China in Britain #6

I have been following this academic conference series – ‘China in Britain’ – for a while now. It is part of the AHRC funded research network project ‘China in Britain: Myths and Realities’ run by Dr. Anne Witchard from the University of Westminster. Last Friday was the sixth and final session of the series on the theme of ‘Diasporic Translations’ and I was taking part…taking part with onset of a post-30th birthday cold. Inevitable right? That’s a blog post I must write…not about having a cold, about my 30th birthday. Somehow I’m 30?! My voice did not sound right that day, a croaky Rachel with a cotton wool head. Here’s my thoughts from the day.

The morning session began with ‘The work of Ming-Ai, London, Institute and their historical project on British Chinese history’ by Chungwen Li and Aubrey Ko. They talked through a range of the Ming-Ai’s cultural heritage projects including East-West Festive Cultures, The Evolution and History of British Chinese Workforce, British Chinese Food Culture and a new three-year project that started in July 2012 called British Chinese Workforce Heritage, referencing their research methods such as oral history interviews. She briefly talked about the history and perception of Chinese food in the UK showing images of traditional Chinese restaurants and lists of food, some of which would be unheard of being eaten today along with this video…regionality replacing authenticity as a selling point at the turn of the Millennium.


“Everyone has his/her own story and every story is unique.” For their new research project, Ming-Ai will be focussing on three areas – 1) Seafaring, laundering, catering and military; 2) health and medicine; 3) new professions. They mentioned the integral support of their volunteers to the fundamental development of their work, along with their project partners. Something that Chinese Arts Centre, where I am Research Curator, relies on, on a daily basis.

Next was Dr Judith Misrahi-Barak from Paul-Valery University speaking on ‘China in Britain: China in the Caribbean’. She gave an overview of the migration of Chinese to the Caribbean which started in 1806 in Trinidad, the slave trade, the minority of the Chinese communities, and modernities of Chinese in the Caribbean through literary writers including Meiling Jin, Jan Shinebourne, Patricia Powell. I chatted to her during one of the breaks and discovered her husband’s work is to do with transcultural curatorial practices, someone who I should definitely talk to.

After a quick tea break it was time for ‘How Jim was Shanghaied: 1930s Shanghai and its lasting influence on the writing of J.G. Ballard’ by renowned journalist and news correspondent Duncan Hewitt. I’ve met Duncan briefly before during my Shanghai days and I’ve, by chance, just finished reading J.G. Ballard’s ‘Empire of the Sun’. Perfect. Duncan stated how Ballard had his own adjective, created during his lifetime – Ballardian – meaning “of or pertaining to the characteristic fictional milieu of author J.G. Ballard, typified by dystopian modernity, bleak artificial landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, societal, and environmental developments.” He was seen as a fringed science fiction writer in Shanghai, threatened with imprisonment after the writing of ‘Crash’ and other than early works, talking through his privileged upbringing in the first 12 years of his life, and the “bright but bloody kaleidoscope” of images, the reality that confronted in the extreme urban environment in Shanghai…a media city before its time and a portent of those in the future. According to his sister Margaret, Ballard was fascinated by film, one of the most important things to him where the importance of this has been under-realised. Shanghai has been called the “Hollywood on the Huangpu”…showing excesses of consumerism, where bizarre advertising displays are part of the reality of life. Ballard saw it as “an electric and lurid city…the fantastic, which for most lies in their head was all around me…what I saw as strange, I’d see as normal”. The city was a melting pot of new ideas. His imagination ironically stimulated by the stiff family life, a middle class expatriate family. He was suspicious of human nature…interested in the darker side behind the glamour of the big city. Violence was so pervasive in the city at one time that Ballard could not escape it’s brutality seeing murder and death first-hand. He regarded the human race as quite dangerous…not convinced that human beings can be trusted beyond a certain point, certainly a vision presented within his writing. An experience of the draining and emptying of a swimming pool represented to him, the unknown, and that British power was ebbing away…the need to create an ordered world permeated his writing. Ballard thought “…reality was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, swept away at any moment into the debris of the past…nothing is as secure as we think it is.” Somewhat underplayed is the transatlantic quality of his works, obsession with futurism, fascination with science fiction…his understanding of Shanghai as 90% Chinese, 100% Americanised, quoting his parents had been internationalised by Shanghai, feeling terribly pro-American when they left the city. There is a distant quality that permeates the book written in Britain, as he tried to decode the English experience. He tried to put Shanghai out of his mind, but treated England as if it were a strange fiction. Shanghai is more “Ballardian” than any other place in the world…however, he has left barely any trace of his history there.

