Reading: Jonathan Chamberlain — King Hui: The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong Kong

Some of the books on my reading wish list, which is now close to six score, have been there for some years. I maintain a certain orderliness when it comes to sorting, cataloging, filing, and I’ve been using Bookpedia for ages to keep track of my books, if for nothing else than to prevent me buying the same book twice, but an equal disorder when it comes to recalling what caused me to add a book to the wish list in the first place.

Jonathan Chamberlain’s King Hui: The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong Kong should be fairly obvious as to why I wanted to read it, covering my favourite China stuff: Guangdong, Canton, the Republican Era, pirates, opium … Hong Kong, well, there’s so much written on that city compared to the ones starting a half hour north that it’s not such a specific interest, also I think a significant amount of Hong Kong writing is precisely because it was a British Colony until ’97, and if there’s one thing readers of the english language tend to love with scant reflection, it’s stories about exotic places ‘we’ used to own; that is to say, it’s the Orient is only interesting when it’s about us.

So back to the man and his opium. It turns out I first read about it in 2008, or at least that’s when it was mentioned on Xujun Eberlein’s Inside-Out China (then in a different incarnation) and I filed away her post in my reading archive. And recently, being desperate for something to read, I trawled my wish list and decided this seemed like a good choice, of course having forgotten all the details.

It’s accompanied me to Vienna, where I have been using it as an aid for breakfast and putting myself to sleep. It tends to fail in the latter as it’s a fantastic tale. It’s an oral history, and reads like a cleaned-up audio transcription, something I’m not so used to reading for an entire book. Hui is one of those fine hetero male raconteurs though, and Chamberlain’s editing and pace make this a fast, visual read.

As to Hui’s stories, Chamberlain states he believes they are true, saying that Hui repeatedly told him these over some years and remained consistent however wild and unbelievable they sound. Me being around half-way through I am unevenly split between accepting this, or thinking that some of this is true, some happened to people around him and he placed himself in the main role, some is exaggeration, and a small amount is lies which Hui has come to believe is true through years of retelling.

To be clear, I find him quite egocentric, narcissistic, and self-deceiving; probably not someone I’d find interesting for long. He was also incontestably a Japanese collaborator during the Second Sino-Japanese War (or WW2 as the Euro part of the world calls it), corrupt, and given the wealth and life he started with, a fool. Not that this distracts from a vivid description of Canton and Hong Kong through the last century, and I’m enjoying for both that and this charmingly sleazy man.


what were they doing there?

Someone was telling me 佛山 Foshan, the Fo meant fire, like in Cantonese, but duh! it actually means Buddha. Anyway, Foshan is where Ms Pixeldirt Justine has been holed up making art on and off for about as long as I’ve been in China. It’s also where Osram China have their factory to make lights, and show off various sorts of illumination with matching colour temperature cards in the lumens equivalent of soft porn.

So we got a bus out there, which went way far in one direction, past the Osram factory, turned at a hairpin under the freeway, went, way far back, turned into town, went down the road for a while, did a u-turn, back up, turned and then we were there. I guess that’s the direct route, and I enjoyed the tour of Foshan too. we got little visitor stickers and went into the afore-mentioned boudoir of lux … mmm … LED sheets … before the head of the China operation gave us a short talk on Osram and Siemans in the middle kingdom. Along with brochures filled with spec sheets for 240000lm lamps. And stuff about art. Which is what we were here for but I was thinking JD would be in a sugar-coma from all this.

And it got even better. We got a tour of the plant.

Making florescent strip-lights and other fun stuff, from glass tubes to light-sabres. I’m a bit of a slut for automated production lines, and this was just like watching a steam-punk Alpha Blue, lots of gas burners, dully glowing thickly molten glass, pin-prick white bursts of arc welding, and all manner of lamps flickering on and off, wrapped in a moist heat funk of industry and southern china spring.

Not that I’m a connoisseur of overseas factories in China, though through my daily RSS mainlining, there’s a couple of CSR sites that get jacked up, and really Osram looked pretty nice. Clean, safe (ear plugs ja!), the staff were young and looked happy… despite the high-speed monotony of making fiddly parts over and over that would send me completely deranged in half a day, it just looked like a manufacturing site in any other country I’ve been.

But we were here for Art (though the thought of regular employment and my own bed got me quite distracted). In particular, Siemens Arts Programme that has been going on all over China, and in Foshan it was COSplayer of the year,曹斐 Cao Fei with What Are You Doing Here?. My photos pretty much suck, though Emile video-king got it all, and it’s funny that the last show I saw in which the exhibition was better than the advertising was her 角色 COSplayers in Hong Kong. This project is in collaboration with the employees at Osram, the same ones who are making your lights right now, who spent five months in their spare time making installations, learning to sing and dance, and while maybe they’re not going to go off to the 广州美术学院 Guangzhou Academy of fine Arts where the bus left from, they are an unequivocal display of the innate creativity in people that usually gets stamped out by age 10.

