It’s 1.23pm and Howie Lee has just woken up. He’s in Taipei right now working on his debut album, following a mega productive few years for this Beijing beat producer, producing a swag of EPs, party starting with his collective Do Hits and receiving sub woofing kudos from the likes of Gilles Peterson and Brainfeeder for his unique brand of guzheng, 808, bong-infused Chinese bass. Jah!
Kiwese spoke to Howie through the magic of WeChat voice messages ahead of his show with MIST in Chengdu.
Intrigued by the potential for free cocktails and drawn to the purple skyline on familiar, yet dream-like landscapes, Kiwese wandered into the opening of the group exhibition, Signals at Starkwhite Gallery on K Rd back in August.
The latter, the work of Shanghai-based artist Jin Jiangbo 金江波, who has been interpreting the visual language of New Zealand over the past five years and creating a dialogue with both the mountainous beauty of the South Island and the dilapidated factories of Taranaki.
It is 6pm at Little Algiers on K Rd. The cat-from-upstairs nimbly roams around the coffee machine. Jin Jiangbo takes a seat at the table and pours a freshly brewed pot of tea. He seems very much at home here in Auckland – the Shanghai of New Zealand – where he has been flitting back and forth for art and family since first coming to New Zealand in 2009.
Originally from the fishing island of Yihuan, Zhejiang, Jin Jiangbo grew up near the ocean and holds fond memories of his childhood. “Being in New Zealand reminds me a lot of where I grew up. I think people that live near the ocean have a different temperament to those from who live inland,” he says.
“Where I’m from, the people are called “tǎo yú rén 讨鱼人,” people who make a living from fish, or “tǎo hǎi rén 讨海人,” people who beg the ocean for food. People from Yihuan have a very bold and determined way about them. In ancient times, if you went out fishing, there was no telling if you’d make it back. This affects the character of the local people.”
The personal connection to the ocean is one reason Jin Jiangbo came to New Zealand, as well as the World Famous Outside of New Zealand landscapes. “I’ve been to a lot of scenic places here and have been amazed by its natural beauty, the diversity of geology and landforms; the rich variation,” he muses of his road trips in the North and South Islands, where he captured them through more lenses than one. The mountainous topographies, low-lying mist and rain cloud formations felt familiar to his visions of classical Chinese landscapes.
The resulting Dialogue in Nature (2011)series was exhibited at Starkwhite. “New Zealand was a kind of déjà vu. In my eyes, the scenery possessed the same kind of aesthetic spirit as the mountains and waterfalls of Song Dynasty landscapes.”
Instead of black ink and rice paper, he used analog photography to capture snapshots of these natural scenes before digitally reworking them. “I wanted to reimagine the New Zealand landscape; reshaping it with this visual language formed by my own views of shanshui 山水 painting and the Chinese literati’s understanding of nature and the universe.”
However, it was not only the scenery that visually linked New Zealand and China for Jin Jiangbo.
2009. The Global Financial Crisis sends shockwaves through the economy; the same year Jin Jiangbo first came to New Zealand through the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth.
The Eurozone needs bailing out. Manufacturing debris and cold concrete walls lie abandoned in China. The large-scale, wide angle photographs in Jin Jiangbo’s series The Great Economic Retreat (2008) act as a document of these deserted factories and buildings, the by-product of massive changes in the China economy.
“At that time, I was looking at the changes occurring in the global economy and how it was affecting places all around the world, as well as Chinese society and politics,” he says, “then in Patea near New Plymouth, I found a dilapidated factory that was similar to the ones in Dongguan, China. This connection gave me a sense of purpose.”
“As a contemporary artist, it is impossible to separate the influence of political, institutional and economic impacts on our lives; they affect our behaviour and ability to think.”
“As an artist, one involves themselves in observing the current social and political situation with their own lens, to re-examine them and make their own judgments.”
Shanghai is no stranger to change. “The 2010 Shanghai World Expo followed the worst of the global economic crisis – everyone thought the economy was going collapse, with the state of the US economy and the debt crisis ravaging Europe,” he says. “But for China, in order to maintain high-speed development, GDP production and large investments in infrastructure… a direct consequence was the printing of more money, which done at such a speed and intensity that has subsequently brought inflation, rising prices, rising house prices and so on.”
“The cost of living is an enormous pressure and we have all become mortgage slaves.”
In addition to photography, Jin Jiangbo works with a range of other mediums in his installations under the umbrella of New Media Art.
“It is a dynamic concept,” he explains, “throughout the various stages of history, painting and art has always taken on new forms. For example, in ancient China before written word, we tied knots in ropes [结绳记事] and painted frescoes on rocks to record hunting achievements, to pay homage to ancestors, for marriage and childbirth ceremonies and so on. Then came paper, banana leaves and bamboo, followed by painting on paper and printing with etching presses. And now, in the modern day, we use cameras to photograph and record things. These things are all New Media Art, they are new against the backdrop of history and tradition. ”
“Each form of media has a new interpretation, which bring a new style of language and cultural production, including how WeChat is now used more than email.”
