Beyond the Headlines – China.
China has seen some unnerving coverage in the western press of recent with the unfolding of the Chen Guangcheng extradition and the government’s continued censorship of information regarding the Tiananmen Square protests. As the bloody confrontation reached its 23rd anniversary this week, we have looked to delve beyond the headlines to select some of the most inspiring stories to emanate from this vast and phenomenally exciting land.
It is perhaps a little difficult to comprehend a situation where the internet and the seemingly limitless amount of information that it allows users to access, is controlled through draconian censorship from Government agencies. That however, as we often read in the western media is the case in China and in the country whose inhabitants make up for almost 20% of the world’s population, such constrictions seem all the more severe. Considering the headcount then, it is no real surprise that many an aggravated internet user looks for ways and means to circumvent the electronic censorship and freely access the information that they wish to. One of the most novel and effective resources for those defiant perpetuators of free speech and thought is a wordpress powered blog by the name of iGFW. Seemingly an operation run out of a bedroom by an (understandably) anonymous web user, the blog provides daily updates on VPNs, mirrors and various means of sharing information through means that the Government can’t intercept or trace. Described by Deutsche Welle as “a real headache for the censors”, iGFW is an inspirational David and Goliath-esque scenario that helps to provide a nation with the freedom of information that a great deal of us take for granted.
Young Pioneer at Three Gorges Dam by Chen Man (2009)
The futuristic imagery of Chinese photographer Chen Man has seen her become one of the nation’s art elite, although her first UK solo exhibition didn’t take place until this February. A career that began even before her graduation from Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Art in 2005, has seen her work grace the covers of an international smorgasboard of fashion publications including I-D, Wallpaper*, Nylon and Vogue. Her style is one that embraces hyper-reality, giving conventional fashion photography a sharp shot of fantasy and with it, drawing the viewer into the multi-faceted world that has been created. First coming to prominence through her stunning work for China’s Vision Magazine in 2003, Chen soon caught the eye of the nation’s Art and Fashion circle and has been at the forefront of both ever since. Each of her photographs (if indeed they can be called that) is painstakingly put through a series of post-production techniques which are supposedly all self-done with Photoshop and 3-D Max the weapons of choice. Working predominantly with female models, Chen is not afraid of referring to more traditional aesthetic aspects of fashion photography and her subjects articulate brilliantly the desires towards the consumer culture that has emerged in China in the past few decades. This though, is not without their appearance and surroundings being expertly subverted to intensify each of these aspects.
Her ‘Young Pioneer’ series is particularly engaging with its recurring character acting as a both dreamy and lucid exploration of the personalities and attitudes of a new generation of Chinese, best encapsulated in the mesmerising ‘Young Pioneer at Three Gorges Dam’. The series is reference to the mass youth organisation of the same name which existed during her own childhood under the Communist Party. Each image in the series sees the Young Pioneer character (or multiples of her) digitally juxtaposed with images of three Chinese landmarks: Chang’e-1 Lunar Probe, the CCTV (China Central Television) Tower and, of course the Three Gorges Dam. The images are initially engaging through the incredible beauty of both the subject and image composition but when asked about the thinking behind the series Chen has previously revealed that there is a darker edge to her artworks beyond the opening appearances,
“We’re the generation after the Chinese economic reform; the (societal) development is smooth, but it also brings about many problems that are not very obvious on the outside, I usually use very beautiful imageries to represent the dangerous, hidden problems underneath.”
WE ARE SHANGHAI
With an estimated “permanent” population of 23 million as well as a “floating population” (comprising of migrant workers and their families) of a further 9 million, Shanghai is comfortably the most densely inhabited of China’s cities. It should come as little surprise then that there is a healthy independent music scene in the city which is supported by a number of small record labels and creative studios, a trio of which have collaborated to release the album We Are Shanghai. Record labels Zang Nan Recordings and Luwan Rock have teamed up with studio Twin Horizon to put the release together which features twenty tracks from Shanghai artists (only a couple of which are sang in Chinese). The record provides a mélange of styles, although many are guitar-driven, with the pick of the bunch arguably the glorious slice of ‘50s surf rock that is The Beat Bandits’ Sukiyaki Beat.
The album, which is available for free download here is accompanied by the following statement, “Shanghai’s music scene is made up of incredibly independent artists who thrive on Do It Yourself. There is no other place in the world like Shanghai, and the bands on this compilation are just a few providing its soundtrack.”
The Do It Yourself approach has also been taken on by the three labels who clubbed together to give away free CD copies of the compilation at the release party. On top of giving the digital album away, this shows a real statement of intent as they look to invest in and act as a springboard for all the artists involved. The release has already gone down so well in Shanghai that vol. 2 is confirmed and in the process of being put together.
Greenbox founder and CEO Fangfang Wu (l) Photographed by Dan Pak
Few 9 year old businesses are in a position to snub overtures from the likes of Disney but that is precisely what Greenbox CEO Fangfang Wu did when the super-brand approached her children’s clothing company last year. Having firmly established the label as one of the most popular on the Taobao website (an eBay/Amazon type site which allows companies to open branded on-line stores) Wu and Greenbox’s stock rose wildly as she caught the rise of e-commerce in China perfectly. With the number of internet users in China reportedly increasing 63% since 2008 it is estimated that 36% of the population are now online (with my own rough estimate making that almost 500 million people, over 100 million more people than live in the United States). So the potential market is vast, but how then did Wu have the means of not only rebuffing Disney’s original approach, but also of emerging successfully from 6 months of negotiations to make the deal on her terms?
It would seem that Wu’s assertion that, “The players in children’s clothing in China are original equipment manufacturers” is one that Disney sat up and acknowledged, as rather than letting her brand be subsumed by Disney (selling out effectively), the deal instead was struck for the collections to be released as a Disney by Greenbox collaboration. This may seem a minor detail, but for the child’s brand very much in its infancy it represents a major coup which protects the ideals of distinctive design and worker safety that have made it such a success among China’s rising middle class to who brand consciousness is becoming more important.
What makes Greenbox’s meteoric rise all the more impressive is that Wu started the company as a self-taught designer, who after giving birth to her first child found herself incredibly uninspired by the homogenic clothing that was on offer. It is with this personal touch and approach to design that Wu has not only established her expanding selection of labels but has seemingly tapped into the tastes of her market in a manner so precise that Disney simply had to bend to her whims.
By Alec Dudson