Charles Hecht

China Diary #10

Day 1

The inspectors at the airport thought that my steel mold for the new spermoid series was a potential weapon which meant I had to go back and re-pack so it could be sent as baggage. The flight was full, but the person next to me was very interesting to talk to. John was an interior designer who worked with architects all over the world and had some interesting insights on construction projects in China.

After arriving, I went through my usual ritual of exchanging American dollars for RMB at the airport, a stop at Jenny Lu’s for breakfast supplies, and wine and cheese before opening up the house. Everything seemed to work except the hot water in the upstairs bathroom and my electric bicycle. Li Gang called to see if I was coming to an opening at the Pickled Arts Centre and to say that he was serving Mongolian BBQ and beer. It was too good an offer to turn down. The artist works on heavy-duty paper and they were very interesting and well done pieces because of the unusual textures and the way he designed each piece. They were all very large. The BBQ was excellent.

There was a large Australian contingent and I met an American lawyer who had a wood shop very near the Pickled Arts Centre. He specialized in corporate law in China, although not admitted to the Chinese bar. His wife was a former practicing lawyer with a big American firm in Beijing, who is now a legal recruiter. He never met a U.S. person with my background who was an artist with a studio in Beijing and all he wanted to do was to discuss legal war stories even after I explained that one of the benefits of having a studio in Beijing was to enable me to focus on art.

I remarked to Li Gang that his studio next door to my place had a brand new wall, but it looked like he had finally gotten around to cleaning it up and it looked great from what I could see. I thanked him as his next-door neighbor, since the place was previously an eyesore. I asked him how Lau Shan was handling this. I also told him that Lau Shan’s vegetable garden in my front yard looked terrific. Li Gang told me that the landlord required him to leave 318 because his fung shui expert said that Gang’s studio was bad karma right across from the new headquarters of the real estate company that developed and managed our communities. But the landlord had given Gang a new studio in a different location which he was in the process of renovating. By 8:45 I hit the wall and took a taxi home.

Day 2

The upstairs shower had no water, so I took a shower in the studio bathroom. After an early breakfast I did some office work, because one of our clients had a deadline and I was leaving for Boshan the next morning. I was unsure whether there was an internet connection at the hotel in Boshan. I then decided to explore the new museum/art gallery area right in front of 318 Art Park. On the way I bumped into Alan of the real estate management company and we discussed the pending governmental approval for my large flag sculpture that the company was going to hang at the entrance to 318 Art Park last June.

The Found Museum had just opened. The main room consisted of scale models of old buildings in Beijing. One of the curators offered to show me around. First, I went through a hidden doorway to a video presentation about the ultimate choice we have when facing death. It was quite interesting but unsettling. She then showed me another room which I would have never found containing an interesting sculpture/video that reminded me of the lower level of hell in Dante’s inferno. There was also an interesting sculpture of a space monster giving birth. After that things got more pleasant. Physically it is a beautiful place to show art and there were some very nice pieces by a bronze sculptor from France.

The MOCA museum across the road was closed for repairs, but I found a gallery selling Chinese antique country furniture, primarily from Shang Xi Province. Since that is where most of my used furniture came from, it was very interesting to see what the gallery was showing. I was served tea The dealer then wanted to see my studio. Surprisingly she told me that my selections were good and I had paid very fair prices. The antique dealers in New York had given me good advice! We then joined a Chinese art dealer for lunch. This art dealer specialized in finding unknown artists working in small towns in southern China and works that are more than 200 years old. We were then joined by three young artists who lived in the area and knew the furniture and art dealers.

One of the artists and the art dealer did most of the talking They covered three principal subject matters; how the collapse of the U.S. stock market had impacted the artists in China, comparing whether it was better to sell overpriced Chinese modern furniture rather than country antique furniture and one of the artists’ new freestanding bungalow. Apparently, the Chinese galleries were using the collapse of the U.S. stock market as a reason for not paying the artists. The fear was that if the world economy continued to soften many artists would have to pursue other livelihoods. But the artists who were already successful would not be adversely impacted. I unders.tood most of what they were saying but certain key words, which were material, were lost. So I just decided to listen. As far as the recent economic downturn, I felt that it would adversely affect the high end artists too, because the first item wealthy people cut back on is the purchase of high priced art.

One of the artists had his studio in A-Base amongst the galleries and museums. Apparently there were only three studios in the complex, and as a result he and his girlfriend had decided to live downtown. He showed me the backyard which had a putting green occupying 90% of the tiny backyard. He had two Chinese versions of an Odyssey and Titleist putters, but did not have the foggiest idea how to use a putter. The green consisted of the best synthetic grass manufactured in Taiwan. It was shaped in interesting way. It was fun for about 15 minutes but I was running out of steam.

