Chengdu, day two, and we’re waiting for …

Chengdu, day two, and we’re waiting for Dawei out the front. He’s a local painter who’s taking us on a studio tour before the Bookworm Artists’ Talk tonight.

When Dawei arrives he has soft cat eyes and a ponytail that reaches his waist. His English is good so it’s easy to talk and his painting is quite interesting too. Brushy figures painted from Brighton, some caught in the crack of a strobe light.

He’s been way too pious in cleaning up his space, like the other artists who we meet later. Brushes in a row and the super clean loo are a dead giveaway to us paint pigs. We drink Chengdu tea and smell in his oils, nearly filling the small space of his hideout.

Han Qing from Beijing is also with us. He’s an artist who shows with Redgate Gallery.
With no studio in town he hands out his catalogues, which have pale pink and light blue and yellow.

They’re all about light – or to do with the light – or of a light he says over. Not that these discrepancies had been of much worry to us. They are streetscapes at night and paintings of globes. It’s just an animated kind of one-way argument – the sort that I suspect might frustrate Xiao Ping.

Xiao Ping has been with us from the lucky get-go. He’s a towering tall and ever-dignified man – like a big screen movie star, or a poster of one of Mao’s crew.

Xiao’s quiet nature, which only occasionally breaks, gives him a curious mystique. It’s perhaps the result of time spent sitting down with the elderly Artists in Arnhem Land. Or maybe a lash back from his previous life growing up in the Cultural Revolution.

He does his best, despite his no-fuss nature, to encourage our conversation and questioning. He’s had the unfortunate job of being our right hand language man, on top of thinking through his own creative prerogatives.

Then we meet He Yi and Zhang Xi, both in different parts of town. They are stylish people in minimal flats that are bare and clean and cool out of the heat.

He Yi matches his paintings perfectly. He’s in shades of grey, like the walls of his place, with a smart purple string around one wrist. In his works are figures, rendered transparent, with a splash of one color in the corner of a limb.

Zhang Xi opens her door in square pajama pants and a bra-less blue tee. She’s a slight pretty woman who takes up position leaning next to a crystal clear ashtray. It holds just one butt placed central, like the fragile figures in her work. The burnt out end like one shock of black hair, like her own, which is cut in a fringe.

We have finished our tour so clean up our looks before heading to the Bookshop for presentation. Kate has organised the slideshow of images, which we rearrange in a stereotypical way – in the bus and at the last minute, poor thing.

When she takes the floor her presence is noticeably cool and particularly professional – she’s a woman in a role she was meant for.

Fiona then talks about her most recent project (on Queensland’s Opium trade) before the others start discussing their own. We watch her from the couch down low, sip on drinks, and listen intent. She looks like a Queen in a bright red shawl with glasses that sit down on her nose. She’s got a head of shiny curls – girly – almost at odds with her steady voice that says I’m serious better believe it.

Not usually a big gas bagger, it’s a rare opportunity to hear her articulate so much so eloquently and so candidly. We smile at each other and think, ah well, now that’s finally a real true gun artist. All those years of research help her to speak with accuracy – a problem we all seem to have when Capitan Kate springs the request back on us. We are asked to talk when our slides flick over.

From where I sit everyone speaks beautifully, and is perfectly fitted to their strange wears. But then over burgers we question our statements, and wonder why the hell we said that crap.

On the way home the boys and I get a ride with an impressive American student. She’s young and fluent and takes us to a graffiti grotto that she’s discovered and would like to show us. She says that it’s the first one in Chengdu, and it’s beside the Brocade River where the famous poet Du Fu was inspired.

We walk by the water where the taxi drops us off and finally find the old building. It’s dark inside save for the flash of our cameras that make out the paintjobs in brief moments.

Like Company For Chamomile

Chengdu is famous for drinking tea. This is all we know and it’s enough to make you think songbirds, leafy streets and laze. Everything all colloquial and ginseng cool, like breezy lattice gazeboes and parasol strolls.

For the eight hangovers on hard sleepers it sounds well placed. Romantic even, this then imagined big town of quiet card games and fine cigarette smoke. Next stop chamomile clarity and a sweet poppy seed bun. A spot of sketching. Light rain, delicate figures, sleeping caramel cats. Another cup please.

It’s all minty in our minds. The toothpaste we desperately need after a long train trip – after a big poker night on warm Cola and Rum.

And it starts off so arriving at The Loft hostel, which is all that its fashionable title suggests. Poster art, pool table, a little bit of I’ve-been-to-Amsterdam. We settle in and sit around and knock back a few futile caffeine hits in this self-confessed tea town.

