Memory and Imagination: Meeting Ge Fei and Bi Feiyu

Last week, distinguished authors Ge Fei 格非, Bi Feiyu 毕飞宇, Yang Hongying 杨红樱 and Dong Xi 东西 visited the University of Copenhagen – for sinologists, students and literary enthusiast alike, it was a must go! The event was organised by the Danish Cultural Institute in cooperation with the Chinese Writers Association, the University of Copenhagen, Asian Dynamics Initiative and ThinkChina and was hosted by Mai Corlin.I had been reading Ge Fei’s novella 褐色的鸟群 (A Flock of Brown Birds), in which constant snow and rainfalls act like curtains on the world (or between worlds), through which persons from the narrator’s past as well as from his fantasies, materialise and vanish. At the event in Copenhagen, I seized the opportunity to ask him on his view of the relationship between memory and imagination, which I saw as a theme in the story.According to Ge Fei then, memory and imagination are deeply interconnected – in fact, much of what we think we remember, we partially make up (an observation he shares with cognitive psychologists). Furthermore, for him, the most important aspect of memory is not conscious recollection, but the sediment of unintentional memories that each individual carry.

Bi Feiyu extrapolated on Ge Fei’s point by underlining the role social expectations play in our remembrance and narration of the past. He told an anecdote (inspired by H. C. Anderson’s fable of how one feather, after passing through the grape-vine of gossip, becomes five hens) about losing a fist fight as a young boy, and retelling the defeat as a victory so many times, that he ended up believing his own false representation. The fiction became intertwined with memory and ended up reshaping it completely.

Outside the lecture room, the continuous Scandinavian rain made me feel like I was still inside Ge Fei’s story. I walked on, trying to remember the fictional narrative of the novella, while adding to it new memories from our recent conversation about it, as well as imagining what kind of persons from fictional or long past worlds might be waiting for me out there. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Yu Jun and Chen Cun on Shanghai Memories and Illusions

While in Shanghai, I attended a very relaxed and intimate conversation between painter/author 郁俊 Yu Jun and author/photographer 陈村 Chen Cun, at the Old China Hand Style coffee-house 汉源汇 at 374 Shaanxi Road South.

Seated between Shanghai-born US-based writer 薛海翔 Xue Haixiang and a ceaselessly belching young man, I immediately felt the peculiar mix of aesthetic appreciation and laid back familiarity, which, according to Chen Cun, characterises Shanghai of recent years.

Displaying his passion for the city in both word and manner, Chen Cun remarked several times upon the liveliness and aesthetic lushness of Shanghai as well as its capacity for accommodating people from very different walks of life, not least a multitude of writers and artist. Apart from his short stories, Chen Cun is famous for being among the first in China to seriously promote online fiction (see Michel Hockx recent book Internet Literature in China for details), and under the name of 老鼠 (Mouse), Yu Jun is an active member of his literary online community Minority Vegetable Garden (小众菜园).

Quite a few questions from the audience centred on Yu Jun’s novel Red Light District (红灯区), about the hidden brothel quarters of Shanghai. Several local readers confessed their surprise at discovering that such areas existed within the boundaries of their own city. Others had, from the title, expected a novel about the Cultural Revolution (in China, yellow is the colour usually associated with sexual promiscuity, while red is the colour of luck and the Communist Party among other things, and red lamps especially are associated with the revolutionary opera Legend of the Red Lantern 红灯记).

(All photographs by Astrid Møller-Olsen, Shanghai 2017)

Traveling to Hong Kong with imaginary tram

ding_ding_tram_on_hennessy_road_in_hong_kong“With a number of twists and turns, the tram skirts Victoria Park and the Tin Hau Temple (one of Hong Kong’s oldest) on its way to North Point, Quarry Bay, and Shau Kei Wan at the eastern tip of the island. The ride is convenient, if not comfortable, and the panorama of buildings and people moving by in slow motion gives one the feeling of travelling backward through time – a nostalgic antidote for the stomach-churning, competitive pace of Central Business District.”

This is how literary scholar Leo Ou-fan Lee describes a ride on the Hong Kong tram (established in 1904 nicknamed the Ding Ding 叮叮) in his highly enjoyable introduction to Hong Kong history, culture and literature City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong. The idea that the pace of transportation itself, rather than the appearance of the tram cars which have changed a lot over the past 100 years, induces a sense of, and longing for, the past is fascinating.

Reading about nostalgia in Shanghai, it seems to me that the past is often evoked by imagery (think of all the reprints of old photographs, picture postcards, commercial posters), sometimes by audio (1930s jazz) and less commonly but very potently by smell (imported perfumes, hair oil, coffee). But thinking about pace should prove very interesting indeed, though not a simple case of then=slow, now=fast I should imagine.

