Monday, February 26, 2007

Luo Xu and the Earth Nest

One thing I’ve been meaning to do for a while is introduce you to Luo Xu, an old Kunming friend. Sometimes referred to as “Savant Genius”, or even “that crazy guy with the house”, Luo Xu is a sort of fixture on the Kunming mindscape. He is an artist and the proprietor of the Earth Nest, a place that defies a half sentence description.

Luo Xu has been making sculptures with no formal training for the past few decades. After a rough and tumble time in and around Yunnan, he stumbled onto a plot of land outside of Kunming and began work on his Magnum Opus, the Earth Nest, which serves as a sort of museum for his myriad sculptures and a playground for his friends, among other things.

I first noticed the place when I had just arrived in Kunming and was on my way to the Stone Forest, a popular tourist sight east of the city. My teacher brushed it off, saying “maybe it’s a brick factory or something”. I wasn’t satisfied with that, but I couldn’t quite figure out what those shapes, resembling something like a giant ant hill, could mean.

Over a year later I began to get to know Kunming’s vibrant art scene, and stumbled across Luo Xu through a mutual acquaintance. A nice, scruffy looking old guy, we got along pretty well. He said that I should come to his house some time. I didn’t put a lot of thought to it, as plenty of small time artists had dragged me into their studios trying to sell paintings before. It would be another few months before I was dragged there by some friends.

I stood at the gate stupefied, with my first memories of the place coming out of the cellar. Words don’t do a whole lot of justice to this place. He’s created an entire fantasy world out of mounds, warped lines and piles of giant sculptures. He’s always changing it around or adding to it, and there are always plenty more sculptures to squeeze in.

He and Luo Hui, an aging donkey, preside over the sprawling compound. Cool Kunmingers who’ve been around long enough all know the place, and it has served as a sort of social center for us over the years. We’ve thrown some excellent parties there, and would do it more often if that didn’t mean renting a few buses. It’s quite far from town. He’s had several bonfire/barbecues, and even once hosted a Nepalese band that was passing through.

It’s been a bit less active in recent years, but I try my best to have dinner there at least once each time I’m in town. A lot of his friends bring important clients there to impress them, and sometimes we just go there to hang out. His artistic skills are rivaled only by his skills in the kitchen, and we know he’s always good for a homestyle Yunnan dinner and buckets of home-brewed barley wine.

Many people are frightened by the place and by Luo’s artworks, but if you get to know the guy, you start to see a whimsical intent in his pieces, like with the golfing terracotta soldier that sits on my desk. One of his favorite elements is legs, and they can be found behind every corner. Sometimes he stacks them up to make odd things like windmills, scorpions and dragonflies.

He’s probably one of the most renowned and least known artists in China. His work is rarely shown in any big international Chinese art book, but almost every successful Chinese artist I know collects him, and he has been featured in many international exhibitions. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have an exclusive agent, or maybe it’s because the international critics can’t find any overt social critique inside, which is what the western market wants (it’s actually there if you really look).

A few years ago I had the honor of accompanying him to Paris and Barcelona for his solo exhibition during the “Year of China in France”. That was a crazy story that I should probably save for another blog. The Parisian gallery-goers went wild over his stuff, but he decided not to establish a beachhead there. Maybe he likes being on the sidelines. Either way, I think that artistic accomplishment is what’s most important for such a life, not fame or money.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Home is Where...

The concept of home has become a difficult notion for me over the past few years. I love my family, and there’s still a soft spot in my heart for the suburban wasteland outside of DC that I grew up in, but I’ve been away for a long time, and my loyalties are conflicting. Since coming to China, the place I identify with most has always been Yunnan, and my most familiar and comfortable roost has been its capital, Kunming.

So naturally that’s where I went for my week vacation during the Chinese New Year. Though I’ve been in Beijing for close to a year now, I never had time to sort out my old Kunming apartment and all the stuff I had left there. My main goal last week (actually number 2 after relaxing and soaking up sun) was to empty out my old apartment for good and move a few things into an apartment that I share with a couple of friends.

My week in Kunming was an excellent one. Every day was warm and sunny, and I had plenty of time to track down my old friends and check up on my old haunts. But though a lot of Kunming’s essence remains the same, it dawned on me this time just how much has changed since I first got here.