What I noticed in COSplayers was Cao Fei’s lack of irony in working with her collaborators, and a sensitivity that makes it very hard to look at the people involved in the work and the art they make in a disparaging way. This is so far from the lazy, incipiently hateful and un-committing dross I’ve seen in Australia and Europe, and splattered across the cultural landscape of western inner-city urban art. For me, this seriousness is what makes her work so strong, and why I keep coming back to it.

Practically, each group worked with her on an installation made from Osram products, and combined that with a performance in it, spread out across the basketball courts of the factory’s apartments, the performances cycling through as dusk fell across a clear, cloud-streaked sky. In reality describing it does nothing to explain the sheer weirdness and trippy psychedelia of it, like watching white-gloved security guards body-popping like Missy Elliot’s backing dancers under a sea of primary-hued light.

Cao Fei is off to the Sydney Biennale soon, and I was thinking about how this would tour. My first impression was that I’d love to see the employees in Sydney, then I started to see problems with that, how an audience such as in Australia, so attuned to seeing art-as-irony, would not get it, and how easily it would be for the performers to become circus monkeys. Also, the site-specific part of it, the “what are they (you) doing here?” is tricky to transfer, as it applies both ways, towards the workers from us in why they are there, what it is they do in their jobs, and from them to us as outsiders, why have you come, why are they looking at us? This reversibility of the spectacle, and its questioning lends a power to the art that removed from the Osram factory would be difficult to – at best – reproduce. To document it though, and present that along with the installations I think would be far more effective, to see the audience both us as outsiders and the Osram employees – foreign and Chinese – makes it complete.

I think the Siemans Arts Program is something really awesome, and that it’s happening in China even more so. Cao Fei, her work and I guess, her working methodology to me seemed a very appropriate choice as artist. Also the people involved who work in the Foshan factory should feel very proud of what they’ve done.

(After we went to Sleepywood for Long Island Ice Teas, and the photograph of the pitcher full of it is for someone who asked me to have one for them… yes, the Sleepywood drinks mock tall buildings with their puny size.)

西门子艺术项目 – what art you doing here?

Cao Fei‘s performance/video/installation for the global Siemens Arts Programme in Foshan, What Are You Doing Here? opens today. There’s a bus from the 广州美术学院 Guangzhou Academy of fine Arts at 1520.

Cao Fei’s “What are you doing here?”

Oct 2005 – Apr 2006
OSRAM China Lighting Ltd., Foshan, Guangdong Province

OSRAM China Lighting and Siemens Arts Program asked the artist Cao Fei to conceive an art project for the Foshan site.

For this purpose, she distributed questionnaires to the employees, inviting them to express their personal feelings, wishes, anxieties, career goals and expectations. Afterwards she worked intensively with 35 employees to translate these intangibles into artistic form. She divided the employees into five groups, each of which focused on one of the following themes: “Future”, “Dreams”, “Reality”, “Home City” and “Visions”. Expressed as drawings and sketches, their ideas will be initially incorporated into a lighting installation, which will be followed by a collaboratively conceived performance and a video.

Cao Fei‘s art repeatedly reflects on the social relationship between the individual and that individual’s professional surroundings. Against the background of globalization, she devotes particular attention to social changes occurring in the Pearl River Delta, which is also the location of the headquarters of OSRAM China Lighting Ltd.

“What are they doing here?” is a project series run by Siemens Arts Program.

— Siemans Arts Program

他们在这做什么? what are they doing here?

I’m off to Hong Kong tomorrow to pick up Paul and Emile, and I’m not sure when I’m coming back, so maybe there will be nothing to keep you amused. But I’ll be going west on April 11th for Cao Fei‘s installation performance at Osram’s lighting factory. mmm lights …

The “What are they doing here?” series attempts to foster lively communication between Chinese artists and employees of Siemens AG subsidiaries. In these projects, employees are invited to perceive their work environment not only in terms of business, but also to experience its emotional, social and creative dimensions.

OSRAM China Lighting and Siemens Arts Program invited the artist Cao Fei to create an independent artwork in collaboration with the staff of OSRAM Foshan. She posed the question “What are you doing here?”and distributed questionnaires to staff in different positions in order to compile their hopes, dreams, anxieties and expectations. These feelings are visualized through light installations, a studio performance and a video.

In this work, Cao Fei focuses on the value and identity of the human being in a huge production system, and thereby shows how art can turn a production system that exists in the real world into “theater”. At the same time, the project tries to explain how increasing globalization is affecting the Pearl River Delta, as well as the whole of Chinese society. This is inextricably linked with the artist’s continuous observationof the relations between individual and social space and the urban space of the Pearl River Delta.

— NoMAD CaoFei

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