The small room of the old servants quarters had been thoroughly abandoned. This was evident from the years of accumulated dirt and the smell of mildew and old rodent pee. A swarm of tiny bugs exploded into dark crevices when I introduced light to the interior of the dark, moldy refrigerator.
Perfect. I quickly noted a double sink with running water, a stainless steel worktable, shelving and a working light – absolutely perfect! Luckily, the ancient tile floor had settled and heaved so the hundreds of gallons of soapy water I used to christen the new studio collected in low spots and could be swept out the door into a convenient granite conduit.
I purchased all necessary studio supplies — plastic pails and basins to hammer and chisel, from those impossibly tiny Chinese retail establishments. They all carry the same cheap merchandise and each shop is crammed so full that it is rational to imagine that when the doors open in the morning the compressed contents spring onto the sidewalk where much of the stores’ goods are displayed.
My art medium comes from the local markets, the grandest of which is just a few blocks from the ferry landing on the mainland. Long crowed alleyways and streets, lined with vendors selling everything the sea and earth can locally provide, converge on an intersection jammed with flower sellers, fish gutters, caged-bird traders, food-vendors, cleaver sharpeners and sugar cane ladies. I love entering the huge covered market through this wonderful, unruly bazaar. Bordering the long meat isle are lines of tables displaying pig, beef, chicken, duck and goat – all laid open, sectioned up, with various parts, hung or arranged creatively, as in concentric circles of chicken gizzards that remind me of lotus blossoms. The last of the meat-merchants gives way to three additional market lanes — two of which traffic in seafood, much of it alive and animated in big aerated tubs. Vibrant mounds of vegetables, medicinal herbs and fruit spill down the third corridor. This market has the largest selection of seafood in all of Xiamen and is extraordinary in its diversity.
Even though I NEVER (not rarely) but NEVER see another foreigner in this market, I have now become more notorious for my purchases than my big American appearance. Vendors compete for my attention…call me over to show me especially meaty pigtails, a nice rack of goat ribs or the reduced price because-it-didn’t-sell-yesterday shark fin. Look at an item with interest just once and you have become a potential customer for life. I love carrying the thick red plastic bag that is the identifying badge of a wet market shopper.
During morning market, the crush of humanity engaged in the rhythm of chopping, bargaining, begging, hacking, stacking, shouting, laughing, gutting, plucking and shucking is staggering. Picture wall-to-wall people in these narrow passageways. Now add bicycles, motorbikes, delivery carts – sometimes cars, vans, and even trucks and you have an idea of morning market in China. And it all works seamlessly.
This morning I got up early and walked down to the Gulangyu market. I had breakfast in the street – a curry-vegetable stuffed bun cooked on the inside wall of a sizzling hot 40 gallon barrel and a big glass of fresh squeezed orange juice ($1.00 total). I bought 7 pig hearts from various pork sellers. It is common for the heart to be displayed still attached to the lungs, an unexpected but beautiful composition. I then found the beef seller and negotiated with her to have a whole beef heart in her stall tomorrow morning. Easy as that — and I am exhilarated!
I discovered years ago that these markets are an easy fix for me. There is a palpable energy that permeates everything and when I participate I get caught up in it.
Coming home with this cornucopia of art material has proven to be beneficial for the other residents of the villa. Fresh meat from the market is not to be wasted so I share when it’s appropriate. In the case of the goat ribs, the bones were all I was after so I offered the meat to Lao Liu, the caretaker, and his girlfriend. I had already been feeding scraps to the live-in dog (who has come to love me deeply) when Lao Liu’s girlfriend entered the studio to collect dinner. An hour passed in the tiny space as I trimmed the lean rack — every hand movement, each slice and chop, was followed with rapt attention by four eyes — two at knee level and two at my left shoulder.
Working conditions here at the villa are primitive, partly by choice and mostly by necessity. My mold and casting materials are also fundamental – plaster, clay, water. I like to put myself in situations like this because I am forced to work in a straightforward, simple manner. My choices are limited, the work is less complicated, the intellect takes a back seat and the art flows more easily.
This will be my last post for awhile…I’ll be spending the holidays in Portland, Oregon with my darling Mom, sister, Sam & Tien. Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays to one and all!
Notes from trip to Stone City | Friday, Nov. 17 2009
Hello from Gulangyu,
I’m soggy, dirty and don’t give a damn. It’s interesting how quickly one’s standards drop when living conditions deteriorate. It rained hard all of yesterday and most of today. I got tired of my tiny travel umbrella and bought one as big as a tent. It keeps me dry but it takes a lot more skill to maneuver around the other umbrellas in the narrow streets.
I’m sitting in the front passenger seat of Kang’s familiar car. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve made this treck to Hu’an (Stone City). I have long ago memorized the well-worn Buddhist chanting CD, but this time there’s a new man in the driver’s seat. Kang You Teng, my friend and major facilitator here in China is away, so his younger brother, Kang You Sheng, is at the helm. It is evident that he has less driving experience – doesn’t yet have the motoring swagger that Kang #1 has developed. I’m not sure which method is safer on these death-defying China roadways.
