Garry and I went to the Beijing Art Fair today. The event feels spacious and open in design, with the bulk of it in one big airport-hanger like space. There are maybe 100 booths representing galleries from this city, other major Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cities and a smattering of European and American galleries. We’ll go back tomorrow, but here are a couple of works from today. Also, some t-shirts from today.

I’m thinking that there’s a relatively new internationalism among young people. I spoke to a woman in French today in the process of negotiating the photos of her t-shirt (see Left / Right). She’s a tour guide for French tourists. She, like most others wearing t-shirts with words on them had developed a particular and astutely fashionable individual style.

Last night on a spot on CCTV’s chanel 9 “Cultural Express,” 20 year-old Beijing-born virtuoso pianist, Yuja Wang described the Chinese edge in her playing as the way she can feel the poetry of the music. But clearly she also plays with exceptional skill, loves her instrument and is modest, yet fully confident (see You Tube for clips). This young woman struck me as emblematic of a sector of high-achieving midde-class contemporary Chinese young people.


There’s often a word that’s emphasized, like ‘Milky’, ‘Always’ or ‘Whatever’ as you can see from this selection.


I was talking to Daniel who is Chinese and had a rural upbringing, but has lived in Beijing for 14 years. He spoke English easily and I asked him why he thought t-shirts with writing on them were so popular at the moment. He said that they’ve been popular for at least 5 years. The English language, he said, is associated with consumer power and to wear it makes that association.

We went on to talk about the changes of the past couple of decades in China. As the youngest in a farming family with five children, he remembered the coupon system for distribution of rice and oil, and having barely enough to eat – sometimes having to borrow food from others in the village. In 1978, two years after Mao Zedong’s death, Deng Xiaoping, his successor declared that socialism and capitalism could co-exist and with this he allowed the rural population, making up 60% of the total population, to own their own land and grow the crops of their choice. With these changes, much of the rural population rapidly increased their output and became relatively profitable. This was the beginning of the rapid economic growth and development that it still underway.

Daniel said that not only had China been poor, but sadly, had been stripped of its cultural and intellectual power, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. He said that Vancouver and San Francisco had more significant Chinese culture and intellect than China. But, he said, this was changing, and that much of the population in this secular country, wanted more than buying power in their lives.


Last night we were out at Bei Gao, which is about a half hour cab ride towards the airport from the more centrally located Tuanjiehu, where we’re living. Brian Wallace, Director of the Red Gate operation, including the residency, was hosting a bbq, encouraging us to meet each other and see what the studios are like there.

We had a chance to meet with Li Gang, Director of the Pickled Art Centre, and pin down our participation in a show there that opens October 10. So now we have a deadline. I’ll work to complete my book for the occasion, Beijing t-shirts 2007. I’d like to have at least 100 one-page-each images in it. I’ll then show a selection of images, perhaps a list of the words that appear on the t-shirts. There were two I missed the other evening. It was about 6 pm, and just too dark, plus both wearers were moving. One read in very large letters: “I’m your pal” and the other, “Have faith.”

I only took one picture today, stalled by rainy weather. Rain and cold would cut this project short, so I’ve been watching the weather reports. There’s more good weather to come.


Here’s a sampling from recent images of t-shirts: Passion Island/Dreamland; Rugby Hard D&G Real Stuff Rough Tough: Let the Gardens Heal Your Soul.

I learned today that in the early 1990s it was fashionable here to wear t-shirts that said things in Chinese like, “I’m a loser” or had a symbol that was against the wave of building destruction that was going on then. Apparently, the government cracked down on this self-expressive, sometimes politically critical trend. (Thanks for this info Stan.)

I also found out that learning some English is strongly encouraged, if not obligatory for Chinese high school students now. This is a very recent thing. So maybe those wearing the t-shirts do know what they say. (Thanks for this info Burton and Brian.)

I’m not sure if I want to document the person’s torso bearing the t-shirt only, or include their head as well. For now, when it seems ok with them, I’m including their face in the picture, which gives me the option to decide later. (I’ve been showing them the picture on the camera for their approval.) Before I actually started taking pictures, I thought I wanted the t-shirt only. Afterall, the project isn’t about individual portraiture but by means of a modest archive, making a portrait of this place and time.


I used my new card for the first time today. The first woman I requested flatly said no and seemed mildly annoyed that I had approached her. I realized that I may be bothering people, both as a foreigner unable to converse and entering their ‘space’ uninvited. I was trying to be sensitive. Of course this is difficult to do, since I’m guessing at the cultural norms for approaching strangers.

I tried to determine whether or not the person was likely to be receptive while still at a distance. If they were in the middle of conversation with someone, or tending to a child or otherwise occupied, I let it go, even if they were wearing a fascinating t-shirt. I told myself that there would be many more, which there were. After the first encounter, only one of the ten people I approached, declined my request.

This is my first experience of trying to communicate with strangers in China, aside from vendors, cab drivers and wait staff in restaurants. It made me see everyone more individually. It also reminded me of my foreign-ness.

Meanwhile, today I was reading about my great-grandfather, medical missionary Dr. William McClure, originally from Lachute, Quebec, who lived in China 1888-1938. He had learned Chinese (Mandarin) easily and as well as being the mission hospital’s only surgeon, he provided several-month language training and cultural orientations for missionaries – medical and otherwise – in Weihui, Henan province from 1912-1915 (McClure: The China Years, Munroe Scott, 1977. pp. 29). This piece of family history took on a new vibrancy for me today.