“I am Chinese” – TEDxShanghai 2012

My actual 29th (30-1) birthday, as in Sunday 20th May 2012, rather than my birthday weekend that I’ll speak about another time, started with a gift from TED…a day ticket to TEDxShanghai 2012 “I am Chinese” (thanks to Wilco!). I have followed TED talks for many years now and found them to be a great source of knowledge, creativity and motivation. If you regularly read my blog, you will see that I often post presentations and speakers that I discover, that inspire, that start my day. I think the first one I ever watched was Ken Robinson’s ‘Schools kill creativity’ from 2006…still love that one. So to be able to go to an actual “live” TED event here in Shanghai was a real birthday treat…even if I’d only had a few hours sleep from serious dinner party dancing times the night before, therefore, arriving with very tired eyes and wet hair as I was running late.  The day was filled with music, performances, art, tears, technology, laughter, design, dancing, generosity, selflessness, puppetry, honesty and so much more. Below are a few notes, thoughts, images and videos from the day.

First to speak was a sound and light artist Yao Zhong Han with ‘Path of SCATTERED’. He spoke of his light and sounds projects introducing the session with a performance. ‘What the audience sees is different to what I see…I use my fingers to control the light and sound, and guitar strings to control the light. How much improvisation do I use? – a lot. Fingers are switches are used to control the performance where the instrument is just like a piano, but the way I play is different…I need to learn how to interact with my system and LSP system…Why do I use a fluorescent light? It has uncertainty, the lighting up and breaking down of the light creates sound…like the breaking down of street lights…it presents a contradiction between normal and abnormal. With or without passers-by the people are still beautiful objects. Other sound artworks? ‘Small Heart Beat’, use lights with a tempo consistent to my heartbeat. I vary my heartbeat by drinking beer and other actions…opening and drinking you will hear sound…occurrence of sound important to the show. Other periphery sounds are important to this piece. Any other concepts involved in your art form? Except for sound art, I use installation art that uses another way of thinking…the interaction between my human body and the flickering lights, and the forces around them…acting as a metaphor to our current society in our age of knowledge explosion…in uncertain times it gives stability to us.’ He concluded by speaking of his crossover with fashion brands by installing works within their stores and the development of the ‘Laser Light Show Project (LLSP)’ Festival.

Next was internationally renowned Chinese artist Gu Wenda with ‘From China Red to China Green’. I have actually interviewed him for my PhD research back in 2010, so it was a fantastic surprise to see him on stage. He said he was ‘balanced in culture and location living 25 years in China and 25 years in New York.’ He referenced past works including ‘Heavenly Lantern’ – ‘a culture assimilation and conflict between the building and the lantern…form of cultural communication…it reflects a way of living. They act as a metaphor for my life…born in the Cultural Revolution. It wasn’t until I left China that I felt Chinese…a diversity of cultures. I am Chinese but I am also a world citizen so the cross symbolises this world living. A symbol of the way of my living. Red lantern turned into modern architecture….turned into something unique.’ ‘Forest of Stone Steles’ – the growing of culture. A good example of the mistranslation of different cultures. ‘China Park’ – the use of Chinese calligraphy to create a city park. ‘There should be a day when we are proud of Chinese design and our way of living’. Is this “Ecological calligraphy”? He finished his session with an ink performance as shown below.

One of the most interesting speakers of the day was Stefen Chow who spoke of his photography project ‘The Poverty Line’. He explores the question ”What does it mean to be poor?”…’I am the eyes of this…One frame, one day, one person as the basis. China was our first case (3.28 yuan (0.49 USD) a day per person is the basic amount to sustain a person on the poverty line…When released online there was feedback from all corners of the world…there was a “reaction”…a large one from Russia…they use a frame of reference from their own upbringing and background to understand things. So why don’t we start doing other countries…Japan 394.57 YEN (4.84 USD)…I use newspapers as a background to how much you could buy as it would “lock in time…and culture”…India…Switzerland 7.97 Francs (10.25 USD). I used a different methodology for developing countries as they use a relative poverty line. What have we learnt? In 15 months, done 15 countries across the 6 continents….Brazil 2.33 BRL not even able to get you on a public bus. Couldn’t even get a bar of chocolate. The poverty line…this is where people are living…Hong Kong 45 HKD…I use commercial projects to fund this more personal photography project…The poverty line is not just people who are homeless or uneducated, it can also happen to those who are finding it difficult to survive in a difficult world. Madagascar 1284 Ariary (0.64 USD)…Poverty is defined differently – developing and developed…The project has provided a starting conversation for the initial question that we asked ourselves…to recontextualise poverty in contemporary times.’ You have to read the project blog here ‘The Poverty Line’.