Amazing! I just noticed that Kang #2 uses turn signals. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before in China. It feels good to be on the road following this rather frenetic morning. After making arrangements with Kang #1 by phone, I was under the impression that we had scheduled a trip to Stone City for tomorrow morning. It hardly matters that Kang is a plane flight away as business is easily conducted from anywhere by cell phone. So, Jan and I left the island and ferried to the mainland. We walked to the big open market where I bought several strangely beautiful fish and a bucket to carry them home in. My phone rings, Kang #1 tells me that Kang #2 will be ready to take us to Stone City in one hour. My leisurely morning ignites.
Across on the ferry — one mile straight up this hilly island to the villa, stash the fish in the refrigerator, a quicker mile back down and across to find Kang #2, car idling by the curbside, looking a little panicky. We’ve met once before. Sheng understands some English but is hesitant to speak it. I learned later that this would be only his second trip to Stone City. Hu’an (Stone City) has a reputation for master stonework that originated hundreds of years ago. A walk through the Old City, still contained inside its ancient fortress wall, is an exercise in time travel. The granite homes have been occupied for many centuries and well-tended Buddhist temples still mark individual neighborhoods.
A customary feeling of trepidation settles into my stomach during the two-hour drive to Stone City. Mr. Chen’s artisans have begun to produce the new work from my model — the rough shapes that will validate (or not) my decisions regarding form, material and scale. When working with stone, nervous is always how I feel before I see the initial effort. This time the piece consists of 10 marrowbone slices; White Li Li marble, enlarged to 30 centimeters each. We just slowed down for a serious wreck — an overturned semi-size truck and at least two smashed cars. The truck’s cargo was a white paper product — clumps of soaked, disintegrating piles lie strewn across the highway. People are urgently pacing with cell phones & no emergency vehicles have yet arrived. I turn to Kang #2 and said, “I’m glad you’re a careful driver,” and I mean it. Peril-filled highways aside, I never tire of driving through the countryside in China.
On this rainy day, plastic-draped people are working in the vegetable patches. I’m familiar enough with these roads to know that the first sunny day will bring an explosion of newly washed clothes hung out to dry. Colors and whites will belly out from every balcony clothesline and every horizontal bamboo pole. This eruption of clean will temporarily outrank the dreary profusion of brick and tile buildings that cling to the roadway. We eventually turn left toward the sea and travel down a rutted dirt road lined with stone blocks. Mr. Chen’s stone yard is a small but vibrant facility on the outskirts of Stone City, just a short walk away from the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Our four-year working relationship has deepened to include meals at the best seafood restaurant on the planet and mini tea ceremonies in his home. In the last year he has built a permanent, three-sided enclosure that covers half the yard. I am happy to see this well-earned renovation. I am also pleased with the preliminary work. The scale is good, the marble is perfect and the form is beautiful to my eyes. We will now work to complete the Bone Slices in time for the Chinese European Art Center’s tenth anniversary exhibition, THE DIALOGUE. But first, to the restaurant; crab, mussels, squid, bean-size snails, sautÈed leafy green vegetables, pickled radish, salted peanuts, nanoscale dried shrimp (black eye-specks give them away), whole flash-fried fish, seaweed, green melon, burly river prawn, tofu soup, fish-head soup, noodles, rice, Tsingdao beer, watermelon! Mr. Chen always sees to it that a crab cracker is supplied for the likes of my sister and I with delicate Mei Guaren (American) incisors. The Chinese at the table have no use for such implements.
Until the next time—
A LITTLE HISTORY
I arrived on November 3, 2009, for my ninth extended stay in China. I have been invited to stay at the house of a friend on the tiny island of Gulangyu (a seven minute ferry ride from the city of Xiamen, Fujian Province).
Gulangyu became a foreign enclave following the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, hence the predominantly Victorian-era style architecture throughout the island. A large number of foreign businessmen poured into Gulangyu during the years of the 1920’s and 30’s and built more than 1000 villas. I am staying in one of them. There has always been a vehicle ban in place on Gulangyu Island, even bicycles are forbidden. In the old days the elite were carried to their houses on sedan chairs, now the narrow granite alleyways are traversed on foot.
LETTERS FROM CHINA
Saturday, 7 November 2009
It’s dark, 6:00 p.m. I am occupying, what promises to be, my favorite corner balcony. It’s well lit, has two slip covered couches and well-used antique end tables. Just-washed clothes are swaying in the breeze on the line that I strung across it today.
My sister, Jan, and I are also positioned to catch the sea air. Jan is a seasoned traveler and is in love with China, as am I. We crisscrossed this 1.8 square kilometer island today – trying to make sense of the local map, taking wrong turns and backtracking through narrow granite alleyways. The map, directionally useless, offers help in other areas, such as, “Local residents often meal at Food Stall, seafood there is cheaper but the sanitary conditions are not so good. If you are interested in cooking, you can buy some seafood directly from the market and then prepare a meal by yourself.”
