Friday, April 28, 2006

Faces from Tibet


Yama came with her parents and three sisters on a 6 week pilgrimage to the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa from the province of Kham. “Yama helped carry our 10 month old daughter much of the way.” Her father said. “We noticed very early that she was born with the true spirit of wanting to help others.”
(taken from "Phil Borges: people of indigenous cultures")

If ever there was sheer beauty captured in human's face, these pictures are as good as it gets. Go quickly over to this site. I hope there is more to follow with the new website under construction

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

It's the money, stupid !

If this doesn't create an outrage in China, then I wonder what happened to human dignity. And at least in this instance, the China Daily also seems to get the priorities right.

More than 200 people in camouflage gear demolished a school of disabled and mentally retarded children and beat students who attempted to block the demolition, media reported yesterday.

A Beijing court ordered the school to move out last September because it had no right to use the land on which the school was built. A private company that recently leased the land began sending demolition crews to the Zhiguang Special Education School last Friday.

As of Monday, only several buildings were left untouched. About 70 students and teachers were forced to stay in five dorm rooms at the school in Changping District, reported The Beijing News. Another 30 children returned to their homes in the capital city.

I can perfectly live with a court order stating that the school should never have been built, if that is according to the rule of law of the country.
I can perfectly live with a company claiming it's right to the site, if that is it's lawful property.

And there it stops !

Because after that, you have children, disabled and retarded children as a matter of fact, victims in every possible way of the word you can imagine. Then to hire a gang of 200 thugs to go and demolish the only safeheaven this children may have gotten in their life, just because the land on which the school sits must be turned to profit (let me guess, would it be another skyscraper or another factory ?), is just beyond words.

What about sitting down with all parties involved, how about discussing relocation scenario's for the school, what about leaving the school where it sits and seek for compensation for the company ... what about a spark of humanity in the debate ?!!!

No, none of that. Some guy, in some office, decides that there is no time left to discuss and that he can't be hampered with the fate of a couple of kids that life itself didn't treat mercifully, so the school will have to be demolished, if not by free will, then with violence. And down it goes.

So what's next, I wonder ? How far can you push the buttons of chinese society before it reacts ? Is chinese society WILLING to react to injustices that don't have to do with personal loss or gain, in other words, is there still enough altruism left to fight acts that debase mankind ? I'll be watching.

As for the guy, the woman or whoever issued the command to demolish the school: I hope that next time he or she enjoys some time off on the golfcourt, somebody takes good aim and slaps the ball, real hard, and that there is enough altruism left then to take him/her to a hospital.

Monday, April 17, 2006

A name to remember: Yu Kongjian

I come from a country where the notion "urban design" was flushed down the gutter long time ago. But situation being as it is, our architecture has never been dull (I am herewith not even referring to the big amount of historical buildings spread over the country). You are bound to run into some surprise rounding every corner, laughable a lot of times, but very effective in avoiding our living surrounding to become dull.

Though Chinese architecture has a lot to offer, most of the cities are as dull as they could be. Each has it's highlights, some surpass the average, some overwhelm, but it's the exceptions that confirm the rule. So here is an excerpt I found that basically states what is wrong with chinese cities and where it originates:

"... The country had a long tradition of private gardens cultivated by gentry, and more recently of austere Stalinist-style parks designed to project state authority. But he felt the country needed more. "Landscape architects can't just be garden artists," says Yu. So, in 1998, he founded Turenscape, China's first private landscape-design firm, and set about finding places like Zhongshan where officials were willing to try something different.

Turen is an odd name for a Chinese company. Ren means person, but tu is more complicated. Literally the word translates as "earth" or "soil," but it's often used as a slur, a put-down for anything that is backward or unsophisticated—the manners of a migrant worker, bad teeth, cloth shoes. When Yu's colleagues answer the phone, "Turen," it sounds like they're calling themselves bumpkins. Yu himself remembers being called tu when he arrived in Beijing from a rice farm in Zhejiang to enroll at the Beijing University of Forestry in 1980. He was 17, could barely speak Mandarin and was awestruck by the straightness of the city's poplar-lined roads. This "farmerist outlook," as Yu describes his own first impressions of Beijing, is the reason Chinese cities look the way they do: "We're a country of farmers. When we make it to the city we want to feel as far away from the land as possible. We hate weeds. We want to look up at tall buildings. We shun nature." To be truly urban, Yu says, China needs a new attitude toward tu."

Read the whole article on this remarkable guy over here.

I think all agrarian societies are going through the same process when they turn more urbanized, but Yu Kongjian's point clearly is that if Chinese cities want to become really innovative, it needs to come to grasps with it's roots. Yu is not pleading on an architectural level, he is attacking a mentality, a mentality that tries to shed it's roots and disguise into something it is not. Only when 土 will mean "earth" again and none of it's degrading variants, will there be place for a real healthy and sustainable urban development

I would say it's a fairly refreshing look that is being expressed here, refreshing for China at least, and it gives hope that one day we will not be seeing endless streets lined with white-tiled buildings with blue windows.

Saturday, April 15, 2006


Richard over at "The Peking Duck" is paying tribute to the "Tank Man" , the single individual that went to stand in front of a row of tanks on June 5th, after the Chinese army had swept Tiananmen square clean of the thousands of students and supporters that had been camping out there for months. The footage of that man, forcing the tank to veer sideways in it's attempt to continue it's route, is engraved in our common memory as an icon of the opposed trying to resist the oppressor and in this way may have changed the way China will behave were it to encounter the same situation again.

