Top Secret Plays Out in China
With a title like “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” one might expect a bumpy road to the stage in China, where government manipulation and press freedom remain sensitive topics. But when L.A. Theatre Works toured the country for the play’s debut run in 2011, it performed to full houses in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing. Discussions between the audience and a panel of American journalists and lawyers followed most performances, arranged through production company Ping Pong Productions.
What was building up to a resounding success hit a snag during a performance at Peking University, when Ping Pong founder and director Alison Friedman received a text message during the second act warning of “unforeseen consequences” if the post-performance discussion were to continue as planned. The abrupt cancellation made international headlines.
But the show goes on. Ping Pong and L.A. Theatre Works last week kicked off another tour of “Top Secret,” including three nights beginning Tuesday at Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts—also known as the Egg for its oval shape.
How did an American docudrama about the struggle between press and state make it to one of China’s top performance venues? The answer, Ms. Friedman told the Journal, is all in the money. Edited excerpts follow.
The Wall Street Journal: “Pentagon Papers” discusses press freedom, state manipulation, the struggle for information—all sensitive topics in China. What were you thinking when you decided to bring it here?
Ms. Friedman: Our mission is cultural diplomacy. We do performing-art exchange—but not just any art. It’s got to show another side or aspect of a country, or a culture that is maybe a little unexpected or a little unknown. The power of the arts is to do that, it’s to show nuance, it’s to show diversity, it’s to show something that you don’t see, say, in the press or on television or through commerce like buying Starbucksor Nike products.
What first appealed to me about the docudrama was not that it was some extreme topic, but that it showed a side of American history that, frankly, a lot of Americans don’t understand, let alone Chinese.
It showed America in all of its complex messiness. It was not a pro-freedom-of-the-press, pro-America, anticensorship play. It showed just how complex that whole issue was, and it showed it very clearly. My hesitation was commercial. The venues need to make money.
Did you have to approach state bureaucracy first, or did you directly approach the venues?
In China, you definitely do the venues first. Every show needs a performance permit that’s approved by the Ministry of Culture, but that goes through the venues, or through an independent agency that provides that service. But that has to happen after you’ve got a show booked. So it’s really risky, because it’s really chicken-and-egg. You get a whole tour booked, the dates are set, the contracts are signed, but until you get that permit, the show might not happen.
So it’s very touch-and-go, very nail-biting up until the minute you get the permit. Depending on who you’re working with and in which city, the permits can take anywhere from one month to six months to get. And yet venues often don’t make decisions about what plays they want to do until very late.
Technically you’re not supposed to advertise unless you have the permit, so then that makes it very risky for ticket sales, because you can’t start selling tickets until you have the permit, but you can’t get the permit until you have the contract, and you can’t get the contract until…it just starts backing up and up and up.
Why not shoot for the National Center for the Performing Arts right away?
We did reach out to the NCPA in 2011, and they were sort of interested, but they were worried that, commercially, it wasn’t viable. I don’t think at that time they expressed any concern over the content. It was simply they didn’t think they could make it happen.
Are the logistics different this time?
Sometimes, working with larger institutions in China is worse, as it is in any country, because you’re dealing with a bigger bureaucracy, and sometimes it’s better because it’s a smoother process. That’s how it’s been with them this time. The permit came through so quickly. Everything’s been very clear, the communication’s been very good. Knock on wood, so far things are great.
Coming back to that canceled talk in 2011, what happened there?
The second act had just started. The text said that they wanted to avoid any unexpected or any uncontrolled results. Basically, they didn’t know what kind of conversation would happen, and what they said afterwards to me was that “Well, Bei Da [Peking University] students are very smart. They ask very difficult questions, and we just didn’t know what direction the conversation would go in, and we thought it would be safer not to have it.”
Generally speaking, universities in China are a little more conservative. It’s the opposite of the States. In the States, universities are the sites of crazy open thinking and in China they are too, and therefore the administration gets a little more nervous sometimes with more public things.
The day after the canceled talk, [Geoffrey Cowan, “Top Secret’s” playwright] gave his lecture at the law school to a room of 200 to 300 students. The most open, nuanced, sophisticated conversation about the press and the government and the relations therein, with both China and the U.S., that I’ve ever been privy to. And it was an all-Chinese audience. Unfortunately the press wasn’t there that day, so they didn’t write about that one.
Are you planning any discussions this time around?
We’re not. The difference between 2011 and 2013 is this year we’re in Hangzhou, Suzhou, Tianjin, Beijing, Chongqing and Fuling. So we’re in six different cities. All are big, prestigious, mainstream venues. Because we’ve been here before, it’s a much higher-profile tour, it’s much more mainstream, it’s much more visible, and so we’re still doing discussions, but we’re going to do them with partners in classrooms.
