As China gets ready to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Reform and Opening Up—re-living the glory days of the Chinese Communist Party—it seems appropriate that we might mark the occasion in our own way by re-examining the work of an artist who is greatly influenced by that transitional period in history. Born in 1974, four years before the Reform and Opening Up, Chen Hangfeng can remember both the experience of using ration cards and the acquisition of his first pair of Nikes—a purchase that at the time cost his father a month’s salary.
Thus, Chen Hangfeng was born at a time when the currents of capitalism began to flow into mainland China, bringing in new ideologies and access to foreign culture. Like the tidal bore that brings a giant wave of seawater into Hangzhou Bay every year, this climate, created through a mixing of different elements and ecosystems, proved to be a rich breeding ground for many different kinds of ideas. And certainly more than a few strange creatures were known to inhabit those brackish waters. Shanghai was, at the time, inundated with both foreign goods and foreigners—some were curious adventurers, and some were hoping to sell the proverbial “toothbrush” to 1.6 billion Chinese (intoxicated on dreams of how China’s sheer numbers would lead them to riches), while others got pulled out by the undertow of saturnalian delights.
Chen Hangfeng grew up among the Stalinist six-floor walk-ups in Huma Xincun, in the northern suburb of Baoshan; his mother worked at the local neighbourhood committee (known colloquially in the West as the grandmother police),1 and his father was a naval engineer who traveled around the world—though often without spending much time on land. Chen Hangfeng’s childhood seemed to be largely uneventful. His parents both had stable jobs. He had a big family with lots of aunties and uncles, cousins and friends living close by. It was slightly austere at times, but probably no more austere than any other middle class family. Due to the tradition of inadequate heating below the Yangtze River, his paintbrushes were often frozen solid in the morning if he left them in the water at night. His father, who was a bit of a disciplinarian would rap Chen Hangfeng’s fingers until he was able to form perfect calligraphic forms—and his work today bears the imprint of that drive for precision.
As a graduate fresh out of McGill University, Montreal, I was thoroughly taken in by this phantasmagoric feast, which was far beyond the revelry afforded on my student budget. People would gather on weekends at Guangdi and Park 97, nightclub complexes, in a cluster of buildings within Fuxing Park. Revelers sweaty and exhausted after dancing for hours to Shaggy or Nelly would slip off to the Lawson to buy beer and pass out in the rose garden in the park. That park was also the first location of ShangART before it moved to its Moganshan Lu venue. I remember going there with Chen Hangfeng early on in our relationship to see the vernissage of the up-and-coming painter named Zeng Fangzhi and later a photo-installation pasted to the floor of the gallery by some young photographers with the cryptic moniker of Birdhead.
As we were married for seven years and have remained friends working in a professional capacity together for the past eleven years, I am certainly not the most objective candidate to profile Chen Hangfeng, yet I am perhaps more qualified than most, given that his early practice and our relationship were in many ways intertwined. As a couple we both enjoyed the privileges of gaining deep insights into another culture, and, at the same time, we were able to view our own cultures from the position of the outsider, being one step removed. We relished the kind of hybridity and the code switching this entailed and were buoyed by the spirit of total openness that characterized Shanghai in the early 2000s as we slowly evolved from magazine people into art people—he into an artist and I into a curator and writer.
I’ve taken this detour down memory lane not just out of mere self- indulgence but in the interest of understanding the motivations of Chen Hangfeng’s practice, which revolves around cultural confluences of which our relationship was a part. Though we certainly influenced each other, I do not in any way claim credit for the direction of his work, as this impulse to understand the “other” both pre-dated and post-dated our time together.
His practice can be understood as a tightly knit group of works that represents a twenty-year inquiry into the results of cultural and ideological collision. From the Logomania series (2005–2014) to the various Christmas- related works, Invasive Species (2010–14), Scattered Scenes Along Mei Creek (2012), Excited with no Reason (2018), Hanpocalyptic (2012), and Jump Jump Jump (2015), and his newest work, Ah-Tong’s Ancestral Home (2018)— this impulse remains present throughout, merely assuming different forms and different subjects.
