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In Spite of it All

 

We cannot be completely uprooted, we all have a cultural basis.
Mario Rizzi, Out of Place (2005)

This exhibition of work from the Sharjah Art Foundation presents an intriguing discussion on identity and social changes through a series of video installations, which was set in an unique cultural background. Bi-cultural? No. This is the intersection of three distinctive cultures and civilisations, Arabic, Chinese and European (Western).

A number of contemporary Chinese artists have responded to the personal and social cost of rapid economic development and urban changes in China. Liu Wei’s Hopeless Land (2008), was filmed at the outskirts of Beijing, a place which was used to be the home for suburb farmers and unavoidably, suffered from the relentless urban sprawl in the recent years. It will soon become another soulless wasteland filled shining new residential buildings.

As a Chinese living in Europe, perhaps I have been Anglicised to think that it is all too rushed to disregard your cultural identity by destroying the original landscape. For me, the most interesting thing is to observe how the Emiratis responses to the pressing issue from a different perspective. There are only 25% of the populations in the UAE are Emiratis, and the rest are from all corners of the world.

Nikolaj Larsen’s work Rendezvous (2009) is a captivating interpretation of their lives. He spent a month traveling and filmed the workers throughout the UAE and their families back home. The result was two images which were projected on each end of the room, three times as high as your height , forcing you to think of the two cultural contexts in a dramatic contrast. Is one superior than the other? Not necessarily…

Fascinating stuff – In Spite of It All is a must see exhibition if you want to get under the skin of the modern multi-cultural Arab people.

In Spite of it All
03.11.12 – 03.01.13
Collections Building, Arts Area
Heart of Sharjah

 

St Sophia Cathedra

Russia in Harbin

Most people are attracted to visit Harbin these days because of the annual International Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival, and I am of no exception. It’s a typical tourist experience: after queuing for 40 minutes in -25C, we slid down from a 50 metre high ice slide, a replica of the Great Wall of China, made of ice. It is a bit cheesy, fun, but above all a thrilling experience.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s well worth coming to see the ice festival. However, this is not what really impressed me about the city. When we visited the New Synagague of Harbin and discovered its fascinating Russian link, it struck me that Harbin is different from elsewhere in China. At the beginning of the 20th century, over 20,000 Russian Jews migrated to Harbin primarily because of the China Eastern Railway construction which began in 1898.

Harbin Jewish New Synagogue St Sophia CathedraTurkish Mosque

It was an extraordinary time. The Russians, Europeans, Koreans and Chinese (both Manchu and Han people) were living together in a place which was only first discovered as a fishing village in 1898. The old photos of Harbin shown at St Sophia Cathedra give us a sense of the urban landscape of the city, which was originally designed by the Russians. It is a shame though the picture captions are in Chinese only. In the heart of Harbin, St Sophia is the oldest Orthodox church in Northeast of China. Elsewhere in China, it might feel slightly out of place, but not here.

There were Jewish synagogues, Orthodox churches, Turkish mosques, Confucius temples and Tao temples spreading across the city skyline. At one point, Russian art schools, Western orchestras and even ballet schools were set up to meet the increasingly multicultural demand.

Industrial manufactures and trade businesses were quickly established here and quickly expanded internationally. One of the Harbin Business Tycoon is L.S. Skidelski, the great grandfather of Lord Robert Skidelski (a member of the House of Lords) who was also born in Harbin in 1939. To date you can still sense the lavish lifestyle from the old pictures of the black tie leaving party organised for the Skidelski family at the newly built Modern Hotel in Harbin.

So where are they now? We are told that almost all of the Harbin Russians or the Harbinets as they refer to themselves had left China by the mid-1960s, though it wasn’t clearly explained at the exhibition. We come across several Russian themed restaurants in the city, but I wonder if the locals can imagine all the glamour that this place once enjoyed?

Great Ice WallIce, Ice, BabyGangnam style

Because of the cold weather in Harbin you need to wear lots of layers to keep warm. To understand the city you also need to uncover it layer by layer. On the one hand I suspect everywhere in the world is becoming more and more homogenised. It’s overwhelming to see the capitalist consumer society here. People are rushing to gold jewellery shops before the Chinese New Year and Coca Cola has a snow carved ice bear in the middle of the walking street to welcome international visitors.

On the other hand to say the world is flat is untrue in this sense. Every time I visit a new place here, I’m keen to find out the story behind the place: a beginning, a middle and an end. Harbin certainly captures me by it’s rise and fall. I was lucky. During our short stay I got a fleeting glimpse of how new things take shape from old; how the old persists and returns.

As we leaving the city, we were told by the taxi driver that a new Harbin railway station just opened last month (the old railway station was part of the China Eastern Railway construction, built by the Russians). It puts a smile on my face. There is no end to the story – it’s only the beginning of another exciting cycle.

