CHINA for most is a land of mystique, but for less so does it hold a certain potentiality to approach the sublime. For she promises to fulfil any wish, as long as one abandon the heart made so fraught with fear and trepidation. She would also take on dreams, if only the term itself wasn't so effing loaded to begin with. After all, here is a land so red and vast you would be hard pressed to accentuate any form of individuality even if you wore it on your sleeve—not that there is a need for that sort of thing here anyway. China, again. He flies there to meet her.
OUR SUBJECT IS DANIEL and he was 24 when he first travelled to China. So up until that point in his life, he was merely a Chinese boy who’d never once set foot in the country. Typically, if one were any species of overseas Chinese, this maiden voyage would be taken at a much younger age— most often with the family—whether it be to see the Great Wall, to bear witness to the immense change across the nation since its opening up in 1979, or to simply “go back” as a member of the exponentially growing Chinese diaspora.
He is now walking along the streets of Chigang in the Haizhu district. A blanket of misty rain falls gently as we come to a halt at a busy intersection. The neighbourhood itself is quiet and filled with residential flats, its narrow streets skirted by abundant greenery. Within walking distance you won’t be hard pressed to find convenience stores carrying every brand of tobacco and alcohol in China(they are usually red, gold, or blue in colour). You can see tiny eateries tucked in between every turn and corner. Daniel points out many hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and starts to speak fondly of them.
“Around here you can get hot rice and noodles at every hour imaginable. And after dark, the rowdy mahjong houses and massage parlours come together, bustling on into the night as one single entity. This isn’t exactly a district with crazy nightlife and excitement, but it does appear to transform into this a thing with a life of its own. There’s this electricity about it. It speaks to you, as does the dank the airflow and soiled the footpath before me,” he tells me.
We move on. The rain starts to pick up from the side, and goes wherever the draft takes it.
“Of course I’ve had the chance to visit when I was younger. But I wanted to come here because I really wanted to come, you know? Not just so I could say I’ve been,” he tells me, shaking the tiny raindrops from his navy cardigan.
We walk into a dumpling store, where I opt out of dumplings and order zhajiangmian instead. Daniel gives me a tiny grin and then smiles. He says he feels a certain affinity to the way dumplings are prepared over here, even though they are done very differently in Malaysia.
“They are just much more tasty here. It really doesn’t matter if it’s steamed or fried, although I personally prefer it steamed. You can taste the filling better that way,” he says as he pours a black liquid over the shredded ginger. He catches my eye.
“This is black vinegar. Some prefer to mix it with a few dashes of chilli oil as well. But that’s a little something I save for when I’m hungover.”
“My grandmother was from Hangzhou,” he says as he effortlessly lifts a dumpling from the plate with chopsticks. “You don’t really get that many Malaysians with ancestry from Hangzhou.” He proceeds to bathe the dumpling in black vinegar, and pops it in his mouth.
“Grandfather on the other hand, was from Hainan island. He passed on in 91’ and I never knew him. Was too young.”
MY ZHAJIANGMIAN is left half eaten as we leave the dumpling place. Daniel says he’ll get me the pork and leek dumplings next time. Says that’s his favourite whether steamed or pot stickered.
The rain begins to ease as we walk toward the Chigang metro. It is late morning just after rush hour, and the pedlars are out moving their carts and bicycles across the wet asphalt. At the crossing I see one of them wearing jeans with red moccasins, its patina almost maroon now from the wear put into them. She begins to wheel her cart across the road just before the lights turn green. It is at that point in time when I take a full circled look around me, and am struck by the broadness of Xingang Middle Road.
Daniel starts talking about various social norms. He tells me that on a pure societal level, China isn’t that different from Malaysia. I ask him to elaborate.
“Well I’m not sure where to begin. People are still rude, still dirty, as you know,” he pauses. “But perhaps more so than back home, people in China chase after some unattainable goal, because there’s this insatiable hunger for something that isn’t so easily definable to begin with.”
I ask him if he’s talking about money.
“A lot of people immediately think this is about money. That being Chinese means that wealth is the obvious thing you’d want to pursue. But it’s more than that. It’s a more delicate matter, though I wouldn’t say it is at all personal.”
“Do you mean to say that it’s the same for Chinese folk everywhere? That there’s a certain drive that propels them as a people?”
“Well, perhaps. But if you think about it on another level, in China they don’t snip their noodles before eating, as one might do in Malaysia. It’s supposed to be served the way it was initially cut. And people in China spit everywhere. Now we might spit in Malaysia, but we sure as hell don’t spit everywhere.”
He pauses. I wait for him to continue.
“And as for dating apps, in Malaysia it’s Tinder and in China it’s Tantan. Both may have their own subtle differences in themselves, but ultimately revolve around the same idea of a bunch of people swiping to fulfil impossible desires such as love or sex or true friendship in a realm of impermanence. That’s not to say I don’t use them though,” he says with a laugh.
“You know what I think all Chinese people around the world have in common?” I ask him.
He shrugs. We are almost at the metro now.
“We love to light up in non-smoking areas, and of course don’t give two shits about it.”
“It’s probably in the blood after all!” he laughs out again. I think he should really make a habit of doing that more.”
