Saturday, 9 June 2018

Tour Workshop in Hong Kong

Following last year's workshop and festival in Hong Kong, I'll be returning with another extended workshop on making cultural tours. 

I'll be teaching between August 5-12 and then Indy Lee and Uncle Hung will continue the next weekend. We'll be working on how to generate original content, how to draw themes from locations and how to perform tours in a dynamic way.

The working area will be around the bustling streets of Sham Shui Po and if you are prepared to put in extra hours researching your tour there's no reason why you shouldn't have your very own tour of Sham Shui Po ready by the end of the workshop. If you are already busy you can certainly expect to learn some new skills and innovative ways to make and give tours.

What's more, it is not all work and no play. On the 10th I'll be giving my Hyper Heritage Tour, which I made last year. This is a chance for the participants to see how all the theory works in practice, and to learn a bit about Hong Kong cinema at the same time.

I'll be leading the sessions in English and there will be Cantonese translation available, if required. Meet you in Hong Kong!

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

City Centre: a networked walk

I learnt about City Centre through the Walking Artists Network and the idea was people in different places around the world would all follow the same instructions for a walk on May 12th. In this way we'd walk together while also being apart. The walk is one of the many collected in the book Ways To Wander and Blake Morris, who made the call out, has made it his job to try out the whole book.

Choosing a meeting place was not too hard as there is a general consensus, even among Nanjingers, that the centre of the city is Xinjiekou. At the very centre of this area (in the background) is a roundabout, the intersection of the city's main, north-south and east-west roads. At our meeting point, a silly elephant sculpture. 

Our first task was deciding which direction would lead us out of the city centre. This was a weighty decision as it would determine much of what would follow and since many of us knew the city well it was also an unwelcome one. I didn't want to already have too clear a picture in my head of where I'd go and what I'd see so it was left to a game of spin the bottle. Our clothing remained in place as the bottle pointed to the west.

In order to take our modest Journey to the West, we had to descend into the subway station as there are no pedestrian crossings at street level. I have always found this surrendering of the centre of the city to an inaccessible traffic roundabout deeply troubling and I'm irrationally happy when, late a night, I see pedestrians climbing over the barriers and running across the roads. Underground, there is a mirror of the roundabout above with the 24 exits of the station spiraling out from it. At the centre of this underground pedestrian junction, it is possible to reach the centre. This is what it looks like.

Below the central axis was a large model of a luxury real estate development out in the far suburbs. The city is busy eating up the surrounding countryside and as this is a powerful economic force right now it was perhaps fitting to see how, at the very heart of the city, it was the suburbs that we found. We knew we were never get this far out in our walk, but it was good we found them all the same. To understand the city it is necessary to understand what is happening out on its edges right now.

Following the walking instructions of Tom Hall, we edged our way outwards. It is, in many respects, so familiar a score that I already had a good idea of what we'd find. The expectation and the reality are rarely identical, however, and formalising the process of walking out from the centre might just, I figured, change the nature of the experience. What's more, I also wanted to see how it would be to conduct this walk with a group of people, who would come, what we'd talk about and how this group's experiences would compare to other walkers elsewhere.

We covered some distance. The buildings became less lofty but so too were the roads more narrow so there remained a sense of clustering wherever we went. As we headed further out the shops changed and became shabbier, bowel challenging noodle bars, pink light massage parlors and electric scooter repair shops. 

And then, all of a sudden, we came up again the old city wall from the Ming dynasty, which dates back roughly 600 years. None of us were quite sure whether this delineated the edge of the city back then or not, but it clearly was a boundary of sorts both then and now. Today, it marks the edge of the city centre while the contemporary perimeter wall is invisible and forever being moved further and further out into the countryside. Nowadays, satellite towns orbit around Nanjing in the hope of being incorporated in the sprawling metropolis. The city has become rhetorical and speculative, a shape-shifting creature that is far more than just an accumulation of bricks and steel. 

One of the ubiquitous features of the city is the shared bikes. They followed us wherever we went. These two seemed to be enjoying a private moment together, in plain sight. 

As we got further out there was more water. If we would have walked further, we would have  reached the Yangtze in an hour or two. We had to content ourselves with the Qinhuai River, a tributary that flows through the city.

