Wednesday, September 28, 2011

signs, signs and more signs

My first visit to China was in 1979 (or thereabouts) when the freedom for the populace to dress as they wished was still some way off. Heating in stores was rare to non-existent and I remember being intrigued by doorway draught stoppers - they appeared to be entire skins from a bull or ox. They stopped the bitter wind blasting in to the Friendship Stores, (the main places for tourists to shop) but did nothing to keep out the cold.

This photo was taken in Yangshuo where Colonel Sanders is dwarfed by the karst mountains. In the centre foreground,  a neatly dressed lady is meandering along on her bicycle with a sturdily attached umbrella. 

On the whole, vehicles of all types including those with motors and human powered ones appear to share the road and show tolerance towards each other.

Chinese music was the only type allowable, and propaganda announcements in trains were strident and intrusive. Neon lights were also rare, and Europeans were such a novelty that crowds gathered around to stare. To some extent, that still happens, but not so much in the major cities, although my husband was stopped frequently, even in Shanghai, for people to ask if they could have their photo taken with him - perhaps a taste of what it's like to be a celebrity! Amusingly, on the subway, people - young, older, men or women - would attempt to surreptitiously take his photo on the latest generation phone, which I found highly entertaining. I figured if ever I 'lost' him I'd just look for turning heads and whispered comments and follow the stares - I'd be sure to find him!

Why? Beards are hard for Asian men to grow, and my husband has a full beard, gone grey over the years which is seen by some to be a sure sign of wisdom.

A number of familiar western products are in the picture above. Others might have a familiar shape and colour, but be a uniquely local brand.
Sometimes as I trailed along behind my husband, taking photos, peering into laneways or daydreaming, an older man or woman would catch my eye and gesture as if they were stroking a beard, smile widely and give the thumbs up. I'd wink and smile - feeling very much like I was basking in reflected glory.

Of course back in the 70's and early 80's when China began opening up for tourism again after many years closed off, there was no advertising for Western products - in fact there was little obvious advertising at all, few neon lights in Beijing, and not overwhelming in Shanghai - the pace of change is something that really intrigues me. The things which were shunned so vehemently and seen as a corrupting influence have been embraced in the cities, and are commonplace and desirable.

Some logos are so well known, no words are needed at all.

Even if they're down a tiny alley, they'll be popular.
I think this is my favourite shot. The young lady, beautifully made up, wearing ultra short skirt and vicious stilettos, is checking via mobile phone where to meet her friend before she heads into KFC - the ultimate in fine dining?
Neon lights encourage shoppers till late in the evening.

Change ... How do you view it? A blessing, a curse, somewhere in between, or something entirely different?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Sign in China

Not signs as in OoooooooooooowwwwwwwwwooooOooooooo it's a sign about my destiny, mysterious kind of stuff, but the more mundane (or possibly not) billboard ones.

Pepsi billboard seen in Guilin.
Posters have been invaluable in the relatively recent era of Chinese History. During the time of Mao they were produced in their thousands to inform and mould the minds of the populace. The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre (link) has saved and displays hundreds of posters from that time. The posters provide an idealised account of the era, and gloss over the often dreadful experiences of everyday people.

I remember being taught some Chinese History at Primary School and hearing about the Great Leap Forward. But to see posters from that time and know that intellectuals were deemed enemies of the state and banished to remote, harsh areas to be forced to do manual labour and that famine was rife, shows that either our teachers were blind to what was really going on, or sanitised the reality to make the classes 'suitable' for Australian children. (No matter that their Chinese counterparts were living in misery unable to share their knowledge and lots of children had no access to education.)

Many posters show happy, smiling agricultural and industrial workers. The wording translates awkwardly, but the meaning is clear "March towards the top science" "More pigs for more fertilizer to obtain high yield grain". Communism was often depicted as like a happy garden with brightly clad, cheerful young women working in farmyards with not a speck of mud or dirt around - sanitised and glorified.

The wording on posters from the time of the Vietnam War makes fascinating reading, such things as:
"Support US black people's justice struggle", "Firmly support US people against US Imperialism invading Vietnam". It was a comparatively stable period politically, and artists were looking outward and able to express themselves more freely.

Given the sometimes acrimonious relationship with America, I find the billboard for Pepsi intriguing. The combination of a traditional propaganda poster - the strong, proud young people, oozing vitality, looking towards and saluting a glorious future - but clearly and unashamedly promoting an American product.

If you're visiting Shanghai and are interested in how propaganda posters were used during the Cultural Revolution, or if you simply enjoy poster-art, (the Shanghai Girl posters are a wonderful step back in time) do visit The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. It's time well spent.

Where have you visited that you'd recommend? Why? What did you learn there?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Stooks (or possibly sheaves) in China

Threshing the grain (at the left of the photo) using foot power
Little groupings of stooks (or possibly shaeves)
ready to be piled into larger mounds (possibly stooks).
I like stooks!