On the way home the electric bike started to act up. I used human power to get in to the repair shop. Apparently, the battery was losing juice rapidly or there was a bad connection between the battery and the unit powering the bicycle. They told me it was fixed on three occasions. I made the mechanic drive the bicycle so he could understand that it was not repaired. He finally agreed with me that if I tried to get it home, the bike would not make it. So I left the repair shop the keys and told them that I would return in five days to pick it up. I took the bus home. Li Gang told me about an opening at the main Red Gate gallery in The Watchtower, but I was just too tired to go. Li Gang invited me to join him in some other artists for dinner and I had to decline because I was too tired and had to leave early the next morning for Boshan. The new railroad terminal in the southern part of Beijing had been completed and my train was departing from that station. So I worked on the diary and decided to go to bed by eight o’clock after doing some reading about Tibet.

Day 3

What started out as a very good day ended up to be extremely trying. I woke up to a sunny morning with not a cloud in the sky. LauShan stopped by to check on his vegetable garden as I was eating breakfast. He did not want to wait and I had a number of things to cover with him, including of the winter coal arrangement, opening up the outside electrical receptacles which he had closed up too tightly, and if he could figure out what was wrong with my upstairs bathroom. We solved none of these problems and I had to do some final things before Professor Wang and his wife picked me up to take me to the new train station.

The new train station, which was completed just before the Olympics, is a big improvement over the old Central Station. It looks like a brand-new airport terminal with beautiful lighting and shiny marble floors. The old station was filthy and this new station is immaculately clean. I found my seat on the train easily. There was a young woman with a baby boy sitting next to me. He was my friend for the entire trip to Zibo. The Chinese babies all do not wear diapers – rather there is a slit in the back of the pants. My concern in holding the baby was how do I know in advance when it needs to go. Apparently the parents have no problem figuring this out.

At the station I was met by Professor Wang’s friend, Mr. Tang. He was accompanied by a translator and three of his friends. We then stopped at two ceramics facilities; the first being a showroom and the second being a large factory which we toured. Three of the persons from the factory joined us. One of the persons in the initial contingent told me that she had worked for Mr. Sun for seven years. All I found out was that Mr. Sun was in Beijing for two weeks and not to worry as Mr. Tang had everything under control. I asked them what time someone was going to come from the factory to pick me up at the hotel the next morning. He said don’t worry he would tell me after dinner. Dinner was for 11 and featured lots of drinking and local food. At the end of dinner Mr. Tang made a phone call and told me that he had no information on when someone from the factory would meet me at the hotel. The person who allegedly worked for Mr. Sun as his assistant general manager did not know anything about picking me up the following morning. In fact, she then said she did not work for Mr. Sun and did not know him. I called Professor Wang, who said he would contact Mr. Sun. Professor Wang called me back to say that Mr. Sun was not answering his phone. I’ll was told to go to the hotel and I would be contacted later on for the arrangements. I was not a happy camper.

Mr. Tang told me that he needed the driver to take him home, which was in another direction, but that one of the other persons who joined us for dinner would take me to the hotel. The interpreter accompanying Mr. Tang told me not to worry, that arrangements had been made at the Tianyuan Hotel. My room number was 605 and the charge was 136 RMB per night. The driver drove right past the hotel and I kept telling him that we’d gone too far. Twenty minutes later he was lost and I finally got him to stop the car. I then called Professor Wang and explained the situation to him and asked him to speak to the driver, who was supposedly a top governmental official in the Zibo area. I was staying in supposedly the best hotel in town and I could not understand why this gentleman did not know where it was. I persuaded him to backtrack so that I could locate the hotel. After raising my voice a few times I finally got us to the hotel. All of the information the interpreter had given me was all wrong. I was assigned a different room and the rate was higher, but I was too tired and angry to argue. I then received a call from Professor Wang saying that I would be receiving a telephone call from the factory sometime after 9:00 a.m. Since the factory hours are 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. this meant that if I was lucky I would only lose half the working day. Professor Wang was to follow this up with a fax to the hotel finalizing the specific time I would be picked up at the hotel. I unpacked, my back was killing me, and I decided to focus on writing my diary for this day, rather than thinking about the events of the previous two hours. Hopefully things would be worked out, but it was obvious that all of the coordinated plans were nonexistent. I hoped tomorrow would bring a better day.

Day 4

After breakfast, I went to China Mobile to put more money into my cell phone. It was a good thing that I did this, since the balance was below 50 RMB. While I was at China Mobile, Professor Wang called and told me that a friend was at the hotel to meet me. The friend brought an interpreter, Mr. Snow. In the short ride to the An Mie Handicrafts factory it was clear to me that Mr. Snow understood both English and Chinese well. Since Mr. Sun was not at the factory. I asked Mr. Snow to stay for approximately an hour so that I could make sure that we were on the right path, even though he told me my Chinese was good enough. He also wrote out for me some colors and light and dark so that there would be less chance of an error.

By going through the discarded glass pieces all outside of the cold shop I was able to choose the colors I wanted. However certain colors were not available that day. I chose a combination of gold and dark brown for the new series. I also made a decision to focus on the form and the flow of the glass so I decided to eliminate the Alice Cooper eyes from this series. The clay on one of the old molds was still intact and we decided to use that mold for today’s blowing/casting of the new sculptures. After a trial using only clear glass, we finished seven pieces before lunch; two utilizing blue and a shade of green strips and five using frit added to the clear glass. The three of us got into a rhythm and everything worked smoothly. We were also able to work on the elongated tails for the new pieces. We then went to one of to a local restaurants with Mr. Sun’s daughter and his driver.

