Thursday, 1 January 2015

Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices of London, out 3rd March 2015

I am delighted to announce the publication of my 5th book, Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London (Seagull Books/Chicago University Press), which is the result of my outreach work with asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented people in the capital and includes their testimonies alongside my own account. The publisher's page is here and the Amazon UK page is here.

For Books' Sake have already given Asylum and Exile an attentive and very generous 5 star review which can be read here and there has also been some great press in Nose In A Book as well as a long interview in Asian Culture Vulture. I've covered the project in a recent Guardian article headlined I want to give asylum seekers in Britain a chance to tell their own story and in an essay for the Free Word's Briefing Notes series: Asylum and refuge in Britain. I've also discussed the issues in my introduction to Big Writing for A Small World (Scribd copy of English PEN publication) and the articles Rape, refusal, denial, detention: refugees dancing at the edge of the world and Asylum: no woman should be missed out. English PEN have written up the debate at one of my events on this issue in a wonderful piece here. I have also written up my visit to a UK detention centre for the Free Word's essay series: Life is a scary movie: Inside a UK detention centre.

In-depth audio interviews:
Asylum and Exile follows the publication, in May 2012, of my fourth book Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine. An extensive selection of 2012 and 2013 interviews and press can be found here and a March 2014 interview by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore can be found here. The British Council have written up a very kind and comprehensive Critical Perspective on my career (click Read More on this linked page), some recent press shots are here and there's a full press release just below this video of me giving some readings from the book. I come in at 57:58

press release
I see books like Asylum and Exile as evidence of a deep seated refusal to tolerate the divisive politics that extend right across the political divide. Well done for speaking up and bearing witness. We must never stop telling the stories of those we consign to the margins.

Maurice Wren, Chief Executive, The Refugee Council

It’s a little book, but in its 150-odd pages it manages to be wide in scope yet intimate, funny, warm, sad and horrifying. ...Asylum and Exile is a 4 star read, with an additional star because it’s so fundamentally important. 
Jennie Gillions, For Books' Sake

The result of Bidisha’s outreach work with refugees and asylum seekers since 2012, Asylum and Exile goes behind the stereotypes and scare stories to reveal the humanity, tragedy and bravery – and frequently the humour – of the individuals who’ve left everything behind to seek sanctuary from violence.

The men and women Bidisha worked with were of all ages from 19 to their late 60s. All had fled war, persecution, extreme poverty and civil unrest in countries as diverse as Cameroon, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Malawi, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. Some had been in the UK for months, others for more than a decade. All spoke at least two languages. Among them were mathematicians and criminologists, soldiers, students and teachers: the man who had lectured in Persian music at Tehran university and now works in the freezer room of a sandwich factory; the woman who had been a teacher but was asked, when she arrived in England, if she knew how to turn on a light switch; the woman who became a manager in an English company only to be pulled out by police in front of her colleagues and imprisoned, who loves her red dancing shoes above all her other possessions.

In England, with no money, no access to public funds and no papers authorising them to work they labour illegally as cleaners, factory workers, dishwashers, care assistants and in other unstable, unseen, underpaid and gruelling roles. Many have bounced between prison and detention centres. Their London life is one of trying to survive on five pounds a day, of interminable bus journeys across the capital, appointments with legal aid workers and reliance on near strangers to get a foothold on life in the city with little or no support. Despite this, their unerring vivacity, talent and will to survive are a testament to the strength of the human spirit. 

Asylum and Exile comes out at a time when immigration is one of the most passionately debated issues around, with a rise in anti-immigration, anti-asylum rhetoric both in the UK and elsewhere, particularly in western Europe and Australia. Asylum seekers and refugees are being argued over, demonised, scapegoated and disbelieved – or patronised and advocated for in heart-wrenching yet generalised terms – but are almost never given a chance to speak in their own words about their own lives. Bidisha gives space to their testimonies, which are by turns shocking, moving and hilarious. She gained rare access and was met with such trust and frankness that Asylum and Exile stands as a unique document|: an accessible, uplifting and humane book whose stories are as buoyant, noisy, confrontational and diverse as Bidisha’s classroom itself.

Poster greeting arrivals at Praxis
The outreach sessions were co-ordinated by the literary and human rights charity English PEN with the Migrants Resource Centre in Victoria and Praxis in Bethnal Green. Asylum and Exile began in the unheated rooms of severely underfunded charities in London. Yet its narratives and characters cross the globe, reflecting the consequences of some of the world’s most violent conflicts and fragile states. Stereotypes and generalisations disintegrate and what emerge are the stoical spirits, vital personalities, inner strength and defiant intelligence of the individuals themselves. The book is not an academic tract or a fierce polemic but a humane account based on personal stories expressed in idiosyncratic voices, not clichés from a newspaper. Asylum and Exile is a tribute to the honesty of raw experience, the power of personal testimony and the ability of the spoken word of truth to transform both the teller and the listener.