The afternoon is spent Pupil Free, which means whatever you like. But no time now for that detox tonic – it’s the museum, Mao’s monument or a rubbish tip trip. People go and see the Pandas. Pete paints under an overpass.

It’s an E.T.C he says with some cheek, when I take a perve at his large roll of paper. An Elevated Transport Corridor. Small teeth, like children, grin out from a bristled chin. The drawing’s more abstract than usual.

The news of his sudden departure, from masculine mountains, to pagodas that burn, to the ever-curious E.T.C. passes around our table at night, with the later proven satanic Sichuan.

To stop being furtive and to embarrass him greatly, Peter is all you can hope for. Clever in the most un-compromised way, not a sparrow’s dick of pretension. Always furiously into the notebook he is, while he listens to something that sounds heavy.

How are your C.C.S.C’s we ask, teasing when he’s at it again. Concrete Systems of Car Conductivity. The O.P.A.F’s? Overland Parabolic Access Facilitators. Bridges arcing the city.

We confess he’s anything but The Great White Asparagrass, which his devoted work ethic could suggest that he is. It was Phil who first came clean about this communal presumption of ours. Thin in high pants with small rectangle specs, perhaps a stutter, or possible shoulder twitch we thought.

How wrong you can be about things sometimes, and how refreshing it is when you are.

Double Happiness For Everyone

Mother Kate is Captain at our helm, with gold loop earrings doubled up in one ear and a sometimes-audible cluck. We’ve navigated our way through the night, off the train, across the city, (around certain medical difficulties), and into our hotel. Proud moments for the diligent organiser of everything who can see her ship take shape.

Shuyuan Hostel by the Xi’an city wall is on the brink of backpacker festive. Lots of pot plants and laminated signage, remnants of patriotism from the Soccer World Cup taped to the walls of the breakfast room.

It’s the kind of place where young women scrawl inspirational notes on the bathroom walls. Some new philosophy they thought up in India, with a smiley face to follow as full stop. But we are happy here in our sheltered courtyard, knocking back coffee and flicking through maps. Birds of a feather perhaps.

Traditionally the end of the Silk Road, Xi’an City still races and so we race with it. The Bell Tower, Drum Tower, Muslim Quarter. Wet Market, Curio Market, Folk House. Big Goose Pagoda, Little Goose Pagoda, Shaanxi Museum.

We split to travel across town on buses, packed in with all manner of people completing all matter of task at high speed. Modern buildings are happening all over – in and around old streets that stress at their seams. Fruit vendors, shoe fixers, key cutters and hot food cookers make smell and noise and notice, in some parts, the tall white person coming down the back lane.

These are vibrant and embedded scenes, improbably synchronized with the newer world around them. This seems to be a very Chinese thing.

Fiona walks with Francis through the Shaanxi Museum. At its entrance a large sign reads;

we sincerely wish that every visitor could acquire pleasure, inspiration, enlightenment and distillation when you appreciate the rhyme of the song, taste the implication of the poem, and probe the mystery of the treasures;

which we all do at one stage or another while getting a handle on Shaanxi Province dynastic structure.

Cultural artefacts on endless exhibit trace the rise and decline of fourteen Emperors. One couldn’t help but question the triviality of their own creative gesture. Though perhaps that’s the tonic for toughening vigour. Or the point of your satire if your use it like that.

Philjames, Pete and Guy climb a very tall mountain followed by the camera crew. We are slowly acclimatizing to them. Overcoming our own embarrassment at being recorded in sometimes vacuous roles. The three come home all super glittery though wacked out. They scaled the steps of this mother landscape from morning to afternoon. It was perfectly inky and accurate by their description.

Rows of corn struggle to grow between the criss-cross of new highway on the way to Bingmayong (The Terracotta Warriors). A woman tells me that many of the farming grannies now spend their days playing Mah-jong. Land has been sold off for development and so they wait without work as their grandsons negotiate the building of big business.

Out the cab window a crow’s nest of road workers eat lunch on the high top of an unfinished pylon.
Before the hall of Warriors a near Disneyland of food joints, tourist taps and car parks bog the flow of traffic. We bolt through fast on our way to the sight where the first fragments of ceramic were found not so long ago.

Facing us are 6,000 armoured soldiers, ready for battle, taking us in through 6,000 varying expressions. Their hair is lovingly different as you look from face to face; top knots and ponytails with little twists and braids and ties. The detail is touching.

In perfect formation under this domed roof hall, they’re positioned as originally intended – to protect China’s first unifier in the Afterlife. Imagine what violence may have befallen him there for his army to crumble with such theatrics.

