THE DAY OF THE ZOMBIE
In 1995 I met a blind fortune teller in Guizhou province who told me that when I was 40 I would have problems in my life and become a writer. I arrived in China in 1992. Now it is 2014, the problems began 2013.
I moved to Shanghai, which was the city of Chinese dreams, in 1997, to work as a financial wire journalist. Most peoples dreams revolve around getting rich. There was a myriad of sensations you could feel then, the massive hustle and bustle of twenty million people on the make. The world’s largest subway system hurled people around the city on the world’s fastest trains. Elevators shot people up and down the world’s tallest buildings. The world’s richest people moored their yachts on the Bund, the world’s richest riverfront. A huge golden bull statue pointed its horns at the world’s leading 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 it was a writhing mass of humanity, hawkers vending food from stinky tofu to hot meat buns, old electric machinery reparers, 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 appointments.. 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 traffic 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 roarof the ships as they hooted narrowly missing another passenger ferry.
That is all gone now.
The few survivors talk in low tones, if they talk at all. The low mummers and hum of conversations rarely permeate the air in the few saferooms of Shanghai, The bars, restaurants, tea houses, streets, parks, shops and also hospitals, are quiet, with only the predatory hungry eyes of the hunters with which I have become very familiar.
Writing this I am sat in what was once a trendy bar called the Apartment in a leather sofa. Behind me lies the bodies of a group of young government officials who probably died sat discussing some corrupt business in their smart suits, and a waitress with the name tag ;Sherry; is lying prostrate on the floor. I piled some of bar furniture into the narrow stairwell and have been living off the kitchen supplies. The few days respite from this, and from sheer boredom I began to write this account of what happened. The bodies don’t smell anymore, or I have stopped noticing, I’m not sure which.
As I know it all started nearby, in Shanghai’s Huashan hospital, a prized institution associated to Fudan university, thousands of people passed through its doors everyday. People came from all over China, to try and find a cure from the hands of its famous doctors. The wafting air was 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.
I was pulled off my usual daily job on the finance markets, which were quiet due to a festval holiday, and sent to the hospital to investigate rumours of a disease outbreak.
With its crazy twisting lanes and the highest concentration of skyscrapers in the world, as well as the highest population density, Shanghai can be daunting in the eyes of of a foreign arrival.
The city also is one of the few remaining art deco cities at its roots, so there is a bit of familiarity. Parts of the Huashan hospital were built by early colonialists, and theit early building have been added to with acres of meandering concrete wards and corridors.
In the heart of Shanghai’s old town it can be bewildering with lifts and signs pointing in all directions. Just as the old town streets were built according to ancient creeks and paths through the marshes, the hospital was built on a random basis, according to need.
‘The bug’ story, that some sort of weird disease had broken out, was made a lot harder to track down as the government had thrown up a screen of secrecy, which they justified as a way to prevent panic, according to a health official off the record. But everyone in the city was talking about it, from my cleaner, who told me they were hiding bodies in the liver cancer ward, according to her brother in law who was a porter in the hospital, to CEOs who told me they were leaving the country before international borders were closed.
My notes on the disease, according to what I had gleaned from the internet and hearsay, involved those infected losing his or her eyesight and dragging their feet as main symptoms. A friend of mine who worked in a hospital in Germany told me he saw a man walking around directionless and dragging his left foot, and wasn’t drunk, and said he looked like he had MS or some sort of nerve disorder. An ambulance came and took the man away sirens blazing.
I didn’t really know what to make of it, I didn’t know what this meant. MS, pt nerve disorder I thought to myself. Over a long period of the day calling seeing a lot of doctors, I got told all sorts of weird and wonderful sounding diseases could be the cause of the outbreak, such as Leber’s disease, spondylitis, old eyesight, diabetes, sinusitis.
I was also told maybe people were psychologically faking it, maybe smoking too much, drinking too much, food allergies, reaction to the lead in the air, hepatitis, you name it. But of course none of these diagnosis were correct. Nobody knew what was going on, or those who did weren’t saying. It was all just a big rumour mill, Chinese whispers and the bush telegraph were all a journalist had to go on. To make matters worse the government spokesperson held a press conference to deny the fact there was any outbreak and then ran away without taking any questions. The assembled foreign hacks tried to run after her but she disappeared behind a locked door.
So being a journalist I thought I#d try a bit of a ruse to see what was going on and fake a couple of the supposed symptoms and see if I could find out what was going on.
What I now know this is a disease that affects most people of Asian descent , predominantly it is not a Caucasian disease. As I last heard all international borders were closed, but I cannot see how that stopped it spreading across the Asian landmass and beyond. The genetic basis of the disease just means Caucasians are less susceptible to infection, which partly explains my survival to date, despite my foolish descent into the depths of the inner circles of its hell in Huashan hospital. To my knowledge no one knows the cause of it, and there is no cure. Essentially your immune system attacks your brain and nervous system, and the results are catastrophic. And it might mutate again.
The medical system in Shanghai at the time of the outbreak, I discovered, was one where you needed to fight to get well. If you were sick, you had to get ready to fight. If you wanted to get better. From my perspective, once I was in it, I can see the positive benefits of making a sick person fight to get better. But it does take some ramping up of the psyche to take it on. It isn’t like the western system where you would passively sit back and let the system take care of you. In China if you want to get better you had better take charge of the situation. This meant you had patients pushing and shoving each other out the way, besieging the medical staff, who tried to keep a lid on the chaos.
In my misinformed scheme to infiltrate the hospital I started at the Waibingfang- the Foreign Guest facility. This was a copy of special medical facilities built for foreigners, otherwise known as expat clinics, and those with health insurance =some blood tests and a poke with a tongue depressor could cost me a few thousand dollars. 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 expedition list and decided to start on the Chinese version.
The Chinese hospitals offer this service that 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, for my usual coughs and sneezes.
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. To my scanty knowledge about the disease this seemed to me the most likely place to start. 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 reading from a spinal tap I had doctored with some fumbling forgery and was trying to figure out my next move.
Following advice given on the Chinese health ministry website – a strange request that citizens should change their diet – no wheat, no dairy, no bean products, the Internet was abuzz with rumours. 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 wasn’t very strict, but it seemed something was up. As it later emerged we have been dealing with a very peculiar disease, and no one really understands it – it is a vague disease, 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.
One of the peculiar symptoms associated with the disease is a kind of heat influence – if you get too hot your vision blurs, things get sticky. At the same time as the rmours were flowing so too were miracle cures- the most popular wasa cheap generic drug heroin users use, alow doses opiate taken at night, , and so it goes yadda yadda. So I got some of that, for just in case.
So I collected my bag and went to the 8th floor of the Huashan hospital. I told the doctor I’m having an attack of some kind, you need to put me on a treatment, 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 maybe winged it, but I thought most likely my editor’s reacrtion would have been to fire me for a stunt like that. Or whatever. This was a set up I could read their body language. They were making it up on the spot. I explained I didn’t need or want to be hospitalized for 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 saying I refused to be hospitalized against medical advice costing 80000RMB and being in a foreign land, I apparently was not allowed on to the local wards, as they didn’t allow foreigners. It was like anyway whatever I am trying to find out what is going on in the hospital and being isolated on an expensive exclusive ward was unlikely to be of help.
They put me on a drip of 1000g steroids. 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 my journey.
At the 8th floor Huashan hospital wating room
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 theHongqiao Marriott is now run by a Chinese way. Its now full of army people
Me: No I didn’t know that.
Once she saw I wasn’t going to pay the neurologist took pity on me and mentioned the hospital had a specialist, down in the Chinese hospital on the 5th floor.