    Monday, 29 December 2014

    China Flash: a collection of my recent articles about contemporary China

    The Zaha Hadid-designed Galaxy mall
    complex, Chaoyangmen, Beijing, end 2014

    And some little odds and ends, photos and vignettes:

    Sunday, 28 December 2014


    This post was updated on 23rd Jan 2015

    Photo by Shekhar Bhatia, taken 14th January 2015

    Photo taken July 2014 by award-winning travel, fashion, food and lifestyle
    photographer Cherry Li.
    Photo taken December 20th 2014
    Photo taken May 2014
    Photo taken December 2014

    Thursday, 6 November 2014

    China Flash: Only condoms can save China from a "raging epidemic" of syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections

    This 'as told to' interview was granted to me by Dr Neil Schmid, Beijing chief of sexual health charity DKT International, and first ran in Time Out Beijing's November edition. The text below is by and (c) Neil Schmid, not me. 

    China has the highest overall contraceptive prevalence rates in the world: 88 per cent of women of reproductive age (15-49) use contraceptives. But that official figure is highly problematic: it’s unrepresentative of sexual activity across the Chinese populace for the fundamental reason that it excludes unmarried women and all men, married or unmarried. So it’s a highly gendered measurement of what constitutes normative contraceptive use. And in China, that concept forms the basis for the entire family planning policy as well as access to and, crucially, knowledge of all contraceptive methods. The upshot of this situation is that married women bear the brunt of contraceptive responsibility, men don’t, and those outside of married couples -- namely 249 million people -- are largely ignored in terms of sex education and general public discourse on all the contraceptive methods available. I want to address these inequalities and other sexual health concerns first by promoting condom use among youth and by providing both women and men with additional contraceptive options.

    At the moment, the Government’s family planning policy favors IUDs [intra-uterine devices] and sterilisation for married women, and these two methods currently amount to roughly 50 per cent and 30 per cent respectively (i.e., a whopping 80 per cent) of all contraceptives used by that group. The legacy of this system is that because all these procedures were, and still are, done in government-controlled clinics, contraceptive choices have been highly limited. Not having a variety of choices means that information about other contraceptives isn’t necessary, and both institutions and parents are thus never obliged to develop the knowledge and concern to communicate different options. Also, hormonal contraceptives such as the pill, implants and injections don’t generally appeal to Chinese women because they often believe that hormones disrupt the body’s balance. An unfortunate result of the lack of short-term contraceptives among younger, unmarried women is that multiple abortions are relatively common and there’s frequent misuse of emergency contraceptives such as the morning after pill. If used excessively, both these methods can affect fertility in the long term. Finally, there a social conservatism that feeds into these larger patterns: you’ll often see adverts for abortion clinics in the Beijing subway, but you would never, ever see an advert for a condom.

    Today’s Chinese youth have enormous amounts of freedom, access, and mobility which their parents never had. Enablers range from rapid urbanisation to apps like Momo, billed as ‘the magical tool to get laid’, which were completely unthinkable among their parents’ generation. Where the state was once revolutionary in addressing citizens’ reproductive and sexual health needs, it’s now turned a conservative eye to the new revolutionary changes affecting its population. The negative results are a rapid increase in unwanted pregnancies, abortions and STIs. 50 years ago, syphilis was virtually eliminated from China by government initiatives. Now an epidemic rages, with an average of more than one baby per hour being born with congenital syphilis in China. And unfortunately that’s one out of multiple STIs which are increasingly rampant across the population. As important and useful as IUDs and hormonal contraceptives might be in preventing unwanted pregnancies, they do nothing to stop the ever-growing spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

    DKT International runs extensive programmes addressing sexual health in China. Visit their site.  To read my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here.

    Wednesday, 5 November 2014

    American Apparel and photographer Terry Richardson....both still having fabulous sleazy careers in Beijing

    To read my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here.

    I photographed these full height window displays at Taiku Li, the coolest mall complex in Sanlitun, Beijing. The images were up throughout August, September, October and November and may well still be up. American Apparel's Dov Charney is a sex abuser - see here and here and here and here for starters; he has now been junked from the company, which is known for its sleazy advertising images of young women.

    The two photographs below are the American Apparel store fronts which face the street (I don't know who the photographer is):

    And, in separate news, photographer Terry Richardson is a sex abuser - see here and here and here and here and here . Below is the Evisu window display at Taiku Li, photographed by Terry Richardson:

    Tuesday, 4 November 2014

    Saturday, 1 November 2014

    Thursday, 23 October 2014

    China Flash: Lean In Beijing on the new sexism, corporate ambition, marital choices and awesome girls in modern China

    This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing last month.

