I remember travelling on the train from Nanjing to Hangzhou (took three hours) and asking myself: Dione, are you crazy? What are you doing? Residencies are very exciting but before you get there its also quite scary. Not only was I in a country where I didn’t speak the language ( by now I had practised “excuse me, can you help me please?” with a high dose of desperation thrown in as well) but I was about to go to a residency which I really knew nothing about and was going to spend three weeks with 20 other strangers – artists no less!
I was supposed to meet a woman called Jenny at KFC at 11am and after managing to find out where exactly it was in Hangzhou station (at least three requests for help later) I waited. And waited. And panicked every now and then. But finally almost 40 minutes later – Jenny walked in apologizing that there were actually TWO KFCs and obviously I was in the wrong one.
From there we proceeded to meet Alan (an Italian who lives in Shanghai) and then pick up Michael (a Korean-American) and head out to Sunhoo. Its hard to describe where exactly our creative complex was because from Hangzhou (a city of 8 million and home to famous West Lake) we were a 45 minute drive away and from Fuyang on the other side we were a 20 minute drive away. So in a sort of no man’s land.
As a site currently surrounded by construction our residency was basically contained in three large buildings. Our rooms, each of which had two beds (!!) was styled according to a western hotel so had all the expected amenities (whew) except for closets (?!) In the buildings next to us we had our studios and in the next one along was the lounge and dining areas.
One of the best things about this residency was the fact that not only was board and food included (breakfast lunch and dinner) but we also had a stipend. And of course, that there were an amazing bunch of people – I was lucky enough to be with photographers, painters, graphic designers, performance artists and so many inspiring and creative individuals. People had come from all over the world including Columbia, Scotland, Hungary, Russia, Portugal, Israel, Italy, Germany, Poland, Canada and of course I represented Australasia/New Zealand.
Three weeks may sound like a long time but when you have to produce a piece of work and surrounded by people between 24-50+ with the majority in their late twenties to mid thirties then its inevitable a lot of hanging out starts to happen. With my week with Yeying I took a break from liquor consumption. This was probably an excellent choice thing.. Because almost from the very first night we started drinking. And not just beer ( a mere 3.50 RNB) but also the bai jo and the boo jo. Warning: the stuff tastes like cough medicine but you gotta try it. Just maybe not every night.
One of the other artists (Michael) and I started collaborating very early on. While I wrote a dramatic script ( a series of monologues based on conversations and observations of the local Chinese women) he created paintings/ a visual set design. The luxury of just being able to spend time on my writing and to listen, watch and observe was almost strange to begin with. As an artist I could just focus on doing what I wanted to do and I was surrounded by numerous other people doing exactly the same thing.
We all ate together at the somewhat early hour of 8.00 am for breakfast, 11.30 am for lunch and 5.00 pm for dinner. Very quickly people started skipping breakfast and just showing up for lunch (we’re artists c’mon) and then having ‘double dinner’ at around 8.00 pm. As a person who loves dancing I was also very excited that we went out clubbing every single weekend while we were there. Twice in Fuyang and a massive bender in Hangzhou. The latter was certainly a night to remember. We left our residence close to 6.30 pm and arrived just in time to experience best of Hangzhou’s night market which included sampling some rad street food. There is proof of scorpion consumption among many other strange things – not by moi but by other slightly more daring individuals.
We then proceeded to go to THREE clubs, the first in which we were the only foreigners, the second and third there were more expats. We visited Gaga, G Plus and Queens and at 5pm walked out to find that the dawn chorus was already in effect. There were beautiful leather couches just outside the club and after dozing for an hour we decided to go find breakfast –once again shao lin bao and soy milk proved to be a more than adequate start. Amongst the group of nearly 20 there were two who spoke fairly decent Chinese and this was lucky because although our group had whittled down from eight to five both those speakers (heya Alex and Michael(American)) were with us. the rest of the group included myself, Julia and Charlie/Michael(Brit). This was useful because even with their abilities to speak it still took us a good TWO hours to find the bus stop to get home. Of course we could have taken a cab which is only 150RNB but we had made the decision we go in by bus and we come out by bus. And we did. It just involved walking around West Lake at 7am in the morning and the place was buzzing. There were so many people doing Tai Chi and getting to work and the heat was already rising. We finally managed to find out where we needed to catch our bus and arrived back at our residency at 8.37 in the morning. We woke up for dinner and then proceeded to get a foot massage that night – for very obvious reasons.