Gratefully, our first night in this turn-of-the century Chinese mansion, passed without incident — lots of room for ghosts in two tall stories of grand split staircase, innumerable small rooms, eerie blind hallways and ancient electric lighting. The massive oil paintings that tower above you are mildly disturbing in daylight but seriously spooky at night. The caretaker, Lao Liu, speaks no English and is quieter than is necessary.
We love it here.
More soon! — Colette
HOSMER ART ON THE ROAD JOURNALS:
“My Trip to Porcelain Town” – Fujian Province, CHINA
It’s a five-hour bus ride one way through the mountains to Porcelain Town. My friend, Li Wen, and I caught the bus at 8:30 a.m. – 36 yuan, $4.49 each. An hour later, having pulled away from Xiamen and it’s “special economic zones”, we found ourselves in the countryside, passing by villages, lovely old traditional houses, terraced vegetable plots – farmers working in fields.
The bus is packed. People are sitting in isles on little plastic stools….those without stools squat. One old guy yelled for a long time because he got off at a stop to use the toilet and someone took his seat. The old man, tiny and thin with a scarred and mangled ear, ended up squatting in the isle next to us for two hours until we reached his destination.
A television is screaming at no one in particular from it’s high mounting in front of the bus – a loud, bad kung fu fighting movie with slap stick humor. Lining the roadside are beautiful stone buildings with sloped, tiled roofs. Vegetable plots climb right up to the concrete highway. The road is an endless ribbon of concrete slab with no guardrails or shoulder — the foot-high edge sometimes drops perilously to the river below. Vegetables are growing in Jurassic-like red earth and sometimes in scrappy ditches. Small open meat stalls and vegetable sellers inch right up to the dusty dirty road. Busses and motorbikes honk by.
The girl, sitting directly in front of me threw-up for the second time. Li Wen says every bus trip someone “spits”. Man and water buffalo, lean forward as they slice through the muddy earth. Many, lovely Buddhist temples spot hillsides – farmers endlessly hoeing. Li Wen asked me if I’d ever “worked in the fields”. I said, sort of, because in the past I sometimes had my own gardens. We agreed that it was nice occasionally but not if you have to do it for your whole life.
We pass through the town of Nan An. A big river winds through cheaply constructed white tile buildings with blue glass. Large vegetable fields lay surrounded by city buildings. I am doing my best to ignore dreadful movie sounds. Girls screaming, crying, whining, screeching, feigning anger – all accompanied by karate-chop sound effects.
Pre-car stone walkways arch over small rivers. Beautiful, handmade haystacks dot the landscape near lovely, traditional compounds with their courtyards and peasant tenants. The poorest people, of course, live in these run down but elegant traditional homes. “If they had money”, Li Wen says,” they would live in the apartment buildings”.
Each village has it’s own charcoal making shop — each of these tiny mills is completely black – ground, building, people – all black. Little black holes sucking up the light – not letting any escape. Now we are passing through a relatively clean town…at least the trash is in designated piles…all the usual plastic – makes for colorful garbage. Clean fields though, and gorgeous ancient stone kilns.
I love this.
Ingenious bamboo scarecrows utilize bright plastic bags – which, when tied to the ends of poles, catch the wind, inflate and swirl.
Girl “spits” again. I have watched the contents of her stomach change as it streaks past on my window.
The first time Li Wen traveled in a vehicle he was 18 years old. He went in a bus, five hours from his village, to take a school test. He told me he was very sick, “spit many times”. He was in a bus full of other village kids who were probably also taking their first ride. I can only just imagine it. In many places you see ancient stone steps cutting straight up the sides of mountains.
Stopped again. Women board bus with baskets of snacks, drinks, and egg rolls for sale. Smells good, but we are saving our appetites for lunch in Porcelain town.
Big fan-like Feng Shui graves take up large areas of land – a quarter of the hilltop is carved out for some of them. Li Wen tells me the government says no more, but the farmers “don’t follow” and do it anyway. Rain pools on the inside of my window ledge and splashes on me — thoughts of earlier vomit.
We begin to pass large, rectangular buildings, constructed of straw mat walls with no windows and small doors. Li Wen tells me they grow mushrooms inside. We hit town. Seems large – crowded with those uninspired communist buildings. The mode of transportation is motorbike and bicycle taxi, but things are more civilized here than in other towns I’ve visited – only one passenger per bike “or police will catch you”, and each passenger must wear a helmet. The town consists of mostly porcelain shops. Can’t imagine how any one of them manages many sales per day. Li Wen says that many foreigners come here but it’s hard to imagine by the stop-in-their-tracks stares I’m getting.
Found out that the last bus back to Xiamen leaves in 20 minutes. Only choice is to stay overnight. We had lunch, visited the porcelain factory, made a deal, found a store where we bought lotion and hair gel for me, and then registered at the hotel, the front door of which is flanked by stone elephants with red ribbon bows tied to their heads.