    A Lean In Beijing meeting, image (c) Lean In Beijing
    Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s book about how she battled corporate sexism to rise to the top at Facebook, has struck a chord with young, ambitious women in China. “I saw Sandberg’s TED talk in March 2013,” says one of Lean In Beijing’s founding members, Allison Ye. “I was shocked because I had never seen a successful Chinese female leader talk with such openness and honesty about how exactly she got there. It was refreshing. Her message was that we can be responsible for our situation and we can control our lives. It was very positive.”

    The talk triggered the formation of Lean in Beijing, which sent a survey [PDF]to more than 500 women, asking about their aspirations, their careers and the challenges they experienced in their lives. It revealed that 90% of respondents had never seen a professional women’s network – and wanted one. “We had 60 to 70 women at our first meeting, and every one had a story to tell. Things they wouldn’t tell to their own friends and families, they would tell to strangers,” says Ye. The Lean In message of female solidarity, boosted by speaker events, high social media connectivity, consciousness raising 'circles' and the open discussion of everyday sexism has proven so popular and necessary that Lean In has spread to several Chinese cities far beyond Beijing. Even within the capital, Lean In members have founded their own offshoots like the Lean In Thinktank led by Yolanda Wang and Maggie Zhang and the six Lean In College mentoring schemes founded by Alicia Lui. The mentoring scheme involves bringing in younger professional women to be mentors to college age students, Lui tells me. “Mentoring is a really great way to work through relationship, career and family pressures. At our last event in May, 150 students showed up and we had 15 mentors, all from different industries and with different interests. After the event, lots more professional women wanted to be a part of the network as mentors.”

    We are meeting up at a time when gender inequality is back with a vengeance in China, with ancient stereotypes about femininity, double standards about gender roles, endemic and normalised violence against women, media misrepresentation and longstanding pressures on women meeting new corporate injustices around equal pay, property ownership, female leadership and opportunity, as chronicled in Leta Hong Fincher’s brilliant and vital book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.

    Lean In Beijing’s discussions aren’t just about strategising within a corporate context, combating institutional sexism, why prominent Chinese women business leaders stand at less than 5% or why women are paid less than men for the same job. “It’s [also about] the pressure of getting married young, the pressure that’s coming from all directions,” says Ye, “not just the family but the media, the government, society. Every young woman in a family is pressured to get married really young. The message behind it is that a woman cannot be happy by herself, she needs to be someone’s wife, someone’s mother in order to be fulfilled in her purpose in life.” Yolanda Wang agrees: “For a man in China, at the age of 30 you’re meant to have a career, a car, a job. For a woman, the main responsibility is to find someone, to get married. And the pressure on her [to do that] starts at the age of 22 or 23.”

    Recently, the journalist (and friend of Lean In Beijing) Roseann Lake co-organised the Leftover Monologues – women’s monologues from all over the world, prompted by a combination of the Chinese women’s movement, Leta Hong Fincher’s work on gender inequality and activist Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. It was the first time many of the Chinese contributors had presented their own stories. “It’s really hard for Chinese people to speak out. They’ll be judged by society as a bad girl, judged by family and friends,” says Maggie Zhang. The Lean In movement in China is radical in itself, for its fostering of open dialogue. The conversation goes far beyond tips on how to negotiate for higher salaries, be less self-critical, manage career progression, handle confrontation or consider a company job versus entrepreneurship - although Lean In Beijing members have discussed all these and more. “The idea is not necessarily limited to work or career, or even family,” says Lui, “it’s more about a close knit, confidential community of women who listen to you, empathise with you and help you.” “Women at big companies are afraid to speak out at meetings,” says Wang, adding, “In the US women sit and talk about their [professional and life] dreams. In China people ask you, ‘Do you have a boyfriend? What does he do?’ Nobody thinks a woman has a dream.” “We asked women how they saw their purpose in life,” says Ye, “and lots of women told us that that was the first time they’d ever asked that question of themselves.”

    “Our parents tell us not to get a boyfriend when we’re at college, so we can concentrate completely on our studies,” says Maggie Zhang, “but then, when we turn 25, they pressure us to get a husband.” “I was told, ‘You should never try to be too smart or you won’t find a boyfriend’ by my mother’s friend,” says Lui, “and I was pressured to marry from the age of 26. The family is still considered the centre of everything. I’ve heard, ‘You can’t get a PhD because no-one wants to marry a PhD.’” 