For me, planning my first ever visit to Hong Kong, Lee’s narrative tram ride is a much more effective point of entry into unknown territory than any map would be. It reminds me of Michel de Certeau’s distinction between the two dimensional, ‘readable’ city space seen from above and the city space you ‘enunce’ when you walk its streets (‘Walking in the City’ in The Practice of Everyday Life). Perhaps the tram ride is somewhere in between: From the second story of a tram, you see watch the streets unfold beneath and before you, slightly elevated from the hustle and jostle, yet unable to see the whole picture as your line of vision in tantalizingly blocked by buildings, street signs and fellow passengers.

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Would you like another ride? Take a Hong Kong tram from 1970s or  2015. South China Morning Post has made a history of the Hong Kong tram, but here you have to imagine the pace from still photos. In Shanghai, trams were in service 1908-1970s, then, in 2010, the Zhangjian/Translohr monorail trams were introduced. Some of these videos are really home videos, which just goes to show that there are still a lot of tram enthusiasts (and nostalgics) out there. (Quite a few of the are here: www.hktramstation.com)

A little closer to (my) home, there were trams in Aarhus untill 1971 and in Copenhagen untill 1972 while Stockholm still has a few (lovely old footage complete with very nostalgic song hits).

Dying in Shanghai

Both Mao Dun’s canonical Shanghai novel 子夜 from 1933, translated as Midnight by Hsu Meng-hsiung, and Chen Danyan’s 成为和平饭店 from 2012, translated by Liu Haiming as The Peace Hotel, begin with an old man dying.

img_25361In Midnight the head of the Wu family, a pious country gentleman, expires on his very first day in Shanghai from sheer shock of its depravity. The city itself seems to him monstrous, while at the same time curiously ephemeral, and intent upon wrecking moral havoc on all who enter: “Good heavens! the towering skyscrapers, their countless lighted windows gleaming like eyes of devils, seemed to be rushing down on him like an avalanche at one moment and vanishing the next.” (15)

waitan-40Signifying the quick demise of old traditions and values in the new world of the 1930s, with its unpredictable civil war and its extreme financial instability, the scene is set for a dramatization of a historical changes in China. The natural stage for such a scene is Shanghai, enabling professor Yu-ting, when a young lady asks him to describe contemporary society, to answer:

“It’s a tall order your question. But you can find the answer in the next room. There you have the successful financier and a captain of industry. That little drawing-room is Chinese society in miniature [中国社会的缩影].”
“But there is also a pious old man – a believer in the Book of Rewards and Punishments [太上感应篇].”
“Yes, but the old man is – he’s dying fast.” (29)

waitan-18The dead man in Chen Danyan’s story (though true to a certain type of character in recent Shanghai history, being a dispossessed factory owner with children educated abroad) is more important for the sense of emotional loss his death induces. The loss of one personal version of the past.

Though saturated with nostalgia, the novel acknowledges that the object of nostalgia is itself elusive and highly subjective. To the dead man and his mourning family, the Peace Hotel witnessed the transformation of their family fortunes as the place where capitalists were to hand over their ill-gotten gains during the five antis campaign in 1952. To other characters in the novel, it signifies the colonial splendor of the 1930s, the international ties of socialism in the 1970s or the first glimpses of the dawning Shanghai nostalgia craze of the 1990s.

Waitan (24).JPGChen Danyan’s somewhat eclectic “non-fiction novel” is a testament to the plurality of personal and emotional ties to the Shanghai of yore as well as to one of its most spectacular iconic spaces, the Peace Hotel: “Regret for it’s being ‘unlike how it was in the past’ welled up inside me, yet, interestingly; I found it hard to pin down the ‘past.’ The people I had interviewed and I myself couldn’t help talking about the hotel’s past, which often meant our respective first encounter with it.” (252)

Written 80 years apart, the two novels convey an image of Shanghai as a city of tremendous change tinted with loss. For those of you feeling nostalgic, Christian Henriot and co.’s amazing Virtual Shanghai project with photographs from the late 19th century till today is always worth a visit. .

Heritage and Memory in Copenhagen: 8th International ADI conference

What makes certain practices and sites cultural heritage? This week I took part in a very interesting panel on ‘Heritagizing Asia: The politics of time and space in Asian cities’, part of this year’s Asian Dynamics Initiative international conference in Copenhagen.

salamanca_-_patrimonio_de_la_humanidad_-_world_heritageVietnam scholar and Professor of anthropology, Oscar Salemink came up with the idea of using the verb form of the word heritage – heritagization as a process rather than something which is merely there to be recognised and preserved. As it came out in our discussions, heritagization seems to be quite a complex process of simultaneous construction and selective erasure, taking place from the present cultural political context, directed towards the past, for preservation into the future.

