On Chinese Contemporary Art Museums, or, The Mystery of the Simple Description

Visiting the Shanghai Biennale Retrospective at the Power Station of Art Museum in 2020

The thing that always gets me at Chinese contemporary art museums is not the art (which is often excellent) but the descriptions of the artwork. The English translations, at least. I live in the hope that maybe the Chinese versions are more layered and complex. I don’t think I ever noticed art (mostly painting) descriptions in the West, but I can’t help but zero in on them here because they strike me as bizarrely simplistic.

The descriptions really take their name literally. Half of the space for the description is describing what is going on in the painting, even if the painting is just a portrait or a landscape. Not explaining the painter’s point of view or the socio-cultural relevance but literally describing the colors and the details of what someone is wearing. Like the subtitles that describe sounds for a hearing-impaired person watching Netflix. Epic music. Gentle whispers. For a visitor to a gallery, quite redundant.

Another strange feature is the simplistic analysis. For example, a painting of a woman by a female painter Xia Junna states that she “as a female artist…brings romantic femininity into her poetic works”. Sure, because all works of art by women will by definition be romantic and feminine. A slice of the 1950s in 2020.

A different description opens with what looks like an apology for the work being unworthy: “It is difficult to paint, yet there are so many good painters, which is desperate enough to think about,” says Ji Dachun. Perhaps this is a cultural thing, like a cook disparaging her best dish in front of her dinner guests only to expect protestations of the opposite as a reply. An artist shielding themselves from the art critics by saying they did their best.

For contrast, in Western galleries, the descriptions of contemporary and conceptual art strive to be as complicated and replete with pretentious academic jargon as possible. The goal is to sound smart and make the visitor feel dwarfed by the artist’s supposedly superior intellect. Art is supposed to be obscure and confounding, not approachable. To the visitor as well as to the critic. If it’s too simple, it’s not good. Not in Chinese museums. Here, some of the descriptions seem clearly autobiographical and even feature the “I” of the artist. The artist describes the idea or the process in a simple, matter-of-fact way.

Perhaps this has to do with the make-up of the visitors to these places, by which I mean major city museums rather than smaller galleries. Although the museums tend to be well-visited and even packed on weekends, and not only by tourists, many of the visitors come primarily to take selfies with interesting art so they can post them on their social media. Museums are selfie magnets. Sure, they walk around and read the descriptions, but they keep their eyes peered for that perfect photographic opportunity. Just look at Tinder in China. Everyone (or at least the women) seems to have amazing selfies because practice makes perfect. Because it is a priority. And art makes for great backgrounds.

If this is who the descriptions are for, then maybe the simplicity makes sense. There could be other, culturally specific explanations that I, a foreigner with limited Chinese skills, am not privy to. Allow me to generalize for a second, but Asian cultures have traditionally been fans of simplicity in art. Chinese or Japanese traditional paintings are not the Renaissance jumbles of Western Europe. They know when to put the brush down. Less is more. Maybe the descriptions are reflections of that. Or maybe it’s just bad translation.

Qingdao: A Little Bit of Germany in China

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The rainy season is over and the sweltering heat has descended on China. Like all foreigners who have wintered over the COVID-19 crisis in China and renewed their contracts for another year, I am spending my summer vacation in China. Going abroad is not an option considering that many neighboring countries have closed their borders but also that it is still very difficult for foreigners to re-enter China if they leave, even with a valid work permit. Within China, restriction have eased and all foreigners need to travel is a valid green health code that can easily be attained through WeChat or Alipay. Yunnan is the destination of choice for most, but I decided the ocean was at the top of my list and headed north to Qingdao.

