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Overcast Saturday late afternoon

We’re making ‘field recordings’ with the Saturday workshop group members. We’ve divided into smaller groups and each has chosen a different chunk of the Square Mile to explore with audio recordings.

I’m with a group of six members, Professor Shen Ji and translator number 2, Frances. We explore the outdoor market and, with the support of numbers, wander deep and freely into this chaotic and vibrant community. The professor becomes very animated when describing these houses, convinced they were built in the 1970s and that they are very traditional, and self-built. “See the tiles on the roofs” he says. Later we meet one long-term resident. She is one of the few Shanghainese left here, she tells him, and yes, the houses were built in the 1970s. The community’s relationship to the river tributary that runs in front of some of the houses is clear. They chuck all sorts of detritus in. But the professor reminds us that main sewers for Shanghai were only installed ten years ago. It will take time.

Later, we pause on the bridge overlooking a main stretch of river and I ask, hopefully, if there is at least some plant life in there, some weed perhaps? He is clear. “Nothing” he says. “Look at it. Completely dead.”

I lead us on to the Botanic Gardens Extension. They’ve not been here before. Now I understand the confusion on my first visit a month ago. Thanks to the information from Ms Xiu I know that this is normally a Nursery and not open to the public. We are allowed in, no charge, because the main Gardens are closed for major refurbishment in preparation for Expo. Its chaos irritates the professor but adds to the atmosphere for me. One of the birds I’ve previously been trying to identify, with his help, appears on a branch. And he confirms that this is a Chinese magpie.

It’s now late afternoon. Some people are still exercising, others are using any available space to keep out of the cold. One group is huddled in a potting shed, with the door open, playing a board game, a mound of soil behind them. Others are whirling sound-producing diabolos.

"Surely something living?"

"Surely, something living?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing."

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Urban jungle takes hold

The thin, misty, afternoon light may be part pollution, but has its own soft qualities of intrigue. The bamboo grove in the Station South Park merges into the sky and almost leaves the traffic behind. The architectural gem of the public toilet, with its own encased mini bamboo grove, is close by.

And I’m not alone in relishing this structured but unmanicured plant life. In a mapping workshop with the Primary School in Longwu Road one student lavishes attention on what I first thought were trees in tubs, but she corrects me and clearly knows her local bamboo better than I do.

Slightly out of focus

T  You’re back then.

R  I haven’t been anywhere.

T  Feels like you have.

R  Just very busy.

T  That old avoidance strategy.

R  No. Really.

T  Standing still.

R  Yes. As a matter of fact.

T  So how was it?

R  Slightly out of focus. Slightly intimidating. Good to do. No jostling. Proved a point and made a move.

T  What point?

R  That this is China, where The River Flows in Many Directions at the Same Time and I would not be jostled or disturbed while the surge happened.

T  Weren’t you planning a return visit to the migrant workers’ English lesson?

R  To film. Yes, just before Standing Still.

T  And how was it?

R  They were pleased to see us. Ms Guo referred to the lesson location as ‘home’. Home under the station, behind the concrete wall, with the two mynah birds suspended outside today, out the back. We were very surprised to find my useful sentence from last time “The signposts are also in English” had been successfully integrated and was now on the blackboard, large as life.

T  Any further contact with Ms Guo back at the exquisite loo?

R  We called in after the class. She told us that the man she grabbed for the photo shoot on my first visit to her toilet was a regular customer and that he’d like a copy of the photo, if it wasn’t too much trouble.

T  He should get it laminated or in a frame if you ask me. The guy’s a legend.

Home

Home

Intercultural integration

Intercultural integration

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Famous station

It was on a trip downtown that the iconic nature of the South Station became apparent. There it was on a billboard near The Bund. Not just a local phenomenon.

famous station

Could some of this glamour rub off on a mere foreigner?

How did this happen?

I’m integrated into the grand occasion and introduced to the Chief of Police.

Red fabric tied, exchanged and capped.

It may be an unfashionable colour but it definitely has its place.

Cap in hand

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Chief of Police to my right, Head Teacher to my left, what a sense of security and reflected glory. So this is what fame feels like. Bring it on.

And with police protection I finally gain access to the inner radius of the station, without a ticket to travel.

The axis of the circle is a secret epicentre.

The journey starts at the core.

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Enthusiasm

Yü / Enthusiasm

THE IMAGE

Thunder comes resounding out of the earth:

The image of ENTHUSIASM.

Thus the ancient kings made music

In order to honour merit,

And offered it with splendour

To the Supreme Deity,

Inviting their ancestors to be present.

When, at the beginning of the summer, thunder – electrical energy – comes rushing forth from the earth again, and the first thunderstorms refresh nature, a prolonged state of tension is resolved.  Joy and relief make themselves felt.