Looking at his practice as a whole, we can see that he is one of the few artists who have explored these cultural, political, and economic transformations in such an in-depth, immediate, and systematic manner. At times, Chen Hangfeng’s immediacy was unfashionable or unpopular. I remember that, when we showed an early version of the video ChristMASS Production (2006), which featured footage of small workshops producing Christmas ornaments, a curator friend remarked that the work was “too documentary.”
In some sense, the reception of his works in China is somewhat related to the overall art ecosystem, which, unlike those of Hong Kong or Taiwan, or even Canada, tends toward the apolitical—or, to be more precise, tends to be political in way that is subtle enough to be beyond reproach and is often beyond understanding. Lisa Movius, a friend of mine and China bureau chief of Art Newspaper, after finishing an interview with Ai Weiwei once quipped, “Most Chinese artists love to talk about their art, but panic or get angry if you ask them about politics. Ai Weiwei loves to discuss politics, but seemed less interested in questions about his art.” It’s as if the art world, looking upon the chaos and transformations around them, responds simply: “I am just here to get my soy sauce and be on my way,” meaning it has nothing to do with me or it’s of no concern of mine—to use an old internet meme.
Chen Hangfeng and other more overtly political artists—Li Xiaofei, Wu Meng, Zhao Chuan, and their theatre collective Grass Stage—often show and perform more extensively outside of China than within. They are part of that unfashionable contingent of artists who I worked with for many years as a curator at OV Gallery. These artists form a small but vibrant group—mostly in their 40s and 50s—a group of laolarou, which has often been overlooked in search of younger, fresher meat.2
That said, Chen Hangfeng was not the only artist in the early 2000s in Shanghai to examine the effects of culture, capitalism, and globalization; there was also Zhou Tiehai’s Placebo series, which used icons of Western art history and visual culture, replacing their heads with a smugly grinning Joe Camel—a cynical statement about Western soft power if there ever was one. Shi Yong’s The New Image of Shanghai Today (1997) mocked both the Western temptation to prophesize about the future of China using a level of analysis typical of Time Magazine and China’s own ambitions to catapult itself out of poverty—with We Don’t Want to Stop (2006), a rocket-shaped race car that symbolized Viagra-powered capitalist ambitions and a raging hunger to surpass the West. Li Liao, though slightly younger, also looks
at this aspirational drive with Consumption (2012), whereby he became
an employee in the storied electronics sweatshop Foxconn, working just long enough to buy an iPhone, then quit. Li Liao also explored notions of familial constructions of manhood in his work Art Is a Vacuum (2014), whereby he documented a family squabble with his father-in-law over
his suitability as a husband—donating his 40,000 RMB Hugo Boss Prize stipend to his father-in-law—the man who had previously labelled him a deadbeat. This statement about the intergenerational conflicts speaks very much to the current zeitgeist as China straddles between the cultures of familial matchmaking, arranged marriages, and love marriages.
Chen Hangfeng’s practice has been quite steadfast in its focus on these moments of transition—often using the past to highlight the reality of the present. His 2010 installation Cups looks at the mindset of the previous generation (e.g., Li Liao’s father-in-law) and socialist danwei or “work units,” which governed every aspect of an individual’s life. These stand in stark contrast to the modern cubical offices where young people job-hop every few months in search of new opportunities. Cups uses a wooden desk as a kind of plinth to create a ceremonial presentation for a series of plastic tea flasks, each filled with water. A spotlight placed above the table creates multi-coloured reflections on the wall. Below the desk is a small hammer that pounds repeatedly on the desk, causing the coloured reflections to shimmer across the wall. The flasks were all obtained through various danwei in Baoshan, mostly through Chen Hangfeng’s mother’s extensive
network. The work is open enough to have numerous meanings. Chen Hangfeng conceptualizes it as a metaphor for the individual within the collective, but at the same time it speaks to the influence of the danwei over the individual and the potential disruptive forces that have already begun to wipe out these older organizational models of labour—the iron rice bowl being traded in for a microwaved hefan boxed lunch bought at the Japanese- owned convenience store Lawson’s.