Qingdao is a beautifully breezy coastal city with a small town feel. The Germans occupied Qingdao, or what became known as the Kiautschou Bay Concession, from 1898 to 1914, until the Japanese took over in WWI. During their short rule, the Germans managed to transform the hilly town into a European-looking city full of Bavarian-style villas that houses the German Navy officers, a town square with a Catholic cathedral, and of course, a world-class brewery. Although the city has spilled far out of its colonial core and swelled to over 10 million residents, the long ocean-front boardwalk is still the focal point of the city. There are many tourists here in the summer, but they are surprisingly all Chinese. If you happen to be white, you might find yourself being as much of a tourist attraction as the German villas.

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Qingdao is a unique mix of two cultures. Although the bones of the city are European, the atmosphere is distinctly Chinese. Most of the German villas dotting the hills rising up from the coast are private property. The gate might be open, but when you take out your camera and try to get a better view, a security guard will inevitably appear from his little guard station and shoo you away. Just like in the French Concession of Shanghai. The only thing to do is to look up and catch glimpses of wooden roofs and beams. If you’re lucky, you might have nabbed a deal to stay in one of the villas that have been turned into bed and breakfasts and can enjoy the narrow Victorian staircases and high ceilings in private.

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While St. Michael’s cathedral is, like most temples, still closed to prevent gatherings, the square continues to be busy with wedding photo sessions. Wedding parties stop here for full-on photo shoots complete with professional photographers, hair and makeup people, multiple sets of outfits, and an entourage of onlookers. And yes, you can actually get married in this church regardless of religion. It’s not just a prop.

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The ocean. The saltier of the two liquids you came to Qingdao for. Well, it certainly smells like an ocean and has a beach made of rich brownish-orange sand that same tint as the abundant rocks. Tiny crabs leave little sand balls next to the holes they come in and out of. Even though the ocean is not deep here and looks reasonably clean, if not quite clear, the activity of choice seems to be gathering seas shells and wading in the water rather than swimming. The only people swimming were a handful of local older men for whom this seemed to be a daily ritual. Still, the smell of the ocean and pleasant breeze make up for the quality of the water.

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After you get your fix of strolls among the villas and the waves, you will quite possibly end up here. The Tsingtao Brewery. Ready for the tour. And it’s a decent tour. Well-worth it for the colonial architecture, random Chinglish translations of beer facts, and the beer tasting and hops-themed gift shop at the end. The brewery is located on a touristy street filled with seafood restaurants and over-the-top beer-branding of everything–benches, statues, even manhole covers. And if all that weren’t inviting enough, did I mention that the city has a beautifully temperate climate? A perfect weekend getaway from Shanghai.

Organic Produce and Food Safety in China

abundance agriculture bananas batch
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Food safety is a major issue in China simply because there is still little regulation and the standards for pesticide use are much higher than in the West. However, local and foreign-owned brands based in China are starting to address this issue in an attempt to attract a new clientele that is increasingly focused on food safety.

Pesticides and Heavy Metal Toxins

The soil in which the vegetables are grown can be full of toxins from local industry and the tap water is unsafe to drink because of bacteria, metals, and toxins in the pipes. If the produce is not grown in greenhouses but outside, then the air (which can get up to 200 AQI in the winter) also affects the safety. So even if the allowed limit of pesticides in sprayed on your veggies, the other three elements are harder to control. If buying from small, local growers or Chinese grocery stores, you really have no way of knowing what’s in your food. You won’t get immediately sick, but the pesticide residues hanging out in your body are no joke.


In bigger cities, if you shop at reputable grocery stores and eat at restaurants with good ratings, you’re not likely to get sick. Before I came to China, I read horror stories about local farmer using their own excrement as fertilizers and that the risk of Hepatitis A was thus high. I got my shot. However, I live near Shanghai and am unlikely to ever encounter this situation.

I wash my fruit and veg with some dish-washing liquid and pour boiling water over them before peeling. This might be overkill, but it’s because of the tap water as much as the produce. Any bacteria will get killed during cooking anyway.

I don’t drink the tap water intentionally. Water will always be served to you hot in restaurants. However, if you get icy drinks anywhere, it is likely the ice was made from tap water. The tap water safety depends on your location, but I have gotten mild stomach upsets from these kinds of drinks in Shanghai and Suzhou.

