts on the Bund, the world’s richest riverfront. A huge golden bull statue points its horns at the financial centers on the south bank of the Huangpu river, the world’s busiest river, with its constant flow of container ships and coal junks.
On street level its a writhing mass of humanity, hawkers vending food from stinky tofu to hot meat buns, old electric machinery repairers, knife sharpeners, fruit sellers, old people, school kids in dayglow backpacks, pimps, hustlers, whores, interns, flunkies, thieves and district committee spies all mingled on the streets alongside the daily working ants, heading to or from some important appointment.. Drifting by them were the children of the rich party elite, in Buicks, Porsches, Masseratis and Lamboghinis, with bicycles, electronic bikes and scooters of the poor interweaving the clogged lanes.
And the noise, the constant noise of ringing bells, car horns, electric beeps, peoples shouts, the grinding of bus gears, the constant tread of thousands on the pavement, and the roar of the ships as they hoot narrowly missing another passenger ferry.
I ended up nearby, in Shanghai’s Huashan hospital, a prize institution associated to Fudan university, thousands of people pass through its doors every day. People come from all over China, to try and find a cure from the hands of its famous doctors. The wafting air is thick with the aroma of sticky blood, sweat and fear in the emergency room. Huashan hospital is in downtown Shanghai, and is pretty much the top hospital in the country. It is on the corner of Huashan road and Urumuqi road, a really busy intersection, crossing at the lights there I nearly got run over a couple of times, as drivers hurtle across the zebra crossing, blowing their horns furiously.
My artist losing his eyesight story began about a year earlier. I was dragging my foot a lot
and was having trouble with the sight in my left eye. A friend of mine who worked in a
hospital in Germany saw me walking and dragging my foot, and I wasn’t drunk, he said I
looked like I had MS. I didn’t really know what to make of it, I didn’t know what this
meant. MS, I thought to myself. Over a long period of seeing a lot of doctors, I got told I had
all sorts of weird and wonderful sounding diseases, such as Leber’s disease, spondylitis, old
eyesight, diabetes, sinusitis. I was also told I was psychologically faking it – smoking too
much, drinking too much, food allergies, reaction to the lead in the paint I use, hepatitis,
you name it. But of course the friend’s diagnosis of MS was correct. This is a disease that
affects a lot of people in Europe and US, predominantly a Caucasian disease. For a while I was told I got a lesser known form of MS called NMO, much more common in Asia. No one knows the cause of it, and there is no cure. Essentially your immune system attacks your brain and nervous system.
The first attack hit hard in early 2011. My left eye was already dead in the water, and
suddenly my right eye went. As a 40 old man, living alone down a Shanghai lane, the
experience was quite hard to bear. I wasn’t quite as bad as a character in John Wyndham’s
novel the Triffids, walking blindly around the city. But my eyesight was down to 0.1 in both
eyes, everything was pretty much blurry abstract shapes. I recently heard Munch lost some eyesight later in life, and described the experience as seeing through butterflies. That sort of catches it.
I am a painter who always had one luxury of perfect eyes my whole life so this sudden
attack on my life was a sharp and nasty down into another place where I was lost, alone
and blind. There is no real answer to what you do in this situation except panic. So I
I wasn’t long back from a long trip to Yunnan province, where I was researching China’s ancient tea horse trails, the Southern silk road. I had been trekking up hills and mountains, interviewing village people and knocking about with anthropologists and history professors. It was such a surprise to find myself in the unfortunate situation of being blinded alone, in the middle of one of the world’s biggest cities.
The medical system in Shanghai, I discovered, is one where you need to fight to get
seenl. If you are sick, you had better get ready to fight. If you want to get to a doctor sharpen you elbows. From my perspective, once I was in it, I can see the positive benefits of making a sick person fight to get treatment. But it does take some ramping up of the psyche to take it on. It isn’t like the western system where is more passive, you sit back and let the system tell you what to do. In China if you want to get any help you had better take charge of the situation. Which is hard when you are ill, obviously. And you don’t have any aggressive relatives to demand treatment.
Several months before I found Huashan hospital, with my eyesight almost gone the eye doctors at the expat clinic were at a loss and were shrugging their
Shoulders, telling me to take vitamins and wishing me luck at this point. So I turned to
google to see if I could find my answers there. So with some painstaking efforts and my
Peoples Liberation Army map reading magnifying glass, I found that steroid treatment
could regenerate the eye nerve if affected within a couple of weeks of the attack. After that
period of two weeks had passed all hope was lost. I immediately jumped into a cab and told
my eye doctor. Oh yes he says there is that, just it is dangerous. I nearly choked the
prescription out of him. The first steroid treatment worked, my eyesight in my right eye
bounced around and pretty much came back. It felt like my eyesight had been whacked and
tumbled. But it worked, and the treatment was a success. The feeling was like car
windscreen wipers clearing away a heavy rain. I could see again, but what caused it? Was it
going to happen again? What was the deal?
The same doctor who prescribed the steroids mused maybe I had MS. My overwhelming
memory at this time was of going down Huaihai road, Shanghai’s main drag, seeing only
dark shapes and long stripes of yellow car lights, echoing into the distance. I broke down and had a few tears, stood under a tree in the long dark lane I lived down. I picked myself up and carried on.
I went back to the UK to see if I could find any answers there. There is no welcome for
health tourists, trumpeted the Daily Mail. I did manage to see a MS specialist in Sheffield who came in after a liquid lunch, bow tie flapping, and decided there was nothing wrong with me, though he did offer an eyepatch. I really didn’t see what doing an impression of Long John Silver would do to help, so I gave up on the NHS. Looking back, I think he could have saved the sight in my right eye. Just recently I saw the same doctor on TV under the headline ‘a cure for MS.’ He was giving patients chemo, wiping out their immune systems and rebooting it. It looks like a very dangerous experiment to me. And given as he is choosing people with relapsing, remitting stage how do they know if they are cured? I have serious doubts about that operation.
Oh well, back to China, with just a spinal tap under my belt and not a lot else. While in London, I gave a short talk on Chinese art and politics at Goldsmith University and also wrote some editorial on the arrest of Ai Weiwei for the Art Newspaper. I carried on working, wrote up my Yunnan trip for the paper as well, and worked on some art shows. I had to move my studio, the government kicked me out of my 4 year residence in 696 Weihai road, along with about 49 other artists. It was really a tragedy- we had built up quite a multi-cultural community. I filed a few reports about the situation-
Time running out for Shanghai artists’ colony
The Art Newspaper By Chris Gill.
Following the demolition of Ai Weiwei’s Shanghai studio in the city’s outskirts, other artists in the city are also facing the loss of their spaces. An old factory in downtown Shanghai, which has survived for more than four years as a dissident artist colony, and is only a few hundred meters from Shanghai’s main luxury fashion street Nanjing Road, which hosts the Louis Vuitton China flagship store, Prada and numerous other big-name brands, now faces its final shutdown as the local government has moved in to evict the tenants of its 72 sub-divisions.
The colony, known by its address “Weihai Road 696” has become a cornerstone of the less commercial, avant garde art scene in Shanghai. The space has an ever evolving blend of tenants, a mix of numerous professions from the more traditional painters, sculptors,photographers and print makers, to fashion designers, animators, documentary makers,performance artists, theatre practitioners, and even a Chinese cooking school. There are also a handful of experimental galleries, such as AroundSpace, Stageback and Dohjida from Kyoto,Japan.
Despite some local and foreign media coverage of the expected evictions, there has been no discernible effect on local government officials. A Chinese artist, a long term resident in Shanghai’s other noted art zone, M50, said that that area also faced demolition in its early days: “All the artists used their connections. We even found the retired teachers of all those government officials, the reform and development office and so on, and [we] called them up and shouted at them, that was how we survived.” However, as Weihai Road 696 is mostly occupied by artists from outside Shanghai, they do not have the local connections to mount such a campaign.
There are many rumours as to what the authorities plan for the space, and the adjoining
block of old, red-brick lanes. It may be that the area will be redeveloped into a gentrified
tourist spot, like Xintiandi, or will be turned into expensive architect studios, or simply become office space, similar to Shanghai’s other “creative zones”.
“There are 31 creative zones in Shanghai and not a single one suits me,” resident artist Ma Liang said. His Weihai Road studio was recreated in the Shanghai Art Museum for the recentShanghai Biennale. Rents in the creative zones, usually in outlying areas, are around 1$ per meter per day, compared to 20 cents per meter per day at the Weihai road site. In the adjoining lanes, local officials send in security squads and officials to silently stare at tenants and visitors. The owner of a small coffee shop in the lanes said Chen Guan (“City officer”, a lower-ranking member of the security police) were regularly coming into his shop to stare at his customers “until they become uncomfortable and leave”.
There are concerns that once the tenant leases expire in March there will be trouble. “There are three groups,” one artist, a printmaker, explained. “Those who will die before they leave, those who don’t know what to do, and those who are already leaving.”
German artist Rolf Kluenter added: “Shanghai will lose its heart when this place closes,
doesn’t Shanghai want a heart?”
I kept painting and making new work, not knowing when or how the next episode was
going to take place.
Following the loss of the studios, I made an installation ‘Corridor at the End of Time,’ a 14
long tunnel that looked infinite. Several hundred visitors were ushered through, helped by myself and a small team dressed as nurses.
It took a few months, but eventually the spinal tap diagnosis came back as positive for MS. I managed to drag the news out an NHS receptionist over the phone.
The health care system in place for a foreign painter and occasional journalist living in China is not a good one. It basically involved me using my battered bank account. Sales of paintings and articles about Chinese art paid by the word did not accumulate that much money. It was a bit of a hand to mouth existence. The expat health care system is basically evacuate out of China as soon as possible. Corporations ship their people to Hong Kong, Singapore or back home. ‘No insurance’ people such as myself have to brave the local system. A few concerned friends asked if I was alright for money. I kept going pimped a few more paintings to collectors I know, and built as big a cash egg as I could.
I don’t think anyone can choose to be a painter. It more chooses you, it is when an addictive
compulsion to keep recording images of everything going on around you takes over your life. I think, as it turns out, painters- and other kind of artists- need to be either working class or upper class, there seems to be no middle ground. If you are from a working class background you are better prepared for the crazy rollercoaster ride, and the upper class have their safety cushions. The bourgeoisie just cannot cope with the uncertainty, and impose all their middle class values onto everything they touch.
I lived in China for 20 years, and the experience was a nonstop over whelming riot of sensations. And through it all I kept painting away….each painting tells its own story. I’mnot sure it’s the same now. I was there for the reform period. With the new leadership the country has entered another phase.
In my studio
Liverpool biennial director: This is an interesting one. What is going on here?
Me: This is depiction of the life of a 10,000 year Buddha. In Buddhist philosophy
people are reborn over and over again, but to become a 10,000 year Buddha is quite an achievement. I am interested in that idea.
The New City
by Melanie McGanney
If you’ve ever felt momentarily paralyzed by the stampede of Xujiahui’s thundering
consumer madness, you could probably hazard a guess as to why locally-based artist Chris
Gill refers to Shanghai as a “City of Gold” in his show at the Shanghai Art Museum. British
by birth and trained as a printmaker, Gill has spent the past 18 years developing his art in
China, watching the country transform from a populace donning “Mao suits” to a place
where “individual worth is measured by money and through comparisons with the highest
tiers of capitalist society.”
Gill’s exhibit features enormous oil on canvas depictions of the rapidly changing city,
marked by the artist’s perceived relationship between Shanghai’s recent evolution and the
female figure. Shanghai’s sprouting skyscrapers parallel the society’s demand for its female
inhabitants to embody what Gill calls “a new shape.” Gill believes this ideal is being “forced
upon women” and is a “largely local phenomenon that may have some origins in Korean
A number of the works, including “The new city #1” and “The new city #2,” depict
bikini-clad figures in the foreground of the burgeoning metropolis. In #1, the female figure
is little more than a black outline
The Dripping Rooms of Shanghai
I think most people regard me as a bit odd in the regard hat I have been painting away all
these years, apart from a small group of friends and some other painters, who encourage
me to keep going. For me its not a choice to stop, I’ll keep on doing it as an army of one up
to the end, I find it is who I am, so I am content with that and let it be. I knew I should be
living comfortably with my 20 years China experience, language skills and connections but
I use these things in my art works so never really became a financial success. When people
start to quiz me I have a catch all line that my work is about creating better cultural
communication to prevent nuclear war…that usually shuts them up. I do sometimes tap
into some aspects of other worldliness that I don’t quite understand myself. When the first
draft of this very text went to an editor he picked up on my prediction (that comes later)
that this China is like a pressure cooker about to explode. Three months later, lo
and behold there are air raid attack practice drills waking me up at 8am, and the Japanese
embassies were barricaded, with huge crowds marching about calling for war with Japan.
What do I do now about my original predictions? Delete them? For me my spookiest moment as an itinerant psychic was when I visited Thailand two months before the disasterous Tsunami struck. I was besieged every day with déjà vu style visions of tidal waves and panic as I stared at the perfectly flat ocean off Phuket. I even drew these visions in a sketch book. Imagine my horror when these visions became reality two months later. What is the solution I sometimes jokingly ask? Should the United Nations constantly fly me around the world to see if I have uncomfortable feelings? I don’t think that would really work. But anyhow, I can say I have a bad feeling about where things are going in China, a country and a people I love, and have spent twenty years recording their humanity, with what purpose?
I suppose so that the Chinese, others, and myself, may better understand ourselves, even if
only a little. And pray no more disasters happen. But anyway, as I said a lot of people find
me a little odd, for Chinese people all foreigners are a bit odd so I haven’t defeated that
expectation. I have friend from Bombay, who lives in London. Her brother is certified
schizophrenic- and he believes it is his mission to save the world from China. If we look at
the situation rationally the media has sent him mental, with its coverage of the country,
something coincided with the onset of his illness and his mind latched on to it- I don’t think
we will fully understand mental illness. It is another state of consciousness whereby
various chemicals in the brain have become imbalanced. If we look at it irrationally maybe
there are leaks in the space time continuum and some are more receptive than others, I
couldn’t possibly try to explain it, but anyhow it is a big universe out there, and we are like
little Meercats on our tiny mound of earth, looking out inquisitively at the unexplained
shapes and movements all around us. The one thing about Meercats that makes them
different from us is that they are not stupid enough to blow up their own nest, among
mammals I think humans are unique in that ability. I call it the beautiful monkey brain- that
curiosity that leads us to our own extinction.
So back to the practical world I was now facing monthly medical costs – some blood test
and poke with a tongue depressor cost me a few thousand dollars at one of the expat type
clinics – this was not helping. I talked to people, a lot of people, about how they dealt with
these things. One friend, a long term expat in Asia said those expat clinics are just there to
rape your wallets. The doctors can’t do much more than prescribe VD cures. Okay, so I
crossed expat clinics off as a possible solutions in my health care option list.
The Chinese hospitals offer a service they call ‘Wai Bing Fang’ – foreign guest section. I had
been using for some time the Huadong hospital Wai Bing Fang, it has a sign saying
approved by BUPA.
These were the people who said I had Laohua (old eye) in my left eye and spongilitis in my
spine. To be fair to them I have a claustrophobic reaction to MRI machines, so I wasn’t the
most helpful patient, though I did do an MRI, it showed subtle lesions on the brain. Anyhow
I knew the mettle of Huadong hospital Wai Bing Fang, it was weak.
Another close friend, who unfortunately has a brain tumor, advised me to go to Huashan
hospital, who are well known for work in the area of neuropathy – brain diseases. My
experience in Huashan had always been the 8th floor, the Huashan Wai Bing Fang was a bit
more sophisticated than the Huadong one – they had carpets, sofas, basically copied the
look of the expat clinics and unfortunately their prices. By now I had accumulated an MRI
scan, a positive MS reading from a spinal tap and was trying to figure out my next move.
I was following advice given on the MS society website – I was following the diet – no wheat, no dairy, no beans. Actually living in China this wasn’t so tough, I could do the diet, no beer, no bread, no milk, no cheese, and all that. I was very strict.
The diet was recommended to me by a nurse in Sheffield. MS is a very peculiar disease, and
no one really understands it – it is a vague disease, perfect for a vague guy like myself. MS
is a disease of the immune system, the immune system is a massive galaxy that doctors
don’t even begin to understand. And when it goes wrong they are totally lost. Basically
my immune system is attacking my nerves, and for my eyes it is destroying the coating of
my eye nerves and attacking the nerves itself. Nobody really understands why it is doing
this. For MS every patient has a different experience, no two people are alike. They somehow have a lot of similar issues. Doing the diet I picked up a lot, I was biking around Shanghai again withmy one working eye, doing my work, in fact it turned out I was doing too much.
MS has a lot of strange symptoms, one of my favourites being ‘inappropriate emotional response.’ One of the other peculiar symptoms associated with MS is a kind of heat influence – if you get too hot your vision blurs, things get sticky. But I worked through a whole Shanghai summer, which gets up to 38 degrees. riding my bike my vision would blur
up, but I figured that only brought my riding skill down to Shanghai’s average standard –
Shanghai is home to a lot of very bad drivers. I so wish they would all get sent to Japan for a
course on road politeness and common courtesy. Getting around shanghai riding a bike is mostly about being brash and over confident. The guys and girls on electric scooters don’t slow down at traffic lights to save battery power. Drivers in shanghai all play a big game of who dares wins. I dared to ride my bike around the city half blind, which wasn’t a very good idea.
Luckily I didn’t crash. Previous to my medical condition I did crash a few times though, cracked ribs, broken arm.
Back to my medical situation and my financial problems, I kept in mind that I arrived in
Shanghai in 1997 with only £10 in my pocket. So I carried on. Another solution I found
to my MS challenge was something called low dose naltrexone. In the UK, for instance,
there are a bunch of MS drugs, that essentially are there to stop attacks, such as the one I
had tried, self injecting, to nogreat effect. These drugs are super expensive, the UK health system spends billions ofpounds on them for around one hundred thousand sufferers. Amongst MS patients there is a strong core who thinkall these drugs are bullshit. Others lobby for this low dose naltrexone to be available on prescription – it is a cheap generic
drug for detoxing heroin users, in low doses taken at night, some people on the Internet sayit helps. When you are desperate….
Its an opiate so doctors won’t prescribe it because it hasn’t undergone
medical trial and drug companies won’t trial it because then they would be providing a
super cheap alternative to their super expensive drugs, and so it goes yadda yadda. I so got
some of that.It didn’t work, but I had some very vivid dreams. When you are blindlater inlife, you can still see fine in your dreams.
The next attack hit very hard. MS is a peculiar disease, my grandmother died of it when I
was very young. My father never talks about it. We emigrated to south Africa not long after
in 1972, so the history was there. I read about it, I wanted to know what to expect. People
told me things, you lose your sight, use of your body, but your brain is still fully functional. You are a prisoner inyour own body. The prognosis was not good. So ignoring MS advice to change your lifestyle and avoid stress, I was working furiously to try and do as much as possible before ‘the end’ came. So suddenly I was up to my elbows and things, I had a lot of commissions, I moved studio to M50, Shanghai’s gallery district, I was in the middle of moving apartment, my idea was to try and make myself more comfortable, and set up an environment where I could work as long as possible. But I could feel the symptoms coming back, especially in my eyes, a slow shuttering degradation. I knew it was coming. In my mind I knew if it hit then I go back on steroids, the one treatment that had worked. Doing a steroid course is no fun – it makes you bounce around like a balloon, you get all hyped up, for me the first experience was a bit like having my brain sandpapered. So I collected my bag of MRIs, CTs, lumber puncture results, and went to the 8th floor of the Huashan hospital. I told the doctor I’m having an attack of MS, you need to put me on steroids, the neurologist agreed and said I needed to be hospitalised for at least a week, ‘lets get the accountant in here to see how much that costs.’