By the early 2000s, working culture in China had changed dramatically. No
longer tied to 100-dollar-a-month salaries, consumers now had the power
to express themselves through clothing. Brands, and self-branding through brands, seem to have become an integral part of personal identity—with brand-name clothing worn not only as a beacon to project status but as a shield to deflect criticism or scorn—waitresses, cleaning ladies, and migrant workers were toting Louis Vuitton bags of varying degrees of authenticity. There was even a brief trend of businessmen walking around in Hugo Boss suits with the tags still on, lest anyone think they were wearing fakes. Chen Hangfeng made a humorous play at this fusion of brand and individual with his video Just Poo It (2007), which depicts his cousin on the toilet, dressed head to toe in Nike paraphernalia, leaving behind a swoosh-shaped turd.3
The Logomania (2005–14) series was extruded from this environment and also out of Chen Hangfeng’s work as a graphic designer. The works are paper cuts—using traditional folk motifs such as double happiness 喜 or phoenixes subtly inlaid with various brand logos—and were very popular with collectors, but perhaps dismissed by the art world, which missed their greater meaning. At first glance, these designs looked like a simple mashup of traditional Chinese imagery with signs of Western consumerism, but, looking deeper, we find that the work probes the question of how wealth
is integrated into traditional Chinese holidays and celebrations in a way
that is both redistributive and that allows for a performance of status and
of family relationships.4 These rituals can often be rigidly codified. At our wedding, Chen Hangfeng’s mother produced a ledger to record all of the contents of the red envelopes, lest we neglect to give an equal amount when some other friend or relative who ties the knot in the years to come. This is
a rather common practice, and in mocking acknowledgement of its codified nature, a friend of ours handed us an envelope with the note, “Just leave the money in there and hand it back to us in three months at our wedding.” This redistribution and performance is an inherent element of Chinese New Year; we needn’t think further than the symbol fa 發, which adorns every Chinese door with the promise of wealth and riches. Though the intention is to bring good luck, it does seem slightly like hanging a dollar sign on one’s door at Christmas, but then again there is little difference between gifts, gift certificates, and money. It is this connection that soon led Chen Hangfeng into a deep examination of Christmas, which was, at the time, a new import to Shanghai. Christmas was celebrated by the Chinese in the same way that Chinese New Year was celebrated by expatriates—generally, dinners out with friends with revelling into the early morning hours—the family-focused holidays taken out of context, used as an excuse for an outlandish night out.
Chen Hangfeng seemed genuinely surprised at how quickly Christmas
had gained purchase in China, with many retail and entertainment venues investing in extravagant Christmas displays—the hotels holding tree- lighting ceremonies, with children’s choirs, and plenty of mincemeat pies and other dentin-destroying delights. Certainly one would not expect these holiday rituals to be a site of debate and subversion. Yet, in this frontier time of China’s new consumerism, with minimal administration in place, Chen Hangfeng rolled a Trojan horse into the lobby of the Radisson Hotel in Pudong as part of a show in conjunction with the Zendai MoMA. Brilliantly, although perhaps unbeknownst to the hotel management, he staged a critique of Christmas in the main entrance, with a glowing acrylic white Christmas tree bedecked in brand logo-snowflakes and a gaily wrapped gift box where the viewer could glimpse through a peephole the footage of the production of Christmas ornaments in a bleak factory.
Always interested in the consequences of human actions as they trigger butterfly effects that spread throughout the greater capitalist industrial system, Chen Hangfeng began to dig deeper into the Christmas phenomenon after a friend of his told him that his laojia, or ancestral village, had been turned into a production base for Christmas kitsch. He produced a video about this village, Xitian, located near the manufacturing centre of Rui’an—which has a history dating back to the Song dynasty—an important locus of culture and history and home to many famous poets. In Scattered Scenes Along Mei Creek, we see a group of old-timers sitting and watching a Wenzhou Guci storytelling performance within a traditional wooden theatre; the film then cuts to a scene of the creek itself, its banks laden with red, glitter-encrusted stars, the colour palette switching from a normal full colour to an intensely muted grey smog. This choice of palette hints at a community drained of its former cultural glory—the landscape that inspired so much poetry now besmirched with a layer of industrial grime. The mountains and valleys of Rui’an are now host to small workshops, which employ more than 8,000 workers, who together produce 50% of the world’s Christmas decorations. A hunched old woman struggling to make her way across the bridge acts as human witness to the vicissitudes of history, and the combination of glitter and grime around her is matched by a cacophony of sounds—running water, chirping birds, blaring horns, whirring machines, and the various workers chatting with each other in Wenzhounese.