Dairy and Cheese

Dairy is another thing to get used to. When I first got to China, even steamed Chinese cow milk in a Starbucks latte gave me a mild upset stomach. It took a few months to get used to it, but now I don’t get them anymore.

In grocery stores, imported milk is widely available. Most of the milk comes from New Zealand and Australia, but also Germany, Ireland and Poland. It’s affordable at 10-12 RMB per 1L. You can also get many brands of powdered milk, which is very popular here.

Chinese cheese is a bit weird. It tastes and smells the same when it comes on your pizza, but I personally get a bit of a stomachache from eating too much of it. There are plenty of imported and relatively expensive (40RMB and up for a tiny amount) cheese options at grocery stores. There are many foreign food and fast food restaurants here so you can get cheese in your lunch pretty much anywhere except Chinese food restaurants, and sometimes even there.

Buying Organic Produce

For some reason, there are no imported vegetables available in China so you will have to make do with vegetables grown in Chinese soil. The names of the local farms that grow organic food will be listed on the label, but you won’t be able to find out any more about them on non-Chinese internet so there is no way for a foreigner to check if these farms are actually organic and what standards they adhere to. If you’re buying veg from a grocery store, this is your best bet. And it is a gamble.

There are many kinds of imported fruits available in grocery stores, but they are not organic. Some will have a tiny English label on them stating which country they are from but most will just have that information in Chinese. You can translate this or learn to recognize the characters for a few South East Asian countries that the fruit is likely to be from. If they are grown in China, the label will never just say China (中国) but will list the name of the province, thereby making your life a bit more difficult.

Here are a few brands that offer organic produce:

HeMa Fresh Hippo (all over China)

This Chinese grocery story, which is part of the Alibaba conglomerate that also owns Taobao and Alibaba, offers a good selection of organic vegetables that are clearly labeled “organic” in English and are in a special section of the fridge. In this store, unless a Chinese friend helps you, you will just have to trust that they actually are organic. The price will be up to three times higher than the price of the regular vegetable and still very affordable.

Pro-tip: The price point is a good way of recognizing the organic vegetables on their all-Chinese app.

Ole (based in Suzhou, Jiangsu) also has a decent selection of organic vegetables similar to HeMa.

Epermarket (online only, English website) also has a selection of organic vegetables from un-checkeable local farms.

Goma (Shanghai and neighboring cities)

Goma is a WeChat store that offers a subscription for weekly organic veggie boxes. Set up by foreigners living in China, it adheres to EU standards for pesticide use. Yes, this means that “organic” in China translates to just regular EU standards for pesticide use, not EU standards for the label “organic”. But this is the best you can get.

They also have an English website with a list of all the local farms they collaborate with and comparisons of their standards with local standards for pesticides in soil, water and added chemicals.

In the summer, they also offer locally grown organic fruit. You can get a more limited fruit (apples and lemons) selection year-round.

This is a pricey option, considering that the cheapest box will set you back 220 RMB including shipping. You can choose the veggies you want each week and opt out of the weekly deliveries when you don’t need them, but the selection will be limited to what is in season (about 12 options per box).

Lizzy’s All Natural (Shanghai and neighboring cities)

Also a WeChat store, Lizzy’s offers a smaller selection of organic vegetables and they aren’t always well-stocked in this category. This is probably not the place to do your weekly shopping because of their limited selection, but if you’re also buying smoothies, snacks, plant milk, and fake meat, you might as well throw in a few organic vegetables.

The final tip is don’t worry too much. If you’re here for a year or a few years, it’s not likely that your body will corrode that much from these relatively safe options. If you follow simple precautions, stress over food, water and air safety is likely to cause more damage to your health than the toxins you worry about.