The next day 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 didn’t feel very well, the not needed steroid treatment left me feeling very light headed, and I 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 didn’t have the energy to fight other people who would jump into a taxi I had just hailed, common practice in those days. As a journalist I had to learn to be patient. Finally I decided to walk from my house to the hospital about two kilometers, and for interest sake followed the path in the pavement made for blind people, the problem I noticed was that Shanghai pavements are so cluttered with street life it can be difficult. One thing came to mind, was that if a blind person triedto cross the road at a zebra crossing or at traffic lights, they had little chance. In Shanghai then cars sometimes stopped at traffic light but they did not stop at zebra crossings. They also turned right against red lights. Moppets, scooters, bicycles and electric bikes paid no attention to either traffic lights or zebra crossings, the benefit t of crossing at those places was if they ran you down you could receive 10,000 RMB as compensation.
It was during this walk that I saw my first victim of the outbreak- a middle aged woman. She was wearing those kind of sleeve protectors commonly worn by wet market traders or domestic helpers. The class divisions in Shanghai were fierce, so no one moved to help her as she staggered about, obviously blind, grabbing and with a painful snarling expression on her face. She lunged towards some young women who shrieked and trotted off in another direction. Then two men in grey uniforms with long poles and u shaped attachment at the end, a kind of person sized shepherd’s crook, tried to pin her. She swatted at the poles and the momentum sent her backwards, where she became entangled in a parked bicycle. On her hands and knees she tried to scurry away from the men with poles, who were screaming instructions to each other. She dragged herself off of the pavement, and was suddenly run down by the number 76 bus which was hurtling down the road. The bus screeched to a halt, the passengers all flung about. The wheels had obviously run over her spine, crushing her. The body was out of sight, under the bus. I stood slack jawed in amazement. A crowd began to form, blocking my view. The driver was screaming at the two men in grey uniforms. I staggered on towards the hospital.
The view from my apartment window, drawn during a very intense period of the outbreak .Opposite my building is a huge swish apartment block.
On that day the mobile phone networks were closed down by the government, along with most of the internet. It was blamed on a Taiwanese fishing trawler having snagged an important cable. A very fishy stort indeed.My phone was a dead gray object in my hand, I had a Peoples Libeeration Army walkie talkie which was my last resort when trying to contact the office. Basically the word was fading out. Peoples faces had disappeared into worried expressions, everyone shunned everyone, everything was a fuzz in the information vacuum. Street traffic was just beginning to get quieter as people began to hide out in their homes..
I came out onto the 5th floor,in contrast to the quieter streets 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 dept?’ 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 figure out the Chinese, obviously so filling it out was an issue. Hmm. A guard seeing I was in difficulty came over, I said I couldn’t figure it out, 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 should point out I speak good Chinese, but am not that good at reading and writing. 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 several boards that had numbers on it but couldn’t read which was mine, I had 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 special 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 says to me, ‘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 my phone was a dead object, I couldn’t call anyone. secondly I was still trying to be an independent reporter. All the office assistants had disappeared in a funk the day before, and my editor was sat more or less alone in the office, fretting about his family, while waiting for any kind of hard facts to report. The world was freaking out, and nobody knew what was going on. It was a slim thread, but I seemed to be the only front line reporter on the case.
I tried the walkie talkie to try and get in touch with my editor, a Chinese American called Jonn who I always thought of as a bit of an asshole.
I toggled the wa;kie talkie, nothing but static, I think the range was too far.
After I came back out of the lift there was a low cheer as mostly the whole room had been silently watching, those that could see anyway. 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 figure out this 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 of concerned friends and family with them. I sat with a doctor and told him my fake symptoms, pulled out my bag of MRIs and doctored CT scans. He looked for a bit then called over to a young female doctor, she grabbed a random scan, ‘you don’t have anything wrong with you,’ she said. Sit, my ruse is up I thought. ‘I bloody do’ I said. ‘And look my eyes are really bad,’ and I faked tripping over a stool. She then took me up and said by coincidence today is a special clinic day in room 11, ‘come with me,’ she said. So I followed her into room 11.
Room 11 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. Both doctors wore white coats and face masks, so the main recognizable difference between them was Dr Li wore glasses.
‘Dr Li, this foreigner thinks he has something, can you see him?’ Dr Yu motioned for me to sit and he began an examination that involved everyone in the room providing their opinions when I described my symptoms. I described everything I had read on the internet- numbness and burning sensations in my feet, blurred vision and difficulty walking.
A young lady with a walking stick chimed in, she had the same problem. They prodded me a bit and did a basic physical exam. 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 my plan to expose what was going on.
I couldn’t see Dr Li’s face due to his face mask, he was kind of grey , brown fuzy hair, and Dr Yu, who was also wearing a surgical mask anyhow, was remarkable due to his bright sparkly eyes and spikey black hair. But Dr Li said to me, ‘so what do you do here?’ I told him ‘I am a reporter, and to tell the truth actually I am not ill, I am trying to uncover what is happening with this pandemic.’ He looked to Dr. Yu and said, ‘we must help this journalist.’ And so began a journey where I saw the real work of Chinese doctors on the front line of Chinese health care system’s fight with the outbreak.
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
Me: oh. I misunderstood
Nurse: Do it
Dr Li: with these steroids are you having any problems with your temper?
Me; I am controlling it
Dr Li: (smiles)
The first attack hit Shanghai hard in early 2013. Nobody really knows what happened, some said it was the milk had been infected. A sudden mass outbreak occurred, at the news bureau office editor Jonn was doing a death count, based on reports from morgues, for some reason telephone landlines were still working. We sent our reports to New York by fax. Then Jonn stopped coming to work.
I had had a nasty experience, when walking home one night. A young boy was attacked by around a dozen infected. I think they smelt food on him, and smothered him, he screamed for a while and then was silent. I was terrified and ran away as fast as I could 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, with everyone walking blindly around the city.
To my understanding infected peoples’ eyesight went down to 0.1 in both eyes, and then deteriorated from there, so for them everything was pretty muchblurry shapes or nothing, just white or black out. I recently heard Munch lost some eyesight later in life, and described the experience as seeing through butterflies.
I am a reporter 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 afraid. There is no real answer to what you do in this situation except work. So I panicked. And kept on making notes.
I wasn’t long back from a long busman’s holiday reporting trip to Yunnan province, where I was researching China’s tea horse road. I had been trekking up hills and mountain trails, 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 having to deal with a massive blinded population, me all alone, in the middle of one of the worlds biggest cities.
A sketch I made sitting in the Emergency Room of Huashan Hospital. People are sat in chairs on drips, concerned relatives stand and watch.
My overwhelming memory at this time was of going down Huaihai road, Shanghai’s main drag, seeing only dark shapes and 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.
With international borders closed, there was no hope of outside help. Before the internet went down I remember seeing the headline: ‘There is no welcome for health tourists,’ trumpeted the Daily Mail.
I kept working, not knowing when or how the next episode was going to take place.
In a bar looking at a Chinese newspaper
Guy: What is this? Oh it’s a world map.
Me: yes, look there are biohazard signs on New Zealand.
Guy from New Zealand: Thanks.
Other guy: That is why he is here in China.
Me: Yeah I think this map shows the end of the world. I don’t quite understand why New Zealand is highlighted.
The Dripping Rooms of Shanghai
A sketch I made in my notebook of the emergency room
As this is the first draft of my text giving my impression of what went on, a text I doubt will ever go to an editor, I should explain I am writing it partly based on a few reporters notebooks I managed to hang on to during these crazy weeks as things fell apart. Reading through my hasty notes I picked up on my prediction (that comes later) that this country (China) was like a pressure cooker about to explode. Three months later lo and behold there were air raid attack sirens waking me up at 8am, and the Japanese embassies were barricaded, and then destroyed with huge crowds marching about calling for war with Japan. The government had blamed Japan for the outbreak ‘rumours’ and people took revenge. I predicted the collapse of Chinese society at that point.
