Archive for April, 2009

Sidewalk artist (1)

April 24, 2009

“I’ve been doing this seven to eight years now. I’m originally from Xian, where I’d studied art. Yes, this is what we artists do when we come to New York; it’s the only job available to us, and you can’t do it anywhere else, not even California, no, because they don’t let you work at night. We make nearly a hundred dollars a day. Summer’s the best, but right now it’s still too cold for people to sit for us. Yes, it’s easy to get this job—you just pay for a license. Can you turn your head to the side, please? So you were born here in New York? But your Chinese is pretty good. Did your parents speak to you in Chinese when you were growing up? Can you read, write? Too bad. My daughter’s the same. She’s twenty-one. What do you mean I don’t look it? I have an eighteen-year-old son, too. He goes to high school on Long Island. Barely speaks Chinese himself. You’re how old?”

*

Last Thursday evening I stepped out of the Times Square subway station and there they were, the Chinese sidewalk artists. I’d always wanted to talk to them, to find out if this style of art, caricature and personal-name portraits, was to their liking and whether, having studied seriously at various prestigious art academies in China, they still continued with their passions in private or in a shared studio with easel, paints, and decades-old brushes. I wondered especially whether they considered one version of their art to be true and the other one false. The New York Times had profiled their work and the death of one artist after a portrait dispute. In 2000, a portrait cost twenty dollars; in November 2008, it was ten to fifteen. Last Thursday, portraits were being sold for five dollars each. As I crossed 42nd Street to reach a friend, passing these artists and their colorful stands, a sudden, very clear idea formed: I would have my affordable, kitschy caricature portrait done by as many of them as possible. And because it turns out that I’m coherent enough in Chinese to hold a basic conversation, I would interview them all.

I picked a stall manned by two women and a man. One woman worked on my portrait while the other alternately chatted with me and gestured to potential customers, and their male friend leaned gloomily against a bright building. They all kept telling me to smile more and to turn my head to the left. My Chinese, which had started out strong when I’d sat down, was losing its flavor by the tenth question, but nobody seemed to mind. Then a group of teens walked by, intrigued. I told them, “These artists are good. I’d watched them for a while before choosing them. Here, have a seat.” They did—two girls sat for the male artist, while mine, by now done with me, took in a boy. The chatty artist was setting up her own chair and notepad.

Then another colleague, this one from Shanghai, stopped by to say good night. She asked me to guess how old she was.

“Forty-five,” I said.

She laughed. “Nearing sixty. Do I really look so young?”

“It’s your smooth complexion. And your eyes. You have very young eyes. Where do you do your portraits?”

“Over there,” she said, gesturing vaguely west.

“Next time I’m around, may I stop by your stand?”

“But you just got your portrait done.”

“I’d like to see how you would do it. As you can see in this portrait, I’m a gal about town. Perhaps you might have a different fate in mind for me?”

“Oh yes, I do.”

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“Dad, draw me the river.”

April 22, 2009

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Theme park

April 20, 2009

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*

Theme
by Lu Xun

I dreamed of myself in a grammar school classroom learning to write: I was asking the schoolmaster how to establish a theme.

“Impossible!” the schoolmaster said, staring at me over the top of his spectacles. “Let me tell you something.

“A male child was born to a family. The family was so thrilled. During the one-month birthday celebration, the family showed the baby to their guests, probably to invite some auspicious comments.

“One man said, ‘This child will be wealthy.’ He was duly thanked.

“One man said, ‘This child will be powerful.’ He received auspicious comments in return.

“One man said, ‘This child will die one day.’ He was rewarded with blows from everyone present.

“To say the child will die is telling the truth. To say the child will be wealthy or powerful is telling a lie. But the one lying was richly rewarded, while the one telling the truth was beaten.”

“I don’t want to tell lies, and I don’t want to be beaten, either. So, master, what should I say?”

“Okay, then, you’ll have to say, ‘This child! Oh my! How . . . indeed! Ha ha ha! Hee hee hee! Hee hee hee!'”

