The Abortion Conundrum: Murder or Women’s Right to Choose–A Review of Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks

Red Clocks (2019) by Leni Zumas

Ladies, can you imagine standing trial for medical malpractice because you helped out another woman? Perhaps you may have taken a niece to the pharmacy to purchase topical cream for a yeast infection. Or, you might have given your friend some Advils for period cramps. To be potentially prosecuted for helping to ease the discomfort and pain of another woman may seem absurd to you, but in Leni Zumas’s new novel, Red Clock, this scenario has become the new normal.

Red Clocks takes place in the fictional town of Newville, Oregon, in the not-so-distant future. Zumas, in her poetic language, tells the stories of four women in a society in which the lawmakers overturned Roe v. Wade and fetus gained equal rights as full-fledged humans. In this world, abortion is illegal in all 50 states, and IVF has also been banned because the unborn fetus cannot give consent to being born. Additionally, under the “Every child needs two” act, a single parent can no longer adopt a child.

The laws affect the four women in the novel in different ways. Ro/The Biographer is a history teacher who desperately wants a child but could not conceive, Mattie/The Daughter is a promising high school student who is seeking an abortion. Gin/The Mender is a mysterious woman who lives in the forest and provides alternative health care with her knowledge of herbs and roots. Susan/ The Wife is an unhappy housewife and mother who desperately wants to flee. All their stories interconnect to paint a devastating picture of womanhood in a world where women have no reproductive rights and the rights to their bodies.

When I was younger, I enjoyed dystopian novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951). To me, these books describe scenarios that could happen in a technologically advanced but ambiguous future or some imagined post-apocalyptic world that would never be realized. My favourite books are more metaphoric than literal, a way to illustrate the consequences of unchecked power or greed. Either way, the scenarios described in these books are relatable in a far-stretched kind of way and comfortably removed from my reality. They are more like tell-tale signs of the demise of humanity if we as a species aren’t more careful. Red Clocks, on the other hand, is not so removed from our reality–it is grounded in the United States of America in the year 2019.

This novel is poignant in a time when lawmakers are making strides in abolishing abortion rights across multiple states. There are clashes between those who identify as pro-life and those who are pro-choice. Neither side will listen to each the other because abortion, more than anything, is a moral question. Is it an act of murdering an unborn child, or a choice a woman could make for her body and her family? The answer to this question depends on what one might think is a human, or rather, when a group of cells becomes a human. Some people believe that it happens right at conception, while others at the time when the fetus exits the woman’s womb. Then there are the people in between who think a group of cells become a human at some undetermined point between conception and birth. No matter how you slice it, the abortion question is a conundrum: It’s a battle between life and choice. Whose belief should rule the court of law?

There are people who argue that killing an unborn life is unnecessary when the child can be given up for adoption or cared for within the community. It is true that there are women who ended up finding good homes for their unplanned babies. Others may come from supportive communities with resources to take care of them and their babies. However, for many, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, many of whom are women of colour from a lower socio-economic class, this is not an option for them. Yes, carrying a baby full-term is an option for many women, but it is also the least beneficial option for many more. Banning the right to abortion effectively become a punishment for women: for their promiscuity, or their lack of education or for their ethnicity or social economic class.

Recently, over the phone, my mother shared a piece of news about one of our pregnant family members. Her pregnancy seemed normal until she went for an ultrasound during a routine check-up. Afterward, her physician informed her the fetus appeared swollen and give her the diagnosis of hydrops fetalis. According to MedlinePlus, hydrops fetalis “occurs when abnormal amounts of fluid build up in two or more body areas of a fetus or newborn.” It is a symptom of underlying problems, and the survival rate of the fetus is low. According to Healthline, “Only about 20 percent of babies diagnosed with hydrops fetalis before birth will survive to delivery, and of those babies, only half will survive after delivery.” With these facts in hand, my relative made the painful choice to end her pregnancy at 16 weeks.

Though my heart broke for my relative who ended her pregnancy for the health of herself and her family, I am more thankful that she has the ability to make that call. I am a firm believer that abortion should be an option, regardless of one’s idea about human-ness and at what stage a fetus is considered a person with rights. At the end of the day, I want to live in a society with fewer moral judgments where we have the space to have our beliefs. I want all of us to be free to make choices that may be contrary to the beliefs of others. Most of all, I want to live in a more compassionate world where we have dialogues, rather than tearing each other down to prove that one’s belief is more superior. My question is, how do we get there?

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30 years After the Tiananmen Square “Incident”

The phrase “Tiananmen Square” is blocked in search engines in China. The date June 4 has become synonymous with “Sina Censor Day” as Beijing intensifies its censorship efforts to block its citizens from accessing information about the Tiananmen Square Massacre–a tragic day in 1989 in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired at peaceful demonstrators and innocent bystanders. To this day, Beijing tries to hide the truth: There was no massacre, just an “incident.” The death of thousands of citizen is not mentioned in any history books; the Great Firewall of China blocks any words or phrases associated with the event, and to this day, Beijing has never acknowledged, let alone apologized, for their brutal tactics in suppressing the amicable democracy- seeking protesters. Every year on June 4th, Beijing watches closely, ensuring no trouble could be stirred up within China. However, across the border in Hong Kong, thousands of people have gathered for a candlelight vigil every year since 1990 to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the hands of the PLA.

Partial view of the crowd at the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square Massacre.

This year, for the first time (after living in Hong Kong for seven years), I finally attended my first vigil with my husband Derek. From our home in Wan Chai, we walked to Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, which took us about 20 minutes. It was an incredibly humid night; my phone pinged with ceaseless thunderstorm warnings from the Hong Kong Observatory. It took us a while to get through the crowd to finally enter the park, but it was evident that despite the imminent bad weather, spirits were high. Thousands of Hong Kong people gathered for the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square Massacre and to protest against the proposed extradition legislation. If this legislation becomes law, it will be problematic as it could allow the transfer of fugitives to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong lacks a deal, including mainland China. Basically, Hong Kong people can be extradited to Mainland China to be prosecuted under Chinese law–a frightening thought indeed, especially for activists, journalists, and other vocal folks Beijing deems “criminal.”