A surprise speaker was Harry Hui with ‘The Dreams of Young Chinese People’. Harry is at the forefront of media industries in Asia and an expert on youth culture. He has been a TV producer over the past 15 years, promoting music in China…’to enable the dreams of other people though helping them to be musicians….One who made is against all odds…One who overcame Confucian conflict by standing on her own two feet, “never listen to a man”…One who managed to ignore the fast urbanisation of China and get back to his roots…We must look at what we have been given and been blessed with…Andy Warhol – “Everyone is going to have their 15 minutes of fame”…Fame can provide comfort and warmth and it can also destroy everything around you…but what this show has taught me a better person, to be a better role model and be the best we can be. I believe China is in a “creative renaissance”. It is our role and our responsible to help this generation, to help find out what is modern china and modernity inspired by tradition…it is our responsibility to look for and identify these platforms.’ I loved his definition of China being in a “creative renaissance”…such an apt phrase.

Next was Wu Dang Shan, Taoism and Tai Chi master who spoke of ‘The Building of Inner Strength’…the science of the human body health and human nature. ‘I grew up on a diet of Taoism…my father a teacher of traditional Chinese culture…a love martial arts…ever since I was 13 years old I went to Shanxi province to study martial arts….Our ultimate goal should be to familiar ourselves with Chinese culture not to be a master.’ He then invited those who were lucky enough to receive a black tai chi jacket in their free gift bag to join him outside during the morning break for a tai chi class. I got one! But stood on the sidelines to take it all in…it was beautiful.

The break was followed by Taiwanese puppet master Chen Xi Huang with ‘Tradition and Innovation’ where he presented a series of shorts performances with his puppets…so much character in both him and the puppets! He came from three generations of puppetry…you could see it was in his soul…in his blood…part of him. Just before lunch there was another performative interlude by the A Cappella group ‘Voco Novo’… ‘The best instrument, a microphone, given to as a gift from god.’

A lunchtime interlude of chats with friends, free Malayan curried vegetables with rice in a beautiful bamboo food box from Cafe Sambal, bakery pastries from Shanghai Young Bakers (a great training initiative here in Shanghai), rhythmical drummers and a lot of smiles…then it was quickly back into the hall for the afternoons speakers…beginning with jazz by Jasmine Chen.

One of the most wanted speakers of the day was shoe designer Jimmy Choo with ‘The first step of making shoes in Penang’. Chinese girls were going crazy at lunch to have his photograph taken with him. ‘Shoes art not just shoes themselves, they are an art, just like learning tai chi this morning with the Taoism master it’s not just for show…Shoe making work might not be as decent as other professions but if you can do it well you can still become renowned in the industry…After observing my father, I asked when can you teach me? If you won’t each me I’ll do it myself. I asked it’s been 6 months…my father said in fact I want you to train your patience, be serious, be cautious, you need patience and preciseness to create piece of artwork…Every day after school I was instructed by my father, I was asked by him, what do you want to become, I want to study in the UK, perseverance and patience. Yes, I want to be successful, I want to be a good shoemaker. After years of hard work we do have some money to lend you so you can study overseas…I can lend you the money with zero interest…promise me you must return as a successful man. “What was that? The chi in tai chi?” Sometimes I couldn’t express myself clearly…and teachers would make fun of my English accent, but I had tai chi inner strength and I knew I wanted to become successful. A lot of women came to me with requirements about the shoes they want…so you need to have patience. When I got to the UK, no one knew my name so no one asked me to make shoes for them, so I knew I had to work harder, so I started making cheap affordable shoes. After I earned some profit I used that money to support my couture business. You have to have perseverance not just towards your career, business but towards your family. You also have to be grateful for our mothers and fathers, we must cherish the love we have from our parents to have a beautiful mind.’ During his session, he recreated the first pair of shoes he made for his mother when he was a child as shown in the video. He was incredibly articulate…witty…and honest about his career. You could see why he had become so successful. Again, like other speakers that day he had instinct…instinct and dedication.

