Saturday, 10 September 2011

Catching On...

Whilst I was teaching part-time recently, I asked one of my students to play a Western song that they liked. One of the students played a song which introduced a particular feeling of nostalgia in me : a song called ‘Dilemma’ by Nelly. I can’t say that I’ve ever had any deep feelings towards this song, but the tune was one that I liked and I remember one Christmas playing this song on repeat. Either way, I thought of this as one isolated incident, a student with a penchant for American pop rap.
But then a day later I heard someone listening to it walking down the street. And then again I heard it as a ringtone on the tube. And I kept on hearing this tune, and before long I realised this was no isolated incident but a pattern. A song which made number one in the UK four years previously was finally catching on in China.
I recently went to a factory outlet store (a great place in fact with a very Western style and voted number one shopping outlet in Asia)
Whilst there I went to a BMW lifestyle store. I’m sure this kind of store does exist in the West. But I can’t recall having seen it with the Chinese level of frequency. Perhaps many people can’t afford a BMW but don’t want to be deprived of the mythique surrounding the brand. Either way, inside there was a whole section dedicated to the F1 team Sauber. Except that this team hasn’t existed for about two years.
And the lesson to be formed is what is in fashion in the West often takes time to catch on. Or perhaps it won't ever catch on?
And back to a Dilemma. The Barbie store in Shanghai. After 18 months without any success it closed, taking with it the last of the Barbie stores within China. Something about Barbie was not popular in China. Perhaps the hyper-glamorisation of Barbie was something Chinese mothers did not want want to imbue in their young girls. Or perhaps the cultural and historical legacy of Barbie means nothing to the Chinese consumer (although other companies like Lego have become veritable success stories). Or maybe, just maybe, it’s time had not yet come. But Barbie corp had pulled the rug out from beneath Chinese Barbie's feet before it had had the chance to stamp its authority on the Chinese.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Teaching in China

Apologies for my recent lack of any thing resembling a blog post, but I have recently been busy teaching English in the evenings and doing an internship during the day. However, it’s not all bad, and the process of teaching has given me some inspiration for my next entry.

Whilst I was teaching at the language school the other day, my eye glimpsed upon a poster plastered upon the wall for classes with so called “famous teachers’, teachers whose status justifies payment of high salaries, and ensures that students are prepared to pay two or three times the normal amount in order to be taught by them. In itself this is not so strange, after all famous professors in the UK can justify bountiful appearance fees. However, what we are talking about is not university level instructors, rather those tasked to teach English to middle-school and high-school students. Teachers are undoubtedly respected in Western countries, but this level of reverence for what is essentially a teacher in a private language school is incredible. Confucius did of course establish a learning culture within China thousands of years ago, but modern China does not allow itself to be bound by historical legacies, and there can be no way the present cult of the teacher can be solely attributed to the great philosopher himself…?
First of all, it is easy to remember that China has a population which is absolutely vast. There is competition for job places, school places, university places, bus spaces; and the one time I went to Starbucks even that was a standing affair. So anything that can give an edge must be treated as an advantage, especially any form of proficiency in the world’s business language. So heralds the growth in English language schools. But is this just a profit making delusion, or a worthwhile use of a student’s time and parent’s money?
There would seem to be times when a language school’s desire to turn a profit would follow the same path as, and be conductive to, a student’s learning. Well, in my recent experience, not necessarily. A quick check of one of China’s video sites brings up many videos of so-called ‘famous teachers’, many taken hidden-camera style as paparazzi may snap a celebrity. And unfortunately these ‘famous teachers’ are too often indeed redolent of entertainers. In the majority of the videos they are signing, dancing, or doing something else to amuse the students. Often not even in English, the teachers add to their cult of personality by providing enjoyment. Students love it, and they want to come back to the school. Parents love it because their children are happy and it seems like they are learning. The teacher loves it since he is earning more money and reputation. And the language school loves it too since they are securing repeat business and buffing their coffers. Yet it is clear the whole cycle is delusionally flawed, quality teaching is merely displaced by entertainment, parents are hoodwinked into believing class is actually doing something good for their children, and the language school are well-aware that such a method provides rich rewards.
Unfortunately these events are to the detriment of the student: they are learning nothing. It may be fun, but the academic goal that should be central to the whole process is somehow lost in the process. And this is just a single language school. Here in China there are many other schools most likely doing the same thing.
For my part, I try to do some quality teaching. Unfortunately too many students and their parents believe that the mere process of giving money to the language school in enough to secure linguistic proficiency. They send texts, and talk in Chinese, and play games consoles and mess around. They do not do any learning or studying: suffice to say, these things are quite important to improving language ability. It seems perhaps that entertainment even with a bit of teaching is the lesser of two evils.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Number-plate Fetishism...