The texture of the city is not uniform and as we left the centre we came to modern residential developments. The one in the foreground is called New City while the old city centre remains visible, a ghost haunting the broken horizon. The city has, in several locations outside the centre, tried to start again and reinvent itself as a 21st century conurbation. These attempts, such Hexi, are usually partial as the real economy cannot fully support an entire community living in luxury high rise apartments. Metropolitan aspirations are then redesigned and more familiar patterns of services and uses of space reassert themselves. New City had so far staved off the bulk of this by not including a commercial centre. 

To the south was this lake, part of the unfortunately named Wanke residential compound.

Walking around the large expanse that Wanke had carved aside for itself, we came to older residential neighbourhoods. These shielded off ailing public housing that was kept alive through patchwork interventions, the equivalent of architectural life support. 

I had expected that this journey would lead us from the familiar to the unfamiliar so I was surprised when, just as I was saying it is time to grab lunch and head back into the centre, we came across this park. I realised I had been here before. Just a month earlier I had come here for a photoshoot and the picture was still on my phone. We made an approximation of the happy couple then headed back to the centre via another route.

To get a sense of completeness it was to the exact same spot we returned. It turned out that  the walk did break some ice and engender fresh connections. From this new group I expect more activities; next month we pledged to walk again. As for the other walkers elsewhere in the world, I'll add links to those walks below, as and when I find them.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

3-Day Way-Losing dates confirmed and booking details

The picture says it all: 20-22 July. Well, it says the most important part, I could add that the adventure will begin at Bicester North train station at 12 noon and we will consult maps on phones and start plotting our return to known society at 4PM on the 22nd.

Please note: this tour may be uncomfortable as we do not know where we will be eating or staying and will have to find solutions as we go along. It will involve some walking and possibly public transport. The tour fee is kept deliberately low but all food, accommodation and any additional travel costs will be paid for by the participants. 

To book a place on this tour please go to the EVENTBRITE PAGE 

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Tour of Republican Era Nanjing

The city of Nanjing is not as well-known outside of China as it perhaps deserves to be: a city of 10 million people and a former capital, it falls into the sizable ranks of the second-tier largely unknown cities. This tour of the Gulou district was given by a Scottish postgraduate student of Chinese art who lives in the area.

On a generously warm Monday morning in April, four of us assembled outside of Xuanwumen metro station and made our way from point to point. The locations we stopped at were generally buildings of historical importance. Surrounding these sites, however, was the usual clutter of Chinese city streets: advertising, infrastructure from a bygone age and the ubiquitous shared bikes. These historical buildings are not necessarily well preserved, indeed some are run down and slowly crumbling. We passed an old man peeing against the side of the the former foreign ministry.

The tour was focussed on early 20th century history and more specifically on the brief period of time between 1928 and 1937 when Nanjing was once again the capital of China. This could have been a real political can of worms but we were more flirting with the subject than giving a pointed critical perspective upon it.

And this was probably a wise choice since the vast majority of English speaking visitors simply require a Nanjing 101 introduction. Still, knowing what I do, I would have enjoyed a particular take upon the material rather than the presentation of the most consensual aspects of it. 

One of our group turned out to be a historian and long term resident of Nanjing. He was gracious enough not to turn this into a tour with two competing guides, something I witnessed in East London a few years ago. This was one of the many moments we were handed out cards with pictures of republican era politicians. 

When we stepped away from the important sites and looked at this wall, which sports pictures of the neighborhood's architecture, the tour took a different direction. This was the one moment we talked about how contemporary politics had a role to play in shaping an indifference bordering on neglect of the area's history. We were touring the former institutions of state of the KMT, the rivals to the communists, and this was a history that was not politically expedient. Indeed Nanjing remains the, in name only, capital of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and so this tour would never be given in this sort of form in Chinese. As small-scale tourism for foreigners it could be tolerated but if it were given in Chinese there would be too much political investment in its contents to allow it much freedom to deviate from the party line.

In the local tourism centre, basically a lonely room with a scale model of the neighborhood, it was possible to gaze over the district once again. The model looked so much more elegant than the actual streets, as often happens. Looking over this model of the Gulou district gives me the idea of a tour that utilises the Droste effect. I can imagine a tour that represents itself within the tour, and that representation in turn contains its own image of itself. Such a tour has a wicked potential for self-conscious commentary. Having met a VR specialist last week and heard about some of the current possibilities, this is not as fanciful a notion as it may seem. That would indeed be a tour of tours - a tour in which all of the tours would have to appear superficially identical while the commentary framing them would be free to roam wild.