    "The other side of the ‘leftover women' story is that we’re moving forward as never before,” says Ye. “Women don’t need a partner to sustain their lifestyles. It’s inevitable that women in China will have more freedom and that this will force change. The post-90s generation is already changing things, they’re really independent. They see that it’s important to have your own thoughts.” Lui chips in, “On one hand China has been one country that’s done the best in equalising everyone to some extent. People’s lives are getting better. But there are problems with the way it’s being done and the consequences. The Chinese haven’t got used to money yet. They want to show off, to show people what they've got. CEOs of companies are in their 20s and 30s. They start a company, they make money. The Chinese mentality-change is one of the fastest in the world, because of the way modern China has started itself up.” “The economy is changing very fast. But society changes slowly,” says Wang. Ye says, “My parents went through the hunger, when they didn’t have enough to eat. That’s why what they want for me is the best: comfort, a husband. When my generation has its kids, it’ll be different.”

    While women are regarded as valuable only within the domestic sphere, where their labour can be exploited for free, domestic duties are regarded as demeaning for men to do. “If a man is a stay at home dad, people think he doesn’t have what it takes to go out into the world and support the family. It’s about saving face,” says Zhang. “In Chinese TV shows the man is always rich, tall, successful and the woman is obedient and subservient.”

    “There are a lot of social barriers,” Ye agrees when I balk at the idea of individual women changing themselves in order to somehow evade, circumvent, win out against or contend with endemically antiwomen structures, judgements, customs, stereotypes and activities. “We can’t change the outside of society very fast but within our generation and the next we can change the policy-makers of the future. There’s only so much one person can do, but if everyone plays their part you can change a lot.” However, the barriers to equality and liberation are high. “You are discriminated against as a single woman,” says Ye. “Single women are barred from adoption. Sometimes a woman will choose her family over her career. Or she’ll choose her career. But women aren’t allowed to be both.” Yolanda Wang’s company asked one of her female colleagues to sign a piece of paper promising that she wouldn’t get pregnant for two years. “We never hear about men’s work-life balance, only women’s. And you’re judged badly whatever you choose,” she says. Maggie Zhang adds, “We have to educate not only women but also men, who are under huge pressure to be successful.”

    Alicia Lui believes that Sheryl Sandberg’s inspiring talk and book have “raised issues which enable us to have more open conversations about [sexism]. Lean In was a catalyst. It said to women, if you really feel you have a need for something you have to raise your hand and ask for it.”

    Ye believes the movement is a chance for women to look at their lives afresh: “Before you change anyone’s life you have to change the way they see themselves. We have high rates of employment for women here, but sometimes women are happy with less demanding hours and less pay, because it means they still have time to do all their family duties. I believed all that too – until I was brave enough to say that that was not what I want. Once people see alternatives then they can begin to lean in and change their lives. We want to help women pursue their own definition of success, help them when they’re young and share stories of other women’s lives so they see themselves in these women.”

    Lean In Beijing derives its momentum and power from its focus on co-operation between women. “Why do women judge each other?” says Allison Ye. “We don’t have that tradition of women helping women.” “We support each other to take the next step,” says Alicia Lui, “but starting something requires the other side to response. I argued with my mum [who put pressure on me to marry] and now she’s coming to understand my thinking. Each of us has a personal stake in Lean In Beijing because these issues affect us personally.”

    Yolanda Wang says, “At my first Lean In Beijing meeting I realised I’m not on my own, I’m not crazy. Women are so honest, so encouraging, they push you to change things. For women it’s very hard to be their real self. Who they are now is who their family wants them to be, who society wants them to be. The cliché was that the only thing between girls was jealousy. But that’s not true. It’s so good to see girls who say to each other, ‘I like you because you’re awesome.’”

    For a full list of my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here.

    Monday, 20 October 2014

    WHY: What's happening for the young? A new festival at the Southbank, launching Thursday

    Children and young people stand up for their rights at a new Southbank Centre festival, running from Thursday 23 to Sunday 26 October 2014

    WHY? What’s Happening for the Young will take over the entire site for four packed days of talks, debates, performances, free participatory events and workshops exploring all aspects of the current protection and promotion of children and young people’s rights in the UK.

