Thursday, October 2, 2008

Hongkou and Lu Xun, Part 1

Lu Xun is one of my literary heroes.  He is considered China's first modernist writer, skewering the feudal Chinese mentality, humanizing the peasant, expanding his mind to the outside world, introducing foreign works into an isolated culture and the first to defy the mandarin requisite of literary language by writing in the vernacular.  He not only wrote short stories and poems, but was also an avid essayist, always giving voice to the downtrodden and exploited, and thus a seminal upswing for socialist momentum.  He was also a tireless translator of foreign works, a beloved teacher, and a promoter of new voices, editing and advising these writings for publication.  A huge enthusiast of Japanese woodcuttings, Lu Xun encouraged young Chinese artists to partake in this form as a means of political expression.

Lu Xun (remember 'X' is pronounced 'sh' in pinyin) was a medical student in Japan when he saw news reels of political upheaval at home.  In one clip, he saw his countrymen laughing and jeering as one of their own Chinese was being beheaded by a Japanese soldier.  Lu Xun felt that it wasn't the Chinese body but rather the Chinese spirit that had fallen ill and needed healing; he decided to leave his medical studies and become a writer.   He lived in Beijing at the Shaoxing County Hostel from 1912 to 1919, publishing short stories and essays in The Renaissance, The Short Story Magazine, The Eastern Miscellany, and The Ladies Journal, and started his 'vernacular' writing with Madman's Diary, published in New Youth around the time of the May 4th New Cultural Movement of 1919.

His novella, The True Story of Ah Q, is a modern classic that was immediately translated into English and French (1926), Russian (1928), Esperanto  and Spanish(1930), and Japanese (1931). It told the story of a homeless worker Ah Q and society's disapproval of his transgressive self-boostering.  Ah Q logic:  I am the #1 self-belittler--If I take self-belittler away, I am #1!  

I found Ah Q's happy-go-lucky optimism to be very American, and tried an adaptation of this novella into a stage play.  My lesson in this project is that to adapt a work, the culture must first be familiar with the story being adapted.  Thus the irony of Ah Q was lost on the patient yet American audience (with the generous commissioning support of the now defunct Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre Projects and Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles in 1998).  How does one tell and adapt at the same time?   Now, 10 years later, the constant bullying and repetitious barrage of FOX news convincing American minds of feelgood yet screwy logics may be the adaptation key I need. 

My hope was to have all the settings painted on one huge scroll, and Ah Q the worker would have to keep turning the crank to all the places he would try to find work at and then eventually get kicked out of.  And then have to crank some more. Before leaving Los Angeles, I came across this draft and wondered if I should bring it:  too much paper.

But enough about me:  on to MY adventure!

Hongkou is a working class neighborhood where Lu Xun took up residence at the end of his life.  Many leftist writers were also living in this neighborhood and formed a league that was a constant convening of those excited by ideas of the Bolshevic Revolution. 
So as soon as the Lonely Planet guidebook had mentioned this, I thought 'Holiday in Hongkou' to revisit Lu Xun.  I booked a hotel that was just up the street from his last residence on Shanyin Rd.  Since I am not a shopper, Lu Xun is my pick for National Day attention.

I take the usual Pink Bus to Lianhua Rd, but the Pink Bus is not as usual.  I had first gotten a surprised reaction from  my office mates when I went in at 9am to check my e-mail one last time since I was offline at my apartment.  
You haven't left yet?  It's gonna be so crowded.
That's OK.  Isn't that part of the National Day fun?  Besides, I'm an easy traveler.  I don't stick to times.
They smile politely.
The first bus passes by right as I'm exiting the school gates.  
I wait a little longer than usual.  And then it comes.
The bus, and the screaming.
Hurry hurry hurry!  In the front, load in the front!  Hurry!  Hurry!
There's a couple getting on board.  I squeeze in.
Let's put it this way:  I don't ever ever need to hold on to any handrail.  In fact I cannot even lift my arms up.  My Barack Obama pin on my left breast pocket flap is the only thing keeping decency between me and the citizen to my left,

It helps to be at the front of the bus, close to the door that wafts a mercy breeze in, and allows my escape to Lianhua Rd all the quicker.  Also it helps claustrophobia to be near the front window, watching the road, although must I remind you, being on a Chinese bus with it's extra ear-piercing horn and the need to pass slow trucks gives it its own rollercoaster effect and you don't have the security to think it's just Star Tours simulation. Thank goodness the roads are slow with packed traffic.  So many folks try to wave us down, but we have to pass.  Not all the shouting and honking in the world will make more room.

The doors open at Lianhua Rd, and we spring out.  The No. 1 subway going towards People's Square is its own Festival of Sardines.  Thank goodness I only have to go 3 stops to change over to the No. 3 that goes north to Hongkou.  On the platform, I don't see signs.  I ask a stylish girl if this is the right direction going to Hongkou.  Where?  

