Colette Hosmer's Blog

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Archive for hosmer in China

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
____________________

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

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.