This perceptive observation of modern society is perhaps reflected most acutely in Jin Jiangbo’s 2010 work God, Go Ahead With Chatting,《 天哪，你去聊吧》 – the striking and disturbing installation of a silica internet slave with his face twitching out on a computer screen, while other live screens hover above him.
WATCH: God, Go Ahead With Chatting:
“At the time there were mobile phones, but iPhones hadn’t been widely adopted, so people were still chatting on their computers with things like QQ, MSN, Skype, Facebook and chat rooms,” he says. “The world was enveloped by it. People would be chatting right into the night, myself included – it’s extremely tiring.”
“A lot of these chat things are full of rubbish, but they provide a wealth of feelers to perceive the outside world. You can sing karaoke or play mahjong with people in chat rooms, some people even take English classes, check in with the stock markets, or even nude chat – all kinds of things. But you will eventually crash, because you can’t be in control in this digital world. So the idea is that before you collapse, the chat notification bubbles will still be floating around your brain, the online world continue on without you.”
As an Associate Professor of Contemporary Art with a PhD from Tsinghua University, Jin Jiangbo spoke of his approach to creating art from an analytical perspective. “Inspiration is sometimes fleeting, a lot of things cannot be considered as inspiration – they are more like a kind of research. I think it is important to study texts and contexts, researching history, news, the political situation – these things will prompt me in finding what I should be focussing on. Instead of a flash of inspiration or a ‘eureka!’ moment – I think dissecting things give me a kind of joy.”
“Art assists you to know this world – more precisely, to cognize a world that differs from what you have seen before.”
Having established links between the Fine Arts College of Shanghai University and friends at the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland, Jin Jiangbo feels positive about the opportunity for collaboration between both staff and students. “People here are very friendly and have a strong appreciation of art and life,” he says of his experience in New Zealand, where his immediate family are now based. “Last year we invited the Auckland School of Fine Arts to attend the Shanghai Design Biennale, the largest of its kind in the design world. Our teachers and students were able to share research on geological change in urban environments and disaster relief measures. It was very interesting for all involved.”
The future looks bright, as he speaks enthusiastically about plans for the 2nd International Public Art Forum to be held next year with the Shandong University of Art and Design and the Hong Kong Institute for Public Art. “This provides a platform for more international researchers, scholars, artists, critics and curators to come to Auckland and discuss the relationship between public art and cultural development, in New Zealand and rest of the world,” he says of the anticipated event, “it is the highest international honour in the public art world.”
It’s nearly dinner time, the tea pot is empty, so I ask Jin Jiangbo if he has any advice for young artists.
“I am a young artist, too!” he remarks, and I wince at the inference I may have made otherwise. “For those starting out, you need to stimulate your own creativity instead of copying others, or following a path that has already been walked. You’ve got to uncover your own creative talent, your own artistic language… it is certainly a very interesting process.”
While the Chinese Government plaster the streets with images of the ‘Chinese Dream’ 中国梦, there are quite different dreams being conjured in the belly of the Chengdu underground.
Zaomengshe.com 造梦社 is crowd funding website that provides a platform for the local creative community. Co-founder and Marmite enthusiast Lydia McAulay came over for a cuppa to talk about the website’s one year anniversary.
The music scene in Chengdu is probably the main reason I wanted to move here (uh, I mean, the opportunity for increased trade ties with New Zealand…) Last summer, after being shown a street party blaring from a kitted out supermarket trolley on a foot bridge, followed by a drum and bass rave at a swimming pool with fireworks, I knew Chengdu was something different.
Around the same time last year, co-founders Lydia and Mat were working through the long-winded bào àn 保案 registration process for Zaomengshe, which has since helped fund over 100 local campaigns and raised over ¥117,000.
As the small, dedicated team, including two developers referred to as ‘the app guys,’ suss out PayPal payment gateways and release the ZMS Ticket Scanner App, allowing for pre-sale tickets QR codes to be scanned by several devices at once, the opportunities for the website abound and the dream factory at Zaomengshe are showing no sight of slowing down.
Diligently hunched over a Macbook while wrangling several iPhones and multi-lingual phone calls is the usual state in which one will find Lydia. Zaomengshe is the labour of love (from which she earns a whopping total of 0.00 RMB) that she hopes will bolster the independent music and arts scene in the face of meaningless vast corporate sponsorship, which has been jumping on the growing music festival bandwagon in China and steering it down a bleak road of profit and commercialisation.
KIWESE: Hey Lydia, how did you first end up coming to Chengdu?
LYDIA: I’ve been here for about five years – but it must be coming up on six years now. I left New Zealand in 2005 and was living in Normandy and Ardeche in France for a bit over a year. I ended up moving to Guangzhou for a year, where I learnt a bit of Chinese from my flatmate. I lived in Scotland for a year and bit, then London – where I got a job in the IT department of a derivatives trading company, which sent me to Chengdu. They were really open minded and put a lot of trust in me. I learnt a lot working with them.