In marches a lady wearing a pants suit with a calculator, and she started typing numbers,
bump bump bump, RMB50000 (about £5,000), no wait, bump bump bump, RMB80000
(£8,000) for a week.
I just looked at them. It wasn’t even a matter of the money. I could have borrowed it, or
whatever. This was a set up. I could see them glancing at each other, even though my eyes
had gone pretty bad I could read their body language. They were making it up on the spot. I
explained I didn’t need or want to be hospitalised for steroid treatment, oh but you really
do the doctor said. As a foreigner you can only stay in the foreign beds, and then a long list
of crazy other things added on, these people wanted to charge 100s of times the real cost
and the medicine. A friend said ‘you went to a 5 star place, expect pay 5 star prices.’ Fair
enough, I was still in expatriate fairyland. I signed a form I couldn’t see saying I refused to be hospitalized against medical advice. I my opinion the advice being paying 80000RMB for some nice cushions , or no treatment at all, as they didn’t allow foreigners in the normal wards. It was like anyway whatever I am trying to sort my eyesight. They put me on a drip of 1000g steroids sat in a corridor. I still had to pay crazy money for it.
Which is a strong dose. As a friend pointed out to me a bit later ‘they fucked with you then
put you on steroids. It would have been wiser to dose you with valium first.’ And so began
the next part of my journey.
In the waiting room at the 8th floor Huashan hospital
American guy: they are so slow.
Me: I guess the doctors are busy
AG: I have been waiting for half an hour
Me: I guess the good doctors are in high demand
AG: I did the billing system for this hospital here. They changed it after we put it in. They
have their own way of doing things.
Me: is that right
AG: Yes. I have been living in China for a very long time. They really have their own way of
doing things. For instance did you know the Hongqiao Marriott is now run by a Chinese firm. Its now full of army people
Me: No I didn’t know that.
The neurologist quietly mentioned to me that the hospital had an MS specialist, down on the 5th floor. By the second day the steroid treatment was not working, and my eyesight
had dropped off a cliff, I couldn’t see, I was taking my life in my hands crossing the road. So
I decided to fight, I think with a disease like MS I decided I wasn’t going to be a burden on
anybody. I was going to deal with it by myself. So I set off for the 5th floor of the Huashan
hospital. The 5th floor was a different universe to the 8th floor. It was where I discovered a
lot about myself and the Chinese people.
By now I really couldn’t see very well and had to start asking people for simple directions
to get to the hospital I would stand by the side of the road with my hand held up until a taxi
stopped. I had to learn to be patient. I also found I could walk from my house to the hospital
about 2 miles, by following the path in the pavement made for blind people, the problem is
that Shanghai pavements are so cluttered with street life, so it can be difficult. Also at this point I didn’t have a white cane. One thing I learnt, because I couldn’t see the traffic coming, was to cross the road at traffic lights. In Shanghai cars sometimes stop at traffic light but they do not stop at zebra crossings. They also turn right against red lights. Mopeds, scooters, bicycles and electric bikes pay no attention to either traffic lights or zebra crossings, the benefit t of crossing at these places is if they run you down you will receive 10,000 RMB (about £1000) as compensation. This has led to the weird phenomenonof drivers reversing over someone they have just hit. Dead guys are less likely to seek compensation.
The view from my apartment window was a huge swish apartment block. It slowly vanished frommy view.
My phone was a dead gray object in my hand, I had a PLA magnifying glass
which was my last resort when trying to read something. Basically the world was fading
out. Peoples’ faces had disappeared everything was a fuzz. Street traffic was just blurs.
I came out onto the hospital’s 5th floor, it was a huge mass of people like the rush hour at the peoples square metro station. People were in ungainly long queues, angry and shouting at each other, there was no real obvious order. A lot of people were just sat waiting, on benches, on the floor, hanging about. So I had to figure this out. The obvious start was to join a queue, so I did. I came eventually to two nurses sat shouting numbers.’ which department?’ they said.
‘Neurology’ I said. ‘here is your number 1014, it will be about 4 hours.’ she said. ‘Go pay
over there.’ So I joined another queue to pay. I got to the counter, with difficulty. It was a
very aggressive queue, a lot of shouting I think because some people were trying to push in.
I let a little old lady go in front of me. I had 4 hours why stress it?
I got to the front and the guy said ‘where is your card?’. ‘What card I don’t have one.’
Impatiently he gestured ‘go over there and fill the patient card.’ Ok, so I found a stack of
cards but couldn’t see obviously so filling it out was an issue. Hmm. A guard seeing I was in
difficulty came over, I said I couldn’t see, so he helped me fill out the card, I said thank you
and re joined the queue for paying. A lady told me I could go to the front, but I didn’t want it
to look like I was being an arrogant foreigner so I just queued again. I paid the guy and he
gave me a plastic card as well. Ok. Now the problem was I had a number and I could see a
board that had numbers on it but couldn’t read them or the number in my hand which I’d
paid for. So back to the nurses queue, I asked for a bit more information, I would be room
12, I was getting a bit frustrated by this point I didn’t think I would manage it, I decided to
give up. I got in the lift, in Huashan, and other Chinese hospitals, the life have lift
operators. It’s a perfectly good lift but to manage the flow of people the lifts have these
ladies who all day just press the lift buttons, you tell them the floor number you want, so
the lift operator said to me, ‘Go back. Don’t give up, you just don’t understand the system.’ and took me back to the 5th floor. ‘Thank you’ I said.
By this point you are probably wondering why I was doing this whole nobby no mates
routine – why was no one with me? I think firstly because my phone was a dead object, I couldn’t see well enough to call anyone. Secondly I was still trying to be independent.
After I came back out of the lift there was a low cheer of mostly the whole room had been
silently watching. A man patted me on the back and said ‘you come back’. So I went back to
the nurses, and told them ‘look I’m sick I can’t se a damn thing how am I supposed to know
when its my number and where to go?’. The nurse sort of laughed and walked me through
the crowd to a door. ‘Stand here when it is your number this nurse here will tell you.’ Ok. So
I waited there. After a while I was walked into a room full of doctors and patients, and lots
of little open cubicles. The white coats were doctors, patients were in little crowds, some
had quite a gang with them. I sat with a doctor, told him I had MS, pulled out my bag of MRIs and CT scans. He looked for a bit then called over to a young female doctor, she grabbed a random scan, ‘you don’t have MS,’ she said. ‘I bloody do,’ I said. ‘And look my eyes are really bad.’ She then took me by the arm and said ‘by coincidence today is the MS clinic day in room 11, come with me.’ So I followed her into room 11.
Room 11 on the 5th floor was a lot smaller, Dr. Li, and Dr. Yu were sat opposite each other at plain wooden desks with patients clustered around them, sat on little wooden stools. ‘Dr Li, this foreigner thinks he has MS can you see him?’ the young lady doctor said. Dr Yu said for me to sit and he began an examination that involved everyone in the room providing their opinions when I described my symptoms with numbness and burning sensations in my feet, a young lady with a walking stick chimed in, she had the same problem. The prodded me a bit and did a physical exam. This idea of being diagnosed in a sort of public area grew on me. Other patients can offer insights. I did have some weird experiences in that regard though…naked exposures.
After some talk they asked why didn’t I go to the 8th floor? I explained about the witch with the calculator. ‘Ok,’ said Dr Yu, ‘we will treat you as an emergency case on the 1st floor.’ By this point I had no idea what that meant, but I was to go on with the steroid drip.
I couldn’t see Dr Li’s face due to my eye issues, he was kind of a grey , brown fuzz, and Dr
Yu was wearing a surgical mask anyhow. But Dr Li said to me, ‘so what do you do here?’ I
told him I am a painter, he looked to Dr. Yu and said, ‘we must save the eyes of an artist.‘ And so began an intense period where I saw the real work of Chinese doctors on the front line of the Chinese health care system.
Me: can I see doctor Li?
Nurse: there are 49 people waiting to see him today
Me: Oh. Should I take a number?
Nurse: Go in and ask him
Nurse: Do it
Dr Li: with these steroids are you having any problems with your temper?
Me: I am controlling it
Dr Li: (chuckles)
So I became one of the denizens of the dripping rooms.
Me: I am still going to the hospital so can’t look after the kid this weekend but can she
come for a couple of hours on Sunda?. I don’t have to go to hospital on Sunday.
Dr Li and Dr Yu see dozens of patients every day, one day when I got my number I was 49th
in the queue, I didn’t actually get to see him that day. But Dr Yu is also on duty in the
emergency room, where I spent 5 hours a day for the next 20 days. Dr. Yu explained the
treatment, ‘we are going to give you massive doses of steroids, it is not going to be easy.’ Dr
Li said, ‘it is like a fire now in you we need to wash it out with the steroids, and you need to
get a spinal MRI, we think you have NMO.’
NMO? What’s that? Itsounds like a 1980s pop group.
Me (on the phone): Dad?
Dad: hi. I just got back from South Africa
Me: I just got my diagnosis
Me: its NMO not MS
Dad: is that better or worse than MS?
Me: its like is brain cancer better than liver cancer. Haha
Dad: do you believe this one( diagnosis)
Me: seems right. This doctor has 300 patients with it, they come from all over China to see
him. This hospital is one of the most famous in China
Dad: OK, im coming to see you
Me: Ok. Then bring me some biltong
How I see faces
Basically there are very few neurologists in China with any knowledge of MS, only Huashan
hospital is geared up for it, except maybe some military hospitals for top cadres in Beijing. There is a variety of MS called NMO which more Asian females get.
So the jury was out to as whether I have traditional MS or NMO. Top Neurologists in China and Germany said I have NMO. Top neurologists in the UK say I have MS. The upshot is basically the same, as there is no treatment for either one.
The difference is academic.
Once I was signed up with Dr Li and Dr Yu, I started a series of daily steroid drips in the
dripping room of Huashan hospital. Dripping rooms I thought were a unique phenomenon to China, but then Ilater watched Breaking Bad. These are rooms where patients are prescribed whichever drugs and sit in a chair while it is administered intravenously. Huashan hospital being in the center of one of China largest cities sees all walks of life sitting in the dripping rooms. So there are old ladies, pensioners, white collar workers, prostitutes, government workers, pregnant women, migrant workers, and anyone else who the doctors feel need the drip. Doctors in China tend to prescribe the
drip for just about anything. Be it a glucose drip when you are feeling a bit under the weather to antibiotics, and at the top of the scale was myself getting 1000mg steroids plus 3 other bottles of other medicines which took 5 hours a day. So I was sat in the dripping room of Huashan hospital for 5 hours a day, I could go at any time as its open 24 hours a day, you are supposed to monitor your own drip feed, but as I was alone and mostly blind, I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to tell me when my drip feed had finished. As I was sat in these chairs, I met many of my neighbours in the adjoining chairs, struck up conversation, as we were sat there for many hours. The medication I was on was very strong and also due to lack of sleep I was sometimes hallucinating, but I tried to record as much of the conversation as possible as I was amongst the lao bai xing meaning the 100 old names, a.k.a. the common people of China, most specifically Shanghai. The first person to strike up a conversation with me was an old lady who lived up in a lane next to my old studio.
Her: So you are a Buddhist?
Her: Yes, you are wearing a Buddhist bracelet. That is good, you are a Chinese Buddhist.
Me: the bracelet is from a Japanese temple
Her: Are there many buddhidts in your country?
Me: A lot
Her: oh really? Where is that?
Her: I have been to Austria, my son is a doctor there
Me: Oh really ? He must be rich
Her: Oh no, haha. I don’t know
Her: It so boring here, 3 hours on these drips
Me: Mine was 4 hours yesterday
Her: My son was transferred to Austria from Ruijin hospital, then the leaders there said
they must keep him, so now he moved his wife and child there. I went to visit
Me: How was it?
Her: Oh very nice very clean, China is no good, people there are so polite, and everyone
lives well even the poor people have very good conditions
They don’t have to pay to go to hospital like here
Me: But if everyone in China lived like the people in Austria the world would have no
Her: that’s true, so China is no good
Me: Shanghai is a good place to live
Her: No its not, people just look after themselves, its worse and worse, no civilized society
Me: some people in Shanghai behave civilized
Her: Only a few
Me: In Europe we find Austria a bit odd, very insular
Her: They are all very quiet
Me: How did you find it?
Her: Hmm, I couldn’t speak the language, so…I came back
Me: I see
Her: Shanghai is so expensive now
Me: I know, especially houses
Her: I bought my son a house in the year 2000 in Jingan, 157 m for 57 wan (£57,000) now it is worth 400wan (£400,000)
Me: Yes crazy too expensive now.
Her: Do you have a son?
Me: No, a daughter
Her: How old?
Her: A daughter we call construction bank, they go build you a house, a son we call
Investment bank because you have to buy them a house. So a daughter is also good.
Me: I used to have an old house in Jingan, foreigners, we like old houses
Her: I sold an old house to a foreigner, I have two
Me: Oh really?
Her: Yes he paid me RMB 8 million (£800,000)
Me: That’s a lot
Her: Its Jing An Villas, do you know it? Off Nanjing west road
Me: Oh wow that is a coincidence, I had a studio next door to there for 4 years
Her: Oh really? I live at number 7.
Me: How is Jing An Villas these days? Still lots of restaurants and shops opening?
Her: Oh yes more and more
Me: Any news on them turning it into a new Xintiandi?
Her: No I don’t think so.
Me: Did you ask the Juweihui (district committee)?
Her: I don’t know them anymore, they are all changed to young people
Me: ah. Why not sell your other one there to another foreigner and buy somewhere else
nice? It will be a big mess when they try to kick everyone out.
Me: well what a coincidence
Her: Yes come visit me. There is a guy in our lane, a Jew, he paints too, blackbirds. Lots of
Sitting in a room for 5 hours a day was very tedious. And I took some tips from my
neighbours to speed the drips. But it turned out it was not a very good idea for me as my
medication was very strong, and I could hardly walk after taking my neighbours advice and
speeding up the drip. The nurses also weren’t very happy if you started fiddling with
your drip feed.
Him: Your Chinese is quite good
Me: Not really
Him: You can make your drip go faster by turning the little dial, they always make it really
slow, it is the Chinese way
Me: Oh really?
Him: Yes, I always do it
Me: Thanks for the tip
Him: What work do you do?
Me: I’m in arts
Him: I’m an accountant
Him: Where are you from?
Him: I have never been there, I went to Germany and France
Me: Oh or work or holiday?
Him: Like a holiday, but didn’t have much money
Me: What did you think?
Him: Not bad.
Me: The food?
Him: We at mostly Chinese food, but a few bits I had were alright
Me: Are you in a government company?
Him: No it’s a private one, I’m in the last 6 months before retirement
You know, I visited a lot of places, like the Middle East, Africa, but never the UK. Of all of them I didn’t like South Africa, Brazil was my favourite.
Me: Oh, too dangerous in South Africa?
Him: Yes, they told us in the hotel not to go outside. Its very beautiful, but I think it will take
generations to fix that country, if ever. Brazil on the other hand, I just really enjoyed it, the
Me: Wow I have never been to most of those places.
Him: Let me teach you a Chinese idiom, tie bi dai lu- it means it is very hard to please both
your boss and the law
Many of the patients in the dripping rooms were accompanied by family members or ayis, domestic helpers. An ayi is a local institution kind of a maid stroke aunt, who is paid by the hour to do various things such as washing up, cleaning, looking after old people, picking up kids from the school, doing the shopping and cooking, etc. Ayis are usually middle aged women and very rarely men.
Nurse: the doctor says 2 hours for this one
Old lady: 2 hours! So small a bottle!
Nurse: doctor says
Old lady: too slow! Ok. Its because I’m old. Its like 1 drop a minute.
Middle aged lady (Ayi): I’m back
Old lady: 2 hours for this one
Middle aged lady: 2 hours!
Old lady: yes
Middle aged lady: I’ll talk to the nurse
Nurse: If you ask me again to make it quicker I will make it slower
Young woman 1: what’s wrong with you
Young woman 2: I got a fever. The medicine cost me RMB 700 (£70)
YW1: 700! What is in it?
YW2: I don’t know. It cost all my money
YW1: was it from internal medicine?
YW2: no I got it in emergency
YW1: mine only cost 30 (£3)
YW1: what did yours cost?
Me: RMB 1000 (£100) for 3 days
YW1: what is it?
Me: kind of steroids
YW2: why are you in here?
Me: they don’t accept foreigners in normal wards and foreigner ward is RMB10000 (£1000) per night. So its better to take medicine here and go home
Me: it is like a fine for being sick
YW1: what are you doing in that book
Me: I am making notes
YW2: what about
Me: I am just thinking of ideas about house decoration while I’m here
YW!: oh you are a house designer
Me: kind of
YW１: I learnt English at university but can’t speak it. I can’t get a good job here because
my English not good enough
YW1: where are you from?
Me: UK. You aren’t from Shanghai?
Me: where are you from?
YW1: not Shanghai
Me: so where did you study?
YW1: not Shanghai
Me: so .. you come from.. ?
YW1: Zhengzhou Henan province. I am Waidiren (an outsider) like you
Me: oh I never been there. But I have a good friend who is a monk there
YW1: yes Henan’s most famous thing is the Shaolin monastery
Me: is the food spicy?
YW1: some are spicy, some not spicy, which do you prefer, Beijing or Shanghai?
Me: I like both, but I guess I like Shanghai better. I lived in Beijing, but they
knocked down too much of the old city. People are more friendly in Beijing
Me: what do you do?
YW1: I work in a real estate company doing copy
Me: oh it is you spamming my mobile phone
YW1: haha no
Me: business is bad
YW1: yes very bad
The kindness of strangers
Nurse: Liyunfei? You?
Me: yes, I am Liyunfei
Nurse: sit here
Woman 1: oh you again
Me: hello, sorry can’t see. Hi
Nurse: make a fist
Me: how long will the first bag be?
Nurse: about 30 minutes
Me: ok. I can’t see so have to go by the time
Nurse: it’s annoying
Me: what can I do
W1: I will help you watch it
Me: so embarrassed
W1: your name Liyunfei, did you choose it yourself?
Me: no my Chinese teacher gave me the name Yunfei, surname Li I chose myself
W1: haha ok
Me: I was in a film with Jet Li. He killed me with an umbrella when I was a student in Beijing. The film was Wang Fei Hong
W1: oh really funny. What do you do now
Me: journalist and work in arts
W1: that’s interesting. I work in environment
Me: oh that’s interesting
W1: I make plans for Shanghai, like green areas and planning
Me: oh really
W1: I was just in Venice for a meeting, I really like italy. I have never been to UK, but visited
a lot of places
Me: yes. Should visit London it is a well planned city
W1: I know, but Shanghai has more subway lines than London. Haha
Me: really? But London has lots of nice parks
W1: yes. And in Shanghai we had green area the size of a sheet of newspaper per person.
Now we have several meters per person.
Me: yes its quite an achievement. When did you move to Shanghai?
Me: I came in 1993 so we have seen a lot of changes
Me: where are you from originally?
W1: Guizhou, Guiyang
We: oh it’s a small world. I have been there to work
W1: oh really
Me: I liked my time there except you had to eat a lot of chilli in every meal
W1: (laughs) yes
Nurse: Chris? ( English)
Nurse: which arm
Me: right arm
Nurse: ok. Oh a lot of holes
Me: can we make it quicker? 2 ½ hours drip?
4 ½ hours later…..
Man: (English) where are you from
Him: what is wrong with you?
Me: they are trying to save my eyesight
Him: I have a cold, I am here on Holiday from Singapore. In Singapore we have little clinics,
don’t have to come into hospital like this just for a cold. They like to give drip
Me: they didn’t make you go in foreigner part?
Him: I look Chinese so its ok. But why no little clinics?