What do I do now about my original prediction? Delete it? 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 had a bad feeling about where things where going in China, a country and a people I love, and have spent many 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, it is all too late now, 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.
Dr Li and Dr Yu saw dozens of patients every day. That particular day when I first met them Dr Yu was also on duty in the emergency room on the first floor, where I spent 5 hours, and I visited regularly on the following days. Dr. Yu explained the treatments he was trying on victims of the disease, ‘we give them massive doses of steroids, it is not easy. It starts slow, but once it attacks their eyesight we have little hope to stop it. There are brain and spinal lesions caused by the disease, and a kind of mylitis as the patients nerves degrade,’ Dr Li said, ‘it is like a fire now in them, we need to wash it out. We are calling it NVO- Neuro viral optica.’
How victims see faces at the onset of the disease
Basically there were very few neurologists in China with any knowledge of NVO, only Huashan hospital was geared up for at least attempting a diagnosis. Dr Li explained the infection seemed to come from a genetic disorder of the immune system, possibly caused by something in the diet. It appeared more virulent in those of Asian descent, who had different enzymes, but he had heard of some Caucasian patients, but no Africans.
I asked if there was a chance of cross infection. ‘Only if they bite,’ he said, and chuckled.
I then saw the system in place on the first floor- the walls were covered with plastic, and a kind of jail door system allowed patients to flow into the emergency dripping rooms, which were jam packed.
So the jury is out to as whether NVO occurred naturally, or was a result of genetic manipulation of foodstuffs, or was somehow inadvertently introduced into the food chain as some kind of additive. The difference is academic. Once I was signed up with Dr Li and Dr Yu, I started a series of daily visits to the dripping rooms of Huashan hospital . dripping rooms are a unique phenomenon to this part of the world where patients are prescribed whichever drugs and sit in a chair while a drip 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 tended 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 the 1000mg steroids plus 3 other bottles of other medicines which took 5 hours a day to administer to NVO patients. So I was sat in the dripping room of Huashan hospital for several hours a day, I could go at any time as its open 24 hours a day.
In the dripping rooms you were supposed to monitor your own drip feed, but as many NVO patients were alone and half blind, they had to rely on the kindness of strangers to tell them when their 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 they were on was very strong and also due to a lack of sleep I was sometimes hallucinating a bit myself, but I tried to record as much of the conversations 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 apartment.
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
Drawing of the Old Lady.
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 more hours on these drips
Me: I was here 4 hours yesterday, I am looking into the disease outbreak.
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 resources
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 Jingan157 m for 57 wan now it is worth 400wan
Me: Yes crazy too expensive now.
Her: Do you have a son?
Her: How sad
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 8 million
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 an apartment 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?
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 blackbirds.
I left her there, blind and alone. With her family in Austria I don’t know what happened to her.
Sitting in those rooms for several hours a day was very tedious. And I saw some patients swapping tips to speed the drips. But it turned out it was not a very good idea for some as the NVO medication was very strong, and many patients could hardly walk after taking their neighbours advice and speeding up the drip. The nurses also didn’t look very happy if patients started fiddling with their dripping feed.
Him: Your Chinese is quite good
Me: Not really
Him: You can make your drip go faster by turning the little dial like so, 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, I’ll share it.
Him: What work do you do?
Me: I’m in news
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 last 6 months before retirement
You know, I visited a lot of places, like middle East, Africa, but never the UK. Of all of them I didn’t like South Africa, Brazil is 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 arrangements.
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. An ayi is a local institution kind of a maid mixed with an old aunt, who is paid by the hour to do various things such washing up, cleaning, looking after old people, picking up kids from school, doing the shopping and cooking, etc. Ayis are usually middle aged women and very rarely men.
People sat on their drips.
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 im old. Its like 1 drop a minute.
Middle aged lady: 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: you ask 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
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, do you know what it is?
Me: kind of steroids
YW2: why are you in here?
Me: I am writing something about Chinese hospitals.
YW2: a journalist!
YW1: what are you doing in that book
Me: I am making notes
YW2: what about
Me: I am just thinking ideas about how to describe Chinese hospitals while I’m here
YW!: oh yes you are a reporter
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 have a good friend is a monk there
YW1: yes Henan most famous thing is 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 before 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 are?
Him: yes, I am Liyunfei
Nurse: sit here
Woman 1: oh you again
Liyunfei: hello, sorry can’t see. Hi
Nurse: make a fist
Liyunfei:how long will the first bag be?
Nurse: about 30 minutes
Liyunfei: ok. I can’t see so have to go by the time
Nurse: it’s annoying
Liyunfei: what can I do
W1: I will help you watch it
Liyunfei: so embarrassed
W1: your name Liyunfei, did your parents want you to do kung fu? It sounds like a kung fu star’s name.
Liyunfei: no my parents wanted me to do business but 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
Liyunfei: I work in arts
W1: that’s interesting. I work in environment
Liyunfei: oh that’s interesting
W1: I make plans for Shanghai, like green areas and planning
Liyunfei: oh really
W1: I was just in Venice for a meeting, I really like Italy. I have visited a lot of places
Liyunfei:: yes. Should visit London it is a well planned city
W1: I know, but Shanghai has more subway lines than London. Haha
Liyunfei: 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.
Liyunfei:yes its quite an achievement. When did you move to Shanghai?
Liyunfei: I came in 1993 so we have seen a lot of changes where are you from originally?
W1: Guizhou, Guiyang
Liyunfei: oh it’s a small world. I have been there to work
W1: oh really
Liyunfei: I liked my time there except you had to eat a lot of chilli in every meal
W1: (laughs) yes
Nurse: Ming Li? ( patients name)
Ming Li: yes
Nurse: which arm
Ming Li: right arm
Nurse: ok. Oh a lot of holes
Ming Li: can we make it quicker? 2 ½ hours drip?
Man: (English) where are you from
Him: what is wrong with you
Me: I am just looking around
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 wait. Already there are little clinics, there is one round the corner on Huashan road.
Him: oh I see
Me: Singapore is doing well I went there recently at marina sands bay hotel
Him: Oh the casino one. Need pay $100 to go in so I didn’t go
Me: haha. Yeah only foreigner passport holders free 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 monument .
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
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
After my daily visit to the dripping, I would rooms, and faxing any findings to New York, 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, after the trauma of the hospital. And I think as people feel their lives are under threat they feel the need to talk.
E: have you heard some guy had 6 infected 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.
As the isolation increased. We likened a bit to being in jail.
N: I was in jail in germany I was sleeping on the sofa of some drug dealer and they arrested me. I was in jail for 35 days for vagrancy. I made close pegs they only had a few English books I read 39 books in 35 days.
J: I was in jail for just 1 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 want to sleep. Halle luyah. 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 phone down.
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 lanes, somehow someone decided trees were the cause of infection. 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 stopped them
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 stopping 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 gangsters like only in Huangpu they put free amphetamines in ladys room 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 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 the tree because they believe the tree has a spirit called tree kami if you kill it its bad karma
And relationships carried on…
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 marriage
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 wife is in charge at home and do things outside
SX: ah like that!
And what about the animals?
The lane where I live has a lot of cats, kind of stray cats. One day while I was 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 expat families in the 1930s, and consist of bungalows and vilas. After the revolution the houses become the property of the government and each house was give 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 road used to be called Amhurst Road and how 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 ushed us into a room and one of the artists started using the lazy Susan as a oujia board, which quite put the willies up them. 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 over the years, and has even had them have 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 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 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 when the cat was putting its paw through his window to try to snack some food. The cat survived but only because she took care of it.
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)!
Mr x: Hi its Mr X from Liberation Daily (the guy is a police informer), 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?
