Sunday, 14 January 2018

Lost in Shenzhen: dropping in on Shenzhen Fringe Festival

I've steadily been Way-Losing this year: getting lost in Xiamen, London and Brussels. The next stop on this erratic path was Shenzhen, China's modern boom city.

I spent two days with the Shenzhen Fringe Festival (who supplied these photos) leading  groups into less well known corners of the city. It is interesting to compare the character of the two trips as they are not at all alike.

One day we travelled wholly on foot and made our way around Nanshan District. The conversation was good and we saw layers of the city's history with more clarity than usual. The tour had a feeling of control which only relaxed when we began following people in the street. These stealthy pursuits brought us into gated communities.

They also brought us to hidden farms, spied upon through gaps. 

Previous Way-Losing tours have gained their sense of purpose through the conversations we had along the way, sometimes about the places we stumbled across and other times about the ideas and stories they triggered. In this way, narratives emerged which sometimes proved so seductive that they seemed to offer uncanny predictions of how the tour would evolve. That is the effect of a strong but open narrative: it creates a compelling frame with which you can make sense of what you see. Shenzhen was different.   

The places we found were certainly important but it was not so much conversations that brought the experience together for me, it was images. For the first time, the tour took on a primarily visual logic.   

The way this worked was through an accumulation of observations and photos such as this one of a sheet hanging in an alleyway that shows the stars and moon in the night sky. These observations, and the images that resulted from them, created a visual record that became increasingly specific and inter-related so that by the end of the tour I was looking for something very specific to complete the series. 

And at the end of the tour I found it: both the moon and a downward vertical movement from LED lights hanging in a tree that was like a shooting star. I was not looking for this precise image but rather one that had the necessary elements that could draw the series to a conclusion. Walking through and looking at the city in this way tunes us into the poetic potential of shopping malls and construction sites, overgrown parks and bubble tea stalls. 

Once again walking with the eyes closed was a useful addition to the tour; an effective way to sever the links in the mental map. What it also seemed to be very good at doing was to sensitise the ears to the diversity of sounds in the city. I think I usually perceive only the more immediate and important sounds and this experience brought to my attention a great many more sounds, and with them, people and activities. 

An interesting thing that one of the participants said was that they never felt really lost because they were always within a narrative of sorts. I can see how this can be true: even though none of knew exactly where we were we had a sense of purpose and within a story that we were spinning as we went along.

Finishing at a Sichuan restaurant was a quite ideal way to round off the journey and let everyone share something they had seen or thought along the way. It also marked the fact that we had now become a group and were no longer strangers to one another. This social side to Way-Losing is important to nurture as this experience is usually only as good as the people you have it with. I was lucky that Way-Losing and the Shenzhen Fringe Festival seemed to attract a fairly young, educated and curious crowd who threw themselves into it and embraced the proposition. 

And here is the Sunday group after a long day's walk and subway ride. Yes, that is a Christmas scene behind us: reindeers in a Christmas Grotto, lost somewhere in Southern China.

100,000 page views for the Tourofalltours blog

The Tourofalltours blog has just recorded its 100,000th page view. That is some sort of milestone; when I started this I simply thought I was recording some thoughts about a show I was making in Stuttgart. Things have come a long way since then, the blog has grown in scope and volume, I have become immersed in the world of tours and have taken this work around the world. I want to say thank you to Art Tours who commissioned the very first Tour of All Tours back in Germany in 2013 and to all the people who have supported this work along the way, either by helping me make further tours or offering me a place on their tours so I could review them for the blog here. I'm looking forward to the next 100,000 and where that will take me. Hope to see you somewhere along the way and thanks for reading and for your comments!

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Hyper Heritage: Hong Kong's Sham Shui Po and Shek Kip Mei from street to screen and back again

I had the opportunity to recently revisit Hyper-Heritage and give this performance tour once again. It's a walking tour that starts in Shek Kip Mei and leads a group into neighbouring Sham Shui Po in Kowloon. 

While it was at first conceived as a tour of the city's cinema heritage, over time it grew and became more specific. It narrowed down to be about the connections between the way the city is depicted in its movies and the reality itself. I wondered, for example, how a place can have such a prolific cinema industry and not start to become effected by the images of itself it creates. 

Many of the films I talked about were shot in the neighbourhood we walked through so we were, on the one hand, making a tour of film locations. We were also, however, visiting former cinemas that had become repurposed and their former life almost entirely erased.

By surveying the films shot in the area it became possible to see what the area represents. Because it is a poorer neighbourhood with a lot of public housing and a bustling street market, it is no surprise that it often plays the backdrop to crime movies. 

Because the films were not universally familiar I had to sometimes summarise their plots and even act out one or two scenes. This was quite fun as it gave the tour a more varied mode of engagement and this is a direction it could go further in: recreating scenes on their original filming locations. 

I made a point of including some older films as well as more contemporary ones. Indeed, I managed to go right the way back to the origin of Hong Kong's cinema, the 1909 silent comedy Stealing a Roast Duck.

One of the things that emerged for me was the fact that this part of the city, which is in some ways neglected and perceived as lacking in history, does have a heritage. Buried within its past and sometimes captured on the silver screen, are many contentious episodes that are not so well understood today.

This role of cinema as site of history education and contemporary political debate was made most strikingly evident in the 2015 movie Ten Years, which closed the Hyper-Heritage Tour. The tour, then, shows how there is a battle for control of the city's narrative and how this battle takes place in the contested space of popular entertainment. Researching and giving the tour has certainly helped me to better appreciate and read some of the many layers in Cantonese cinema and I'm very happy to have been able to do this in a less obvious part of the city rather than the media saturated HK Island. I have to thank CCCD and the Chinese University of Hong Kong for the invitation to make this work and my student collaborators for their help in researching it. Thank you!

Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Tour of Hunan - From Zhangjiajie to Changsha - dispatches from the frontline of tourism in China

The Tour of Hunan was a four-day coach trip that was run by a local tour operator designed to show foreigners the highlights of the province. The coach became our second home, my back slowly locked itself into the shape of seat. They managed to turn a holiday into the chore by packing in as many iconic sites scattered across the four corners of Hunan as possible. Each day we seemed to drive for around six hours, starting in the early morning with shorter rides later in the day. With a 6.30 AM wake up call each day, it felt like work.

By submitting to this gruelling timetable we were able to catch attractions like this bed that Mao once slept in. This is a tricky exhibit as it has to ride a fine line between looking both stately enough for the Great Helmsman and yet humble enough for a junior scholar in a backward province. I must have taken a lot of effort to find that sweet spot in the middle!

And here he is again leading the coach through his home province. His presence seemed strangely apolitical, he seemed to function more by offering an, albeit premature, celebrity endorsement of the sites.  

The historic towns we visited were the homogenised type that had been given the tourist makeover. Coach after coach spilled out tourists who raided the streets buying up souvenirs and fake luxury brands. While this scene of consumption could be anywhere in China, the tourists themselves add some local colour. Buddhist monks were even getting in on the act, I like very much the disciple, here sporting a red Hello Kitty bag that almost matches his robes.

The drum shops reminded me of Lijiang in Yunnan, a tourist town that has been similarly transformed and which sports an unlikely number of them. These shops seem, at first, completely arbitrary and it remains a mystery to me who actually buys these drums. What I do see in them now, however, is that they evince the growing contact between China and Africa which they frame within the field of leisure. I should like to better understand what Africa currently represents in the tourist mindset here, this is something very much in flux.

We had a rotating cast of tour guides. Our primary guide had a habit of talking too much about stuff of no relevance. For example, when she was telling us what the dinner would be one evening, she launched into a story about fish, which we weren't going to have, and how her daughter had got a fishbone stuck in her throat and had to go to the doctor to get it removed only to be told there was no bone there. Well meaning but not informed about the sites at all, she went on extended improvisations with the microphone at the front of the bus. Alongside her was a local guide who spoke no English but who took care of the restaurant and hotel bookings.

At most of the sites we visited we there were then guides specific to the attractions we were being wheeled in front of so we'd sometimes have three levels of simultaneous guides, none of whom really made the place any the more interesting but who did at least keep up some sense of momentum.

I had recently come across a tongue in cheek article on cocktails you can make with ingredients from a Chinese convenience store. Over the four days I tested them all. This Baileys style drink was probably the most palatable. 

The interminable coach rides between sites were, on one of the days, augmented by the driver adding in some private business of his own. We made a stop to pick up some boxes and bags at a petrol station the the edge of one of the towns and then made a large swooping detour for him to go to his home town where the coach pulled and his wife ran to meet us and take a sack of pomelos from the bottom of the coach. Cocktail time.

One of the parks was full of monkeys. They seemed like used to the tourists and this one was not in the least phased by the circle of phones that surrounded it.

The cable car ride to the higher peak was not for those with vertigo. 

Zhangjiajie is stunning, an unreal assemblage of oversized toothpicks bound together with lush tree cover. We were given fifteen minutes to take pictures before it was time to move on.

One of the more absurd things the guide kept on stressing was that the mountains featured in the film Avatar. Even though this blockbuster movies was meant to lend the site greater kudos, it only brought it down in my mind to the world of aspirational CGI and middle of the road acting.

There was even a video machine there which could film you and then stick you on top of a dodgy animated bird flying high over peaks of Zhangjiajie. They had a special talent for making something very ordinary and kitsch out of an absolutely stunning natural location. 

We were vastly outnumbered by the domestic tourists who had a much clearer idea of what to do with a site like this. Their's was a near military style sweep: go to prime photo spot, selfie sticks out, take turns with group shot, break into solo and duet shots then move on the next site. Our tour was a pale, self-conscious imitation of theirs: we have the photos too but ours are not as cleanly composed, are far fewer in number and we never managed smiles like theirs. Being a tourist requires practice.