When I first came to Kunming in 2000, the city had just stuttered through its first wave of modernization. The first cluster of skyscrapers had just emerged from a sea of low soviet concrete housing blocks and mud-brick traditional homes. Rush hour traffic was a mass of bicycles and pedestrians in the middle of the road. Much of the street life in Kunming took place in a maze of winding patchwork alleys lined with organic clusters of old buildings and lean-tos. Every night the streets filled with shao-kao tables, Kunming’s famous do-it-yourself barbecue style.

The Kunming of the time was a laid back city filled with old men in Mao suits, horse carts and street markets. Orchids and cacti sprouted from cracks in the mud-brick walls, and hemp plants shot up from cracks in the sidewalk. Old ladies sat in the shade of ancient gingko or eucalyptus trees playing endless games of Mah-jongg while young couples hid in the shade of the willows at Green Lake Park and the city was constantly bathed in a mellow golden sunshine as old men on the rooftops guided fleets of pigeons across the skyline.

Those were much simpler days for our tiny foreigner community too. We all knew each other then as we zipped around the city on our mountain bikes, meeting up for a smoke after class, sipping cheap beers on a friend’s balcony overlooking the peasant slums of Kunming’s west side. The locals were still curious and enamored of us strange pilgrims, welcoming us into their homes, offices and disco tables, and shouting “hello” at every corner. The only things I had to juggle with my bicycle journeys were Chinese and Taichi classes, and though we knew a bit about the dark underside to society and politics around us, we were rarely confronted with it.
Our main difficulty was making life a little more comfortable in a city with poor plumbing, erratic electricity, and almost no western food. In the days before the western franchises flooded the landscape, the most exciting topic of conversation was often the arrival of a new amenity like passable wine or edible cheese or maybe even a makeshift Thanksgiving dinner.

This is the environment where I fell in love with China, and learned how to function in this otherworldly society. In fact, most foreigners who were there at the time came out fluent in the language and culture. We have since fanned out across the continent, and flourish in situations that frazzle many self-proclaimed China hands. Unlike a lot of foreign communities in larger cities, we didn’t come out here just to make a buck. There was something about Kunming that attracted the eccentric romantics. We were there for a way of life.

The Kunming I saw last week was much different, as was I. I haven’t left the city for very long, and I go back a lot. Maybe it was that I spent the whole week sifting through nearly seven years of accumulated mementos and reminders of my time here.

Most of the old city is gone now, the wreckers having yielded, if only temporarily, to a mere three neighborhoods. Gone is Meat Street, the sprawling old Muslim Quarter downtown that was lined with drying beef and lamb. Nearly gone is the famed bird and flower market. The shaokao tables have been relegated to a few shoddy neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. The bicycle traffic has given way to auto-gridlock interlaced with the muffled drone of electric scooters. In place of all this are an ever-growing number of high rise apartment complexes with names like MoMa, Norwegian Wood and Green Card (ISYN!), touting their mastery of the foreign lifestyle, offering modernity and civilization priced by the square meter.

I have changed with the city, as well as apart from it. Each time I go back, I juggle my nights between various banquets and meetings with local businessmen, officials and friends, and every move is carefully calculated to maintain my social networks and not slight anyone, a very important aspect to business in China.

When I’m burning the midnight oil in the Beijing office or negotiating my way across this concrete monstrosity in the haze and flying dust, my mind wanders back to the old Kunming, basking in the warm February sun, downing a horrible cup of coffee at Journey to the East.
Kunming seems a bit boring in comparison to its previous incarnation. But it’s still a laid back city, and the golden highland sun still penetrates every corner. I wish there was still a place like the one I first knew, but I’ll settle for the one I can take. We’ve sold out and moved into a luxury high rise, but we can watch over our beloved city from the balcony, and the pigeons still zip between the solar water heaters on the rooftops. Progress is not always absolute or in a straight line. I can’t help feeling that the people of Kunming have paid a dear price for their new digs. But I’ll still keep going back at the drop of a hat, and I’ll still wear my time in Kunming as a badge of pride.

But I still haven’t settled the real question at hand, what is home?


