Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Roaming Through 40 Years of Shanghai Tour

Today's tour had all the potential to be something rather special. It was a walking tour of the older part of the city centre with artist interventions. A collaboration between an art festival and a walking tour company. We gathered waiting for it to begin.

The tour was given in Chinese with no translation so I was a bit on the outside of it all. I got bits and pieces of it and actually that was enough to realise the sort of tour it was: an anecdotal historical building tour of the neighborhood. Even though there was enough space to gather everyone on the pavement, we still spilled out into the road, the guide included.

The ostensive theme of the tour was the last forty years of history - that is to say the period of opening up and reform of the Chinese economy - and how that is manifested in the local area. Normally forty years would not be enough to make something historical in the typical frame of the guided tour but given the pace of change in China and Shanghai in particular this could have been interesting, even if it is working to a government agenda. The reality was more loose and we stopped beside older buildings and talked about their histories quickly letting go of the economic reform theme. This turned into a tour of old buildings with stories connected to them, the standard fare of local history tours. 

The public taking this tour was a mix of artists and a general public who were looking for a local history tour. It seemed as if the art interventions were not so welcome, finally. One of the group, July Yang, made a commentary performance while we were walking between stops and I later joined in, repeating the Chinese commentary imperfectly. When we arrived at the next stop we were asked to be quiet.

The guides used a microphone and portable speaker even though the road was not so loud and the group not so large. I felt this was more about establishing authority, though one of the ladies (there was a rotating cast of guides) probably did have a quiet voice. The stories were not particularly interesting and didn't connect to build into anything more than a series of curiosities. 

This got me thinking that, rather than choosing 40 years as a theme (and then breaking it) how about a much shorter time period? What if you were to give a tour of what has changed in a neighborhood over the last week? Immerse yourself in the contemporary and use that as the way to get to the story of what is happening.

There were some things I noticed along the way such as this sign recruiting female staff of between 160-170 cm and 20-35 years of age. This seemed much more interesting to me than these disconnected stories, which, to make matters worse, did not even deal with the appearance and material qualities of the buildings very much. If a tour can make you see something afresh and then understand something from it then it has done something useful. This tour did nothing to alter our perception, the guide simply stood in front of the building and told a story about it.

The weather was, however, very pleasant. It was great just to be outside on a mild autumn afternoon like this.

We entered a building and I was fascinated by this little room, which looks as if it is rouge construction added at a later date. This got me looking for quick-fixes, of which there were plenty, and then exploring the environment of the tour using different themes again. Rather than suffering the mediocre, it seemed much more fun to make something else out of the day. I didn't share this with the wider crowd, just one or two of the artists, as I could see that to do so would disrupt the plan in a way the local history guides were completely unprepared for. A tour with two guides could be good, but the two should agree some basic house rules in advance so that the tension can be a respectful and healthy one rather than an acrimonious one. This was not the occasion, but I should try to find the time to do just this. What would make it all the better would be to propose a route and let different people make their tours of it, then jam them together. That would be fun!

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.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Engeki Quest Yokohama: Invitation From Far Away

The third and last of the journeys I took using the gamebook Engeki Quest was the route titled Invitation From Far Away. I was instructed to start at this ship.

Having already completed two of the routes I was familiar with the format and had found my own way to interact with the book. If I was uncertain about a location I didn't worry too much as I might get back onto the route at the next point; if I fell off the route completely I could still use it as the start of my own adventure.

I was asked to remember people and events from my memories and weave these into a story. At the same time, small dogs were clamouring for attention and demanding to be part of that story too. These worlds didn't belong together so some accommodating needed to happen.

When asked to cross the road, either over the right hand crossing or the left hand one, my curiosity got the better of me and, as well as crossing over the right, I went back through the text to see what would have happened if I had followed the other side. I wanted to know what the consequences of my choices were. As expected, the two paths merged again soon after but by taking the left crossing you get to read a short additional piece of information. While the final destination is the same and routes very similar too, the precise manner of getting there does differ and what you bring to it will alter it a great deal more. To get the most out of this gamebook, then, you have to concentrate on the experience of going through it and not upon the satisfaction that comes with its completion. By chewing over each part and allowing it to add to the overall picture that you hold of the route, the experience becomes more distinct.

I was directed into the lobby of an elegant hotel, like all the other readers of this route. Clutching my copy of Engeki Quest, ready to present it if anyone asked what I was doing, I looked around. I was left in solitude to continue my story. Neither the concierge nor other readers of the book entered into it.

In the internal courtyard I was invited to sit and think of an old teacher of mine. I was always too much of a rebel to remain close to my teachers and besides, in the UK we don't have the same tradition of remaining connected to our former teachers. I thought hard and finally came up with Mrs Pearson, my secondary school biology teacher. She had the unenviable task of teaching sexual education to a group of 30 teenage boys. She managed to hold enough order in the classroom that she was able to teach us the basics, so for that alone she deserves praise. Thank you Mrs Pearson, you probably prevented some major embarrassments and even accidents!

A few times, when reading the book, I was told to look for a number such as the number of the top left umbrella holder. This number then directed me to the next text entry in the book. In this way there was some interaction between the real life locations and page numbers: you could only find the next entry if you were actually in the location and could check the numbers for yourself. 

As an ending, I was asked to imagine Mrs Pearson coming down the stairs. I had to think hard to picture her from back in my schoolboy days and guess how she now looks, seeing as she must have retired. I would not recognise her in the street but on this blue carpeted stairway, within the frame of this quest it was easy enough to imagine talking to her, now as an adult rather than as a fourteen year old, awkwardly self-conscious boy. "What brings you to Yokohama?" I might begin, and she might reply she recieved, "an invitation from far away," from her nephew who was getting married here in Yokohama. And so the story would roll on.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

The Tour of Yasukuni Shrine: dark tourism, war criminals and a broken audio tour

This Shinto Shrine, located in the centre of Tokyo, is a famous yet highly contentious dark tourism destination. It shot to prominence in 2013 when Japanese president Shinzo Abe visited it to pay respects to the country's war dead, which this site commemorates. Among those honoured are Class A war criminals. This broke international protocol and immediately provoked angry responses from China and Korea.

I had downloaded the app My GPS City which said it offered an audio tour of the shrine. It only featured short text entries for a handful of spots, the map didn't work and other functions were disabled too. It was, in effect, an advert for the real app and a waste of space on my phone.

I picked up the paper guide provided by the shrine and wandered through the gnarled trees. A few things struck me. The shrine was established following a civil war during the Meiji era and later evolved into a national shrine commemorating losses against foreign nations. The names for wars were unfamiliar, there was "the China incident" and "the Greater East Asian War" AKA WW2. Additionally, the English is clumsily written and in need of a proofread. It is obvious no native speaker was ever let close to the text, which says something in itself.  

I came across this panel and immediately connected, eager to see if the audio guide would be as stiff as the brochure. Strangely, however, the audio would not load. I walked to several different corners of this expansive shrine, tried different pages and the Japanese site too, but this audio guide just wasn't happening. This struck me as profoundly odd as I had not experienced this sort of failure of technology before in Japan. This would be the last place I'd expect the technology to seize up so I could only guess there was something to do with the content or management behind the withdrawal of this service. 

Nobody wanted to offer an audio guide then, so I meandered through taking in one "incident" after another. A number of the panels showed Japanese soldiers in China.

The other visitors to the shrine on this chilly February afternoon were mostly middle-aged Japanese men. There can be different motivations for coming to this site and not all who gather here will be right wing nationalists. What is striking, however, is the demographic portrait of the new right that Furuya Tsunehira paints in her article on cyber nationalists in Japanit is precisely the same group. Contrary to what she asserts, I also got the impression during my two-week stay that they were not a spent force but were exercising growing political influence. An interesting thing she points out is that "history education in Japanese public schools is woefully inadequate, and instruction on modern and contemporary history is particularly sparse." 

The version of history which pervades the shrine is one I heard echoes of during a talk a few days earlier that characterised Japan as a victim of the second world war. The shrine sets itself up to be a religious site that simply honours the fallen but it does so in such a way that it proposes a completely alternative narrative of the 20th century. The museum, which I did not visit, has been singled out by other visitors as particularly guilty of "a retelling of the war from the perspective of the ultra-right wing." I now regret being too tight to pay the 1000 yen entrance fee.

There were statues thoughtfully acknowledging the contributions animals made to 'preserving peace in the nation' or Japanese militarism, depending on your point of view. This got me thinking that, if animals' spirits are also enshrined here too, what is the limit of who is in and who is out? The dogs that died in the wars did not choose to have their spirits enshrined here anymore than the soldiers did, it was simply decided that they'd be honoured here. What if they don't want to be enshrined? Did they get a choice? 

Then comes the question of the Canadian POWs who were used as slave labour in Japan during the war and who died in their droves due to mistreatment and malnutrition. They too made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the Japanese war effort, but I'd be surprised to find their spirits enshrined here, though I could be wrong. The section of the video around 1 hour 20 features the Yasukuni shrine and a Canadian survivor meeting Japanese veterans. The failure of their otherwise sound memory when it comes to the crucial details of war crimes is telling.

A special memorial had been put up for the Indian judge Dr Radha Pal who sat on the  Tokyo Trials of war criminals and who differed in his opinions to the rest of the panel of judges. The paper that is given out on this memorial is very selective in what it takes from Pal and never mentions things like, "Pal never questioned whether atrocities were committed by Japan at Nanking, he just suspected that the accounts included exaggeration." This would put him in the camp of those who downplay the Nanjing Massacre not those who outright deny it like Toshio Motoya, owner of APA Hotels (a major Japanese hotel chain). Pal's stance may be seen within the frame of Indian independence and his major point is that the justice that was administered was a victor's justice that ignored colonial grievances.

If I compare this site to the Imperial War Museum and Cenotaph in London, there are some similarities in that they both offer self-serving narratives of war and colonial expansion. There is also a religiosity to the latter site with severe sentences handed out for decidedly minor crimes committed there. These sort of sites have this tendency the world over. Where Yasukuni differs is the degree to which it has become embedded within political narratives as a result of the version of history that is projected here. For as long as the versions of history told in Japan and those relayed by its neighbours remain so far apart this site will remain a hot dark tourist site. This will almost certainly remain the case for some time to come as neighbouring narratives are not without their own self-serving particularities too. One just has to compare the Beijing and Taipei WW2 museums to see this most evidently. This is not inevitable; France and Germany managed to jointly produce a history book that is read in both countries. Reconciliation can happen when there is a desire to make it happen. Given the existence of shame cultures as opposed to guilt cultures in East Asia, however, this sort of joint initiative looks as far away as ever as it would entail considerable loss of face. Yasukuni will, therefore, remain divisive for many more years. I just wish they'd fix their audio guide so the full mendacity of it can be fully appreciated.