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Archive for November, 2009

I’m soggy, dirty and don’t give a damn

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.

Chinese Rain

Chinese Rain

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.

Stone City path

Stone City path

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 Walk through the Old City

A Walk through the Old City

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.

Working in the vegetable patches

Working in the vegetable patches

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.

I guess it's a problem here!

I guess it's a problem here!

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—



Me & the tiny island of Gulangyu in China


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.


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.

Gulangyu Mansion

Gulangyu Mansion

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