Did you have any prior IT experience?
No, I studied Politics and Art History at Vic [laughs].
So you are originally from Tauranga and lived in Wellington for a while. What generation Kiwi are you?
My mum is from outside Opotiki. She’s like fourth generation Kiwi. My grandfather’s grandfather was born in New Zealand. They came from Midlands England, and they were the typical settlers trying to find a better life: ‘farmland coming out your ears!’
My dad is from Scotland and lived at sea for like twenty years on cargo ships. He was in the Merchant Navy as the first engineer, second below the captain. He told me stories about going through the Suez Canal back in the day. They went up the river into Guangzhou quite a few times. There were walls along the river, he said their boat was slightly higher than the walls, so they could see farmlands and heard speakers blaring out Mao’s thoughts.
Coming to Chengdu, how did you see there was a need for a platform like Zaomengshe?
It was a long story. I left China for a year in 2012 – that’s when I met you in New Zealand – and one of my friends was living with Anna, who started PledgeMe. So I ended up having a good chat with her about crowd funding, and was thought “holy shit, this would actually be a brilliant idea in China,” because there are some real problems with artists getting funding here. The bottom line for artists is different to that of young people making music in New Zealand.
You mean creative arts funding sources like NZ On Air and that?
A lot of what happens here is traded in guānxi, 关系, relationships, so if you don’t have the right background, you are really hard pressed to get your ideas heard. Crowd funding is a way to break down those traditional barriers. I guess it’s the anonymity of the internet – on the site, people have a username to post their campaigns, you are just a person with an idea, so people will look at your idea – not who your rich daddy is.
What were your first impressions of the music scene back in ’09?
One of my first friends here was Li Lan, the owner of Lan Town 蓝堂, which was – and still is – the hub for folk music here.
First gig I remember going to was Zhang Xiaobing 张小饼 . He is really interesting guy, who used to be a liúlàng 流浪, how do you even translate that? Like a roaming musician. His lyrics are really poetic and he incorporates his local dialect, instruments and way of singing into his songs. He is also a shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族, it’s quite cool how he manages to bring these ethnic minority aspects into his music.
When you say shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族, ethnic minority, do you sometimes feel like a minority in China?
Yeah in someways. I guess it can be a little bit difficult here – being white. Because you feel like you will never be totally accepted, ya know what I mean? Peoples first reaction to you is that you are foreign. Whereas when I lived in France, you could almost mix in, especially in the small town I lived in. People wouldn’t realize right away that I was foreign, which was kinda cool. You feel like if you did actually stay there for a really long time, you wouldn’t feel like a foreigner your entire life.
“The thing is – people treat you like an outsider until they know you. It’s the same in any country. Once you get to know them, you stop thinking of them as ‘that person who is different.’”
What are the main platforms that people can use to share their campaigns on Zaomengshe?
People are much more used to doing things on their phones here. Weibo 微博, WeChat 微信, and we have QR codes. I talked to Xiao Xue 小雪 (The Hormones) about crowd funding an oven – she’s thinking of having an event where people come along and scan their QR codes to get a cake!
From an IT working perspective, what was internet censorship like in China when you first got here?
That was before Facebook got blocked. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter all got blocked on the same day.
Is that day like a ‘where were you when Michael Jackson died’ kind of memory?
I think it was about May or the start of June 2009. I remember that day because my workmate who sat behind me was receiving distressing calls from Xinjiang, where he comes from, there were massive riots. They didn’t just block Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, they put the internet for the entire province on lockdown. My poor workmate – it was a really emotional time. We were all worried about what was going on out there.
Though I wouldn’t say that censorship has ever impacted our website. It doesn’t really affect people on a daily basis here. Well arguably the bào àn 备案 is censorship, but it’s just red tape. There’s a lot of red tape in anything you do here. But censorship is certainly not something that contributes to the story of Zaomengshe.
What are your hopes for Zaomengshe, coming up to your 1st birthday?
At the moment, a lot of what we do is working with bars who want to use our ticketing platform – and it’s great that we can support them in that way. But it would be really cool to have more crowd funding based events going up.
It’s difficult, there is a different mentality towards crowd funding here. A lot of people think it is like tuán gòu 团购 －this concept where, for example, if you want to buy a cheaper hot pot meal, everyone goes in on it and you can all get it for a better price. It’s not entirely false that that is not crowd funding – it’s almost an offshoot, but what we are trying to do is get people to change their ideas about what it means to be supporting music and the arts here. It’s about supporting, not buying.
I guess in NZ if you wanna support a local act, you could go to their gigs, buy their album on Bandcamp, buy their merch or whatever. Perhaps here in China, people are not so accustomed to paying for music online, so that cuts off a big part of supporting independent bands.
I think it’s the same in a lot of countries, the music industry struggles with free downloads being a pretty common thing. It’s not just China. It’s really common to use streaming services like Xiami for free.