    Programmed in consultation with over a hundred individuals, organisations and figureheads, WHY? brings together the voices of children and adults of different backgrounds and experiences to explore what it means to be a child today. The festival is an opportunity for policy makers, social workers, families, children of all ages and their schools to immerse themselves in fundamental questions about childhood today. Inspired by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the topics covered include politics, young people’s access to culture, immigration, career advice and sex education

    • A chance for children to make political banners and learn protest songs before taking to the Southbank Centre streets to participate in the BIG PROTEST for children’s rights (Thursday 23).
    • Events with leading policy-makers, figureheads, teachers and artists including: Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England; writer and Kids Company Director, Camila Batmanghelidjh CBE; classical musician and organiser of Channel 4’s ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ campaign, James Rhodes; Coronation Street star, Charlie Condou; actor and director, Femi Oyeniran who starred in Adulthood and Kidulthood and artist, banner-maker, Ed Hall. The voice of children and young people will be at the heart of WHY?,with many of the discussion panels including at least one child or young adult.
    • An interactive session led by UNICEF for adults and children to openly discuss and explore the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Friday 24).
    • Bryony Kimmings’ That Catherine Bennett Show – an interactive show for families challenging today’s role models for eight-year-old girls (Saturday 25 – Tuesday 28).
    • Pondling   a family comedy play with Best Actress (Dublin Fringe Festival 2013) Genevieve Hulme-Beaman about the confusing troubles of a growing little girl. (Friday 24 - Saturday 25).
    • Devoted and Disgruntled event focused on arts and sports in education (Saturday 25 & Sunday 26).
    • Hungry Childhoods – an exhibition of artwork by children and young people experiencing chronic hunger and food insecurity (a partnership by The Kids Company and Ella’s Kitchen.) 
    Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of Southbank Centre, said:
    “All too often children and young people’s rights and creativity are sidelined so at WHY? What’s Happening for the Young? we seek to provide an open platform for urgent conversations about how the needs and ideas of children and young people can be properly included in the world. In this country we no longer take seriously the adage ‘children should be seen not heard’, and we don’t send youngsters up chimneys or down mines or into the mills or fields to earn their keep. With the number of toys, games and clothes aimed at the children’s market other societies might even accuse us of becoming too indulgent of children’s perceived tastes. However, we know from research that too many children don’t experience basic levels of happiness or a sense of belonging. They suffer from pressures at school, online and from notions of ‘fitting in’ that can cause real worry or sadness for them – and too many children still have to deal with violence and neglect inside the home. Once they reach teenage years they are often expected to behave like adults, but without enough support.”
    Barbara Reeves, Partner in sponsor Mishcon de Reya's Family Practice, said: 
    "This festival will provide a forum for children, young people and adults to debate, probe and question ideas around children’s rights and raise awareness, an issue that we feel extremely passionate about. Our objective is to put children – specifically their wishes, needs and wellbeing – at the forefront during parental disputes and separation. As a nation, we rarely consult children on issues that impact, shape and influence their lives. At Mishcon, we believe it's important to lead a national debate about this critical issue."
    Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, said:
    “I don’t ‘campaign’ in my role as Children’s Commissioner for England but I have a legal duty to promote and protect children’s rights, so I am delighted that the Southbank Centre, one of the country’s best known arts centres, is championing children and young people’s rights.”

    For further details click here.

    All text and images (c) Southbank Centre

    Saturday, 18 October 2014

    China Flash: Film-maker Jenny Man Wu on contemporary Chinese women’s wit, pain and ambivalence

    This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing, where I am currently doing a stint as Deputy Editor.

    Jenny Man Wu is a film-making powerhouse, describing her work as “soul led, not fantastical or abstract” and “inspired by a European arthouse sensibility in terms of the acceptance of the director as an auteur, rather than the Hollywood sensibility where a producer is the most important person and decides on the cast, the setting, the marketing and the distribution. It’s not important to me to make a million dollar movie. I want to continue to make low-budget movies where I have the right to do what I want, to show to and influence a certain small number of people. When I consider the price and sacrifice a director needs to pay to have a high budget cinema-style movie, I can say no to that. And if you’re making movies that you want to be screened in China you have to submit to censorship from the government.”

    Over the course of four punchy short films, Man Wu has garnered international attention within just a few years of graduating from her studies in screenwriting and literature at Beijing Film Academy. Some Sort of Loneliness, A Choice (Maybe Not), Crime Scene and Last Words, all produced between 2012 and 2013, feature women in the throes of tragicomic contemporary despair. “It all starts with very little things, small daily situations,” says Man Wu. “Then I start to describe them, to look at them from a different angle.” In A Choice (Maybe Not), two young women are in a coffee shop, “and one of the girls is a little bit OCD about the choices she makes. She doesn’t want coffee. She doesn’t want lemonade. The beer is overpriced. The wine’s been open for two days. It's a comedy but it’s really about the pressure on women to choose. Women in the olden days almost never walked out of the house alone – and now we have all these choices, it seems. But there are so many choices it's hard to tell if you've made the right one or not. And sometimes when you're forced to make a big decision it's easy to put it down to fate, to the inevitable or the subconscious.”