Rui’an has made a number of transitions over the years—from an agricultural community to producer of painted venetian blinds, later retooled to produce novelty boats in bottles—and its story mimics the total randomness of Chinese business models beginning in the first decade of this century, driven more by personal relationships than core competencies.5 The Christmas industry was a latecomer—it had relocated from Taiwan due to rising labour prices. Yet behind this industrial infrastructure, the history of the town is still present. We can see an imprint of agricultural life in the use of farm implements, hoes, rakes, and various kinds of cutting tools, repurposed for Christmas product manufacturing. The residents of the town know very little of the nature of Christmas, and they care little.
Outside of the internationalized sphere of Shanghai, these migrant factory workers experienced Christmas only in the sense that the rhythms of their lives, rather than being governed by seasons and the agricultural calendar, were now governed by the production schedules demanded of them as Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM), factories that produce component parts used by other manufacturers. The Real Journey (2012)—a video work produced in Finland—seems to present the other side of the coin, a response to Mei Creek, China, set in the Santa Claus Village amusement park in Rovaniemi, Lapland. Here we get to see the
final destination of these festive tchotchkes—inexpensive ornaments— strung about in the storied “workshop” of old Saint Nick. While in the family-run workshops of Zhejiang, we see toddlers wandering across the workshop floor oblivious to the sharp equipment and noxious substances that surround them,7 in Rovaniemi, the only elves are actors from the surrounding communities. The children are either local Finns or tourists from other parts of the world. Surrounded by baubles, live reindeer, and canned Christmas music, Chen Hangfeng found a way to disrupt
this fantasy to humourous effect. The video involves Chen Hangfeng interviewing Santa Claus. He sits down, and we hear a photographer in the background shouting gaily in heavily accented Chinese, which he has learned to serve Chinese tourists: “Xiao, xiao, xiao, qiezi,” smile, smile, smile, eggplant (qiezi is the Chinese equivalent of “cheese!”). But after
the photo op, Chen Hangfeng begins with some unorthodox questions, and the Finnish Santa morphs from a kindly, incessantly smiling old man to a sort of perplexed interviewee put on the spot by questions such as “How long have you been living here?,” to which he turns to the camera man for guidance. When asked “What is your nationality?,” Santa answers after a bit of hesitation, “It’s a Finnish and typically Lappish and, uh . . .” then returns to a more familiar script, trying to explain all of his different names in different languages—i.e., Pere Noel, Papa Noel, and Joulupukki (in Finnish, the name actually translates into “Christmas Goat”). The questions continue to flummox the old man: “What do you eat?,” “Are you vegetarian?,” “What do you do every day?” Yet Chen Hangfeng is trying
to do more than trip up this “rain maker” for youngsters; rather, he is asking the questions, “Which nation takes ownership of this fictional scenario?,” “Who controls the image of Santa Claus, which is being exported around the world, and how much will the Christmas industry respond to the growing diversity of its clients?” Will Santa, like a Barbie doll, begin to be represented in different shades in order to respond to his great popularity in Latin America or the Philippines?