Me: yeah no GP system, but they are training 10000 GPs I heard. They are being trained
now, so just need to wait. Already there are little clinics, there is one round the corner on
Him: oh I see
Me: Singapore is doing well I went there recently at Marina Sands Bay hotel
Him: Oh the casino one. I need to pay $100 to go in so I didn’t go
Me: haha. Yeah only foreigner passport holders get free entry into casinos
Him: you liked Singapore?
Me: yeah. My grandfather died there in the war. When I was there I went to look for the
Him: oh, kanji?
Me: I saw the Kanji monument. He wasn’t on it. It must be a different monument
Family group with pregnant woman.
Young man: lets sit here
Pregnant woman: ok
Dad: whats in the drip? Amuoxilin?
Young man: I will go get the nurse. It’s a good spot here
Nurse: there you go
Young man: ( in English) thank you
Young man: you go back. I will wait for my mum here
Dad: no. I will stay you have a test tomorrow. And its Saturday. Its ok. You go
Young man: no I will stay you go.
Dad: You go I will wait here for your mum. Its fine. You have a test
Young man: ok I will go
Mum: hey foreigner your drip bag is empty
Me: oh thanks
Mum: you need to press the bell
Young husband: we have made nutritious Chinese food for you ( to wife)
Dad reappears with another guy
Dad: (to young husband) you go. I will wait here
Dad: ( to man) you stay here and wait too ok?
Dad: did you eat all the food
Pregnant woman: I’m finished lets go
Amused old man.
Nurse: how old are you? 75?
Old man: (laughs) I’m 91! I’m 91! This is my son. He’s 78.
Nurse: he has come to help you
Old man: yes he comes with me
Middle aged woman 2: hey your drip has finished
Me: thanks! The last one after 20 days
Middle aged woman 2: what? 20 minutes?
Me: no. 20 days. I came everyday for 20 days
Middle aged woman 2: haha how come so long?
Old man: hehe
Me: man man lai (slowly slowly)
Middle aged woman 2: his Chinese is good
After my daily drip, I would often go to meet friends for dinner, or to visit them. And a
lot of them felt they needed to tell me interesting stories about their lives to probably try to
make me feel better.
E: have you heard some guy had six KTV girls in his basement? He kidnapped them, then
used them for sex, and he gave them numbers as names, like number 1, number 2, and gave
preferential treatment to number 1 and so on, such as more food, and so they fought
amongst themselves and in the end 2 died. He only fed them every 2 days.
N: I was in jail in Germany I was sleeping on the sofa of some drug dealer and they arrested
- I was in jail for 35 days for vagrancy. I made clothes pegs, they only had a few English
books. I read 39 books in 35 days.
J: I was in jail for just one night. Cigarretts were 25 cents each. I had a few of those. This big
black guy was like I don’t like white guys. But this other black guy was like shut the fuck up
I wanted to sleep. Halle luya. This other white guy was there, he was on the phone saying I
know you said you wouldn’t bail me out again this week. And he said fine, and put the
Another friend of mine is a local version of the village grouch
T: I saved a tree today
T: they were cutting down the trees in my lane. And I got out and stopped them
T: yes! They marked all the trees with an x and started cutting.
Me: this morning?
T: yes. At 8:18 . I was out and started shouting and the whole neighbourhood came out.
Then they checked the license and they only had the right to cut down one tree. So we
Me: oh cool
T: The kids live on the other side of my lane were shouting as they wanted to sleep and
asked me to stop making a noise, but their mothers supporting me, she said its good
not to cut down trees.
Me: How old were the trees
T: About 60 I guess. They were really big. Luwan district people are good. But now there is
no Luwan district as they merged it with gangster Huangpu district. Luwan was the birth
place of the communist party so someone decided it was too small for such an honour. So
they merged it with Huangpu district. Huangpu are gangsters, only in Huangpu they put
free amphetamines in ladies rest rooms in places like Bar Rouge. For me its terrible because my residency is in Luwan, they gave it to me for my work
Me: Really? Why?
T: I saved a guys life
Me: Oh really?
T: Yes. A taxi crashed into an Alldays (7/11) window, I worked in a hospital emergency room in Germany. The guy was bleeding out so I bound the wounds, I knew how to do that, I saved his life. So the police gave me this award.
Me: So Huangpu district don’t recognize it?
T: I don’t think so. I love Luwan district.
me: T saved some trees
N: that’s good. Here in Japan they pray and do some ceremony before they cut down a
tree because they believe the tree has a spirit called tree kami if you kill it its bad karma
S: I really love him
S: Yes. I want to leave my husband for him
N: Oh. But he is only a white collar worker, and he can’t provide what you have now
S: I don’t care about money. I don’t really need a Porsche. A mini cooper would be enough
C: I’m thinking of getting a divorce
C: Our relationship isn’t very good anymore. It’s a marriage but not love
S: Oh I see
C: And I saw he had a text from another woman. His phone beeped when he was in the
bathroom. The text was from a girl. So I had a look. Why not?
He wants me to be a housewife, a lot of opportunities I didn’t take because of him. Now he
gets angry if I go out. He is 60, but that doesn’t matter. My parents were against the
S: Love doesn’t last
C: I think I will be alright by myself
S: It’s a shame
C: My sister just got divorced. She wanted to get a divorce 3 years ago but my father
wouldn’t let her. He gave her husband 3 years to get a job or at least do something. He is so
lazy, he is from Chaozhou.
S: Chaozhou men are like that. They want the women to work. Shanghai men are no
better, they pretend the wife is in charge at home and do things outside
SX: Ah like that!
The lane where I lived had a lot of cats, kind of stray cats. So I, my daughter and her friends, to give them a rest from playing DS, would go out to feed the cats. While the girls were photoing the cats and generally annoying them this little old lady wandered over and started talking. It turns out she looks after all the stray cats in the lane. Its a long, deep lane, with lots of gardens and random shrubbery and even some wasteland, this is the lane where J.G.Ballard grew up and wrote about in his book Empire of the Sun. It used to be the home of colonist families in the 1930s, and consists of bungalows and vilas. After the revolution the houses become the property of the government and each house was given to several families, as many as a dozen in some cases. Each family was given one room and the houses have gone into general disrepair ever since. The main road used to be called Amhurst Road and now its called Xin Hua Road. J.G. Ballard’s old house turned into a restaurant and his old swimming pool is now a fish pond. When he died myself and some visiting artists from the UK went into the restaurant and had a drink to his memory. The restaurant staff weren’t too keen but we explained if we didn’t have a drink to his spirit he would come and haunt the building so they ushered us into a room and one of the artists started using the lazy Susan as a oujia board, which quite put the willies up the waitress. So this lane is dripping in history. And there are a lot of cats, as I mentioned.
It turns out that the little old lady takes the cats to the vets, and feeds them every day, 6 at
night in winter and around 10 in the summer. She said she has spent a few tens of
thousands of RMB (thousands of pounds) over the years, and has even paid for some sort of procedure that stops them mewling at night and annoying the neighbourhood. She said she feeds them from when they are kittens, and as a lot of people in the area know she does this, they drop off stray kittens on her patch. She has named most of the cats, and they know her by the sound of her footsteps. She makes a special effort to come out and feed them when it is raining.
But there is a dark side, she explained ‘its like the cultural revolution’ many people don’t
like animals and complain about her feeding the cats, and also there are some cat nappers, who bag cats for cooking pots in Guangzhou regularly make the rounds of her area. “I see them, but there is nothing I can do,” she explained there is no law to stop people taking these cats.
‘Four cats disappeared just this week,’ she said. She related a lot of things about how people don’t like animals in China, and had quite a few horror stories to tell. For instance she said one of the cats lost its paw as one of the neighbours chopped it off with a cleaver when the cat was putting its paw through his window to try to snag some food. The cat survived but only because she took care of it.
I can still hear her, calling ‘mi mi mi’ to the strays of Shanghai.
Her (breathless): Mr Li, do you want to buy a 2 bedroom apartment on Hengshan road for
only RMB 1 million? Ey ey, do ya do ya?
Me: Erm..what..on Hengshan Road?
Her: Yes! reduced from RMB 6.5 million! 135 square meters…Can you believe it!
Me (not really believing it): Erm, anyhow, I’m a foreigner…
Her: choking noise, thinking noise…. ah forget it (suan le)!
My phone rang a lot
These are two calls I got the day before a ‘Jasmine’ protest:
Mr x: Hi its Mr X from Liberation Daily, how are you?
Me (uh oh) Ah Mr X, long time no see…
Mr X; So, hey, how’s it hanging, still doing that foreign journalist thing? hey daddy oh?
Me: Erm, yees, but erm, not so much anymore a bit, but hardly ever in China, mostly erm
Mr x: Ah yeah yeah I remember you do that art stuff, my mate, he does art stuff
Mr X: So…did you hear about this walk tomorrow?
Mr X: You know..do you or any of your journalist friends heard of this walk?
Me: Erm…not sure what you mean…
Mr X: You know! haha
Me: ERm, is it an art thing?
Mr X: haha, well OK lets keep in touch
Me: OK la
Mr X: Goodbye
Me: fucking good riddance
Him: This is the Po-lice
Him: Do you have any comments?
Him: About our service
Him: I want to remind you to follow the laws of the People’s Republic of China
Me: Erm, yes, of course
We are in the age of the living Buddha .
There are several living Buddhas- in the world. In the human heart there is violence. If we
want to live forever we should look at these two issues. If we disband all armies, why do
they exist? For humans to kill other humans. It is the monkey brain. If all the world armies
became one and were told to create a unified globe, it would be a huge evolutionary step.
From there we would need an external threat to continue to deal with the violence in men’s
hearts. We should look at violence as an intelligent virus. Then we should take to the stars
but why? What is the purpose. To create more souls, our planet can only contain so many,
too many we will kill it. The second issue also we should digitize ourselves. Life in a body
would only be a short period of existence for future generations. Later death would only be
an option. Our children would live forever but only if we do this to eradicate our internal
R: we are living in the age of the living Buddhas. They will not live very long. When they die
they turn into rainbows. We beg them to be reborn on this Earth. There are fewer and
fewer living Buddhas. If you are lucky you can touch one.
MM: this is the age of the Dharma. There are many fake Buddhas. And when the living
buddhas die sometimes they come back as someone else or as an animal so it is very hard
to find them again.
Friend M discussed her lover, the painter F, who died.
M: F was a very free spirit. There are about 60 of his paintings left. His landlady threw away
most of his stuff. We saved the best ones after he died. When he was young he went to art
school but he was too crazy for them so he left and became an architect. Then he went to
the US, then to India, but he didn’t like the bureaucracy there. His friend committed suicide
so he looked after his friend’s wife and child. They lived in Nepal for about 10 years. Later he went to be the Dalai Llama’s translator, but after a while he decided they were too political so he left to Tibet to study Buddhism. Then he went to France and met a nice lady and made her pregnant. He wouldn’t marry her. His family were unhappy with him so he moved to Shanghai. He lived in Shanghai for several years. He worked mostly doing Buddhist tours.
He was a very respected Buddhist scholar but he never wrote anything down. Then he
went back to Paris and committed suicide in 2008. I think later people will realize how
important his paintings were. I don’t think they like them now. But in time I think they will understand.
Me: Lets do some zombie awareness training
N: eek (runs into kitchen shuts door)
Me: gnroawr. (bans on kitchen door)
My kitchen door has some small hole at ankle level for ventilation. N starts to poke my
ankle with a chopstick through the hole
Me: What you doing?
N: I thought I was trying to stab your feet
Me: Do you think a zombie would be bothered by being stubbed in the foot by a chopstick?
N: I don’t know
Me: That has to be the worst zombie survival tactic ever. Stabbing a zombie with a chopstick in the foot is really not going to work. You are only telling him where his dinner is
Me: You have to stab a zombie in the brain not the foot
N: Shut up I will stab you in the dick
Eating when blind
I found eating became quite difficult at first after my eyesight deteriorated, especially eating Chinese food. For instance some dishes are meat with chili peppers, and you are not supposed to eat the chili peppers. Its difficult to distinguish the two. Also when eating with friends they tend to have the advantage with sight so they eat all the good bits before I get a chance.
I now tend to have to eat whatever is put in front of me. So I have eaten some rather peculiar food. May main difficulty going out is reading the menu so I can be a real pain for waiting stuff as I ask them to recite the menu. They don’t understand why this crazy guy reuses to use the menu, even the magnificent pretty menu with pictures of all the food. In some Chinese restaurants they can offer up to 100 different dishes so reciting the menus can be quite a chore.
Also Chinese food can have very poetic names, such as fragrant duck passing under the bridge –this gives you an idea of the content of the dish, but not much more. Other favorite would be duchess chicken, husband and wife lung slices, fungus, or other things. When abroad sometimes the menu is translated to English, but this can be misleading as the translation software doesn’t function correctly and you can sometimes face trying to figure out what a dish such as ‘fried wikipedia’ may contain. Similarly, food shopping can be difficult as cans, bottles, etc are all blurry shapes, and asking shop assistant for help can prove bothersome to them. And if you can’t read the label, you certainly can’t read the prices. In Tesco I usually aim for special offers as the prices are written in 1 foot high numbers.
Me: A La Zi chicken, egg fried rice, and a vegetable
Her: Gong Bao chicken?
Me: La Zi chicken, not Gong Bao chicken, please
Her: Ok. You want rice?
Me: er, yeah. fried rice please
Her: Egg fried rice?
In the super market
Me: Hi can I buy some honey? You have it locked up in this cage
Me: Can I buy some honey?
Her: Hmmp. Wait
Her: The person with the key is not here
Me: Ah so I can’t buy honey?
Internet and reading, writing, poems
Since my eyesight collasped I wasn’t able to use internet, after several months without
access to the information super highway, email, skype, twitter, facebook, weibo, my own
website and the rest, I found a new inner peace. I heard about world events through
random conversations, hearing bits of news from the radios in taxis or mobile TVs on the
bus. I also get a lot of information from my friends such as the exciting news Earth is
approaching a black hole, or the startling invasion of Manhattan by space aliens. Luckily
they decided not to attack Shanghai which is in its own universe unique within the space
Nowadays I have a software I bought for £500 which I have taught myself to use.
M: Did you see the news?
Me: Not for a month
M: Riots in Taichang
Me: Oh really
M: Yeah, they bought apartments at 8kpm2 (£1,000 per metre), this year selling at 5k
Me: Oops. Did they now see that whole crisis in Europe & US?
M: Guess not. I hear that real estate will be a bunch of bubbles bursting for Shanghai.
Wenzhou people already ran for the hills
Mr Wu the builder
Me: I think the builder has a lot of girlfriends. He is always on the phone to different women, and he leaves his phone here when he goes out for a bit. It rings a lot
A: oh. How old is he?
Me: about 50?
A: Oh really. And the women keep calling. Hmm so they are young
Me: Oh why?
A: Older women wouldn’t keep calling him
A: He must be very sweet. Chinese men can be very sweet, then it doesn’t matter if he is
ugly, bald, fat, poor, you know
Me: Oh I see
( oh phone to a woman) Mr. Wu the builder: Are you still not talking to your husband these days? Oh really. What! You talked to him? I see. Me? I have loved many women. You? Maybe. What? Oh her, I did say that to her, I wouldn’t say that to you. No really. Yes. These days. I know. Ok, just look after yourself
Him to me: Mr. Li, I got to go out to meet my wife. She just arrived in Shanghai from Jiangsu
me: Sure no problem
I was also getting a lot of very interesting phone calls while I was sat in my dripping chair.
This is about the only entertainment I had. So pity anybody who called me while I was sat
there in the chair for 5 hours.
Bob Dylan – a hard rain is going to fall
Phone: Chris, you know your painting ‘financial crisis of 2008’ what is the date?
Me: hmm, 2008 I think. I think I would have written it on the painting
Phone: You just wrote ‘a socialist dream’
Me: No that’s not it, its probably bottom right
Phone: I can’t see it
Me: It’s a very complex painting it will be there somewhere. You need to read the painting
like a book. You will find it
Phone: (laughs) ok
Me: Call me anytime
Phone: One more thing. Socialist dream, what does that mean?
Me: (translates into Chinese)
Phone: Ok got it
Call from Paris: How much is your work ‘bu wending’( uncertainty) ?
Me: Not sure, about 10k euro? There are 2 paintings in it
Her: Oh, 11k euro?
Random phone call
Her: Hi this is Saffron from Sherpas food delivery service
Her: You are one of our lucky draw winners
Me: Oh really
Her: Yes. You’ve won a rmb300(£30) hair salon coupon. You will like it
Me: Great. Thanks
Her: Do you have a mailbox?
Her: You will get it in a week
Painting- I was still painting, on many themes
Naomi Klein described the current relationship between communism and capitalism in
China as McCommunism. I have a picture of the Shanghai waterfront as a huge
happy meal as the people celebrate their new found wealth. The people are surrounded by
numerous advertising slogans and communist aphorisms. There is a warning though,
British write Jonathan Watts pointed out if all of China becomes as wealthy as Shanghai our
planet would not have enough resources.
The God of the robots rules the world- With the fast and ever increasing adoption of technology soon human beings will become part machine, and eventually this evolutionary process will lead to humans becoming intelligent machines. What will the spiritual needs be of these machines? Will they be so intelligent that they will have no spiritual needs? Will they need a God? Who will the God of the robots be?
Shanghai is one of the few cities in the world that still has a strong Art deco heritage in the
architecture. This is because there was no development in the city for over 50 years after
the communist take over. But this art deco personality also exists hidden in the makeup of
the people whose grandparents or great grandparents were living during that era. In the
1930s Shanghai was a fast adopter of trends in the west and so it is again now.
Liberation by fashion– The spread of ideas is a difficult and hard to understand process. The fashion industry, has somehow subverted the control of communism and has seduced even the communists themselves. The young people of the society have also been very quick to adopt the aspirations, trends, and the lifestyle glamorized by the fashion industry machine. This is uncomplicated by political ideals, it is a form of liberation so long as you can afford it.
Oriental Mystery– The ideas of orientalism in China in the modern age. There are
mysterious fragments of messages from Moscow, naked women prancing across the canvas, dotted lines a bit like Morse code. The unknown mysteries of Asia are very attractive to western eyes with their beautiful enigmatic other worldliness. I showed this painting was originally shown in the exhibition Stolen Treasures of Modern China which partly discuss how foreigners can steal elements from another culture and reinvent them as their own. The cross currents of culture are many and varied. Sometimes we should realise the process of seduction that is taking place, and not totally is western culture seducing China, Chinese culture is also seducing the west. A process that has been going on for many centuries.
Orientalism is a term used by art historians, literary and cultural studies scholars for the
imitation or depiction of aspects of Middle Eastern, and East Asian cultures (Eastern
cultures) by American and European writers, designers and artists.
Oriental Mystery #3
This painting explores the Shanghainese concept of dao jiang hu. As a big port city, the
people of Shanghai deal with people from other nationalities and cultures on a daily basis.
This makes them very open minded people but also they need to maintain their own
cultural identity. This culture identity is expressed very well in their own language which is
a part of the Wu language group and spoken by around 16 million people living in east
China. The word and concept of dao jiang hu is almost impossible to translate into another
language, it is somewhere between putting glue into someone’s mind or giving someone
else the runaround, or taking advantage of somebody else’s ignorance. It is a mystery. This
is the first word of the Shanghai language that the artist was taught. It is very important to
be initiated into the secret code of dao jiang hu if you wish to live in the city of Shanghai.
Shanghai has an ever evolving crazy night life scene. This picture is a small momento of one
of the many bars that open and close and patrons of many nationalities meet there to get
drunk, talk, pick people up, get into fights, annoy the neighbours etc. In the 1930s Germany
author Vicki Baun famously wrote ‘Shanghai is a city where you come when you have
cracked up somewhere else and Shanghai does the rest’. Locally based American writer
Lisa Moevrous recently echoed her statement saying ‘Shanghai has become a city full of
international losers in recent years.’ With the economic difficulties in the west many
chancers and adventurers are coming to the city, leading to local media complaining the
quality of foreigners has dropped dramatically in recent years.