What’s your take on the media coverage of the cancellation?
This is a hard one, because I’m never going to bite the hand that feeds me. We were thrilled for the coverage, we were thrilled for the attention and the amazing articles…but I wish they had also been there the next day at Geoff’s lecture at the law school and to witness the polar opposite of the night before. The takeaway from the very dramatic headline was “Oh, more censorship in China,” and that really wasn’t our experience in 2011.
I understand these newspapers and magazines need dramatic headlines. It’s back to the same issue China is dealing with, you’ve got to sell, you got to push product. It was a dramatic event, and I get that. That’s story-worthy. But I guess it’s back on us to tell the other stories that happened.
L.A. THEATRE WORKS: A 2011 performance of ‘Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers’
Maclean's: The Social Worker, A Vet's Best Friend
by Laura Fitch
Herding cattle with farmers, counselling students and supporting grieving owners are all in a day’s work for Erin Wasson, the first social worker at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).
Although veterinary social work is an established field in the U.S., and the links between animal care and mental health are supported by academic research in the U.K., Australia and the U.S., both research in the field and social workers actually working with vets are rare in Canada. The Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) at the University of Guelph’s Animal Cancer Centre has a social worker who is a grief counsellor; Wasson, who is a master of social work clinical associate under the umbrella of the University of Regina’s faculty of social work and WCVM, is the first social worker to be embedded at a vet school in the country. But there are signs the dialogue in Canada is intensifying, says Wasson.
In February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in six U.S. vets had suicidal thoughts, and one in 10 may suffer from psychological distress. At OVC, researchers rolled out a survey in September to measure burnout, depression, anxiety and stress among farmers, vets and vet students as part of a larger Canadian study.
And it all begins with vet school. Only five in Canada offer a doctorate of veterinary medicine; the application-to-acceptance ratio is grim. This year, 510 hopefuls applied to OVC, and only 119 made it in. At WCVM, 395 applied; 78 were successful. Once in the program, the stress doesn’t ease up. The people “surrounding you are people who have maybe applied multiple times and are hungry to engage with the work,” Wasson explains.
Vets say it’s harder than medical school, because students have to learn the biology of many species, not just one. After graduation, there is a licensing exam to pass, after which they can join the ranks of about 13,340 practising vets in Canada. Students are also introduced to the realities of the job, which include euthanasia, treating cases of abuse and neglect, and dealing with clients whose animals are beloved members of the family or critical to a farm’s economy. “The job isn’t all wellness and vaccinations and cute puppies and kitties,” she says. “It’s like working in a hospital, and your patients can’t tell you what’s wrong.”
In January, Wasson will supervise a master’s of social work student for a research-based practicum, and expects to have more practicums in the future. A full-scale veterinary social work program may be possible one day, but it’s too early to tell. “We want to make sure we are growing at the right pace for the program’s stability,” she says.
Students at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. (Photograph by Carl Garside)
The Wall Street Journal: Meet China's Documentary Heavyweight
The path to the silver screen in China can be a difficult one to navigate for domestic and foreign filmmakers alike. Securing a theatrical release is no easy feat in a market with a strict quota of 34 foreign movie titles allowed in theaters each year, an extended licensing process for domestic films and an audience with a cinematic taste that largely prefers the blockbuster over the art house, the fantasy over the documentary.
Canadian-Chinese director Yung Chang’s documentary “China Heavyweight,” which follows boxing coach Qi Moxiang as he searches for talent in rural Sichuan, made history by screening at 200 theaters when it opened on Dec. 20, the first documentary to ever screen so widely inside China.
WSJ: How were you able to release “China Heavyweight” so widely in China?
Yung Chang: The intention from the very beginning was to work in collaboration with a Chinese company as a co-production. In that way we were able to secure a theatrical license through Sarft [China’s broadcast regulator, formally the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television]. Given that there’s a co-production treaty between Canada and China, it allowed for us to work very smoothly as a co-production. It has to go through a censorship process, and we made very few changes. The Chinese company, Yuanfang Media, invested their own money into advertisement, and it was all essentially word of mouth, using Weixin [WeChat], Weibo, and social media. We had quite a bit of success with critical reception to the film, and as a result distributors felt confident they could sustain the film in a theater.
You mentioned a film production treaty between China and Canada. Could you talk a bit more about that?
For the China-Canada co-production treaty, a certain percentage of the funding for the film has to be from each country. The majority was from Canada, and I think the percentage breakdown was about 70-30, 30% China, 70% Canada. The director, producer, writer, etc. were all Canadian, or like myself, Chinese-Canadian. We did all the editing and the post-production in Canada, and obviously the production in China. Used a Chinese crew, cinematographer, sound, the essential production crew.
“China Heavyweight” is considered a domestic film in China. Did that make it easier to get through regulations?