    Last Words, a monologue which Man Wu acted in herself, examines the notion of choice in a far darker way. “It’s a stream of consciousness, a woman talking about suicide and presenting her last words. She’s thinking about something [abusive] that happened in her childhood. The core of the film is not about how she develops her obsession with suicide but her recent experience of domestic violence, her struggle with her parents and the restraint she’s experienced from her father. It’s about how a female wants to have a different kind of life, about her struggle against patriarchy and disappointment and her desperation about her future. She feels that suicide is the only thing that she can do because she’s a perfectionist and an idealist – and these beliefs make her suffer all the more. At the end, she looks into the camera and asks, If I kill myself, does it mean I’ve surrendered to the world?”

    Man Wu is committed to focusing on the issue of gender in China. “I have a political view about gender in general and that comes through in my work. Gender issues are political issues. I have a responsibility: I understand how it is overseas and how it is in Beijing and feel I must connect the two, to show that women could be living in so many different ways. We had a women’s revolution in China in the 1920s but all this did was release free female labour into the market.” In giving voice to the ambivalence, pain and wit of her women characters, Man Wu points out that she is going against society’s assumption that “women’s feelings and emotions are small and not political.”

    When it comes to gender, Man Wu “can’t say it’s going backwards. It’s very complicated, how [society] sees single women. It’s related to capital and economics. It’s also that under the one child policy, girls do feel cherished within their family, they are insulated and protected from the frustrations of gender inequality at a personal level, so many don’t understand why they should fight for their rights. But it’s important to recognise that a lot of the problems in daily life are actually related to gender. For example I know of a young woman at school who wasn’t a virgin. But she was with a new boyfriend and to pretend to be a virgin, she put some [red] colour in herself – and the colour wouldn’t wash off the guy! And this was presented as a big joke by the guy’s friends. But there’s a double standard: girls really are expected to be virgins.”

    Man Wu was selected to show at the 2013 Beijing Independent Film Festival, has just got back from the high profile Elles Tournent Film Festival in Brussels and is currently directing the Beijing Queer Film Festival, which will be running at various venues across town until December. However, both the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the Beijing Queer Film festival have both been shut down by the authorities on their launch dates in the past. One typically clever strategy for circumventing this possibility has been to screen films on special buses driving around the city; yet another example of the ingenuity which has developed in China as a response to the caprices and controls of those in power.

    “I can’t leave Beijing,” vows Man Wu. “A lot of things are happening here. I see the changes and they’re not always good. It’s sad to see old buildings being demolished, places becoming more commercial. It’s always good and bad – but that’s what makes the world interesting. As Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’”

    To read my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here or explore some of the links below:

    Wednesday, 15 October 2014

    Sunday, 12 October 2014

    Beijing night

    Click to enlarge. Image (c) Cherry Li

    This photograph was taken by my amazing flatmate Cherry Li. She's based across LA, Beijing and Paris but works internationally. The above was her version of a snapshot - one picture in one millisecond. Such is her eye, it just happens to look like a sumptuous film still. Check out her fine art, lifestyle, fashion and travel photography here and drool over her food photography here. And check out her other big hobby here (that's Cherry in the video):

    To read my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here or explore some of the links below:

    Another China rumour

    The worst rumour I've heard so far here in Beijing is that they put cow piss in milk to make it taste stronger. It's worse than the thought that I might have eaten cat-on-a-stick when tempted by streetside barbecue carts on the way home at night. The other, pretty plausible rumour, is that RMB paper currency only goes up to a 100RMB bill (ten quid) to deter embezzlement and corruption: if you're trying to hand over one million RMB for some dodgy fake goods....that's a lot of 100RMB bills. You wouldn't be able to carry it easily, nor could you conceal it well.

    To read my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here or explore some of the links below:

    Tuesday, 7 October 2014

    China Flash: Benedicte Bro-Cassard, Beijing fashion photographer, on the Chinese luxury market, sugar daddies and sugar daughters

    This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing.

    Archive: Marpessa by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard

    Bénédicte Bro-Cassard is fashion. Occasionally going by the pseudonym Gabrielle Bonheur (an in-joke for fashionisti - Gabrielle Bonheur was Coco Chanel’s formal name), Bro-Cassard is the brains and eye behind the style site Fearless In Beijing. Fearless combines stingingly hip street shots of the highly styled, label-toting girls of Sanlitun with fresh profiles of new designers and sharp commentary on modern China and modern fashion, boosted by all the wisdom gleaned from her thirty year fashion history in New York, London and Paris. Fearless In Beijing currently features in Le Monde, Vogue China, Louis Vuitton’s City Guide and mega Chinese tech site Sina.