The vigil was a humbling experience. On the surface, I blended in with the thousands of Hong Kong people around me, but as a Taiwanese Canadian living in Hong Kong, I am an outsider-insider. Though I didn’t understand many of the speeches in Cantonese or receive one of the white candles that the organizers were handing out, I was in awe. Looking at the serene faces lit by the soft glow of the burning wicks, I admire Hong Kong people’s resolute and determination to memorialize those who lost their lives on June 4, 1989. I respect their perseverance to defy Beijing by gathering each year, refusing to let go of the past. I feel a sense of affinity with the people of Hong Kong at the vigil and they gave me a little glimmer of hope: Perhaps with the international community watching, the Hong Kong people’s effort to preserve their autonomy will not be ignored. This leads to me think: Perhaps Taiwanese people can take a cue and organize a vigil next year in Taipei? A vigil not only to commemorate those who died but also as a gesture to show the international community that Taiwan is a democratic society, and should remain free of Beijing’s control.

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The Forgotten 30 Houses

Originally published in Photography is Art, Issue 12, December 2018, pp. 118-125.  Photography by Johnny Gin

The original emerald windows are one of the unique features of tong lau from the post-war era. They give us a glimpse of Hong Kong’s past.

Tucked behind the trendy restaurants and bars on Staunton Street in the Central District of Hong Kong is a piece of history the rest of the city has forgotten. I climbed several sets of steep steps behind the Police Married Quarters (PMQ) to find a quiet, shaded neighbourhood of low-rise buildings, “tong lau,” arrayed around a network of granite steps, airy terraces, narrow lanes, ancient trees, and quaint little shops. Tong lau –literally “Chinese buildings” –were built in the late 19th century to the 1960’s. They were used as tenement housing in southern China, Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

In the middle of the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, 30 Houses is a charming neighbourhood that is only accessible by foot. The area’s core is Shing Wong Street, named after the guardian god of cities whose temple once stood on the current site of the PMQ. There are tong lau on both sides of Shing Wong Street, most being two or three storeys tall. Facing Staunton Street stands a taller grey building. Between Staunton Street and Caine Street are many small lanes that consist of tong lau and vacant lots. Once upon a time, tong lau stood in these lots. The ground floors were used as storefronts for print shops and other small businesses while the shop owners and their families lived in the upper floors.

Folding gates made with corrugated iron emblazoned with floral patterns is a common feature of tong lau in the 30 Houses neighbourhood.

The name “30 Houses” likely originates from an earlier 19th-century development destroyed by bombing during World War II. After the war, the government and local landowners redeveloped the area, and it became a vibrant working-class neighbourhood. Over the years though, the tong lau were torn down to make room for modern high-rises. As these new residential developments sprung up in the area, the “kai fong,” the neighbourhood residents started to move away.

I learned about this alluring and nostalgic area from Katty Law, a neighbourhood activist serving as the convenor of the Central and Western Concern Group. As a kai fong, she grew up on Caine Road and has watched her home neighbourhood transform.

“I’ve lived in the neighbourhood for over 40 years,” Ms. Law mused. “When I was young, there used to be a lively street market on Staunton Street. Now people see little trace of it.”

Not only are the original grocery shops, and dai pai dong, traditional open-air food stalls, have gone years ago, many of the remaining tong lau have also become dilapidated shells of their former glory. The Hong Kong Urban Renewal Authority (URA) has been planning to tear down the tong lau to build luxury apartments. But 30 Houses isn’t just any neighbourhood: with 19th-century layout and building orientation and early 20th-century architectural style and construction techniques it represents something unique in the city. The tong lau are rare examples of the post-war urban residential neighbourhoods built between 1948 to 1958. They make a striking contrast with the surrounding high rises, built in the more recent years. Once these historic structures are destroyed, a part of Hong Kong will be lost forever.

Human memory is faulty and ephemeral; it only remembers what the eye sees. Once a building is gone, it fades away and eventually disappears from the collective consciousness. Fortunately, photography has been a medium to document and preserve buildings and communities in the brink of disappearance. In 1967, American photographer Danny Lyon made images to give testament to the transformation of lower Manhattan. He was able to record the process of turning an abandoned mid-19th-century working district of markets, warehouses, showrooms, and hotels, to complex high-rises that eventually became the heart of the financial district, where the World Trade Center once stood. Lyon’s work was turned into The Destruction of Lower Manhattan (1969), which seized the rare moments before the disappearance of a neighbourhood.

The curved balconies of 88-90 Staunton Street can be seen while climbing the steps on Shing Wong Street. They add to the structure’s old-timey charms.

Johnny Gin is a Hong Kong-based photographer. His interest in buildings, and specifically, how the built environment and vernacular landscapes inform the identity of a city led him to photograph the 30 Houses area.

Gin’s lenses captured various stages of development and decay in the area. Wing Lee Street, made famous by the 2010 film, Echoes of the Rainbow is one of the few to have escaped demolition. The tong lau on this street have been restored by their owners but are missing many of their original details, such as emerald iron balcony fences, matching window frames, and folding gates made with corrugated iron emblazoned with the name of businesses.  They now look uniform, stripped away of the eccentricities that made them intriguing.