Me: Erm, yees, but erm, not so much anymore a bit, but hardly as there is very little happening 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
Me: Please take me to Huashan Hospital
Taxi driver: Ha ha. Your Chinese is very good.
Me: Nope, not at all, its awful
Taxi driver: Ha ha, yes
Me: Your taxi stinks of fish.
Taxi driver: What?
Me: Your taxi stinks of fish.
Taxi driver: Fish?
Me: Yes, did your last passenger have a fish in the car?
Taxi driver: (Wipes footwell with a bit of newspaper. ) Yes, well some people, you are right, I’ll open the window
Me: Do you mind if I smoke? Then I might not notice the smell so bad
Taxi driver: Sure go ahead..The government are all corrupt, not like where you are from. Where are you from? I bet everyone is rich there.
Me: We have poor people too
Taxi driver: How much do they earn in your country? The average salary?
Me: Where I live is called the Golden Island, even cigarettes cost RMB 100 a pack.
Taxi driver: Ooh. But I bet its great there. Why are you here?
Me: I come here to work.
Taxi driver: Haha, all the Chinese people go to your country to work, and you come here to work, haha.
Taxi driver: You cannot smoke in taxis anymore, very soon you know that?
Taxi driver: Look see this sticker?” Points to little blue sticker on window. “See- no smoking.” Points to another large sticker in Chinese posted on inside of the cab “No smoking.” Laughs
Me: Well, I can’t read Chinese, and I have no idea what you are saying.
Taxi driver: (Laughs,) you will be fined!
Me: Who will fine me?
Taxi driver: I will! RMB 200!” Laughs
Me: Shanghai is much more developed than the rest of China, you picking up all our bad habits
Taxi driver: Ha ha yes. Your Chinese is very good, do you want to meet my daughter,…
We are in the age of the living Buddha .
As things got worse a lot of people started to turn to religion.
I met a Llama in the hospital, and he explained to me, and the surrounding patients: ‘According to current belief there are several living Buddha’s- 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 heart. 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. 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 contradictions.
As things got worse Chinese people got more fatalistic.
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 Buddha’s. 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 Buddha’s die sometimes they come back as someone else or as an animal so it is very hard to find them again.
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 wife and child. They lived in Nepal for about 10 years. Later he went to be the Dalai Llamas 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 Shanghai and committed suicide when he realized he had NVO. 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 stub 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 that for many of the infected eating had become quite difficult, especially at first, and most especially eating Chinese food. For instance some dishes are meat with chili peppers, as you are not supposed to eat the chili peppers its difficult to distinguish the two if you can’t see, made even harder by the invention of chopsticks. Also when eating with sighted friends I saw they tend to have the advantage of sight so they eat all the good bits before the NVO victim gets a chance. As that changed, as the situation worsened, the NVO victims got no chance at all.
As a survivor I now tend to have to eat whatever I can find. So I have eaten some rather peculiar food. May main difficulty is reading or guessing the contents of some of the weird and wonderful items in Chinese supermarkets, shops, houses and restaurant kitchens
When I’m raiding for preserved foods favorite would be duchess chicken, husband and wife lung slices, etc. Sometimes the packets offer translations in English, but this can be misleading as the translation software didn’t function correctly and you can sometimes face trying to figure out what a packet of preserves might contain, such as ‘fried wikipedia.’ *****
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 cant buy honey?
Since the early days when the Internet collapsed, or was turned off, I haven’t I haven’t seen much outside information. The Chinese kept up a limited series of sites inside their protected ‘Golden Shield’ otherwise known as the great Firewall. These government sun sites offered very little information, if any., After several months without access to the information super highway, email, skype, twitter, facebook, weibo, my newswire servers, my own website and the rest, I have found a new inner peace. I heard about world events through random conversations, hearing bits of official news from the radios in taxis or mobile TVs on the busses. 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 time continuum.
M: did you see the news?
Me: not for a month
M: riots in Taichang
Me: oh really
M: yeah, they bought apartment at 8kpm2, 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.
Earlier in the outbreak I decided it would be a good idea to reinforce my doors and windows, so I employed a builder for a few days to do the work.
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) 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 with my daughter from Jiangsu
me: sure no problem
I was also getting a lot of very interesting phone calls while I was sat in my office. This is about the only entertainment I had. So pity anybody who called me while I was sat there for hours.
Phone: where are you?
Me: in the office writing some copy and doing the death count
Phone: I wish I was there to help you
Me: I am ok I can look after myself
Phone: I am sorry
Me: yeah I get it. I am fine. What are you doing?
Phone: shopping. Its raining here. I went to the book shop didn’t buy anything
Me: you must be a well known figure in that book shop
Phone: it’s a small town everyone knows everyone. I bought a scarf
Me: that’s nice. What are you doing?
Phone: thinking about moving back to Tokyo
Me: not an easy decision. I can’t really say anything about that right now
Phone: I can’t make a decision
Me: I am not feeling very well, maybe talk about this later?
Me: I got to go check out some special patient rooms tomorrow and I’m claustrophobic so I’m trying to mentally get ready
Phone: be brave
Bob Dylan – a hard rain is going to fall
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 hair salon coupon. You will like it
Me: great. Thanks
Her: do you have a mailbox?
Her: you will get it in a week
In the 1960s the Hainan fisher women militia were the only unit in the Chinese army allowed to wear decorations. This was due to an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, a revolutionary opera was written and performed about their exploits. The area south of Hainan island as far as to the Philippines has been claimed as China’s own territory, and is now again becoming an area of conflict. It is speculated that oil and gas reserves under the ocean bed in this area amount to more than what exists in the gulf states.
In the early days of the crisis a small war broke out in the area. The Hainan fisherwomen militia unit guarding an island were wiped out by a joint Vietnamese and Filipino force. China retaliated with airstrikes. Both Vietnamese and Filipino Embassies were burnt. I didn’t hear much more about it after those victories were announced.
Naomi Klein described the modern relationship between communism and capitalism in China as McCommunism. I have a mental picture of the Shanghai waterfront as a huge happy meal as the people celebrated their new found wealth. The people were surrounded by numerous advertising slogans and communist aphorisms. There were warnings though, British writer Jonathan Watts pointed out if all of China became as wealthy as Shanghai our planet would not have enough resources. As it turned out the people themselves became each others happy meal.
With the fast and ever increasing adoption of technology I always thought human beings would become part machine, and eventually this evolutionary process would lead to humans becoming intelligent machines. I thought what would 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? As the NVO plague began to spread Chinese scientists made extreme advances in biological evolution- using stem cells to create super soldiers who were sent to fight the disease in the second strike hard campaign, but it turned out they weren’t immune, so they were turned into some kind of super zombies, which I guess may have been the beginning of the rage mutation. The cities targeted in the strike hard campaign went totally dark, and frightening rumours began to emerge, of the blind infected now attacking and eating the uninfected.
I went to a friends office, a guy from Texas who did digital security. He had a software called VPninja which allowed us to briefly see a dissident video showing a crowd of thousands attack a police line and tear the police to pieces. Thhe police looked to be mostly young boys, and as they broke and ran another huge crowd attacked them from their rear. It was not a pretty site.
My friend from Texas was called Anthony. ‘I’m going to try set up a base in the underground shopping mall by century park,’ he said. ‘What will you eat?’ I asked.
‘Kentucky fried chicken,; he answered.
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 was again .
The spread of ideas is a difficult and hard to understand process. Take for instance the fashion industry in China, somehow subverted the control of communism and has seduced even the communists themselves. The young people of the society were also very quick to adopt the aspirations, trends, and the lifestyle glamorized by the fashion industry machine. This is uncomplicated by ideals, it is a form was a liberation so long as you can afford it.