One speaker who I was very interested to hear was Jeffrey Lehman with ‘A Transnational Soul’. Jeffrey was recently appointed as Vice Chancellor of New York University Shanghai. ‘Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve had the opportunity to develop within my identity a transnational soul. I have lived in china for the past 4 years and it has changed my life…When working in France, I noticed a different attitude towards language and the senses…I retained my “Americanness”…My soul expanded from a national soul to a transatlantic soul…I became happy moving to and from the Atlantic ocean. My soul called out and said I needed to return to France. The friends I made are the reasons why I ended up in China. Peking University approached me to start a new kind of law school, the School of Transnational Law, and we want you to help us launch that in Shenzhen. Don’t worry you’re going love Shenzhen…what drew me to the job was the vision…creating something new not in America or in China, that would add to the world’s sense of understanding….This summer I’ll be moving to Shanghai, again happening because of two friends with vision. East China Normal University and New York University had a vision…they want to create something new in Higher Education. They will study how to transcends disciplines, study in a way that leads them to transcend culture. They will not always study in Shanghai, they will go beyond Shanghai…every students will be required to spend up to three semester at the other campuses of NYU round the world. They will learn whatever their starting identity was…to build within their identities transnational souls….How culture affects our worldviews and our behaviours…living in China has moved it from an academic level to a level in my heart…The importance of culture is to become visceral…I have come to believe the most interesting and productive way to live is in a multi-cultural place. If you have a group of Americans and Chinese together they are more likely to see the world in three-dimensions, on the other hand these differences in culture can create risk and the possibility of mutual misunderstanding. There are ways of maximising benefits and minimising risk…in 6 ways:

  1. To use culture to diffuse misunderstandings;
  2. To muse about it…think about the cultural differences that matter;
  3. I’ve forgotten…
  4. Be amused…take advantage of the opportunity that life is funny and cultural;
  5. To trade shoes…try experiencing the way the other does;
  6. Fuse…try to find a way to integrate both perspectives.

His presentation stated so many things that struck a chord with my PhD research it got me motivated to get back writing again. He is definitely someone who I’d like to speak to further about the notion of the “transnational” and I’m sure that can happen once he has moved to Shanghai.

I have only mentioned a handful of the speakers that presented that day. I am sure TED will post all the presentations online as soon as they can…that’s the beauty of TED. It is now going to sound like I’m listing a line of cliches but I don’t care. TEDxShanghai 2012 gave a clear insight into what it is to be Chinese in today’s global, changing, frenetic, creative and technological culture. It was inspirational, motivatory, clever, witty, articulate, knowledgeable, melodic, rhythmical, visionary, insightful, unforgettable, memorable…I could go on and on with words here. Speakers helped you to believe that if you engage, invest, dedicate yourself to something…work hard, play hard, create hard…think beyond, out of the box, in unconventional ways…you can make things happen, make things change, make people see and experience differently…just like I did that day. I live by these different mentalities and always dream big as everything and anything is possible in this world right? You just have to put your (body) and mind to it…every…single…day. The thematic of “I am Chinese” was manifested in such diverse ways where, to me, I noticed it had a different meaning to each person, to the individual on stage, to the man behind the camera, to the volunteers helping out that day, to the audience members…and to ME. Whether you were born in China, visiting China, or a foreigner in China, it does not matter. China is part of all the people who were there that day…it is inside them, under their skin, part of their soul, their history, their memory, their culture and no one can take that away from them. Being here changes you as a person…it gives you another perspective and sense of the world that has changed my life forever. “I am Chinese”…as much as I am Rachel (and a lot of other things too).


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