A square mile in Shanghai

The Blog which follows is now presented chronologically as an archived blog narrative.

October 21st Chinatown, London

I spend an afternoon in Chinatown. I ask around for a map of Shanghai and a plug adaptor — UK to China — but no luck. Although in the bookshop I find a map of the whole land mass, a serious map of China. I photograph it in a stone plant container that may also be authentically Chinese in style:

Map of China in Chinatown

Map of China in Chinatown

This is not Shanghai.  But are there memes or signifiers here that may be transferrable? The posture of this person with a mobile phone for example:

A striking pose

A striking pose

Is that red telephone box in the background an imported style icon?

What will it signify to wear red in China in 2009?

Red on red

Red on red

The intercultural meeting in Bethnal Green, 27th Oct

The Shanghai artist Shaw (Zhifeng Xu) arrives in London. His square mile is in Leyton. We decide to meet and compare notes and maps, before I fly to Shanghai the following day. I chose the Bethnal Green cafe E. Pellici for a breakfast rendezvous before meeting my performance group at Wimbledon College of Art for a farewell session.

Meeting Shaw at E Pellici, E2

Meeting Shaw at E Pellici, E2

The performance group at Wimbledon, SW19

The performance group at Wimbledon, SW19

The Square Mile in question

This whole area was farmland 30 years ago. Shanghai South Station is at the heart of it.


The world’s first circular station, as it happens, and designed by French achitects AREP


Its circularity cleverly planned to ease circulation and navigation, so the passenger won’t get lost. But why are so many doors locked and so many temporary barricades positioned to prevent this exact circular movement?

South Station board

While other forms of transport are at the exit, ready and waiting. How many miles has he done today? Who was the last to sit on his hand-made pillion? His body language well formed in waiting, man and machine.


But there’s also the Botanic Gardens in this square mile and the river:

Roping of trunks and a scattering of pak choi are standard

Roping of trunks and a scattering of pak choi are standard

Major works are going on, soil is being shifted

Major works are going on, soil is being shifted

Chunks of land are being transported from one side of the highway to the other

Chunks of land are being transported from one side of the highway to the other

Plans are being realised

Plans are being realised

While nearby in the Botanic Gardens a local man tends his vegetable patch

While nearby in the Botanic Gardens a local man tends his vegetable patch

The magician's garden

TK  Your blog is sounding a bit dreary, RL, wouldn’t you prefer a little old-school banter with yours truly?

RL  Alright then Tania.

TK  How was the ‘company lunch’?

RL  Getting the hang of it now. Large leg of bird today, dripping with dark sticky sauces. Was hoping for more of the exquisite tofu, but this is a set menu after all.

TK  Where are you now?

RL  Back at Shanghai E Arts. They’ve been laying a stone floor in the corridor outside my room. Bit of an early start on it this morning.

TK  Sounds plush.

RL  It will be. There’s this tremendous piece of contemporary Chinese sculpture in the lobby downstairs. Have a feeling I’ve seen it before. It’s a massive wooden multi-facetted carved piece, including two Buddha faces. I like it a lot, and wonder why they put chairs around it.

TK  Did you get the bike from Felix?

RL  Yes. It’s not ideal. A bit small and wobbly, a Chinese low-budget copy of the Brampton folding bike, called Shuangzulong. I was just getting used to it when the pedal fell off. It took a while to find a mechanic, not that they aren’t everywhere, but I was half way to the Botanic Gardens when it happened. My sign language must be improving, although I suppose it was pretty obvious what the problem was. A spanner was handed over.

TK  This is beginning to sound like ‘The Day of the Moped’ back in Skyros.

RL  I thought you might say that. There were some parallels. The perception of everything here is different from a bike. And I felt much more invisible.

TK  With your nose?

RL  I said I ‘felt’ more invisible. People were still giving me the sideways look. I mean I am the only Westerner around, or ‘foreigner’ as they say here, even at Immigration.

TK  Are you saying you thought you blended in more or something? Was there something subtly performative about it?

RL  Yes. It’s contradictory I realise. And part of the reason for wanting to ride a bike across the Square Mile is that I imagine you don’t see Westerners on bikes in Shanghai, unless they’re doing some cool sporting thing. The bike here is not about fashion or status, people ride absolutely anything, completely unselfconsciously. I’m getting big on this bike theme, really.