—from The Pearl Jacket and Other Stories:
Flash Fiction from Contemporary China
,
edited and translated by Shouhua Qi

*

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The mall across from the hotel I’d stayed at was recently completed but still stands mostly empty; only the stores facing the main road are open for business, occupied by such brands as Versace and Pepe. On my last morning, I walked through the inner court of the mall hoping to find a store that sold tchotchkes, but only an advertising agency, a restaurant, and the occasional half-empty clothing store were in operation. I walked for half an hour with no exit in sight, the path curving continually to the right after every pillared overpass. Finally I turned back when the anxiety of getting lost took hold, though lost in this sense was more psychological than physical. There was just too much space and too few people. After the bustle of the past two weeks, this unending emptiness served to both calm and disconcert—the perfect way to end a trip that had heaved with noise and bodies.

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A week after returning, I let the impressions of China settle and wrote very little. I read Coetzee’s Disgrace, disturbed by the growing violence inside the story and fascinated by the narrative pace; read pieces from my writing group (I’m still behind, guys, sorry) that turned my head and heart around yet again; strolled through the Met in heels, absorbing the delicate lines within a Rodin and a Degas and the complementary bursts of vivid color in a Bonnard; ate my favorite foods (omelet and toast) and was introduced to a new favorite (cauliflower sandwich at Num Pang); converted to the Morning Hours due to jet lag; and wrote short lines to remind myself that my feet had so recently trudged through Chinese streets and been planted, sturdily, on either side of many a hole in the ground. Then this morning I wrote a long paragraph about a woman and her husband, an actor, with the first line “When I first came to Mule City to work in the theater, I would lie awake at night listening to my neighbor’s radio through the wall.” I had just woken from a rollicking dream about performing in a musical, which itself had been triggered by the conversation overheard yesterday at Madeleine Patisserie between a woman and her two grandsons about A Chorus Line.

“When I first came to the city to work,” said the woman to the boys, “I would lie awake at night listening to the radio.”

In the dream, while watching the star flit from one side of the stage to the other, I’d said to myself, “You are in this show because of that grandmother, because of storytelling, hers and your cousins’ and your father’s and your own. Write her story. Don’t forget what you know—theme, focus, roundish peg in squarish hole.”

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Throughout the trip I had happily engaged in the role of tourist, stranger, an American curiosity. The truth is that I know nothing about being Chinese. The lie is that I am Chinese. So: Time now to fit together the pieces of my little town on the river that’s been meandering through my head for the past few years, and bring truth to lies or lies to truth. Either that or fulfill the next fantasy and move to China, the biggest theme park ever built.

Ha ha ha! Hee hee hee!

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On the river

April 18, 2009

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4.3.09 — Nanchong; bus to Chongqing; Yangtze River

April 17, 2009

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At first my parents tried to dissuade me from the Yangtze excursion, saying that it was too last-minute, that it would cut short my time with the family in Nanchong, that a woman should not be traveling alone on an old river. But I fiddled with my little camera, absorbed in resolve, and said simply, “I’m going.”

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I’m drawn to narratives about disintegrating landscapes, indeed to such abstractions as the dying building, the abandoned city, the forced transfer of dreams and hopes from a warm home into a cold house. Pedro Paramo‘s precious ghosts unnerve, Jakob von Gunten‘s servant school is a subversive delight, Too Loud a Solitude‘s trash maker rapturously celebrates literature, All the Name‘s benevolent Central Registry overwhelms the most ordinary of men, and Bait‘s record on the impossible narrative tickles the storytelling bone—and so my fascination with the Yangtze and its lush, farm-dappled gorges being submerged by one of the world’s largest dams, a power-harnessing beast sixteen years in the making, first proposed in 1919 by the founder of the Republic, Sun Yat-sen, and of course embraced wholeheartedly by Mao himself, and now with only a year left till completion. River diversions are common—and there are more to come—but this dam’s unprecedented scale has since hastened the destruction of marine life, caused massive earthquakes and landslides, buried centuries-old relics, temples, and tombs, and displaced more than a million people. “An environmental catastrophe,” according to reports both Chinese and Western. “A disaster in the making,” the Chinese government had itself admitted last year. In my mind: countless stories to be told, imagined, written down—a small project of conservation.