This commerce of ideas and products is further developed in Chen Hangfeng’s most recent exhibition, Excited with no Reason, at Sinarts Gallery, the Hague (October 20 to December 1, 2018). The show centres around a video showing scenes of Shanghai street life fused with appropriated images of various Chinese sages, generals, and military strategists garnered from popular film and television. The video also features Dutch paintings of war ships, Swiss etchings, images of birds painted by Zhao Ji (Emperor Huizong), Chinese porcelain, and Chinese mitten crabs clamouring over the hulls of clipper ships. There is a kind relationship of mutual entanglement and antagonism presented in his video that references imperialistic wars fought for access to Chinese goods, yet, at the same time, these goods are a form of soft power, and also affected the societies that consumed them; for instance, Britain had no tea-drinking tradition before the tea trade began with China, and the silk trade also had a great impact on how Britons moved about and physically held themselves, given that the fabric was prone to stains and tears.8
In Excited with No Reason we can see his exploration of globalization and geopolitics incorporate an earlier thread of inquiry—invasive species—an evident theme with his inclusion of the mitten crab. The Jiangnan delicacy was first discovered outside of China in the Thames River in 1935 and has now spread across Europe unchecked, eroding river banks due to their burrowing tendencies, which threaten estuary ecosystems and increase the chance of flooding. It was thought the crabs were brought to Europe by Asian immigrants, but many sea creatures have been known to be transferred in the hulls of ships.
In his work, we can see how this ecological discourse easily becomes a
lens to examine the topic of human immigration—one that makes his work increasingly timely in the current climate of racially fueled political conflict. For instance, for his video Jump, Jump, Jump, he turns his lens on North America and the topic of the Asian Carp.9 The video, made of found footage, includes scenes from the Canadian television program The Nature of Things, narrated by the famous science personality and activist David Suzuki. Suzuki is a third-generation Canadian who was interned with his family in Slocan, British Columbia, during World War II, when 22,000 Japanese-Canadian families were held in internment and labour camps against their will, their homes and possessions confiscated and sold in order to fund the costs of their internment.10
The visual language of the video involves a kind of glitch aesthetic with pixelated images, repeated dialogue, and cuts—a reflection of the kinds of changes caused in the system by the introduction of new cultures and peoples. This is equally applicable to Shanghai. The expatriate communities, which relocated to Shanghai in the 1990s [Asian, European and North American], greatly affected the urban fabric of the Former French Concession, Gubei, and Hongqiao.
“North America is at war with a very slippery foe,” declares Suzuki in his usual measured and rational voice. Yet despite Suzuki’s calming presence, the tone of the program is somewhat alarmist, featuring various interviews with people in the Southern United States talking about the fish breeding out of control, making their way north to the Great Lakes. Part of the footage centres on a Dukes of Hazzard-style event, whereby the challenge is to shoot the fish from the back of a speeding motorboat as they jump out of the water. As heavy metal music blares, we see a fish fly out of the water and hit one of the women in the face—a moment that evokes a kind of guilty mirth in the viewer. This bounty of fish is then tossed in a giant dumpster and buried, given that Americans largely have no taste for the bony fish.
When Jump, Jump, Jump 2015, was first exhibited at AM Space, Shanghai, it was shown alongside the video Little Carp Jumps Over the Dragon Gate—a re-mixing of the 1958 animation about some plucky fish that swim against the current and manage to make their way to the dragon gate reservoir. This film is a classic of socialist animation, and Chen Hangfeng has spliced in images of frenetically-applauding crowds in 1960s-era Mao suits (actually Zhongshan Zhuang). One wonders if the so-called Dragon Gate is not actually more of an immigration hall—especially given that the recent floods of outward immigration from China with expatriates returning home and local Chinese applying to leave. In the past few years, many Shanghai-based artists and friends of Chen Hangfeng have either left or set up pieds-a-terre in other countries, including Jiang Hongqing, Pan Jianfeng, Li Xiaofei, and the Jazz singer Coco Zhao. Chen Hangfeng, as well, has set up a design studio in Amsterdam.
But let us return to the little carp. In response to such ecological perils as mitten crabs and Asian carp, the logical solution is to export these products from North America in the same way that Americans export their chicken feet to China—and make a killing—to use a crude metaphor. A sort of mock public service announcement, Chen Hangfeng’s Tai Bai Yu Tou (2014) functions as a promotional video to teach Americans how to enjoy Asian carp. The result is vaguely tongue in cheek—or, more precisely, tongue in bones, tongue in fish meat, and tongue in chopsticks—as the video shows, step by step, how this bony fish must be consumed.