I will admit that with one exception on our first night I did not buy a single drink in any of the clubs. The Chinese are incredibly generous and welcoming and people (both girls and boys) would invite us (often in smaller groups of twos or threes) to their table and offer us drinks. Gumbai! is synonymous with cheers – but it actually means you have to drink the entire contents of your glass. Also, you need to do it for as many people at your tables so if there are four people already there and you are invited to join them its five glasses/shots later that you’re allowed to return to the dance floor.
There were numerous other little localized trips planned with different groups and especially when Alex and Michael were not around I found I had to speak Chinese on behalf of the group (because I had been studying, not much, but a little on my long haul flights during the eight weeks). Amazingly enough at the end of the residency I found myself, to say the least, in a much better position than before. Enough to be able to order coffee for a massive group of ten with various requests of sugar/no sugar milk/soy milk etc. I consider that quite an achievement. Also, the fact that I’m excellent at haggling helped when we came to shopping. Here were also numerous other memorable moments like a three person tandem bike ride, following a little old Chinese lady down back alleys to a tiny shop that sold beautiful statues and pendants, being treated by the same lady to amazing Chinese coffee (and I don’t drink coffee) as well as getting lost numerous times and surrounded by people all confident they knew where they were going (boys yeesh) – such is the magic of groups. Some wonderful memories.
As far as my own project and research were concerned I had spent time with the local women ( as mentioned before) and the process of developing a script of the stories of the community through the lens of my own understanding and perception. This was an interesting and reflexive process. Being at the residency meant that for quite a few consecutive days I just spent time writing, being in the space and surrounded by the local Chinese people men and women who lived and who had immigrated to the
Ultimately, on the last Sunday before the residency ended we had a little opening where Michael’s paintings ad my script were presented. It was good to see a result – even though I would still consider my work as a draft and work-in-progress. It was also good to see what all the others had created over the three weeks. On the Monday (24th Oct) I took a train back to Nanjing to spend one more night with Yeying and also to collect my other bags; before I proceeded up to Shanghai on the 25th.
I’m really glad that in retrospect I did leave my bag with Yeying because it would have been nigh impossible to take all my luggage everywhere by public transport but also we got a chance to hang out and we visited Nanjing wall. A sophisticated piece of construction its hard to believe it was built over a 1000 years ago! We saw the places where cannons were fired, bricks from the Ming dynasty that had inscriptions upon it still visible and the detail that went into constructing this piece of architecture that essentially has three drop gates to trap enemy soldiers. The stones we trod on at one time would have seen soldiers march across the sloping levels were built so that horses and their riders could gain quick access to the highest levels and the granaries still have a strange smell, of grain mixed with sweat.
So if you’re in Nanjing – check out the wall. That night I took a train and my four bags of luggage to Shanghai Railway station where luckily one of my fellow co-residents Michael/Charlie (thank you!) was meeting me, as about six of us had booked into a hotel nearby. Most of the other artists had travelled up to Shanghai earlier during the day and after having a quick wash we went to meet the rest and have dinner in the French concession. A great start to my last few nights in Shanghai.
Over the next couple of days we (as in a bunch of us) managed to check out the Shanghai Museum hang out at People’s Square, get a foot massage, have hot pot (which is definitely an experience not to be missed) spend the day at the French Concession, 1933 (which used to be an Abattoir but is now an art space) and I joined in some great dances happening in the centre of the city with over a hundred other Chinese. Much like my last night in Chicago.
The night before I left ended with having great company, great conversations, walking all the way back from peoples Square to our hotel and then drinking beer and having an assortment of street food literally at a place across the road from our hotel.
What a wonderful four weeks in China. Crazy, intense, inspiring and overall memorable in the extreme.