The spread of the idea of the NVO virus was much harder- the government blocked any mention of it, at the crucial early stages, and amongst the people too, nobody wanted to face the truth.
When people finally faced the horror of what was taking place their faces became like scream, the famous shriek against modern life, painted by Edvard Munch. People with a Chinese background tended to hide from reality. As the Chinese people faced all the psychological, physical, ideological, emotional traumas of adopting to a new world were NVO was the new norm. Sometimes they needed to scream. But sometimes it was a more silent internal scream. .
The Shanghainese have a concept called dao jiang hu. As a big port city, the people of Shanghai deal with people from many other nationalities and cultures on a daily basis. This makes them a very open minded people but also they need to maintain their own cultural identity. This cultural 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 that I 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. The government, with all its cover ups was practicing dao jiang hu.
Shanghai had an ever evolving crazy night life scene. The many bars that opened and closed had patrons of many nationalities, who met there to get drunk, talk, pick people up, get into fights, annoy the neighbours etc. In the 1930s German 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 echoed her statement saying ‘Shanghai has become a city full of international losers in recent years.’ With the economic difficulties in the west many many chancers and adventurers coming to the city, leading to local media complaining the quality of foreigners has dropped dramatically in recent years. But then many of these, those who didn’t flee in the early stages of NVO, were not infected.
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 held sway over many peoples thoughts and opinions, in part due to the dearth caused by the whole problem of not having a civil society. People had little faith in the government that ruled them by authoritarian means, so they turned to quacks and liars who clouded their vision with various kinds of voodoo. In the west we learn the mistakes of futurism during the 1930s which turned into fascism. China had become a country where futurism, though not in name, ruled. And this pursuit of an unknown future based on the worlds of these modern futurists was very dangerous. The communists were also futurists who made their plans a hundred years in advance. Similarly in the west corporations and billionaires have their own secret cabals of futurists. They believed their secrets could keep them safe from NVO, but, as turned out, they didn’t.
As I sit listening to the rain it evokes in me the complicated lives people led in the floating worlds of modern Chinese society. Rain evokes a certain ennui in the human soul. It all became so simple later.
I remember before NVO, there was a kind of sexual revolution taking place. As women in Asia became more wealthy and independent of the chauvinistic shackles of traditional Asian culture they were becoming a new species, independent, with means, it was a real shame women lost that chance.
Drip Drip Drip
After monitoring the wards for about 20days, I went to see Dr. Li and Dr. Yu, as I hadn’t made any improvement in the situation. They decided to take me into the hospital for an extended tour , 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 foreign 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 we have had this disease for about 2 years in this country.
Dr. Li: we suggest now we do plasma exchange therapy on patients, with some it has an effect.
Dr. Yu: we will try book you in through emergency to watch the procedure.
Me: what about IVIG?
Dr. Li: yes it is an option once every two days do IVIG as a long term treatment, the problem is IVIG is in very short supply, patients are queuing for it. And its expensive
Dr. Yu: anyway plasma exchange is the better option, what is your mobile number? I will call you to arrange the time.
me: plasma exchange?
J: ah yes. They take the plasma out of your body in one arm and pump it through this thing and then back in your other arm. Its not the worst time ever in your 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 patients must be admitted regardless of race, nationality, creed, etc. so finally I was given a look at the hospital beds full of NVO patients. I was on the 15th floor on the neurological ward. Each room was supposed to be shared between 6 patients, and of those I saw most of whom suffered from a strange form of muteness and none of them could speak. I was given my official Huashan hospital badge 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 TVs or any other form of entertainment. The patients all wore official stripey pajamas, which didn’t really fit very well, the ward beds were only 36 RMB a night, as it’s a teaching hospital. I observed 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. By this point the wards were crowded with many sleeping on wooden boards, so we had to step gingerly.
This is when I first met Dr.Chen, who told me he was now in charge of NVO cases, and he was a specialist, formally having spent 7 years in Chicago, ‘I am a humanist,’ he told me, and he was trying to set up a more comprehensive neurological care system including a lab in the Huashan hospital, to try and investigate deeper into NVO. The ward dinners were provided 3 times a day, by an army of cheerful ladies.
Nurse: it is the rule here that you should have someone look after you 24 hours
Me: I see
Nurse: if no one, they sign this form
Nurse: this is the room they 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, patients press this button if they need assistance, press twice to cancel the call
Dinner lady: did you fill your menu?
Me: Oh sorry, I didn’t know I could try the food
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 we have radish and meat, port chop, or duck feet
Her: tomorrow breakfast rice porridge, preserved vegetable, egg + mantou
Me: skip breakfast
Me: thank you
Her: no problem
Room ayi: you are not eating breakfast?
Me: I have my own. You have my breakfast
Unfortunately, the breakfast was not to my tasty for a westerner as they were providing a couple of litres 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 of note to hang around 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 observed mostly revolved around having patients blood washed. This involved a trip to another building, having very large needles inserted into both arms, and having my blood taken out of their body from one arm, flushed through a machine, and then back into the other arm. It had no discernable affect on most patients condition but it was nice to know they were now antibody free for a bit. They also received more steroid drips and having daily bum injections, which the nurses would announce to the whole ward. Chinese hospitals don’t really concern themselves with privacy and after a while neither did I. There was much more a group therapy approach where everybody could discuss each others ailments and conditions, along with the doctors and the nurses. Dr. Chen decided to make a test case for his students, they were videoing a businessman from Wenzhou and recording him in great detail, one of his master students produced a very nice graph of his condition, Dr.Chen also asked me to keep a visual diary of what I could see, as much as possible I recorded what happened. During this whole period, I had also being recording my daily experiences and memories of what I had been seeing along with the recording of the conversations I heard.
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 what you have learnt about eyesight problems of NVO patients?
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, they can’t see faces unless they are very close. It keeps changing. Until they go completely blind.
Dr. Chen ( to students) : this is very interesting
Nurse ( 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 notes 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 was doing doing originally was 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. What is happening now with NVO is a disaster.
blood washing doctor: so we will stick a pipe into the patients main artery, we will then take out all their blood and clean it then put it back in
me: sounds dangerous
him: yes it is. I must always try find a good vein
L: how are your eyes?
Patient: 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: 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
Pretty head nurse: do you need anything?
Me: no I am fine
Pretty head nurse: if you need anything please let me know.
Me: ok thanks
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 is harder to register?
Room ayi: skin department is hardest, external neurology is hard too
*note *to register to see a doctor some people will queue all night
The view sketched on a ward in Huashan hospital.
Random lady: do you speak Shanghainese? Are you a Zhongguo tong?
Her: haha, you must do. You know not to admit it. You are a clever foreigner. Where are you from? US?
Room ayi: he is from 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. Clever foreigner.
Wheel of Fate
By November 2012 I had done quite some work over this period. During this time I was working on developing new techniques and new styles of reporting, getting around the technical problems, somehow adjusting to the new conditions, working in a country that was collapsing but refused to admit it. Over that last year I did a lot of work with internet clouds, uploading to avert the censors using backdooe vpns when I could. Reporting by fax was the last option. Those information clouds represent many different things.