After lunch we continued our work utilizing the frit on most of the sculptures. I also decided to do one in solid black. After lunch the workers had put some large yams or similar tubers next to the gathering holes in the main furnace to cook. They also put kettles for hot water next to the gathering holes. It is so hot next to the gathering furnace that the people are able to cook their lunch and dinner. We quit at about 3:00 a.m. to begin again tomorrow morning at about 7:30 a.m. I was soaked in sweat and after a hot shower slept for 3½ hours. After dinner at the hotel I worked on the diary and studied Chinese looking forward to working tomorrow with the new mold, which could not be worked on today because the clay needed to harden.

Day 5

The sun never seems to shine in Boshan. I met two American representatives looking for pottery in the area for their wholesale chain. This was their first time in the Boshan area and they felt it was the hinterlands compared to the area around Shanghai where they normally buy. It was raining fairly hard when I left for the factory at 7:30 a.m. We started work using the new mold. It reminded me of a cross between a dragon and a crocodile. So I decided to use gold and brown frit with a clear glass background. Because of the nature of the steel mold and, the glass flow in a twisted way it did not appear to me that the pattern created by the frit would look that good. The other problem was that the large bulging eyes in the pattern were smoothed out because of the thickness of the glass as we started to lay it on the pattern head first. But we did a series of 10 because it still may come out very well. In fact, on delivery this particular group looked sensational. Next time I will use this mold extensively.

We then went back to the old mold and I did one sculpture in pure black . We then did three more sculptures in black with yellow frit. It was difficult to tell how these would come out in the molten state, but the lines of yellow appeared to flow smoothly and they could be quite spectacular.

We then went to lunch at a local fish restaurant right near the factory. The driveway going up the mountain was extremely steep. The specialty was a fish stew cooked at the table. It was delicious. From this restaurant you could really see that the glass factory was surrounded by mountains.

Even though I had now worked with the master glassblowers for four days, I still did not know their names. I asked the young lady who was in charge if she was related to Mr. Sun because she looks so much like him and she laughed and told me her name and that in fact she was his daughter. Qian and Soia were much more talkative than usual, as the driver, Dong, dominated the conversation at yesterday’s lunch and was again the dominant talker at this lunch. He talked very fast and I did not understand him. I was able to understand the other three persons so long as they kept it fairly short. There were no inhibitions because they were having lunch with the boss’s daughter.

In the afternoon I decided to revert to using a clear glass base with two or three colors through the use of frit. The original mold seemed to give us much more creative freedom than the new mold. I also liked the proportions better and we had much more flexibility with the tail portion of the sculpture. Because we did not get back from lunch until 1:30, we were only able to complete three more sculptures before the factory shut down at 3:00. I then went back to the hotel and wanted to pay the balance to of 392 RMB for the last two nights. At the hotel desk clerk’s insistence I paid them 400 RMB. I could not understand why I was paying the bill in full in advance of my departure. I finally called Mr. Snow and he explained to me that it is the hotel policy to require 400 RMB deposit for each two days. On my departure they would refund to me 8 RMB. It seemed like a silly policy but when in Boshan do as the local hotel insists. Mr. Snow asked me if I would join him for an early dinner.

Cao first showed me his office. His business specialized in the export of tourist type mugs to the United States. He started his business nine years ago after he left a big corporation. His wife, who speaks no English, joined us for dinner at a restaurant right across the street from his office. He wanted to talk English and felt that his fluency in English was a major factor in the success of his business. Customers would pay him slightly more because of his fluency and the ability to truly and accurately understand their orders and his ability to making sure that the quality control of the factories used to complete the order was high. However, some of his customers had unrealistic delivery schedules but he took the order anyway. Most of his business is repeat business.

He wanted to discuss politics. He felt that the Americans misunderstood what was going on in Tibet. He felt that the pre-Olympic protests were carefully planned. China has brought many improvements to Tibet. My response was that in view of America’s invasion of Iraq we were not in a position to criticize how China dealt with its internal matters. Would China have the right to criticize America because the federal government intervened in Alabama to enforce desegregating the public schools?

He then started talking about his apartment in Tsingdao, a city of 8 million people on the coast. That city was much cleaner than Boshan, which still has a number of coal burning industries. But he did point out that glass factories such as An Mie Handicrafts had to use coal rather than natural gas and shut down at 3:00 to minimize pollution. I pointed out that there appeared to be some large new construction projects in downtown Boshan and this was surprising in view of the supposed downturn in the local economy. His response was that the Boshan district of Zibo needed to supply replacement housing for the older housing that had been demolished.

I came back to the hotel at 8:00, updated the China diary, did some Chinese language homework and read more about Tibet.

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Copyright 2015
Charles Hecht