Anti Futurist poster
Many people in this world are superstitious. This is also very true in China where fortune
tellers, Fengshui masters, Kungfu experts, Monks, visionaries, fake philosophers and many
others hold sway over peoples thoughts and opinions, in part due to the dearth caused by
the whole of not having a civil society. People have little faith in the government that rules
them by authoritarian means, so they turn to quacks and liars who cloud their vision with
various kinds of voodoo. In the west we learn the mistakes of futurism during the 1930s
which turned into fascism. China is now a country where futurism, though not in name,
rules. And this pursuit of an unknown future based on the worlds of these modern futurists
is very dangerous. The communists are also futurists who make their plans a hundred
years in advance. Similarly in the west corporations and billionaires have their own secet
cabals of futurists. As a common person we should try to stand against these people telling
us how we should live our lives and try to make our own educated rational decisions. This
painting is basically a simple warning to be aware that the futurists are there and they are
Drip Drip Drip
After the 20 days drip, I went to see Dr. Li and Dr. Yu, as I hadn’t made any improvement,
they decided to book me into the hospital, we repeated the discussion about the Waibing
fang, and doctor Li decided it was perfectly legal for me to go to a Chinese ward. ‘There is no rule against foreigners going to the local wards,’ said Dr. Li. ‘Actually I think the 8th floor is not professional,’ he said.
Dr. Yu: how are you feeling? Depressed?
Me: Yeah, just a bit
Dr. Yu: Suicidal?
Me/Dr. Li: (laugh)
Dr. Yu: I think you have had this disease for at least 5 years
Dr. Li: we suggest now we do plasma exchange therapy after the national holiday
Dr. Yu: We will try book you in through emergency
Me: What about IVIG?
Dr. Li: Yes it is an option once a month do IVIG as a long term treatment, the problem is
IVIG is in very short supply, patients are queuing it. And its expensive
Dr. Yu: Anyway plasma exchange is the better option for you, What is your mobile number?
I will call you to arrange the treatment
Me: OK, thank you
me: Plasma exchange?
J: Ah yes. They take the plasma out your body in one arm pump it through this thing and
then back in your other arm. Its not the worst time every in my life but quite close
Me: Aha ok. Thanks
When I was admitted to the Chinese ward, I was given a piece of paper which said that
patient must be admitted regardless of race, nationality, creed, etc. So finally I was given a
bed on the 15th floor on the neurological ward which I shared with 6 other patients most of
whom suffered from a strange form of muteness and none of them could speak. I was given
my official Huashan hospital pajamas and a wristband, which allowed me to get up the lift
on both odd and even floors. The ward itself was pretty similar to an NHS ward in the UK,
apart from there was no pay per view TV or any other form of entertainment. The Pajamas
didn’t really fit very well but who was I to complain, the ward bed was only 36 RMB (£3.80) a night. As it’s a teaching hospital, we had daily rounds by numerous doctors, both senior
professors and student doctors, who would appear in groups of 7-10 people, at least twice
a day. This is when I first met Dr.Chen, who told me he was now in charge of me, and he
was an MS specialist, formally having spent 7 years in Chicago,’ I am a humanist,’ he told me, and he is trying to set up a more comprehensive neurological care system including a lab in the Huashan hospital. The ward dinners were provided 3 times a day, by an army of
Nurse: It is the rule here that you should have someone look after you 24 hours
Nurse: If there is no one, sign this form
Nurse: This is the room you can cook. The meals here are ok, but anyway if you want to
cook you can. This is the shower room, here is the nurse station, press this button if you
need assistance, press twice to cancel the call
Dinner lady: Did you fill your menu?
Me: Cant see
her: I will help you. Can you understand me?
Man in bed: He can understand Anhui language
Her: I am from Jiangsu
Me: its ok
Her: OK, for lunch , duck feet, beef strips , or pork mashed egg cake?
Her: Dinner there’s radish and meat, port chop, or duck feet
Her: Tomorrow breakfast rice porridge, preserved vegetable, egg and mantou
Me: I’ll skip breakfast
Me: Thank you
Her: No problem
Room ayi: You are not eating breakfast again?
Me: I have my own. You have my breakfast
Unfortunately, the breakfast was not to my taste as they were providing a litre of
rice porridge every morning, which they would fill any empty receptacle I had. And I
believe they would fill my shoes with it if I had not had any empty vessels for them to use.
As I was probably the first foreigner to be admitted to the normal wards of Huashan
hospital, away from the Waibing fang ghetto, I was very popular with the nurses and other
inmates. The treatment that I received mostly revolved around having my blood washed.
This involved a trip to another building, having very large needles inserted into both of my
arms, and having my blood taken out of my body from one arm, flushed through a machine,
and then back into the other arm. It had no discernable affect on my condition but it was
nice to know I was now antibody free for a bit. I was also receiving more steroid drips and
having a daily bum injection, which the nurse would announce to the whole ward, ‘foreigner, its time for your bum injection,’ just to give notice to everybody to have a good look.
Chinese hospitals don’t really concern themselves with privacy which after a while neither
did I. There is much more a group therapy approach where everybody could discuss each
others ailments and conditions, along with the doctors and the nurses. My case being quite
rare, Dr. Chen decided to make a test case for his students, they were videoing me and
recording me in great detail, one of his master students produced a very nice graph of my
condition, Dr.Chen also asked me to keep a visual diary of my eyesight by drawing, so I kept
drawing what I could see, as much as possible. During this whole period, I had also being
drawing my daily experiences and memories of what I had been seeing along with the
recording the conversations.
room ayi: the foreigner writes with the wrong hand ( I am left handed)
Lady in the room: Everyone else in this ward is mute. They suddenly woke up and couldn’t
speak, it is a nerve problem.
Dr. Chen: Please explain your eyesight problems
me: It is like a TV set with a bad signal, like light bulbs going on and off, like a cloud
sometimes black or white, like thousands of ants, like being in a mist. It is worse in daylight.
Sometimes it turns from colour to black and white, sometimes people’s faces melt, I cant
see faces unless very close. It keeps changing
Dr. Chen ( to students) : This is a very interesting case
N ( to me) : I don’t think Dr. Chen is going to let you go any time soon
Me: Me neither
Dr. Chen: I want copies of your drawings for my files
Me: I am keeping a diary
Dr. Chen: You can write a book of your experience
Dr Chen: I have been back from the US for three years. What I am doing is setting up an
immunology lab so doctors can get a better diagnosis. And I want doctors to consider also
the psychology of patients. I am a humanist. I believe in humanity.
Dr Chen: In your case I think we can do a long term treatment using immune suppressant
Blood washing doctor: so we will stick a pipe into your main artery, we will then take out
all your blood and clean it then put it back in
me: Sounds dangerous
him: Yes it is. I will try find a good vein
L: How are your eyes?
Me: Kind of crazy, like every filter on photoshop turned on and its clicking through one
after another. Everything is like looking at a Picasso painting sometimes
L: You should try to paint it. Its good for you to do something more personal, before you
were talking about art world and stuff, its good for you. Your body is telling you something
need to stop. Do you know the Japanese artist who paints the dots, Yayoi Kusama?
L: That is what she sees, everything was dots since she was ill
S: What are they doing?
Me: I guess they are doing what they want
S: Yeah, some people spend a life time and never figure that one out
J: I was going to book you in a private room for the weekend as a surprise.
Me: oh really?
J: Yeah then they said it will cost 30 times more than what you are paying
J: Yeah they said you are paying 36rmb a day now, a Waibing room is 1200rmb. Actually I
think that’s more than 30 times.
Pretty head nurse: Do you need anything?
Me: No I am fine
Pretty head nurse: If you need anything please press the bell
Me: OK thanks
Pretty nurse with glasses: Can you see me?
Me: Kind of. You wear glasses
He: Oh. Will you draw me?
Me: Sure if you like
Her: Ok, don’t forget you said that
Young man: Where is my Dad?
Room ayi: He went to queue to register you with external neurology. He will be gone all
night. I told him which way to go to beat the others
Lady: Which department is hardest to register with?
Room ayi: The skin department is hardest, external neurology is hard too
*note *to register to see a doctor some people will queue all night
The view from my bed in Huashan hospital.
Random lady: Do you speak Shanghainese? Are you a Zhongguo tong (a foreigner used to China)?
Her: haha, you must do. You know not to admit it. You are a clever foreigner. Where are you
Room ayi: He is from the UK
Her: Did you buy a house?
Me: Sold it
Her: Clever. And I bet you are waiting for price to go down then you will buy another.
Wheel of Fate
During this time Iwas working on developing new techniques and new styles somehow adjusting to my new condition. Over the period I did a lot of work with clouds. Clouds represent many different things. The word cloud, ‘yun’ in Chinese is used a lot, in poetry and songs, and has many possible uses, and the shape and form of clouds are also a strong element in traditional Chinese art, with dozens of techniques for painting clouds, which I have looked at for years.
Similarly clouds are of interest to western thinkers, the Scottish writer Ian M Banks has
imagined whole gaseous planets in the Universe inhabited by intelligent cloud life forms. In
the more modernist context, I think clouds can take on similar abstract and philosophical
meanings relating to modern day life, as they did for the ancients. The combination of
clouds, air and water, these elements attracted me, so I concentrated on this for a while.
More recently I started developing a new system of painting with colour being attached to
emotions. It also incorporates Chinese system of elemental forces and Fengshui and qigong,
which is all about using elemental life forces to create paintings, something is at integral
part of Chinese painting. Using this system I painted the largest painting I ever painted
while I was still in hospital. I was sneaking out of the hospital to my studio to paint. It was a
7 meter screen door which a commission for an international company’s new office in
shanghai. I painted 2 sides using the system, one gray, mountain water painting, and the
other side was a colourful sakura tree, I have started using this new system now and into
McDonald 24H delivery guy: Ah you are a painter
Him: I thought those overalls were pajamas at first
I would draw the Huashan hospital garden some mornings.
Ifound this old poem I wrote, quite prophetic:
The sky personified as the dispenser of justice
The blind man groped the elephant
His eyes are blind but his heart is not darkened
Blind as a mole
He holds up a lamp
On a blind horse he leaps
Into the deep pool
Only the blind realize the manifest benefits of sight
At the moment, if someone was making a film of my life, the most relevant song to play at
this point would be ‘I’m going blind’ by Hercules and Love Affair. Its not very often that a
song somehow encapsulates what is going on in your life, but that one pretty much does.
But finding out you have a terminal illness does give you that sense of crisis that finally
encourages one to make the effort to try and record what went on in your life, in my case
20 years of adventures and misadventures in the People’s Republic of China, for the most part.
Back onto the topic of my eyes, I suddenly lost my eyesight whilst biking down the road in
Shanghai. And you know, you go to bed and hope you’ll wake up and it was all a bad dream,
but unfortunately in my case I woke up and it was worse.
I have NMO or Secondary Progressive MS, this was the final diagnosis after seeing 3 sets of doctors in 3 different countries, China, Germany, and UK. NMO is a disease which is more common in Asia. The official name is Neuromyelitis Optica, it is a form of MS, but especially affects the eyes and spinal cord. Or I have MS, which does the same. I was on a regime of pills which are a bit like taking a wrap of speed in the morning, and a dose of heartbreak in the afternoon. Due to my unique circumstances in China, I had to deal with a lot of things myself, that usually you would expect the medical people to help out on, such as I have to memorize my own doses of my medication and figure out my owntreatment. With my eyesight being bad, it can be quite tricky. For instance, I have all my medicines laid out, and if someone moves them, I can be in trouble, I could be taking 10 of the
wrong pills instead of 1. First I would take a stomach pill to coat my stomach, so when I take the other pills they don’t attack my stomach. And in no particular order, I had some potassium, calcium, and then the hard stuff, which is a bright yellow pill that they told me to take half in the morning and half in the afternoon, and the next one is steroids, those are the nasty ones. I hate steroids. Steroids are the frontline treatment in the battle with NMO and MS.
My immune system is attacking my nerves, the nerves are inflamed and scarred, my
immune system thinks my nerves are its enemy. Steroids are a bit of like having a rage pill,
its very hard to control yourself with this stuff floating around your system, it makes you
want to run around and go crazy. I’m usually a laid back and easy going kind of person, and
when I was filled with the sudden steroid rush every morningit was hard. So I tried to control it by drinking sometimes, but that’s also a bad idea. I shouldn’t really drink, but the steroids give you a huge push, and you start running around and doing stupid things. And the trick is to try to control that and become calm. There is added difficulty with being sick, such as personal relationships become difficult. And sometimes you get some dramatic bad moods, and combined with the medicine, turn into an idiot. To try and not be an idiot, you have to control those emotions, and prevent yourself from becoming some kind of character in a Dostoevsky novel. The thing about having something like NMO or MS is you have to get on with your life, you can’t let it stop you. Your life can not be about a disease. In hospital, I saw other people just giving up, you just have to work around it. This disease especially attacks your eye nerves, so your eyesight becomes really messed up, its like chop suey. I have lost my central vision, it is hard to describe what that’s like, I think you can say everything is in to little pieces, and not reassembled properly, and its also a bit like
looking at everything through a fog. Sometimes its like little pricks of lights flying around in
front of you, a bit like a miniature firework display, as the optic nerve sputters. If I’m
looking at anything, its like I’m looking through a misty veil with thousands of tiny
colourful ants running around on it. So as you can imagine daily life can be a bit different.
Its not exactly as people would imagine you are blind, blind implies you are in the dark,
with zero light, total blindness.
And you basically become used to it.
When I first got this I found everything was very difficult. I was afraid of things, but now I
have adjusted to the situation, so I have developed strategies for dealing with things, and
there are tools and things you can learn to work with. So you brain adjusts to the situation,
and I think your other senses begin to compensate. They become more attuned to make up
for the lack in another area. Having an illness is kind of sad, because in your interaction
with people, it’s the first thing on their mind, or they just think you are really weird. For
instance there are certain things I just can’t do, when other people can do without thinking.
It just makes life so awkward. So you find yourself in ever diminishing circles. It’s a bit like
being a character in a zombie film, the people around you are killed off one by one. So being
a character in your own personal zombie film you find the people around you react with
the extremes of their character. The situation you are in shows other people’s character in
high relief. For instance your wife/lover/partner could abandon you to the zombie hoards
to save their own neck, while some stranger might offer you a hand to pull you out of harms
Zombie films are the analogy of the collapse of western civilization and also the personal
moral, physical, and mental degradation in our modern society. It is just funny for me to
have this personal experience and also being an avid zombie film fan, which is hard for me
not to draw parallels between the two. Similarly I can’t help but draw more parallels
between my physical health and the health of the world I live in.
The world feels like a powder keg ready to explode in one hundred directions. I so
want to make a zombie film in this life. You can imagine the cast of millions you could
get to take part in it. But I think to get a script like that passed by the censorship will be
impossible. Because I think if you got a million people to be zombies and tell them
to run around tearing the place apart, I think the lines between reality and fiction will
become very blurred. It reminds when I met this South African guy when I was traveling in
the South of China, it was 1992 or 1993, and he was one of the red coats in the film Zulu, so
the Zulu warriors in the film Zulu, those were real Zulu warriors. The plot of the whole film,
if you’ve never seen it, is basically the British soldiers getting wiped out by the Zulus. The
white guys get massacred by the Zulus. This South African guy said, as extras, they were
stood there in a firing line, as several thousand Zulu warriors charged at them in a huge
wave. A Zulu regiment is called an impi, and they do very intimidating war dancers and
chanting to frighten the enemy, and then they charge and kill them all. He said it was very
frightening. He thought they might be actually taking it seriously, as the Zulu charged them
for the film. This was during the time of Apartheid, so the Zulus had an actual grievance. So
if you watch that film, the white guys in the red coats are actually very afraid. The Zulus
had real spears and imperial regalia, they got excited and they were ready, Zulus are very
tough people. So, anyway, for me that analogy I think is similar to if you asked a thousand people to act as zombies, they maybe will lose the plot. So if you made a proper
zombie film, say rage virus epidemic, with people eating each other’s faces off, maybe when
you shout ‘CUT!’, they just keep on. That is a bit worrying to do a zombie film. You would
have to work very hard at spinning a zombie film plot to pass the censors. You could make
it into a positive, American films often show the complete destruction of their own society,
a collective catharsis, destroying their own country in films makes them feel better and
stops them doing it in real life? The Chinese haven’t figured that one out yet. So the films
they allow mostly are some ancient historical dramas because making a film with modern
commentaries is so complex and a minefield fraught with difficulties and would be
censored to hell. But a zombie film would be great.
Shanghai in flames, you could envision the heroes would be a prostitute and a policeman,
they would meet each other, he would try to arrest her. Then as the zombie thing starts,
they would basically fleet through this chaos, so he has arrested her, but at what point does
arresting her for being a prostitute make no sense? That realization has to come to him at
some point. So the prostitute will be extremely tough, so the actors in the zombie film
either die very quickly or kill a lot of people. A horror blood fest. And what have to be a nice
side perhaps a romance between these two main characters, when they realize everyone
they know has died, the whole world has fallen apart, the romance will start when they are
hiding in a house or trying to rest, while the zombies rampage, they will be exhausted and
fall asleep in each other’s arms. In the end of the film, I would have the United Nations
arrive in their blue helmets to rescue the last survivors of the Shanghai zombie rage virus
outbreak, but of course they will probably all die too.
I think I have found, during the course of this illness, there is a basic kindness in most
people’s hearts. But there is also zombie rage virus. What is zombie rage virus in reality? It
is how human beings behave once the veneer of civilization has rubbed away. My aunt, who
is 75, lives in rural Africa. She has been robbed at gun point twice at her home. The way it
works is the robbers hide in the nearby hills for a few days before attacking. If my aunt
spots anybody in the hills and calls the police they will never come. So the locals in the area
have formed a militia, and that is who you call when you see people lurking in the hills. The
militia will come and start to machinegun the hills for ‘target practice.’ In some parts of the
world the veneer of civilization is already rubbing very thin.
Nowadays, I find myself hurrying to be very strong and more assertive than I used to be. I
think that strength was always there, but it was something I put into my painting. I am still
painting, but it is a very different kind work than what it used to be. Now when I’m painting,
in a way like I’m composing it in darkness. This has been going for a couple of years now, so
have done a lot of art work during that time. For instance there is a painting in my living
room, they are blue clouds with a black background. And I painted these blue clouds with a
layering process. Because these cloud paintings, I have been doing for a while, as I
mentioned earlier, are about a bunch of issues. But they especially represent how as a
person I travel through life. This particular painting, I know what it looked like, because I
painted it when I one of my eyes are still ok. But now when I look at it, with the weird
things that are going with my vision, it has kind of multiplied itself. It still looks good to me,
but what I see is obviously not what it looks like in reality. So if I’m doing a new work
now, it’s harder than before. I don’t know what it really looks like in reality and only know
what it looks like to me. My eyes no longer reflect reality, they reflect weird and wonderful
shapes and colours. It’s like having a 24 hour free art show with lazers and everything. So
when I am on medication, I also have the combined hallucinatory effects from that. What
I’m trying to figure out is how to continue doing art work because that is what I do. You do
have to question yourself all the time. I have my old work, and that’s all fine. But to create
new work now is more challenging. Because I have lost what I had which was a brilliant eye, and a sensitivity to the materials. Now I sit and listen to the pitter patter of soft raindrops, as they fall onto the streets and the swish of cars as they drive through the
But then,life is full of surprises, on June 4th 2012, the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Shanghai composite index fell by 2.7%, which was 64.89 points. In China 6.4 commonly refers to June 4, the day of the massacre, and the year was obviously 1989, this spooky reference which can only hope been guided by an other worldly hand, leaves us all wondering what the hell is going on.