As usual, Chinese New Year was not ushered in with a bang, but with an ever-growing apocalyptic crescendo of fire, sulfur and smoke. The New Year as it fits the lunar calendar happens at a slightly different time each year, but no matter where it lands, it’s a huge disruption in the ‘normal’ flow of things. Think Thanksgiving on steroids; during this year’s holiday, transportation authorities are expecting somewhere near three-billion person/trips as the entire country skips off work, goes home to see a few sets of relatives scattered in various provinces, and maybe finds the time to squeeze in a vacation sometime during the week. And this is on an infrastructure that’s already bursting at the seams.

This is without a doubt China’s most important holiday. Everyone has to go home if at all possible, and all work (except for some retail) grinds to a total halt. This is when the big year end bonuses come out, and this is when the perennial calendars, gifts, red envelopes and greeting cards are tossed around in hopes of improving one’s standing with his superiors. Last year China’s infrastructure was hit with 2.5 billion person/trips, and twenty billion SMS text messages were sent across China’s cell towers.

On the last day of the lunar year, it is customary to spend the evening with family, eating a giant meal over the course of several hours. There are several dishes tied to the holiday, but the two most important are fish and dumplings. The word for fish rhymes with surplus, so you have to ‘have a surplus every year’. There’s probably some kind of similar reasoning behind the dumplings, but I don’t know it. Everyone stays up until midnight, when the year officially begins.

This is where the holiday becomes so utterly and uniquely Chinese. The changing of the year is a time when spirits of good fortune and calamity have a chance to influence your whole year, so it’s only natural that you should chose this time to play with fire.

Apparently ghosts and evil spirits are terrified of firecrackers, and if you let off enough of them, you can scare all your coming misfortune away. From what I saw last night, Beijing’s got a good year ahead of it. Last year was the first time that the firework ban was lifted from central Beijing, and the people have been wasting no time getting back to their old ways.

If you haven’t taken part in this festival, you’re probably sitting there imagining a lion dance and little kids running around with firecrackers. That happens all right, but you have to remember that the Chinese invented gunpowder. They look at firecrackers, cherry bombs, roman candles and rockets as a nice little afterthought for the kids. The big guys play with mortars. Mortars. The big ones, some of them big enough to be part of a large professional fire show. This is what was selling on streetcorners all over Beijing for the past several weeks.

For the past several nights, the lights and sounds of the pyromaniacs echoed across the night sky like an indecisive thunderstorm, not sure whether or not to enter the city. Then, on the day of New Year’s Eve, the sounds got louder, closer and more frequent. This is nice, we thought. Being quite at home in China, I had an inkling that we were in for a good show on our 18th floor balcony, but I had never done New Year’s in Beijing before, and I had no idea how cool it was going to be. As the sky grew dark, the rumbling got louder and louder, with each explosion bouncing around between the buildings and setting off car alarms left and right. We could see mortars exploding in the foreground, behind the first rows of buildings, and way off on the edges of town. The ones we couldn’t see hinted at their presence with flashes lighting up buildings and patches of sky in each direction.

We sat down for dinner at about eight, interrupted frequently by a rush outside to watch a particularly large burst. By the time we finished around ten, it had grown to a constant barrage. We set off a few roman candles and a mortar series from the balcony for good measure. When it was twelve, the city was bright as day, as thousands upon thousands of mortars were lit off repeatedly and passionately from every non-flammable patch of land in the capital.

Normally at this point in the cliché, the next sentence would start with “when the smoke cleared”, but it didn’t. The barrage slowed down a little bit, but didn’t die down. An hour later, there were still explosions in every corner of the sky, and smoke hanging over everything.

We decided it was as good a time as any to go for a drive through town, so we did. As we made our way through, much of the city was oddly quiet while the bombs burst overhead. Every streetcorner was covered in the debris, ash and paper, which at some points was piled several feet high.

Judging by the trash everywhere, the real place to do up Chinese New Year is in the hutongs, the old streets of inner Beijing. The one running along the Yonghegong Temple was paved in red debris, and crowds were massing in front of the temple gate, offering incense to Buddha and other spirits in hopes of a good year. In a few hours the gates would open to the masses, and a bonanza of well-wishing, incense smoke and Buddhist chants would begin, in one of Beijing’s most famous folk traditions, the Miao Hui, or temple fair.

We went to a party, which was deserted. It doesn’t really matter anyway. Last night I found out a few things. First, this holiday is becoming more important to me than I thought it would. Second, Beijing, and the rest of China, will probably never run out of fascinating little surprises for me. Third and most importantly, I need to buy some more fireworks.

Happy New Year!


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