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Shanghai calling August

Shanghai calling August


This is the last letter about Shanghai for now. Yesterday I landed in Brussels after a total of six months in China. Not nearly enough for a comprehensive survey of China, but a good amount of time for a first experience.

What I will do next is yet to be defined. My head is filled with ideas and wants. For the immediate future I don't think it will be again in Shanghai, which by many not seen as China, thought I think it very much is an integral and defining part.

If I want to, I can go back to the guiding company and to an art gallery in Shanghai, so if I change my mind, I will have work waiting for me. However the climate and the social fabric of both local and expat community have been pretty hard for me to bear…

The Art Gallery

I stopped my headhunting job at the end of July and instead of travelling the remaining week before going home, I decided to do freelance PR work for a contemporary art gallery. I was asked to look at the presentation and communication for their new space targeting high end collectors in an exclusive atmosphere.

It was a good decision which allowed me to have a peak at that hottest part of the contemporary art world.

Some predict contemporary Chinese art will soon be the most expensive one around. One reason is that the Chinese themselves are starting to buy it … and China has some of the richest people in the world and they like to spend money; a lot of money.

The prices of contemporary art are already pretty hefty by the way, so you need to have a bit of a nose to still find good bargains. And the Chinese artists readily admit that they produce art to sell and make money.

The gallery I worked for specialises in contemporary Chinese art and targets mainly Western buyers. It has one gallery in the famous Moganshan Lu 50 warehouse complex located a little north west of the centre of Shanghai.

Though Moganshan is puny compared to the huge and famous Dashanzi factory complex just outside of Beijing, it is still an impressive maze of studio's and galleries to go and explore and to let yourself be surprised and horrified (much violence and ugliness too) by young and old Chinese artists today.

I added some images of what I understand are the considered the top now and that I liked. I spare you the violent ones. Some seem to be unnecessarily sensational, but then I may not always understand what is going on. Ones that I do understand seem to be important to show, so I will give the ones I do not understand the benefit of the doubt. The ones that struck me to the core were large pictures of farm girls in full childhood bloom next red painted versions of the same girls with seducing smiles on hollow faces as young city prostitutes.

I saw them so often in the daytime in the massage parlours all over town. They always seem fined, just a little bored. So I am glad to be reminded by the artist that their situation is not ok at all, that our society is allowing this, and to please not get used to their situation.

I was lucky because the young French gallery manager recently opened a second gallery space located in a beautiful old Colonial house located in an up and coming area and needed an extra hand.

I even got to a little historical research and interview the owner of the house who told me much about the history of the house and its inhabitants. My version of the story of house, which the gallery wants to use for its website, is attached to this newsletter to give you an idea of the place.

As I reviewed the organisation of the gallery, I found that one of the main issues was the same as I experienced in other foreign companies in Shanghai; a lack of motivation and interest of the local employees in their jobs and the field they work in. There is no team spirit that works as one mind, with a clear, informed and therefore mutual goal to guide the whole project. These employees will not go the extra mile, which should make the much needed difference with the competitors.

Basically working with the wrong employees. You certainly can find motivated employees, but you need to be willing to search for them, be experienced in the Chinese job market, and be prepared to offer a competitive salary and future, and be a bit lucky, just like anywhere else.

In a small enterprise in a competitive area every person counts triple. And as I have noticed, an unwilling employee actually is a double burden. Work is unsatisfactory in varying degrees, and as others who tend to take over their work to ensure it gets done properly, or spend so much time supervising, it eats away at the productivity and morale of the efficient workers.

One day as I strolled around Moganshan Lu doing a bit of research in the little art bookshop, I noticed that in this more established contemporary art scene in China, some people have such a similar look to people in the Western art scene.

Tall and bold older men dressed in black with dark-rimmed designer glasses, male artists that look like over-aged rockers, overdressed female gallery managers and art related freelancers, and underdressed female artists.

We find this normal now, but I always catch myself being surprised to see old photographs of earlier rebels like Van Gogh, Matisse or Freud for that matter, looking much like their contemporaries; with the revolutions in their heads and in their behaviour.

In the bookshop itself, I continued to notice how China has fully joined the international community at the high end with dozens of beautifully edited glossy art magazines, fully in Chinese, so purely for the home market. These big glossies are not cheap and an indication of the recent trend of wealthy Chinese turning their attention to buying cutting edge Chinese art.

Besides about 50 different art magazines, there were many beautiful hardback editions of Chinese art. The whole set up is for the more well-off. A cup of coffee cost me €3 just like in the western Starbucks and Costa coffees all over town.