I would like to quote also here the first paragraph of the article from Pico Iyer Richard refers to in his thread, with respect to Tank Man:

"Almost nobody knew his name. Nobody outside his immediate neighborhood had read his words or heard him speak. Nobody knows what happened to him even one hour after his moment in the world's living rooms. But the man who stood before a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square - June 5, 1989 - may have impressed his image on the global memory more vividly, more intimately than even Sun Yat-sen did. Almost certainly he was seen in his moment of self-transcendence by more people than ever laid eyes on Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and James Joyce combined."

Reading this paragraph, I was reminded instantly of that other individual that, purely by the fact of having been captured on photograph in another such moment of extreme drama, may have changed also to a certain extent the way people perceive war and it's atrocities. I'm talking about that girl of which also nobody knew who she was, the girl that ran towards the camera, screaming from the napalm burning her naked body, the girl that was caught in the lens of Nick Ut, reporter for Associated Press in Vietnam, the girl that from the moment the reporter snapped the world-famous shot started to change the way people thought about the Vietnam war. I'm talking about Phan Thi Kim Phuc, then age nine, living in Trang Bang when a South-Vietnamese fighter plane mistook her and her peers for the enemy and fired off.

Both are images that had the power to knock the world a conscience, both images were the sting in the skin of those who wanted to keep the truth hidden. They have become a forceful accusation of the wrongs of this world, although they are "just" images, but maybe in the end they are our best argument to show that real power does not necessarily come from the barrel of a gun. Just image-ine !

Friday, April 14, 2006

One place less to go

Yangshuo. Almost 20 years ago that I went there for the first time, and what a place it was ...

Lining the Li River in China's Guangxi province, the village was on a 2 hours ride from Guilin's main bus station. Sitting in the majestic countryside with it's typical karst formations, it's one of the most breathtaking sceneries one was likely ever to watch in China. Watched over by Moon hill, the cormorant fishermen would light their lamps at night and send their birds off into the water. You could make magnificent bicycle rides towards the neighbouring villages. Yet this was not the mainstream village you were prone to come across in any part of the vast Chinese countryside. First thing that caught my eye getting down the bus was this sign advertising dorm beds for 10 Renminbi a night in the ... Hilton Hotel. The next morning you could then take your pick of "80 kinds of Western breakfast" in the Charlie Chaplin bar, and the best part of it was that neither was a hoax. You could indeed sleep dirt cheap and have excellent food, while still not having the feeling you were caught in a tourist trap. It was not exactly off the beaten track anymore already back then in 1988, but it was as pleasant as it got in China.

I get very worried however when I read this article from the China Daily.

Musical Dedicated to tourism paradise - Yangshuo West Street

"A long-awaited musical with distinctive ethnic features has finally been presented. After two years of persistent hard work, Yangshuo West Street made its debut in Nanning Theatre of Southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on September 10, and will continue for 30 performances in Nanning before it will move to Guilin for long-term commercial performances.

With a beautiful story, strong cast, and marketing operations, the program highlights the performing stage of a region known for its signature ethnic flavor. The work is bound to impress the audience with its brand-new notions, visual effects, and artistic brilliance."

Will somebody please wake me up and tell me it's just a dream?

"With a beautiful story, strong cast, and marketing operations" ???!!
"Bound to impress the audience with it's brand-new notions" ???!!

Sure those are the things I am looking for first thing whenever I go to see a play or a musical. I love to engage in discussions on the poor "marketing operations" that can be found in Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" ... so bad to keep people waiting.

All joking aside, clearly as is that this is a marketing vehicle to draw even more tourists to this little enchanting village, one would wonder why the hell they needed it ? The people in Yangshuo, gifted with the entrepreneural spirit common to masses of Chinese, were their own best marketeers. But getting at this point, I find myself always confronted with the question what does it do to the locals ? How does it affect their lives and is it able to pull them out of poverty, of which, to be sure, I saw a fair deal in those days around Yangshuo. Or is the big money going into other pockets and do the real aborigines get moved out to other places ? What if the answer is affirmative ? We, who can afford to be travelling around, may in the end be finding ourselves pondering the choice whether we go to Disneyland A or Disneyworld B today, but at least it will have benefitted a lot of people. Worse is , what if the answer is no ? How about what the world is loosing in places like Yangshuo, getting trampled by mass tourism / consumerism ? Another example of the same sort that comes to mind are the Mosuo, the people from Lake Lugu and their matrilinear traditions (not matriarchal, as is often mistakenly stated). Are they in the end off for the better of the worse ?

Whenever I face the question, I admit I don't know the answer.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A thing of beauty

I love them, these papercuts, because they are so down-to-earth, requiring only a piece of paper, a pair of scissors and two nimble hands. Yet, in their fragility and in the themes they treat, they reach for the sublime. They are rooted in the earth that is tilled by the folk artists and farmers that make them, but they transcend everyday reality and bring to life a total different universe.

The above papercut is attributed to Zhu Manhua, a 60-year old female folk artist from Shandong province, who has practically devoted her life to the art of papercuts.

The computer "artwork" is mine.