P1200816 Following Duncan was Dr Geraldine Morris from Roehampton University with ‘East West Connectivities in Two Dances: Red Detachment of Women (1964), and The Nightingale (1981)’. She examined the relationship between, and the construction of identity, through dance, specifically ballet, in the two contrasting nations of the UK and the PRC. Geraldine initially  referenced culture as essentially within an artistic framework not in wider culture, and the impact of Russia on the development of ballet in China coming to the PRC in 1919 with the establishment of Russian dance schools. They were mainly for the white, middle classes, with the influx of teachers Dai Ailian (Trinidad and UK), Viktor Tsaplin and Pyotr Gusev, Bolshoi and Kirov (Agrippina Vaganova). Ballet became more established in China in the 1950s, seen as a universal standard as to what defined an artistic dance form, it transcended the boundaries of cultural identity at that time. Content was obviously strictly monitored by Mao, however the choreography did not portray communist ideology even if the visual representation did, as it was still heavily influenced by Western principals. Thus it was driven by Western ideals, 19th Century form strangles the expressions, hierarchical casting and full evening works at odds with the narrative tale. Geraldine went on to cite examples including ‘Red Detachment of Women’ (1964) and ‘The Nightingale’ (1981) looking into the interplay of East of West, how the West has used the Chinese ballet variances within its choreography. “A global standard language of ballet does not exist.”


In the panel discussion afterwards, I asked Geraldine about her views of ballet teaching and education in Shanghai and also her views on choreography, stating my knowledge base from dancing with the Royal Ballet into my teens then in Shanghai from 2010-12. I articulated that from what I saw, the West is still trying to understand Chinese styles and moves, still stuck in problematics of translation – “Chineseness” – whereas China is pushing more to the fore as they are now building on their Western understanding. Geraldine stated that Chinese ballet is still very much influenced by Soviet training…seen “as magic that can’t be taught” although there are schools of modernist thought there including the Royal Academy of Dance at Tongji University in Shanghai with Tina Chen. I miss doing ballet with Zhang Hao!

After lunch it was Jeffrey Wasserstrom from the University of California presenting ‘Only Connect: New Media and Chinese Overseas from the Age of the Telegraph to that of the Internet’. Jeffrey was examining the comparisons and contrasts between the ways that different technologies of communication been used by the Chinese to keep in touch from the telegraph to the internet. He looked into how do people from outside of China connect with things inside the nation using “new media”. “We don’t talk enough about the diasporic role as part of communication and culture in China…The telegraph was initially seen to make distance vanish, traverse this distance with ease, at lightening speed…China will soon have the power to switch off the lights in the West.” The transnational introduction of the internet to China gave freedom, stood for cosmopolitanism, liberalising the political (in part) through online activism, highlighting Chinese patriotism and government manipulation…was the internet was god’s gift to China?