“The Dehua CiDu Hotel is located in the Dai Yun Mountains, in the middle of the Fujian Province. “It is in the centre of the center, downtown of Dehua, the famous ceramic city in China.”
“Dear guests”, the brochure continues, “it will be a great honour for our hotel, if you choose to live here. Our well-trained staff will do our best and also wish you enjoy the comfortable and happy time here. The Cidu (Ceramic town) hotel will be your sincere friend forever!”
Our rooms, $15.00 each, have great bed pillows, duvet covers and two classically hard Chinese beds. All rooms are smoking rooms, and include bathroom with tiny tub, jet stream shower and two each; shampoo, bath foam, shower caps, combs, and toothbrushes, with toothpaste. Also slippers, shoeshine kits, green tea and an electric teapot. After locating our rooms (nothing to unpack), I suggested that we go to the bar and have a drink before dinner.
The bar was dominated by the keeper’s kid – sticking stickers in a book and watching a very loud Chinese-dubbed SpongeBob SquarePants video. The bar had bottles of whiskey and brandy, but the barkeep had to call upstairs to ask if he could sell us any. A lady promptly came down with an open bottle and poured one small juice glass ¾ full for 30 yuan, $3.70. Li Wen and I shared that and I ordered a coffee as well, and got the usual instant Nescafe with dry creamer clumping on the surface.
I fell asleep in my strangely empty room about 10:30 and woke promptly at 1:30 when loud men, and at least one woman, got off the elevator and invaded the room right next to mine. The next several hours were filled with loud TV, girl squealing, loud faux mad talk, drunk men’s voices and occasional banging sounds. Every time someone lit a cigarette, which was often, the smoke wafted into my room somehow. It was awful. It finally got quiet but I woke up tired.
I gave up on the shower with spraying jets because the water arched limply as it exited the holes, and I couldn’t figure it out how to make any of it come out of the shower head.
We went down to breakfast (or up) to the 6th floor. The room was completely full – loud, several smokers, a large buffet served a typical Chinese breakfast including darkly stained, salty boiled eggs, soups, rice porridge, pickled vegetables and many unrecognizable dishes. Cold seaweed for breakfast does not appeal to me, so I stuck to the cake-like things, old boiled eggs, and a bowl of instant Nescafe.
The staff wears uniforms. Their purple coats look nice against the yellow tablecloths and red lanterns. Each woman’s hair is smartly tied-back. The young man in authority, with his black suit and tie, needs a haircut and has sticky-up hair on the back of his head where he slept on it. Suddenly the room clears and we are alone. Reminds me of typical Chinese endings — a party, dinner, banquet — suddenly and abruptly over. Sometimes with an announcement like, “Party has ended. Go home now.”
We depart the bus station – headed back to Xiamen. The loud, crazy movie begins to blare with the first revolution of the bus tires. We wind our way out of Porcelain Town as rain begins to fall.
Decades after the construction of these white-tiled buildings, they look dirty and stained. Porcelain Town appears prosperous but there are very few new buildings – unlike the mad construction that you see in other cities. The whole town seems to have been built all in one short space of time. And there is nothing much traditional until you reach the very outskirts. This is my third bus movie and I can already tell that they all tell the same story. Young men, pretty girl, kung fu fighting – weak becomes strong and overcomes evil.
Six story rectangular apartment buildings on the outskirts of town are mixed with dreary communist buildings which give way to old brick buildings which melt into very poor, but much more beautiful traditional compounds with tiled sloped roofs. There are no “yards” to speak of – just vegetable patches. Even the edges of these petroleum-smeared roads grow vegetables. Even crappy fill, in front of dirty storefronts, grow vegetables. Now the edge of the city gives way to prettier, cleaner and greener garden plots and rice paddies.
If anyone has to “spit” in this bus we’re out of luck. Can’t open the windows.
Li Wen is studying his English, using his Chinese/English dictionary that he always carries around in a plastic bag. He occasionally asks me to pronounce a word for him. We sometimes pass a sad attempt at roadside landscaping. Some Cadre’s idea…now neglected, and whatever tree or plant that survived on it’s own, is caged inside of grungy white tile planters. You come to hate the look of those dirty white tiles. They replaced centuries of meaningful culture, and deep layers of history across China with one uniform look and one collective thought.
All land in China belongs to the government. So farmers live on borrowed land, so to speak. If the government wants to build road or develop an area, the farmer gets agricultural value and the developer gets rich – along with many officials and cadres along the way. The government says they are working to fix this. An often heard slogan nowadays: Take less from the countryside, give more to the countryside”. Another is: “Building a New Socialist Countryside.”
New Movie: “Hands Up!
This one is set during the Japanese War. A Chinese peasant hides himself in the coal bin of a train that is crawling with Japanese soldiers. He pops out to kill and torture all of them – many of which wear little wire rimmed glasses, and virtually all have Hitler mustaches. The particularly stupid ones are fat and walk like clowns exaggerating clown walking.
The Japanese soldiers either laugh evilly or say “huh??” A lot.