Several interesting and thought-provoking examples of ambiguous and problematic issues of heritage came out during the ten presentations. Anthropologists Bente Wolff and Caroline Lillelund, who talked about the local reactions to the restoration of Danish colonial buildings in India, touched upon an interesting if unintentional effect of heritage preservation: The preservation of the empty space surrounding a heritage building, which seemed to be even more treasured by the local populace. If certain practices can be recognized as intangible cultural heritage that needs to be preserved, can empty space as room for such practices also be included?

12304183263_c248552c90_bUrban geographer, Rishika Mukhopadhyay described how the idol makers of Kumartuli became the victims of their own heritagization, when their workshops were demolished in order to create a more suitable site for their heritage craft. Apart from the plight of the craftsmen now having lived in ‘temporary’ exile from their homes for more than six years, this understanding of heritage as something that can be contained and detached from its spatio-temporal context, acutely problematizes the distinction between material and intangible heritage.

Professor of Modern China Studies, Marina Svensson’s paper about the development of Nanluoguxiang 南锣鼓巷 and the creation as well as commercialization of heritage neighbourhoods in Beijing reminded us to transgress the visual bias and include more senses when engaging in cultural research.

taipei_101_from_afarMy own presentation dealt with the relation between memory and heritage. I read Zhu Tianxin’s 朱天心 novella ‘Old Capital’ 古都 from this perspective, discovering that in the instance of this fictional investigation of Taipei, the notion of heritage preservation detached from lived experience could be as problematic as heritage destruction. In this work, preservation as a nostalgic project that excludes complicated or painful memories risk removing urban heritage from the citizens, producing alienation rather than a sense of belonging.

Saint-Exupéry: The wormhole of memory

I am currently working on a PhD-proposal about memory and place in Sinophone urban fiction from the last decades of the 21st century. Therefore I tend to focus on philosophical conceptualisations and poetical representations of remembering in my reading at the moment.

On a train through Northern Greece a few days ago, I was reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s brilliant and breathtaking flying lesson in life Terres des Hommes (Translated as Wind, Sand and Stars by William Rees, Penguin Classics: 2000). He writes of memories as friends, coming to him in his loneliest hour, lost as he is in the naked and inhospitable landscape of the desert:

“They came to me soundlessly like the waters of a spring, and at first I did not understand the gentle joy that was flowing into me. There was neither voice nor image, but the awareness of a presence, a friendship that was very close and already half known by intuition. Then I understood, closed my eyes, and surrendered myself to the enchantment of my memory.”

With death and the distant stars as his sole companions, the crashed pilot’s memories are his last link to life. His loved ones are separated from him by insurmountable distances in time and space, yet through the faculty of remembering they are with him in an instant. Memories are indeed the wormholes of human spacetime.

Forced to remember: The Power of Language in Han Shaogong

Han Shaogong‘s 韩少功 short story ‘Homecoming?’ from 1985 takes up many of the themes of his famous later novel A Dictionary of Maqiao from 1996. Like Dictionary it is about history and language, and their mutual distortion of one another.

In ‘Homecoming?’ a young man comes (back?) to a village he almost remembers and which definitely remembers him, though under a different name than the one he carries now: “All this looked so familiar and yet so strange. It was like looking at a written character: the harder you look at it, the more it looks like a character you know, and yet it doesn’t look like the character you know. Damn! Had I been here before?” (pp. 2)

Through the story the people of the village succeed in making the protagonist recall the violent and suppressed happenings of his past life in the village where he lived as an ‘educated youth’ and maybe killed a man. Indeed it is an act of re-membering of bringing something back into the mind, for before they start calling him by his old name ‘Glasses Ma’, he is completely unaware that he has not always been Huang Zhixian.

In the previous quote Han compares memory and written language: Both are second hand representations of happenings, open to mistake and distortion and thus not to be trusted or equaled with the events themselves.

While the power of language and naming/categorizing (Glassed Ma or Huang Zhixian) over history is taken up on the scene of personal trauma (the killing of a man) in this short story, the same relationship, now on a collective scale, is one of the themes of A Dictionary of Maqiao.

In Dictionary the official historical narrative is distorted and the constructedness of its raw linguistic framework exposed by the local dialect and its (mis-)appropriations of official discourse.

Lastly ‘Homecoming?’ also hints at the distorting yet enlightening power of dialect, as this dialogue between the protagonist and the villager Ai Ba shows: “Do you know me (Does he mean ‘recognize’? Or ‘remember’?) […] I went to chase meat with you once, do you still know? (‘to chase meat’, does it mean ‘hunting’?)” (pp. 6-7)

Is to know to remember (that is to know again)? and is remembering (recalling to a mind that is no longer exactly the same mind) knowledge producing? Certainly the power of language and remembering is so strong that the protagonist has a new (old) identity forced upon himself before he quickly leaves the village again calling for his mother, the only certain historical point of origin, in other words: home.

All quotes from Han, Shaogong (trans. Martha Cheung): Homecoming? and Other Stories. Hong Kong: Renditions Paperbacks, 1992.