QINGFANGCHENG is alive, and doesn’t everyone know it. The massive complex is not only a holy hunting ground for middlemen, but also a grand colosseum for designers and factory buyers alike. The vendors await, deep within an endless maze of woven and knitted fabric. Precious linen, however intricate or plain hang in swatches draping down from ceiling to floor. They appear to lean your way, in the warmest of light sources for your perusal. The twills are known here as slanted cotton, and almost every second vendor has their own unique kind, however slight the difference from the last store. Blends can be found in every material imaginable, and in just about any consistency you can think of. Show them a sample, they’ll tell you whether they have it. It only takes a touch or two, and they’ll be guiding you to the isle with a swatched fabric board ready for you in no time. And if they don’t have it, they’ll tell you right away. Usually just with a shake of the head. No time is wasted here. Don’t bother asking them where you can find it elsewhere either. That is not the way things work here. You best move on. Right away now. But before plunging back into the labyrinth you’d best place an order for what you need right away, if you’ve been blessed enough to have found it. Because the complex is so big that finding your way back to a certain store may actually be harder than finding that elusive fabric with ideal weave and weight in the first place.
Theng Wei has handpicked several fabric board samples. They are predominantly olive in colour. The new collection takes inspiration from urban utilitarianism, he tells us.
“The idea is to create pieces which give off a simple aesthetic to the wearer. A collection that is all olive, with varying hues of this neutral tone for each garment,” he says.
We sit down on one of the steel benches on the upper floor. Beside us, some people—presumably porters and couriers— are nodding off to catch forty winks. I ask Theng Wei about the inspiration to do an all olive collection.
“Well, first of all I thought it’d be really fucking cool to do an all olive collection. The inspiration really comes from camping. I have this really strong image of being fully geared up in the open, dressed head to toe in a set of green garments. The backdrop is the forest, the lake, the mountain. There’s something very appealing and lively about that image, of having fun a lot of fun whilst being properly dressed for it. It’s the same idea as going for a night out and absolutely killing it in a well tailored suit.”
The whole scene seems rather brilliant to me.
He twists and turns the fabric between his thumb and index finger. I ask him about the search for fabric so far.
“It’s hard to get a proper feel for a fabric from just this tiny swatch on a piece of cardboard. The stores who can afford to should really make a habit of displaying fabric in larger drapes. You see them doing this at the linen stores, and as a buyer you immediately become drawn to the weaves and textures. You just want to wrap the whole thing around your shoulders and walk out the store!”
We are tired from browsing and walking. It is almost 3.30 p.m, so we make for the convenience store for some cold drinks. Theng Wei chooses an iced coffee in no time, but Daniel stands at the fridge pondering everything column, clearly spoilt for choice.
“There’s this green tea yoghurt beverage that I used to drink all the time when I was studying in New Zealand. They only produce it in China. I’ve never been able to find it other than in that one asian mart near where I used to stay in Auckland.”
He settles for one that says ‘SOUR MILK GREEN TEA YOGHURT’ and pays for it.
“They probably changed labels or something,” he tells us.
Theng Wei says he isn’t so tired, and moves on to the upper floors to take a look at more fabric on display. I take the opportunity to ask Daniel more about himself. I’m interested to know what’s different about him since his last visit.
“Well I haven’t changed much since I first visited here 3 years ago.. at least that’s what I think,” he says, pausing to sip from the marvellously green plastic bottle.
“I still dress somewhat the same way. Still peer through this same pair of Masunaga frames, although the lenses are now scratched infinitely more times than I can remember. People tell me I look the same, you know? As if they’d be sure to notice the most minuscule changes about me. Oh, I’ve also taken up the habit of wearing a watch now”, he says, showing me a Timex field watch. “Though more often than not I forget to put the damn thing on. I guess it’s so nifty I often misplace it,” he says and takes another swig, this time a bigger mouthful. “Ah yes, funnily enough the enamel of my incisors have chipped away much more than before. It’s due to the teeth grinding I do in my sleep— another thing that people could, but most probably do not notice about me. But please forgive my self-importance here, a certain degree is after all, essential for the development of a healthy ego. Don't you think?”
WE WEAVE THROUGH A MYRIAD OF electric carts driven by hurried couriers. It is nearing the time of last dispatch for the day at Qingfangcheng, and you can’t help the feeling that everyone finds the commotion normal except yourself. You dodge the oncoming carts, their brakes screeching out as often as the sounding of honks. You learn the art of stopping as you go (or don’t) from them. One after another, they slow down, waiting vis-à-vis for the other to get out of the way. It’s a game of compromise, of waiting, of patience unyielding. Those with gazes unwavering, let the other manoeuvre their way out of the narrow walkways in between towering walls of fabric stacked to the rafters. You will soon enough master the art of stopping.
We do not talk with each other. We are tired, and remain focused in getting out of the ever breeding swarm as soon as possible. I want to ask them more, about Shuren Projects, about the source of their desire to create, about the proverb on their web page: shi nian shu mu, bai nian shu ren(十年树木,百年树人). I would later get a chance, on the plane back to Kuala Lumpur. Daniel would tell me that he’s sick of the question, that Shuren (树人) is just a name and they are too often asked of its signification.
“The idea behind Shuren is actually even simpler than the proverb,” he says. “It’s like the Italian coinage of uomini rispetatti, or men of respect. That’s the sort of vibe we want to present and ultimately represent ourselves, although we would like it to go beyond mere aesthetics, and kind of show it via the Sartrean mode of praxis, if you may. We want to be men of substance, and the only way to get there is by carrying yourself through the everyday in a proper manner. That’s the basic idea of it all.”
This article was first published on the old Shuren Projects blog at www.shurenprojects.com
in conjunction with the Portraits in olive collection launch in June 2017.