Xu hui qu Xing huan fei Pin jiao tou zhan

Xu huiFrom a UK perspective, recycling is endemic in Shanghai in a way that we crave in the west. Some people, mainly migrant workers, actually make a meagre living from their collecting and gathering. Money is exchanged. Everything moves on. Bicycles are even specially adapted to carry large plastic vats of food waste, strapped on either side of the rider, presumably to feed the pigs. Tricycles carry dry goods of every kind. Downtown in the city centre this is also a regular sight: men and women gathering waste materials and loading them up, strapping them on, riding off, seemingly very precariously. “I have this guy’s mobile phone number. Soon as we have stuff to get rid of I call him and he’s there in less than an hour. He takes anything.”

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So is this recycling in the languid, self-consciously virtuous, western sense, or something more fundamental to the cultural and eco-system of China? Can the fish see the water they are swimming in? And would this be such a successful process in Shanghai without the wide bike and moped lanes built into the major roads? The Shilong Road bike lane is 3.3m wide and has its own rules of the road.

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This constant movement of materials was one of my first observations in the Square Mile. The combination of pedal power and recycling appeared idealistically holistic. It was later that I came to understand the relationship of the corner of Shilong Road and Yongchuan Road, right outside the Shanghai E Arts Bar, to the bigger project. This was wear the tricycles turned off, the through route to the Xuhui District Recycling Centre, 500 metres away, and also in the Square Mile.

Compellingly filmic for the sculptor and commentator, this centre has an altogether different feel to its London equivalent, a place on the Isle of Dogs where I’ve heard confusing stories of French companies “being paid a fortune by the Council to deal with Tower Hamlets’ rubbish” or with horror and embarrassment that “it’s all being shipped out to China”. London would prefer not to think about what happens to its rubbish, it’s all too overwhelming. “Well we do try to recycle but you know how it is…”

Here, behind a concrete wall on Luocheng Road, lies the destination for the laden tricyclists, a place of continual movement, sorting, shifting, measuring and weighing, and subdued human interaction, not unlike an artists’ studio complex.

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Now in an ongoing working relationship with a group of Pioneers from the nearby Xiangyang Yucai Primary School I dreamed of a symbolic intervention, in recognition of the excellence of this facility. We talked about wording and salutation, timing and surprise. It all made a certain kind of sense, the foreigner making comparisons with his western city struggling under a garbage mountain, highlighting a local facility, the students owning their statements and actions, the workers receiving them. Terrain would be crossed. Diligent Angels and Heroes of Recycling. We Salute You (completely lost in translation).

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Fear and experience are not strangers

It would be easy to miss. Three entrances set back amongst shop fronts, like thresholds, the odd moped driving in and out. It looks like nothing. Then there were the rumours coming through from Yin Yi and other Saturday visitors, “we found this market around there as well. It must be for the migrant community.”

I can’t explain, can’t describe the feelings, feelings which include fear, excitement and sensory overload. Photographs would flatten it out. Video would place it anywhere. And the light is poor.

It is vast. It has zones. Pyjamas, dogs in cages, dust, spices, hot water flasks, songbirds, furniture, insects in their small containers, goldfish, bulbs being part-peeled by hand and soaked in water, artisans masked up and sanding down, others cooking in corners and some are living here, illegally maybe, like an artist studio block. Two jiao to use the toilet.

The further back you go the more private it becomes. I could imagine renting a space here myself, for masking up and sanding down.

Of course this is familiar territory for the locals. And it’s a place of specialism, not just for the migrant community. It predates them. For me it has the magnetic pull of a grotto of resources, learning and desire.

I discover it late and am then drawn back most days. I want to spend here, to spread the UK Sterling in Yuen. It has something of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, without the hassling. No foreigners, few customers, something slightly forgotten about it.

Then I look again at the satellite map and there it is, all roof and rectangular space, directly opposite the recycling centre. It really is vast. Not just a feeling. And it’s named on the street map. This is the Changqiao Huaniao Market. Only.

Xu hui qu Xing huan fei Pin jiao tou zhan Recycling Centre, Luocheng Road and Changqiao Huaniao Market opposite

The large linear rectangle of Changqiao Huaniao Market, opposite the Recycling Centre

A transaction involving cigarettes

R  I couldn’t shake it off, Tania, didn’t want to. Held on. And as Yong was with us I thought it could happen, thought he was the key.

No-one was asking you to let it go. This was your thing, clearly, plants on the move.

R  Yes, but it wasn’t really an intervention, more of an event for the cameras.

T  Your ‘intervention’ terminology is flawed thinking. How can you measure your ‘social engagement’? This film footage you’re talking about could have huge impact. It probably won’t, but we don’t know yet.

R  But I’m looking for impact on the Square Mile.