Books and Flowers Café: A Queer-Friendly Spot in Suzhou

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This verdant, book-filled nook has an unusual story. The owner, a Chinese dancer named Keleiyi, discovered she liked women through watching Below Her Mouth, a lesbian movie staring Swedish model-turned-actress Erika Linder.

Keleiyi then set off on an epic road trip from China to Sweden, across all of Russia, to visit the actress and tell her how much she meant to her. The entire process is documented online, in a book she later published (in Chinese), and on the walls of the café, with the trajectory of the trip pinned down with red ribbon onto a map.

Of course, Keleiyi must have known that Linder was spoken for and that she might not be able to meet this celebrity in person. In Sweden, the anti-climactic ending involved a package of appreciation sent to Linder’s girlfriend and an acknowledgement of receiving the package. However, the journey was clearly also an awareness-raising event for China’s LGBT community.

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The Coffee Shop

This is not one of those hole-in-the-wall places with great coffee and no seating. It’s serene and spacious and given the not-so-central location, not too busy. On weekday mornings, you can bring your laptop or grab one of the many books lining the shelves and have the whole place to yourself. Most of the books are in Chinese, but there is a small section of novels in English that you can even buy.

As you walk in, there is a small flower shop on the right and a table full of locally made stationary and small decorative items on the left. The two floors are broken up by several cozy areas, each surrounded by bookshelves, potted plants, weird lamps, and rainbow flags. You can even peruse the rack of designer clothing on the top floor.

Some of the waiters speak basic English and the menu is in English. The coffee is excellent, and you can also grab a light lunch such as a sandwich or salad. The coffee menu is small and standard: a few espresso-based drinks, black and green tea lattes, teas with dried fruit, and specialty drinks such as the red velvet latte.

LGBT Suzhou

After returning to China, Keleiyi opened the café in her hometown of Suzhou and designated it a queer-friendly space. Far from the long-standing queer scene of Shanghai, Suzhou is tolerant towards queerness but not openly friendly. There are a few LGBT-friendly or LGBT-owned venues, a sauna and a club catering to gay men, as well as some cruising spots. There are no cultural events as such and perhaps the proximity of Shanghai partially explains the reluctance to build a local community.

The strange thing about this café is that I rarely see queer people here. As an upscale café in the modern SIP neighborhood, it is frequented by residents of neighboring buildings, families with children who hang out here after their extracurricular activities or use the study room on the top floor, people working on their laptops, business people holding meetings, and the odd foreigner.

Although the café can host private events, it is a shame that there are no regular events here when it would be ideal for hosting small arts shows, book promotions, or poetry readings.

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Shanghai: A First Impression

Although my first impression of the most touristy spots of Shanghai was underwhelming, Shanghai quickly grew into one of my favorite cities.

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Believe it or not, my first impression of Shanghai was underwhelming. After putting the trip off for four months, I finally booked a ticket on the bullet train from Suzhou and arrived at the crowded Shanghai Railway Station on a busy Saturday morning. People shuffling in swarms to get to the ticket machines, casually pushing me out of the way, and stepping in front of me in line if I didn’t guard my space confidently enough. Heat-exuding bodies so close they were almost leaning on me. That peculiar oppressive metro station smell. I felt like a tapioca bubble at the bottom of a milk tea cup. After 10 minutes of waiting tightly squeezed in one of ten queues all curdled together, I fiddled anxiously with the ticket machine hoping I wouldn’t make a mistake and get rushed and yelled at by the waiting crowd.

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When the crowds spit me out  at East Nanjing Road metro station, the feeling of space gradually returned. The famous shopping street looked like many others I had seen before–the main shopping street of any big city–save for the Chinese characters on the buildings and shops, and the distinctly Chinese-looking alleys that intermittently that popped up on the left. The alleys exploded with a mesh of electrical wires tangled together in large overhanging knots, not unlike the decorative Chinese knots made of red string that I see attached to Didi drivers’ rearview mirrors. In the early morning hours, they were populated by delivery drivers on E-bikes equipped with portable duvet wind-protectors, calico cats, and old people exchanging pleasantries with their neighbors. This was the kind of Shanghai I would come to love.