*

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At a nearby travel agency, a stark office where two young women sat behind a well-worn desk each shouting hoarsely into a phone, my cousins and their husbands helped us book the Yangtze tour tickets. Six to a room, or four? Four. Three or four days? Three. Toilet or squatting preferred? Toilet. My mother to pay for the trip, or my cousin? My cousin. My cousin to accompany us, or we brave a Chinese tour on our own? On our own, please, no need to interrupt one’s busy schedule, not when visiting ancestors’ graves is nigh, not when the weather will be chilly, not when—et cetera.

After a while my attention drifted, as it does when a task has been taken over by a greater, more organized force such as my mother or my sister. It has always been my nature to not pay attention—that is, to bury my head in the nearest cloud, blinking into the fine mist of what-ifs or, as is also the case with my father, into the poetry of detail. In this case, the detail was language itself. I barely understand Sichuanhua, but I can easily grasp its weight, humor, and exuberance. The dialect is aggressive and rapid, and to my putonghua ear accustomed to intonations that lean into one another as in a musical scale, this trilling, up-down-up-down rhythm is at once disorienting and revelatory. Sometimes it sounds like Taiwanese or Cantonese, even Japanese, but when I shared this observation with various members of the family, they each scoffed.

I tilted my head as though waiting for a whistle to blow. Can’t you hear it? I kept asking.

You don’t hear a thing, they kept saying.

*

img_0596 For the morning send-off, we ate cool mi fen swimming in chili-flecked broth, a breakfast staple in the area, as well as white mantou, fried eggs, and warm sweet soy milk. We were joined by my cousin’s husband’s parents, my aunt, and another cousin who later that morning would be returning to his restaurant in Santiago. His next project there is Spanish-Asian fusion; fusion, he says, is so in vogue, he can make up just about anything as long as the menu includes noodles and rice. I asked him if he spoke any Spanish. He shook his head. There’s no reason for him to; he just points at the thing he wants, and it eventually reaches him. He said, “Life in Chile was difficult for me for the first six months. It’s been five years now, and it’s still difficult—but now I can get by.” “I would like to visit you next April,” I said to him, around a mouthful of my third bowl of mi fen, “and see for myself.” He nodded and saluted. Then he was off.

*

at the docks, in Chongqing

The bus ride from Nanchong to Chongqing, where our rickety old boat awaited us, took four hours. The movies at hand were Shaolin Soccer and 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer. I felt no guilt for napping, no exhaustion once I awakened, no sense of me at all. I was on my way to the great Yangtze River, after all, where dear, homesick Li Bai had fallen drunkenly off his boat and drowned, probably all the while composing a final poem about the moon or his departed friends. A favorite:

For three days, the boat traveled up Ox Gorge.
For three nights it advanced slowly.
For three days and three days the hair on my brow
Grew white without my knowing.

*

img_0792 We stopped at a temple, and I had my first real taste of how chaotic crowd control can be in this country. Guides with bullhorns politely repeated instructions to keep order, to not push one another, to walk steadily from Point A to Point B, but the momentum of bodies, three-plus tour groups in total, didn’t allow for any space or even to think about your own space, and so there’s no choice but to go with the flow. My irritation at being crushed ebbed, though there was a lingering anxiety about stampedes and the ground falling beneath our feet. A simple railing at key points in China would solve everything.

*

supervision, in Chongqing

Most pictures I took of construction were of wide office buildings and tall condominiums in various stages of development, but there were only a handful of pictures of work done on the ground. I think I spent most of my time looking up, which must be a common phenomenon that afflicts the tourist.

