Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The Shadow Walk: a dawn to dusk procession through Xiamen, Southern China

This Shadow Walk was inspired by a previous walk of mine, The Sun Walk, which I undertook over ten years ago in London. The idea behind that walk to was spend a full day walking in the direction of the sun. This shadow walk was to be its companion piece: I would start the walk at dawn and when the first light cast my shadow onto the ground, I would walk in the direction my shadow pointed towards. At 6.45 AM I was standing expectantly, waiting for this moment, but there were no shadows to speak of.

Waiting for the sun, I watched people coming and going to make incense offerings outside Nanputuo Temple, my starting point. I had seen this ritual many times before but something seemed unusually focussed about it today. I then realised what was different. The tourists had not yet arrived.

Still the sun refused to shine. My rhythm was being dictated by the clouds; I noticed the turtles for the first time. They were in no hurry and set a good example to follow.

A while later, loud chanting started up from within the temple. I went over to listen and, just a moment later, the sun broke through and lit my westward path. 

This gave the impetus to start moving and within three minutes I was already walking down an alleyway I had never noticed before in an area I thought I knew. Using this new system to navigate through the city made me realise that I had unconsciously developed a very incomplete idea of this neighbourhood which I had mistaken for its reality. New alleys, shops and apartment compounds were springing up all around me. After an all too brief spell, the clouds thickened once again and I was left without a shadow to guide my path. I held my course following my original path as best I could.

In the absence of a clear shadow to guide me, I allowed my curiosity to also lead me and it brought me to a second temple, this one in full swing. I decided to take this co-incidence as a blessing. Whilst I was not conducting this walk within any religious framework, attuning myself to both the natural light cycle and the human activity cycle of the city, made it feel as if I were sensitising myself to a larger force, all the same.

In the absence of shadow, I carried the memory of the morning's rays and walked with them up Hong Shan Park. This was going to be a long day of walking but, given that it was just two days till the Winter solstice, it was about as short a day's dawn to dusk walk as it would be possible to do without heading far north to lands of diminishing daylight. Rather than emerging into a frozen sliver of sub-arctic light then, I was walking on a mild winter's day when the temperature was around 20 degrees in the afternoon. A better proposition all round, I feel.

I came across a group of street sweepers making their brooms. I have a longstanding interest in quick-fixes and at first these brooms can look like just that: something cobbled together with a few odds and ends. Looking at how deliberate this operation was, however, made it all too clear to me that this was an older technique that had been modified to incorporate some modern materials. They fixed these thin bamboo branches, still bearing leaves, around broom handles with a length of wire. I could have stayed and watched a good while longer, but I had a shadow to follow. 

The cracks in the city's texture where one era's compounds finish and another's begin were interesting no man's lands. The connecting tissues, such as this water pipe, must hold some stories. 

Some stretches of the walk took me down long soulless streets but at times I also entered maze like neighbourhoods of semi-improvised housing. I say semi-improvised because, in spite of these places' tumble-down home-made feel, they looked like they had been established for many years, held a considerable number of people and had electricity and water. Walking through these hidden quarters, tucked above main roads, I was the object of attention: children would follow me in groups, run ahead to see the face of the foreigner then run back to their friends and report back.

The sun reappeared momentarily and reset my direction. Dim but discernible it was a necessary adjustment.

I noticed that single men were common in the city but women sitting down by themselves were rare.

With no direct sunlight nor shadow to speak of, I headed into a mall to see if 'the shadow' might be found in underground consumer retail units. I had tended to regard the recent Ai Wei Wei lego story as another act of self-promotion on the part of China's most famous artist overseas. Seeing this lego education centre, however, made me reconsider this and wonder if there was not some substance to his point which basically amounted to lego were refusing to sell him their product and were effectively doing the Chinese government's work because the company was more interested in expanding into the Chinese market and did not want to upset the authorities by being associated with dissident art. 

I arrived at a third temple, this one still a building site. A clump of surly looking workmen eating instant noodles glanced up from their bowls, registered me, then sunk their heads back over their food and continued eating in silence. 

The temple was placed on one of the many small steep mountains that punctuate the city. Difficult to build on, these outcrops mostly remain wild, forested places, this one also acting as a park. Following my shadow's direction meant that I came across these mountains much more than I am accustomed to in daily life in the city; they acted as genuine obstacles whereas they are usually easily rendered meaningless by road or tunnel. This task, then, restored a more representative geography to my imaginary city. What's more, it also made me aware of another feature of these mountains: their military bases. I came across working military installations on a number of mountains, these easily defended compounds most probably being a legacy of the city being on the frontline with republican Taiwan. Going about my daily life in the city it is very easy to ignore the fact that there remains this military presence. It required this walk to jog my habits and reveal this side of Xiamen.