The word cloud, ‘yun’ in Chinese is used a lot, in poetry and what have you, 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, as I concentrated on using information clouds for a while to let the people outside know a little of what was happening. I imagine my reports are available on news servers somewhere, probably about 500 reports. As I know my reports were going directly onto the Bloomberg internal network. If humanity somehow survives this disaster I guess they’ll make a good footnote for some historian’
More recently I started developing a a system of dealing with the situation 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 keep yourself mentally strong,, something is at integral part of Chinese culture. Using this system I created a coping mechanism. I was still in hospital everyday charting a degrading, gradual descent into total chaos. I was sneaking out of the hospital to smoke cigarettes, and watched the situation on the street deteriorate from the relative safety of the walled in hospital ornamental garden. There was a 7 meter screen door which was a commission for an international company’s donation to the hospital. It was my habit to hide behind it and watch the srteet interactions between the NVO victims and people who dared go outside. Using this system, one gray day, I watched as quite a pretty girl, who I guess was trying to get food, was tackled by an NVO victim, a middle aged man with dark brown stained teeth. He had been hiding under a three wheeled cart, and when her brisk footsteps passed him he grabbed her leg and bit into it. Her scream was a shriek only a Shanghai girl could make, a high pitched yell that you could hear across town. As she fought her attacker other NVO victims came along, attracked by the noise. She changed her tactic and tried to cry and beg her attackers to stop, but as the crowd increased she finally fell silent with a heart rendering gurgle. From the slurping and chomping noises I guessed they were eating her. They were not communicating. I think for me this was the first sign that the infection had somehow mutated. Over the next few days attacks on hospital staff increased and patients began to be put in restraints.
The doctors and nursing staff began to disappear, those dedicated souls were being massacred in the emergency room. A kind of jail cell system was introduced to screen patients, and the porters were taking heavy casualties as they were employed to take blood samples from the infected, nursing staff by this point being considered too valuable.
I started using my new coping system at this time and plan to use it into the future.
McDonald 24H delivery guy: ah you are a journalist?
Him: I thought those overalls were pajamas at first
Me: haha. No I wear them to keep off the blood.
Surprisingly McDonalds continued delivering food even as things became increasingly lost. I dread to think how many of those brave delivery guys lost their lives delivering meals to trapped survivors.
In between what I refer to as attack 1 and 2 I had 3 near death experiences. The first one was one early morning when I walking to my apartment from the hospital, and dropped into one of the 24 hour stores that were still open at that time. I was after some orange juice and instant noodles, both of which were out of stock. As I tried to figure out what the store had that was edible a young woman in a business suit lurched towards me, a look of terror on her face. An old lady was leading a pack of NVOs who trampled into the store, knocking produce left and right. The masked middle aged lady behind the counter ducked down behind her supply of tea eggs. The young woman tried to push past me, but she kind of rebounded off me as there was nowhere for me to go. As she bounced back she fell into the clutches of the pack who started ripping at her clothes and she started to shout, swear and fight them, her punches having no discernable affect. I took this as my cue and sprinted out the store, but tripped at the door over the leg of a non descript man clawing at the girl. I took quite a hard hit on the pavement, scraping the palms of my hands, but immeadiately sprang up being full of adrenaline and ran down Huashan road, dodging more NVOs who were appearing out of various dark corners.
The second time was when I managed to flag a taxi, and as we were hurtling down Fuxing road the driver suddenly fell unconscious at the wheel and we crashed into the barrier at the side of the road. There were quite a few very peculiar seconds as the cab drifted out of control. I couldnt get to the wheel as the drivers were encased in a kind of plastic box for their protection from their passengers. I got a bloody nose and forehead from smashing into the mini TV screen in the front seat headrest. I got out the cab without paying.
The third incident happened in a lift. By this point I had started carrying a hammer for my own protection. The NVO cleverly was riding the lift waiting for its meal to come in. I hit it hard once, pushed in back into the lift with my foot. The lift doors shut and I took the stairs.
What I mean by attack 1 is the first phase of the disease, attack 2 after it mutated. Then things got hairy.
I remember a strange dream from that time, I was at an exhibition called ‘Lost & Found’ in StabeBack gallery in Shanghai where I entered a 14 meter installation called ‘the corridor at the end of time’, about 300 people were at one end of the corridor and and a team of nurses ushered them through the corridor, where they were reborn upon exiting. The dream was just before the 2nd attack.
As to my health, my condition was stable by this point, despite spending most of my time in the hospital. It appears I am among the immune. As the first wave of the 3nd attack began I stopped going to the hosptal, Im not sure what happened to those brave doctors and nurses. I am a coward and didn’t want to face the end with them.
I would draw the Huashan hospital garden some mornings
I found this poem written in Chinese on a compound door:
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.
The people of the world were going blind and eating each other.
My universe had become quite small, and my well of empathy was low. I had a real sense of crisis that finally encourages one to make the effort to try and record what went on in your life, in my case the People’s Republic of China was burning.
Back onto the topic of peoples eyes, the numbers who suddenly lost their eyesight was massively increasing. 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.
NVO, this was the final diagnosiis NVO is a disease which is more common in Asia. It especially affects the eyes and spinal cord. After the mutation that led to the 2nd attack it somehow changed peoples brains, they became crazy aggressive. It was hard to consult doctors because they were too busy being eaten by their patients. The NVO were hungry, and there was no food left they could get at apart from human flesh. They say society falls apart after three days of no food, well this was a process of months. The authorities made attempts to manage it, but they were overwhelmed once the mutation took place.
I’m on a regime of pills which are a bit like taking a wrap of speed in the morning, and a dose of heartbreaking in the afternoon. Due to my unique circumstances, I have to deal with a lot of things myself, that usually you would expect society to take care of, such as getting water, scavenging food, finding safe places to hide, finding ways to avoid getting sick from all the filth, just staying alive. I take sleeping pills to sleep or every little noise wakes me up in a cold sweat. butterflies attack my stomach at the sound of NVOs shuffling around looking for food. Because of my poor diet, and in no particular order, I rake some potassium, calcium, and then the hard stuff, which is a bright yellow pill to keep me alert, The NVO infected are a bit of like they have eaten a rage pill.
Its very hard to control yourself with this stuff floating around your head, it makes you want to run around and go crazy. I’m usually a laid back and easy going kind of person, and I’m filled with the sudden rush of emotions as the rollercoaster ride of existance continues. So I try to control it by drinking sometimes, but that’s also a bad idea. I shouldn’t really drink, but the stress gives 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 in this situation, such as personal relationships become difficult, groups of normal people make more noise so attract NVOers. And sometimes you get some dramatic bad moods, and combined with the world going to shit, it can turn you 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 Dostoevskyian zombie novel. The thing about having something like 10 million people with NVO hunting you is you have to get on with your life as best as you can, you can’t let it stop you. Your life can not be about a disease. In the hospital, I saw other people just giving up, you just have to work around it. NVO especially attacks their eye nerves, so their eyesight becomes really messed up, its like chop suey. So the major advantage I have over NVOers is I can see.
I mask my sound as much as possible, I wear padded sole trainers with foam matting tied underneath. Everything I wear is soft, quiet, tied down. Nothing clinky or rustly. I move like a ghost, silent. Adversly its better to keep away from dark corners where the NVO are likely to hide, it better to walk in the center of the street.
To my understanding NVO at first means people lose their central vision, it is hard to describe or imagine what that’s like, I think you can say everything is like having been chopped into little pieces, and not reassembled properly, and its also a bit like looking at everything through a fog. Sometimes patients described 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 a NVOer is looking at anything, its like they are 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 they are blind, blind implies you are in the dark, with zero light, total blindness. I have never looked up the legal definition of blind, or what stage you have to be at to be defined as blind. I can still report NVOers see shapes and colours, and for some reason they see better at night, which is weird. And you basically become used to it. When I first got into this situation 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 senses begin to compensate. They become more attuned to the danger and you develop a kind of radar that warns you when NVOers are around and you move to another area. Being one of the few survivors in the midst of an epedemic 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 because you won’t help them, so they hate you. For instance there are certain things I just can’t do, when other people come into my area of attention- I can’t help them, I can’t feed them and most importantly I can’t let them touch me, because once they get hold they don’t let go until they have eaten you. Only the few random uninfected are a bit different, but until now I have learnt to avoid them too as they usually make too much noise. They are fewer and fewer anyhow as the NVOers have honed in and eaten them.