Geography lessons

I am not sure why I started doing this but since the last month, in friendly exchanges with Chinese, I found myself drawing the map of Europe quite a few times. It was always when Chinese asked me where I was from and me seeing that the word /Belgium/ left them racking their brains.

It is painful for them not know this, as they feel it is offensive for me to be from an unknown place. So starting to draw immediately distracts the attention from the embarrassment. It also always seemed to create a good atmosphere, and I found it to be a great way to generally communicate and make up for my lack of Chinese.

As soon as I started drawing a crowd would gather. In the beginning it made me feel awkward. For people I had not started the conversation with to come and stand right up close to us or even hang over my shoulder, I felt was impolite.

But that is the way people are in China and it is not considered impolite at all to join a discussion or a display. Groups are good, even if you don't know each other, especially if there is something fun or exiting to share. And I was very grateful to them for including me in these moments and thereby for me making up for all those other moments when I felt uninteresting or simply invisible.

In their usually poor English people would make big efforts to talk to me and try and make the conversation last. When my Chinese and their English were depleted, we would just smile and sit next to each other. And it did not feel uncomfortable because the atmosphere was one of gratefulness.

Giving my geography lessons in a bank one day, I found out how to tell men where I am from! It is the country of Formula 1 in Francorchamps!

My colleague at work by the way only recognised Belgium and France on the map. What surprised me the most was that she did not recognise the UK or Italy. I have no idea what foreign geography is learnt at school in China.

The last day of my stay I spent three hours in the bank trying to make an international transfer and close my account. One of the information officers, a job student, came by several times while I was standing at the counter to ask me how I was. Every time he also apologised that he could not help me and that unfortunately this bank had little experience in international transactions.

On the matter of connecting with people, I had a great personal connection that worked miracles to get them to overcome their shyness and talk to me. My grandfather from my mom's side was an amateur cyclist and champion in the former Yugoslavia. He participated in the Olympics of 1936 and that fact certainly was worth gold in China this year.

Impression of a walk in Luxun park in Hongkou, a district in the north east of Shanghai

(Luxun is* *one of the major Chinese writers of the 20th century, considered the founder of modern vernacular Chinese literature, maybe what Pushkin was for Russia?)

Looking for a quiet spot to read a book or take a nap? Forget doing that in a Chinese public park. It is the opposite of the ancient gardens, like the famous Yu Gardens in downtown Shanghai, that were specially build for intellectuals to recharge after a day full of political intrigue and the tiresome string of rules and regulations that paced their every word and action.

Public parks especially in the weekend are packed. There are food stands and sometimes even little shops. There are attractions of all sorts. The larger ones have fairs and stages where loud life music is played. Meanwhile privately performed music and song is all around. People with ancient and modern instruments play alone or in group often holding sheets of music and reviewing them together.

Then there are the singers. They are not only of a varying degree of voice quality, but, as they love to sing with a microphone, you need to listen to varying degrees of amplifier quality. It is safe to say that most of these technical aides are of very bad quality. Hence the cacophony… everywhere! Naughty children make no chance of being noticed throwing tantrums here!

Last but not least are the groups of genuine enthusiasts singing old Revolutionary songs with full force. I don't know whether they believe in Communism (I think only about 7% of the Chinese are member of the Party), but I have heard that people do miss the fever and sensation that the mass singing produced.

Final note on Food (until the next one of course)!

So what has my most recent month here been like? The most exiting feature has been that the Chinese language has finally started seeping into my brain. I understand snippets of conversation in the street, on the radio, in the subway ... I am finally managing to converse or at least make myself understood by the taxi driver sufficiently to have a giggle together.

Eating loads of Chinese desserts!! I have discovered sweet green tea and red bean paste filled pastries, mango and coconut soups with rice (white Chinese and black Thai rice), sticky dumplings with sesame seeds or crushed nuts, deep-fried vanilla pudding with something crunchy in it (never found out what it was) and much more… just criminal that these places do not have espresso (I know I am heretic in Chinese eyes).

Another of the so many food discoveries was a Heilongjiang restaurant to which my Chinese student of English had invited me. Heilongjiang is the most Eastern province that borders on Russia and part of the historical Manchuria from which the Qing, the last emperors, originated. It literally means the Black Dragon River, which is the Chinese name for the Amur River.

I ate a type of sauerkraut but very gentle in taste, I ate the most delicate meat in aspic sprinkled with tiny bits of raw garlic and fresh coriander, dumpling with fresh green herbs, and the best: stewed meat with bone marrow, meat falling of the bone in a subtle brown sauce that tasted slightly caramelised with a hint of a woody spice (cinnamon or allspice?).