I did not want to give up on the idea of being led by something outside of myself so I came up with the strategy of studying the clouds for a hint of sun, such as the light patch in the sky above. Putting this at my back, I then walked away from in. Whilst less evocative than embracing the shadow, walking away from the light did prove an effective approach.

I realised I have spent too little time in Huli District to get a complete picture of the city. It is a newer area where the housing is cheaper and more industry is to be found. I passed a man who was standing beside an opened fire hydrant, a large hexagonal key lying on the ground. He was mixing cement in paint buckets, not for the first time, I imagine. Nobody, save me, gave it a moment's attention.

The further north into Huli District I walked, the more I passed groups of men playing cards, sometimes with money flung down besides the game too. Seeing group after group of men huddled like this, sometimes with a crowd surrounding them, I realised I very rarely see people playing cards in my part of the city. This left me wondering if cards is a more blue collar pastime in China.

While I was now walking into completely unfamiliar terrain, every now and then I'd cross infrastructure, such as the train track, which offered clues as to where I might be. Rather than helping me gain my bearings, however, this only confused me further. One system of mapping was interfering with the other and the two did not want to be synthesised.

I plunged into a neighbourhood that was being demolished, a process that did not look entirely harmonious. Here my presence was not merely unusual, I received a number of suspicious looks. This was a place to keep on walking.

A four legged walker had already been this way, only he had been heading in the opposite direction. Towards the sun perhaps?

Coming towards the end of the day's walk, I ran into a restaurant staff's motivational dance routine led by their manager. The song, a Chinese cover of Dschinghis Khan, West Germany's Eurovision 1979 effort, is a particularly good one for the job. The lacklustre dancing somehow chimed with my heavy legs and I was more on the side of the staff than the boss up front trying to get them moving. I would like to imagine this song being covered by singers right across Asia and Eastern Europe in all the languages that fall within the boundaries of the once vast Mongol empire.

And this is what the walk looks like if the different points are plotted on a map and a line run between them to show the general sweep of its movement. The walk had too many disparate elements to allow it to be easily reduced to any one single narrative. That, perhaps, was its defining feature: it opened my eyes to the breadth of the life in the city. With more light, perhaps the theme of shadows would have imposed itself more strongly. When walking towards the sun, some 12 years ago, this action offered a sense of hope and adventure. Walking on a cloudy day in a foreign country and having to question the form of the action and nature of what I was seeing, offered far more dilemmas than sensuous experiences. That is valuable too, but it did make the walk less sharp edged. Finally, what this day on the move told me is that it is worth continuing devising new strategies to cross and interact with the city. With each different way of approaching it, the city reveals itself anew and only out of this myriad of perspectives may a more comprehensive image of it slowly crystallise.

Monday, 7 December 2015

The Amoy Brau Tour: a Chinese microbrewery on the move in Xiamen

The Amoy Brau Tour was a one-off hybrid: a bike tour, brewery tour, neighbourhood tour and personal story all rolled into one. The basic premise was that a small group of us would be told the story of Amoy Brau, a young independent brewery, by its co-founder Felix. What gave it a twist is that, rather than telling the tale sitting around a bar, we'd be shown the different sites in the Shapowei neighbourhood of Xiamen where they had made and sold their beer. I was hoping for one of the ever so slightly obnoxious, European-style beer bikes, but I heard these were not so easy to ride around Xiamen so we were, instead, using the company's Chinese-style motorised trike. We squeezed on the back with our guide at up front.

We threaded through some of the narrower backstreets to our first stop: the rooftop kitchen where they started to experiment with making beer, the birthplace of Amoy Brau, so to speak. Fortunately for Felix the bike was powered by an electric motor, it would have been a bit of a push otherwise.

Up to the roof we heard how they got started. At the start of 2013 they made a batch of beer as a fun experiment for a friend's party by following instructions they found on Youtube, using a simple kit they bought on Taobao. Apparently, even this first homemade brew was quite drinkable and a step up from the locally available beer. Encouraged by this, they made some more and, unsurprisingly, found no shortage of friends wanting to drink it. Within six months they had a regular production line going in the kitchen and were thinking seriously about making a business out of it. They did their research on craft beer in China, and made the leap.

My two companions on the tour, Wendy and Taylor, were taking assiduous notes, preparing a report for Common Talk, the English language supplement to the Xiamen Daily newspaper. It struck me, as we were sitting up on the roof, that if Amoy Brau's beer becomes very popular in the future their humble beginning would be perfect source material for a TV advert. The mythologised scene 100 years from now would be recreated with two caucasian models sipping beer and nodding approvingly, a slightly better looking kitchen and a CGI view of Gulangyu in the background with a deep-voiced Chinese narrator saying, "The dream became a reality, and the reality became a tradition."

Next stop on the bike was a nearby cafe run by a Syrian friend of Felix. The place had a  relaxed feel but a steady hum of business about it as the boss was kept busy hovering around keeping everything in order. The kitchen behind him is where, we were told, the brewing equipment was moved to when they had to finally expand out of their rooftop nest. This place, then, was where Amoy Brau first became a more public entity, as this is where their first beer was sold, though friends remained their main customers in the early days. This set-up could not last for long, however, as the cafe was gaining in popularity too, and needed to expand into the back room. 

We next came to 73 Daxue Lu and stopped opposite the first Amoy Brau bar. It was too early in the day for the bar to open, and besides, its front had been colonised by tea drinkers. We crossed the street and talked about how it has been making the leap from brewers to bar owners. He said that through friends and recommendations they found the space they rent and that the obstacles to starting a small business were relatively easy to navigate as practically everyone they knew had some sort of business of their own.

Round the corner, beside the old, pre-Ming dynasty harbour, we talked about the alternative creative community from Zengcuoan who were the the first to encourage and support Amoy Brau. They were a mostly Chinese friends' network of artists, musicians and creative allsorts. In that neighbourhood, some three kilometres to the east of here, Amoy Brau opened a bar, but the area was being thoroughly remade for tourists who liked to take pictures but didn't drink much beer. That bar closed and indeed a significant portion of the artistic community from Zengcuoan slowly reassembling here in Shapowei and opened businesses of their own. The Chinese property market being what it is, this neighbourhood, too, is now being rapidly gentrified. The first time I saw this area, back in 2011, it was a poor, shabby and immensely interesting neighbourhood. It was one of the few places in the city I could still see Chairman Mao posters displayed in shops in a non-ironic way. In the space of four years the great helmsman has disappeared and returned as a pastiche interior design feature in numerous trendy eateries, and this is just the start of a much more comprehensive redevelopment that is to come.  

We rode back to the bar's newest and main location, a former ice factory in the fashionable Shapowei Art Zone area.

We then got a tour of the brewing facilities where we saw David, the other half of Amoy Brau, busy working on a new batch. David, we were told, was the first to arrive in Xiamen through a university exchange programme. When he returned to Europe he told his friend and fellow German, Felix, they could take a three-month trip to Xiamen to give some lectures on design. When they returned, three months turned into six because the university's schedule got mixed up and it was in this period they got started up on the rooftop. Since then, they have reinvested their profits, lifting the quality and expanding their capacity so that in just three years they have gone from being a hobby to the much more professional looking operation they are today with David focussed on the brewing and Felix on the bars. 

Felix told us the two of them had absolutely no experience of brewing prior to coming to China: he is a designer by training. The brewery and the bar have, however, become a full-time concern. He said he was planning on staying in China a while longer, at least for the next five years and to then see how things were. This left me wondering what he would be if or when he returns to Europe: would he return to being a designer, has brewing and hospitality become his new vocation or, indeed, has this process of reinventing himself in China made him something different again, namely, an entrepreneur? Only time can tell.  

I remember a Slovenian backpacker once telling me about his experience of drinking beer in China. He said, "you won't drink much of it: the local beer is too weak and the imported beer is too expensive." He had a point. The beer at Amoy Brau is not cheap, it is on the expensive side by Chinese standards, but it is a hell of a lot better than Qingdao, which is so weak you can drink it to sober up. Black Moon, Amoy Brau's strongest beer, is a formidable 11%. Maybe it is not the choice of budget backpackers, but there is a definite market for it, the bar attracting both a Western and Chinese clientele.

The brewery tour took us into a storage room where imported bags of raw ingredients sat piled up. We were told that at first everything was bought locally on Taobao (Chinese eBay) but slowly they have been becoming more exacting in their requirements and demanding in their quantities. These days they get one ton international shipments delivered. 

Like all good brewery tours should, we finished in the bar with a little sampling and we tried their Yang Mei beer, a light fragrant beer flavoured with local fruit. The tour went on quite a bit longer than expected as there were plenty of interesting diversions and, in any case, this was not a regular tour with a fixed script and itinerary, it was an improvisation. Some of the stories were rehearsed in the sense that they were stories that had been told before, but they had never been given as part of a street tour. This made the experience more like a rolling interview than a formal tour, and while this meant it lacked concision, it more than made up for this in presence and depth. We finished with a toast and some slightly over-enthusiastic smiles. Cheers!