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My Gulangyu Studio

Colette Hosmer & her inspiration

Colette Hosmer & her inspiration

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.

Gulangyu Market

Gulangyu Market

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.

Gulangyu Knives

Selling Knives in Gulangyu Market

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!

–Colette

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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—

Colette

Me & the tiny island of Gulangyu in China

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
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Saturday, 7 November 2009

ARRIVAL

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

CAGED BIRD | view from my Chinese apartment

From my position on the worn, overstuffed chair I can see outside the window and through the bars of my second story balcony to a wall of similar Chinese apartments beyond the narrow alleyway. A neighbor across the way has an identical balcony only the rusted bars of her confine support a few potted plants, and the door to their kitchen is flanked by two red Spring Festival banners with gold letters — another banner is pasted horizontally across the top. A caged bird flutter-jumps from perch to the top of the cage to perch to bottom and back again.

The woman of the house is slight, middle aged and gentle looking –neatly bobbed hair frames her round, expressionless face. Sometimes I see her sweeping the balcony floor or watering her two plants while the husband watches television at a deafening volume. A small window reveals images shouting from the screen in 1 to 2 second intervals. It is always on and he is always sitting in front of it, his presence exposed by clouds of cigarette smoke during the day and the glowing tips of cigarettes in the night.

I look up from my book as the woman appears on her deck. I begin to pay attention as she reaches for the cage. Leaning forward in my chair, I see her slide her hand through the tiny door. In one quick movement her hand appears outside the bars of her own cage and I watch as the bird catches flight.

A lovely smile animates her face as she puts her hands together and bows in the direction of the freed bird.

TRIP TO PORCELAIN TOWN | Fujian Province

HOSMER ART ON THE ROAD JOURNALS:

“My Trip to Porcelain Town”  –  Fujian Province, CHINA
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Colette Hosmer's, "Canned Duck," Porcelain

Colette Hosmer's, "Canned Duck," Porcelain

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.

March 12

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.

THE MARKET EELS

HOSMER ART ON THE ROAD JOURNALS: “THE MARKET EELS” – Fujian Province, CHINA

MARKET EELS

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.