*

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On the way back to the boat, people bought noodles, duck’s neck, and tchotchkes from rows of patient vendors. Nobody had been interested in the offerings on the way up the hill, but now the market was bustling with loud bargaining and Say-Cheeses. I bought a giant mantou. My mother had told the cousins earlier that morning that my favorite food was bread. Though I hadn’t considered any sort of favorites since the start of the trip, this reminder—as any reminder does for me—served to spark the urge for the thing being discussed, and at the first sight of a giant mantou I thought of my grandmother and her Buddhist prayers and of the things that easily pleased me, and I ate the bread leisurely and with contentment, wondering if perhaps my footprints already fading from this faraway hill would show up one day on the other side of the world.

The river

April 16, 2009

Two days before departing for China, I decided that cruising the Yangtze was in order. This seems obvious now, but at the time I was also considering a day trip to Beijing, which is a necessary stop for such a brief stay—one must wander the hutongs (the cousins assured that many still existed and weren’t going anywhere), scale the Great Wall, invade the Forbidden City, sample the cuisine, ogle the fashion, and in general soak in the supreme Chineseness of the country.

Then Viet said: “No. Go to the river.”

And so I went to the river.

*

4.2.09 — Chengdu; Nanchong

April 15, 2009

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Despite capturing grime on the window, my Little Camera That Could took some nice images from a moving vehicle. None very original, as all I did was point and shoot with fingers crossed, but good enough to remind me what to keep an eye on—shapes, colors, texture, movement, expression. How else could I find common ground in a place where my words are so limited, or recognize gesture in hands and expressions in the face or in the way a body conforms to a motorcycle or teeters on the edge of a sidewalk? None of these images are at all exceptional except in the context of their having been taken in China. That is to say, they’re all special because I was standing firmly in the land I’d been dreaming about these last few years.

*

orange peels drying in Nanchong

My youngest cousin lives in a two-bedroom duplex and will move into one of the many, many new condominium complexes currently being finished throughout the city. (The new building had had two floors built before the earthquake last year destroyed the foundation, and the construction had to start over; it’s now almost complete.) My parents and I were given the duplex to live in for the two too-short days we were in Nanchong; my cousin and her husband, meanwhile, stayed with his parents in the apartment below. These orange peels were on the landing between the floors. I wondered whether they were part of a Buddhist ritual; Dad said they were being dried for future meals.

I took eight pictures of the peels at various angles, and just now realized that my mother does something similar with tourist shots. She wants every combination of people in a shot in front of a touristy spot, and then the final shot must include everybody—that is, she’s not satisfied until her sense of a place has been fully populated by us all. I would grow increasingly agitated during each Say-Cheese, but what she must have thought when I shot a single grimy object over and over.

*

kitchen fan in Nanchong

I sat in my aunt’s apartment listening to her try to convince my father to move back to Nanchong. I sat on this sofa listening to my father tell his blind little sister to eat more often, to sleep well and exercise every morning. I had sat on other sofas listening to my father tell me the same thing in just the same voice, and all that time I’d never known he’d had sisters waiting for him in a place called Nanchong. What I had known before this trip was simply that he’d been born in Sichuan, that some of his Chinese words sounded a little funny, and that he would always, with a twinkle in his eye, proclaim that the food he was serving me wasn’t spicy at all.

*

water calligraphy in Nanchong

I went to explore the park across from the hotel while my parents took a nap. A variation of hearts was being played everywhere. At a far point in the park was a hard-to-watch rendition of the tango being performed by three couples. The water calligraphy held my interest the most. I’m sure this practice is common and has a long history, except the history is something I can only imagine, at least for now. I saw similar demonstrations in other parks later in my trip, and remembered watching a calligrapher once in Taipei’s Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Park write a long, silky poem on the concrete, which later sparked a scene in one of my stories of a little girl training to become an artist, only her giant brush was too heavy to wield so her mother sawed the thing in half—Shaolin Calligraphy or something.

A break

April 7, 2009

I’m going to write a long post tonight but wanted to check in first. I’m alive thanks to Pepto-Bismol and Dr. Ho, I held back sobs when we left the family in Nanchong, and I hope to experience Chengdu nightlife in one Friday night. The highlight, of course, is the Three Gorges and the curious monkeys scurrying toward food. Some snapshots:

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Misty. 4.4.09

Misty. 4.4.09

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