    The roaring 1980s, Alaia and his 'best girls'
    by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
    Whether it’s scouting beautiful girls on the Chinese capital’s streets, covering the kitsch wedding photography industry, hunting down hilarious fakes or finding forgotten rolls of classic supermodel shots in her basement, discovery is the name of Bro-Cassard’s game. Beijing is soon to enjoy two exhibitions of around fifty of Bro-Cassard’s photographs both from her current Beijing adventures and her 1980s student days at Parisian fashion school Studio Bercot, when she hung out at the ateliers of Alaia, Montana and Dior, shooting the designers and models clowning, preening, draping and creating. I ask why Bro-Cassard almost never features herself in these images and she’s adamant: “I have four hundred pictures from my early days and there’s only one shot of me. It’s with a camera in front of my face, in a refection in a make-up table, when I was shooting one of the girls. I’d have my picture taken with my friends who were supermodels, they’d look at it and marvel, ‘Wow. You reject the light.’”

    The images are notable for their classiness, the womanliness of the models and the sense of maturity, camaraderie and sleek but unexploited hedonism they exude. Some of the prints have been eroded and nibbled in at the edges by time, but the women are as chic as ever. As Bro-Cassard tells me, “Back then the cabine [the stable of models] was incredibly diverse and not so white on white as it is now, and the 'girls' were aged 17 – or 16 in the case of Stephanie Seymour – up to 34 and older, like Mounia, Janice [Dickinson] or Alva [Chinn], even pushing 40 like [Farah] Zulaikha – and 40 was pushing back hard. I have pictures of Grace Jones and Azzedine Alaia and the supermodels of 1985 playing around backstage. It was truly different then.”

    Archive: Katoucha by
    Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
    From those early days in Paris, Bro-Cassard moved to New York where she spent fifteen years as a fashion manager, stylist and sales executive for the likes of Romeo Gigli, Fendi and Anna Molinari, “Back in the days before Sex and the City became a documentary and no longer something to laugh at for entertainment.” Next came a move to London, where Bro-Cassard was in charge of international buyers for London Fashion Week. Among her clients were commercialism-savvy design wunderkind Christopher Kane and the crisp, clever Boudicca. A move back to Paris saw her working as a fashion consultant for the Brazilian government, working with them to develop their fashion industry.

    A change in family circumstances saw her coming to Beijing a few years ago, after a very brief stopover in Geneva, “where fashion goes to die.” In China, Bro-Cassard has witnessed a country in the middle of extreme and rapid transformation: malls springing up on every corner, the breakneck development and expansion of major cities, prestigious French and Italian brands unveiling glossy new boutiques and advertising campaigns, the high taxes on luxury items hardly deterring a young and newly rich populace hungry for everything their parents never had. Bro-Cassard was immediately captivated: “I spent a year studying the streets, going everywhere that there’s a market selling clothes, to find out what the Chinese wear, what makes them tick. And I just fell in love with these girls, because they were so cool. I began documenting the girls and the fashion habits of the young Chinese. They’re free. It’s not even like the Swinging Sixties here. It’s the Roaring Twenties, where money can be made overnight. They party, they have fun, there’s a curiosity. They’re fearless – that’s why I named my site after them.”

    Image from Fearless In Beijing
    by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard

    Image from Fearless In Beijing
    by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
    Bro-Cassard tells me that her appreciation of these young women is genuine. They are not the empty, uncreative consumers they are represented as in the international media. “The gorgeous thing is that they’re never vulgar, never cheap. The [pejorative] fantasy of these young Chinese women is that they are logo hungry, stupid rich girls. But I think they’re more fun, more clever than that. They take more risks. Then I go back to Paris and everyone’s dressed in black.”

    Despite Bro-Cassard's positivity, I’m disturbed by some of the young women I see in Sanlitun. While some are the cool, creative, independent type that can be found in any major city in the world, others are dolls - which I Freudianly mistyped there as 'fools'. They are in designer labels, perfectly coiffed, photo-ready, made up, silent, styled and accessorised, just walking slowly from one end of the Taikoo Li shopping ‘village’ (trans: huge black futuristic mall) to the other. They don’t sweat, even in the roasting 100-degree summer heat. Apparently they have nothing to do, no studies, no work, no projects. They don't talk or laugh with their friends. They mill about, gorgeous and passive, waiting to be noticed, photographed or picked up - and when Bro-Cassard and I stop them to ask for photographs, they offer themselves up as passive objects to be snapped, without a single word. They don’t ask us what blog it is, who’s running it, who’ll be reading it. They don’t tell us anything about themselves as people, nor do they ask questions of us as people, nor do they crack jokes. They’re not confident, they’re not coy, they don’t simper, they don’t frown, they don’t laugh, they down clown around. They simply pose, like hollow plastic mannequins, inert and endlessly compliant. When we ask one girl to pretend to be texting, because we want to get a shot of her iPhone case – Moschino, rubber, styled to looked like a packet of McDonald’s fries, available in the shops maybe only last week – she does, without a word, putting her thumbs to the blank screen and pretending to concentrate. When we say thank you the girls drift away, down the escalators.