T  The same applies. Your expression of interest in plants on the move may leave a lasting legacy here. It probably won’t, but we can’t predict. Get off the measurement agenda, can’t you. Did you measure your impact when you were a ’visionaire’?

R  I guess not.

T  Right. You sound reluctant about the whole thing. Like you had an end in view that didn’t come to fruition. I see this more like The Stumbling Block. Your disappointment actually makes it all the more interesting. I think it needs a name.

R  Like Plants on the Move?

T  Like Circular Energy, Feed the Feet/Feel the Heat or The Cycle. Yes, that does it, The Cycle.

R  But that was the overall title I used for the e-flier advertising these two days of interventions.

T  So? Haven’t there been other titles flying around for the individual pieces under the heading of The Cycle? Like for the river/bridge installation. Fish to the River wasn’t it? Yuk.

R  No good?

T  It’s floppy and flat. How about a title more consistent with the river dialogues with the Botanical Gardens lady, the professor and so on.

R  Got something in mind?

Getting Ready for Expo, Gold for Blue, Establishing a Bridge with Another Department.

R  Blimey.

T  It entertains me that The Cycle – under the overall heading of The Cycle – didn’t quite happen. This gives it wheels. And what did Yong have to do with it?

R  Maybe it was Flora’s idea?

T  Who’s Flora?

Flora and Yong, looking for the head man

Flora and Yong, looking for the head man

R  She was helping out, along with Clara, one of Ling Min’s students at Shanghai University, and a smoker.

T  So what was Flora’s big idea?

R  To buy a couple of packs of cigarettes to encourage the head man at the Botanical Gardens Extension to facilitate the image I couldn’t shift, didn’t want to lose. You know what it was. We got there. The camera crew helped up the ante I think. And the head man chose to play the lead. I do feel slightly awkward about the whole thing.

T  I like it. One of the best things you’ve done here. Especially pleasing that it wasn’t ‘public’ and that it ‘failed’. And the head man has a certain charisma. Did the cigarettes help?

R  I don’t know. But it was a transaction.

T  Not an intervention then.




R  By the way, why do you think people thought that was me standing on top of the recycling truck?

T  It’s no surprise to me. We need to work on your image. Leave it to me.

R  It was the caught moment of flying bottles, not a bottle-face.

T  Ok. Ok.


Gold for blue

Indirect and direct are the key to the door in warfare, the pivotal force in gaining victory. They revolve in an inexhaustible circle. Breaking that circle means defeat.

Indirect is also direct: direct is also indirect. In their infinite permutation they give rise to one another, like a circle that has neither beginning nor end; it cannot be exhausted.

The nature of water is soft and yielding, the nature of stone is hard and heavy; and yet water can roll great boulders downstream, by virtue of the torrential flood of its momentum.

The highest excellence is like water. Water profits the whole of creation, but it never contends.

Nothing in the world is a soft and yielding as water, but when it attacks something hard, nothing can surpass it.

Water shapes its current

From the lie of the land.

The warrior shapes his victory

From the dynamic of the enemy.

The Art of War, Sun-tzu (380–316 B.C.)

Three rivers traverse the Square Mile, two run west to east, one runs north to south.

The same river that dissects the Botanical Gardens – and is the responsibility of another department – also crosses Longchuan North Road close to Xiangyang Yucai Primary School and passes through the Jinniuyuan Community, a densely populated housing estate with its own bridge.

The newly constructed stone bridge over Longchuan North Road presented itself as a very public site for something, while the Jinniuyuan Community bridge held its own temptations. This was a tough decision, only resolved by return visits. The potential for a more intimate exchange and dialogue favoured the Community bridge. Old for new. Less is more. Indirect is also direct.

The Changqiao Huaniao Market, provider of all materials, was close by. And the rain should hold off.

The two bridges

The two bridges

The Jinniuyuan Community

The Jinniuyuan Community

All that can be revealed of the Market

All that can be revealed of the Market



Further trans-actions

I like to spend money locally if possible, as a holistic notion, so the exciting Changqiao Huaniao Market was again the ideal collaborative partner and source of materials for Further Trans-actions.

Market movement

Market movement

When The Cycle – as an overall framework – was being developed, the migrant community within the Square Mile was high on the list as a target locale for Saturday’s intervention.

Restrictions had not been an issue at any stage so far and I was encouraged to take this further. Here, although residential, the boundaries between private and public were as blurred as in the Botanical Gardens Extension or Kangjian Park. But where to choose? Deep inside the migrant community, at the far end of the main street, I remembered an open space. However, on a return visit it proved to be not large or public enough, and close to a sewage outlet. The dynamic main street itself was too narrow, so this left the boundary road, which has a name, Yonghcuan Road. And if the location for Further Trans-actions was close to the corner of Luocheng Road then it would be easy to find. And there were enough possibilities here: a square of grass adjoining the river, a thin rectangular concrete island, a space used for storing roadwork materials.