I presented straight after Jeffrey. This was not initially intended, but the day overran and I needed to get a certain train home due to attending a wedding the next day. Rather serendipitously though my paper followed on quite nicely content wise as I spoke about ‘Transcultural Curating – Global perspectives on Contemporary Chinese Art’. The paper discussed how the identity of contemporary Chinese art “transculturally” translates across different curatorial platforms and sites for display and exhibition, in a response to the public audience’s need to look beyond the local, regional and national to the international sphere. I cited examples of recent practice, specifically the 8th Shanghai Biennale 2010 entitled ‘Rehearsal’, in reference to its auxiliary events and exhibitions including the West Heavens exhibition ‘Place-Time-Play: India-China Contemporary Art’ and their additional lecture series, and ‘International Art in the Cities and X-positions’ by e-space co-lab, a ‘Biennials dialogue’, online conversational exchange and collaboration between artists, curators, designers and architects examining each of the thematics relating to ‘Rehearsal’ and ‘Touched’  at the Liverpool Biennial 2010. I also referenced the Asia Triennial Manchester 2011 festival, specifically the project ‘Institution for the Future’, a group exhibition and publication by curator Biljana Ciric and Chinese Arts Centre, which showcased artists from the Asian diaspora who have been working on the local front to define new models of institutions or ways of art production that work effectively on a local level but at the same time make contribution to the global dialogue, challenging the modes of art production. Together, they provided examinations into how contemporary Chinese art is analysed, negotiated and presented to the international public audience in today’s changing domain of cultural globalisation, and question whether there is a new type of interpretive curatorial language being created through which to understand and deconstruct the artistic practices and artworks on display.

In the panel discussion with Jeffrey, there were some great statements made by him and the audience…”we shouldn’t exoticise the internet and focus more on its non-political uses…the internet has a physical infrastructure that people forget…the internet has a Western focus, showing what’s happening in the news at the time, being a “taste maker” with commercial power in the art world…who is engaging? why this and not that? There is an unevenness of these engagements”. There was a discussion into the openness of different provinces in China and East Asia such as Xinjian, Tibet and Hong Kong, and how different countries have different awareness of the situation in these nations. Jeffrey mentioned how these new modes of communication like tweets are “telegraphic” as they are limited in their word count and message. Duncan Hewitt questioned as to whether these forms of communication are making people more connected? Being Chinese in the West or an expatriate in China it often seems the case that you are forced to become more interconnected, keep up with local news, friends and family. I often wonder as to how much impact social media or the internet has anymore as so many people are online, are connected and have the ability to communicate. It’s almost under-appreciated now, expected! Jeffrey even stated he could remember the days when you couldn’t be reached on international work trips and now you are expected to be available on different timezones as I well know with China time. We really were given some quite hard-hitting questions…the most memorable for me was questioning how Chinese Arts Centre is different when there are so many exhibitions on contemporary Chinese art happening in the UK/globally and also how CAC engages with its local Chinese communities. Legacy was the word I used, engagement and legacy as we are special in the respect that we have very close relationships with the artists that we work with, and we try to maintain them, following their practice, development and success.

Another account of the day by attendee Charles Forsdick can be read here. It is a shame that this was the last in the series as I felt in some respects, some discussions had only just got started. I’m hoping that many dialogues continue and, as many of the speakers and attendees already know, we have definitely created new, more global networks of research. A big thank you to Anne Witchard and Diana Yeh from the University of Westminster for all their work on this series, let’s see where these conversations take us.


  1. I was delighted to have Rachel’s précis of my paper but there are a few inaccuracies in the account which might be misleading. Firstly, ex- Russian dancers from the Imperial Ballet came to China (not the PRC which did not exist then) in 1919 but taught mainly European children. The real impact came from the Soviets in 1954. They brought Vaganova style training with them. Equally, the ‘visual representation’ is the choreography, it was the narrative that was developed from Communist ideology. The final point about Soviet/PRC training is NOT that it is ‘magic and can’t be taught’ but that it is embedded in its own ideology leading to a habitas (Bourdieu) that prevents those trained in the style from ‘seeing’ outside of the technical training. my reference to the ‘magic’ was taken from a comment in the Observer by Luke Jennings who made the point that Royal Ballet Directors tended to think choreography was ‘magic’ and could not be taught.

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