Definitely. I think it would have been next to impossible as a 100% Canadian documentary to have been able to get a license in China. The treaty process is very difficult. There’s a lot of paperwork. It can be quite frustrating and time consuming, and it would be a lot easier to go completely 100% Canadian in terms of financing. But it was worth the effort.
You mentioned you had to make several small changes. Like what?
In the opening of the film there’s a scene with two boys fighting. The one boy has a bloody nose. In the Chinese release we had to reduce, maybe by one shot, the amount of blood. The other change we had to make was, toward the end of the film, the principal of the school makes a speech about the 60th anniversary of China, and he makes a comment that one can interpret as ironic. And we couldn’t sneak that irony by—we had to make that cut. It was a minor statement. At the end of the film, [Coach Qi] gets back in the ring. He has a fight with a Japanese boxer. And there was a comment about that. But in the end we decided we didn’t have to concede to that one.
How do you think this film plays to both audiences?
For a Western eye it’s more an ethnographic study. People are able to glean a little bit about rural life and see some themes about modernization in China. It’s a completely different reception in China. People walked away from the film after screenings in China with a very deep impression of Coach Qi Moxiang. Even consider the title of the movie. In Chinese, it’s an idiom “qianchui bailian (千錘百煉),” a direct translation would be “to be tried and tested a thousand times over.” Qianchui bailian is very personal.
You gave some Q&As after the screenings [in China]. Were any questions unexpected?
It was difficult for audiences not accustomed to this sort of documentary, [some] thought it was scripted, or fictionalized. There’s a whole other conversation about documentaries in China, the term, jilupian (纪录片) in Chinese, it means reportage, and people are used to documentaries being a CCTV production, talking heads, probably about history or propagandist. So we were presenting something that we were trying to term, our definition was zhenshi dianying (真实电影), reality filmmaking. We scratched the term “documentary” and we were calling it a reality movie.
I mean everybody is looking at China for everything. It’s the place. I think it’s at the crossroads right now. Between Bollywood and Hollywood. China has a regional market that makes money and doesn’t have to be a millions-of-dollars-budget for a film. It could be a million-dollar budget and make millions of dollars. And that’s sort of like Bollywood. But I think there are expectations and a lot of hope that China can transcend that, and be this global entity. Every time I go to Beijing I get this anxiety attack. It’s like going to Hollywood. Beijing is sort of like Los Angeles. You walk in there, you’re with your friends who are all filmmakers, and everybody is talking about money, get a story and all that matters is a good script and everyone is so excited and energetic about making something, and I feel like a country bumpkin from Canada trying to figure it out.
What marketing budget did you have?
It’s pitiful. I’d say a $10,000 Canadian budget. So I think it was really helpful that we had good relationships with people and distributors. They helped us a lot.
How did you market it?
We had an army of volunteers. I traveled to about five cities to promote the film. There were about 13 total in the tour, and in each city there’s these film geeks, film club geeks. And they come out like in Canada or the US, classic film nerds. So people really follow this. I think Douban is a really important website for indie cinema and a lot of followers use Douban to find out where things are playing. Social media, word of mouth, grassroots campaigning was our technique. No different than how we would have released the film in North America with very little budget.
– Laura Fitch
A still from “China Heavyweight,” directed by Yung Chang. COURTESY OF YUANFANG MEDIA
Yung Chang, courtesy of Yuanfang Media
Azure: The Supermarket of the Future Opens in Milan
MIT professor and visionary Carlo Ratti’s aptly named Supermarket of the Future in Milan is a modern-day paradox: a large retail outlet that uses cutting-edge technology to revive the spirit of bustling local farmers’ markets. Created in conjunction with Italian supermarket giant Coop Italia, the 1,000-square-metre grocery store opened late last year. Its design is by INRES and Area-17 Architecture & Interiors, but the store uses digital technology developed and patented by Ratti.
Similar to Amazon Go’s first brick-and-mortar store in Seattle, the Supermarket of the Future is check-out free, with purchases scanned onto smartphones. Motion sensors and augmented reality detect a customer’s movements and adapt accordingly. When a customer moves toward a product, information scrolls across a screen above, detailing everything from what the foodstuff is called, to the location of the field in which it grew, to what recipes it might be most deliciously included in.
The technology may be new, but the desire driving it is as old as markets themselves: to know exactly what you’re getting for your euro. In an era when globalization is widening the gulf between consumers and the origins of what we eat, wear and use, closing this information loop is a significant selling point.
Carlo Ratti Associati, in conjunction with the FICO Eataly World project slated to open later this year, is blurring the lines of the global production chain even further with a project that allows customers to remotely plant seeds in a hydroponic tank, monitor the plants’ biological data and growth through an app, share that info on social media, then pick up the harvest when it’s ready for the kitchen.