    Image from Fearless In Beijing
    by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
    Where did these girls get their money from? Why are they copying their looks wholesale from fashion magazine spreads? What do they do all day? Beijing is the first place I’ve seen teenagers walking on the street wearing real Chanel from head to toe. Who are these girls waiting for, going to or coming home from? “Their daddy, or their boyfriends, or their sugar-daddies,” says Bro-Cassard. We stop another young woman, striding in spindly gold high heels and a long printed chiffon dress, clearly in a rush. “Er – she was late for a date. That she was being paid for,” says Bro-Cassard after quickly snapping a shot.

    She tells me not to judge: “Years ago, nobody had food. Twenty years ago, nobody had money. They’ve had famine, purge, cultural revolution, which is the earth opening up and everyone falling into hell. So there is no concept of nouveau riche. Nobody ever had money. I’ve been to the countryside in China, it’s fucking poor. It’s real, it’s a favela. I went to our ayi’s [maid’s] house, it was 2 rooms, no kitchen, no bathroom, far out of the city beyond the ring road, but it has pictures, it as a light. [Internal] migrant workers are even worse off, they’re like the untouchables in India. In summer they sleep in the streets. In winter they sleep in parking lots. But because it’s China, it’s all behind closed doors. I once wandered into the back corridor of a shopping mall and there were people living there, ayis were sitting knitting.”

    “Whatever money you have, you know that little brass ring is gonna burn your finger sooner or later, so enjoy it while you can. Of 1.4 billion people, only a tiny amount will make it. Because they are so scared, they know they can lose it at any moment. So these girls live to spend. And they have no religion, although the government is beginning to address that: how do you give values to a society that has no value except money? As far as these girls are concerned, they’ve made it.” Bro-Cassard reminds me, “This is the first generation that gets to dress how they please. They are expressing themselves with their clothes. Their mothers were raised by their grandmothers, who looked like their grandfathers.”

    Image from Fearless In Beijing
    by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
    "One thing I’ve realised, living here," she says, “is that if someone seems rich, he’s even ten times richer than you think. Imagine, you’re a young woman, your father was just a farmer. He sold his land for a factory to be built on it, now he’s worth so much.”

    Despite this sudden spike in wealth creation, I balk at the gender politics and power structures of the newly moneyed world and the way it has warped girls’ and women’s lives and led to such demeaning survival strategies. “Men have the power here,” states Bro-Cassard. “Girls hang out looking for sugar daddies. This is the second-largest market for plastic surgery in the world, after Brazil. Their mentality is that they need somebody to pay for their life. If you’ve come from poverty and suddenly your boyfriend or father gives you a credit card with no limit, you burn through it.”

    China Flash: Kong Lingnan, Beijing painter, on natural beauty and human ugliness

    This is an expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing.

    O Brambles, O Brambles, by Kong Lingnan (2012)
    Indulgence is hardly what one would associate with the prolific, rigorous artist Kong Lingnan, who lives and works in a chic warehouse space in the 318 International Art Village, a Beijing zone so cutting edge and (literally) far out that it’s still being constructed by hard-hatted, belly-baring builders. Kong’s visually stunning large-scale paintings replicate the eerie, sexy effect of neon tubing. “I was trying [unsuccessfully] to draw portraits, until one day I saw a neon light in front of my window, glowing in the darkness, spelling out the Chinese character for ‘spoil’ or ‘indulge’, and it struck me as funny.”

    Unnatural, electric neon proved to be Kong’s natural language, the one she uses “to describe the world.” That world contains equal parts terror and beauty. Her style has developed from epic landscapes in which tiny humans are caught up in scenes of male violence (particularly male sexual violence against women), natural disasters and accidental devastation to globular, seemingly abstract images where a bird’s-eye view of islands resembles amorphous biological cells. “I don’t want to be narrative at all. I want to describe a state,” she explains.

    Over the last five years Kong’s work has made her an art market must-have, a favourite face in Vogue magazine (when photographer Peter Lindbergh recommended her to Vogue China’s Editor in Chief Angelica Cheung following a group art show with Kong), a collaborator with the Chinese fashion label JBNY and the headliner of a solo exhibition, Beach, at Beijing’s Gallery Yang in the 798 Art District, which ends on 10th October.

    When I point out the sinister elements of her work and the conflict they portray between nature and the human world, Kong agrees: “I am very sceptical about all the things we’ve built. Our culture, our moral standards, our religions. We’re building, building, building – and coexisting with nature. A human is just a tiny creature. We can be strong, but also very fragile.”

    To read my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here or explore some of the links below: