Focus: A Flaneur's Peek at Shanghai
The term flâneur comes from the french verb flâner, which ever since Baudelaire appropriated the word and gave it the extended meaning as a way of truly experiencing, appreciating the city as one walks. Indeed when we have a bit of time to explore the world we are all flâneurs, and not least of all the eRenlai team are certainly flâneurs without frontiers. But rather than Baudelairean strolls through Paris, the old eRenlai team and their sister organization AZ Cultural Enterprise spent much time over the last two years going back and forth to Shanghai. Their adventures, however, were more than just aimless strolls latching on to pretty thoughts; the team came back to Taipei having completed not one but three outstanding documentaries on Shanghai which are excusively offered to you in this Focus - A Flâneur's peek at Shanghai.
Liang Zhun first takes us on a stroll down Lane 1025, Nicolas Priniotakis looks for the rarest pearls of Chinese ethnic music and instruments in Seaside Seranade and Benoit manages to get a way from the hustle and bustle of central Shanghai and finds the ultimate spot for peaceful contemplation in Suzhou’s gardens.
Photo by Ida Yang
This city is a melting pot for an enormous amount of different styles. It’s blissful, but also confusing. Strolling through different areas, it seems like travelling around in different countries. In The Bund, I can see a row of beautiful architecture from different cultures. It’s an embodiment of different imperialist powers, which let Qing government cede some territory in order to pay off its indemnities. Yet, Shanghai’s ignominious history, just makes the city more glamorous.
(Photos: Ida Yang)
 T.V.Soong was at a former Chinese Premier in 1930 and was in a highly influential position throughout the Nationalist era. His three sisters were married to presidents Chiang Kai-shek, Sun Yat-sen and China’s former richest man H.H. Kung.
Six years ago by sheer luck I encountered Arcade, a work of mixed media by Ethiopian-American artist Julie Mehretu, when it passed through my hometown of St. Louis. Layer upon layer of densely packed ink drawings, each separated by a layer of clear acrylic which gave a “floating” appearance to the ink in 3D space, I was struck by the piece’s intensity and scope, by the precise detail of each drawing and especially by its combination of disparate elements to form such a dramatic and unified whole. It reminded me of the music I was studying at the time, namely Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, which in its third movement combines forces as far-reaching as Mahler and Stockhausen in a unique sort of collage.
Arcade was so affecting that I immediately embarked on a quest to understand its organizing forces, and it wasn’t long before I arrived at Walter Benjamin’s monumental Arcades Project [Passagenwerk]. Whereas Benjamin’s interest was in the rich cultural exchange at work in the covered street markets of late-19th century Paris, Mehretu’s concern with militarism, consumerism, and how they colored the geopolitical climate in the 21st century nevertheless brought her in touch with Benjamin’s theories.
Benjamin’s work largely concerns how history is preserved in our collective memory. As a musician I suspect that our perceived aggregate history of music is an arbitrary fable of progress towards the goal of growth and development. It is widely recognized that this tendency to measure everything against the narrative of progress is a common symptom of early capitalist thought. Some musicians also recognize that widespread music education and theory coincided with the rise of capitalist thought, which could explain why our history has been forced into the same didactic mold. The work of composers and musicians in the 21st century—from most stylistic spheres—has been teleologically mystifying for nearly a century itself.
Since I discovered Mehretu I’ve been working closely with some of Benjamin’s ideas in my own composing. Among others, the flâneur is a major subject of attention: one who walks the streets alone, observing culture but not participating in it. Often narrating Baudelaire poems, these flâneurs were the private eyes of Parisian streets through the arcades, able to read from and infer everything about the faces of passersby. Pierre Hamp wrote that to be a flâneur was “to walk out of your front door as if you’ve just arrived from a foreign country; to discover the world in which you already live.”
Boulevard du temple in Paris by Daguerre (1838)
When I came to Taiwan two years ago I was as foreign as it gets. I began playing jazz immediately and was fortunate to find five like-minded musicians with whom I’ve been playing ever since. Our band Flâneur Daguerre was my original test of Benjamin’s ideas. In FD we explore jazz and avant-garde music, contemporary classical, folk and pop alike. We work with Benjamin’s theory of dialectical images to program carefully selected music as well as originals works. These ideas have become the dominant process in my non-jazz, “concert” composing as well.