Peasant takes over whole train…kills all Japanese soldiers, blows up train, makes Japanese bomber plane crash in the bargain. Two little Chinese boys throughout movie make Japanese look foolish over and over again. They pee in their canteens and put frogs in same. Also, there are lots of situations where the Japanese get their private parts smashed or rammed into. Donkey farts in stupid soldier’s face not once, but four times. Wasn’t funny the first time to me, but people in bus laugh at each one.
Occasionally, Li Wen’s family kills a pig at Spring Festival. I asked him to tell me about it in detail.
They take the pig to a special place that the whole village uses. “A very beautiful place with big trees. People kill animals there since ancient times. They bring the pig to this place. Someone kills it with a long knife in neck, and they drain the blood into a bucket to take home to eat. They sprinkle the blood on special yellow paper and leave the papers under the trees. They burn incense and light firecrackers. They pray (wish for protection) and they pray to respect to the Ghost. The Ghost blesses you.”
“The Ghost of what?” I say.
“The Ghost of nothing – everything – ancestors.”
They make a fire at this place for respect. Then they carry the pig back to the farm. After they scald the pig and scrape the hair off with a knife, they “take internal off”. They cook one piece of liver, and tail (with butt end attached – he drew a picture), and eat those portions, and then they invite people to share and eat lots of fresh meat. He says, Spring Festival lasts for one month so you need lots of meat. They “cook some meat in very hot wok and then much salt it to keep.” And on “shining day” they hang meat outside to dry.
At Tomb festival, when all the family goes to the tomb to show respect to the ancestors, they do much the same – kill a chicken or duck and leave blood on yellow paper. They finish up the celebration with more fireworks and incense.
HOSMER ART ON THE ROAD JOURNALS: “THE MARKET EELS” – Fujian Province, CHINA
I enter the big local market through a narrow alleyway lined with peddlers, selling everything the sea and earth can locally provide. Tomorrow is Spring Festival (Chinese Lunar New Year) and the market is teeming with shoppers. This alley eventually opens onto an intersection crammed with flower sellers, fish gutters, caged-bird traders, food-vendors and sugar cane ladies. I struggle through this wonderful, unruly bazaar and enter the covered meat market on the other side. My lungs immediately fill with the thick, rich essence of animal insides that have just recently been exposed to the outside. Bordering the aisle are long lines of tables displaying pigs, chickens, ducks and goats – all laid open, sectioned up, with various parts hung or stacked neatly, as in concentric circles of chicken gizzards that remind me of lotus blossoms.
I pass the last of the meat merchants and am confronted with three additional market lanes — two of which traffic in seafood, much of it alive. Vibrant mounds of vegetables, medicinal herbs and fruit spill down the third corridor. The road to the right will deliver me to a tank, scouted days before, brimming with robust eels. As I push through the crush of pedestrians and bicyclists, I prepare myself for the quandary that I know lies ahead.
I’ve skinned, buried, boiled and utilized beetles to process the animals that I deploy for my work, but my respect for life determined that I never killed, or had anything killed, to use as a medium for art. If they came to me already dead, so be it.
“This is the way it’s done here,” I rationalize, as I stand in front of the eel stall. “Every doomed creature in this market will meet the same fate today. If any escape the cooking pot, they will expire soon enough anyway.”
I choose ten fat eels, similar in size. A young lady skillfully extracts my selections, even as they loop around themselves and each other, and stuffs them into a red plastic bag. Starting to feel myself weaken when presented with the writhing bundle, I demonstrate to the girl that I want her to kill them. I brace myself for some kind of quick and orderly surgical procedure, when she promptly raised the bag above her head and slammed it to the floor. The eels burst forth on impact and slid across the concrete. She quickly put them back into the container, and with all her strength, heaved the sack to the ground once more. Earlier, glib justifications vanish with the shock and I feel miserable.
As I instinctively retrace my steps back to the market entrance, red bag at my side, I think about the girl’s composure. Her neutral demeanor registered neither cruelty nor sentimentality and, in fact, her method of killing the eels probably caused them the least amount of suffering. Regardless of the ache in my chest, I can’t shake the feeling that I have caught a glimpse of something fundamental and profound.
In China, Wal-Mart Super Centers offer their customers food in the form of live fish, crab, lobster, shrimp, eels, frogs and turtles. In this part of the world, they are not obliged to camouflage the process by which seafood becomes food. My first-world status sees to it that I purchase my hamburger at a disengaging distance from the slaughterhouse. I sense that I’ve lost more than I’ve gained in the bargain. In some mysterious way, that young woman, killer of eels, has a more complete understanding of life than I do.
For some months now I have been living in a culture that practices the strange custom of acknowledging death. And, my “respect for life” is in danger of deepening because of it.
Hungry, Tired and Lonesome
Im tired tonight, and a little lonesome. After being out most of the day (and lacking the energy to venture any further) I wander down the street to the tiny restaurant near my building for dinner. I hesitate slightly as I am greeted by the bold images of duck, octopus, dog and Santa Claus painted on the storefront window, but I intend (optimistically) to avoid any dish listing “dog” on the menu.