BBC: China bars stock index web search after Tiananmen match
China has blocked access to the term “Shanghai Composite Index” on some of the country’s
most popular microblogging sites.
This was after the index dropped by 64.89 points on Monday.
The numbers correspond to 4 June 1989, the date of the crackdown against protesters at
Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
China strictly prohibits references to the crackdown and has also censored other terms
relating to the unrest.
A search for “Shanghai Composite Index” on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter resulted
in the message: “According to the relevant laws, regulations and policies, the results for this
search term cannot be displayed”.
The correlation was not limited to just the drop in the stock index.
The market opened at 2,346.98 points, with many bloggers deciphering the 23 as referring
to the 23rd anniversary of the crackdown and the rest of the numbers, 46.98, again forming
the date of the crackdown, when rearranged.
“Whoa, these figures are too freaky! Very cool,” one of the bloggers was quoted as saying by
the Reuters news agency.
It quoted another blogger as saying that “the opening figure and the drop are both too
The army shot dead hundreds of civilians rallying for democracy during the crackdown.
Life Goes on Pretty Much as Before
I was at Ikea buying a bed. At Ikea they have a lot of private vans who will help you drive
Me: Can I pay you to help me carry the bed upstairs?
Driver: That’s my business. I can build it for you too if you like.
Me: That’s ok. I have two builders waiting
Driver: Yes good
Me: What do you charge to build the bed?
Driver: Just enough. Your Chinese is good
Me: I speak a bit
Driver: what do you do?
Me: Mostly journalist
Driver: Journalist! I have been waiting a long time
Me: I came to Ikea before the holiday because I thought it would be quiet
Driver: You are right. It will be very busy on a holiday. I want to reveal to you the black hole
of Chinese prisons. I was going to put it up on my Weibo, but it was too dangerous. Those
people I left in prison I promised them I would tell their story. I want the world to know
what is going on. You can see it, it is too dangerous.
Me: (guessing the guy is just out of prison) What crime did you commit?
Driver: I used to drive but I sold my cargo. It was steel.
Me: How much did you get?
Driver: RMB1000. But they said it was a mold, and said my cargo was worth RMB150,000,
or that’s what I needed to pay to get off. Crazy. Who has that much money. I told him (his
lawyer) but he didn’t care. I got 4 years. I am alive. But many in the black hole have got no
Me: Black holes?
Driver: I did the jail but it is really a dark hole. What they did to me. They only want money
or they treat you bad. They tie you to the bed and they hold you and beat you. You have to
pay them or they beat you. You must be mute in the black hole. I will call you later.
Me: I am doing a story on hospitals in China
Driver: Hospitals? That’s another black hole. Look at my let, it was broken, and at the
hospital I went there at 1.30PM but they made me wait for my family to bring money 2
Me: Ok, I will ask a friend, maybe he will get in touch.
In my search for a cure, I traveled to Germany to see the best doctors in the country there.
This was my first long journey alone. On my travels, as I was registered as a blind person,
there was some excitement.
Herr professor doctor: After the MRI we see your spinal has inflame again, so we put you
on steroid. We think because on your brain there is not much, you maybe do not have MS,
my opinion is NMO. This is different. We talk on Monday
Ultra sound guy: Everything is fine with your blood and kidney
Me: You know they also do an ultra sound when you apply for a long term China visa as
part of the health check
Him: Oh really?
Me: Yes, I saw someone in the government watching the film Alien, they took it seriously
and wanted to see if we had aliens in us
Him: Ha ha, really?
Me: Why else would you give a man an ultra sound I thought, now I know, to check the
kidneys. But I like my explanation better.
Him: Me too
S(on the phone): You must meet my friend
S: Yes. She is a personal image consultant to Chinese stars
S: She is a follower of the Bahaism.
Me: Oh what is that
S: A young religion started by Iranian. It believes all faiths are relevant
S: So now a lot of Chinese stars are converting
On a trip to Chengdu. My only information is somebody in YY in Shanghai said that Xiao Jiu
Guan was a good place to go in Chengdu.
Me: Xiao Jiu Guan
Taxi driver: Ok
In Xiao Jiu Guan
Me ( to waiter): Do you know any restaurants around here?
Him: If you walk straight down the road there is a square with many restaurants
Following his direction I didn’t find any restaurant.
Me ( to Hui minority street vender): Do you know where the Muslim quarter is?
Him: Go to Tianfu square
At Tianfu square
Kebab seller: Brrr. Foreigner. Brrrrrr
Me: Where are you from?
Me: Any good restaurants here?
Him: Here ok. There ok. There no good.
Me: Oh why?
Him: They eat pork. Not good. Lamb, Halal, baa, Allah Akbar (laughs and makes throat
cutting gesture. )
Him: You Muslim?
Me: No. Just visiting.
In Muslim restaurant
Waiter: We have no power.
Me: hmm. The kebab seller said there is another Muslim restaurant down the road.
Waiter: Yes, go that way
Later in another restaurant
Waiter: Gong Bao Ji Ding (chicken and peanuts)?
Me: Some lamb dishes please
Me: Take me to Xiao Jiu Guan
Taxi driver: Ok
( took me to a totally different bar)
Me: Is this Xiao Jiu Guan?
Bar guy: Yes
Me: I was just at a place called Xiao Jiu Guan but it wasn’t here
Bar guy: Oh there are a few Xiao Jiu Guan in Chengdu
Me: Ha ha
Hotel phone rings.
Phone: Emergency! Fire! Open window evacuate to the road!
Me(to unconcerned hotel maid): Hey is there a fire?
Maid: Ha ha. No. They are just testing the system. It will stop in a few minutes.
Me: Er, ok then.
A professor who specializes in boutique hotel management drives us to a meeting.
G: Ah. You are in the wrong lane going the wrong way!
Prof.: Ah don’t worry I have to drive like this.
G: You are going to kill us.
Prof.: I’m not afraid, no feeling.
In conversation with famous Chinese landscape painter
Me: What is your painting philosophy?
Him: To be a Chinese painter you should always be alone. You should not get married.
Marriage is a form of control, then your mind is not free.
M: You must come to Beijing! There is a master coming who will cure you.
Me: Ah, but I’m in Yunnan, visiting the Moso people.
M: Aiya, that is your karma. Why are you hanging out with the Moso people?
Me: I don’t know.
M: There will be another chance.
A sketch made when in hospital
Lying around in bed I would amuse myself by making random lists, such as this one of
Modern Chinese inventions.
#1. 3 in 1 coffee. Coffee, milk and sugar all in one packet.
#2. A special paper for painting calligraphy, the words disappear after a few minutes. Can
be used for 10 years.
#3. A hair brush that turns your hair black
#4. Fake seatbelt, because the car will start beeping if you don’t buckle your seatbelt. You
can now buy a fake seatbelt buckle to stop the car beeping.
#5. This is difficult to describe it, a spinning top with wined up action that turns into a
mobile disco for a few seconds with lasers.
#6. The people catcher, a long pole with a U shape at the end, invented after there was a
spate of knife attacks at kindergartens, the guard would use this the long pole any knife
wielding attacker against the wall at a safe distance.
#7. A floating baby neck pillow that allows babies to float in water with their heads safely
above the waterline.
G: I’m putting on my seatbelt according to the Chinese law
Taxi driver: Really no need.
G: I’m not saying you are a bad driver.
Taxi driver: Ha ha
G: Jesus he nearly hit the car.
Internal seatbelt alarm goes off.
G: Shit there is a fake seatbelt buckle in the hole. I can’t buckle my seatbelt. What does he
call this maneuver, The Chengdu Sandwich?
( The driver was now driving dangerously in between 2 other lanes of traffic, trying to
Sign in a Yunnan Restaurant: Beautiful women are paper tigers.
I was waiting to meet some friends at 41 Hengshan Road, a posh apartment building in
Shanghai. We were going to release fish in a river in Shanghai. I saw on the apartment
lobby wall one of my paintings. This painting I was told had been lost 15 years ago by a
Me ( to lobby guy): Hey. How long has that painting been there?
Him: Oh many years.
Me: Really? Is there a pink one as well?
Him: Oh yes. There was. I don’t know what went.
Me: How do I ask about the painting?
Him: Oh that is PL’s business.
Him: I am calling to her apartment now.
Me: Oh don’t bother.
Philip Dodd appears
PD: Who is it?
Me: Oh it’s me
PD: The concierge called me down. I’m staying in PL’s place.
Me: Oh really? I’m just here to meet MM. We are going to put fish in the river. Are you
PD: What? No.
Me: Funny they calling you down.
PD: You know they get nervous. What are you doing?
Me: Usual stuff. Writing, painting. I just saw my painting there in the lobby. I was told it was
lost 15 years ago.
PD: Ha ha.
BBC: The law on assisted suicide in the UK is under review. XXX who has MS is fighting a
landmark case for her partner to accompany her to Switzerland to commit suicide.
(couple waving happily)
Prince Latami of Moso people: This is the song I wrote. It is about my mother
Me: Oh very nice
Latami: Yes I love my mother so much I made her an MTV
Me: Its very nice
Latami: In our lives, our mother brother sister, there is only one. A wife, a girlfriend, they
can have many lovers. That is our belief.
Latami: I have 3 mu of land
Me: Lets build an artist residence.
Latami: That is a good idea
Me: My idea is to train ants to paint. Do you have ants?
Latami: We have ants but we kill most of them
Me: Do you have snakes?
Latami: Yes, why do you ask, do you want to train them to paint as well?
Latami: Your art work is a good idea. You artists think differently to other people. By 2013
we will have an airport.
Owner of hotel at Lugu lake: There is a senior abbot in Yongning. He was chosen by Llamas
as a boy. Another guy who is now a senior monk you cannot believe he was chosen by
Llamas and suddenly he started speaking Tibetan, before he was always in my bar drunk
throwing things. In Lijiang he would always start fights and the next day go and say sorry
and ask how much money he owed. He was that kind of guy. Suddenly he became a Llama. I
couldn’t believe it when I saw him in robes. He is the brother of the local party secretary.
My Shanghai studio, late Summer 2012
Now I am back in Shanghai, where I occasionally go to release fish in the river for good
karma. I moved my studio to an old lane house next door to J.G Ballard’s old house. My
studio neighbour is a crazy old lady with 3 miniature dogs, and I get a lot of visitors who
often comment on the eyesight problems of other artists, such as Van Gough, Monet, Turner, and others. Shanghai was still my home, and I haven’t given up yet. Shanghai is a city with very few egoists, and everyone is fighting.
Today, in the dog days of September 2012, I spent the weekend listening to air raid attack
sirens, and heard endless stories of xenophobic exploits of Chinese people against the
Japanese. I struggled writing a feature piece on the intricacies of China’s political leadership
change combined with the oppression of artists. I had to explain to my 11 year old daughter
why a taxi driver went off on a racist rant against Japan…
Her: Daddy why do people hate Japan so much? Everybody has something from Japan. They
are talking about a war so long afo.
Me: Oh, I think people are frustrated in their own lives and want to bully someone. Don#t
listen to them, if they start talking about it be quiet. It is a kind of craziness.
Her: but I don’t understand it.
Me: It is xenophobia, look it up, its spelt…
Her: I am not looking it up
Me: OK, anyway, just be careful, if anyone starts talking about it, just say nothing. They are
not behaving rationally.
Her: Sure, OK, but it is sad, I like Japan.
By now, I am adjusting to losing my vision- I sprained my ankle a couple of times on booby
traps, walking can be a hazard. And on bad days I can’t walk that far anyhow because of the
damage to my nervous system. On the plus side I have a keyboard with super big glowing
keys on my computer and have a software that blow the screen up super huge, so I can
manage to write things on my own. I also have a handheld electronic magnifier that lets me
do simple things like reading menus. If anyone asks I tell them I am testing the iphone 6.
They usually look at me like I must be doing something very clever and move on.
Sometimes they grab hold of it and run the battery down trying to figure out what it is. Yes,
being blind can be cool I guess.
For medicine I was taking some yellow pills to suppress my immune system, there was talk I may need a medicine that costs 10000 Euros a time, but then it turned out I should take the
yellow pills, which cost about 20 Euros.
The pills turn my pee bright yellow, which is probably too much information. But that is
preferable to the side effects of the 10k Euros medicine, as Dr Chen said there was a risk
‘for the doctor and patient’ that it might kill me.
As I have been going through my medical odyssey China has being going through
something of a trial of its own. People are buying Japanese cars and then setting them on
fire. There is what can only be described as an unpleasant air of tension. So how did we get
here, me a sick man sat on my laptop in Shanghai, while China sends patrol ships off into
the sea to face off with Japanese and other Asian counterparts?
So where, and when best to begin? I have thought about that for a while, and I think 1989
has to be the starting point. By starting at that point of course means this book can never be
published in China, but that means I don’t have to self censor at any point, so it is kind of a
relief. So, in2011, 22 years on, I met a young lady, in her 20s and working in an advertising
agency in Shanghai, who told me that those fateful events never took place in1989. She said
it was all anti-government propaganda. She was a trendy, well educated girl, doing
marketing campaigns for Unilever and Pepsi Cola. How sad that she has been taught to
deny one of the most tragic, hopeful events that happened in the late 20th Century.
So what happened in 1989? That summer I had just signed onto a course to study Chinese
and Politics at Newcastle University. Only about 5students a year signed up for that
particular course, and it seemed a really foolish thing to do, who was interested in China,
what was the point of studying Chinese? There were less than a handful of jobs every year
that needed any knowledge of Chinese, what kind of fool pursues such an esoteric pursuit
at University? Well, I have always fancied myself as a painter, and go off on blind
adventures and going to China seemed suitably enigmatic thing to do. I knew nothing about
the country at that point, beyond the blindingly obvious Chairman Mao and Long March
references. So that summer I was working in a factory, making power tool display stands as
it happened, working in pubs at night, and generally passing time before heading off to
university. Then suddenly the TV was full of China news. Gorbachev, the Russian leader,
was in China. Russia was going through Perestroika and Glastnost, the beginning of the end
for Russian communism. Eastern European communist countries were falling like nine pins.
The Berlin wall was crumbling. And suddenly in China, it looked like the communist
dictatorship was about to fall. Students were rallying in Tiananmen Square, and marching
through Beijing’s massive boulevards, wearing bandanas and holding large fanciful banners.
The police and army looked lost, it looked like just another communist collapse. But then
the government fought back. The Chinese communists had no desire to be kicked out of
power, and attacked the demonstrators with the full weight of the armed forces. The
students were massacred. The government regained full power across the country. The
bodies were swept under the carpet. Students were sent for military training and
Me: you were on Tiananmen Square when the shooting started?
G ( A Russian journalist): Yes, we had a car with Gorbachav pictures on it. The people loved
- We drove the car onto the square the people were cheering on us. When the shooting
started we reversed the car back out of there as fast as we could
Me: Did you hit anybody?
G: I’m not sure
Me: What happened then?
G: I was the one who had to go out on the balcony. I was crawled out on my stomach onto
the balcony of one of the diplomatic apartments on Jian Guo Men Wai. I watched the tanks
drive over the bridge there
Me: Did they shoot at you?
G: I don’t think they could see me.
While all this was happening I was an 18 year old, sat watching it all on my Mom’s living
room TV. ‘You’re not seriously considering going there,’ my Mom said, with her usual
worried exasperation. It was never easy been a single parent with two teenage boys who
did whatever they wanted to.
As I looked at the TV, Kate Adie getting people shot at her side, tanks running down kids on
bikes, masses of people shouting and screaming, I thought I most certainly am going there, I
had got the China bug.
That doomed cry for freedom, however badly organised, messy and mislead, the
Tiananmen Square uprising was the bravest act by the Chinese in the modern age. And it
also showed how dangerously ruthless the communists are, and how entrenched and long
term their goals are. They are willing to sacrifice thousands of people, tens of thousands,
millions even, in the pursuit of those goals.
In the 20 or so years since the uprising I have heard masses of anecdotal evidence about
the event, things that happened before, during and after.
So that bloody event was my starting point, my introduction to China. The Chinese people
had entered my consciousness, and have yet to leave it.
Before actually arriving in China I had a couple of years of the usual student life in
Newcastle, mostly revolving around bank overdrafts, cheap beer, ecstasy tablets and what
have you. In England 1989 was the second summer of love after all, the Stone Roses, Happy
Mondays, the Hacienda in Manchester, Rockshots in Newcastle, the beginnings of the rave
scene and all that was going on, whilst in China a massive crackdown was underway,
hidden away by what was then known as the bamboo curtain.
I wasn’t thinking about it too much, I was too busy arguing with my flat mates about the
washing up. And there were riots in Newcastle, and I got evicted from my flat, and burgled,
and there were always the police helicopters to keep me awake at night chasing car thieves
down the back streets of Newcastle’s west end.
So by 1992 we were supposed to be getting ready to head to the People’s Republic, filling
out very odd forms, in this weird archaic language that seemed de rigueur for the Chinese
*** *** *** *** ***
Do you have eyes? Tick
Do you have mental illness, social disturbance or mental instability? Cross
Do you have arms? Tick
Do you have a neck? Tick
Do you have HIV? Cross
*** *** *** *** ***
Funny, those forms were somehow prophetic.
Part 2. Cabbage Days
Western Style Contemporary Chinese Art or Chinese Style Contemporary Western Art: On
the Art of Chris Gill
By Professor Pu Jie, Shanghai Fine Art University
The early 1990s were an important period in the development of contemporary China. It
was also the beginnings of modern Chinese art. The art of this period is typically known in art circles as ‘modern art’.
At that time a group of avante garde Chinese artists began to live near Yuanmingyuan
(Garden of Perfect Splendor) in Beijing. The artists rented simple abodes from the local farmers to act as studios.
In the strict definition of the term we can say that artist studios in China began to gradually
Make their appearance at this time [that is, private artist studios as opposed to facilities provided by the government to artists on the state payroll]. It is a moment of profound historical significance [for the history of contemporary Chinese art]. This event initiated the spontaneous emergence of an artistic collective in China. Most of the artists were focused on exploring and creating modernist art.
Hence for the modernist art of the early 1990s this period is laiden with special meaning.
Since that time up till the present almost every artist who stayed at Yuanmingyuan went on
to become an important artist modern Chinese art scene.
但是，为人鲜知的是，90 年代初期，李云飞作为一名英国艺术家也借住在圆明园附近，这 在90 年 代初期，是一件比较另类的事。
However, what is not so well known is that at this time in the early 1990s Chris Gill
[Chinese name Li Yunfei], an artist from originally from England, also lived near Yuanmingyuan. For the time this was something quite unique.
It should be known that throughout the 1990s most Chinese artists aspired to pursue their
art in Western countries and thus played particular attention to modern Western art.
因为，90 年代初关于现代主义艺术理念、关于现代主义艺术样式，在中国仍然是一片空白，绝大 多数中国艺术家甚至还是不清楚：什么是现代主义艺术？
The reason for this is that in the early 1990s in terms of the concept of modern art and its
style, in China there was still much that was unknown and the majority of Chinese artists didn’t have a clue as to what was modern art in the first place.
However Chris Gill, as a Western artist, choose to reside and create his art in China.
Moreover, he lived with the Chinese artists and together explored the world of modernist art with them.
Perhaps something may be said of his special status as both an art journalist and an artist.
This dual identity endowed him with insights into modernist Chinese art just at the moment of its inception. Maybe this is the reason why, as he participated in the first stages of modern Chinese art, from beginning to end he developed a unique understanding of modern Chinese art. I have often felt this way when conversing with him.
This year marks the thirtieth year of modern Chinese art. Overall it is still the experience of
Modern Western art that is the point of departure in the practice of Chinese style modern art.
