Arrival. Nǐ hǎo ma?
My first three weeks have been a busy time and a period of adaptation to this new world.
For your orientation: Xiamen, formerly known as Amoy, is on the Chinese coast between Shanghai and Hongkong, in front of Taiwan. It’s a harbour town of about 4 million habitants and a big part is on a roundish island, connected to the mainland with a tiny narrow strip of land, three huge bridges and a tunnel. The southern part of the island is mainly covered by the premises of an enormous university, and the residency space is in that area.
I arrived safe and sound two and a half weeks ago, but found the CEAC in distress: May Lee, it’s director with whom I had been much in contact for the last half year organizing the residency, had suddenly become ill and taken to hospital, quite a shock. Ineke, the center’s founder and former director, luckily had just come back from Europe, and she and Wei Na, an artist friend from May, are replacing May now, who meanwhile had had a big operation that fortunately went very well, though she’s still in hospital.
My living and working space is on the 4th floor of an apartment building in a posh compound near the beach. The other three CEAC apartments are in neighbouring apartment buildings, all surrounded by villas, everything quite new and a mix of occidental and oriental architecture. There are gates and wardens, and most windows and balconies have silver coloured bars like a luxurious prison, though I guess the bars are there mainly for decoration or maybe to protect the windows from flying objects during typhoons…
At the moment here are two more artists in residence: Tara, a documentary maker and photographer from Amsterdam, and Ben, a sculptor and video maker from Australia, both really nice. My studio/apartment is pleasant, basic and spacious. In the beginning it needed quite some adjustments, but now it’s fine; part of the floors and walls covered to protect them from the wild ink orgies I’m planning to have here ;-).
The painting and calligraphy classes will start half April. Meanwhile I roam the town, take lots of photo’s, make my first textworks on Chinese newspapers and do some online investigations for the large scale paper paintings I want to make, like on the use of animals and their symbolism in Chinese culture. Previous residents left a few ink bottles and I’ve already bought a few more materials like brushes, tape, felt blankets and large rice paper that hung a few days on the balcony to straighten up a bit.
The view is stunning and on clear days you can see islands quite close by, but mostly it is so misty you can barely see the sea.
The light outside is yellowish and the glass in my windows is of a contrasting blue. Each time a bit of a chock when I open one, but maybe nice when it gets hot here.
The beach is at just one minute walking distance. I can hear the sound of crickets and of the waves at night when the city is quiet. In these three weeks it has become quite warm, but I haven’t seen anybody swimming yet. The sand looks clean and people stand and walk on it, but they seldom sit down. Actually the beach looks more like a film set. There are tourists from all over China continuously posing for each other. And often you see many stylists and photographers, sometimes complete film crews directing young brides and grooms into favourable postures and movements.
You can walk quite a distance past the beach in both directions from the compound. There are fruit sellers with huge lovely mangos and coconuts which they clean for you on the spot. It’s all quite pretty and also a bit alienating.
The CEAC’s neighbourhood, 3 bus stops away, feels more real, lively and urban. I also already visited a few other neighbourhoods and keep being surprised of the enormous contradictions and variations of really everything: rich and poor, enormous and tiny, ancient and futuristic.
The language barrier is big. The Mandarin I learned during my lessons The Hague seem to have totally disappeared! But I’m working on it ;-). I make lists, keep practising and use an -often crashing – translation app.
Luckily Tara, who came two months earlier, presented me to some art students who speak English. Amongst other things I’ve been with them already to an interesting performance, and to a hot pot restaurant where you dip many kinds of food (I saw pig brain and fish heads coming by :-)) in a boiling hot and spicy soup. On the whole the food is very affordable, good and fresh everywhere; No street without at least three restaurants and two street vendors. And everything here comes in abundance. When eating with more people in a restaurant in general more than half of the ordered food is left over. And emptying your plate seems to be uneducated. Goodbye Calvinism. But in most places you can ask a doggy bag ;-). Harder to get used to is the enormous amount of plastic that is used here to wrap almost everything. Even the plates, bowls, spoons and chopsticks you get in each restaurant are wrapped in plastic. So the start of each meal is a festive ‘plop’ when you break open the plastic wrapping from your bowls with your chopsticks.
Motorcycles are forbidden in Xiamen (This is actually only here and in two or three other cities in China I’m told). So many people drive fast and totally silent electric mopeds on which they sometimes transport enormous things, and which are often covered on the front with a funny looking kind of sleeping bag with smaller bags attached for the hands, against the wind.
Xiamen is not free from pollution though. There are many cars and busses and especially on warm misty days I notice it. Some people, not many, were even mouth caps, especially those working on or near busy roads.
A few times I have had a déjà vu of my first period in Barcelona. The tiled oblong, sparsely furnished living/working space with windows on one side, the butane gas bottle for cooking, the palm trees, the sea, the boats, the tourists, the frustrating inability to communicate and most of all the great expectations :-).
Get back to you soon in a next post. Pie Pie!!! (say the Chinese when they wave ‘bye bye’).