Behind the tong lau on Wing Lee Street is a massive retaining wall—another marker of Hong Kong history. Since the original City of Victoria –the colonial name for Hong Kong –sits on a steep slope, 19th-century engineers dug an “L” shape onto the side of the hill to clear flat land to build on. On the long end, they used locally sourced granite to construct a sturdy retaining wall, matching the flagstones on the neighboorhood’s stairways. Trees have sprung up in the gaps in the wall, their unruly roots stretched out like spider webs across the wall, leading locals to call them “wall trees.” (石牆樹)

Wah In Fong West is a narrow street, one side facing a row of tong lau across from a stairway. This arrangement reflects the original orientation and plot size of first and second-generation tong lau in the Tai Ping Shan area, a densely populated zone struck by the plague of 1894. Nowadays, it is the only remaining two-storey tong lau built alongside the granite steps in Old Central. Tragically, these unique homes are among the most deteriorated structures in the 30 Houses area. Their facades obscured in bamboo scaffold and mesh, the upper floors are barely perceptible from the street. Even so, remnants of their past are still evident: the emerald balconies with their original plant holders and the storefront signs mark what once was a print shop near the top of the alley.

This concrete building features the ventilation shafts in the staircases, providing airflow in the hot and humid summers.

My favourite building in the area is the imposing four-storey concrete building at 88-90 Staunton Street. Rusty metal gates obscure the store sign, but the ground floor might have been a “Cha chaan teng,” a traditional café that served affordable Hong Kong style western food. I imagine this is where the kai fong gathered for breakfast before work. One of its most striking features, common in neighbourhood buildings, are the long vertical ventilation shafts carved at the front of the building. These provide much-needed airflow through the staircases, especially during the hot and humid summer months. Rounded balconies, visible from the Shing Wong Street steps, add to the old-timey charm.

The best-preserved tong lau can be found on Shing Wong Street, three-story structure split through the middle with ventilation shafts. The owners kept all of their original features through recent restorations, including balcony railings, window fixtures, and folding iron gates. Storefronts occupy ground floors, while upper levels are reserved for rental properties.

As a long-time resident of Hong Kong, I probably walked by this hidden architectural wonder hundreds of times on my way to the bars and restaurants in the area. However, the tong lau, sitting halfway up the hill, are very easy to miss. They have been tucked away, decaying while their surrounding areas develop rapidly. With photographic evidence created by Gin, it is easy to see that though the tong lau are in a terrible and potentially dangerous condition, they embody the passing of time and tell the stories of Old Hong Kong.  Even though they can be seen as an eyesore to those who don’t understand their history, there is a potential to restore and repurpose these old tong lau and turn them into social housing that Hong Kong desperate needs, artists’ residences to allow creative pursuits, and retail spaces to attract tourists. Ms. Law and her group are advocating to preserve them as part of Hong Kong’s history.

“It is so important to keep the original character of these buildings, as they are a culmination of history,” Ms. Law said, “Perhaps Shing Wong, the guardian god of the city, is protecting our area. After all, the buildings still stand today.”

Notes:This text is based on the research done by Katty Law, Charlton Cheung, and Sjoerd Hoeksta for the Central and Western Concern Group.

The author has read The Life and Death of Buildings: On Photography and Time by Joel Smith (Princeton University Art Museum, 2011) to learn about Danny Lyon’s work in The Destruction of Lower Manhattan (1967).

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Wan Chai Grammatica: Past, Present, Future Tense

Studying an acrylic painting of green shrub and concrete, Dewey Punk Pickles knows right away what she’s looking ata pathway in Wan Chai she passes by during her morning runs to Victoria Harbour. Yeung Tong Lung’s brush strokes remind her of Cézanne’s obsessive and repetitive dabbing of paint. However, unlike Cézanne,  who took up to 100 work sessions to complete a still life, Dewey doubts this artist had put in as much effort.

Dewey is at Wan Chai Grammatica: Past, Present, Future Tense, an exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Wan Chai Arts Center, Hong Kong. Lately, she has attended many shows and openings to enhance her skills as an art writer. For a Hong Kong-based writer who doesn’t want to work in finance or PR; art writing is her best bet.

As a Wan Chai resident of almost seven years, Dewey is interested in how artists see Hong Kong from the past, present, and future. Looking at an acrylic painting by Galylord Chan, she recognizes that this is an image of Vicotria Harbour of Old Hong Kong the low-rise, not-skyscraper buildings, the old-timey clothes hanging to dry, and the airplane flying near the mountains on the Kowloon side where the old Kai Tak airport used to be. Though she wasn’t alive in Hong Kong during that time, she’s seen enough of Fan Ho’s photographs to get a sense of what Hong Kong was like in the past.

Chan’s painting looks as though the viewer is viewing at the harbor from the mountains, and the artist uses child-like lines to render the cityscape, evoking a sense of innocence. However, there is a depth to it too, like the way the artist illustrates the stacking of concrete buildings in Kowloon to show its population density. Also, by placing a ferry in the middle of the painting, the artist highlights the importance of ferries in Old Hong Kongbefore the MTR (the reliable and inexpensive transportation system of Hong Kong), people relied on ferries to get from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon and vice versa. These days, the Star Ferry that takes passengers from Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui has become a relic from the past. Although Dewey thinks it’s romantic to ride the Star Ferry, she only does so when she is not in a hurry.

Harbour (1969) by Gaylord Chan.

Dewey looks at an ink and acrylic painting by Luis Chan that reminds her of classic Chinese ink paintings.  She’s always enjoyed the serene mountain scenes created by the elegant strokes of a calligraphy brush. This one before her is a modern take of an old form, a painting of hilly Hong Kong Island with the sea and Kowloon in the backdrop. There are a few buildings in the picture, but the hills are mostly bare, except for a crazy tree with blue, yellow, and red leaves. In the harbor are junk boats with crimson sails, and at the foot of the hills are some obscured figures they look like they are carrying something.

Other objects that remind Dewey of traditional Chinese landscape paintings are over-the-top dioramas created by MAP Office.  She stops before a snow-capped mountain made of mini plastic palm trees covered in glue. All around the hills are soldiers wearing green uniforms and white helmets who have climbed towards the top using ropes secured by divers down below. The diorama depicts a scene of an invasionthe soldiers are storming around the Godzilla-like monster on the top of the mountain, trying to destroy it. Dewey thinks that this work shows the transition between old Hong Kong moving to a more contemporary Hong Kong.