So too, music has the power to ease tension within the heart and to loosen the grip of obscure emotions. The enthusiasm of the heart expresses itself voluntarily in a burst of song, in dance and rhythmic movement of the body. From immemorial times the inspiring effect of the invisible sound that moves all hearts, and draws them together, has mystified mankind.

I Ching hexagram No 16, thrown 5th December, shortly before The River Flows in Many Directions at the Same Time at the Museum of Contemporary Art

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O is a Chinese character. It means nothing.

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Blue was by far the most popular colour here, in the small survey.

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There are many rivers in the Square Mile.

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Four people looked into the history of the magician Te Kianying (whose land became Kanjiang Park) on four separate occasions. They found nothing.

So I imagine how he might have looked. This picture comes the closest. But it’s not him.

the magic one

I can now celebrate what it means to be a Foreigner in Shanghai and I embrace it.

Old foreigner

And the people looked and knew this really was a foreigner.

A foreigner who loved China.

The less famous Long Distance Bus Station South

Is another hub and major carrier of people from the south to Shanghai. A near neighbour of the station, it deserves some quality attention. Architect unknown and unfound.

Bus station

Rain provides a certain gloss

By Longcao Road Metro Station

By Shilong Road Metro Station

Humin Road close to Caobao Road metro station

Humin Road close to Caobao Road Metro Station

Famous toilet

A feature about my work in the Square Mile appears in The Shanghai Daily, the only English language daily newspaper here.

The photo they choose to illustrate the article is of the toilet. This was an unexpected and exciting choice. The toilet is now famous. This must be shared with Ms Guo and the rest of the team. Clara phones ahead to check that she’s around. She says she’s at their ‘home’. We should go there.

We’re welcomed with giggling “hellos”, in reference to our appearances at their English lessons, and there is the added hum of payday. They’re queuing for their wages in cash. I remember the near delirium of this moment when I worked for the Post Office and Blackman Harvey picture framers, and how quickly it passes. The article, although in English, speaks through the colour photo and creates a definite buzz. Ms Guo is beaming. We’re all excited. The supervisor doesn’t react very much, but she’s paying out their cash at the time.

Pay day

Pay day interrupted by the news

The queue

The queue

Surely this must give me increased leverage to finally take Ms Guo’s photo, back at the toilet? I ask Clara to translate this request and we are in business. Leaving one copy of the newspaper at ‘home’, we set off, but not until Ms Guo has changed back into her work clothes for the photo. As we leave, I turn around and realise that their home is not actually under the South Station at all. It’s underneath an elevated road that leads to the station. I wonder about my perception.

Where home really is

Where home really is

On the way we meet her sister and she asks for a photo of them together. She’s clearly not camera shy after all. Don’t we see the family resemblance?

Sisters

Sisters

After the first couple of pictures she insists that I’m photographed with her. She grabs my hand, fingers entwined, and asks Clara to tell me to put my arm around her. Then I photograph her and Clara. This is the best photo.

Famous toilet

Joint portrait

with Clara

We leave another copy of the article and also a print of that first photo she took of me with a regular customer. She mentioned he’d requested this a few days ago.

Regular

I feel momentum here. Something has shifted. We’re all in this together now. And it’s more than a toilet. It’s a work of art.

Stones for fish, insects on Metro

We should buy a couple of packs of cigarettes to give to the head man. He can make it happen. Watch.

It’s much less expensive to come and buy hot water here, filling up thermos flasks, than to heat it at home.

I don’t think they’ll understand. They’re just doing a job, making some money.

My Long Jing teas are already at a good price.

Then there’s the ‘bananas’: Chinese people who are white on the inside (born outside China) and don’t speak Mandarin.

Shanghai has always been famous in China for what it manufactures. In the 1930s it was sewing machines and flasks.

They keep the insect in its little container and put it inside their jackets in the winter, to keep it warm. Sometimes you can hear insect sounds on the Metro and wonder where they’re coming from.

Recycling is still a new idea for China. But you’ve always done it.

I make a mistake. I mean ‘artistic’. I said you were ‘artificial’.

I also make mistakes. I was wrong saying that mynah bird is the symbol of bad luck, actually it is the crow. And magpies stand for good fortune. It was a slip of tongue I thought.

Can we get a better price on the daffodil bulbs?

He’s selling garlic and ginger at the side of the road. Can’t afford a stall at the market. Making some small business. Cycled here from not far.

Chinese people usually are just curious.

I am inviting you to a performance of dancing, music and body painting, near Longcao Road Metro, one stop from here.

He says these stones are for the fish.

Helloo Mr Richard.

So this looks normal to you? All this going on in one public place at the same time? Yes.

You can shelter in here, out of the rain.

