Laowai-Foreigner | Kraine Gallery

by Liz on September 21, 2012

in Art & Design

At reception night at Kraine Gallery's exhibit 'Laowai-Foreigner,' visitors were allowed to touch and interact with some of the art.

What’s the latest connection between China and New York?

After visiting the ‘Laowai-Foreigner’ exhibit at Kraine Gallery in the East Village, the answer was pretty clear. It’s art.

Curated by Cory Dixon of the New York Academy of Art, the tiny corridor nestled on the second floor of a walk-up building on East 4th street showcased seven artists: four Americans and three Chinese who participated in what Shanghai-based curator Rachel Marsden called a “Micro Residency of Art programme” over the course of 11 weeks.

In China, the term ‘Laowai’ is often used to refer to foreigners, and specifically Westerners who take up residence in China. Depending who you talk to, the term has different connotations. An editorial in the People’s Daily online refers to it as a “good-humored nickname,” a Wikipedia entry considers it “a casual and fairly neutral word.” In other circles the word is a cynical slang when used to refer to an alien or a foreigner.

Sven Muentel, a German expatriate based in China, offered over Twitter that the term is “neutral…just what people here say. You get used to it.”

But perhaps to reclaim what to some is a debasing epithet, the ongoing exhibit puts this Mandarin word for foreigner front and center in what the curators call a “visual conversation…that span(s) the globe from East to West.”

As I walked through the short-lived hallway and its red walls, I couldn’t help but notice the transcultural nature of the works. Just as Marsden writes the works were a display of a “love of low tech, hand crafted, image-based practices,” Nicolas Sanchez’s Moleskine sketchbook (seen below), lovingly filled with precise, ballpoint drawings of various personalities – both Chinese and Western – provided a gratifying illustration of her words. The works of other student-artists also provided measured metaphors of the earliest stages of transcultural negotiation and exploration.

Beautiful drawing by artist Nicolas Sanchez

On September 19, opening reception night, the exhibit invited a young and eclectic crowd of artists and art lovers. The adjacent KGB Bar buzzed with a growing crowd waiting for the screening of Andy Warhol’s ‘Made In China’, filmed in 1992 when the New York-based artist traveled from Hong Kong to the Forbidden City in Beijing.

So while there remains a great deal of uncertainty wrapped around the word ‘Laowai,’ it’s also a universal kind of uncertainty that accompanies the change and shift of identities in our world.

And for these New York artists who traveled to China to be both inspired and challenged by their new environment, their art and reflections speak for themselves.

‘Laowai-Foreigner’ exhibit at Kraine Gallery is running from September 19 to October 19, and features the works of artists Nicolas Sanchez, Megan Ewert, Kristy Gordon, Wang Yi, Huang Zhe, Cory Dixon, and Ian Cao. For more information see Kraine Gallery.


China Punk | James Bollen

by Liz on September 22, 2011

in Art & Design,Travel

Li Youran inside the People's University, 1999

James Bollen is a Shanghai-based British photographer whose work was shown this year at SH Contemporary, one of Shanghai’s most talked about art fairs. He recently discovered my blog, and I thank him for this, because if he didn’t, I may never have had the privilege of seeing his portfolio online.

Bollen, while technically not an Asian contemporary artist, represents a growing community of expatriates and foreigners whose insights into China are enriching the larger narrative of contemporary Asia. Bollen’s medium is the quiet lens of photography, and his stage is urban China. And even by the standards of the crowded, Flickr-driven photosphere of today, the results are simply sublime, because as you may see for yourself, Bollen is no ordinary photographer.

Inside the Forbidden City, 1997

Urban Abstract

Ji'an Road, Luwan (All photos: James Bollen)

I’m still not sure when photography is just photography, and when it crosses over into an art form, and no doubt the debate rages on, somewhere within the realms of secluded, ivory towers. But recently I was struck by an interesting idea about the medium, and it’s stayed with me since. I think photography is striking not because it’s necessarily an art form, but its grasp of life is so final, and so absolute, that it reminds our absent-minded selves that life is the ultimate art form. We’ve just forgotten to look around. The best photographers know this very well, and using what they know, they’re able to give us the world anew.

I love Bollen’s photographs because they’re not just beautiful to look at, but because they serve as a valuable documentation of a decade in the life of China. He’s seen dramatic changes in Beijing, where he says many of the places he’s photographed “no longer exist.” He documented the nascent punk scene in China’s capital back in 1999, and it’s good that he did. The Scream Club, a popular punk hangout, was demolished and replaced by a bus depot so that “there’s nothing physical left to remind anybody those places existed in Beijing.” Save, perhaps, for Bollen’s photographs, which gently remind the observer of China’s forgotten moments as the country now races to a “glorious new past.”

Bollen’s impressions manifest themselves in his city walks, so he keeps his equipment light and portable, which includes a 35mm rangefinder, an iPhone, and a Rolleiflex3.5f. Equal parts spontaneous chronicle and unofficial history, Bollen’s work is an archive that I’m sure we’ll revisit several times over, and each time we do, we do it to realize how much China has transformed, mutated, or as is sometimes the case, just stayed where we last left off, always ready to continue a never ending conversation.