Dewey’s favorite diorama is the landscape of seashells, fan-like corals, and a sand dollar covered in shiny pink beads, plastic palm trees, faux pearls, and female figures performing lewd acts. Some of them are lifting their skirts to show their asses; some are standing around naked sticking out their tits, others are sitting on the ground, submitting themselves to the male gaze. This glittery, pink world reminds Dewey of the neon lights on Lockhart Road, where young women from southeast Asia in short short skirts holler at Gweilos to entice them to stop for a drink.

Close-up of Wanchai Islands: Wanchai Colonies (2018) by MAP Office.

Dewey stands before Xyza Cruz Bacani’s photographs of street scenes of Wan Chai. They are typical scenes of the neighborhood: Laborers hanging out on the steps of the Southorn Playground, a Gweilo (Cantonese slang for a light-skinned European descent) passed out on the infamous Lockhart Road, (Wan Chai’s red light district), and a couple kissing on the crowded sidewalk off Johnston Road. The image that captured Dewey’s attention shows the closing of an iconic Wing Wah Noodle Shop in Wan Chai. The store sign made up of four Chinese characters were covered carefully with characters printed on white paper, “gloriously finished business.” Wing Wah had been serving tantalizing wontons noodles and mouthwatering braised pork knuckles for the last 68 years. She’ll miss Wing Wah’s wonton noodles, especially after a night out.

Dewey enjoys these images because it’s fun to identify the locations in her neighborhood. They are current, like something she’d see in her day-to-day life. However, in her mind, they lack that unique little details that make her love the photographs. Or, perhaps she’s too fixated on identifying the locations to find the details.

So far, Dewey has explored the past and the present of Wan Chai. However, the only object in the show that reflects any inklings of Wan Chai in the future tense is MAP Office’s aquarium tanks stacked on top of each other. There is nothing special about the tanks, except when she bends down to take a closer look.  Upon seeing at the construction projects outside of the window through the tank, Wan Chai has been turned into an underwater world inhabited by fishes. If the government and corporations don’t stop with the reclamation projects, Dewey thinks, we’d all have fishes as our neighbors.

Close up of Wanchai Islands: Wanchai Island (2018) by MAP Office.

There were a lot of artworks in the three-level exhibition space. There are photographs of Hong Kong skyline floating over a pint of beer by South Ho Siu Nam. There is an installation of leftover Indian food on banana leaves by N.S. Harsha, its realistic qualities grosses her out a little. There are more paintings, installations, and photographs, but after a while, her mind checks out.

Thinking back, Dewey wonders if Wan Chai Grammatica was an exhibition of quality. As a budding art writer, she needs to be analytical of her observations. She likes many of the objects in the show, though she is aware they are the ones she can relate to based on her own experience. She wonders if she would have enjoyed them if she didn’t live in Wan Chai. Also, she is also keenly aware that she hasn’t paid attention to everything in the show—there are just too many damn objects.

Yes, the exhibition makes an effort to show Wan Chai from the past, in the present, and what the future might hold, but, but Dewey’s not sure if the show has cast a new light on how she sees the city she calls home. Many of the objects illustrate Wan Chai’s multi-cultural identity and its colonial past. There are also some reflections on its seedy reputation and over-consumption. Many of objects also evoke a sense of nostalgia while documenting Wan Chai frozen in time. None of this is revealing or challenging though, Dewey thinks to herself. She’s not quite sure what deems revealing or challenging, but she’ll let you know when she comes across it.

 

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Dewey Visits Cao Fei’s “A hollow in a world too full” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong

Dewey Punk Pickles doesn’t understand art. She’s never studied art in school though she was a librarian at an art and design university. She goes to art exhibitions because it seems like the cool thing to do. All the cultured, intellectual, creative types, the type of people she associates with, are all going to drink wine at the art opening.

Dewey goes to the JC Contemporary at Tai Kwun to see Beijing-based artist Cao Fei’s show, A hollow in a world too full. Tai Kwun used to be a prison complex back in the colonial days of Hong Kong. The Jockey Club spent a fortune restoring and renovating the previously abandoned space. Dewey thinks it’s ironic that the institution that makes its bucks luring Hong Kongers with horse racing and gambling is now the city’s peddler of art and culture.

The entrance of JC Contemporary and its lobby is full of pretty, well-dressed people.  They stand in clusters, chatting while sipping on their wines and beer. Dewey stands with her husband, Mean Dean, while drinking a glass of white wine. For free wine, it isn’t bad at all, she thinks to herself. She says hi to some friends, people she knew when she was a librarian. Then, with Mean Dean, she walks up to a grand staircase leading to the exhibition space. The place still smells like fresh paint. She has no idea what to expect.

Rumba (2015-2018). Video capture from the exhibition. 

The first things Dewey encounters are some seemingly mindless yet hyper-aware disc-like robot cleaners roaming on a minimalistic landscape. They navigate the narrow passageways from one island to the next without aim but always swivel at the edge of the raised platform.

“I don’t get it,” Dewey thinks to herself, “what are these Roomba vacuum robots supposed to say?”

She keeps these thoughts to herself as she doesn’t want the people around her to hear her stupidity and ignorance. She clutches her exhibition catalog, hoping to glean some insight from it. But she has trouble reading while walking, and Mean Deans has already moved on to the next room.

The next room is a darkened theater. On the wall outside, it has a sign indicating that only those over the age of 18 are allowed to enter. The film shows a post-apocalyptic fantasy world filled with miniature architectural sets and figurines. Dewey sees the derelict golden arches of MacDonald’s restaurant and abandoned Porsches. There are people in this film too, and they look scared, in pain, or like zombies.  Then, the scene changes and a man and a woman start to have a conversation in French. Dewey feels a little voyeuristic at this point as she stares at a pair of figures fucking on the screen. The woman is on the top riding the man. Dewey can’t help but notice that it looks like the woman is riding a metal rod, the rod is the man’s dick. Riding a rod doesn’t sound like a pleasurable experience.