One of the oft-stated fears about the new face of retail is the obliteration of jobs, but Ratti sees opportunity for a growing creative class, and he has outlined many of his visions on the future of design and urban routines in his recently co-authored title The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life. Gone will be the dull, repetitive positions that define the customer-facing lines of the retail industry, he says. “With new technology, people can focus on the more creative and interesting work.” Let’s hope he’s right.
One of the store’s most striking features is a series of screens stationed above the produce. When you pick up a tomato, data appears on the screen providing information about that tomato: where it was grown, its nutritional properties, even its carbon footprint. Image: Azure
South China Morning Post: United Colors of Beijing
The capital's graffiti artists have come out of the shadows and are finding the city surprisingly welcoming, writes Laura Fitch
On a sultry summer’s day, with thunderclouds hanging heavy above them, a team of street artists spray-paint murals across the walls of a gallery in Beijing’s Songzhuang Art District. Locals Biskit, Zyko, ANDC and Sack coat concrete slabs set up around the perimeter of G-Dot Art Space, alongside Tkid, one of the first graffiti artists to decorate the streets of New York, in the 1970s, Binho, a renowned Brazilian street artist, and Noe Two, a Frenchman whose works include funked-out portraits of the likes of jazz artist Erykah Badu.
A small crowd of people have been bussed in from the city centre for the exhibition opening and mill around the yard, sipping sake from cans and watching the artists criss-cross, add to and complete one another’s works. Bemused pedestrians stop to take it in.
The walls of Beijing are increasingly being subjected to the spray can. Colourful murals have migrated from the officially sanctioned 798 Art District to the sides of highways and walls near Renmin University, in the city’s northwest. Tags – spray-painted signatures – decorate the entrances to train stations and glow under the red lanterns of the capital’s most famous food street, Gui Jie.
By their own estimates, between 30 and 40 graffiti artists work in Beijing, some more regularly than others, in comparison with the thousands active in cities such as Los Angeles, Paris and New York. Most here have creative-industry day jobs: building websites or laying out one of the growing number of glossy publications that sit on the shelves of the capital’s magazine stands.
When graffiti first appeared in Beijing, in the early 1990s, it – along with much of the emerging contemporary art scene – was considered subversive. Today, graffiti is taking root in a culture that is much more tolerant, both socially and politically – one where government restrictions are playing less of a part and the public is becoming more accepting of a wider range of artistic expression.
When Zhang Dali picked up a can of black spray paint in the early 1990s and began outlining outsized profiles of his own bald head on the sides of buildings slated to be destroyed, he became the first recognised graffiti artist in Beijing. This simple outline was so unusual – at the time nobody painted anything on walls except party slogans – that he would regularly get arrested, beaten up, or both, by the police.
“[They] would think that you were opposing them, opposing the government, or making fun of the government,” says Zhang, sitting on a plush beige couch in his cavernous studio, in the ramshackle Heiqiao art zone, on the outskirts of the capital.
“At that time, Chinese people didn’t understand. If you were an artist, you should be in your studio painting. What were you doing painting outside? What does this art mean?” Zhang is now a contemporary artist and art photographer with works exhibiting in major museums and galleries worldwide, including MoMA in New York. For his latest project, Zhang is sifting through photographs dating from the Great Leap Forward (1958 to 61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 76), comparing the originals with the doctored pictures that were published.
He stopped doing graffiti in 2003, he says. Times had changed; as the country opened up and self-expression blossomed, his profiles – which had forced people to question perceptions of art, public space and authority – lost their meaning.
“It didn’t have that spirit of resistance, that underground culture,” he says. “It just became something good to look at. Just a painting. So I quit.”
Tolerance for graffiti has only grown since Zhang put down the can. Li Qiu Qiu, of the graffiti team Beijing Penzi, or “Beijing spray can”, is known as the grandfather of graffiti in Beijing in its modern form, which more closely resembles the American-style artwork found on walls across the globe. Li, who opened his studio to American journalist and filmmaker Lance Crayon for the yet-to-be-released documentary Spray Paint Beijing, began doing graffiti in the early 2000s, and can attest to how quickly the cultural climate has changed.
When Crayon started filming graffiti artists in the capital in 2010, he was worried: “I thought … you’re gonna get arrested, your camera’s going to get confiscated, you guys are all gonna get in trouble.
“Nothing could have been further from the truth,” says Crayon, who followed Beijing street artists for over a year. “I thought China would be the last place where graffiti artists could enjoy that amount of freedom.”
In the US, where graffiti is considered a defacement of public property, graffiti artists will wait until the early hours of the morning to avoid detection while they work. Their Beijing counterparts, on the other hand, often head out in the afternoon and early evening.
“It was mind-blowing to me,” says Crayon.
Unlike in LA, where authorities take an active role in preserving public space and preventing the public from scrawling on walls, in Beijing it was once the authorities themselves who did the writing, with government slogans painted in red and white characters, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. Today, though technically illegal, savvy advertisers of everything from water-delivery services and internet providers to fake diplomas and sketchy STD treatments paint details of the services offered and contact telephone numbers on all available surfaces, from the walls of apartment building corridors to those in underpasses and alongside pavements.
While Crayon was filming, he rarely saw anyone stop the graffiti artists. Security guards would often watch with curiosity as the artists created murals. If someone did take issue with the graffiti, the artists would be fined at most a few hundred yuan. Occasionally they would be taken to a police station for questioning and then let go, he says.
It’s worth noting, though, that although artists in the US may be arrested for defacing public property, they are rarely detained for the content of their work. In Beijing, you may be able to paint almost wherever you want, but you still can’t paint whatever you want.
“Anything against the government is definitely off-limits,” says Zhang. “I think that’s a question you should ask young graffiti artists: if the police came and beat you up, what would you do? If no one is watching you, then what is your art?” Such sentiments don’t concern 28-year-old Li Zhu Nan, who sees selfexpression in the spray can. Graffiti is a hobby he loves solely for the pleasure of creation. A baby-faced man with hair that sticks up straight and thick eyebrows, Li, aka Biskit, sips water in a pricey coffee shop in Beijing’s business district. A sudden downpour has turned the streets outside into rivers, but not one hair on Biskit’s head is out of place. He’s been working late, creating advertisements for a company he prefers not to name. Dressed for the office in a neat, blue and white striped shirt, his enthusiasm is infectious, and only grows when he talks about his art.
Biskit’s introduction to the world of graffiti came in the early 2000s, via the internet and through the work of street artists in other countries.
The internet was his only source of inspiration, he says, until he met ANDC, a member of the industrious ABS Crew, a four-man team of graffiti artists-turned-designers. ANDC introduced Biskit to a burgeoning Beijing scene. His first tag was on a wall near his house.
“I thought, if anyone comes to catch me, I can just run home and hide,” he says, laughing. “It’s a bit safer, right?” Biskit has made a lot of friends through graffiti, he says. He has travelled to France, where other artists showed him their work in unused underground subway tunnels. For him, graffiti is a connection to a larger world.
“I was thinking about how to incorporate Chinese elements into the mural,” he says, scrolling through razor-sharp pictures of his pieces on a sleek smartphone. He points to the shadow of a roast duck next to an unmistakable outline of a temple roof, incorporated into an imaginative modern graffiti design. “I thought, what’s more Beijing than kaoya [roasted duck]?” An enthusiastic supporter of Beijing Guoan, he worked the football team’s green logo into another mural.
Some graffiti artists spray for pleasure, others are using their art to turn a profit. Standing for “Active, Brilliant and Significant,” ABS Crew is now an international design agency and one of the most active graffiti crews in the capital. ABS has co-operated on events with Audi, BMW, Red Bull and skateboard company Skullcandy. The crew – ANDC, Seven, Noise and Scar – took top honours from last year’s annual Asia-wide Wall Lords Competition, and their designs grace T-shirts, hats and skateboards.
A stone’s throw from the 798 Art District, ANDC’s white shirt is visible through a long thatch of trees that runs alongside Jingmi Lu, near Jiantai Bridge. It’s a small sliver of green in a city of greys and blues, and ANDC – aka Andy Guan – in a black cap, black-framed glasses and with a kerchief tucked into his back pocket, has come to complete a mural that Biskit started. As he sprays, an old man passes by and gives a thumbs up. Soon a young woman stops to watch. She says she’s an art student.
“In Hangzhou, they would all paint together,” she says of graffiti artists in her hometown, motioning towards ANDC spraying solo. As he works, the pile of silver spray cans littering the ground around his feet grows, each with a different coloured cap.
“In 99 you saw a lot of spray coming in, more colours than just black, red and blue,” says Zhang. “Now there are over 100. There’s gold, silver.
Now you can find ones that are this small,” he holds his hands less than a foot apart. “Now it’s really convenient.”
Convenient, yes, but not especially cheap. Graffiti may have started in New York as a poor man’s outdoor gallery but in Beijing, it’s a pursuit of those who make a decent living. Cans of spray paint cost upwards of 20 yuan (HK$25) each, and Biskit estimates that it costs about 1,000 yuan to complete a large mural. And there’s no guarantee the mural will be around for long.
The transient nature of street art is what inspired a magazine editor, then in his early 50s, to pick up his camera in 2005 and record graffiti art he found on the streets of Beijing. The works he first snapped were soon painted over by sanitation workers, he says.