The menu is so dirty I am almost tempted to lose my appetite. But hunger wins out, so I give it a try. “Sauteed Large Intestine with Pickles.” Another time, perhaps. “Sauteed Sliced Pig Bag with Lard.” Not what I had in mind. “Spicy and Hot Bean Curd”. Yes. Also, “Fried Rice with Egg and Baby Shrimp” – the hamburger and fries of China. I don’t feel like being adventurous tonight. Add one big bottle of beer.
Tired, lonesome, cold and hungry – ingredients for introspection. I find myself writing in my notebook, “How I muddle through life with my introverted ways, I’ll never know”.
The tofu arrived – so far so good. Nice flavor, but the spicy bean curd is swimming in a thick, opaque oil. This massive mound of rice is good, too, but it could feed a small family. I continue to wonder why the majority of Chinese are so thin.
The family proprietors are hanging out in the restaurant – except for grandpa who relocated his plastic chair to the sidewalk. The little boy, maybe 5 years old, was just demonstrating how he could jump on and off the curb, a performance created especially for me. Now, on the chair next to me, he is singing to himself and writing his lessons, “t, t, t.” It looks like a “t” but is more likely a basic Chinese character.
I take consolation in knowing that there are accomplished, introverted people in the world. Maybe I should quit trying to pretend otherwise and accept my fate. I remember a story that I read years ago. Third graders were asked what they wanted to be in life. One little girl said, “I would like to be myself. I’ve tried to be other things but always failed.” Actually, having instant recall of this bit of Reader’s Digest self-help philosophy makes me feel even more pathetic.
I offered the boy a mint on my way out. Special mints, from a tin sporting the image of President Bush with accompanying print that reads, “NATIONAL EMBARRASS-MINTS”. The little boy shook his head “no” until his mother tried one and said “Hao”. He then took two and swallowed both at once.
COLETTE HOSMER / “THE SEAL”
“Art is a harmony parallel to nature.”
– Paul Cezanne
Although I enjoy walking the Oregon coast in winter, I found this January day, featuring snow and gale-force winds, to be particularly challenging. As I pulled on layers of clothing, I was encouraged by the thought that I would have the beach to myself since it was doubtful that anyone else would be crazy enough to venture out in such weather.
The beauty of this icy coastline, with its no-nonsense attitude, reminded me of how I began to make art in the first place. I was romanced by art from an early age but the natural sciences presented tough competition for my attention. Unwilling to forsake one passion for the other, I began to use organic materials as a medium for my art. I’ve since learned, through the dissection of hundreds of animals, that we are all mostly indistinguishable beneath the surface.
I had been laboring against the frigid wind for more than a mile when I spotted a hawk perched on an obscure mound. As I headed over to investigate, the big bird flew a safe distance away and watched as I claimed its cache – an adult seal that had apparently come in on the tide the night before. Until the fatal head injury came into view, the seal looked as though at any moment it would realize my presence, turn and make its way back into the sea.
It was my birthday and I wasted no time in justifying this find as a “gift”. Reinforced against the cold with a new enthusiasm, I headed back to the cabin to collect the tools I would need to explore the mysteries of this sea mammal.
The long stretch of beach was deserted except for seagulls — and gripping the edge of a twisted log, leaning forward into the wind like an Art Nouveau hood ornament – a solitary crow. I returned to the place where I’d left the seal – a small cove protected by cliffs. I was grateful to be out of the wind and for the intermittent winter sun and it’s illusion of warmth.
As I opened the seal’s abdomen, a large sac spilled onto the sand. Knowing it was positioned too low in the body cavity to be the stomach, I made a careful incision and held my breath as I reached inside. A beautiful, perfectly formed fetal seal emerged, its iridescent, white pelt reflecting light for the first time. I sadly contemplated its premature death for several moments before cutting the umbilical cord.
As I set to work to remove the pelvis, skull and limbs of the mother seal, I recalled the first time I attempted to dissect a fellow creature. It was winter then too, and at nine years old, I was kneeling in the snow trying to command my frozen fingers to fillet minnows taken from an icy creek at the edge of my rural North Dakota town. The feeling of awe and reverence that I felt as I studied the insides of those tiny fish returns each time I skin an animal.
I began to toss bits of meat to a circle of seagulls that had formed around me and was soon enveloped by the din as my rowdy audience increased in size. Aware only of the sea, the wind and the seagulls, I was absorbed by the mystery of discovery. I remember glancing up nervously every few minutes to scan the beach for intruders, feeling a sense of communion with the human scavengers who had come thousands of years before me. At that moment in time, thousands of years of cultural evolution fell away without a trace.
The seal had the size and appearance of a large dog, but as her limbs had been transformed into fins, her body took on a torpedo-like shape. Stiff whiskers framed her gentle face and the dark spots on her gray back migrated down to the white underbelly. The light began to fade and I regretted that I would not have time to properly skin this mammal so as to recover its splendid coat. My sense of intrigue at how strikingly similar we mammals are below the surface was reawakened.