This concept of “invasive species” becomes even more relevant today, as a caravan of migrants winds its way northward through Central America, soon to face a “dragon gate” of their own at the US border. Yet this concept had its inception in a much earlier work by Chen Hangfeng, which had a more local context. Invasive Species: The Vegetables (2010–14) refocuses the conversation of “cultural confluence” on urban and rural culture, which, in an age of globalization, is often a more substantial divide than the gaps between urban residents of various nations.
This video installation is set up as a series of conversations between vegetables. These particular vegetables (taro, hyacinth beans, eggplant, and bok choi) grew in and around Huma Xincun—the compound where Chen Hangfeng’s parents live. The video recounts in fictional fashion a local scandal that had erupted in Huma Xincun in 2010, when residents in the compound began to grow vegetables in the compound grounds. To be clear, Huma Xincun did not have much in the way of landscaping. Most of the grounds were ill treated, with piles of garbage lying in and around scrappy- looking trees. These guerrilla gardeners were enlisted from the ranks of the rural and the retired; they were growing their own vegetables in an attempt to access high quality produce, untainted by pesticides. They and their vegetables were ceaselessly harassed by the neighbours. Their crops were either stolen at night and greedily consumed, or pulled out by the property management officials. (Here we can see an obvious parallel to the work of the neighbourhood committee, which kept tabs on who was living in what neighbourhood, making sure that undesirables and undesirable behaviour was safely policed).11
The video installation takes on a sci-fi aura with the vegetables talking about their bionic powers to reproduce, mutate, and grow exponentially. There is also an element of surveillance; the dialogue of the vegetables is intercepted as a certain frequency, which is captured and then decoded into words so that the video seems like a product of the surveillance apparatus—an eerily prescient piece given the current magnitude and sophistication of China’s surveillance state.
The dialogue of the vegetables is deliberately crude, written in an informal dialect to convey the rural background of the guerrilla gardeners whose acts of transgression were seen as a stain on the name of Baoshan, a district trying to promote itself as “green” despite being home to a number of container ports and China’s second largest steel manufacturer, BaoSteel. While the compound management was busy tearing up lovingly tended greenery at the well-manicured gardens of the Shanghai Expo, viewers entered the US pavilion to see videos of President and Michelle Obama promoting the White House Kitchen Garden as well as their gardening outreach project in urban schools. This contradiction reflects the all-too- common disconnect between a government that so much wanted to be seen as progressive and modern, yet insisted on stamping out what it saw as backward. Prohibitions on outdoor laundry drying and the promotion of the car industry over bicycles and other sustainable forms of transit are more examples where projecting a perceived modernity took precedence over actual sustainability.
Chen Hangfeng produced something of a reprise of The Vegetables with A Broadcast of Prickly Pear’s Monologue (2012)—which used the same device of decoded frequencies as seen in The Vegetables, anthropomorphizing the plant to enable it to voice the story of global migrations of plants. The prickly pear made its way to Morocco through Christopher Columbus, where it “adapted quickly, with no thoughts of returning.” “My mom said that we are quite happy to live here,” explains the cactus, “In some countries, they put us in
the category of invasive species.”12 The cactus explains that they are loved in Morocco for their fruit, employed for medicinal purposes, and sometimes even used as fences to contain livestock, while in Australia they are hunted down, torn out, or poisoned with herbicides. The last words of the prickly pear soliloquy capture the anxiety of living among hostile hosts: “Even though we are considered a botanical wonder. We have to have modesty and self-control—otherwise look at the big scar on my body. I hope that the story from Australia doesn’t happen to us. Can we really do it? In’sh Allah.”13
This work brings out the issue of a “law of the jungle” mentality, where humans behaving like desperate animals competing for survival view every immigrant as a direct competitor and pernicious threat—one need look no further than the stigmatization of Chinese-Canadians as opportunists and real-estate market manipulators to find evidence of this mentality. This deep paranoia is parodied to great effect in Hanpocalyptic (2012), co-created with Italian artist Girolomo Mari. Mari dresses up in a custom-made satin red suit posing as a sort of soothsayer, religious zealot, or snake oil salesman.