On the Bund, I reunited with the crowd. The Bund is a beautiful place, don’t get me wrong. Especially at night. Or experienced from a rooftop restaurant. Or during the Covid-19 epidemic. But the masses of people all trying to elbow themselves into a nook on the railing to take a selfie with the Pudong buildings in the background do disrupt the atmosphere. I took a short walk and decided my time would be better spent in the China Art Museum across the Huangpu river.

Since then, I’ve come to discover that getting a metro card shaves 15 minutes and a lot of anxiety off my morning commute. Instead of the Bund, I get a coffee and walk around the 1930s buildings of the Xuhui district, where I get the art deco coupled with the residential feel and can peek into the open doors of street-level apartments and open gates of French-style mansions. Instead of big museums, I visit small galleries. Shanghai feels more familiar and less overwhelming this way. New art events and culinary pop-ups keep me coming to the city every weekend and it has truly become one of my favorite places in the world.

M50: Shanghai’s Art Gallery District

Liu Dao CollectiveAt first glance, the industrial feel of M50’s graffiti-filled alleys reminds me of squat spaces in Copenhagen or Zagreb. Gray, brutalist, exposed brick and pipe, complete with damp, sketchy-looking hallways lined with advertisements for past events. On the other hand, this space is decidedly commercial. Owned by a textile group, M50 comes complete with security guards asking for health codes at the entrance, a privately owned bar, cafes, and a fancy antique store full of taxidermy. The galleries sell some very pricey art and are quick to tell visitors which pieces have already been reserved. Although M50 is touristy and serves as an oft-recommended Instagram spot for people with a penchant for artsy selfies, the galleries themselves are actually worth a visit.

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Here are some of the resident artists:

Liu Dao

One of the galleries with free entry and a large number of exhibits spanning three floors is island6, the home of the Shanghainese Liu Dao art collective. Most of the pieces are LED art and play with iconic imagery of China and Shanghai but also Japan and Hong Kong. Startling you from under a glass bell jar, a plastic take out container of fried rice will tell you: “I’m salty but delicious”. An LED installation of the back of a Didi cab, certainly an iconic view of China, will put you in the rear-view mirror in the middle of the screen as you approach it. Another piece features a Godzilla-sized little girl in a blue wig roaming around the gray apartment buildings of Putuo. Afterward the show, you can walk a few 100 meters and check out the actual gate and buildings she walks behind. These LED renditions of mundanely recognizable urban Chinese scenes and objects iconify the ordinary while the format is a constant gentle gestures towards the speedy ultra-modernizations of all aspects of Shanghainese life.


The vibe is this well-know artist’s gallery is more studio-like and the influence of traditional Chinese ink paintings is apparent. Yelan focuses mostly on large canvases of female nudes, landscapes and abstract art. Some of Yelan’s works take inspiration from Buddhist stories. Painting bodies with thick black brush strokes on pale backgrounds, Yelan enhances the focus on movement and flow through dripping and fading techniques. The best part of the visit is when the shy young guy who works there retreats into a tiny back room and lets you go on about the paintings and how he must be the artist.

Suzhou Old Town


The canals line the old core and extend into new canals in the modern, glass-windowed sky-scraper-lined parts of the city. The Suzhou canals system links into The Grand Canal, a UNESCO Heritage site, a system of waterways that stretches from Hangzhou in the South all the way to Beijing in the North. Dating back to 495 B.C., this 1,776 km waterway system is on par with the Great Wall of China in terms of cultural heritage, engineering excellence, and tourist appeal.

The old core of Suzhou is surrounded by a rectangle-shaped waterway called the Weichang River, which even passes through the two parts of the old campus of Soochow University. Within the city center (Downtown or Gusu neighborhood), smaller canals run through the famous Pingjiang Lu and other shopping streets bound on both sides by small stationary stores specializing in handmade paper and local ink, cafes with canal-level terraces trimmed with various greenery, and mom-and-pop stores that sell sweet rice cakes. All the temples and gardens are within walking distance, and so is the Suzhou Museum, well-known for its architect, I. M. Pei, the same man who designed the pyramids in front of the Louvre in Paris.

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The most interesting part of Gusu, however, is off the beaten path. Exploring the empty alleyways, bridges, and even entire abandoned neighborhoods evacuated before major renovation of part of the old town, was an unexpectedly creepy and cinematic experience. Walking across old bridges with the light reflecting from the water below shining through the significant gaps between the large, flat, worn-out stones. Entire streets complete with street signs, shop windows, abandoned furniture, and nest-like structures composed of exposed electrical wires serving as outdoor ceilings covering the whole show. Former temples closed down during the revolution but still standing. Crumbling white wall facades with the signature Suzhou latticed black windows concealing formerly regal living quarters. Triangle-shaped bridges guarded by statues of racoon dogs. While during the day, Gusu is a bit chaotic with its traffic and shops and food stalls spilling onto the streets, at night, it is peaceful with a hint of otherworldly.

Like any touristy location, the experience of central Suzhou is tainted by the crowds, which make it feel more like a living museum than a slice of ancient China. If you can, avoid the crowds and take a stroll at night or on a rainy day.

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Suzhou Industrial Park

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Suzhou Industrial Park is a modern neighborhood in Suzhou that surrounds Jinji and Dushu Lake. Here you will find high end brand name stores, plentiful Western chain restaurants and upscale Chinese restaurants, wide boulevards and sprawling, perfectly maintained parks all around Jinji Lake, and many apartment complex compounds with security guards. Also, malls. All kinds of malls. Especially fancy ones with designer clothing stores and expensive supermarkets.

SIP is a new neighborhood that was co-developed by the Singaporean government and is the most Western part of the city. Everything is new, clean, and polished. It seems that each small quarter of the neighborhood has its own set of street cleaners who tirelessly sweep the sidewalks with their traditional Chinese brooms made of long branches in the shape of a leafy paddle. Another set of cleaners float along the canals and gather the leaves that fell into the water overnight. The streets are lined with Chinese Cinnamon and Pink Silk Trees and carefully trimmed evergreen bushes. Unlike in the old town, there are street signs here warning cars not to honk.

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The Jinji Lake park, like most parks in Suzhou and Shanghai, comes complete with at least one guard and again, a set of cleaners. People in Suzhou like to spend time outside and often take walks in the evenings with their families. On the East side of the lake, old people set up their portable radios and play traditional Chinese music to accompany their nightly Taiji quan practice sessions. Middle aged men walk around while clapping their hands and women stretch their legs on the railings of bridges while also slapping them. Everyone agrees this is good for circulation.

On the West side of the lake by the Center Mall, girls employ their boyfriends as Instagram photographers and kids run around carrying sweets and glowing sticks. Bigger kids skateboard by the area clearly marked for the activity by an actual statue of skateboarders. At night, the glass buildings serve as screens displaying neon-colored advertisements. Everyone is strolling around with big plastic cups of milk tea.

My favorite part of the lake is Eslite Mall, a three-story luxury Taiwanese chain mall with a two-story bookstore with a decent section for English language books. You can get a Manner coffee on the ground floor and take it with you to browse for hours, ending up at the small gallery on the top floor, right next to an excellently expensive vegan restaurant.

Why You Should Care About Chinese Art

Liu Dao, M50, Shanghai

I have to confess, before I came to China, I had no concept of what Chinese art was. I knew about Japanese and South Korean artists, but except for performance artists Ai Weiwei and Tehching Hsieh, I hadn’t really heard of anyone. Of course, I was aware of traditional ink painting and pottery, the kind of art predominant in Suzhou museums and popular with middle aged tourists, but when I started visiting Shanghai’s galleries, I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Perhaps I was expecting Chinese contemporary art to be more heavily censured or isolated from Western art trends, but it is not. Certainly, there are artists who offer reinventions of traditional painting styles, and Propaganda art is alive, well and amusing, but that does not even scratch the surface of what you can find in the dozens of small galleries dotted around Shanghai.