Our bones, muscles and organs share the same names and functions with other animals, although the shape of each may vary according to its job description. The seal’s thick, but drastically shortened femur is a marvel of biological evolution; the elongated finger and toe bones are perfectly adapted to operate flippers. And, an absolute miracle of creation, the seal pup, was still curled into a fetal position and lying in the sand at my feet.
I finally surrendered to dusk, and feeling exhausted but grateful to have the wind at my back, left the greater share of the mother seal for the birds and the tide, shouldered my portion, and retraced my footprints back to the cabin.
The next day I arrived at the airport with a heavy, frozen box and checked it along with my suitcase on a return flight to New Mexico. Several hours later, I was greatly relieved to see that semi-frozen package slide onto the luggage carousel in Albuquerque.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” said Albert Einstein, “It is the source of all true art and science.”
Li Wen’s “contact” met us outside the gate of the Pig Factory. He said something to the guard, which I later learned was, “This woman is going to buy a lot of meat.” The guard waved us through.
We walked around the side of a very large, white tile building to a place where pigs were being herded through a small pig door to an interior holding pen. A pig is lying on the floor, loose in the room — back against the wall. Outside, some men are moving a pig on a flat dolly…A second dolly appears next to me and I jump aside as the pig thrashes about and falls off. Two men drag the ill-fated animal by its ears and deposit it nearer the pen. It doesn’t take long to figure out that these few unfortunate pigs have broken a leg in transport or unloading. All three are now silent, so I encourage myself to believe that they are in shock and can’t feel pain. I begin to film but am quickly told that it is not allowed. I put my camera away and retrieve the paper and pen that I brought along as a backup.
When the pen is full (20 – 25) the pigs are hosed down. Many more pigs wait outside.
As I prepare for the bloodletting to begin, I survey the machinery. Everything looks washed and clean. There is no unpleasant odor. A conveyor belt with big metal hooks snakes along the ceiling. Its first stop is over a large square pool of steaming water that looks to be just at the boiling point. A round metal machine is perched above water level and separates the hot tank from a cold emersion tank.
Workers began to gather around, most wear rubber boots and aprons, some hold knives. My attention returns to the pen where a pig is being lifted up and out by a cable attached to one hind leg. It is pulled up to the conveyor and moved down the line a short distance. Suddenly, a man steps forward and makes a short, vertical slit in the pig’s throat. The blood gushes out and spills into a grated floor drain that runs the length of the sizable room.
Li Wen said that 1600 pigs are killed in this factory each day. There is also a second pig processing plant of equal size on the mainland, right across the bridge from Xiamen,. The pigs, 5-6 months old, come from large pig farms. I say, “they look too large to be so young.”
“This is hormone pig,” answered Li Wen. “Grow very fast.”
Now there are six pigs hanging in a row. The first few pigs in line are quiet, some of the others are still struggling. I notice that one of the men inside the pen is holding a device with a cord attached to it. I watch as one worker flips a pig on it’s side – the animal falls limp instantly as the other man presses the oversized 50’s telephone receiver to it’s neck. Another man slips a loop around a hind foot – motors hum, and the pig begins to rise.
I hear a loud splash and turn to see water slosh out of the boiling pool – then another splash and another – five pigs bob and steam in the tank. As the conveyor moves the pigs along, each hook is tripped at a certain point above the tank and the pig falls. When the first pig is sufficiently scalded, it is guided to a horizontal conveyor belt and moved up, out of the water, to the barrel shaped machine. I am startled when the contraption starts up with a roar and tumbles the pig around inside. Wet clumps of hair fly in all directions.
A pink, glossy animal emerges abruptly from the spinning container and slides into the cold-water tank. Just as quickly, a man is there with a flat bar, hook on each end. The hooks are inserted, one at each hock, and as additional slick bodies slip into the pool, the first pig rises and sways as it moves down the conveyor to another line of waiting workers.
I hear a loud thud. Over by the killing place a pig is lying on its side in the blood, legs thrashing. It must have dropped from its’ cable. Mercifully, it appears to die in moments – stained bright red. Someone walks over to hose it off.
At the next station, the glistening pigs are slit from mid-belly to the initial throat cut. Entrails appear down the line and I move to a better position to witness the next step, when without warning, the tall skinny gate guard with bad teeth, bursts into the room – gesturing and talking wildly.
“You did not get agreement from factory boss! We don’t know what you are doing! This is secret! You must go!”
As Li Wen translates the guard’s loud ranting to me, he offers a speculation of his own, “Also we might want to make his pig factory.”
As unlikely as it sounds, this is probably the manager’s biggest concern. Here is an obvious foreigner in his factory without his knowledge, attempting to photograph and take notes. He probably thought I was an investor looking to build a pig factory in Xiamen – getting a good look at the competition and stealing his secrets in the bargain.