The French chemist Louis J.M. Daguerre developed his daguerrotype photographic process by accident in 1835, which went on to become the first commercially successful photograph. Benjamin wrote about these old, faded photos and their ability to arrest and capture time in a powerful new way, promising the unveiling of a true cultural history. A dialectical image is said to be a “stop” or “freeze” in the synthetic linear course of history, “dialectical” for its embodied interplay of arguments, and for its ability to convey an eternal, mythical time as an alternative to the collective, utopian fantasy of progress. Both the daguerrotype and the dialectical image are visual modes of capturing history and shaping our collective memory.
Music enters the dialectical image by way of surprising, even kitsch sounds. The act of composing is an act of listening. In the moment when you hear something that sounds funny, kitsch, or ridiculous, does this sound strike you because it doesn’t belong there? Or is this moment a rift in our perception of where sounds go?
If there is such a thing as a musical flâneur then we’ve all played that role before. We are simultaneously listener, observer, critic, musician and composer. We are all wanderers, especially through our historical epoch, when sounds from all different places and eras can be combined or juxtaposed at the drop of a hat. Wandering through musical space and time is something felt daily in both active and passive listening. The flâneur who passes through streets and infers a cultural abstraction from what s/he sees can be a listener who encounters by chance the “sound apparatus” of everyday life, including noises and sound sources apart from purely “musical” ones. Along the way there are glimpses of truth; moments we were taught not to believe in or “hear” but which reveal aesthetic pleasure on a personal and collective scale.
Imagine listening to something on headphones in public, it mixing with environmental sounds on the street, with the elevator music, Muzak or radio piped in at your favorite restaurant. Somehow the sounds fit together, and maybe you had a good laugh over how initially obscure it sounded. You’ve had one such moment. These everyday moments, or “images,” are like puzzle pieces once lost but rediscovered, returning an element of truth to understanding the wide spectrum of music and artistic value systems.
But how can musical works be experienced as images? One is temporal and another is singular, isolated and frozen. I use “image” because the temporal element of music combines with the specific time and place in which you as listener receive it. The aura of a musical entity can be felt statically, illuminating the conditions from which the work emerged and in which it is experienced. This static aura is missing from an objective approach to a true distinction between idioms of style and era, and therefore how we value our art. Its limits can be felt at the worn edges of a photograph and at the edges of musical time.
When I hear something that strikes me in this way, whether a preexisting work or some chance combination of sounds, I hear sound reaching beyond its own borders. Like peering through a window into another reality, this sound does not feel like it begins at the moment of attack nor ends at the moment of release. You get the feeling that more is there, waiting. You follow a photograph to any of its edges, but a dialectical image is one in which you feel the image stretch beyond its borders, as if you could climb through the frame of Hooper’s Nighthawks and walk the rest of that dark, barren street.
In The Work of Art In the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin describes what he calls “the apparatus” confronting the viewer of a film. This apparatus includes the camera and all of the production behind it, designed to capture a synthetic scenery for film. Returning authenticity to everyday life, dialectical images provide the chance to climb through that apparatus into the reality of what is in front of the camera—or the microphone.
Our images are combined in a constellation of time’s passing; often of history’s “trash,” the noises of culture, lifted from their “embeddedness” and reconstructed into a new montage, or collage. The inherent tension among neighboring fragments reveals a new interpretation of time and collective memory.
At one of our earliest gigs, the members of FD discussed this condition of the flâneur as observer, voyeur, and each of us relates to it on possibly multiple levels. Those of us who are foreigners certainly are confronted immediately with its effects, but so do our Taiwanese members. For me, I make this condition the focus of my written music. In compositions for FD, I look for relationships among styles or idioms. For example, in my piece Chase Music Without a Scene, I focus on the 1970s “chase” film genre and treated the music found in those movies as its own genre, related to but separate from jazz or spy music. Truthfully this music is easily recognizable but “off-the-map;” you’d never read about its “era” in any jazz history textbook.