Dewey is not bashful or anything, but while the film is fascinating on some level, it lacks plot. It doesn’t have a beginning or an end, and things are happening randomly. Sitting there in the dark room, she starts to feel sleepy. She curls up next to Mean Dean and falls asleep.

Prison Architect (2018). This is a close-up of one of the installations.

She wakes up when Mean Dean stands up to go to the next room, which has distressed walls with grey, peeling paint. Close to the back wall is a desk with an old-timey lamp on it. The lamp is on. Dewey sees a black rotary phone, a glass ashtray with two boxes of matches, and a file on a prisoner open for all to see. Behind the desk is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hanging crookedly on the wall.

“Ah,” Dewey thinks to herself, “this must be one of the offices when Tai Kwun was still a prison.” This she understands and thinks is interesting. She feels that she understands culture and history better than art.

At this point, the exhibition space has closed. Dewey Punk Pickles and Mean Dean leave the exhibition, having seen only half of it.

A week later, Dewey returns to the JC contemporary. This time, she reads the exhibition catalog before going to the show, so she has some vague idea of what to expect.  After seeing the vacuum robots, the film with the zombies and the fucking couple, and the prison room, she finds herself on the top floor.  There are two screens flashing with animations. She looks at one of them for a while. It looks like a city in China but like a Chinese city on crack. It has a crazy, over-the-top color palette, and the perspective spins as if we are seeing the city from a drone.  At one point,  Dewey sees Tiananmen Square. In the place where Mao’s portrait should have been is a picture of a panda. She chuckles.

She doesn’t bother to look at the other screen in the same room. Instead, she climbs down the grand staircase and continues the exhibition.

Prison Architect (2018). This is the space where the film is shown.

The next exhibition is another film, and according to the catalog, it is called The Prison Architect, a newly commissioned work. The film is only a part of the work, as it also includes installations that span three floors. The film takes place in Tai Kwun in the past as Victoria Prison and in the present as Hong Kong’s hub of art and culture. The protagonists of the film, a female prison architect and a male poet-prisoner, exist in parallel realities–she lives in the present while he stays in the past. Cao creates illusions in the physical space by installing prison-style bunk beds, the same ones from the film, in the theatre, which allows Dewey and the other people watching to immerse themselves in Cao’s imagination.

Dewey recognizes the prison office where the poet-prisoner is getting yelled at by a crude, mango spewing guard. She becomes excited that the exhibition is coming together through this film. The open file she saw during her last visit must belong to this poet-prisoner.

In another scene, she notices that the prison architect is slicing her mango carefully in her modern Hong Kong apartment, and placing them in a bowl. Later on, there was the poet-prisoner, holding a half-peeled mango.

She wonders about the mangos.

Dewey has her Eureka moment in the scene that takes place in a starkly white room that looks familiar. There are three ghost-like prisoners with painted faces that are spinning around the poet-prisoner as if trying to suffocate and swallow him.

“Oh! That’s in the same room where the Roomba cleaners are!” She shouts inside her own head, “the robots might be a representation of the prisoners prowling in a random yet cognisant way.”

Dewey feels pleased about making this connection.

The rest of the exhibition doesn’t interest Dewey Punk Pickles as much, now that she feels like she’s figured it out. She walks down the grand staircase and notices fake mangos dangling.

At home, Dewey tells Mean Dean about the exhibition and what she figured out. Then she remembers the mangos.

“What is up with the mangos?” She asks.

Mean Dean tells her that there used to be a massive mango tree in the Victoria Prison complex, and the guards used to eat the sweet, meaty fruit from it.

How does Mean Dean know this? Dewey has no idea.

A Solo Exhibition by Cao Fei, A hollow in a world too full @ Tai Kwun, Central, Hong Kong. On view until December 9, 2018. 

 

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New Category: Art Writing and an Introduction to Dewey Punk Pickles

Guy Rose, The Green Mirror (1911). This painting shows my quest for learning to look at art objects, as well as myself, from different angles and perspectives.

Sometimes I feel uncomfortable and threatened at art exhibitions and gallery openings. I feel like a poser, pretending to enjoy something I don’t understand.

“I didn’t study art,” I think to myself, “I don’t know what I am looking at.”

Other times, I feel downright rejected by an object, but don’t know why. I am looking and trying to figure it out, but I always fail. I feel anxious, looking around at other people who seem to know exactly what they are looking at.

“This sculpture doesn’t want me to understand it. It’s an asshole.”

Lately, the works of Lynne Tillman, The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories inspired me. I have also been reading a lot of other writers, such as Bruno Latour, Kathy Acker, and Chris Kraus.

These writers have challenged the way I look at art objects and how I write about them. As a writer, my instinctive inclination is trying to understand something and to write about it. In my In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom thread, I explain things through storytelling. However, this strategy doesn’t seem to work with art objects.

Instead of trying to understand them, I decided to do an experiment and just let it be. Instead of asking, what is this supposed to tell me, I pose new questions. What is this making me feel, and why? What’s around it? Who’s looking at it? How is it displayed?

Lynne Tillman, a fiction writer, was asked to review different art exhibitions and cultural events. She created a fictional character, Madame Realism, and sent her to these exhibitions and events. The result is a collection of dazzling, humorous fictional essays that chronicles American culture.

Taking a cue from Tillman, I’ve created a character, Dewey Punk Pickles. For those of you who know me personally, you know that Dewey is the name of my beloved feral cat that I picked up on the streets of Dubai ten years ago. In my stories though, she is a person–she has a part of my history and my sensibilities (she is a writer who used to be a librarian at an art and design university), but she also has feline characteristics, like she curls up and goes to sleep, she purrs, she hisses, she might be bitey with her words.

This thread is an experiment, in my attempt to write about art in a way that is accessible and fun. I would love to hear about what you think. My first post in this thread is where Dewey Punk Pickles goes to see the Cao Fei’s A hollow in a world too full at Tai Kwun, a cultural hub in Central, Hong Kong. Please leave a comment or message me if you want to have a conversation! You can chat with me via my Facebook page.

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Death, Mortality and Patriarchy: Ancestor Worship, Part III

Dear Reader, this post is part of a three-part series. Please read Part I  and Part II before proceeding.

After we visited the temple and the columbarium on the first day of the Chinese New Year, my family always visit the Chang mausoleum with offerings and freshly cut white Chrysanthemum. To get there, Baba droves us through the scenic cemetery ground, which has small, winding roads with proper street names. I felt like a tourist visiting the City of the Dead.

Derek’s first visit to the Chang burial grounds in 2015.

The Chang burial plot is marked by a large, black granite plaque with dignified golden Chinese characters. The mausoleum itself is shaped like a stone house, surrounded by an open, paved space. In front of the mausoleum is an altar. To the right of the house-like tomb is the shrine of two gods: the god of Feng Shui, and the god of earth.

In the Abrahamic tradition of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, there is only one god. However, in the Chinese folk religion, there are multiple gods, such as Buddha, the enlightened one, the goddess of the sea, Mazu, and Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion. When Mama is concerned about my grades or my career prospects, she pays Wenchang Wang a visit, who is the god of culture and literature. Another important deity for the Taiwanese soul is the ancestors, which consists of the older generations, all the people who are responsible for our existence. When an elder passes away, he or she joins the ancestors and become a god. They are vital as they remind the living of our roots while protecting and blessing their decedents.

On the left side of the ground, there is also an imposing plaque made of black granite. With golden Chinese characters, it illustrates the story of my ancestry.  In the year 1721, the first male Chang in my bloodline, from a village just outside of Xiamen, Fujian, crossed the Taiwan Strait and migrated near Taichung, near the west coast of Taiwan. Since then, the Changs have blossomed and spread.  In the early 90’s, Agon and his brothers bought the burial ground and erected the mausoleum in its current location to enable the future generations to honor our ancestors and to remember our origin. Currently, it is the final resting place for at least three generations of Changs, dating back to Agon’s parents.

Mama prays to the ancestors.

To prepare for the worship ritual, Derek helped to unload the rest of the offerings, and we distributed them between the god of Feng Shui the god of earth and the ancestors. We stacked the food offerings neatly in each area, but the fresh flowers are always reserved for the ancestors. Mama lit the incenses and gave each of us three sticks. Then, we went around to the different gods and the ancestors and asked for their blessings. After we finished praying in each area, we put one of the incense sticks in the little pots next to their plaque. We worshipped the ancestors last, and Mama talked to them:

“Dear ancestors, Kayo has brought her husband Derek to see you.  Please bless them and ensure that they are healthy and successful in their careers.”

Mama closed her eyes as she prayed, her palms in front of her chest. Then, she tossed a couple of coins on the ground. If the coins came up with different faces, this meant that the ancestors were happy. If they come up with the same faces, Mama would have to pray again and toss the coins until the ancestors indicate that they were satisfied. After that, we stand around the stone fireplace and burn joss papers.

“Burn those first,” Mama said pointing to a stack of joss paper wrapped in red rubber bands. There are many stacks, but the ones we burn first are the special ones with Sanskrit verses in Chinese characters written inside a large circle shaped like an old Chinese coin.

Joss papers are money for the dead, and we burn them to ensure that our ancestors have the means to live comfortably in the afterlife. Mama said we should touch every piece of the paper, which guarantees their validity in the heavens. I took off the rubber band and carefully folded the first piece of the rough yellow paper. I made a bundle of five or so pieces and fed them into the vibrant flames. Derek followed suit. We repeated the process until the whole stack was gone, and I reached for another one. After the first stack, the rest of the joss paper is less fancythey are smaller and decorated with a tiny gold or silver foil paper glued in the center. Derek and I continued to toss the joss paper, and we watched as they fluttered in the fire, consumed by flames, turned black and reduced to ashes.

After we burn all the joss papers, we headed home. While driving through the City of the Dead, we drove by Mama’s younger brother, my Uncle Freddie and his wife, my Aunt Christine. Baba stopped the car as Freddie rolled down his window, and exchanged pleasantries. Mama and Aunt Christine spoke over their husbands in their respective passenger seats. Before we drove away, Aunt Christine said, “see you at our place tomorrow.”

Even though Mama’s family’s burial plot is in the same cemetery, only a few blocks from ours, she was never invited to worship there on the first day of the New Year. Superstition dictates that a married daughter would bring ill fortune to her maiden home on the first day of the New Year’s. The family tomb, which houses the ashes and the spirits of the ancestors, is also considered “home.” We always saw Mama’s family on the second day of the New Year, which is reserved for married daughters to return home with her husband and children.

Ironically, as a married daughter, with an American, Christian husband, I have been going home and worshiping the Chang ancestors on the first day of the Chinese New Year’s. My parents’ desire to see me and Derek is stronger than superstitionI like knowing that their love for us is stronger than their beliefs in ill fortunes. I like that Mama and Baba are a little rebellious in defying tradition. I also like to partake in this defiant act. 

Mama typically frets this time of the year. While we were burning joss papers, she looks anxious, “You are going to come back and visit us after we die, aren’t you?”

When I was younger and lived far away, I never even considered it. I also thought ancestor worship reeked of patriarchy and superstition. Also, I hated being reminded of Mama’s morality. Logically, we all know that our parents will die one day, but I hate it when she forces me to think about it on an annual basis.

Lately, my perspectives on ancestor workship have been shifting. Based in Hong Kong, I am barely two hours away by flight. I also start to appreciate many aspects of the tradition. I love spending time with my parents, and I like feeling connected to my ancestry and knowing that I came from somewhere. Yes, it’s patriarchal and superstitious, but it seems that my parents are more fixated on the positive aspects of the traditions. Even Derek is interested in the rituals and has been prompting me to explore. Although looking after the ancestor’s is supposed to be my brother Davis’ job, it’s more likely that Derek and I will remain in Asia and will take over the duty. Like Ama, I will be in charge of a role traditionally assigned to a man, which is something I think is another defiant act I could partake.

Looking at Mama’s anxious face, I said, “of course I will, Mama,” I reassured her by giving her shoulder a little squeeze.

 

 

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing: Chinese Modern History Spanning Over Three Generations

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.

For a while, I got tired of reading Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The novel spans so many generations, and I became confused about who is related to who, how they are related, and why any of it matters. When I got to the part about Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli during the cultural revolution, I thought their characters were so subdued and bland; I was almost bored to tears. However, I soldiered on, because as a Taiwanese Canadian living in Hong Kong,  modern Chinese history fascinates and horrifies me at the same time. Slowly and unknowingly as I continued to read, the book engrossed me as I became more and more attached to specific characters, especially Sparrow, the Quiet Bird.

The book starts in 1991 when Marie met Ai-Ming in Vancouver. Marie is the daughter of Kai, an accomplished pianist and an old friend of Sparrow, a talented composer who is A-Ming’s father.  When the reader first meets Ai-Ming, she had just fled China due to her activities during the Tiananmen Square protests. She found refuge in Marie’s home and was planning to seek political asylum in the United States. Through Ai-Ming’s storytelling, the reader, along with Marie, discovers the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward, the Culture Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square massacre presented themselves through a story that spans three generations.

Threaded through the whole book is the story from the Book of Records, a collection of hand-written manuscripts passed from husband to wife, from parent to child and from friends to friends, a novel within a novel that was amended and updated each time it was passed to a new steward. At time confusing, the Book of Records blurs the line between fantasy and reality. However, it is a book with no ending. As an unfinished book, it provides hope for the characters in the book, and in turn, enables the reader to imagine multiple, alternative, and perhaps more positive outcomes.

How many of us, Chinese or Taiwanese or Hong Kongese descendants in North America, understand the horrors of the Communist Party of China (CPC) inflicted on its citizen for the latter half of the 20th century? How many of us know about the starvation and death millions of people during the Great Leap Forward, the purging of the members of the intelligentsia class during the Cultural Revolution and the massacre of thousands of civilians in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests? Through Thien’s powerful and direct narrative, we learned the horrors of living under Mao and Deng in China–through modern history, the CPC dictated where people lived and worked, suppressed desires and aspirations, tore families apart and murdered their citizens.

One of the most vivid imagery in the book was how the residents of Beijing collectively gathered in the city, physically blocking the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to reach the Tiananmen Square, where thousands of university students were protesting. Thousands if not millions of people lost their lives on the night of June 3, doing what they thought was right. In the end, all was futile: “Street by street, no matter how many Beijing residents stood on the road, the People’s Liberation Army was forcing its way into the centre.”

Sparrow witnessed a the PLA soldier thrust a bayonet into a teenager on the street. He went to comfort the boy as he lay dying. “What had any of them done that was criminal?” He asked, “hadn’t they done their best to listen and to believe?” I imagine his question captured millions of Chinese people’s sentiment during the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests. So many lives lost and destroyed, and for what?

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an epic novel is intricate and touching. It’s a heartbreaking read, a portrait of the struggle of millions of Chinese people who have suffered, physically, emotionally, and psychologically under a regime. Perhaps it will provide a glimpse of why someone like me is terrified of China’s growing power and influence in the year 2018. If they could be cruel and ruthless to their citizens, what would they do to the rest of the world as they gain more control of the world’s economy and wield their influence across the globe?

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Death, Mortality and Patriarchy: Ancestor Worship, Part II

Dear Reader, this post is part of a three-part series. Please read Part I before proceeding.

Once Baba parked the car on the unpaved gravel lot, we got off and started to unload the offerings. Derek emptied a basket of fruit and candies and passed them to Mama. He then tried to give her more but Mama, in her rudimentary English said, “Okay, enough. No more.”

Derek looked at me, puzzled.

“Sweetie, the rest is for the cemetery,” I explained.

“Why do we need to have different offerings for the cemetery?” He asked.

His question made me pause. I’d never thought about why. It has always been the way it is: Ama’s family get their offerings, the Chang ancestors get their own, plus the flowers, and the gods also get their set of offerings.

“Mama,” I asked in Mandarin, “Why do we have different offerings for everybody?”

“Well, you wouldn’t offer leftovers to your guest when they come to your house for dinner, right?” She stated, matter-of-fact, “it’s the same with the gods and ancestors.”

Ironically, Derek, my American, Midwestern husband who grew up in a Christian household, was the person who got me thinking about the traditions I always took for granted.

Baba led the way to a little shack next to the make-shift temple. He approached the two smiling nuns with clean-shaven heads at the counter and pass them two 1,000 NTD notes. One of them gave him a donor form. He filled it out using his mother, Ama’s name as the head of the household. He wrote down everybody’s names,  including his older sister and younger brother, along with their spouses and children. This year, he also added a new name on the form: Derek’s.

We placed the offering on a table in a large room. A gigantic, golden Buddha took up most of the front of the room. There are numerous round tables with little lotus shaped signs with the names of the donors written on them. By donating to the temple, our names sit in a room with Buddha all year long, bring us peace and prosperity. Mama gave me, Derek, and Baba each two lit incenses. We first worshipped the Jade Emperor in the sky. Then we turned around to worshipped the Buddha.

In the last few years, Baba had moved Ama’s family ashes to a new temple.

After the temple,  we headed to the columbarium.

Mama forbade Derek and me to enter the columbarium the first time we visited because she wanted us to avoid ghostly spirits close to our wedding day.  Despite Mama’s best effort to avoid entanglements with the afterlife, Derek and I got married on Halloween, my favorite holiday, later that year. We had a costume party, and my wedding dress was black.