It would be fair to say that I have a preternatural obsession with number plates. I recall fondly the implementation of the UK's new number plate system in 2000. From that point on, all newly-issued number plates began with a two letter prefix denoting where the car was from. So if the numberplate started with NY, it was from Stockton, North England. Or if it started with LA, it was from Wimbledon, London. Or at least this was the theory behind it. But because of the UKs small size, and the fluid nature of integration between cities, it is not entirely inconceivable a Londoner could go to Scotland to get a cheaper deal on car. Though the plate identifies the car as coming from Scotland, there is a Londoner driving it, and so there is less fun to be had in the detective work.

The ideogram on the left demarcates this car as originating from 苏州 (Suzhou, A province is South-Eastern China) Note the multiple 8s. Chinese superstition and love of this digit makes this number-plate one of the most expensive in Chinese history.

But China is a whole different ball game. Where many people have never left their provinces, generally speaking the prefix of the province on a car plate truly is where the owner is from. And China has such a massive range of different plates it is wonderful. Sections of the military, government, embassies, public institutions, all have their own prefixes. There is such a diversity it is fascinating and breathtaking. I nostalgically look back on a range of books from when I was younger called 'Michelin I Spy.' They were a wonderful collection of books, encouraging children to keep their eyes open looking out for the objects listed in the books. If someone could produce one related to Chinese number plates even I would buy one...A number plate goes on a car, Michelin tyres go on a car, Michelin produces the books; there must be something in this...
I make no excuses for my youthful love of cars, and the above book was no doubt my favourite one of the series

Because I find my eyes often trailing towards the number-plate area of a car, it means occasionally I find myself noticing strange things. One thing I noticed recently pertains to a certain brand of car called Infiniti. To give their brand that little edge, it seems they have started offering number-plate facades which deviate slightly from the norm.

Here the brand name is emblazoned upon a gold plaque

Here the customer has gone for the bling Swaroski look

And last but not least, the classic two-tone petrol style...

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Communist Propaganda, Capitalist Lifestyle...

During my time in China I have frequently seen Maoist style graphics reinvented within a modern context, each time used for different reasons, and leading to differing end-results.

Modern Chinese pop-art seems to be particularly adept at invoking symbols of communism and inverting them in order to mark out and delineate the change in China’s direction, political standpoints, and economy. Chinese art is awash with using this style of propaganda print as a form of contemporary cultural communication.

In advertising its use is also far from clear; often it gives artistic simplicity to the ad which presents a visual emphasis on the product on display, as well as adding a bold adding a bold desirability to the product on offer. Of course, the use of it within advertising is particularly interesting:a style formerly a tool for lauding communist ideologies reinvented as a tool of capitalism.

In other kinds of situations I have seen this style used in public messages and displays (non-governmental), presumably where the strength of simplicity still manages to fulfil original aims. I have seen it painted on the walls around schools, bringing up a kind of idealism to the educational environment, and on entrances to bars and restaurants frequented by older clientele where the propaganda style image brings up a different recollection to the younger generation.

The government also still invokes a kind of stylistic simplicity in it’s public messages which seems redolent of government messages from 40 years earlier. However, often certain colours are softened, figures are given more of a realism and the characters within the poster look forwards to give more of an amiable and less of a non-personal look to the image.

Maoist-era Propaganda

Modern-era propaganda stylism

Above I have noted a couple of contrasts (and similarities) between communist posters and contemporary propoganda style posters which I have come across in the last week. Note the eyeline focusing away from viewer, the striking simplicity in terms of design and colour. The first pair are posters intended as public encouragement posters. Of the later pair, the first is part of Nike's Running Assets Campaign (Wieden + Kennedy Shanghai), the second is a picture taken at the entrance to a building site.