In my non-FD works, I work with collage forms, idiomatic sounds and musical “gestures” found on specific instruments. In 地獄的錢 Di Yu de Qian ("Hell Money") for piano solo, I worked with quotations of pieces that involve idiomatic piano sounds—those which clearly evoke the characteristic sound of the piano in various genres of piano music. These fragments were combined, restructured and worked into their own short, mobile compositions which were then juxtaposed based on how I could make the whole piece flow and how I could make each fragment flow from one to the next, as if in and out of a canvas, from one dream into another.
The journey of the flâneur, and the use of dialectical images in sound provide an open framework to explore and describe how others have heard and composed for almost 100 years. The story of music as the development from crude fossils of tonality and form—which flourished all the way through the 19th century and broke down in the 21st century—does not give much attention to epochs of music outside mainstream Europe and the Americas, nor to the changes in modes of listening and production which drastically changed aesthetic expectations over the last century. Writing, listening, and playing music this way has also been a personal journey that continually promises new gifts and discoveries. It has opened up my ears and given me an awareness I never could have imagined.
 Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Eiland & McLaughlin. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2002, p. 435.
 Pensky, Max. “Method and Time: Benjamin’s Dialectical Images,” in The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 177-198.
 Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Jennings, Dougherty, and Levin. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2008, pp. 14-30.
 Pensky, pp. 185-187.
China is a collage of innumerable micro-universes. Within the space of a lane, of a birdcage, around a chessboard, in all protected enclosures, people reconstruct the space where life is nurtured and tasted. These are privileged places where you experience the bittersweet taste of living together, as a knit-knotted community. A few neighbors, a chessboard, the friendship of a tree and a canary ... The cosmos becomes a lived reality by the mere fact of harboring men, women and children who share and manage it in their own space and their own way.
People in China also speak through what they do not say. They leave a place on the bench to whom takes the time to travel at their own pace. They invite the passer-by to taste like them, with them, the simple and always nascent mystery that lies beneath the lane, the chessboard and the cage. And this is what I did that day, finding in busy Shanghai, an echo of the more leisurely lifestyle of my beloved Chengdu.
This documentary was produced by AZ Cultural Enterprise in 2010.
If gardens are the hidden paradises of China, Suzhou is the paradise of gardens...
Orifices, first ... The garden, a small and secluded place, endlessly increases its size through its internal divisions - mounds that break the perspective, walls running along the walkways, partitions all around its pavilions. But these partitions are pierced by openwork windows, round doors and numerous small openings through which the walker can appropriate space and sight, reconstructing the scenes and dividing anew the world ... The space actually occupied by the garden must be kept modest - its bends, its curves, its openings extend it towards infinity, till it spreads over the extent of a soul.
The openings suggest the paths to be followed. Windows and doors gradually reveal the garden to our senses, as the painter’s hand unfolds with pride and caution the scroll on which he made the roaring waterfall, the trail on the side of the mountain, the grove pines and the sea of clouds come to life ... The garden indeed is a scroll, a miniature world opened up and enlarged by our walks and our whims. For whom wanders from one window to another, to the peaceful bamboos, to the banana trees gently whistling in the wind, succeed a rock mimicking the peak of a cliff, a hill of which the summit is hidden, the corner of a roof, or a cut of the sky speaking only of emptiness... Through its countless orifices, the garden multiplies the eyes and the dreams of the one who walks in its midst, till our visions are gathered in an unique glance that plunges into the secret and double soul of the garden and his dweller.
Pierced with orifices, the garden is irrigated by vessels through which circulate life, breath and seasons ... Water animates a garden - water collected in a pond and divided into channels that flow in its interior; water that makes small garden rocks the mimes of the formidable mountains that the sponsor and the creator of the place have marveled at during their travels before suggesting their majesty in their private compound. The passer-by crosses over miniature seas fringed with dwarfed vegetation on tiny suspension bridges... Ethereal scents mixed with the sounds of faint waterfalls whisper around – the garden stammers our dreams between the lines of day and shade. Nearby the water, are scattered small and pensive trees, and pebbles that speak of the shore and are strung like a string of islands. A flute, a bird leaving traces of their absence...