Concrete strip at corner of Yongchuan and Luocheng Roads

Concrete strip at corner of Yongchuan and Luocheng Road

Trans-actions would be something between an installation and an interaction, a visual give-away centred around the market-trimmed daffodil bulbs, passing on a living thing, and explained by a text panel.

But then there was the other group of people that I felt a strong  connection with, the Botanical Gardens Extension community, the incredible diversity of morning park users. Wouldn’t it make sense to compare the experience of Trans-actions in the two locations, the two communities?  So, although this second site didn’t appear in the publicity, the prospect of this engagement was far too tempting and it became the morning venue.

I laid out the bulbs and other donated items as a tableau and then began to take photographs. People gathered around and I realised that this made me into some kind of exotic photographer, assembling his items within this faded horticultural setting. It had a certain logic to it. No-one tried to stop me. Once again I could not imagine getting away with this in any UK botanical gardens. Maybe we were recognised from the previous day’s filming of the head man on the tricycle.

And then the shift happened when the written invitation in Chinese was added. It went from passive to active. If people didn’t quite believe what they read then Clara was on hand to explain. ’Please take one item’.

Was this where it became a more universal act that transcended language and culture? Or a transaction guaranteed to raise a smile?



And then at the migrant community the outdoor snooker tables had been overlooked as a potential site for investigation.


Until the sign went out.

Give sign


Nonchalant revelation

It’s Saturday. I leave in a couple of days. Clara has had more communication with Ms Guo at the Station toilet. She was asking what time I’d be taking the Aiport Bus on Monday morning. Apparently they want to take some more photos before I leave. I couldn’t be sure which bus I’d take so she and her supervisor, Ms Li Guihong, would like to say goodbye this evening. We arrange to meet at the toilet at 5.30pm.

We are on time. I stand back while Clara chats to them both. Yong and Flora stand further back. They are filming for his documentary about Square Mile. Clara gasps volubly. “What’s going on, Clara?” “ They want to take us for dinner to say goodbye to you.” What shall I say to this? “What do you think, Clara?” “I think we could say yes.” “Ok. Could you say I’d be delighted.”

Yong seems to think it’s ok for him and Flora to come along too, although I don’t think anything is actually said about this. I trust his ability to read the situation. Yong is a documentary film-maker and lecturer, studied in California, a man of experience.

We cross Shilong Road and Ms Li Guihong chooses a well-lit, traditional restaurant with extra seating upstairs. We start to sit at a large circular table but Ms Li Guihong is not quite happy with this and negotiates a private room. She mentions that her daughter will be joining us. Six for dinner, one on camera one on microphone, one slightly overwhelmed. Is this another ‘turning of tables’ as when Ms Guo grabbed my camera a month ago? How can they be taking us for dinner? They are cleaners. Ms Guo beams at me across the table. I’m thinking about how many situations and expectations have been confounding. This is another. Ms Li Guihong is ordering, camera is rolling. She asks me what I’d like to drink. “Tea will be fine.” She insists on ordering wine, her gestures implying that a foreigner needs alcohol. A bottle of Great Wall Red arrives, along with a very large lazy Susan made of glass.

The lazy Susan

The lazy Susan

Ms Guo beaming

Ms Guo beaming

Yong and Flora filming

Yong and Flora filming

The waitress is wearing a uniform of transcendent red. It goes beyond fashion to an eternal scarlet of knowing.  Ms Li Guihong’s daughter Sun Ruyi arrives in a short white quilted jacket, looking like an international student. Coincidentally she’s also studying at Clara’s university and is about the same age. They start to make friends. Ms Guo talks about her own six year-old daughter, Zhang Xinru. Clara’s parents are factory workers, and her spoken English is impeccably non-American. Here around this table I feel the encapsulation of China in transition. The quiet power and ambition of the hard-working mothers. The sophisticated, genteel daughters. Ms Guo’s will be next in line.

The menu and the transcendent scarlet

The menu and the transcendent red

Ms Li Guihong expresses embarrassment at not being able to speak English. This in turn, embarrasses me. The food keeps coming. The lazy Susan keeps turning, bamboo shoots, tiny shellfish, a large flat fish, deep-fried coated meats. She asks her daughter to practice her English on me, while Yong boldly suggests that I should give her an English name. “She’ll need one.” I go for ‘Sarah’ as it’s phonetically close to Sun Ruyi.

The flat fish

The flat fish

Conversation is flagging and I feel a little awed by the generosity of this meal and the naming of Sun Ruyi. But it’s time for photos. We pass the cameras around. Yong is still filming. Perhaps we’ll find a way of talking more freely now the meal is over. I mention ‘cleaning’ and how I see it in society. Ms Li Guihong agrees. Now we’re moving. I don’t talk about cleaning as art. This is not about art. Or is it? I speak to her for the first time about the exterior toilet and its interior bamboo grove, and how much this affected me on my first visit. She calmly says that this was actually her idea. The glass case was left empty by the builders. After several months she decided to take action. And plants are her hobby; we’ll have seen that from our visit to their ‘home’. She decided it was appropriate for the glass case to house native plants, hence the bamboo. The mystery is solved. The designer is amongst us. The artist is the cleaner after all.

The portrait with Ms Li Guihong and Sun

The portrait with Ms Li Guihong and Sun Ruyi

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.


Returning to the Square Mile

Nervous tension

Body memory line 1, line 2 from Shanghai Railway Station to Shanghai South Railway Station on line 1, the red one, next stop Caobao Road, next stop Shanghai South Railway Station change here for line 2. Body memory, 18 months ago and this was the absolute centre of my world, this circular station of transit was on the conscious periphery of experience this flashing beacon of progress and regeneration and western design, corridors tunnels transits where THE SIGNPOSTS ARE ALSO IN ENGLISH. Perceptual memory of the body turning this way the bag going through the security machine. The time limit, two hours back in the zone that was so meaningful and enough more than enough, always more, there will be more to extract, exchange, interpret, research, connect, it’s too soon to leave and now I’m back. Weeks then, hours now. Was this a mistake? Will I lose something in the revisit?

Body is remembering this exit, this sign, that booth, this shop selling air bread, at the back there the cheaper food stalls, here the connection point with the Long Distance Bus Station people flow, the South Shopping Mall seems to have a new name memory tells me, the underpass to Shilong Road the same, new billboard ads, but one or two unchanged and the last section of underpass where the workshop group made acoustic sounds is still unfinished, bare concrete, escalator still not working and with Expo over it will stay like this indefinitely almost certainly.

I come up for air, warm air in the late summer and it was late winter when I left, warm weather feels somehow more appropriate in this neighbourhood. I’m walking towards Shanghai E Arts, where I lived, further along Shilong Road, just to see, as their website now goes nowhere, passing the many hostels, understanding the transit dynamics and the hustling more than I did back then, people making a living on other people’s needs, like we do. I think of Felix and his sanguine view of the two hovels, No 557 and No 559, sitting back from the road, that they would be moved on soon enough, and how I wanted to meet the families but didn’t, scooters always on the move in and out of there. And he was right; they are gone, boarded up, perhaps for Expo. USB Coffee, my first sortie, is still doing business for the aspiring and the solitary foreigner but is looking jaded, whatever that means in a Chinese context. And here it is: all the E Arts signage is still there but it feels more relaxed and there’s no one manning the security gate. I almost go in but think of the available time and turn right along Yongchuan Road towards where the migrant community was, the indoor market and the recycling centre. Later that day I hear from Lingmin that Shanghai E Arts closed down months ago. So my bewilderment about its purpose and direction were well founded.

Boarded up

When I look harder, down alleyways and behind buildings there are still plenty of signs of the frayed and on-the-streetlifestylethatI feared had been boarded up by the ‘we need to be more civilised’ authorities. Washing still hanging between the trees, scooters being fixed on the kerb, rubbish on the move, man in a boat listlessly scooping out stuff from the river, woman making dumplings in a store front. Same woman, new dumplings. New blockade to traffic entering the migrant community but still bikes and scooters can pass. Was this a symbolic visual block? I feel excited and relieved to find village life on the street just as it was, the indoor market, the recycling centre. Residents are still throwing detritus into the river tributary behind their dwellings and at this time of year I can smell it. Of course the rivers are polluted. What was I thinking of? Professor Shen Ji had it on the nail. Why wasn’t it clearer to me in 2009 when I lived here? Was I inventing a protective romantic gloss? The owner of the shop selling tea recognises me or at least we exchange a smile. I keep moving but I cannot reconnect with where and when this was my existential locus. What do I expect from this rushed return? Is it me that’s different?

This is a place. Just a place. It only becomes more when the investigatory creative process is engaged. The ‘square mile’ context was everything. It was a work, a durational piece. I cannotre-engagein the same way. I am out of the loop. Does this question some of my perceptions at the time, some of what I took away, and have been living with since then?

Or, on the other hand this square mile in Shanghai is not just a place. It’s a microcosm and it’s revelations all still there waiting to be unpicked and exposed. Longchuan Road is Xuhui District is Shanghai is China is Chinatown is Soho is Gerrard Street is Hong Kong is Taiwan is Macau is Confucius is the I Ching is the world shifting.