For those interested in original style propoganda posters, there is a wonderful selection worth looking at here.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Busking in China

Recently met up with some friends around 798 Art District in Beijing, an interesting enough place which gives a good place to start if interested in getting some kind of understanding about Chinese art, even though the place is becoming increasingly commercialised.

The area is brimming with local artists of both the musical and artistic kind displaying their wares and strumming their tunes. By chance my friend had his guitar, and I had my bike. If ever the stage was more set for some impromptu busking, this was it.

We started off with a song we had invented more or less on the spot: slightly uninspired, lacking any strong or variable vocals, playing excessively upon repeated chords, and drawn together by three guys devoid of any discernible music talent. Nonetheless, it sounded O.K., and I think we were unlucky not to earn so much as 1 kuai. The lyrics translate roughly as "Tomu loves Zhongguo (China)", and "Shenlin loves Riben (Japan)"

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

State-Sponsored Graffiti

As I was returning back to my Chinese homestay family's house recently, I took a route slightly different to normal. I got a little lost, and ended up cycling past a (kind of) Great Wall of stenciled images and painted figures, all resplendent in colour. Graffiti walls are nothing remarkable. They are a feature of any major city I can recall having visited; a creative output for the artistic, a political output for the disillusioned, an illegalistic output for the subversive.
But after having passed the wall, I began turning something over in my head. For I had never seen graffiti in Beijing before. Perhaps as an attempt to assert dominance over the masses, stamp out individualistic expression, and re-enforce the strength of government, any graffiti is covered up and painted over as quickly as it is discovered. So I couldn't help myself but turn around and go back to take a second-look.

And it was more than worth it. The images are pro-China, in fact their profusion of feelings are not even subtle. But I find the contrast between images which on the surface have such an insouciance and freedom to them, and the underlying message of support for the government, disarming. Of course, China doesn't conform to anything which is imaginable in the West, but imagine a truce between graffiti artists and the local authorities to lay down pro-Conservative Party graffiti on British walls!

In this image a family is drawn together in harmony, expressing their positive outlook through the ubiquitous V-sign gesture, symbolising cheerfulness and indefatigability. Of particular interest, this model Chinese family is twisted slightly from the norm, two cute children lurking behind instead of the normal one. A clever subtle note of defiance from the graffiti artist?

Here we see three Chinese red lanterns, emblazoned with the golden figures "60", "周" and "年"

This indicates the time origins of the wall: 2009 - a celebration of 60 years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
Here there is a celebratory image of the successful Chinese space mission of 2003, which propelled China as the third-nation to enter space. There is a blissful innocence to the image, which discounts the globo-political motivation for the mission. Of further interest is the image of two astronauts next to each other. In fact, China has only sent one astronaut into space, Yang Liwei.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Who Holds the Power?

Last night the power went off at midnight. Which is nothing to get too upset about, except that no-one knew anything about it. Televisions and clocks reset, computers ran out of power, electrical appliances went uncharged, and freezers leaked all over the floor. About two minutes after it happened I angrily stormed down stairs to find out what was going on.
The security guard was sitting there, reading under candlelight. I asked if this was unexpected. He said that he knew it was going to happen due to engineering works. His supervisors had told him. It just so happened that him and his colleagues had not bothered to tell anyone else. Whether out of laziness, unwillingness to enter into conflict and anger, or orders from above; we were left, well, in the dark.
And what a marked difference this is from the UK, where a letter is sent out months in advance of any power cut (in fact this is a legal requirement). British Method: Warn before, deal with the consequences and complaints, then cut the power. Chinese method: Give no warning, cut the power, then shrug off the consequences and complaints saying that what's done is done and there is no going back.
Still, there were rare advantages. It was incredible to see all the student accommodation plunged into blackness; but even better still was to hear all the student accommodation plunged into silence. No televisions, no microwaves, no air conditioning, no speakers, no computers. Just the gentle brushing of the wind across the trees and through my window.