Irrigated by the vessels that make it a living body, the garden can deploy its limbs, taking the form of a lying dragon, a unicorn, or perhaps one of these Taoist immortals of whom we do not know whether they are men or gods. Its limbs are made of its eminences, these modest mountains that transform the pond into a sea, the channels into giant rivers, and the courtyards into continents. They are also its paths lined with plants and flowers that speak of the virtues shared between the garden and who called it to existence: temperance, courage and longevity ...
And yet ... Though it covers the full extent of a soul, the garden can not forget that it is also so tiny – a grain that condenses the world, but all the same a grain, perishable and insignificant ... And Chinese gardens, throughout history, were often destroyed, burned, redesigned and re-emerging ... Ultimately, the garden is perhaps a boat, the boat which leads us gently to the sea of things impermanent, and which, for a moment, makes its bitterness more bearable...
The Traditional Chinese Music Orchestra is possibly Shanghai’s most exciting musical formation. While firmly rooted in tradition and relying on impressive scholarship, its musicians are also keen to introduce their public to new repertories, to mix up styles, times and places, and thus to display the diversity of China’s cultures. This is also a showcase of Shanghai’s spirit: where the river goes to the sea, all waters, all traditions mix up and take new dimensions and shapes. Shanghai has always been a place where cultures cross and fertilize in new, creative synthesis. There is something oceanic in the sound that comes from this orchestra as well as from the astounding variety of its repertory. Discover Chinese music as you never heard it before!
This documentary Seaside Serenade, Shanghai Traditional Chinese Music Orchestra was produced by AZ Cultural Enterprise in August 2009.
Arriving a little too late to snap up the special tickets required for China’s gargantuan pavilion (a great design actually, and one that I hope primary school kids around the world can mimic with Paddle Pop sticks), I had to settle for some of the less grandiose pavilions.
The South Korea pavilion had a great mix of 3D and interactive technology, all set to an infectious K-Pop soundtrack. The hosts remained unflinchingly gracious in the face of relentless questioning (“Are you really Korean? REALLY? But how can you possibly speak such good Chinese?”), even managing to diffuse a vicious brawl between two frazzled and possibly queued-out ladies in the theatrette.
The India pavilion offered a snapshot of Indian civilisation from ancient times through to the recent period of economic development, but my lasting memory was of the handicraft bazaar and the tantalising smells from the curry kitchen that seduced guests meandering around the venue.
The Singapore pavilion was slick, if somewhat forgettable, and the Denmark pavilion had the actual Little Mermaid statue, shipped all the way over to China, and some bikes for visitors to cruise around on.
All good stuff but in spite of the smorgasbord of global morsels that were at my finger tips, the one pavilion I really itched to visit was that of the land of my birth – Australia. Not just to reconnect, but to see how Australia had decided to pitch itself to what former Prime Minster Kevin Rudd famously called it’s “true friend (zhēngyǒu)”.
Upon arriving at the giant undulating pavilion, which looks a bit like a corrugated tin off-cut left to rust in a paddock, I was able to breeze in through the door, unhindered by any queue. Here I was greeted by a friendly Akubra-clad avuncular type with “G’day! When watching the movie, you might wanna sit at the back so you can see the subtitles”. Thanks for the tip, mate.
Spiralling up a ramp around the inside of the pavilion I was treated to a potted history of Australia in series of cute dioramas. Unsurprisingly, there was an emphasis on the relationship between Australia and China. If you were looking for any information about Aboriginal Australians, you had to wait for the last section, where the landmark 2008 apology to ‘the stolen generations’ was highlighted.
Australia’s first inhabitants were excluded from the diorama of when the English landed in Australia. Instead of Aboriginals, as are normally included in such stylised versions of this event, the pompous-looking Englishmen were confronted with a stick-waving Koala and a stern Kangaroo with crossed arms. Crikey! Look at claws on that one!
While there were brief explanations of the diorama scenes, no one really seemed to be paying much attention to them. Unlike the other more hi-tech pavilions I visited, there were certainly no snazzy gizmos here to keep the punters entertained. The crowd hurriedly snapped photos of each of the dioramas and then barrelled on up the ramp, to where though, no one seemed to know.