The train arrives.  It's empty.  This terminal is where the No. 3 starts.  Everyone gets a seat.  It's air-conditioned.  It's 11am.

I exit at the Hongkou Stadium station.  Indeed.  It's where soccer games are played.  The cool thing about the Shanghai subway is that it was designed after the Berlin system and so the exits are all numbered and you are told which exits access which street.  It also tells you in how many minutes and seconds the next train and the train after that will arrive (and it does!)...something that would increase the utils of happiness of many a New Yorker.

Hongkou really is not that busy, but still festive with shoppers.  I pass the gates of Lu Xun Park and then a fake Starbucks called STA Spring coffee, and look for Shanyin Rd.  I ask a street sweeper and he points me forward.  I ask an old man and he points and says it's at the end of this alley.  Where are you from he asks in Shanghainese.  Mei Guo, I say. Mei Guo lai de, oh. Thanks I say and walk down this alley.
It's got fruit stands and a guy selling baked yams and another cooking up scallion pancakes and another frying up dumplings.  All the while bicycles are ringing and lots of motorbikes are honking.  A woman is screaming Shanghainese into a store's landline and stacks of books are being sold at the next stand.  I do come to the end, and here is my hotel.  Voila.
It looks kinda fancy for this neighborhood.  It's clean and shiny. It's popular with Chinese and has a garden and a big restaurant where lots of weddings are held.  I register and walk up a curved staircase to the second floor, down Lu Xun hall and get to my room.  It's bright with two single beds, and also two conversation chairs to the side, and an extra little ottomon under the teeny desk.  Tetris!  The bathroom is clean and well0lit. It has a TV with more than my 3 channels at home and I load up on CCTV and all its National Day coverage.

In Beijing, President Hu Jintao sings the national anthem with all of his officers.  There are 9 huge bouquets of flowers ascending up the steps.  Nine of course sounds like the Chinese word for 'forever' = 'jiu'.   Lots of RED.  Everyone is celebrating. More of that minute precision that the commie culture can procure so well, as seen in the Opening ceremonies of the Olympics. CCTV channel 9 is English speaking, so I'm loading up on spoken wall street news and how the Congress has rejected the bailout. It's so dramatic, with all of the reports from all of the other casinos, I mean stock markets, Hong Kong and Taiwan TV.  And then there's the upcoming Vice-Presidential debate.  It's been a month without TV media, and I'm soaking it up like a binge.  My stomach grumbles.

Before I head down the street to Lu Xun's pad, I take another walk down the alley.  My hotel is costing 238 RMB a night and I'm trying to have a good time on a strict budge (yes, Rachael Ray).  I keep passing this corner stand with two umbrellas.  Under one of them is the dude that is frying up the scallion pancakes--smells great but it looks pretty greasy.  And then under the other umbrella are people happily eating bowls of noodles.  I want greens.  I want unsalted, un-MSG'd vegetables.  I don't see any green.  I walk by and then I walk back.  There are trays of food that kind of look like the school's cafeteria.  It doesn't look bad, but...I'm on holiday.  I walk up to one of the ladies and ask if she has vegetables.  She looks at me like I'm a retard.  I look around and see raw fresh greens in a bucket.  

I ask if she can fry them up and put them on some soup noodles.  A man comes in from the nook where he cooks.  No, you have to have minced pork with it.  OK, yes.  But no MSG and just a little salt.  OK, they say.  7 RMB she says.  Great!  I sit at the table with a father and son that are finishing up their bowls.  There are scraps all over.  I don't care.  I'm getting greens with no salt and no MSG.  For 7 RMB!  It already tastes delicious.  It comes in 3 minutes.  I ask if I can have chili.  She brings a steel bowl with chili steeped in a little oil.  I spoon it on.  I enjoy.  It's really spicy.  I'm wiping my eyes.  I'm snotting.  I get out my kleenex.  I'm in heaven.  My sister Su watched me eat Pho once this way.  She told me never to let any prospective boyfriends see me eat this way.  I devoted a whole sequence to Kiki Wong eating noodles in my play Iggy Woo. It's a battleground.  It's the last bastion of freedom.  It's the Chinese way.  I'm on the street.  At the corner table. No one's looking.  Heaven.

The lady sees me watering.  I say, in Chinese, it 'hots' so good.  She watches me enjoy.  I tell her it's exactly what I wanted.  She asks if I'm Shanghainese.  No, my mom is though.  I'm from the U.S.  I came here to teach English.  But I came here to understand the Shanghainese too.  Are you Shanghainese?  She says she's from Anhui.  O my grandmother on my Dad's side is from there.  She smiles.  I wipe.  She tells me I have a little more to wipe under my eye.  I give her my 7RMB.  I tell her I'm coming back tomorrow, because I am.  I'm a simple gal.  Does not take much to make me happy.  See ya tomorrow.