“I decided I would do my best to photograph all Beijing graffiti works,” says Liu Laoshi, as he is known to those in the scene. He started a Sina blog in 2007 on graffiti art under the tag LLYS. His archives include “countless” digital photos, and over 1,000 film prints, he says.
“The quantity of graffiti increased after 2008, and the quality got better,” LLYS says. Graffiti art was following the path of Beijing in general, and creative scenes in Beijing, in particular. “There was more communication with world culture,” he adds. “In Beijing, the culture and art became more open.” Increased access to information, and communication with other artists helped grow the Beijing scene quickly, he says, while young artists are finding self-expression in graffiti. “They want to leave their name on the street, to have a position in a circle.”
Though improving, the quality of most graffiti in Beijing still lags international standards, says LLYS, who has snapped graffiti murals in places with well-established scenes such as Rio de Janiero.
In a small cluster of buildings in a rare, quiet corner of the bustling 798 Art District is a large concentration of graffiti works. Noe Two, Tkid and Binho have all created murals here. The difference in complexity between their art and works created by local crews is apparent, even to the untrained eye.
Crayon predicts that the relative freedom to paint in Beijing will draw more artists who are frustrated with restrictive environments in their home countries.
LLYS agrees. “There will be some amazing works created in the future,” he says.
For now, though, although the scene is emerging – the annual Red Bull Nanshan Open snowboarding competition, now in its 10th year, featured a huge graffiti mural painted on the slopes, for instance – it remains half-underground, says LLYS. The nature of their art is very public but the artists themselves are guarded about their private life.
“Their behaviour, what they do, they won’t let anyone know,” says LLYS. “The part that’s public is when they go out during the day and do graffiti. They take their time and aren’t afraid of anyone watching.
“They are indifferent to what others think of their work,” he says.
“They understand that the majority [still] does not accept graffiti.”
Image: Laura Fitch
South China Morning Post: Pride and Joy
BY LAURA FITCH
Low murmurs rise from the auditorium of a small, packed independent theatre tucked away on a tiny side street behind Beijing's National Drama Academy, hidden from the bustle of tourists on Nanluoguxiang hutong. At the urging of a man on stage, mobile phones are pulled from pockets and turned off. The lights dim and a row of men file in under them, taking their places as people in the crowd hush one another with hisses and slight, dry coughs.
For the next two hours the audience is treated to a musical variety show featuring duets, solos, thumping modern dance numbers and heartfelt chorus singing.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Shining Jazzy Chorus has arrived.
Augmented by two guest groups, this October performance marked the choir's fourth anniversary, and the first time it has performed for the general public, rather than an audience drawn exclusively from the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.
The Shining Jazzy Chorus is the only choir in Greater China registered with the international Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses and, according to its members, is the only gay choir in the country.
Begun in 2008 in the then newly opened Beijing LGBT Centre, with a handful of amateur singers and a professional musician as a volunteer coach, the choir, which now boasts roughly 20 members, a weekly rehearsal schedule and a CD - recorded at the fourth anniversary performance - has grown in tandem with Beijing's LGBT civil society.
When Beijing LGBT Centre adviser Stephen Leonelli landed in the capital, in 2009, he found a nascent LGBT community beginning to take shape. The centre had opened its doors the previous year, but groups devoted to promoting LGBT rights and providing community support were few. Now there are 12 to 13 groups in Beijing alone, he says, including a chapter of the Guangzhou-based PFLAG China (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and BGLAD (Beijing Gay, Lesbian and Allies Discussion). Lalas (slang for lesbian) gather at the Beijing Lesbian Centre while tongzhi ("comrade" and slang for "homosexual") of all persuasions join the Beijing LGBT Centre's various social programmes, watching movies together, conversing in English, debating literature in a book group or just hanging out.
Cinephiles get their fix at the biannual Beijing Queer Film Festival and the founder of China Queer Independent Films, prolific gay film director Fan Popo, takes the show on the road, screening LGBT films in cities across the country. Magazines such as Gay Spot and Les Plus provide coverage and last month saw the inaugural China Rainbow Media Awards, an honour bestowed on Chinese journalists and publications that provide fair and balanced reporting of LGBT issues.
Although it's possible to count the number of organised groups, it's impossible to quantify the spin-offs, says Bin Xu, who returned from the United States, where she was studying engineering, in 1995 to advocate for LGBT rights in China. She is a founder and board member of the Beijing LGBT Centre as well as a co-founder and executive director of support group Tongyu ("Common Language"). The swimming clubs, the dinner clubs and the casual, quasi-formal circles of friends that meet to enjoy mutual hobbies are all weaving a social fabric outside of the bar and club scene, says Bin.