The restaurant was in the middle of an all Chinese residential area, so of course, I was the only Western person there.

During dinner Louis (I don't know what his Chinese name is), as usual, was both entertaining and instructive. Working for China Shipping, an internationally operating government company, he has inside stories I don't hear anywhere else.

I know now that he often has meetings on Saturdays, and as in many other government companies, the work rhythm has been seriously increased. It is one of the changes in the last years that meant to make the companies more competitive.

Also you do not need to be party member to be working for state-owned company, and CP members get investigated for bribery just like anyone else, although usually the big fish still get away.

He was just about to leave the next day to the north of China to lead the bi-annual audit in the Northern branch. He said that every year 2 to 3 three people got caught and sent to jail for fraudulent practices or bribery.

The last day

The last night in China I stayed in with a friend to watch the opening of the Olympic Games. I had made a salad of the last of the fridge content, which caused the fireworks on TV to be resonated in our mouths. A large green pepper that to me had looked much like an ordinary green veggie pepper out to particularly spicy relative!

We watched the extraordinary show with mixed feelings, like I guess many of you did. We know what effort, money, and paid and volunteer work has gone into this. In the mean time, among other things, at less than 100 km outside the large cities, many farmers are still without running water, heat and are pretty much at the mercy of local officials who pocket subsidies meant for farming.

Also many Chinese, who have ever protested or opposed government policies like being thrown out of their houses, have been rounded up and thrown in jail for the duration of the Games as precautionary measures. And so on.

Still, it was a show to behold.

What a shame then to see the Olympian athletes parading the grounds, waving one hand at the audience and holding a camera or a mobile phone in the other and babbleling to each other. It made them look more like a bunch of package holiday tourists than noble ambassadors of a universal mission to bring peace among all people.

They must have wanted to compete with the stiff-armed waving and clearly bored state officials, for spoiling the sought-after elegance of the Games. Good thing that some athletes, as I remember especially those from poorer nations, showed the uncontrollable smile of pride or the serious look of the importance of the moment. And trying very hard to be as dignified as possible under all the obvious excitement and incredibility of been there.

Watching the show also made me very conscious that despite all the mass orchestration of human beings, the naked display of technological machismo, and the brightly coloured and omnipresent nationalism of China, I can vouch for the fact that the government does not control their citizens as they once did.

Women, usually what look like mothers and daughters (of all ages!), and girlfriends, walk the streets holding hands. Lovers shyly kiss in public. At lunch and in the evening the restaurants are packed with large groups of people eating together, usually in a very animated atmosphere and making a lot of noise.

Someone eating by themselves is rare, though you see them during lunch in the area of offices. A western feature creeping in along side the "modernisation"?

The indifference and impenetrability of the Chinese, indispensable qualities for survival in the terrorising times of Communism that got mixed and melted in centuries of drilled Confucianism, left the world with a China that is bewildering on the human level. There must be a sentence referring to this communication barrier in all my letters and in all the letters of all that have ever visited China.

Meeting Chinese who studied and worked abroad will facilitate communication and you learning Chinese will help a great too. These are dedicated (and often costly) efforts that either or both parties need to want to make.

Yet never forget, and though I mentioned this before, and we all know this, that the cheapest and oldest manner of communicating that is charm.

Charming people is what my last visitor excels at. It was a delight to take him around Shanghai, to meet my Chinese and Western friends as well as local vegetable merchants.

The photos that are added in this newsletter are all taken by my dad or of him. Smiles all around. Just flick through them and enjoy the warmness of human contact. No words needed, just the heartfelt willingness to be up and close.


As I entered Terminal 5 in Heathrow, I had a bit of flashback. I have never been there and my first reaction was to think I was back in China. All bright lights, nothing but shopping (and much of it luxury) and food. As I looked down to the lower level, I saw what must have been about two hundred people trying to make the best of what seats where available to make a bed and sleep. There was almost no one in the shops. Even the staunchest shoppers amongst us were apparently defeated by travel fatigue.

For a terminal where many people have to sometimes wait hours for connecting flights, a few less Gucci bags and a few more long chairs in segregated quiet areas would have been very welcome.


I am having a fresh amber draught beer with my flatmate in a new pub on the market square of our neighbourhood in Brussels. The high and large windows allow the feeble summer sun to illuminate our grateful faces.

There is mellow music in the background as we listen to each other's stories, but I especially see her happiness to have me back, and I know she is looking at mine.



Gepost door Flavia