Outside the Drum Tower underground station, 1997

Alley running past All For One bar, Sanlitun South street, 1999


Earthly quarrels

by Liz on September 5, 2011

in Opinion,Travel

A Uighur girl in Xinjiang (via photochoi on Flickr)

Look on a world map, and you’ll notice China is a vast country. Positively massive.

I realize that now, but most of the time I don’t give China’s portly silhouette much thought. I just assume those have been her borders for some time, occasionally contested by an uprising in Tibet or tumult in Xinjiang.

But all’s not well on the western front. News of unrest has become increasingly frequent, as has China’s response to fresh violence, especially in Xinjiang where there’s an ongoing crackdown to buffer against potential riots by the local population.

The natives of Xinjiang are Turkic Muslims whose customs and culture are worlds apart from that of the Han Chinese. Historically, they are a fusion of Turkish, Mongolian and other East Asian migration. They’re completely unique, neither East nor West. I personally find them fascinating, but right now, and depending on whom you speak to, they’re either causing trouble or in trouble themselves.

Uighur children in Xinjiang (via photochoi on Flickr)

Most travelers to China, myself included, first encounter China’s Uighurs in cities like Beijing or Shanghai. Their food is popular, and in restaurants Uighur women often sing and dance in a display of culture that’s perceivably exotic. As a visitor, I thought they were merely a part of the local color, but in China they are becoming increasingly linked to Islamic militancy, a trend of suspicion with a twin in the mirror, and if a twin, a hard-earned lesson as well.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11, which undoubtedly will be occasioned with fanfare, and for obvious reasons. The day was a tragedy, but what followed was hardly reparation. Islamic militancy became such a blanket term for everyone who didn’t fit in or belong. In retrospect, it was a psychically damaging error that can’t be undone, at least not right away.

I feel similarly about the Chinese approach to Xinjiang, as they deal with a Muslim population that’s sitting on a resource-rich hinterland inside unilaterally defined borders. That’s because whenever Uighurs are treated with disdain, or perceived as a threat to security, it becomes clearer China’s reeling from historical amnesia. In its restrictive authoritarian approach to government, China’s cosmopolitan past seems further away from reach than during the Mao-jacketed era of a few decades ago. An angry China also raises the specter of a scary China, and a scary China is probably an irremediable scenario that can’t be undone, not even by all the Confucius Institutes in the world.

For those of us who want a happy ending to the breaking story of the 21st century, we can only hope a smarter and more sophisticated China will emerge, one that’s worthy of all the Dior swag in Shanghai. Perhaps something even better. What we want is a true leader that will wisely grant Tibet and Xinjiang their independence, restore faith in her neighbors, and treat its own citizens with the democratic respect they deserve.

Wishful thinking, you say? Maybe, but here’s to hoping it’s not.


The New Shanghai

by Liz on October 5, 2010

in Travel

Chairman Mao presides over a jewelry store

I’ve been absent from blogging due to a whirlwind 8-day tour of Asia: 2 days each in Seoul, Shanghai and Singapore, with air travel in between. Almost every moment, I ate, I saw, and captured moments with my Nikon.

There’s so much I want to say, but before I upload my other photos, here’s some night shots of Xintiandi, Shanghai’s hip fashion and dining district. It was here I enjoyed a mango mojito, coveted the hyper-expensive goodies at Shanghai Tang, but most of all took in the new Shanghai. (That could or could not mean I let fine particulate matter seep through my pores.) Foreigners mingled with locals, and it seemed like everyone who was anyone was out and about, lubricated but not morose.

Here are some snapshots of Xintiandi, in all its seductive nighttime glory.

Lantern festival.

Xintiandi's courtyard, surrounded by beautiful colonial architecture.

Mascara power!



Dior’s China Gamble

by Liz on August 13, 2010

in Fashion

The couture houses are obviously in love with China (see here and here), but like an awkward adolescent fumbling for expression, their odes of love are also getting tangled with clumsiness and impulses of another kind. If it’s not Prada’s implacable mandarins, then it’s Chanel’s take on take-out! Clearly, these companies are trying to break new ground, and then some.

Along comes Christian Dior with its equestrian-themed Fall 2010 collection, and the infamous Shanghai campaign that’s been blogged about here and here. The clothes and the supermodels look splendid but seem to send the message that Dior’s models are to the 1.3 billion socialist masses what Snow White was to the seven dwarves.

If China’s upwardly mobile fashionistas are sensitive to misperceived stereotypes as they are to changing hemlines, then executives at LVMH Moet Hennessy have cause for worry. According to Blackbook, sales gains in Asia were the highest (21 percent) for Dior’s parent company, followed by US and European sales. The magazine also reports (emphasis mine) “China is the leading catalyst for such a drastic post-recession success story.” Clearly luxury fashion is digging in its 6″ stiletto heels and revving up for some action!

Still, I find it highly unlikely that Dior’s slight faux-pas registers at all with the style-conscious of Asia, at least not for now. Couture’s status symbol is highly sought after by China’s rising consumers, much like elsewhere. And the clones of blue collar workers may not seem like racial stereotypes. It’s all a matter of perspective.

But I’d like to see couture houses take on the challenge of better advertising. They certainly have the means to do so.

So Dior, instead of penalizing the sameness of the most important demographic in the world, how about humanizing their characteristics? How about wowing them with some truly groundbreaking fashion campaigns for a change? It could only help your sales.


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