Can I film you having dinner?

Actually, there are places within this square mile other than the Botanic Garden that are very important to us. For example, the South Railway Station is an important traffic intersection; our school is place where we study and learn; our home is a place full of love.

Flask production in Shanghai in the 1930s

You can shelter in here, out of the rain

You can shelter in here, out of the rain (Botanic Gardens gatehouse)

Fine teas for sale opposite the Recycling Centre

Fine teas for sale opposite the Recycling Centre

Stones for the fish

Stones for the fish

Ginger and garlic

Garlic and ginger

Consultation

R  I’m feeling badly about the time lag, a bit disconnected.

T  What? Like here? This?

R  Well, things got busy so now this is retrospective.

T  It always is retrsopective, and even was at the start in Norway, when this talking text kicked off, before blog was the terminology. That’s the nature of it. The here and now is not and cannot be the word.

R  But when we began Talking to Tania in Greece in 2004 our dialogues actually influenced what happened on the ground.

T  And still do. You’re trying to be too rational about this. And frankly I don’t see this as a blog and wouldn’t have called it that, had I been consulted.

R  It was to do with the ResCen framework and a good way to run this parallel to the Beijing Danscross blog.

T  I’m not saying that it hasn’t been working well for you and you/me. I’ve even heard you say it’s been your ‘touchstone’ and all. But this is about the real, the actual, the remembered and the observed. Not about being ruled by frigging WordPress methodology to make cosy ‘links’ and get spam frigging comments like ”I really value your website”.

This is about tracking a process, developing a narrative. So the whole question of ‘retrospective’ is complete garbage, irrelevant.

R  So just carry on then?

T  Of course. Bus Station South — remembered, encountered?

R  Maybe.

Learning to love and the statistics of Ms Shi

BS3Gaining deeper insights about the Bus Station South was, as it turned out, simply a matter of negotiation and patience. But could we be seduced by it in a way that would parallel the temptations of the Railway Station South?

The official at the Information Desk, who spoke no English, referred us to the Director of Operations and he referred us to the Director of Customer Services, Ms Shi. We met her on the actual day of the Fourth Anniversary of the Bus Station.

I was really interested in some further understanding of the movement of migrant workers, but decided to frame this enquiry with some more conventional questions.

Clara and Ms Shi became deep in conversation, while I learned to appreciate some of the finer qualities of the physical environment.

We learn that there are 17,000 people arriving here each day by bus, while 40,000 come by train. Most people who take buses are from neighbouring provinces: about 50% from Zhejiang Province and 40% from Jiangsu Province. So people coming longer distances arrive by train. They are mainly from southern provinces like Guzhou, Yunnan and Fujian. These are the very long-distance travellers. This had not been my theory. I thought they came by bus.

There are roughly 900 buses going to about 200 destinations every day.

By now we had been invited into her office on the other side of the complex, beyond the waiting passengers and the parked buses. She told us more. The Bus Station South is considered, as bus stations go, luxurious. It is privately owned by five shareholders who invested about 0.2 billion yuen (£20 million) in the building and its infrastructure.

There was no bus station here before, while there has been a railway station since the 1920s. They have made great strides. At the opening there were only 81 buses a day and a staff of a mere 210. The long distance bus companies pay to use the station.

I sensed her understandable hesitation in revealing too much, while, at the same time relishing giving over the information and impressive statistics. Who were these people turning up on spec on the fourth anniversary?

Her office was classically international, her desk iconic, her pot plant wilting. We could have been in Detroit or Reading. For this reason I asked to take her photo in the office. She politely refused. Fine. I was pushing the envelope. Not for the first time I wondered if we’d have got this far in the UK, cold calling at Victoria Coach Station.

She and Clara were deep in conversation. Ms Shi had a lot to say. I sat back and listened, imagining what was unfolding: “We run a tight ship… very smooth… top of the range… passenger through-flow… ready for Expo… customer satisfaction… international focus… security…. ”

I smiled carefully and consistently. It seemed the right thing to do. She smiled back now and again. On reflection I wonder if this was more out of embarrassment than engagement:

Unfortunately, from one cultural group to another there is a great deal of variability about when one smiles or laughs and what it should be taken to mean…. It has been widely observed that Asians in general tend to smile or laugh more easily than westerners when they feel difficulty or embarrassment in the discourse. Intercultural Communication, Scollon and Scollon.

As we left her office, and I looked for more ways to love the Bus Station, I wondered if I was trying too hard. This may be a luxurious terminus but it’s not quite classy. Just look at the toilet for example. And “maintenance is tricky as the building is made of glass, an imported material of irregular size and hard to replace when broken.”

Meeting Ms Liu before going to her office

Meeting Ms Shi before going to her office

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