He prophesizes a future where Italy is a province in the Chinese empire—a province that has a distinct cuisine of its own. They eat a cheese there called mozzarella. As he continues to expound on the coming demise of the West like a thoroughly crazed doomsday cult leader, Chen Hangfeng, dressed in dark blue suit, 1970s glasses, and inky black wig, plays the role of diligent translator—that is, until he doesn’t. At a certain point, he starts to not only mistranslate but also refute what this crazy laowai (foreigner) is saying, completely subverting Mari’s hold over the message but assuming a slightly nationalist narrative of his own.
Translation and mistranslation, the power of self representation, paranoia, right-wing fear-mongering, and the clash of civilizations, all come together through this performance—which though humorous points with an oracular precision to the changing world order whereby China has become an influential world power—an order that would have seemed fanciful to say the least when Chen Hangfeng began creating work in the early 2000s.
Chen Hangfeng’s latest creation, Ah-Tong’s Ancestral Home 2018, hones
some of these previous themes into a critique of the colonial institution of
the museum, problematizing the way history is recorded, processed, and
disseminated. Prompted by a trip to the National Science Media Museum
in the former industrial town of Bradford, UK, he discovered an illustrated album—Foochow and the Min River—by Scottish photographer, geographer, and pioneer of photojournalism John Thomson. Thomson, like today’s adventurous laowai, travelled all over East and Southeast Asia; he produced some of the earliest photos of Angkor Wat and was known to have taken photos of Thai and Cambodian royalty. His travels along the Min River in Fuzhou in the 1870s, which was at the time a vital route for the tea trade, provided a vital record of Qing dynasty Fuzhou. Yet we shouldn’t take these photos at face value, as the project was funded by the presale of the book to the foreign owners of tea plantations in the area.14 The book might present itself on the surface as unadulterated history of documentary photography, but it was in fact created more as a corporate souvenir gift book with a dedication to the European missionaries, tea planters, merchants, and government officials, and which promised to offer them a “lasting memento which will aid them, in future years, in recalling the scenes and incidents of their life in one of the most picturesque provinces in China.”15
For Ah-Tong’s Ancestral Home, Chen Hangfeng retraced Thompson’s steps, looking for the angles where photos might have been taken, but given the Shuikou Power Station dam project, the scenes look different with the high water levels and the apartment buildings that line both sides of the river. As one of the video’s narrators, Chen Hangfeng travels into the hills to the village of Jiu Long, guided by an army soldier named Ah-Tong, who acts as the second narrator. Ah-Tong tells a series of larger-than-life tales of his family, which seem almost to be taken from a wuxia martial arts novel. He recounts his family’s martial arts prowess—how they used their formidable skills to fight off thieves from the stockade further up the mountain. These thieves were after the family’s antiques, furniture, old bottles, and wine
pots, which had been left mouldering in corners. The thieves, having more exposure to the world outside the hamlet, recognized the inherent value
of these objects—one cannot miss the parallels to plunder that formed the foundation of many a famous collection in the West. The narrator talks about how the thieves first came from nearby villages, then from within the village itself, cleaning out the houses of any valuable items, even stealing chickens and dogs. Finally, in the 1990s, the thieves made a final sweep, even combing the village cemetery, robbing graves for any prized possessions. The video then goes into a long story about the beheading of a general due to his disrespect for a fengshui master, with Ah-Tong explaining that because of that fable, the whole village maintains a strong belief in the practice of fengshui. Ah-Tong goes on to recount how a fengshui master once declared that the east side of their house was characterized by scholarly tendencies, with military tendencies on the west side. “I lived in the west side, so I am capable of smoking, drinking, fighting etc.!” exclaims Ah-Tong, “It is true that the kids from east side were very good at studying; some even became big officials outside the village!”16 Through its many stories, Ah-Tong’s Ancestral Home asks the deeper question of how we commodify history and how to preserve intangible heritage, and is an attempt to add another layer of history onto that provided by Thomson—one which contradicts the picturesque scenes of river boat operators or noble ladies with exotic Qing dynasty styles. In filming the dusty old house, Chen Hangfeng uses the visual device of a flashlight to highlight the “history making”—the flashlight searches the walls of the abandoned house, catching little fragments of the home’s history, a notebook or an official document or an old newspaper. Sometimes the flashlight lands on a bat or a spider, which has made good use of the beams in the ancestral home.