When we revisited the following year, we went inside. As we entered, there was a faint waft of incense and I shivered—the temperature dropped slightly as if appeasing to the dead who no longer needed warmth. Baba guided us through a narrow hallway that had rows and rows of wooden urns stacked on top of one another.  Following behind Dad, I made mental notes of the almost identical containers labeled with the deceased person’s name, and sometimes it might also include a headshot. Some of the urns were new and shiny, while others looked dusty and faded.  Walking around in the columbarium was like traveling in a packed subway train during rush hour, surrounded by a bunch of strangers in a tight and intimate space. Imagine feeling squished and cramped but not able to see the other passengers. Though their spirits were invisible, their lack of manifestation still had a presence.

As I walk, I could feel the spirits of the people inside the urns brushing up against me, as if pleading with me to stop and visit them. I paused before a box to study a black and white photograph of a stern looking old man in a suit. His urn looked as though it’d seen the changes of seasons, and yet it was clean, and the picture on the box was fresh, indicating a regular visit from his family.  At one point, I came across a photograph of a young girl smiling in her pigtails. However, her urn was dusty and the features of her face blurred. Studying her young face, I wondered what misfortune had fallen on her, and why her family had not been visiting.  When we got to the front of the urns that contained the ashes of Ama’s family, Mom gently tapped on each of them to let them know that we had arrived. There weren’t headshots, but the urns had their names printed in black characters. I look at my adopted great-grandmother’s name and contemplated about this person who raised Ama. I have no recollection of her as I had only met as a baby before she died. We merely stopped for a minute or two to say hello. Then we took the same route out of the columbarium, leaving all the spirits behind.

Derek and I only went into this columbarium once. The following year, Baba moved Ama’s family’s ashes in a brand new temple on a hilltop with a pretty garden. It took a lot of research for Baba to choose this place because this is where Ama will be after she passes. Typically, when the matriarch of the family passes away, she goes into her husband’s family’s tomb. However, since Ama was not Agon’s legitimate wife, other arrangements need to be made. I think Baba has always felt sad about his mother’s situation; this is why he always makes sure that we get up early every Chinese New Year’s Day to worship Ama’s family, to show her that when she joins them one day, we will be visiting her every year.

In the next post, we visit the Chang mausoleum in the cemetery, and I will tell you all about my ancestors.

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Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win: The Story of a Strong Women in the Trump Era

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win by Jo Piazza.

Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win by Jo Piazza is particularly poignant in the age of Trump and the #MeToo Movement. It’s a story of Charlotte Walsh, an ambitious and capable woman, and her quest to achieve her agenda: to run for Senate while maintaining her marriage and raising her children. It asks an important question that’s on the back of our minds when we see someone like Charlotte, or in real life, Hilary Clinton running for political office, “Do men want ambitious women in their lives as their partners and their government representative?”

Charlotte Walsh was a COO of Humanity, one of the fastest growing companies in the world. She implemented a progressive family planning package, allowing employees the flexibility of having and raising children. Furthermore, Charlotte also had an aspiration to serve the public as a Senator. She believed “that politicians were failing Americans. Corporations were failing Americans. She hated the hate she saw every time she read the news. She felt terror and anger when she scrolled through Twitter. Americans were at each other’s throats and it was disgusting. She was scared to death of raising her daughter in this country.” Her reasons to run for office echo what many of us are thinking as we witness mass shootings, police brutality, and racist, inflammatory rhetoric on a daily basis.

Charlotte took a leave from her lucrative career in Silicon Valley. She moved back to her hometown in rural Pennsylvania along with her husband Max, their three young daughters, and her trusty and feisty assistant Leila. She hired Josh Pratt, a brash albeit competent campaign manager to ensure her victory.

Throughout the campaign, she worked insane hours and lost all sense of privacy. Her Trump-like opponent, Ted Slaughter, threw misogynistic insults from all directions in trying to sway the election. Instead of paying attention to Charlotte’s campaign speech, the media was more captivated by the shoes she was wearing. Instead of paying attention to issues she had brought forth, her personal life, the ugly mistake she had buried from the past was threatening to resurface, potentially obliterating everything she had worked for: her campaign, her marriage, and her perfect life.

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win is an engaging and gripping read. Piazza’s prose is accessible and witty. The characters, though flawed, are likable. As a reader, I couldn’t help but cheer for Charlotte, though she had made some unforgivable decisions that impacted the lives of many.  I love the scrappy and loyal Leila, who also committed a betrayal during the campaign that almost cost her relationship with Charlotte, who was her mentor and best friend.

One of the elements I enjoyed the most about the book is how accurate Piazza depicted how our society treats powerful women. Josh, the campaign manager, played the role of preparing Charlotte for the brutal campaign ahead of her. In doing so, he represented the voice of men who fear powerful women:

“You can be a strong female candidate, but not a feminist candidate. There’s a difference. The subtle path is the surer one. It’s all in the nuance. And the hair… Thank God you didn’t chop off your hair when you had kids.”

Powerful women are often accused of emasculating men. They are often put in a position where they have to choose between a happy marriage and a successful career. Early on in the book, Josh commented on the power dynamic between Charlotte and her husband Max, who also worked at Humanity:

“I’ll bet that was though on Max, having his wife as a boss, the big dog at one of the most powerful companies in the world.”

Her reply to Josh: “My husband is a very evolved man, not a dinosaur.”

Charlotte’s statement was telling, especially for the final chapter of the book. What would Max do, in the midst of Charlotte’s quest to the Senate while their marriage and lives are under scrutiny?

For many millennial women, we have been raised with the idea that as girls, we can do anything we wanted, as long as we work hard for it. However, there is a definite gap between what our mothers taught us and the reality in the technology-obsessed, consumer-driven, and still-patriarchal 21st century. It saddens me, that despite all that women had fought for in the last hundred years, from women’s suffrage to sexual liberation to the #MeToo movement, many of us still believe: “only let the world see half of your ambition. Half of the world can’t handle seeing it at all.”

 

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