Check out Lydia’s recent Pecha Kucha presentation in Mandarin about Zaomengshe, as part of a Creative Minds session in Min Town 明堂:
“The scene exists here without our website. We are just trying to do something that contributes to it, rather than to push it in any direction.”
What has been your favourite campaign Zaomengshe so far?
Probably Beat Chengdu, the New Year’s party last year that crashed our server. The guys at Zao Shang Hao 早上好 who put it on thought it wouldn’t sell over 150 tickets. It ended up selling over 600 pre-sales on the website, with about 2,000 people attending on the night. It was an awesome – it showed them there was a demand for that kind of festival, while also showing Mat and I what Zaomengshe was capable of.
Any local favourites in Chengdu at the moment?
I don’t really have a favourite. I just like the fact that people are being creative, it’s the key to things changing here. I feel like I’m just observing.
…But in saying that, I do really like Qi Qi’s music, Cvalda!
Oh, how’s your Marmite supply at the moment?
Onto the second jar. Bit worrying.
Eek. What are your other main hankerings?
So you are planning to suss out a boat and sail the seas, how’s that shaping up?
It’ll take a bit of planning. Technically, I looked this up, you don’t have to have an international boating license to skipper a vessel that’s under a certain size – and the size is enormous. You’d be surprised!
Count me in! Cheers, Lydia!
Zaomengshe will celebrate their first birthday at Zao Shang Hao 早上好 in Flower Town 三圣乡 this Friday 1st November! FREE ENTRY with a downloaded Zaomengshe app! Featuring Stolen 秘密心动, Proximity Butterfly变色蝴蝶, Zhang Xiaobing 张小饼, Zuo Yue卓越 and more.
New Year’s Eve [除夕, chúxī]. The party highlight of the year for many young Kiwis , yet a notable non-event for most Chinese.
Ahh, the NZ summer holiday season. As I glazed over social media feeds full of #amping festival crowds La De Da-ing in the fields of Martinborough, ravers pinging on yáo tóu wán [摇头丸, lit. shake head pill] at Rhythm and Vines and its South Island cousin Rhythm and Alps, to the mouth-watering BBQ and salads of New Year’s lunch, well, it’s enough to make any New Zealander abroad grow nostalgic for the ubiquitous Kiwi New Year’s celebration.
Sigh, being away from it all… How Boxing Day neatly bridges the six day gap between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and allows blobbing out/being a waster for the week a more fluent, acceptable practice. Definitely had moments where I’ve just wanted to blast Hello Sailor really loud, pretend I’m at Tutaekuri Bay and get my Cheryl West on. Through a Twitter feed packed with New Year’s resolutions and bands posting their location for the countdown, viewing the spectacle that is New Year’s in New Zealand through the internet looking glass was a strange feeling.
It’s fair to say, that for most Kiwis, New Year’s is a big fucking deal. A time to get away, to reflect, to binge, to spend time and spend money, to observe the change in those digits we use to anchor life events throughout our years of humble existence.
In the Beijing winter, students were studying for exams right into the night, people were going about their day to day business, the big countdown parties were mostly foreigner affairs. My Chinese mates usually WeChat me on festival days with cute emoticons and animated cartoon stickers. For Zhōngqiū Jié [中秋节, Mid-Autumn Festival], for Christmas, hell, even for Thanksgiving! But for New Year’s, the most rènao [热闹, lively, #amping] celebration in New Zealand, my WeChat feed was eerily quiet.
I took to the application to wish some Chinese students a Happy New Year and ask how they celebrated, or if they even celebrated at all.
Xia Shi Huan, 21yo, Civil Engineering Student
[English grammar edited]
Did you celebrate New Year’s last night? I did not celebrate it. For my family it is not a special day – we celebrate the Spring Festival [Chinese New Year].
Did you stay awake for the countdown to 2014? I always stay awake past 12am, not just because of the New Year.
What does New Year’s mean to you? The New Year means a new start, that’s all. For me, I don’t care for the festivities and don’t really have a special feeling towards it.
How do you feel about the Spring Festival? I do not care. It is just a festival. But sometimes it is good to make your family together, eat dinner and talk, it maintains family relationships.
Thanks Xia Shi Huan! Haha you are welcome
Emily Zhou, 23yo, Works at a Youth Hostel
[English grammar edited]
Did you do anything to celebrate New Years last night? I prayed with many friends of our church last night. Some people in Xi’an go to celebrate between the Drum and Bell Towers – sometimes there are fireworks. I think Chinese people pay more attention to the Spring Festival. [Spring Festival] is the real New Year to celebrate.
I wish I could be in China for the Spring Festival! Do you know about 春运 [chūnyún, Spring Festival travel period]? Almost everybody will go back home to celebrate.
Yes, it sounds like chaos! Yes. So many people. Very hard to get a train ticket.
Well good thing your family live in Xi’an! Yes it is good for me [smiley]
Gabby Qin, 21yo, Accounting Student/Diehard Rihanna fan
Studies in Beijing, originally from Hebei
Did you do anything special last night to celebrate? We were in a night club counting down with the DJ hahahahahaha so I didn’t join any outdoor activities. But like, do you know ShiMaoTianJie [世贸天阶, The Place]? There’s a big countdown in the roof. It’s really good I did the countdown there two years ago. These past two years I did karaoke and clubbing for New Year’s Eve hahaha.
Cool, what songs did you sing? Hahahaha I was too tipsy to do any songs. I’m going back to my province on the 13th [for the Spring Festival] so let’s go to KTV before that ok???
Qi Fu [Lillian], 18yo, Accounting Student
Lives in Beijing, originally from Baotou, Inner Mongolia
[translated from Chinese to English]
What kind of feeling do you have towards New Year’s? I think that the feeling surrounding New Year’s in China is nothing like the atmosphere of the Spring Festival. But in recent years, there have been a lot of New Year’s countdown shows hosted on television, so the general feeling towards it is growing.
What did you do last night to celebrate? I just watched a New Year’s countdown party on TV and gave my family, classmates and friends a phone call.
How do you feel about Spring Festival? I think feelings towards the Spring Festival are very strong. Every family gets together and it is really happy.
What will you do for Spring Festival this month? Of course, I will be returning home! I’ll have dinner with my family and watch the Spring Festival Gala. I can also see my former classmates and hang out with them.
Thanks for your help! No problem [smiley]
Here’s some related vocab thats been cropping up a lot recently, countdown to Chinese New Year on 31 January 2014.
chūnjiè 春节：Spring Festival aka. Chinese New Year. The hottest event on the Chinese holiday calendar.
Xīn nián kuài lè 新年快乐： Happy New Year!
Gōng xǐ fā cái [Gong Hei Fat Choy for all you Cantos] 恭喜发财: Happy and prosperous Chinese New Year!
nóng lì 农历：Lunar Calendar. All Chinese holidays are based on the lunar calendar, cycles of the moon. When I was like 8yo and my mum told me Por Por’s birthday is different each year it was like “uhh… say what now?”
chūnyún 春运：“Spring Festival Rush.” The largest human migration in the world. The words are usually accompanied by a deep shudder. Check out China Smack for some incredible photos of past chūnyún chaos. The 2010 documentary ‘Last Train Home’ looks at the havoc around trying to buy train tickets and is also very insightful.
kuà nián 跨年／kuà nián xīnnián跨越新年： To ring in the New Year lit. to stride across the new year
chūnwǎn 春晚 [Zhōngguó zhōngyāng diànshìtái chūnjié liánhuān wǎnhuì 中国中央电视台春节联欢晚会]：The CCTV Spring Gala Variety Show. An annual viewing audience of around 700 million people. Just to put that into perspective, Beyoncé’s Superbowl performance had about 104 million viewers. Just imagine the amount of Weibo activity that goes on with people live-blogging that shit!
An entry from a travel blog about a two-month long backpacking trip around Shaanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan and Hainan during the Chinese summer.
8am: Feeling a little bit stuck in a rut, I know that once I leave this place the Tibetan vibe will gradually fall away as I move south, but it is imminent and essential for me to do so (dwindling funds, altitude etc). However, Litang is not really inspiring me. It’s a rough round the edges town, dirty and trying hard to be a bit more modern… What will the day hold?
The day my perspective on Litang completely changed.
The Litang Horse Festival rumour mill was churning out different tales each day, this was the day it was allegedly meant to ‘restart,’ but of course, it did not. I’d been in daily contact with Dan (the US photographer I met in Kangding) via Weixin [WeChat]. He had gone up north to check out Ganzi for a few days and wait for the festival. There was an uncertainty in the air, a tension. The amount of military vehicles rolling round the dirt roads of the town seemed to drown out the small number of chilled residents, most of whom would pass the mornings and afternoons laxing streetside, rolling prayer beads methodically around their fingers. I relayed to Dan that Meduk the purple-contact lensed Tibetan hostel owner said it wouldn’t be on this year, but also mentioned it may start the 10th or 11th… shén me yī sì?? [什么意思, what does it mean??] I didn’t have that much time to wait around for it. Dan, on the other hand, said it was great for him, as the road back from Ganzi to Litang had crumbled apart and he was having to head all the way back to Kangding, then back over that huge rocky road to Litang.
In addition to the Tibetan mother tongue of the masses, I discovered differences in the Mandarin used in Garze. What I knew to be a plate of boiled dumplings, [水饺, shǔijiǎo], was always served as a spicy dumpling soup. The 8th. Needed to be in Lijiiang, Yunnan by the 14th. Early morning characters floated past the little restaurant and as I pondered whether to stay or go, an old man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth meticulously arranged several long strings of mushrooms on a wooden chair outside the front door of the restaurant, angling them in the optimum position for drying. Stay.
Met the Aussie guys in the lobby in the middle of Joel’s financial crisis. There are no international ATMs in Garze, apart from one in Kangding. They were the second victims of this technological deficiency that I’d met in the lobby during my time at Potala Inn, and like the French couple before them, they had to scrape together their remaining cash to buy bus tickets to Kangding before being stranded cashless up in the mountains.
Warmly welcomed the return of my camera battery from a French dude that had come from Tagong and set out to explore the town on foot. The dirt backroad to the monastery was full of ‘tashi delek!’ [བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས།] greetings from old Tibetans with their flap hats and eternally spinning hand held prayer wheels, big pigs in rubbished rivers, squashed square structures adorned with mantra flags and sunshine bursting through the rapidly retreating clouds. Lovely, warm and fascinating people. I climbed through a rectangular gap in a blood red wall topped with golden ornaments and clambered up a dirt hill, navigating around a small maze of narrow paths that stemmed off to the communities of stone brick houses, eventually reaching a quiet street that led to the monastery. It must have been a particular time for refreshing and repainting as teams armed with paintbrushes and durries created fresh murals and several gold statues were being resprayed in the cool air outside. At the front entrance to the monastery area, I encountered Roland the Austrian guy from my dorm and a German couple. I mentioned that I would be walking out of the town down past the Gold Arch (not McDonalds) in search of a dance and biǎoyǎn [表演, performance] in some tents that Meduk had vaguely mentioned to me in Mandarin and English. Down the back streets to the main town, I bought a banana from a wonky eyed lady in a snack shack and threw the peel to a ravenous hog by the grassy waterway. Saw a crew of scruffy young kids hatching a plot to frighten a a pack of stray dogs lying on a grassy plain; sneaking out from behind a large white prayer statue, firing an array of stick and rock ammunition then fleeing away with laughter as the barking dogs chased after them in revenge. A game tailored to their environment, kids can find fun in any situation. The kids out here are fearless!
The main drag of Litang is easily identifiable, lined with a community shops of all genres; curtains, windows, clothing, CDs, kitchen items, Buddhist goods, linen, raw meat and more, hoards of motorcycles and their owners, knick-knacks, prayer beads, doorways revealing handcrafted metals being clunked away at with years of experience (feat. large hammers on tiny metal targets between fingers, heavy machinery sending off sparks near the seated, sandal wearing machine operators), chatterbox ladies on stools out the front doing cross stitch, face masked women frying sausages in oil, stray dogs stretched out on the footpath having a nap, children playing with old car tyres, mamas with vegetable baskets on their backs and babies on their fronts, leather jacketed men in cowboy hats atop long hair braids all sitting on the steps, rolling their beads over their hands and baring their golden teeth. Seeing dudes who look like they are from another world or another era of time, mashing away at the keypads on their cellphones in China Mobile or queuing up at China Post. Military vehicles rolled through. A soldier or two trot down the footpath.
Stopped at the local gompa which elegantly peeked out from behind its stone walls to glorious effect amidst the gravel, rubbish and dogs along the street, inhabited by truly delightful people both inside the gate and out. I greeted the monk who sat by the dilapidated stone arch and his smile radiated such a warmth that I felt as if I’d just been struck by a rainbow beam. Once inside, the vibe was woah. I got my camera out and was immediately approached by two great gals who then leant on my shoulders to look at the photos on the screen, which made it feel like we were friends within the space of about four seconds flat. They were both dressed in very unique clothing, one had a tall yellow headdress and they both wore brightly coloured, ornately embroidered, long wrap-around dresses. We chat for a little while, by which stage several other smiley local gompa goers had gathered around to check out my curious foreignness too, allowing me to take some great close ups and receive a dozen more ‘tashi delek’! A hunchbacked lady gestured for me to follow her around the gompa, a daily ritual where they circulate through the square archways several times and spin the small wooden prayer wheels whilst chanting as they see fit. The hardcore oldies were simultaneously spinning the gompa prayer wheels with the right hand and spinning their hand held ones in the left. The gompa was also home to the ‘world’s biggest prayer wheel,’ which had several people of different ages and sizes rotating it around together, an impressive sight. This was upstaged by the actual world’s biggest prayer wheel in Shangri La, but who’s gonna go kill their buzz? Old, leather skinned men in camo green robes pulled over white shirts accessorized with the mandatory beads and walking sticks. One lovely old bloke out the front of the gompa and I spoke about family history for a while, then he agreed to have his photo taken, laughing and quickly plopping his hat back on his balding head, despite my reassurances that regardless he looked “hěn shuài!” [很帅, handsome].
The shops began to gradually disappear as I trekked further on down the road, locals would wave from their cars and bystanders would look at me with intrigue. It was a real sign of Litang’s foreignness from China, that even a Chinese-looking girl like me is a somewhat unusual sight. I continued walking down the road until the city fell away, paths became dirt and the only shops were small fànguǎn [饭馆, restaurants] based around a single wok on a gas element, a few steel manufacturing sheds and motorcycle garages and the vast grasslands stretching out towards the mountains ahead. Bought some aqua and a pack of guazi from a small xiǎomàibù [小卖部, kiosk, dairy, usually a sleeping lady behind a counter full of snacks and drinks] and had my walking directions affirmed. An array of vehicles hooned down the road; motorcycles with brightly patterned mudguard tails and long haired Tibetan men, military tanks, three wheeled carts that looked like they might putt to a halt at any moment and pick up trucks with full families perched on the back. Altitude and dehydration were starting to rear their heads as the robed monk that had been walking ahead of me for about half an hour hitched a ride on the back of a scooter with two other monks, widely smiling at me over his shoulder as they sped off with a plume of dust. An amicable tractor full of dark skinned, hat clad, bead rolling men implored me to jump on the back, but I was too slow to catch on and they chugged away into the distance. Soon after, a monk in a 4WD pulled up and gave me a ride the rest of the way down the road. He was softly spoken and had a calming nature about him through the ruminative look across his face and smooth driving style. I asked where he was going, he replied “suíbiàn guàng yī guàng” [随便逛一逛, casually roaming around]. Epic. Answer. Yo. I was speechless with his effortlessly awesome nature and mad sense of peace. I excessively thanked him as he dropped me off by a track which winded down through the grasslands towards a cluster of white tents. Young dudes piled on noisy motorbikes hooned around the fields, while a masked, hatted woman started walking and chatting with me and accompanied me right into the centre of the tents.
The sheer mass of people there around a large frameless umbrella pagoda tent thing watching the spectacle style performance, starring a group of performers with long haired wigs and fur costumes. Cross legged monks lined the ground seats on one side, the other sides packed with local nomads, Tibetans, children, oldies with prayer wheels; on rugs, plastic stools, benches or standing on the back of motorbikes, trailors and carts. The performance was all in Tibetan and had a lot of slapstick gags, each time one of the fur clad actors fell over, kicked another or teased an audience member, the crowd roared with laughter from the edges. The children were there by the dozens, so super cute, some with traditional clothes, some with qípáo [旗袍, cheongsam] covered in Apple logos, some scruffier than other, all endearing, curious and warm-hearted. An old lady handed me a yóutiáo [油条, fried breadstick] and I chilled with her, two kiddies and their mama having lunch sitting in the back of a cart, the conversation mainly smiles and nods from both sides, as they didn’t really speak Mandarin.
Rambled around the perimeter of the performance, enjoyed some local snacks from people in carts and got invited into the monk area which had Dalai Lama portraits and offerings of Coke, Sprite and Fanta. Sat quietly with some friendly old monks on the grass outside their prayer tent and drank one of the Fantas that had been thrust into my hand by a chatty monk. Sat with a family by their motorbikes and the gals leaned over to look at my photos. The baba was a champ – long black hair pushed to the side with a bandana, gold teeth and smooth shades. Ate some round, sweet bread balls on a stick with them, which I had just purchased from a jolly fat lady in a three-wheeler.
Grannies on the grass chatting over some noodles, kids doing cartwheels, monks lying beneath umbrellas, lads and beers, families chilling, big smiles and lots of ‘tashi delek!’ Granny on a brick cellphone with a baby in a basket. Newborn baby with mama and papa, all walks of life were here to enjoy the festivities. Though a completely different visual and aural experience than I’ve ever experienced, the prevailing concept of VIBE was the same. Garze’s version of (what once was) Wellington’s One Love. Outdoor get together of the community to share in the enjoyment of local performance, food and company.
I spotted Roland and we had some more bread ball sticks on the grass with Mark and Shavaughn a pair of funny peeps from the UK and Ireland who had randomly come across this event. Loads of kids came and hung out with us, getting particularly excited when we let them use our cameras to take photos. They identified all the people as they scrolled through my photos, “zhe shǐ wǒ de péngyǒu, zhe shǐ wǒ péngyǒu de dìdì, zhe shǐ wǒ jiejie… ［这是我的朋友，这是我朋友的弟弟，这是我姐姐的朋友, that’s my friend, that’s my friend’s little brother, that’s my sister’s friend] etc. One little dude asked if he could take my camera right into the performance to take photos. At first I said no, then I said “OK, wǔ fēnzhōng” [只有五分钟, just five minutes]. He ran away and disappeared excitedly into the thick of the crowd. About three or four minutes later, I was like “….hold up. WHAT did I just do?!” The crew was like “yo, did you just give your large, expensive camera to a small nomadic child?” I leapt to my feet and went around looking for him, ducking in and out of the layers of people around the performance gazebo (for lack of a more accurate word), but to no avail. Mentality was not good: Camera, gone. Photos, gone. Flashback to when my camera was stolen from a hostel in Ibiza and I lost all the photos of Becky and I with Shapeshifter and Tiki in backstreet Digbeth, Birmingham 2009. Noooo. Upon returning back to the original spot, the kid came running up to me looking as distressed as I was, “nǐ qù nǎr?! wǒ zhào bú dào nǐ!” [你去哪儿?! 我找不到你! Where did you go?! I couldn’t find you!]
The harsh sun and thin air tiring us out, we decided to trek back to the hostel over the lumpy grasslands. Spotted a contemplative red-robed figure sitting on the bank of a stream, it was the chill monk who had given me a ride! I asked him what he was up to, he said just thinking and observing. So. Cool. While he was friendly and helpful, he never smiled. We all trekked back across to the main road, traversing over streams, barbed wires and yak turds. It was a long walk all the way back to the Potala Inn, so I was glad to have Roland as company. Only 18-years-old, he just finished high school and was traveling before having to complete the mandatory year of community service in Austria. He chose to be a kindergarten teacher instead of joining the armed forces.
Collapsing back on my dorm bed, I could hear the sound of Daniel’s dombra from the bar/marae bedroom next door so went to go debrief of the days events. He spoke enthusiastically about how he had stumbled across a Tibetan wedding down a random street —- spontaneous and free-spirited, he offered to take us there!
Down a few small side streets, in a two-story building marked by prayer flags, the party rolled on! The ground floor’s dancing festivities of the daytime had wrapped up, but still contained dozens of local people smiling, chilling and imploring us to go upstairs where the music and chanting was coming from. WOOAH. The entire community must’ve been there, some in traditional dresses, others in casual vests, all joyful. The place was packed with people, long banquet tables abundant with food, snacks, drinks, alcohol and even cigarettes. Whether everyone actually knew the bride or groom is another question, one that is seemingly irrelevant. Some old ladies gestured for us to sit with them at one of the long benches stretching along the tables, another repeating “sit down! sit down!” in English while pushing us towards the food. Three bowls of yak dumplings were instantaneously presented to us by an unknown woman and the older lady opposite implored us to indulge in the array of unidentifiable meats and dishes in the centre of the table. This was all an incredible sensory overload of new experience and buzzy shit going on. The atmosphere was HUGE. Singing and chanting of Tibetan mantras came from each table, usually led by the group of men circling around and forcing seated men to skull full beers or bottles of water. An all day and night affair, the wedding continued to vibe with high energy, unlike Kiwi weddings which generally result in everyone hammered and dancing to Abba with their uncles by 10pm. Sculling a bottle of water was not considered any less of a feat than sculling a beer, everyone cheering and yelling during and after the ritual of each beverage. Daniel was handed a beer and surrounded by the men, who began to chant and clap him on with huge energy. The New Zealander in me emerged at the sight of a beer sculling challenge and I too was cheering him on with vim and vigour. I love Tibetans. The phrase ‘tashi delek!’ seems to extend beyond just a greeting, and from what I gathered is used freely for ‘cheers!’ ‘nice one!’ and generally just ‘woohoo!’ Traditional songs echoing throughout, content old ladies lining the benches and swaying to the sound, children running around and dancing, cups being filled, noodles passed to and fro. A lady planted her 9-year-old qípáo clad daughter over to speak English with us, a conversation which became far more natural and comfortable once her mother had floated off to socialise. Her older sister and then her twin sister also came to chat with us, their English at an impressive level considering their low exposure. The elder sister insisted on accompanying me to the toilet, a smelly little room of ladies collectively squatting over a central tiled trough, some facing each other and chatting. She continued to speak English to me as I hovered over the trough. Later on, three friendly French brothers and sisters were spouted into the room like water from a whale’s blowhole, proceeding to heartily thrash the paper cup of cigarettes on the table.
One of the most bizarre experiences of my life came when we were invited to the bride and groom’s side room which was full of loud, enthused, not necessarily drunk Tibetans, who pulled us in through the crowds towards the happy couple at the back. They had heard word of some foreigners in the main room and requested that we sing them a song in English. Considering our group consisted of NZ, Austria, Israel and France, our repertoire was fairly limited. The room quietened as we were presented to the bride and groom. We then sung the first two verses of Jingle Bells, the only song we could all sing together with some degree of fluency, which was greeted with huge applause from the wildly excited wedding guests and the couple as well. We tashi delek-ed the happy couple, were pushed aside by another group who wanted to sing to them and each had a fresh beer thrust into our hands. The festivities continued throughout the typically Litang power cut that came mid-evening, the throngs of people still filling the entire space, squashing onto chairs and squeezing into the bride and groom’s side room. I started an ‘olaay olay olay olaaaaay’ chant, which was picked up by a cute old woman who I was sitting back to back with on the bench, she was VERY into it hahaha!! After several beers, a shot of báijiǔ, [白酒, white liquor, 50%alc, often compared with hot lava] various meats, spicy noodles, dried sweet crackers, an apple, a bowl of yak dumplings and a mountain of guazi, we returned back to the hostel, high on Litang. ♦