Unlike Thomson’s perfectly-composed shots, Chen Hangfeng’s video is more of a historiography that focuses on the act of searching and listening and collecting oral histories. Overlaid onto the video are images of Thomson’s characters dancing, and porcelain cups and statues—images taken from the British museum and other museums in Europe—timely work given the current discourse about decolonizing the museum.
In a similar manner to Excited with no Reason, this work represents many tendencies found in Chen Hangfen’s work—an interest in forgotten communities and their heritage, an interest in actual footage of these characters and places, an interest in how China is portrayed by the “other” and different modes of self-portrayal, and an interest in how history and the cultural is commodified. His work takes a look at the long arm of globalization and its economic forces—for instance, the global demand for antiquities—which affects these very didiao or low-key places.
This video is characterized by a mood of melancholia; there is as sense
of loss, a sense of searching, as if Chen Hangfeng is still reeling from all
the changes brought on by the shock of the Reform and Opening Up, wondering how to process it all. Perhaps, as well, he is wondering that beyond the government rhetoric of promoting Confucian values and the wave of guoxue (classical Chinese culture with a patriotic bent), what is worth preserving of traditional Chinese values? He is sifting through old texts and ideas for inspiration, looking for tools and guidance to face the challenges of current reality—looking for historical precedents—yet, at the same time, inspired by examples from the outside world; for instance; his research into the interpretations of Buddhism by Alan Watts. In the words of Deng Xiaoping, “If you leave a window open for fresh air you have to expect some flies to blow in.” It’s how you react to those flies that matters— do you go into a frenzy trying to eliminate them, or do you try and learn from them and study their behaviour.
- She wasn’t stubbornly attached to the committee, but she took the job given her limited options after the Cultural Revolution robbed her of an education.
- The term laolarou is internet slang that arose in response to the term Xinxianrou. Xinxianrou translates literally as “young fresh meat”—a term applied to young and attractive men, often celebrities or starlets. Laolarou translates as meat cured by air-drying or smoking, something like jerky.
- During the production of this work, we had a very awkward situation on our hands. What to do with a lifelike turd hanging around the house? We couldn’t leave it out, but if someone were to find it in a cupboard or drawer, that could be worse.
- This is very similar to the holiday gifting culture of the West.
- I once worked for a Chinese private college whose scope of business included education, real estate, and lingerie.
- Workplace safety is a valid concern with so much glue, Styrofoam, plastic, and other flammable materials. fires are not uncommon.
- Rebecca Catching, “Clipper Ships and their Stowaways—Chen Hangfeng Explores five Centuries of Cultural Exchange, Imperialism, Globalization and Hegemonic Notions of Time,” catalogue essay, Excited with No Reason (amsterdam: Sinarts Gallery, 2018,) http://www.sinartsgallery.com/clipper- ships/.
- We see this same topic reiterated in A Broadcast of Prickly Pear’s Monologue, which offers a first- person narrative account of the prickly pear cactus as told from the point of view of the plant—its voyage from Mexico, tribulations in australia, etc.
- a compensation package from the government was released only in 1988.
- for instance, in the early 2000s, unwed couples would be harassed by the neighbourhood committee for living out of wedlock. They would also check up on those who were unemployed but also not receiving assistance, fearing that these individuals would become unstable elements, since they were not reliant on the government.
- Video transcript from A Broadcast of Prickly Pear’s Monologue.
- Meaning “Can we really survive?”
- Ruth Kutchin, “john Thomson’s foochow and the River Min,” january, 27, 2014, Science + Media Museum, https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/album-of-picturesque-19th-century-carbon- prints-from-the-fujian-province-in-china/.
- Video transcript from Ah-Tong’s Ancestral Home.