TK  Steady on, we’re still in research mode, remember? So how did you get on at the Botanics?

RL  Not so good. The main garden is closed it seems, for this major refurbishment. The only section still open is where I was on Friday, other side of the road, the destination of the major soil excavation from the main site. But, although petite, it’s still a huge asset to the project. I saw a strange white bird with a dark head in there this morning.

TK  Mirroring perhaps?

RL  What?

TK  You must be a bit of a strange white bird yourself.

RL  Oh, the performative aspect. The market was heaving this morning. It’s right on the edge of the Square Mile. I parked up with the other bikes and walked through, consciously not being a tourist, if that’s possible.

TK  You’re in research mode.

RL  Yep. In terms of local culture it spoke loudly. This is the place to shop. People of all ages on rusty bikes and mopeds make a beeline for a mass of foodstuffs that are presumably much cheaper and fresher than in the supermarkets. And it could be locally sourced. I was reminded of Talking to Tania in Barcelona where the market experience there was perceptual and subtly performative through wielding a camera.

TK  So we may return here with a camera?

RL  I think so. Will need to check it out with Haoyun Guo in terms of etiquette and maybe he will come along. Am meeting him tomorrow.

TK  So what was the highlight?

RL  No. Following the ‘company lunch’ I made it through the 30mph bitterly cold wind to the northern end of the Square Mile and there it was, Kanglian Park, boasting 44 amenities and a welcoming notice board with a fine English translation:

Kangjian Park

Located on No 128 Kangjian Road, Kangjian Park covers an area of 95676 sq m. it was once a private farm and was built in 1937 by Bao Qinxuan, a magician (stage name: Ke Tianying) in Shanghai. The park was opened to the public on April 1, 1953 and was called Kangjian Farm in 1956 and was renamed Kangjian Park in 1958. In September, 1984, it was changed into a park for publicizing scientific knowledge with various recreational apparatus and was renamed Science Publicizing Park on May 4, 1985. It was once again renamed Kangjian Park on January 1, 1990, and two expansion were conducted in 1987 and 2000 respectively.

A Japanese-style layout is adopted for Kangjian Park: cleverly-designed landscaping, tailored ponds, vivid artificial hills and pavilions which are in picturesque disorder. You will be presented with various delightful sceneries: water and artificial hills that form delightful contrast, floating canoes on the lake, luxuriant and green woods, standing stalagmite, gorgeous peony, brilliant cherry blossom, elegant hibiscus and Japanese cabins. Sailing a canoe or driving a car on the paths, you can have a feast on your eyes with the panorama of Kangjian Park. Various flowers are contending in beauty and fascination every season, such as hibiscus, cherry blossom, peony, sweet osmanthus, banana shrub, magnolia and crape myrtle. In particular, the century-old peony is attracting many visitors from home and abroad every year!

TK  No doubt the magician has seduced you.

RL  Yes. But it was also how the park was being used. People were dancing, singing, playing the flute and the sanxian (lute), flying kites, reading the daily paper, laid out behind glass at eye level, drinking tea at ‘Charles’ Tea House’, practising Tai Chi and Xi Gong. It was a cultural feast of exemplary park usage. It made me think of how London parks might have been two centuries ago, like the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens maybe, places where people felt free to enjoy their pleasures and express themselves.


Charles' Business Club

Charles' Business Club

The kite fliers

The kite fliers

Reading the newspaper

Reading the newspaper

The 44 amenities

The 44 amenities



Innocence (The Unexpected)

Today’s hexagram thrown from the I Ching is Wu Wang / Innocence (The Unexpected):

Ch’ien, heaven is above; Chen, movement is below.  The lower trigram Chen is under the influence of the strong line it has received from above, from heaven.  When, in accord with this, movement follows the law of heaven, man is innocent and without guile.  His mind is natural and true, unshadowed by reflection or ulterior designs.  For whatever conscious purpose is to be seen, there the truth and innocence of nature have been lost.  Nature that is not directed by the spirit is not true but degenerate nature.  Starting out with the idea of the natural, the train of thought in part goes somewhat further and thus the hexagram also includes the idea of the unintentional or unexpected.