What I have found particularly strange, especially after the second attack mutation. Is that NVOers don’t tend to eat other, the infected don’t seem to like each others taste. Not that I blame them, filth smeared, pungent horrors that they are.
There is not much I can do without thinking, every step needs to be planned. It just makes life so awkward, and at the same time terrifying. 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, this is another reason I avoid the uninfected. 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 way. I’m really glad I was pretty much single when this mess started.
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 situation and the health of the country I live in.
The country, the Peoples Republic of China; now feels like a powder keg that exploded in one hundred directions. I so want to make a zombie film in this country now, I know its a crazy, callous thought, with all the misery, terror and calamity that it going on. I mean it is a zombie film, I’d be more like making a zombie documentary. You can imagine the cast of millions you could get to take part in it, they are already there, and no need for make-up. But I think to get a script like that passed by the censorship will be impossible, even now I imagine some bureaucrat is sitting in an office worried about the sort of things that might cause social disorder . Because In Shanghai there are millions of Chinese people running around tearing the place apart, I think the lines between reality and fiction in my mind have become very blurred. It remindsme 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 get 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 Chinese people to act as zombies, they maybe will lose the plot, well the NVOers already are the plot of a zombie film, more or less. So if you made a proper zombie film, say about a rage virus epidemic, with people eating each other’s face 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 easy to make, well, I guess if you could stop the extras from eating the film crew.
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 flee 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 story, 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 NVO illness through the popukation, that there is a basic lack of kindness in most people’s hearts. But there is also zombie rage virus deep in most people. 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, even before NMO, the veneer of civilization was 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 work as a reporter. I guess I am still reporting, but it is a very different kind work compared to what it used to be. Now when I’m reporting, in a way like I’m composing it in darkness. This has been going for a couple of years now, if I count from the start of this NVO business, so I have done a lot of work during this time. For instance there is a painting in my living room, they are blue clouds with a black background. And in my mind I reported the movement of these blue clouds as they travelled around the world, it helped kill the time and distract my mind. Because of these cloud paintings, by the artist Liyunfei, I have been doing for a while, I wrote a bunch of stories about them, especially they represent how as a person I travel through life, kind of a philosophy. This particular painting, I know what it looked like, I bought it when things were still ok. But now when I look at it, with the weird things that are going on, 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 article now, it’s harder than before. I don’t know what it really looks like in reality anymore, Im too fucked up, and only know what it looks like to me. My eyes no longer reflect reality, they reflect weird and scary shapes and colours, I’m totally paranoid a bunch of rags might change into an NVOer hungry to eat my flesh.
The blue clouds are my only anchor to a more sane time. I took them out the frame and they are one of the few things I carry with me. I have had to abandon almost everything. My clothes, a backpack, all securely fastened so to make it hard for any NVOer to grab at me, and I use a lot of slip knots so I can release anything if someone grabs me. The clouds are strangely one of the few things I haven’t managed to lose. I keep the painting in a plastic tube, so the inclement weather that soaks me periodically hasn’t damaged it either, my only friends in this cold world, I too am a cloud floating through this crazy life.
It’s like having a 24 hour free art show with lazers and everything, this simple little painting the artist was a genius, I guess he’s probably dead now. So when I am meditating, I also have the combined hallucinatory effects from that. What I’m trying to figure out is how to continue doing my reporting work because that is what I do, but I have no one to report to anymore. 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 material that was humanity. Now I sit and listen to the pitter patter of soft raindrops, as they fall onto the Shanghai streets and the swish of litter as the wind blows it down the street, and the low moans and chattering, gnashing teeth of the NVOers.
It is a few days later. Things have changed a little bit. I had to leave my hideout in the Apartment. So I have been unable to write for a few days. I guess I was a little uncautious, I used a candle to warm a can of soup from the kitchen, my stomach had been really troubling me and I needed hot food. I was quite busy with the procedure and didn’t notice the sudden onset of night, in Shanghai night comes very quickly, there isn’t much twilight, and I guess the flickering light, or maybe the smell of the food, I’m not sure which, attracted the attention of an NVOer. He started assaulting my barricade on the stairs. The racket he made soon attracted an army of others, their hungry calls and growls sent me into a funk. I had been hiding for a couple of weeks, and a kind of lethargy had set in, but the adrenalin rush brought on by this sudden threat to my survival had me jumping. I scrabbled together my limited belongings and a bag of the soup cans I had been living off, stepped gingerly over the scatterd corpses and made to climb out the third floor window.
The clatter of the NVOers was very close, their eager hunger meant they didn’t care how they injured themselves on the furniture I’d piled in their way.
I fell. It was three floors up. I landed on the hard dirty pavement, banging the top of my head, scraping both legs badly, and various other cuts and bruises. I sprang up immeadiately and started to run fast, pumping arms and legs, weaving through the few stray NVOers who were travelling towards their dinner. They clawed at me, yellow teeth gnashing. I tripped over one, but was again on my feet in a flash heading down Anfu road.
I ducked into an old construction site to catch my breath, my heart pounding. I still had too much adrenaline flowing to feel the pains of my falls.
I thought the gun barrel pointing in my back was an old piece of pipe at first. When she told me not to move in Chinese my heart sunk.
I should note, 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.
Since the massacre in 1989 China intensified its military training of students. Most middle schoolers could fire an AK47.
She was feom the number 4 Girl’s middle school. She was a scout for the remnants of her school militia. She gave herself the English name Arial.
When I finally realized she was poking me with her gun just to keep me quiet I stopped panicking too hard.
Quietly, moving down the middle of Huaihai road we walked towards Hongqiao, a kind of outer suburb, A rescue station had been set up in the zoo there, there were only a handful of police and soldiers, the remaindere of the security force was made up of school girl militias, who had been held in reserve during the great battles with the massed NVOers, The zoo had a huge ferris wheel which they were using as a lookout post. Arial flashed a red torch at the wheel and a rope was tossed over the three mter wall which surrounded the zoo. NVOers were milling around, Arial swatted one of the closer ones with the butt of her rifle, she didn’t want to attract more by shooting.
As it turned out there were about 100 survivors living in the zoo, burning coal for fuel and eating the animals one by one. Other supplies were secured on scouting missions by Arial and her friends.
Their ammunition stocks were pretty high, as the zoo was a staging area as the local forces fought to try and keep control of their city. There were even a couple of tanks nobody knew how to drive.
What the zoo lacked was a power supply, I could only get this laptop working by raiding unused batteries from a computer store, there isn’t much power in it, so I am uploading what I have through the deteriorating government firewall. As the light fades I am sat in what was once a place called Modern Electronic City. Arial and five of her comrades in arms who escaped with me when the Zoo fell are guarding the doors. We plan to escape to a place called Moganshan,, we heard a United Nations force was holding out there.
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 creepy”.
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 the home.
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 justice.
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 hours later.
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 overtake them.
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 gallery.
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 coming?
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 is 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 am 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 re-education.
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 us. 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 authorities.
*** *** *** *** ***
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 singificance [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.
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.
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’.
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 has
But at the same time his art is not wholly Western. Afterall he has been living in China for twenty years
and 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 gaining much 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 and
then 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
Flying into Beijing on Air China, most of the flight was made up of a group of package tourists on a ‘voyages Jules Verne’ package tour, as seen advertised in the Sunday papers. The flight hit a bad pocket of turbulence, dropping a few thousand feet at one point, and quite a few of the passengers panicked. Hitting Beijing airport the first noticeable thing was the overwhelming smell of boiled cabbage. 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 piled up outside in the winter. Cabbage for breakfast, dinner and tea in those days, 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.