I like the word stooks, the way it rolls around in the mouth, the combination on letters almost mirroring the thing itself (possibly):

The taller t and k reflect the individual dried stalks propped upright, the oo is like the waist of the stook, belted neatly with fibre and the s's at each end are the fibre itself which has bound the stook to stand upright, independently and pertly in fields ready to be stacked into larger structures (I bet they have a cool name too - but if the big thing is the stook as Wikipedia seems to imply - I should have checked earlier - with the little ones being sheaves, then my whole story goes out the window! - except sheaf is a great word too - it just doesn't mirror as beautifully.)
I love the otherworldly look of stooks (and/or sheaves) populating higgledy-piggledy fields. Fields tucked in and shaped to fit into the natural contours of the land, handkerchief sized fields, human friendly and working with the landscape in a way we seem to have long forgotten. No doubt the work is backbreaking, hard, hot and sweaty, I’m not romanticising it, but it’s different to what I know; it looks right and fitting in this landscape – timeless, sustainable, workable.

Here, in Australia, massive tracts of land are pummelled by gigantic machinery, the driver perched way above in air-conditioned cab, barely able to see creatures, dragonflies or bees going about the important business of living, but vital nonetheless to the balance of life, fertilising flowers, ensuring crops thrive.
Photo: I. Travers
Near Guilin, our driver, Chen, and guide Li, were at first bemused by my excitement to see the stooks (or possibly sheaves) mentioned in childhood stories and depicted in old paintings. They later expressed pleasure in learning a new English word, obscure, rarely used, but accurate. Both were eager to go home and delve into dictionaries to learn more about the word’s derivation, history and usage. The following day they shared that the word appeared to originate in Germany, was then adopted in Scotland.

What a joy to teach and be taught about English words in a far off land; to share pleasure in words and play with sounds, to laugh together and wonder how did these words come about?

What words give you delight?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Redundancy relived at Bushrangers Bay

Uneven sandy steps, well sheltered by dense tee tree hide the descent into Bushrangers Bay. I emerge suddenly onto rocks and the cold, yellow, gritty sand of the exposed beach.
Ozone is force fed into my stale air-conditioned lungs, stultified by recent work in gloomy buildings with sorrowful folk, the blustery wind whistles through my gold hoop earrings to energise my sludgy brain. Turbulent green waves crash, screaming their objection, obliterating all other noise and sending salt spray onto the washed out tussocky grass that clings precariously to the cliff edge, now battered by the increasingly steady wind.

Shadows cluster and obstruct the sun, which minutes before had been so welcoming, sapping the meagre warmth. T-shirt and shorts had seemed so sensible earlier; now, goose bumps are my body’s response to the afternoon chill. Seaweed, dried crispy brown, tumbles down the sand dune, gathers momentum, skitters, then flies back into the ocean to be pummelled relentlessly and finally disintegrate.
An hour or so respite, focusing on the senses, helps release the grip of fragmented snippets of conversation circling around my brain*.

Relive hearing deep male voices, tight with stress, unnaturally quiet for big blokes who work with steel and fire and water.

Confused voices, in pain; lost in a tangle of raw emotions they barely understand: grief, sorrow, loss, frustration and barely controlled anger and fear.
Redundancy is rarely nice - may evolve over time to something good, but I can’t help but think of the families in my community desperately trying to make sense of, and come to terms with their new reality.

270 people made redundant from a major local employer. I wonder how this will this play out over time for the men, their families and my community, and am grateful for the dramatic beauty and refuge of Bushrangers Bay.

*I'm assisting with the services provided to employees of BlueScope Steel (link) Hastings who have recently been made redundant.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Yulong River near Yangshuo, China.

The area around Guilin is a popular holiday destination offering lots of typical as well as less common attractions.
Camel and pony rides
Some enterprising micro business-people had equipped themselves with digital cameras, computers and printers to capture the merriment and sell the prints for a modest fee.
Stalls set up on the breakwater
One husband and wife team had positioned themselves midway on the breakwater in the Yulong river near the Yangshuo Resort.  The prime position on the breakwater was where most rafts would need to stop for the passengers to disembark so that the raft could be pushed across the concrete ready to continue down the river. Any movement on the concrete needed to be undertaken carefully, as weed and slime was growing healthily in the clean water.
Rafts (complete with umbrellas) need to be pushed over the breakwater
to continue down the river.
Each morning this couple waded across the dangerously slippery concrete and through the flowing water pushing an elderly wooden cart containing the heavier items such as the computer and printer. A cheerful umbrella was erected at a jaunty angle to protect the electronics from the elements. The wife then paddled back to the riverbank near the village to collect the lighter items, camera and drinks while her husband began getting ready for the crowds that would soon float down, being punted by strong men. I couldn't work out how they powered the electronics, but they managed somehow.
Bicycle stall set up on the concrete bank.
Monkeys on the right dressed in gold costumes
and bright outfits for tourists to be photographed in.

Bamboo rafts pulled up at the bank ready to...
be loaded on to trucks to go back up the river to start again
with a new group of holiday-makers
After the fun, you can choose from a variety of cafes,
bars and restaurants for refreshments.