Chengdu. An old lady in slippers fossicks about in the bright yellow leaves for fallen nuts from the local ginkgo tree. Bananas on pedicabs roll past mahjong players and open air eateries. Bundled up babies flail about like pudgy starfish on the laps of knitting grannies. The pace is chill, the sun shines, the sky is blue.
This is the environment where Allan Xia 夏昊禹, the Auckland-based artist and founder of the indie arts festival Chromacon and the transmedia production consultancy company Kognika, spent his childhood years.
Hey Allan! What brings you back to China this time?
Hey! I’d originally already planned the trip myself, then was invited to be part of the Screen Delegation with the NZ Film Commission for five and a half days in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing.
Cool, what’s that about?
New Zealand was the first country in the world to sign a film co-production treaty with China. That was close to five years ago, but we haven’t actually made a co-production yet. Australia are already on their third one… Xi Jinping came over to NZ recently and signed another treaty for television co-production with China. So the delegation is basically a drive to get things happening.
Welcome back to Chengdu! Your own side trip?
Thanks! Yeah, I can see future initiatives going in this direction, seen as we have a Consulate-General here now. Chengdu for me has always been a very creative and artsy city. The overall mood, environment and pace of the city is what I’ve always liked about it. Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing are very business orientated – everything moves at a rapid pace. Whereas Chengdu is full of teahouses – substitute them for coffee houses and its like Auckland.
At the China in the Pacific Symposium at Te Papa, you spoke about your experience of moving from China to New Zealand as a kid.
I moved to New Zealand when I was eight. It was a massive culture shock, really. We moved a lot and I went to like eight different primary schools in West Auckland within three years. So there was the language barrier, plus not having time to really make friends.
I think the lack of social engagement pushed me to become more interested in reading. I read a lot of everything, fiction especially, in Chinese and English. I was reading stuff like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West and all the martial art novels. It definitely helped me keep up my Chinese reading skills.
I read a lot of comics as well: Japanese manga, Tintin, Astrix. I drew for fun, as well. I always liked it. I thought I was decent at it, in hindsight I wasn’t really, but it is good to be ignorant [laughs].
“Myths and legends and fantastical worlds with all these interesting characters… my love for storytelling was developed before visual arts.“
Your ‘Crossed Cultures’ remix of Renee Liang’s poem and Dylan Horrocks’ comic is amazing! I thought I was gonna cry by the end!
I feel like I was an observer in the whole thing – it came together so naturally. It’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever made. It was for a competition called Mix and Mash, which is all about Creative Commons and the idea of remixing work and generating new contexts for them. Renee’s poem and Dylan’s comic were put up under the Creative Commons License. Cultural identity isn’t something I always think about, but Renee’s poem encapsulated so much of my experience and perhaps even how I felt really deeply. It made me get over some stuff on a personal level, like I don’t think I ever need to make another piece of art about cultural identity [laughs].
How did you first go about pursuing your passion for art?
When you are in high school, you are thinking about your career path and that. I was really into indie web comics and games at the time. Once I decided I wanted to be a designer for film and games, I joined a lot of online arts communities like conceptart.org, CGTalk and CGHub, and started learning more and more. In high school, you’ll just get told what you need to do in uni, then the job you need to get. Whereas online, people are industry professionals who skip straight to the relevant information. That was really good for me because I quickly saw this pathway – and to get there I needed fundamental skill sets and knowledge. We don’t really teach drawing fundamentals in New Zealand, so if anything, swapping Science for Design taught me that I needed to NOT do seventh form. I spent a year in Chengdu and Beijing doing boot camp style art tuition classes.
Haha woahhh, how did that go down with your parents?
I was a typical Chinese kid – I had good grades in Science and Math… until fifth form when I decided I wanted to do art, then basically dropped everything else [laughs]. I was just drawing in math class. I went from A+ to D. It was a shock for my dad. Asian parents aren’t used to seeing D’s on reports.
How did the idea of bringing together local illustrators, comic artists, designers, animators and videogame developers in an event like Chromacon come about?
I did a group show with some illustrator friends at the gallery above Kfm a few back. We had a really awesome opening. The whole “oh its low brow, but let’s try do a show, cos its K Rd!” vibe [laughs]. But after the opening, it was quite empty. I wanted the vibe of the opening expanded into its own event. Cos what’s the point of making art if people don’t see it?
For the first Chromacon in 2013, I thought it could be like twenty or thirty artists who I personally knew, but then word kinda spread and more people signed up. It just grew. It is a free event, but was still surprised with how many people came! Two thousand! Which is like nothing if you tell people about it in China [laughs].
Awesome! How are the plans coming along for Chromacon 2015?
It is gonna be from 18-19 April at Aotea Centre, with two floors this time. We went over capacity last year, which was positive but scary! The good thing was we had another room for talks and discussion panels and we didn’t have to turn anyone away.
How do you see creative outlets in China and New Zealand developing in the future?
I’m still trying to figure that out. It is also why the Kognika website is still quite empty. I want to co-develop a cross-cultural collaborative model with China, a strong and meaningful bridge between creative industries in New Zealand and China. One that is sustainable.
I think the most important thing at this point is to not make too many assumptions. Even I have. The more I engage with China, the more I realize I need to learn.