During this process, as a Western artist of long term residence in China, Chris Gill naturally
has reactions quite different from Chinese artists. It would be fair to say that he is both a witness to thirty years of modern Chinese art and an active participant.
What marks Chris Gill’s art out as different from his Chinese contemporaries is that it has
neither the style of modern Chinese art nor the style of modern Western art. His art orginates from his experiences growing up in South Africa and his English heritage. These two influences make up the starting points for his art and are also the basic visual style of his work.
Indeed his youth in South Africa constitutes the ‘根的基因’ of his art and without doubt his
art has clear South African cultural influences, perhaps even some for of indigenous African culture which brings out ‘根的归属’.
现代主 义艺术理念，而这一点尽管他在中国生活了近20 年，却没有改变。
Yet in any case Chris is an Englishman and all his work is influenced by Western culture and indeed by clear concepts of modern Western art. Even after twenty years of life in China this particular aspect hasnot changed.
But at the same time his art is not wholly Western. Afterall he has been living in China for twenty yearsand the imperceptible influence of this on his work must be recognised.
At the beginning of the 21st Century modern Chinese art is facing the world and gainingmuch attention.
Just as in the case of the Chinese artists who went to reside and develop in the West, this will no doubt encourage many Western artists to come to China to pursue their art.
In this regard Chris Gill’s art, created as it is within China, is itself a manifestation of China’s
internationalisation. That is, modern Chinese art embraces the world and at the same time Western artists come to China. With the continued development of Chinese modernity and the internationalisation of modern Chinese art, this interaction will become more widespread.
On this point Chris Gill is a pioneer. His art was formed in the early 1990s in Beijing’s
Yuanmingyuan andthen further developed in Shanghai. He was born in England and has South African memories. Therefore we can say of his art that it is both Western style modern Chinese art and Chinese style modern Western art.
When people are afraid they shit themselves- Reviewing a Chinese artists sketch book of Tiaanmen Square Massacre
Me: In this drawing you are all farting
Him ( Chinese art student): Yes we were all very afraid and running away
Me: Were they shooting at you?
Him: I don’t like to think about it
This part of my story I don’t know whether to delete or not. I grew up in South Africa, so serious political struggle is apart of my DNA. I also, due to this background- working class, grew up under Apartheid, then Thatcher, then in China, a degree in politics, Irish blood, this kind of thing is second nature to me, but not others. It makes people uncomfortable, and strays from my personal narrative, as a human amongst humans. But I want to say it, because I know I am right. Or am I? None have flattered me to their viewpoint and I have not bent the knee.
After 1989 a new patriotic vigour was instilled into political education for students. Since 1989 students were encouraged from an early
age to be patriotic. The nascent nationalism that had gone quite dormant after Mao was reignited as a way to keep the communist party in power. Pragmatic observations of the chaos in Russia led to a general belief
that suppression of the uprising in 1989 prevented a grand scale dissolution of the Chinese state.
The general opinion is Communism is good for you, you may not like it, but it keeps the country in one piece, and generally runs things pretty smoothly, apart from corruption, and suppression of dissent, and brainwashing of the youth. But look at what democracy got the Russians- mobsters and economic turmoil. Obviously comparisons to Eastern European success stories are shied away from. Added into this patriotism is a geo-historical discourse with strong emphasis on the crimes of the Japanese in WW2, for which the Chinese government has never really wanted to be resolved. The argument is China never received a proper apology for the Japanese aggression. The is none of the peace that now exists in the west. Japan has apologized, but not really. China wants revenge, for the horrors inflicted by Japan. There are also a long list of insults visited on China by colonialist powers. In many respects China has a good argument, but is caught in a contradiction with its own general imperial discourse in the occupation of Tibet, Xinjiang and other regions, which have been, and always will be, a part of China proper, according to the patriots. Similarly any Chinese map of China contains a remarkable red dotted line that stretches down along the coast of Vietnam and touches close to the Philippines, claiming the entire South China Sea as Chinese property. There is less mention of large parts of Siberia, which were originally Chinese and now administered by Russia, ‘inner’ Mongolia- now a part of China, and parts of India annexed by the Chinese. All very touchy subjects, whilst the Japanese are easy scapegoats for patriotic anger, partly their own fault too of course. But by creating this patriotic monster to replace the vacuum left by not
having a legitimate, accountable, democratic government the Chinese government have created a rod for their own back, by their own arguments. Officials will argue in private that if the communists were removed a huge patriotic fervour they are holding back will sweep out and create wars across Asia. Any government that replaces the communists will be fascistic, nationalist, right wing hawks would swing the populist vote, the bogey man of Chinese nationalism would consume the world. This argument often soothes western
qualms about the lack of Chinese democracy and has been the understanding in place for the last two decades that allows western democracies to comfortably do business in China.
But the Communists have taken a fantastically long view. They know, as do many others, that in the coming decades there is going to be a global struggle for resources, not just mineral wealth, but also things like water, food, basic requirements for survival on planet Earth. Anyone with basic maths ability can do the calculations, divide resources among projected population growth. They are protecting their own population generations ahead by importing mineral wealth from abroad at a thigh cost, while not using their own, the same goes for oil, and other commodities. The stated policy guideline is ‘exploit resources abroad first.’ Its obviously not that simple, but the upshot is, for whatever reasoning, the communists plan to stay in power, and are likely to do so for a very long time. And I guess it is the destiny of China to take over the world. But maybe that is the righting of the human axis. Was the British Empire better? Or the American? Or the Roman? Is it better to be subjugated by an arrogant American, British, Russian, French, Japanese, Swede or Chinese?
Generations of children have been sacrificed by the one child policy. That red line around the South China Sea will be the subject of a hot war one day, an area which is the major shipping route in Asia, and also potentially has more oil and gas reserves than the Arabian peninsula. At the moment the claim is there, and will be acted on when the time is right.
China is a country where people can exist comfortably within contradictions. But, as with all paradoxes, there is a fraying at the edges, and the danger always exists that it could
collapse in on itself. At the moment the strategic game is to play quietly, focused on economic strength. The hawks are waiting in the wings, and will only be allowed to play when the time is right and they are needed, in the meantime they are under strict instructions to keep their power dry.
So the thousands who died in Beijing, in 1989, they were another sacrifice, another bloody sacrifice to the ideals of Communism, and its ultimate usurpation of the human race.But is that a bad thing? In the e nd, I don’t know.
Me: Do you find all this nationalism a bit worrying?
Chinese professor: Do you think we only imported liberalism from the west? Didn’t you think we would also get nationalist? You can’t be that naïve.
Back in 1992, there was one link between the university and Yuanminyuan, with the Sichuan gallerist, we screen printed a lot of t-shirts. That was the time of the rebellious t-shirts. It even got banned, you were not allowed to wear t-shirts with words on, by government order,because people were going around wearing t-shirts with anti-government slogans. We made some t-shirts with government propaganda phases, such as Lei Feng or Chairman
Mao, and a government slogan on the back, but written in an ironic way, such as the characters being written with skeleton bones. It was the whole liumang – lost hooligan thing to be ironic. So I had this bag of t-shirts, and when everyone was waiting to go to the class in the morning, I would sell a couple to say a Japanese or a Costa Rican.
Looking at it positively, if there was an international moon base, they could learn a lot from the experience we had, living in a very enclosed environment, obviously it would be an international moon base hopefully, not single nationality, maybe someone could do some research into that topic.
That Chinese New Year, in 1993, I set off on a journey that proved to be one of those life changing road trips. I set off by train from the chaos that is Beijing station, by hard sleeper, firstly for the city of Shanghai, a city that would later become my home. On the train, people were chatting animatedly in a language I couldn’t quite pinpoint with my broken Mandarin. It definitely wasn’t Chinese, and I had a feeling maybe it was Japanese, but how come there
was a train load of Japanese people heading to Shanghai at Chinese New Year, traditionally a time Chinese people go home to visit their families? Anyhow, I sat there for some time, in those days the journey took about 20 odd hours, soon to be shortened to four or so hours, with the new high speed rail link in 2012. Eventually I discovered that the other passengers were talking Shanghainese- a completely different language! That threw me a bit – so in
that part of China people talk a completely different language. This after struggling for months with the intricacies of learning Mandarin. Aiya.
I arrived in Shanghai in the midst of the winter. In the cold, in an entire city with no heating- in China cities south of the Yangtze river receive no public heating- I was the coldest I’d ever felt in my life, a deep, damp, gets in your bones cold. Shivering through this damp, cold, suppressed city, with its musty old buildings, there was nothing much over a few stories, I walked the grimy streets to try and keep warm in the odd ray of sunshine. At
one point I was accosted by a grass roots Christian who dragged me into his mottled apartment, where his dying mother lay under a mountain of blankets. He dragged out a battered old Chinese bible and showed me pictures of his son cavorting with fat ladies on a motor boat somewhere in the United States. I managed to escape but not before he had managed to get me to eat some wind dried fish, a local delicacy whereby a fish or other meat like product are hung outside the house for a few months.
As I wandered deep into the intricate dark alley ways of Shanghai shivering and miserable I had no inkling this city would later become my home for almost 15 years and break my heart so many times.
At that point Shanghai being held back by the central government, to give the rest of the country a head start in the development process. The rest of the country pretty much hates Shanghai, there is a lingering hatred over the launch of the cultural revolution from the city, and a general resentment against the city’s denizens whiley ways, Shanghai is a city that has taken the spirit of daojianghu into its DNA. Built up by imperialists Shanghai was the
hive of ideas, business and political intrigue in which modern day China was formed. The Shanghai people are a very complex bunch, with multiple personality disorder. In 1992 the city had stood stagnant for decades, punished for being too capitalist, and then too communist. At this point, though it didn’t look like it, the city was a coiled spring just waiting for the go ahead to develop and reform, two ideas that were enacted with a vengeance when the word finally arrived.
So my first year in China ended, and I managed to get back to England. Exhausted I found myself in Manchester airport, with a very bad haircut and my duffel bag and portfolio case stuffed with paintings, the customs berating me for attempting to smuggle Chinese artefacts into the country. I pointed out my own name where I had signed the paintings, and the customs officer gave me that ‘oh yeah a likely story ‘ look.
So by 1995 I was living in a small flat in Beijing, sharing with a UK playwright. We were both teaching English at a nearby management school, and slowly going crazy. Our salary of RMB 1000 (£100) a month was really only enough to survive for a week in Beijing, despite the schools insistence you could feed a family of ten on cabbage broth for the same amount for the month. It usually lasted us a week. Beer cost RMB 30 (£3) a pint. After about 6 months we had recut the floor tiles into pleasing shapes, covered the walls in
calligraphy, and even shot a three hour video of our students reenacting plane hijacks, drug
busts and bank robberies. It was really time to go, for me at least. For me, the epiphany came when I walked in on the school guards, under instruction of the local kung fu master, who were taking turns fucking a pretty young girl from the countryside, and asked me if I wanted a go. It was really time to leg it, but I was a bit stuck in Beijing with no money or
ticket, and only a handful of paintings for currency. The last painting I sold the winter previous for $100, which turned out to be a fake note. On a trip out of town myself and Steve changed the $100 in a Yangshuo bank, which was enough for train tickets to Beijing, a hotel, and a night drinking vodka.
Enter W, a fairly close acquaintance of a couple of years. He was a local DJ, opening a few clubs in Beijing, was in and out of a few rock or punk bands, for what ever reason it never seemed to really work out. W was kicked out of China’s top art school for stealing bullets during the military training period which most Chinese students had to endure, especially after 1989.
It wasn’t something he really talked about, though he did once show me his sketchbooks of
the Beijing uprising. Mostly it was pictures of people running and farting in fear.
So, W put the proposition to me: A disco was looking for a DJ, but it had to be a foreigner. I was a foreigner, and he was a DJ, and probably between us we could work it out. I heard him say the deal was going down in Guangzhou, a city I had just been to, near Hong Kong, pretty civilized, well not really, as I’d nearly got my throat cut and nearly accidentally shot someone’s head off, but anyhow, I knew where he meant.
The deal maker was a pretty young girl, the sister of one of W’s best friends from
Virginal, petite and very pretty she looked at the pair of us, and after a few beers she took us to her apartment. W went to sleep and I spent the night talking to her, explaining what great DJs we were.
Come that heady Autumn of 1995, some tickets appeared. We headed off to the airport. I was doing a complete bunk from the school, providers of my visa, salary and caused quite a scandal it seems. No less so because I owed the principal $200 from some previous issue.
As this was the same bastard who put me in a rat infested old factory building for my first digs I felt no shame. As it turned out he got busted later for embezzling money to decorate his apartment.
We’d spent the previous weekend scouting Beijing for some up to the minute latest musicso the soundtrack to this experience would be the greatest hits of 1995. W also did some photo shots of us in DJ mode, all quite fun and exciting. W kept telling me we’d be dealing with peasants, who know nothing.
It was a bit like jumping off of a cliff with no bungee rope. The first sign that we hadn’t really thought this whole thing through came to me as we passed through airport security. It was my first time flying internally in China, and I’d thought it would be like the train. You
get on, get on your seat, and wait til you arrive. Unfortunately several ladies in paramilitary gear and with a kind of scanner had other ideas. I beeped passing through the scanner, and thinking ahead I’d prepared a film canister full of dope for the adventure ahead. So as I mentioned I beeped, and looked worried, so the paramilitary lady started to go through my pockets, pulling out assorted paraphenelia.
“What’s this? What’s this?” she said flicking through assorted fag papers, cigarette ends,
empty fag packets, suddenly “Camera film?” she held up the black case in her fingers inquisitively, looked at me, then put it unopened on the table. Next she pulled out a packet of condoms. Aha, she had found the source of my anxiety, she imagined, and ushered me to return my paraphernalia to my pockets and piss off. Sweating a bit I looked knowingly at W, who looked at me quizzically, not knowing I had a couple of ounces in my pocket. I thought it was a bad idea too by that point. We boarded the plane and off we went.
Part 5. Guizhou
The plane descend in a kind of mountainous place, surrounded by mist, and looking rather rural, not at all looking like the massive city of Guangzhou I remembered. A big sign “welcome to Guizhou” added to my confusion. Perhaps this was one of those Chinese things. They don’t spell English so good, they hadn’t quite figured it out yet, and chuckled to myself.
Two men met us at the airport, a smiley man in a leather jacket and a burly friend. We got in their jeep and set of downtown. I mentioned to W I didn’t remember this bit of Guangzhou. He gave me that what the fuck is this foreigner on about now look. We warbled at our new employers about what kinds of music are shit hot in the world, and I put on a tape of pixies, goth, some electronica, butthole surfers, and a few other things, which they
didn’t seem to like much.
W had intimated Dj-ing is a lot about psyching the other side out. I had no idea what he meant, but anyhow, lets see what happens. Everything was definitely hanging out in the wind by this point.
Where is Guizhou?. Guizhou is a mysterious mountain province. Sort of in the south west in China, land locked, hidden behind mountains. The capital is called Guiyang, which means precious sun, because it rarely sees the sun. People mostly are quite short, and there are a lot of minority people living there. The province is in very little development, and was a key
staging post for the revolutionary arms of the communists during the revolutionary period.
They have a diet that is extremely spicy, they have a great love of the chili pepper, they put chili into absolutely everything, huge great laden tea spoons of chili. So it was about 1995 with W, we were given an apartment, at first they put us in a crappy hotel, and basically that was our trial period. We realized by this point that this was not going to be as easy as
we thought, because we were under a lot of observation, so I figured out W had to teach me
how to DJ without anybody actually knowing. So we drew out a mixing machine on a big piece of cardboard, using a cassette player and a CD player, and go into the actions on this drawn out piece of cardboard. We spent a few evenings learning how to DJ on this piece of cardboard. It was rather intense. And the first night we were invited to perform in a disco, a huge disco, a several hundred people type venue, with dancing girls and a space rocket, you
press the button and the space rocket took off from one end of the room to the other. Lots of fashion lights and lasers and things, Yaya I think was the name of the place. At that time
Guizhou was going under a huge reconstruction effort, the whole town was a dust bowl, or more really a mud bowl, because it was raining all the time. There was nonstop digging and what have you. During the day we would wander around taking photos of the city, and at night we would work in the disco. It was the first time I ever touch a DJ machine in front of
a few hundred people, and also the local TV station was also there, it was quite nerve wracking. We had a kind of strategy worked out, of doing this without anybody actually noticing. There was a rival DJ, who was from Hong Kong, who were putting out of a job. He was kind of a rap guy, they were not really interested in rap in Guizhou, they were more interested in techno and pop music. In that part of China they were quite hedonistic and enjoyed either Baijiu, Guizhou is the home of the famous Moutai brand, or they were into
drugs because we were quite close to the Golden Triangle, and I suppose they were also growing things up in the mountains there. The hotel lobby where we stayed was full of heroin addicts, you could notice the packets of heroin in their stockings at their ankles. A lot of the people were extremely poor, they were charcoal burner families, who would come to the city from God knows where in their ethnic outfits, pulling some sort of two wheeled cars loaded with charcoal. These were people who were really poor. But the
eople in the capital obviously had a bit money and they also wanted to have a good time.
The way discos worked at that time in China, they had a sort of a set regime, meaning the same set of records would be played every night with a program inserted between the records, there would be models doing a catwalk in the middle, there would be a variety show going on with things such as university students come up and sing songs, I think the most exciting night we did was the anniversary of Tiananmen Square and the manager was quite excited, he wore a mask and we played some Tang Dynasty, he waved a big red flag
and it was all quite exciting. The disco itself was basically the main entertainment venue for a province of 17 million people, a mass population. So anyone coming to the city for a good time would come to Yaya disco. There was a rival establishment called JJ’s, where this little Australian guy was working, I got on with him ok. There were only us 2 foreigners in the
city, plus half a dozen other. There were people from British American Tobacco, there were some guys who had some kind of factory, and a couple of English teachers. And there was one foreign student who could rap, who appeared at some point and was some kind of local celebrity. I remember the rivalry between the two night clubs did get quite vicious at one point, but later in the day I decided to leave, where the rival disco sent someone over who threatened to cut my hands off. So I thought ok it’s time to go now, because I don’t need that in my life. And of course we had the usual police and what have you coming in to check up on us. After our initial intro into this place, we started to earn money. The management were kind of a semi mafioso, they used to pay us every month in wedges in cash, it was the
takings from doors and it was all in loose change, so we would run to the bank with these pockets full of money, throw it into the bank and do another month. Life there was pretty cheap. We mostly lived off street food. They had these huge posters of us at the door, we had to give ourselves DJ names, and just called ourselves DJ twat. There was once a famous
DJ twat in New Castle, so I stole his name. He used to play with a paper bag over his head.
I think one of the better performances we did was when we were walking down the street one day and we found a Chinese Peking Opera troupe. In those days Peking Opera was no longer very popular, so I thought it would be interesting if we had them and got them to do all the Peking Opera to techno. That would be quite a surprising performance I thought. We
got these guys in and they did all their Peking Opera routine to techno, and I also got them to paint my face as a Peking Opera character, I think I was Monkey King. It went down quite well. These middle aged performers were quite excited at being integrated back into modern society. They were very nice people. I don’t know what the audience thought of it. They were just standing there going ‘what the hell is going on here’. I think that was what they wanted really. They wanted to be shocked and surprised. They came to the place
because they wanted to be entertained. We had a lot of people come down from Beijing to visit us and see what we were up to in the provinces, and they would all crash at this apartment we had. We quite often had a full
house at this apartment. It was a bog standard Chinese apartment, but quite big. We did a lot of paintings, drawings and what have you there as well. Some nights we would end up quite drunk, the performance would usually end around midnight, but after that sometimes excited clients would drag you off somewhere else. The thing is it was quite tiring, because
we were working 7 nights a week without a break, we didn’t get to see much of Guizhou. It
was quite exhausting. You had to gear yourself up every night for a performance. Pretty much the whole time I was speaking in Chinese. It brought my Chinese language ability along no end.