The seeds were planted in 2003, she says, when the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria began funnelling money into establishing HIV-Aids groups in the mainland. These groups focused on health and prevention issues but had little to do with anti-discrimination efforts or social support, activities she had seen in action in the US. Though often disbanding at the end of a project or when the funds dried up, the HIV-Aids groups nonetheless taught people how to mobilise, says Bin: those involved in the groups began to see the potential of using similar organisational models to start up rights and social groups.
"For the past 10 years, for the LGBT organisations, it's been a process of self-empowerment, self-education and self-help, basically," she says.
When the LGBT Centre management hired its first staff member, in 2008, they were worried about paying him, says Bin. The centre now has three full-time staff members (paid through a mix of donations and funds raised by other means), a busy social calendar and seven volunteer psychotherapists, who, Leonelli says, have helped more than 400 people in private and group therapy sessions.
The scope of initiatives has broadened, too. Groups such as Tongyu are working with schools - educating teachers on how to handle LGBT students, as well as informing others about the community and engaging in mental-health work, she says.
It was these advances in the capital that piqued the interest of 29-year-old Wang Ruoyu. While working in an office in Shenzhen, Wang surfed the internet, looking for groups of interest to join. He was impressed by the line-up of Beijing LGBT organisations he saw represented at Hong Kong's first Pride Parade, in 2008, which he attended. He enjoyed singing, so he took a shot at finding a gay choir and ended up connecting with the Shining Jazzy Chorus.
"I was deeply attracted by the LGBT culture in Beijing," says Wang. That became a key factor in his moving to the capital in 2010. Less than 24 hours after his plane touched down, he was at his first rehearsal. A change in the schedule meant Wang arrived just as the chorus was wrapping up, but he instantly liked the camaraderie of the group.
"The director gave me some dance moves to practice rhythm," he says. He was hooked.
Wang is now involved in the LGBT Centre and a group making LGBT documentaries, and helps organise Shining Jazzy Chorus rehearsals and performances. He says he hopes one day the chorus will be able to tour the country. In 2011, he joined the Pride Parade in Hong Kong as a representative of the chorus, though he didn't perform.
"I like the feeling of singing with people, the feeling of two harmonies matching," he says. "That's not something just one person can do."
IT'S SATURDAY MORNING in a basement karaoke parlour just off the busy West Third Ring Road, in Haidian district. Clustered together on a small black sofa facing two flat-screen televisions broadcasting cheesy Christmas videos, a group of eight singers - five men and three women - grip sheet music and turn watchful eyes to 30-year-old Fei, who is leading them through voice warm-ups using a Smartphone tuning app.
"Do …," he sings, motioning with his hand for the singers to follow.
"Do …," they sing back to him.
"Do, re, mi …"
"Do, re, mi …"
"Not like that, like this," Fei says, and sings the intro to When I Fall in Love.
On a long table, goji berries float in a pot of chrysanthemum tea next to pink and yellow tambourines, microphones and juice bottles. Pounding bass emanating from other rooms bursts in every time the door is opened. As they continue to sing, the group find a groove. Hands start to clap to the rhythm; feet tap out the beat. As their voices gain confidence, the sound swells.
"Singing is a way of communicating," says acting choirmaster Fei. "There's a wall inside everyone's mind. That wall is there when you are trying to just express yourself in another way rather than talking or writing.
"When you climb the wall, and jump over it, you become a completely different person."
Fei first scaled that wall when he was a university student in Kiev, Ukraine, during a spring festival concert: "The first half, when I sang, I was just hiding behind the wall. But then I noticed people weren't laughing. They were paying attention. And I just climbed the wall."
Returning to Beijing after graduating, Fei found he was no longer scared of speaking his mind.
"I want everyone around me to feel like that," he says.
To its members - some of whom have not "come out" in public about their sexual orientation - the Shining Jazzy Chorus provides an opportunity to indulge in a love for music and make social connections without disguising their sexuality, something they may not be able to do comfortably in other facets of their lives.
Still, who prefers not to use his real name as he has yet to come out, joined the chorus in 2009, after finding a posting about the choir on a gay website. His first practice with the chorus made a deep impression. It was the first time he had been around "other people like myself. Not only gay people, but people who love music. People who love life".
"It was really a happy time," he adds.
Outside the karaoke room, Still, who is from Sichuan province, speaks softly and carefully, with his fingertips neatly pressed together. Wearing glasses and a blue and grey argyle jumper over a button-up shirt and jeans, he looks every inch the NGO office worker he is. Not so long ago, the 31-year-old didn't think gay rights had much to do with him, but personal issues have arisen and his parents are increasing the pressure on him to marry.
Still used to think he could never tell his parents he was gay but now, he says, he believes his mother might support him. Society's attitudes are changing, he says: "It's a positive change. There is hope."
The development of a wider civil society in China is very important, he says. Groups devoted to environmental protection - his own speciality - health and education are as important in his worldview as those dedicated to gay rights.
"I'm happy to be part of this," he says.
Homosexuality was a crime in the mainland until as recently as 1997, and listed as a mental illness until 2001. It was only last year that a policy revision allowed homosexuals to donate blood, though the wording still bans men who have sex with other men from giving, says Bin. Public policy may be slow to adapt to change, but perhaps the biggest challenge to coming out for most individuals is their family.
Many parents have a dominant role in the lives of their adult children, and though they may not be anti-gay in the sense that they feel the behaviour itself to be deviant, they see it as a problem.
"It's not that you are a bad person, or are going to hell," says Bin. "It's that you have to go into a heterosexual marriage, have children and carry on the family line."
In the year and a half since the LGBT Centre introduced its psychotherapy programme, "the No1 thing we've seen in people coming in is family pressure", says Leonelli. People feel guilty about not having children, and keeping a core aspect of themselves hidden from friends and family can lead to depression and anxiety.
Leonelli recounts an instance at the Beijing LGBT Centre when the mother of a young female volunteer travelled to Beijing from Inner Mongolia after her daughter had refused to see a psychologist who claimed that homosexuality was a mental condition that could be reversed. Hysterically hitting herself, she accused those at the centre of ruining her daughter's mind.
"It was hard for me to watch," he says. "I can only imagine what it's like for the daughter."
For the most part, coming out remains a luxury reserved for young, unmarried people who are financially independent and well educated, says Bin.
For people in rural areas, especially lesbians, who are dependent on family, the pressure to marry is heavy.
"If they dare to come out, they will be labelled a monster, a pervert," Bin adds.
It is this type of situation the Lu Rong, also known as Ouyi, or Auntie Ou, hopes to ease. Lu, an unassuming woman with a soft, comforting voice, is an unlikely campaigner for gay rights. The 62-year-old retiree is straight, as is her married son. But ever since befriending a gay man after reading his blog, in which he described loneliness and alienation from his family, she has become an advocate for communication and understanding.
"I finally understood," she says, of reading his blog. "He didn't choose this life. It chose him."
She has written numerous articles on the topic, as well as a book, Those Gay Children of Mine, the first on the mainland to be legally published with " tongzhi" in the title. Last year, the book was released in Taiwan. Lu is currently penning another. She sees her role as being a bridge between parents, whose thinking she understands, their gay children, with whom she sympathises, and the public, whom she wants to help understand what being tongzhi involves. At times, gays and lesbians will ask her to go with them to speak to their parents.
A small but growing number of people think like Lu, especially in major urban centres. It's increasingly common for people to have gay friends, says Still, and the term ji you, or "gay friend", has joined the lexicon over the past two years.
The Shining Jazzy Chorus is looking to move on to bigger and brighter challenges. After the success of the chorus' fourth anniversary, Wang is hoping for more performances, in front of both LGBT and straight audiences, while Fei is looking to challenge the group's vocal skills so they can sing longer and louder.
"Maybe in the future we can choose harder pieces, maybe a capella," he says, with a smile. "Just the pure power of us."
The Shining Jazzy Chorus practices in a Beijing karaoke bar. Photo: Simon Song
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Image: Josh Partee for Azure
I regularly work with Four Seasons Hotel Beijing to write in-room newsletter, brochure and press release content (bottom images).
For Merrithew, I pitched and created on-brand editorial content for Triathlon Plus (top two images), including working with relevant internal stakeholders to plan the exercises, organizing the photo shoot and writing copy.
I also created on-brand Merrithew content for Optimyz magazine (middle images), including working with relevant internal stakeholders to plan the exercises, organizing the photo shoot and writing copy.
I also created a successful content calendar, including a number of targeted video series, for the Merrithew blog, which raised unique pageviews over 159% year-on-year from 2015-2016, and over 100% year-on-year from 2016-2017, and lowered the bounce rate by over 85% year-on-year from 2015-2016 and over 117% year-on-year from 2016-2017.
I specialize in magazine editing, a transferrable skill that serves well for compelling content creation.
As a senior editor at City Weekend Beijing, I managed the news, arts, performance and books and film sections of the bi-weekly lifestyle and entertainment magazine. I also created and curated the Community supplement, which used longform magazine feature writing techniques for stories and profiles of prominent members of the cultural community at large.
I was a founding editorial team member of Asia Weekly, a Beijing-based, internationally-circulated magazine dedicated to pan-Asian politics, economy and culture.
I also edit books, novellas and essays. My pre-submission edits of best-selling author Lijia Zhang’s latest NPR-reviewed book Lotus helped her secure a book deal with Henry Holt, a subsidiary of Macmillan.