Occasionally I attend artist dinners and it sometimes comes up that I was in Yuanminyuan artist village. Yuanminyuan is the Chinese word for the old summer palace, the summer residence for the Chinese emperor. It was basically a motley collection of artist studios, and when that topic comes up they always say that I’m a Laogemin, which means old revolutionary artist, from the early 90s. What does that mean?
Yuanminyuan was the first artist community in China, after the revolution whatever I guess. There were basically some farmer houses, the old summer palace was a massive palace essentially, which was burnt down by the British and the French during the boxer rebellion, and its just ruins, and after that farmers moved in and started growing rice, which is what Chinese people do when they have a piece of land in those days. Then later in the very early 90s, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, a group of artists began to move to this area to work. It’s in the north of Beijing, up in the university district. Now you wont recognize it, if you went up there, now its crazy 30 stories buildings and office blocks and KTV parlous, but in those days, the early 90s, it was rice paddies and basically this kind of traditional courtyard houses. So when I first lived in Beijing I knew this guy from Sichuan, he opened kind of a gallery, he was very interested in art, but obviously no one ever had any money, so he was trying to become a gallerist, he had an old apartment in the grounds of one of the universities, I think it was the foreign language university, it was basically full of paintings, and he was trying to mix it up with all the artists, he was a nice guy. And then I told him I would like to get a studio and he introduced this 2 other guys who had a 3 room farm house up in the Yuanminyuan , I only remember the name of one guy who was called Yeyou. So I went to one room, and also the farmers there are 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. I had a room there. 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 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 Chinese 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, basically I take some photos of paintings I had already done in Beijing, like paintings of police, that really amused them that I painted policemen. Basically I painted things I could see around me in Beijing. They were like ‘keyi’, 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 ground, but all the money I spent there was not much, it was quite cheap, if I could manage on a student ground, you can imagine. So I shared this house with 2 other painters, one was painting weird 3 dimensional fish, 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 at 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. It was Zhang Huan. This place was quite crazy, I didn’t stay there at night that much, because the police weren’t comfortable with a foreigner hanging around, and the artists used to get really drunk on baijiu. They would fight, and they were all like swapping girlfriends, and living this ridiculous bohemian lifestyle. I think the people there were from all over china, they had burned their bridges, they didn’t have hukous, which is the resident permit from 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 polices found these suitcases of body parts, and decided its 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 brackets England. So someone remembered there was this English guy called Yunfei 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 Asian and paddy fields are something uniquely Asian. So for us western people paddy fields are a symbol of Asian-ness. But know 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 in 2012, 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 successful a restaurant.
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. They locked the door at 10PM so after 10PM we were locked in. There were 12 floors, it was quite interesting, there were Italians, Koreans, people from Mali, Djibouti, Japanese, Germans. I think living in their environment with people from all over the world for a young person is a marvelous experience. It make you very international in your outlook. But some people were more equal than others you can say. Trouble makers we put them on the 12th floor, that was me and the Africans. The Africans were on the 12th floor, and the Japanese and Koreans got the 2nd and 3rd floor, so I guess they behaved nicely. You only got hot water for about an hour a day, and it very rarely came all the up to the 12th floor, I remember you could just screams coming from the showers, because that was when the hot water just turned off, and it suddenly turned icy could. People would give out this shriek, “aaargh”, or “eeeeek”, because the shower suddenly turned to ice. And the administration had installed these two way speakers in all the rooms, which we ripped out, they would sometimes say things to you through these speakers like “ stop doing that”, which was surreal, so we decided not having that, and ripped them off. It was very regimented, and communist, old style communist, everyone got one thermos flask, one bed, one duvet, one green starchy sheet, one bookcase, one desk, one chair, one cupboard, and I think that was about it.
So I was going between university and Yuanminyuan, that was my daily life. I was living in the student dormitory then going to this place to paint. From that time I still have about 200 drawings and paintings, I recently showed about 80 of them in Shanghai, 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, and was really enjoying the discovery of Chinese inks. Beijing, and China, was such an avalanche of sensations, the work just came flooding out.
There was a dark side to our student life. My neighbour for a while from Japan, he had decided to become a world champion Mahjong player, and spent almost all his time locked in his room getting stoned and playing Mahjong, his dealer, a guy from Xinjiang, slowly started introducing him to heroin, so he was a smackhead by the end of the year. Similarly there was another American guy who overdosed on heroin in Thailand during the summer break. There was a really nice African guy on my floor from Mali, if he saw an African woman on the street, if he was on a bus, he would jump off the bus and chase her down the street. He was really obsessed. But I think he didn’t use protection, so he got AIDS and died pretty quick. At that time, China tested all long term foreigner residents for HIV, but not short term visitors.
For Chinese people to visit us, it was quite a pullaba, they had to leave their ID card with the guards, and had to leave the building by 9PM. If they didn’t leave by 9PM, the guards would come looking for them. I think the Chinese students were somehow prohibited from interacting with us at that time. But we did get Chinese artists who would come and hang out in the foreign student dormitory. Half the time they were trying to meet a foreign girlfriend so they could get married and leave the country, which was one of the escape routes at that time. I had a lot of Chinese artists friends, who had long hair, they looked a bit like American Indians. The Chinese students had the same size room as us, but were 8 to a room, rather than 1 or 2.
One incident I remember, on the anniversary of June 4, all the Chinese students were locked up in their dormitory, and had the power turned off. The students were blowing trumpets and throwing bottles out of the window. The throwing bottles was a reference to the then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, whose name sounds like little bottle in Chinese. So smashing little bottles was a reference to smashing him. Now, in 2012, Deng Xiaoping has been reappraised as a kind of hero who sacrificed himself to save the country from similar chaos as happened in the former Soviet Union. The orthodox opinion then was Li Peng ordered the tanks in, and Deng Xiaoping approved the decision. But as Deng started the economic reform process shortly after 1989, he became popular later, and was widely mourned on his death in 1997. In 1992 the students were still very angry with him, 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 bullet holes had just been plastered over, so the wounds were still very fresh.
Me: In this drawing you are all farting
Him ( Chinese students): Yes we were all very afraid and running away
Me: Were they shooting at you?
Him: I don’t like to think about it
A new vigour was instilled into political education-students were encouraged at an early age to be patriotic and pragmatic observations of the chaos in Russia led to a general belief that suppression of the uprising prevented a grand scale dissolution of the Chinese state. Communism is good for you, you may not like it, but it keeps the country in one piece, and generally runs things pretty smoothly. 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 inWW2, for which the Chinese government is never really satisfied to have received a proper apology for, and other general imperial discourse on Tibet, Xinjiang and other regions, which have been, and always will be, a part of China proper. 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. They are protecting their population generations ahead by importing mineral wealth a thigh cost, while not using their own, the same goes for oil, and other commodities. 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 majors hipping 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.
Me: Do you find all this nationalism a bit worrying?
Chinese humanity 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.
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 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 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 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 university.
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 music- so 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 people 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 cash.
Me: How much did you have when you arrived in Shanghai?
Ex KTV girl now small bar owner : I had 250 RMB
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.
This week is Rice week.
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.
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’, or Goodbaby 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 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.
The four modernizations
250×200 / Oil on canvas / 2007
This work depicts one of the most important Chinese political developments, which was the four modernizations of the country, agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. But here the four modernizations are shown as 4 women who just had plastic surgery. In western culture, there are the four horseman of the apocalypse, it is hard not to draw parallel.
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 thes
My stolen 15 years ago painting sitting in the lobby of 41 Henshan road apartments, one of the swankiest address’ in Shanghai
PJ: I think that’s for sure. Chinese society from the old days to the current time has always had 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.
NOTES FROM THE ZOO
Shanghai Zoo is a huge walled compound.
Blue steel fencing
Speakers dotted all over
Goats kids petting zoo
Large park grow vegetables
In the corridor at the end of time