As we are being escorted back to the entrance by the still irate guard, I think to myself, “You damned idiot. You’ve gone too far this time.” I imagine having to answer some questions from the authorities, or at the very least, the factory manager. I feel considerable relief as we reach the gate and are allowed to keep on walking.
Li Wen and I have lunch and discuss our great escape, and his next assignment. I want to go to a big pig farm and film a pig giving birth. I think there is little chance of being able to schedule such a thing, but he says, “This is easy, they know when it’s going to happen. They will call me the day before.”
I detour to meet the old man who is rushing to head me off – scuffing his shoes on the granite path with each short step. His white chin whiskers are sparse enough to count, and he appears bowed under the weight of his layered jackets. We exchange a smile as he shows me his begging bowl – the bottom of which is covered with coins and ½ yuan notes, and I suspect his good fortune is owed to this beautiful day.
After a week of cold and rain, the sun has made a comeback – kites are flying, fishermen are catching fish, and today, those hulking ceramic pipes, that unashamedly channel their odiferous liquid to the sea, barely rate a derogatory glance. It is low tide and the clam diggers are out, levering their long-handled shovels, making big sandy piles where eighteen vertical feet of sea stood just six hours before.
This perfect weather tells me that the beach park will be crowded today. A typically large number of non-casually dressed people will come to the seashore. They will meander along the beach or sit on protective sheets of newspaper – men in suits, white shirts and dress shoes – women in fake fur-collared jackets and high-heeled boots, who will leave their little, exclamation point footprints in the sand.
The locals in semi-tropical, south China, consider winter weather – which hovers around 60 degrees Fahrenheit – to be life threatening. Close fitting long underwear, worn by every man, woman and child, is a first defense against the bitter cold. I attended a meeting upon arriving in Xiamen, in which the keynote speaker was smartly attired in suit, tie and long underwear – the sleeve of which, poked out from beneath a starched white cuff.
The morning began to heat up, so a friend and I sought out the shady side of the street as we strolled to the market. He commented on the summery weather and to punctuate the point, pulled up his shirtsleeve and jacket sleeve to show me his bare forearm. “See”, he said emphatically, “My pajamas stay home today.”
Near the row of pork vendors, a middle-aged man in a blue Mao-era jacket, sits spread-eagle on the meat-flecked floor. One pant leg is rolled to his groin, revealing scars from an injury that mangled his thigh and apparently cut short his working life. It occurs to me that begging attire lacks a foundation of long underwear. Comfort is not the look they’re after.
My attention returns to my pajama-less friend, who is saying something about the warm weather and a cold I suffered recently.
“You get sick because you like to take your clothes off”, he announced.
“In the afternoon when it gets warm”, he said earnestly, “You think, ‘It’s warm, I will take my clothes off.’ “Don’t take some clothes off”, he cautioned, “because then you will become sick.”
We pass by an impossibly thin girl – her even thinner legs are twisted beneath her on the wet concrete. I continue to the far end of the market lane and moments later, turn to find her at my feet with outstretched bowl.
I am reminded of a recent television spot, showing a smiling, well-groomed man in a wheelchair, using a public phone that had been lowered from standing height. The city of Xiamen ran the promotional ad, in conjunction with a weeklong Beijing symposium held to celebrated the 10th anniversary of the “Promulgation of the law on the protection of handicapped people”. The Xiamen ad proclaimed, “We will work to make the city more accessible to its handicapped citizens.”
The regulars who work the larger university shopping area are becoming familiar fixtures. There’s the thickset woman who displays her elephantiasis foot on a comparatively tiny square of cloth – right next to her battered begging bowl. I am fond of the sweet-faced young man with shockingly dwindled legs, one of which he slings over a shoulder so you’re sure not to miss it. I also like the man with clear, intelligent eyes (and I suspect a sense of humor) who otherwise looks like the live-chicken-eating-cannibal in the county fair I frequented as a kid. They all dwell at street level, therefore looking even more pathetic and downtrodden – except for the upright ‘cannibal’, who’s ensemble of filthy rags and wild, unwashed persona, says ‘wretched’ in any position.
These are not fair-weather beggars – I have seen them at their posts, hunched up against the cold and damp – and it pleases me to think of them enjoying a balmy winters day.
Thoughts come to me unsolicited, and I wonder, “How do these people get to their begging locations?” And, “Where do they go to the bathroom?”
These ruminations evoke memories of the first time I came to China. I was invited to participate in an international sculpture symposium outside of Tianjin. My home for six weeks was the Golden Sail Hotel. It had everything I needed – a bowling alley, Karaoke bar, revolving carpets in each elevator that correctly announced the day of the week, and a Japanese restaurant, “…located to second floor,” where I was invited to, “Come and taste the delicious odor to your own pleasure.”
The lobby of the Golden Sail Hotel offered a small, but beautiful restroom, equipped with lotion, hand towels and – a steep step up from the rest of the room – a row of three, equally narrow stalls. The door of the furthest compartment displayed an impressive brass plaque, on which Chinese characters were inscribed, and above those, printed in English, was the word, “DEFORMED”.