One thing that is interesting about Guizhou is that is the home of the Chinese Yeti. But we never got close to visiting anywhere that remote. But I have interviewed people from there that told me they had seen Yetis. For instance I was discussing with a woman and she said a
lot of people were sent there during Culture Revolution, and they just went mad and ran off into the forests. They went insane and were running around naked, and got mistaken for Yetis, that is one of my theories. So they may not have been real Yetis, but mad real people.
And the diet of nonstop chili could challenge the digestion of just about anybody. One lady told me that during the Culture Revolution they only had chilis to eat but nothing else.
When I got back to Beijing, I had lost a lot of weight, and when I met some friends they said ‘where the hell have you been?’
After that W stayed a few more weeks, and he left for Yunnan, where he had another gig. In Yunnan he met his now wife, as fortune would have it, it was quite a good journey for him.
We gave each other model worker certificates for work well done, as we were definitely model workers in the modern society. He is now working as a portrait artist at Time Square in New York.
The mechanics of getting several hundred people do dance for several hours every evening, is quite an interesting process, we had dancing girls dance behind us, they were quite hopeless to be honest, we had to teach them different moves. There were these two lighting
girls who operated the light consoles, which basically would flash around to get people moving. And we had the rockets, but I think I broke it because I was too fond of it. I used to enjoy pressing the button to set the rocket off but they told me to stop doing it after a while.
We had a lot of smoke and dry ice and that kind of thing. We quite enjoyed that. As it turned out the two lighting girls were off duty police women, and they worked in a local prison. So, go figure.
I remember one night the big boss of British American Tobacco wandered into the disco with one of his managers, they were all quite drunk and they went crazy, he was a white guy from East Africa, he came up to me, I had my Monkey King face on, he started chatting to me, and tried to offer me a job as a marketing guy with an unlimited budget to create a
market for women smokers in China. It was really like being offered a pact from the devil take a well paid job to sell cigarettes to women, a lot of women did not really smoke, push cigarettes to women, I just thought, jeez, should I be responsible for millions of lung cancer
deaths for whatever money they are offering me. So I just walked away. To this day men in China still smoke like chimneys, but the number of women smokers has not got anywhere close to the number of men smokers. At least that’s one thing that I don’t have on my conscience.
Following on with that later when I moved to Shanghai, I was sat there with my Swedish boss who had invited me to dinner at some random restaurant, and we were with these people in this company I was working with, this young Chinese Shanghai American, I don’t know how the hell he found me, marched into this restaurant, and said ‘ you are Li Yunfei the DJ! Yeah, I know who you are, come with me.’ I was like ‘What?’ ‘ We are opening a new night club, you have to come.’ He dragged me off, I made my excuses and left the dinner. It was very surprising for everybody at the table. How the hell did he find me? And then I helped them to open a new night club in Shanghai, but it was not really my thing anymore.
Actually that night club did really well for a while, it was called China Groove. It was in between the DDs and YYs periods of Shanghai nightlife.
Shanghai, End of an Era
In 1997, I set off for Shanghai with a suitcase, a battered portfolio case, and a hundred RMB (£10)cash.
Me: How much did you have when you arrived in Shanghai?
Ex KTV girl now small bar owner : I had 250 RMB (£25)
On the train, by coincidence, this was the night they announced the death of comrade Deng Xiaoping, it was announced on the train loud speaker at some point during the night. I remember I was sharing a hard sleep compartment with a Chinese chef, who lived in Hamburg, and was home visiting relatives. When I arrived in Shanghai the city was mourning the death of the former leader. He had likely died several days earlier, but it took
a while for the leadership to announce his death. His ashes were scattered at sea. So I arrived in Shanghai, a city very much like its food. Dark, sickly sweet, a city full of ennui, nostalgia, a sense of melancholy envelops the city. My main connections in Shanghai were people I knew from Guizhou, so I started my life in the city hanging out with Guizhou
emigrants, and their friends. At that time, Shanghai was in the midst of its throes of rebirth,
so it was in incredibly dusty city, full of rubble and destruction. My sketch books at that
time are full of drawings of aliens invading and zapping old buildings into dust. But the city
only has about a hundred years of history, what a hundred years they have been. Though the old Chinese city, and old town near the mouth of the Yangtze River had a long history,the city was basically built by energetic foreign merchants and traders in the aftermath of the opium wars. After the revolution, from the late 1940s onwards, Shanghai became a very
different place, but has now regained its former place as the entreport of China. Not long after I arrived in Shanghai, I tried to start a company with CHL, an agrophobic Kungfu writer and painter.
Living in this city is usually intense- here are someNotes from Shanghai
The lift took us to the fourth floor, entirely wall to ceiling covered in red carpet velvet, golden sculptured Chinese words scattered across the walls. His office, the boss of Tong Tong, was full of calligraphy, behind him a life-size statue of the God of __, incense cluttered
the God’s feet.
Last night a show of some art critics work, rooms full of crumpled paper balls, Italian consulate out in force. An old building down in Xujiahui district, completely trashed, great place for an art show. The publisher, otherwise known as CHL’s brother in law, is off to Beijing to negotiate us a new deal with the government.
I will be spending the weekend drawing pictures of rice.
The wife of the brother in law is a painter. She says her skin is five years younger than before, they’re all using some new miracle skin cream that hasn’t got a license. It comes in little blank plastic bottles. The woman who sells it is going off to Europe to have another child, two sons already but she’s always wanted a daughter.
L’s mother has a new wooden floor made of scented wood. An opera singer lives above
them, on the twenty fifth floor the wind whistles like demons past their windows.
L: T paints animals, mostly big cats, lions tigers, pouncing across the canvas. Everything in two’s, two lions, two cheetahs, two leopards, men and women, two by two.
G is only four. While we’re eating she falls down the stairs and splits her head open, enough
for two stitches, she screams for her father CHL. While we’re on the fourth floor we meet to
negotiate our new office. G doesn’t want to see me because her mother’s ill. The PR
manager sits down with us and deals out Hongtashan cigarettes, ‘Red Pagoda Mountain’
brand, the site of a battle in the Chinese civil war, now the most popular cigarette in the country. The cigarettes taste ‘dan’, or soft, the flavour sticks to the back of your throat. The deal moves along, the PR manager promises he’ll do anything to help us, we are his friends. In the end we have two options, an office that looks like a store room or one that some chemical company is just about to leave. The word is to take the chemical company’s room and move into the loft first. The loft is a bit strange, definite feeling the previous tenants ran
away, littered with mannequins, a couple of old computers, the plastic yellowed, ashtrays half full, a very worn old leather sofa, assorted maps of China and the world.
‘It’s a storeroom’ mutters the brother in law, not the kind of image he’s into at all. Anyway
the modo swings and maybe we won’t have to pay them any rent, or some rent, nobody
seems very clear. Our magazine is supposed to come out soon, but funnily enough we have no money, and to bring out a magazine you need an ISBN number, which are not dealt out
like carrots. The Metropol artists group are talking about having a show at the American club, but it’s complicated. T’s brother keeps giving me funny looks. They are a kind of strange family, their father was a big man in the cultural revolution group, and half the family ended up in jail. They don’t talk about it much. G the four year old came running in holding an old fan. G’s father and T’s brother CHL opened it up and there was a poem written on it in bilateral lines. ‘It’s my father’s’. CHL read it and looks uncomfortable, the fan was buried again in piles of old paintings they keep below a piano. Three families live in their house on Kangpin Road Shanghai. A ‘Geoby’ brand tricycle dominates the passage, the place is full of fighting crickets, song birds and flowers collected from the
nearby gardens. Each family has a room, and the living room is common ground. Sitting here it generally feels like a busy subway station. They share a maid, from the countryside, who sleeps on the sofa.
T’s brother CHL says he’s my older brother and I should listen to him. He’s working
together with L on rice TV commercial for a large Manchurian corporation. This is
supposed to be the first TV ad for rice in China. Last month we were working for a Japanese super disco. A mixture of Cantonese businessmen and Japanese pop stars, they somehow managed to sign the contact. One of the Japanese beat up three of the Chinese staff in the process. L and T’s brother seem to be cooperating. Usually L screams and shouts at the people she works with, I think she is scared because he is more emotional than she is.
‘I love the smell of rice in the morning’. Robert Duval
Charlie ate half a ball of rice a day, rat meat if he was lucky.. He didn’t get no RnR. Rice
economy – Prostitutes are paid in rice for lack of hard currency. A Nong Ming is a farmer.
He grows rice and usually gets about on a cannibalized motorbike engine hooked up into a three wheeler tractor cum cart. Country girls like nice rice.
The world of rice = life.
Water Sun Soil Seasons Growth
Not just any rice, but the most expensive rice in China. It comes from the dark soils found in the north east, fed on sparkling mineral water. Da Mi rice. Rice as a gift aspiration.
Young Chen was poor famer boy, he lived alone with his mother. They were very, very poor.
They had only one water-buffalo. He took it to the market to sell. On the way he met a stranger – a pregnant woman. They exchanged the cow for a bag of rice seed. His mother was very angry and threw the rice out of the window. The rice grew into golden rice plants, young Chen sells the rice, moves to the US and becomes a prosperous businessman.
Best rice anyone ever tasted.
T examined L’s feet after dinner. ‘Aha, your intestines are not good..’ She has been
practicing ( as in trying out) acupuncture for several years. ‘I’m older now, you worry about these things when you are older.’ There was this Chinese Emperor, he said ‘ you should wash your feet in warm water every night, if you want to live a long life.’ Feet are very important.
The Fortune Teller
T is on very good terms with a fortune teller, and L wants to meet him. T’s paintings (her studio was closed down suddenly) are in limbo and she wants L to store them in her new flat. T is going to give the fortune teller one of her paintings, the perfect opportunity for L to meet the fortune teller. If my paintings are stored in your house he must come to meet you..
Fortune tells are sensitive souls, they will tell you about love money, anything.
L is worried, she wants to please him.
‘Does he like cake?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’
A lot of people want to see my paintings, I asked my brother to find somewhere to put them for months now, but he never does anything about it.
T’s brother CHL thinks L and his sister are getting on very well. He is not sure how L will
get on with the fortune teller. He buries himself in his books.
‘Do you know what a ‘juru’ is? Short person, you know? How do you say juru in English?’
Everyone in the room chuckles, what a ridiculous word dwarf, tee hee.
‘He’s great isn’t he, how he knew what a juru is? Ey?’
‘Anyway, says here in this book, an American, he says some dwarf built the Maya pyramids.
Maya pyramids, there’s one of them in the jungles of Guizhou province. China has pyramids
too you know.’ CHL brandishes his book ‘ Predictions of the end of the world volume one’
translated from the American English ‘ The Sphinx, the Sphinx you see, it was built by aliens, humanoids from Mars. ‘ CHL’s wife, Z, fries up a big basket of chicken nuggets, with tomato sauce. She argues with the maid because she’s sick and should be in bed. G the four year old washes her mother’s hair. Z works as a producer for Shanghai TV station, and will organize the filming of the rice commercial. L still wants to meet the fortune teller. She talks about how she was going to work in Shenzhen, and she’s glad she didn’t. T’s brother knows the man, Andrew, who she was going to work for, Andrew owes him ‘ at least two million, seems best not to go and work for him.’ ‘He’s type AB blood you see, people with AB blood have no conscience.’
The family keeps a photo album of snapshots of an exhibition they had in Beijing. Smiling and shaking hands with a series of very old men, the marshal of the army, the general secretary of the party secretariat..
The fortune teller it seems he can’t read his own fortune, because he has revealed so many
secrets of the Gods they have taken a dislike to him personally, and he is also a Christian.
He made his fortune by telling the futures of Hong Kong pop stars who fly out to Shanghai to see him especially. He looks on T as his sister, he used to be her mother’s sister’s student.
T’s family is a musical family, their father wrote the opera’s for the cultural revolution. Her
mother could sing and dance and she worked at the music conservatory. The fortune tellers had luck saw the death of B, his wife, and numerous mysterious illness. He asked the doctor to give him an endoscopic inspection no less than ton no less than ten times. During this period he gave his bank book to T because he felt she was the only one he could trust to
look after his son if he dies.
CHL’s agrophobia kicks in and he disappeared.
Lands of Mystery
I didn’t have a studio for the first few years I lived in Shanghai, I just worked out of my
bedroom, and had the odd small exhibition in places such as Ying & Yang bar. I sold my first painting at that bar for 100HKD, not long after arriving. When I arrived this time in Shanghai, the nightlife scene was just finding its feet, and I even got a gig DJing at one place.
As it turned out, 1997 was the year a lot of things changed, Hong Kong was handed over to China, Jiang Zemin, former major of Shanghai, secured his place as the leader of the country.
Under Jiang, China took off on an oblique direction under his very vague 3 represents theory, which nobody understood. I have lived in Shanghai for 15 years now, had a succession of studios, even had a solo exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum, all from that RMB100 (£10) starting point. It is a city where people can make something of themselves without any network of guanxi i.e. no political or family connections. Shanghai is a city where hard
work can pay off. Over these 15 years the city has changed a lot, and the number of foreigner residents has grown remarkably. But most of them seem to be living in their private universes, that have very little to do with the country they are living in. Sadly, when we attempted to connect local and foreign communities together through the 696 Weihai Road art studios projects, the local government shut us down.
Shanghai’s art scene is a complicated beast. What specifically differentiates Chinese art, apart from the obvious regional specification?
A major factor was Chairman Mao’s decision that “Art should serve the people,” made at the
Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in the 1940s, which was fully implemented once the
Communist Party had taken over leadership of the country. By means of this directive, Soviet style realism dominated, and those artists who had been more integrated into the world art scene prior to this, had to disregard western art practice, which was considered bourgeois. Many artists were denounced, and this became worse during the cultural revolution. Also after the Communist take over of China artists had very little exposure to anything except Soviet style work, and soviet style art education still dominates in art
schools to this day. Once the reform process started by the early 80s Chinese artists gradually became aware of the various art movements and ideas that were prevalent outside the Soviet sphere. Currently artists who want to can keep close contact with the art world outside of China, mostly via the internet, and also there are numerous exchanges and travel opportunities available for Chinese artists today.
As the institutional, academic, critical and political situation is quite different to ‘the west’ a
new emerging way of doing things is emerging in China, loosely referred to as “The Chinese
Model.” What is the Chinese model? It is a rough, and often unspoken, collection of
strategies for dealing with issues- such as lack of funding- more specifically state funding, censorship, under the table financial dealings, problems with institutions and cultural organizations, who have political directives and agendas that the artists may not want to be
associated with. Also art criticism in China has many detractors- mostly due to the perceived idea that art critics now only write about artists for payment. Similarly auctions in China have become a very grey area- with a lot of talk of manipulations. What this means in effect that there is a blurring of the lines, as the contemporary art scene rapidly evolves,
and the government mechanisms of control also evolve in parallel, so we have a very sophisticated escalation on both sides, which will create a very complex and in some way unscalable monolithic structure, which we call “Chinese Contemporary Art.”
Shanghai is a city on the make, combined with the city’s international outlook, and the very optimistic Shanghainese view of its future, there is a strong sense of destiny prevalent in the air that the city is rising to reclaim its place as one of the world’s centers of arts and culture. Contrasting strongly with the last couple of decades of slow but steady progress in the arts, there was a sudden burst of activity surrounding the World Expo (May – October 2010), with big name artists and huge projects parachuting in, which in some ways contradict what Shanghai’s art scene had always been about–quietly developing in dark and musty corners of the city, away from the attention and more commercial minded art
scenes found in other cities. This is a city where it is better to avoid the large majestic and monumental style works more popular in Beijing, as the practical minded Shanghainese mentality will critique such works to their doom.
Shanghai is a city with less than a 100 years of any real history, so it does not carry the burden of thousands of years of culture that wearies the arts in many other parts of China.
Shanghai continues to reinvent itself while its art scene is polarized between official building projects, many semi-private initiatives, and a local scene that is likely to go more underground.
ME: If you could briefly introduce your book
PJ: Its about how to really be a real artist. You shouldn’t be influenced by trends and market, that is no use, you have to look at the society as an independent intellectual and be an independent artist. That’s the core of contemporary art.
ME: so you think you are very independent, or are you criticizing that other artists are not independent?
PJ: Not really. In the 30 years of Chinese contemporary art, there are many excellent artists,
but most of the rest just followed trends in their development. I have been working in art since 1985 so you can say I’m quite familiar with Chinese contemporary art, especially in Shanghai, this place. The 80s is when Chinese artists became independent intellectuals and broke from the old system and methodology, this is the core point in the development of
Chinese contemporary art.
ME: I have interviewed many Chinese artists, I feel that their thinking is not very clear these days
PJ: I think that’s for sure. Chinese society from the old days to the current time has alwaysbhad independent thinkers who sit and judge the society including the art field by their own value system. In the development of China to this point in time, there has been huge originality and energy, in both economy and art, that’s the central power to push Chinese society to develop.
ME: Its quite complicated in the eyes of western people. Because you have contemporary art and you also have Guohua, Chinese traditional style art. And in China, Chinese traditional painting is considered very important. But westerners do not understand it.
PJ: Chinese traditional art is a kind of ancient culture from history. In the 5000 year history of China, Chinese traditional art developed from the civilization and the invention and usage of paper and was a way to express philosophy, values of society and personal ideas.
It is very different from Western art which has its own rules and structure, you need all the colours, canvas and space, while Chinese traditional art is without form, you just need a table, a piece of paper and a brush and ink. This art form appeared from the Chinese culture background, but at this time it certainly has been influenced by contemporary art, because
it has reached its peak. How Chinese traditional art fits into current day society is something needs to be researched and looked at. In the 30 year history of Chinese contemporary art, of course it has influenced Chinese traditional art, they are attempting to
use traditional materials and methods to create contemporary art. The point being the achievement of Chinese traditional art is very great and almost impossible to surpass, and is limited by the culture background, it’s a question of value judgment. We would ask the question, is this Chinese traditional art? Is this Chinese tradition? Is it contemporary or
now? Chinese art, the material, the value, that is important. Inside this question there are many questions.
ME: so everyone is very confused.
PJ: its hard to say. In this 30 year history of Chinese art, its hard to tell if its Chinese
traditional art developing into Chinese contemporary art. Its achievement has been too great and in its very long history, as an art form it has peaked. Especially the ink wash painting and landscape painting from Tang, Song, Yuan and Qing dynasties cannot be beaten. To change that position it needs to reinvent itself. There is no way to use ink and
brush to represent contemporary society. With the current influence of western culture it is impossible to sit at home with an ink and brush to create contemporary art. You can maybe comment on some traditional issues. But there is no connection. This is a problem.
How you use those traditional materials to investigate the modern society.
ME: When I was in Chengdu I met with a Chinese painting master and he told me a foreigner couldn’t paint Chinese traditional painting.
PJ: What he said was right and also not right. Chinese art is like Chinese language, a foreigner can speak Chinese language, but always with an accent. But if you state a foreigner can’t speak Chinese, the reply is they absolutely can. It depends if you look at Chinese traditional painting as a material or a culture. This is a value judgment again.
ME: That’s like if western people say Chinese people can’t paint oil painting.
PJ: yes if you turn it around its just like that. That is our language, we say ABCD, you speak Chinese. But this kind of argument is ridiculous. But there is some truth to it. Chinese traditional art a lot of it is about culture background, it’s a kind of esoteric thing. How do we make the connection between our lives and this art form.
ME: yes, it’s a bit complicated. So my question is, western influence on Chinese
contemporary art, say it started in 1920 and 1930s, after that was the revolution, soviet style, then slowly later there was Japanese, then the American, European influence, now in
2012, artists have realized there is a big foreign influence, there is local influence, and the society is changing so fast, how do people use art to represent this?