But then to the back of the hanger, under dirt or transparent sheet plastic, beside the surgical tables of Archaeologists, lie the wounded. They stand half completed, numbered tags hanging from their wrists, waiting for the day when they will join their fellow men and face east.

It seems this immense army of China is saddling up again.

The Station is a moving mess of people; all bags and food and boxes funnelling through turn styles and security checks. None of us know where the other ones are, but we make the train and sweat and smile and start buying fruit from the woman with the trolley who moves through our car. The family has re-formed. Is looking almost fully-fledged.

Before an imminent bedtime we’re in number Nine, the dining room carriage with space and hot egg tomato soup. There is a single red rose on every table, as plastic and fantastic as the other faux furnishings. Outside the window a mountain scene flickers between the ins and outs of tunnels. Running water and steep views down to old stone towns.

We start up toothpick poker. We flick sticks and drink beer and take out loose loans from one another. We’re back on this slow gravy boat – with double cooked pork and double happiness for everyone.

with love from China

Mei Wen Ti Means No Worries

We’re on the 604 slow-train out of Beijing, heading for Pingyao in the Shanxi Province. This is night two in China spent together as unfamiliar travelling friends, resting in the Hard Sleepers stacked three high.
We fall into our bunks easily after the exertion of getting ready for being here. We’ve packed up studios, finished off works, pushed through the rigmarole of life’s administration pre-departure, and everything that’s come lately.

Now with a t-shirt and a toothbrush and a notebook in a bag we exhale, grab a sideways look at each other’s gear, and give a school kid smile. A fat baby boy tugs at his slight mum’s shirt. Fit men in white singlets, or light pink and grey, with warm looking arms play cards across their knees.

We wait for the Carriage Boss to turn out our lights and put us to bed. Nothing to worry about here – Mai Wen Ti. She’ll get us up at the other end with a poke and smooth song over the speakers. The Mandarin music sounds like cheap Chinese wind charms as we pull into Pingyao station.

Our trip begins now, skating through the streets in an open taxi-bike. There are billboards and road stalls and blasting horns and to the left a team of workers doing their morning exercise in sync. An instructor stands on a box out front waving her arms like a Willow.

Then inside the old city walls there are thin streets and ancient rooves and little cats and a bicycle mechanic squat sitting with a cigarette at the front door to his shop. It’s very beautiful, surprising, and we’ll spent the next three days finding temples and tea stands for smokos. We’re getting our heads around the good luck we must have had to be asked here.

We walk into courtyards where local families cook in dark dinky kitchens. Vegies pile up in enamel bowls and washing hangs out on wire. People are generous with their time for talk and share food that is chilli hot with vinegar. This place is old and endearing, personal in design for an ancient Merchant Town.

On one of these Pingyao days it starts to rain a Chinese mist, so we hire bikes and read books. Some of us draw and do it quite badly except for Pete, who rolls out 8 feet of paper on a side road and busts out a Pagoda in black. He pulls a crowd and comes home dirty-kneed with a soggy though serious and impressive scroll under one arm. He’s wearing a woollen beanie, hollow at its top, perched too high on his man handsome head.

Outside of Pingyao there’s The Wang Family Residence and the Zhangbi Underground Defence Tunnels. We’re taken there by an operatic taxi driver who sings to us when we get bogged. Out again and on our way to Zhangbi Cun Village we drive up a mountain with wild flowers by the road. More singing and attempted language lessons, horns and sliding past trucks.

It’s cold in the dirt underground and barely lit by bulbs. They hang out from the wall at intervals on stiffened wire with tabs of tape and little twists of string. It’s almost claustrophobic down there though astonishing enough to endure it. Then light and air and we’re happily met by our virtuoso who speeds us on to The Wangs’.

When it comes to aesthetics The Wang Family had the right idea. As inventors of Tofu all decadence was allowed them. Intricate wooden structures fill the protective walls of their large family home, empty now though perfectly maintained. We see laced balconies and a lamp hanger in the shape of a bird. Circular doorways and a Qing Dynasty ink drawing of two fat grey hens. That one blows our socks right off.

Before leaving our Hostel we’re invited to do some images on the wall of the Bar next door. A memory of the Australian Artists’ who came to stay, and our first group show of sorts together. So we take up a beer and do our shy and shameful best with the texta we are handed.

Average art aside, The Boyz’ Bums are most inspiring as they face the wall to work first up and side-by-side. Guido cocks his right hip – has a noticeably cool left hand. Philjames is all up and in it – a composed kid on a textbook cover. Then we hoot like it’s good to get that bit done and leave for the train to Xi’an.

with love from China