Chinese artists are pushing boundaries and subtly criticizing the society they live in. The works are not overtly political, but they do not have to specifically reference the powers that be to be innovative and refreshingly local.

Traditions, societal as well as familial, the role of the individual in society, East vs. West elements represented  through tropes on both sides, and the coexistence of technology and traditional are all common themes. To say that an artist’s work combines elements of traditional and modern is at this point a cliché found in any exhibition blurb. The glaringly missing element that Western art is so infused with is art by and about minorities.

The history of Chinese contemporary art cannot be summarized in one short blog post, and I am certainly not an expert, so I will give an overview of several artists I find particularly exciting and in some way representative of the trajectories in Chinese contemporary art.

Ham Kyung Rack is a Korean-born painter living in China. In his He-Story series, the artist combines traditional Chinese painting elements such as working with a rice paper canvas and traditional Chinese ink painting composition with contemporary elements like cellphones, face masks and a Starbucks cup. Representing himself as a pig character roaming desolate brown and beige landscapes or standing on islands or under glass cases. Rack’s paintings don’t only comment on the meeting of East and West; they are about isolation in the modern world, a topic that resonates as much with the over-worked salarymen of Japan and Korea as with introvert teenagers existing as much in video game fantasy worlds as in society. Eerily anticipating the current epidemic, Rack’s “Mask Series” focuses on his pig character’s fears of contagion, both environmental and cultural, both consumerist and technological.


Zhang Huan is a painter, performance, and installation artist from Henan Province whose work tackles issues of genealogy and belonging. In the Family Tree performance (2000), Huan takes a series of photographs of his face while three calligraphers cover him with family names and details about his ancestors. By the ninth photograph, taken at dawn, the artist’s face is covered in ink and nearly completely black, appearing almost as a tattoo. The writing process and staining represent the not only a lineage that goes back generations, and even more so, back to the origins of the entire nation of Han Chinese in Henan province. As the shiny, blackened face with only the eyes still discernable suggests, the lineage also marks Huan’s identity as a burden of family but also cultural legacies, demands, and restrictions. Huan is an established artist in China and is also relatively well-known abroad.


Geng Yini’s art is unexpectedly campy. Her recent exhibition entitled “Virtul Power” comes complete with oversized wild animals, muscular, bearded gay men, and meek ducks and bunnies. Characters in drag putting on airs of importance. The artist uses animals as building blocks for makeshift cairns or altars that leave the spectator wondering if these assemblages are really supposed to represent types of power or if they are a joke. That question is the point of the work. Paintings such as “Feral Pagoda” play with imposing elements of power and the mythological in nature, such as mountains, and religious Chinese elements such as the Pagoda, all then superimposed with a triangle of animal guardians. Perhaps invoking Chinese architectural traditions of placing lion or raccoon dog statues at entrances of buildings and bridges that might guard something as important as a palace or as prosaic as a restaurant, the animals can be read as representing the imposing façade behind which no real power necessarily lies. This kind of power can be read as virtual, as in “not material”, imaginary, existing because it appears to exist and people’s beliefs in it enables its continuation.


Chen Tianzhuo is a Beijing-based artist whose performance and installation work is distinctly absurdist and replete with pop culture references and a fascination with religious imagery. His aesthetic is psychedelic, and his cast of characters is shifting and unpredictable: queer and S&M imagery, Hello Kitty, as well as Christian and Buddhist religious iconography. Like Geng, Chen’s art questions power and social norms, but not any norms in particular, just the concept. In his “Long March Space” exhibition, Chen constructs assemblages of religious and pop culture imagery to “create” his own mix-and-match religion placing sacred and sacrilegious at the same level of holiness but set to the background of a retro video game.