PJ: since the beginning of 20th century, the whole world was influenced by western culture.
The main reason is the west is very advanced in technology. Technology and material development is very advanced. This doesn’t relate to one small place or one person, it also created a value system. This is a process we have gone through in China and this is a question. In the 20th century development was very rapid, and transportation was much more convenient, and along side this was culture influence, for instance American culture influence was very big, while in the 18th or 19th century this was not the case. So the foreigners came to China to rob, but they also were introducing technologies. Its like a
Chinese people saw a big ship from England and was surprised ‘oh other than Chinese
there are also English people and English culture’. This was very shocking, this brought big external influences to close areas like China, Asia and Africa. It was a kind of mental stimulation. This for what we used to call the third world had a very big influence and slowly slowly brought about change. The value system and science had a very huge impact on intellectuals and made them reflect on themselves. We couldn’t just sit in China and looking at traditional Chinese values like Conficiousnisim. From then on we had to pay attention to international developments and we realized we had been left behind.
ME: So what interesting changes will there be in the art field?
PJ: There certainly will be. Like we say there has only been a 30 year history of contemporary art in China. So the last 30 years of Chinese art is just a foundation and start.
This is just the first step. This period we found that an artist should be independent value judgment, with the young artists we will see some other changes and they will replace the first and second generation of old artists. The next 30 years we will see the young artists
create their own value system. So we will watch those developments. Now it is impossible to say how future developments will be. But the pressure of change is very obvious. In the school I have seen many young artists, Even if they look childish, the precious thing is they are creating their own value system. This is very important when they become a mature
artist some years later. Their work will definitely be different from ours. They will be individuals.
ME: So with young artists do you see a difference in their use of materials and methodology?
PJ: For the old artists from the 80s we have the pressure from local culture, the influence of western culture was very fresh, and it was just absorbed spontaneously, for the young artists there is much more stuff they are exposed to, in cities like Shanghai you can non stop see local artists and foreign artists now, this now is not a problem, in the 80s it was a
big problem. In 1980s we just saw artists albums, and the albums available were not very complete, it was only a small part, we didn’t know if it was modern or contemporary.
Me: Oh really.
PJ: How’s your eyes?
PJ: You shouldn’t paint while your eyes are bad.
Me: It makes no difference.
An artist from Paris/Cameroon came to see me:
Him: As painters we are talking in some elitist language like Latin. Your paintings are like Bonnard or Philip Guston. Nobody understands this language anymore, look around, its all flashy lights, the Internet. As artists we have a kind of jetlag.
Me: Yes, I guess we are either twenty years ahead or twenty years behind.
Him: I think you are right, you should write a book.
Me: I did. I’m not sure anyone will understand it though.
In the corridor at the end of time_
In 2013 I decided to leave China and go back to the UK. I arrived back in the UK n new year’s day 2014.
Before I left I had a few exhibitions, one big one, which I think was the best show I ever did, entitled unbiquitously ‘new work’ with an accompanying show called ‘old work.’ I think that was the highlight of my artistic career.
I put everything I ownd in 200 white bags, I called ‘mystery bags’ and sold them around town for RMB 100 (£10) a bag. I also did a 6 month winter residency in my friend’s restaurant in the tourisy quarter, and created an art group called ‘Secret 7.’
Around this time a writer friend kept inviting me to meet living Buddhas and throw live fish back into the river. One days she arranged to meet me at 41 Henshan Road, one of the swankiest buildings in Shanghai. One of my paintings was in the lobby, an old one from 1997. I hadn’t seen it in nearly two decades. It had gone missing after it was loaned to the building owner, an art maven who owned several galleries and a reputation for not paying artists. Oh wow! Pearl Lam stole my painting! It was qite a revelation. As I was staring at it the concierge got antsy, asking why I was there, standing an inch away from the lobby painting. This is mine! With my eyesight I had been uncertain until I got right up to it. He buzzed Pearl Lam’s apartment and a pajama clad Phillip Dodd came down, befuddled and annoyed. I never got the painting back, it just disappeared off the wall. That’s rich people for you. Goodbye Shanghai.
Oh England, back in the mother country, throwing myself at the feet and scant mercy of the Tory party.
In Burnley General Hospital, the same hospital I was born in, I was registered blind (severely sight impaired). A lady from the council in Halifax gave me a white stick and some training. I was interviewed by Athos, and received a small sum to keep me alive.
There is a food bank at my back door. I do some volunteer work for the local Blind Society. The Neurologist said come back in 10 years, we might be able to do something for me. Anoter said if I could do anything to cure you I’d be on the 6 o’clock news. I am classified ‘unfit to work.’ Which is true, really. No one would consider hiring me. But I’m called a fraud, a liar. Peoples judging eyes follow the second you go out the door. Yes, I can’t see them. But I can feel them.
Losing your eyesight frees up about 60% of your brain’s capacity. Other senses take over. And the tiny little bit of sight I have left, I treasure, and I think even with that little sliver of light I am more observant than most people. Eyesight makes people lazy.
All I do all day is paint. But Manchester art scene is shit. Why is Manchester’s art scene so shit?
Manchester, along with most other UK provincial cities and towns has very little art scene to speak of. But even less than you’d expect of the UK’s second city. By contrast, towns and cities in Europe often have very diverse, ambitious, and interesting art happenings, covering all genres and with a wide scope for audiences to experience a variety of rotating media, ideas and thought processes.
Meanwhile, in the UK, London basically is a black hole which sucks in most cultural activity, in all artistic fields. The beast is too big and bloated, but it continues regardless, with the odd leakage shedding spores of itself now and again.
Manchester, theoretically, would be the city to tilt a lance to challenge the London dragon. But there are no knights in Manchester, they all left long ago, to, ahem, go to London, or somewhere else in the world. If you are an artist in Manchester your choice is go to London, or leave the country.
So why is this?
So first I should describe what exists- for a large UK city Manchester has remarkably few art institutions, and even fewer of what could be called ‘art galleries’ or anything much in the way of art events.
There are no living artists, making a living. It is a vacuum.
OK so what exists in this vacuum? Firstly the Heywood Gallery, much trumpeted, actually has very little room for art display, and that is in the most badly lit part of the building. It won a restoration award after remodelling- aka- adding a shop and a glorious coffee shop, which has a far better aspect than any space devoted to art. The Heywood would be fourth or fifth down a list of spaces to visit in any common or garden European city. Its nothing special.
There are the city art gallery, which, you can guess, are devoted to dusty old paintings of former mayors.
Then we have Manchester School of Art, surely a hotch potch hotbed of Mancunian spirit ranting and railing, doing exciting subversive things…erm not. A hust of a former proud school, dominated by a few iron rice bowl die hards, who are slowly losing territory to the eternal enemies of art- design and architecture.
Then there are the Rogue art studios- rabbit hutches for art students to go and die in.
Moving on, there is the Castlefield Gallery, a rotunda institution with a small space, which if you join and play the game, a few free wines tasters might come and rotate through the work, to be replaced by the next, a true art style kebab grill.
And then of course the Chinese Art Center, other wise known by its alphabet soup name CFCCA (‘Can’t Find a Chinese Curator Anywhere?’), a weird piece of English Chinoiserie, with a fair sized gallery in the Northern Quarter, run by people who don’t speak Chinese, or know anything about China, but very handsomely funded as a pet project of the Art Council. Amother bunch of dodgy iron rice bowl die hard job for life don’t want to rock the boat baby people, doing nothing for Manchester’s art scene.
So what have I missed? There must be something….
Oh yes! The Lowry. Manchester’s most famous artist. He had a beautiful little museum in Salford, I visited as a child. It inspired me to be an artist. It was also the victim of award winning architecture. That humble little museum, a gem, has gone. Now we have a Lowry outlet shopping mall, a Lowry theatre complex, and Lowry’s work hidden in the back, next to some shabby plastic stick ons of his lifes work. It sums it all up really ‘The Lowry Outlet Mall.’
That is why Manchester art scene is so shit.
So where is the hope?
OK, I lied, not all the artists left, there are a few scattered here and there about, in Bolton, Bury, Hebden Bridge, Todmorden. These small towns have surprisingly large artist populations which have no thoughts on Manchester. But these are artists who are no good at form filling. Filling in forms has become a major feature of the UK art world. But I think the future of anything new is going to come out of these hilly places, away from the vacuous heart of the beast. As the same hills gave birth to generations of poets, a new generation of artists appeared after a short lived Art MA course at a community college. It is surprising what outcome a small investment like that made. Imagine if all the money the Art Council pours into prestige Potemkin art institutions was instead shared to real people creating art in communities? If I take my analogy far enough, it creates community renewal, better relations, heals wounds in economically deprived areas, if well spent, the Art Council could have even prevented Brexit. But it won’t change, until it is harmonized by the beast, or transcends itself.
Then I met Christine.
Christine Zhou is a concert pianist and filmmaker. She is trying to uncover her Grandmother’s legacy from the secretive grip of China’s state run film industry.
Christine Zhou is an attractive lady, with an air of wistfulness. Though in her early thirties she is often asked for ID in liquor stores as she looks under 21. Fairly tall, with long black hair, slim and film star features she was born in Beijing, the daughter of a Chinese Manchurian doctors on her mother’s side and her father was the orphan son of the 1930s singer and movie actress Zhou Xuan.
Zhou Xuan’s image and songs are the muse of many nostalgic Chinese films, books, plays, advertising and other aspects of Chinese culture, when it turns itself to reflection on what was lost in the 20th Century. For a Western centric mind Zhou Xuan could be described as a mixture of Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Edith Piaf, who existsin the consciousness of over a billion people.
After 1989 Christine’s family managed to move from Beijing to Toronto in Canada. She has been seeking her Grandmother ever since.
‘My Grandmother haunts me,’ Christine says. ‘For Americans, I would say she has aspects of four American actresses- Judy Garland, because of her sweetness and singing Over the Rainbow, Zhou Xuan was a young orphan when she was discovered and her first big film was Street Angel. Then there are parallels to Marylyn Monroe and her mysterious death. She had the sweetness and grace of Audrey Hepburn, and Billy Holliday, because Zhou Xuan sang the Chinese blues. But in the end, Zhou Xuan was her own person, you don’t really have to say those things, it just gives a superficial understanding of a part of who she was.’
Christine sees messages and signs from her Grandmother in her daily life, posters, adverts, songs, all permeate the air, especially when she is in Asia. She thinks the spirit of her Grandmother follows her, in pursuit of justice, or acclimation, for what happened to her.
‘My Mother is a traditional Chinese doctor. But she practises an ancient form, from Manchuria. My family were the doctors for the Emperor, it was a lost branch of Chinese medicine now. All my Grandfather’s ancient medical texts were burnt in the Cultural Revolution. The only person who retains any of that knowledge is my Mother, when she passes it will be gone. It is a combination of medicine and the I Ching, specialised in immunology, it works, I have seen my mother perform miracles. She was even made an honorary Jew as many of her patients are Othodox,’ Christine said.
Growing up in an environment steeped in traditional Chinese beleifs Christine does not find it strange her Grandmother’s spirit and mission should be one of her major life goals. ‘I am named after Zhou Xuan, and I look like her, rebirth or other past lives, its not an alien concept, even in Western culture. When I was in Grade 10, I remember, I was told my Grandmother was murdered, in a conspiracy. They wanted to take her money, her estate, her sons. So as a 16 year old I swore to find the truth. Life goes on, my family broke down in 2008, then I found out my father was lying about certain things, then I started questioning my identity, was I really her Granddaughter? My father was an orphan, was he really Zhou Xuan’s son? Orphans lie…to survive. There was court battle in the 1980s to prove my father was Zhou Xuan’s son. Around 2008 I realised I was living in Shanghai near where Zhou Xuan was living, so I went to look with a classmate, and there was no one there in this forgotten building with a secret garde. The elevator door opened and an old man came out, seeing him prompted me to ask if anyone knew which apartment was her. I said to myself if she is really my Grandmother, give me a sign, while simultaneously thinking that’s superstitious nonsense. Within a few moments, we went to the rooftop, found some stairs, as we were going down, we heard voices, we walked past, and saw an old lady talking to a postman. So we interrupted her, asked her if she knew Zhou Xuan’s apartment, we told her we were students of Shanghai Theatre Academy. She said her apartment was Zhou Xuan’s apartment. So I took it as a sign, and never questioned my identity as her granddaughter after that.’
The apartment building, called Brookside Apartments, on Huashan road in Shanghai, was in the heart of the heady French concession, a melting pot, the ‘Paris of the East.’ According to the lady living there, the apartment was vacant for 2 years after Zhou Xuan’s death and then they were ‘allocated’ the apartment. It was recently sold.
‘Growing up in the West, where Zhou Xuan is unknown, and in Asia where she is partly buried, and because my parents had been lying, I decided to find out for myself who Zhou Xuan was. I kind of had to find out for myself, it kind of propelled me to China. In Toronto I was all set to be a concert pianist, then circumstances sort of bowled me into China. The coincidences kept on happening….especially the first two years, 2008-2010, when I was in China. Searching for my Grandmother in a way became an outlet for my sadness.’
‘The meaningful part was, when I was 16 and I made that childish vow, I was determined to meet the woman my Father said had murdered my Grandmother. Her name was Huang Zhong Yin, who was a lesser well known actress who adopted my father and his brother. Huang was married Zao Dan, the ‘George Clooney’ of that time, and kind of a brother to my Grandmother, they co-starred in Street Angel.’
‘I wanted to meet her, so I went to SARFT (China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television), I met the director of films, he was helpful, but they didn’t want to meet me. I went back to Shanghai, and one kid I was teaching English to, was a housing agent, who came up to me out of the blue and said ‘you are Zhou Xuan’s Granddaughter,’ I was loke how did you know? I saw your picture one of the clients had a picture of you, from a performance you did, the photo was in the brother of Zao Dan’s house. Then he told me where they lived, so I went to visit, and they lived close by in Shanghai. They told me where Huang was. She was in the hospital next to the Shanghai Theatre Academy where I was studying. I paid her a visit with flowers, an attempt to make peace. She wasn’t that innocent…but she wasn’t the one who murdered my Grandmother, that was my father’s lies.’
‘I visited her 3 times, she didn’t say much. On the third visit as I walked in she saw me as a reflection in the mirror and had a look on her face like she’d seen a ghost. She would just stare at me. Her big secret, as it turned out, was the money she got to take care of my Father, she hid from everyone. There was a big conspiracy of rumour and counter rumour, that she erased my Father’s name as Zhou Xuan’s child to get a part of the estate. Its all very unclear.’
Zhou Xuan, herself, was a legend in her own time. Sold, at the age of 3 by her opium addict father, then given up yet again, for adoption, she spent her life looking for her birth family. Known as the ‘golden voice’ of China, she recorded multiple hit songs, was the star of many major films released by the then vibrant Shanghai movie industry, and her love life was the headline news of contemporary tabloid news. Though she could have escaped to Hong Kong, she was caught up in the chaos of the Chinese civil war, and remained in Shanghai after the Communist takeover. Suffering numerous breakdowns during her life, she spent her later years locked in a mental institution, where the administration of inappropriate drugs likely was the cause of her death. Also, following the revolution actors and actresses were often the subject of Communist ire, culminating in the Cultural Revolution, when most of China’s former celebreties were killed. The former cultural elite, especially those in the film industry, were the most persecuted, blamed on personal grudges held by Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was a failed actress in Shanghai’s 1930s film scene. Zhou Xuan’s legacy, film and musical as well as image rights were used by production companies in Hong Kong and mainland China, with no credit or compensation being given to her heirs. The murky struggle for her heritage is also further muddied by Zhou Xuan’s two orphan boys having a fratricidal campaign to claim her legacy. Both have published competing biographies of their Mother. Christine’s father Zhou Wei, and Uncle, Zhou Ming have fought court battles over her name, to no real benefit to either. Christine has been trying to piece together a truth, within the web of lies and counter lies. But along the way she also found herself abused and manipulated, and for her, she believes her personal struggled in some part reflect the struggles of her Grandmother.
After China’s civil war the Chinese movie industry decamped to Hong Kong.
‘Based on letters to her handlers in Hong Kong, she never received any royalties from the Shau family after the revolution, the Shau brothers own the whole industry there. Most Hong Kong films are made under them, they are like Godfathers. Before the revolution they would pay her in gold bars. They would check me out, but never really say anything. Zhou Xuan made several blockbusters in Hong Kong. Her musical recordings belonged to Pathe, now owned by Sony. Somebody is getting that money, but not my family. The Shanghai Film Group were playing the good guys, saying they were taking care of her managing her estate. Basically her money was used to buy their equipment, or whatever they decided. So they put her in mental hospital and took over all her heritage. It’s a dark secret what they have hidden, they are corrupt and afraid. That is why I found it so hard to tell my grandmother’s story. They have all done wrong and they don’t want the dirty secret to come out. I proposed to make a film with them, which they were interested in, but as soon as my Grandmother’s name was mentioned all doors immediately shut. She was a victim of the state- they killed her and took everything she had. Now they want to bury what they did. Those within the Shanghai Film Group who are sympathetic say it is too dangerous.’
‘To be clear, I’m not interested in her money, it would anyway, go to my Father who I am estranged from. What I want is for her to get the recognition she deserves, like Judy Garland or Audrey Hepburn, which is being hidden because of all this dodgy dealing about her money. I make my own money, if I want her money, the truth would never be revealed its about getting her the respect she deserves. If it was about money I guess I’d hire a lawyer. That’s not going to happen- look what it did to my Father and my Uncle.’
The key to the family mythology Christine has researched is the medication that was being administered to Zhou Xuan. She was undoubtedly dealing with mental illness, understandable given her stresses and circumstances. Locked away for political convenience, was it also convenient for the Communists to kill her? She was immensely popular figure, so the usual denounciation would have been hard.
Chlorpromazine, a drug used for schizophrenia, was used in her treatment in the mental asylum. In her diaries Zhou Xuan wrote she was given this drug for 6 years. The FDA does not approve use of this drug for mental disorders, as it may lead to death during treatment. The drug is light sensitive and comes in a black box. Serious side effects include movement problems, weight gain, and many other issues, including risk of death. Zhou Xuan’s last words in her diary were ‘there will come a day when the water will recede and the stone will appear. Just you wait.’
It has been common practise in Communist regimes to pu problematic citizens into mental hospitals. For instance, until recent times, homosexuality was officially a mental disease in China.
Following her inclinations, Christine helped set up an independent Beijing Film Festival and then worked as a produce and presenter for Shanghai Telivision. Her entire department was axed following the change in China’s regime, with the new incumbent President Xi Jinping. She also continuously tried to make a documentary about her Grandmother’s life.
‘When I arrived in Shanghai, and after the incident in her old apartment, I had this vision to make a documentary. I started doing research, meeting people, and followed coincinces, such as there was this painting, which I saw in this old art deco library. I thought if I could somehow enter that old painting and expose the story, it could only be significant on film. I met surviving old actors, and did benefit events, for orphans.’
Then Christine’s personal life became enmeshed in her goals.
‘Landing in Shanghai was like all of a sudden arriving in another world, another way of finding my roots. It is personal, no one else cares about it, its is who I am.’
Despite liaisons with people in the film industry, Christine found people she thought were helping her, but weren’t. She felt the emotional betrayal similar to that experienced by her Grandmother.
‘People still use her, she was the muse for ‘In the mood for Love’ by Wong Kar Wai. But nobody wants to tell the true story, there have been loads of overdone work, but its all the TV drama version of her life.’
Christine has written a treatment for her documentary, but has yet to find the right people to make the film.
‘The story hits so many taboos, big business, culture, mental illness, media, corruption, I don’t know when Zhou Xuan will be found,’ Christine said.
And now I sit here, in the ancient valley, listening to Radio 6. The rain is falling again, and the flood sirens are wailing, eerily, in the distance.
CP Gill November 21, 2016