I walk down the alley, make a right on my street, on Lu Xun's street, and make it to 132, No. 9.  
It's the Continental Terrace, where Lu Xun lived from April 11, 1933 to October 19, 1936.
On the right is an art gallery, a couple of other boutiques.  On the left, residences.  No. 9 is at the end.  You buy tickets at No. 8.  There is a greeter that you step over.  Is the cat dreaming me or am I dreaming the cat?
I buy a ticket for 8 RMB.  No pictures they tell me.  A security guard leads me next door and unlocks the door.  This is the living room and the dining room.  He watches me look at the room.  I see Lu Xun's photo.  He looks like the L.A. actor Dana Lee.  The furniture is simple.  A desk. We walk back a bit.  This is the dining room.  He stands with me.  What's back there, I ask.  The kitchen, he says.  I want a little time to take in the room, but he's there, wondering what I'm doing.  He's there to answer questions.  I don't know that much about Lu Xun.  He points to the upstairs.

We ascend, there's the washroom between the first and second storeys.  The second floor is Lu Xun's storage room with his suitcases and a cabinet with his medicines.  Go ahead, take a look at his medicine.  They are old bottles.  There is some back pain relief and then other medications with Chinese labels.  Are these his suitcases?  Yes Jeeves nods. There's more awkward silence.  Gosh my Chinese sucks.  The next room is his bedroom and study.  This is the bed he past away on I am told.  It also is simple, a standard full.  I want a moment.  So American.  Not prepared with facts, but ready with a weird sentimentality.  I wish I knew how to say ineffable in Chinese. A big day bed, it seems, with a frame for a canopy or mosquito net. There is a desk with a piece of paper and writing.  Is that the last thing he wrote?  Yes, a tribute to his teacher.  I look around.  He stands with me.  I'm nervous to ask questions.  I don't have any.  I just want to take in the room.  He is stiff.

The third level is the big room, his son's room.  Is his son still alive?  Yes, he's 80 this year.  He lives in Beijing.  It is bright with a big huge wooden bed.  He gave his son the biggest room I am told.  Is he a writer?  No, a scientist.  And there is a guest room too.  Qu Quibai slept here.  Uh huh, I say.  No wow moment.  I am a philistine. 
And a Beatle girl.
I linger outside, somehow not satisfied.  I photo the shit out of the front door.  I'm in the way of someone's shot.  Another group goes in.  I wanna go in again.  Maybe they have some questions that I would have had, had my knowledge and Chinese been fuller.  The door slams shut.
N. Sichuan Rd. (yes named after the spicy province where Deng Xiaoping was from) is the major street in Hongkou, connecting all the way down to E. Nanjing Road.  It's lively like Broadway around Astor Place in New York.  Just as many motorbikes park wit the traditional bicycles.
It's too late for me to properly take in the all of the Lu Xun Memorial museum, so I decide to take a stroll down Duolong Rd.  It's an old street with the former Kung residence, a Kuomingtang family, built with Moorish architecture.  There are galleries, shops, a small road that leads to the spot where the League of Leftist Writers met, and also the Old Film Cafe with photos from Shanghai's Hollywood of the East period and a statue of Chaplin outside.  I have a very slow espresso on its terrace: it's packed, it takes forever, it's 25 yuan!  (I could have almost 4 bowls of corner table noodles--I hear this in my head with my Dad's voice).  But it gives me a perk, and dusk is arriving.  I'm on holiday!

I spot my future.  I want to photo it.  I'm embarrassed to.  I duck to the side.  Pretend I'm really interested in this Chinese brush painting.  I prepare my camera.  I take this photo, and then try to aim it with the most telephoto possible at my future.  Still too far.
Finally, I just have to saunter up to them, and pretend I'm getting the all of Duolong Rd.  I wonder which one I am, and who my other two cronies are.
Duolong is proud of it's Contemporary Art Museum.  They are featuring an artist named Tian De, who's main theme is hope, and that hope has taken him to New York and Paris.

His work looks exactly like iPod ads: bold color with silouettes.  Perhaps that is what it's referencing but it seems a bit obvious (No wonder NY and Paris?)  It adds comment, but really easy gettable comment, and so it is empty and decorative.  Example:  3 silouette people walk by a sign.  The sign has a train on it.  Another one below it has '100m' on it, like the signs on the street that tell you there are toilets 100 meters ahead.  And so the modern pedestrian is so out of tune with their environment that they need a sign to tell them there is a possible train coming at them in 100 meters.  It's pretty hipstery ironic.

The odd thing about this museum is that you can take photos of the work.  Someone is sitting there, but they don't mind the flashes.  Hey, promotion and accessibility are key.  I wonder how much longer Western museums will be able to gauge exclusivity with top-notch price, not worrying that camera flash will damage the work or the sales of the catalogue.

The grand finale of this show is the city scape of Shanghai with a green mass of crowd and not just one sign, but five signs over 3 canvas panels.  
Had to, because I could.

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