As it turned out, at the top of the ramp was the theatrette, where we were rounded up like cattle (how very Australian). Once in the proverbial cattle yard, some burly Aussie bloke did his best to keep us placated until the next screening, cracking jokes in Chinese and exhorting us to be orderly “for your own safety”. I found this guy to be pretty funny, but the people around me seemed mainly to be sniggering at his pronunciation. Perhaps something was lost in translation. I’m not sure how well the average Chinese person understands the Australian sense of humour. Some didn’t seem to understand his safety instructions either, with a couple of people trying to push through the queue, even though there was a closed door at the end of it and we had been told that there were enough seats in the theatre for everyone. The queues at the Expo were generally much more orderly than I expected based on my previous experiences lining up at various Chinese train stations and tourist venues. Nevertheless, some people still found the need to fruitlessly try to push through, only succeeding in pissing everyone else off. I’m surprised that I didn’t see more fights on the day.
The Australian movie was passable, but nowhere near the level of South Korea’s all singing, all dancing, roller coaster ride. Not that the crowd, many of whom were quite young, cared. They all seemed very happy to be there. The spritely attendant even managed to cajole them into chanting a mangled version of the dire Sydney Olympics-era chant “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!”.
My favourite image from the movie was towards the beginning. Just after the characters had been introduced and the audience subjected to a montage of dodgy computer graphics, the side of an open-cut mine was spectacularly blown up. This led in to a sequence of heavy machinery carting rocks out of the ground and onto the marketplace. The market of course, as Australia’s recent recession-proof prosperity might testify to, is China. What better symbol to represent Australia and China’s current relationship. I loved it.
After the movie, we were herded down the ramp, out of the theatre and into the gift shop. There was also some dinky-di Aussie tucker – meat pies, fish and chips, beer and other imported delicacies. Despite my strong urge for a pie and sauce, it was all a bit pricey for me, so I skedaddled out the door and to find something a bit cheaper and possibly more tasty.
Judging by the chirpy crowds hanging around in the foyer and checking out the tacky merchandise for sale, I think the organisers had a done a good job. The primarily Chinese guests seemed happy. However, the Australian government wants to do more than just flog off a couple of overpriced fluffy kangaroos and tinnies of VB. The real impact of the pavilion will be felt in the years to come, as Chinese students head to Australian universities or Chinese and Australian companies enter into business deals.
While appearing to be solid, Australia's relationship with China is not without hiccups. The level of China-awareness among the Australian public is low and at times paranoid. My only lasting memory of China from my childhood education is of the prospectors who came out to Australia in the Gold Rush of the 1850s. A reciprocal Chinese pavilion in downtown Sydney or Melbourne might help raise the general level of awareness of our looming northern neighbour. You wouldn't get the full story on China, that's for sure, but at least it would be a start. However, it is not only the Chinese government that emphasises some aspects of the country at the expense of others in order to paint an attractive picture.
Staging the Australian Expo pavilion in China means pitching the message to a Chinese audience. If the 2010 Expo was being held in Australia, the pavilion would undoubtedly be significantly different. Australians can be very sensitive about how the nation broadcasts itself to foreign nations. Witness the domestic controversy generated by each new iteration of advertisements selling our wide brown land to the global tourist market. Some Australians wish to entice foreigners with our cosmpolitan metropolises and sophisticated urban lifestyle, while others think that the beaches/bikinis/kangaroos/koalas model sells the nation best. Given this unfortunate and out-dated dichotomy, those Australians affected by the dreaded ‘cultural cringe’ would be best served by staying well away from the Australia pavilion. Do yourself a favour and go to the South Korea pavilion instead.
In thirty lively chapters, Bernard Brizay relates the formative period of the city: he draws a vivid portrait of the first French consul of Shanghai, Charles de Montigny, arrived there in 1848, founder of the French concession; he recalls the dark sides of the rise of the metropolis, drug trafficking, prostitution, gambling parlors or military repression… He depicts the foreign communities living in Shanghai during the twenties and thirties and some of their legendary figures. More important, by giving a clear and complete synthesis of the past of the “Paris of the Orient” he provides us with the keys for understanding the cosmopolitan and eminently adaptable nature of a leading metropolis of the new world economy.
(photo: J.J. Chen)