INNOCENCE.  Supreme success.

Perseverance furthers.

If someone is not as he should be,

He has misfortune,

And it does not further him

To undertake anything.

Nine in the fourth place means:

He who can be persevering

Remains without blame.

Near the centre of the Square Mile

A major road in front of him

With the universal gesture of phone holding and the western model towering

The masterplan

I estimate there are 100,000 people living in my square mile. Xuhui Province, which this is a part of, has a population of 900,000. The toal population of the city is 17 million and growing. Then there are the people in transit, those just arriving at Shanghai South Bus Station or Shanghai South Railway Station, several thousand a day, and the people working here, including the tricycle trailers laden with materials to recycle for cash, and the taxi drivers. The first time arrivals from the South are easy to spot with their wide eyes and large plastic containers. Like in every place, there are locals waiting opposite the bus station to sell them accommodation or rides on the back of scooters.

One day I’m planning to stand and count the people passing by.

So the question for the socially engaged artist is how to work with a community of this size, how to engage with them, how to reflect their culture and their ecology?

In this square mile I’ve so far found: my partner organisation Shanghai E Arts, The Botanic Gardens, Kangjan Park, a university, several schools, six rivers, the place where the taxi drivers hang out, The Humin Elevated Road, some major roads: Longcao Road, Shilong Road, Laohumin Road and Longwu Road, a thriving indoor market, an outdoor market, a grass roots recycling zone (cash in hand), factories, businesses, a disused hotel, a centre for people’s culture, two Metro stations (Lines 1 and 3), Shanghai South Long Distance Bus Station, Shanghai South Railway Station, two shopping malls, supermarkets, tea houses, restaurants, hundreds of shops and bike/scooter repair sheds, and countless neighbourhoods.

Yesterday I made a visit to Shanghai Urban Planning Museum to see the Masterplan for the city. My square mile was just outside the limits of the vast model, in the south west, but there’s no doubt that it’s in the thinking somewhere. This is a big plan.


Working surfaces

Close to the Centre for Culture for the People

Close to the Centre for Culture for the People

Yong joins the team as volunteer video documentarist

Yong joins the team as volunteer video documentarist

When two worlds intercept

I’m able to go to Beijing for a long weekend to see and take part in the ResCen / Beijing Dance Academy Dancing in a Shaking World final performances and conference. For this to be possible is great good fortune and a delight. But have I left something behind in the Square Mile?


The satellite is off the pace

T  You’ve been quiet.

R  Two worlds intercept….

T  What?

R  I’ve been in Beijing for the ResCen event.

T  I know. I said you’ve been quiet, not where’ve you been. So what’s it like coming back in?

R  To Shanghai or the Square Mile?

T  Both.

R  More familiar. More engaged. Great as it was to be in Beijing in the snow I started to miss the obsession with a place, this absorption. Almost felt guilty.

T  For being away?

R  Yes.

T  I understood that you thought ‘everything helps’, as you keep saying to Felix.

R  It does. I mean, seeing a bigger picture, meeting up with Simon, hearing how Artists Links worked, and that Shaw used to work for him, travelling back by train, even seeing that Beijing South Station is also a new-build….

T  Is this about time all of a sudden?

R  Probably. Four weeks from now will be some kind of climax. Thought I’d go to Caobao Road on the Metro this afternoon to do some filming?

T  Why?

R  Walking not cycling, visiting the far side of the zone. I found a green space there on a satellite map that could be promising, sort of wasteland. Would like to check it out.

T  Don’t be fixed on filming. Stills may be they way.

R  OK.

T  Where’s all this heading by the way?

R  Was going to ask you that.

T  Please do. The time has come. How was the ‘company lunch’ by the way?

R  Stunning today, the finest Won Ton.

T  Lucky you. Weather?

R  On the turn it looks. You OK?

T  Always.

Satellite view of Caobao Road showing potential green space

Satellite view of Caobao Road showing potential green space

The potential green space in the here and now

The potential green space in the here and now


Another kind of 'greening' on the other side of Caobao Road