 

Top tips to understand the multicultural history of Harbin, visit

Old photo of Harbin Exhibition @ St Sophia Cathedra
88 Toulong Street, Daoli

Jews in Harbin Exhibition @ New Synagogue
162 Jingwei Street, Daoli

 

 

 

Dubai skyline

A Tale of Two Cities: Dubai v.s. Sharjah

Time is on our side but our side is not on time.
Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, What Everyone Knows (2006)

The centre of the world is shifted when you are in the Middle East. It is the hub connecting the East and West. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised because the name says it all – Middle – East.

Chinese Muslims can trace back their ancestors coming through the Silk Road; and the British can feel nostalgic about the old empire after seeing the Al Mahatta airport, the oldest airport in the Middle East, where the first flight was from Croydon to India, stopping over in Sharjah.

Admittedly I had a very stereotypical view of the place, one of cultural and religious conservatism. On the surface the dress code where women are rarely unveiled enforces this idea. And yet underneath the culture code, I was pleasantly surprised to see how open minded people here are. They are merely trying to retain their cultural identity and religious belief in a world where things all seem to be too easily homogenised.

The skyline in Dubai, in contrast to Sharjah, is completely modern and striking. When I was driven across the bridge from Sharjah to Dubai during sunset, I couldn’t tell where I am – judging by the city landmark, I could be in Shanghai or Manhattan. I was dazzled by the magnificent Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world built by Sir Norman Foster. Perhaps it is at the moment, but not until the Sky City to be completed in 90 days in Changsha, China.

It, however, reminds me of the story of Aladdin: you can build an artificial city overnight, but I wonder who lives there? I was told 30% of the buildings in Dubai are hotels. The transient audience can certainly enjoy a Las Vegas style holiday here, but it would be their loss, if they come to the UAE, without visiting  some of the more traditional emirates, such as Sharjah, because what they see is simply a mirage.

 

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The Nordic Cool – the Welfare State

Travelling is an emotional experience, and different places evoke different emotions.

 

As an inquisitive traveller I’m always curious about the different culture via work and play, and our Scandinavian holiday is of no exception.

To understand a person you have to understand where he/she is from. Indeed, you need to understand the place where one comes from to be able to understand one’s perspective.

I think every Asian who grew up in an over populated urban city (or like me growing up in Beijing, a city lacking in natural water) would somehow experience a shock coming to the peaceful Nordic countries, and perhaps vice versa, for the Scandinavians heading to the other way. Left me wondering if what you see is just an illusion?

 

The Welfare State

In China, Scandinavian countries are always portrayed as an ultimate contemporary version of the Welfare State – a nation in which everyone ranks equally – the concept that Karl Max popularised in China at the beginning of the century. Even the UK has a Swede Dream and the PM David Cameron recently went on a policy shopping trip to Stockholm.

We saw numerous young couples with children, in particular at the area where we stayed (Vasapaken) going for coffee in the morning. Apparently they are locally known as the ‘Latte Mums‘ (a Nordic version of the UK yummy mummy…) who are likely to be enjoying their 14 month maternity leave!

By taking a boat to explore the endless archipelago away from the city, we saw some beautiful holiday villages on the islands. The rough, unpainted wooden fronts, small, barred windows and turf-clad roofs of the houses make a very antiquated impression. However, far from being a ancient shelter or anything of that kind, this is a modern holiday home. The building materials have been chosen specially for their environmental friendliness, with an ultra-modern Scandinavian stylish interior design inside.

We were there during the AF Offshore Race 2012, an annual sailing race between Stockholm and Gothenburg. Towards the end of the day, all visitors, families and friends of the sailors are gathered on the docks, drinking beers by the boat. There are music gigs and BBQ stalls in the background. It seems to be a typical chilled out Scandinavian summer night, and yet I can imagine how atypical the lifestyle can be for a continental Chinese! The ‘Summer Sailing, Winter Skiing’ lifestyle has been introduced to China recently with the rise of the emerging middle class. But without the cultural tradition, the core roots seem somehow got lost. Here it is (or appears to be) accessible to all – whilst in China it has become a showoff for the urban elite.

 

The Nordic Cool

There is an old Chinese saying (宁为太平犬,不做离乱人) – the translation might sound funny – “I would rather be a dog living in peace, rather than a human in the midst of movement and chaos.” The Nordic countries don’t seem to have experienced as much destructions (wars) as the Chinese did in the past hundred years.

A country with fascinating history, in reality, people often lead a miserable life. A country with an uneventful history, in reality, people enjoy a peaceful and content life.

I envy the Nordic seagulls – the cool and free life they lead in the northern end of the globe.