A portrait of Shanghai E Arts

 The entry that wasn’t quite posted at the time, but sketched in, with photos already taken to illustrate the strangeness:

My responses and feelings to living in an industrial complex that was Shanghai E Arts, my home during the Square Mile residency.

Felix shows me my room on arrival on October 29th 2009. He is slightly anxious as I’d asked to see photos of it. He’d photographed the bathroom with a flash and emailed it to me in the UK. It shone out. Haoyun had met me at the airport. We took the airport bus No 7 to Shanghai South Railway Station. He then navigated what was to become a familiar route across traffic lanes and barriers. He and Felix laugh when they see each other. We go for a ’company lunch’ in the Shanghai E Arts Bar. Haoyun is the Square Mile project manager and has a business card saying the same. Felix is the Shanghai E Arts representative. So, anyway, the room is fine. It has two single beds, a shower, a table and an ethernet cable. It’s in a maze of corridors with unfinished cement flooring. There are about 40 rooms altogether, mainly rooms like mine. But I am the only person staying here, and I remain the only person staying here for these weeks. One other person stays twice.

From the other side of Shilong Road

At the time I took this for what it was, as part of the experience. Now it seems part of the enigma that was Shanghai E Arts.

Felix pays for this company lunch. It comes in a compartmentalised lacquered black box, containing soup, rice, vegetables, meat, pickles. There is some excitement that we are eating together and that the company is paying. Felix makes it clear that the company (the Shanghai E Arts Community) only pays for meals when there is a meeting, but that Shanghai E Arts staff always have a free lunch here. In my culture shocked and vulnerable state I take this slightly personally, feeling a sense of exclusion, and wonder what my relationship with Shanghai E Arts will be. What I don’t yet realise is how much miscommunication is already happening through our differing usage and understanding of the language we call English. Clarity only arrives with Clara. The Shanghai E Arts Bar is like an upmarket restaurant. In the coming weeks I often return here for the company lunch, once my chopstick skills have honed. I rarely sit with the E Arts staff.

The bedrooms and the complex

So I develop a relationship not only with the streets and community of my Square Mile, but also this complex, where I live. I have the warmest exchanges with one of the security guards, who is very entertained by my bike riding. We mime and I learn later that he always asks if I’ve had a good breakfast. There is 24-hour security and a social hierarchy amongst the guards which I come to recognise. My friend Liu is at the bottom of the pile but takes great pride in his job. There is a concertina gate that opens and closes vertically by a switch in the guard house. Sometimes it’s locked when I come home late at night, so I shout towards the guard house and eventually there’s a click and the familiar rumbling of the wheels under the gate, as it opens by about a metre to let me pass. The guards wear embroidered Shanghai E Arts badges and black uniforms. The most senior guard wears a dark suit and also has the job of cleaning the larger black saloon cars, which belong to senior staff.

The concertina security gate

Felix is my daily point of contact. Sometimes I ask him for stuff. When I’m planning the event at Xin Dan Wei I ask to borrow an E Arts projector. He explains patiently that I cannot have one because they belong to the Company and he works for the Shanghai E Arts Community. The Company is commercial while the Communityisnon-commercial, but they share the same branding and the same offices, so I remain confused.

One day large posters appear on the exterior walls of the complex. Shanghai E Arts is sponsoring the Red Bull Formula One racing team at the Shanghai Grand Prix. I find this unfathomable. Or is this part of the unfolding mystery of the company mission? Then there is the day the E Arts company logo becomes the intermission backdrop to a performance at the Shanghai National Theatre. I am haunted by my confusion. When I ask Felix about these things he shrugs and commiserates but has no answers.

He does know about the exquisite table sculpture in the foyer of the building where I stay. This was given to the founder of E Arts, a man who has moved on.

The sculptural table in the lobby

The one day I take full ownership of the site is when I arrange a visit from the school. It seems an obvious thing to bring them together — two key elements of my square mile — but it causes a stir amongst the guards and the community, although they are keen for it to happen. We get full access to the company showrooms of interactive electronic gizmos. We sit around the wooden sculptural table and have a chat. We take photos. Welcome. This is where I live and work.

And just along the road, a few yards away, are the neighbours, several generations who live behind a concrete wall in a shack, fluids from their daily life trickle across the pavement into Shilong Road. As a foreign voyeur I never feel comfortable to photograph them and have no record except for the memory of Felix saying he guessed they wouldn’t be allowed to stay there much longer.


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