Bakeries: The Search for Good Bread in China

I watched videos about Japanese bakeries and their penchant for sweet bread even with savory fillings before I came to China. I was looking forward to trying things Cream Buns (literally a bun slices in half and filled with cream) and mooncakes, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of French flaky pastries.

Bakeries are big in China and you will find them everywhere. There are two kinds of bakeries: more traditional Chinese and French style bakeries. And then there is Pain Chaud.

French-Style Bakeries

You can find them in any mall and many are chain stores. They are not strictly “French” and don’t cater to a specifically Western palate but are spaces for “fusion” food and popular among Chinese people.

The Chinese have perfected French pastries such as croissants, Madeleines and any flaky, buttery, sweet pastry. However, they have also added their own twist. There are flaky pastries in a variety in unusual shapes and with unusual fillings (pineapple, taro, whipped cream, red bean paste) and they are delicious. Portuguese custard tarts (Pasteis de nata), popular because of their presence in Macao, are also a staple. Sweet breads are one of the go-to’s for snacks but are a little too sweet and cake-out-of-a-bag tasting for me.

Many fancy little cakes and tortes also grace the window display (fruit, cheesecake, chocolate, and Matcha are the most common flavors) and their deliciousness level depends on the location and the price point. The most popular cakes are airy sponge cakes which taste exactly as you imagine. Just sponge cake.

Savory pastries and bread are harder to find. If you go for a sausage, egg or cheese filled pastry or even a pastry with meat floss on top, the bun will still always be sweet.

A variety of sliced sweet bread in bags is available in each bakery, but you can usually mostly find savory bread in the bakery sections of foreign grocery stores, specialized bakeries, and even the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai. The bread selection includes baguettes, whole wheat, rye, or soda bread; you won’t find German and Scandinavian style dark breads.

85 C is a popular chain in Suzhou. Lilian Bakery and Baker and Spice are popular chain bakeries around Shanghai, but there are many fancier and better choices in a higher price point.

Chinese Bakeries

Chinese bakeries place more focus on traditional kinds of pastries. They are usually smaller and more present in the older parts of town, here in Suzhou at least. Here you will find mooncakes with taro, red bean, green tea, black sesame, but also duck egg and beef flavors. Mochi (soft sticky rice cakes) are a popular (not too sweet) sweet, while fried sesame balls (hollow or with red bean paste) are a savorier choice. A plethora of small white flour cakes with red Chinese stamps on them are often filled with meat and egg and the Chinese names do not let on what is in them so vegetarians beware.

And Then There Is Pain Chaud…

Just when I was about to declare there is no good and affordable bread in this country, I stumbled upon this place. Pain Chaud (warm bread in French). As soon as I caught a glimpse of the glass counter from the shop window, I knew it would be good. I ordered a lemon brioche and a Chai tea latte, sat down by some other foreigners clearly back from a group run, and felt like I had walked into a perfect Fall day that I could spend wistfully gazing at the passerby while I fill my diary with stories about Shanghai.

Let me count the ways. Walnut bread. Wine and fig bread. Lemon brioche. Chestnut tart. Pain aux pommes. Tartes. Eclairs. An all seasonal and small but unusual menu. And the coffee is good too.

The interior is a simple, crisp, and similar to other coffee shops and bagel stores in Shanghai. Parquet floors, white tiles on the walls, androgynous waitresses. It doesn’t matter because the food speaks for itself. A perfect, decadent slice of the modern, hipster Shanghai.

Although the Chinese versions of French bakeries in always have a decent selection of croissants, pain au chocolats and pain au raisins, the flavor is a little sweeter and there is a distinct taste I can’t put my finger that makes each pastry taste the same. Buttery, but too sugary and not crispy enough. And the bread is sadly always full of sugar and definitely dessert-like.