Razing Valuable History for Kitsch & Pastiche

There seems to be an epidemic in many parts of the world. I am not sure why exactly, but there is a prevalent belief amongst up and coming global cities, that their cultural history is an impediment to economic prosperity and progress. This however, cannot be further from the truth. Too many times, it is only after they have wiped the slate clean that they realize what a unique resource they once had. I have noticed this development repeatedly across many cities and countries around the world. Even more puzzling to me is the absolute refusal of these respective cities to learn from other past examples; cities like Beijing.

Over the past few years, the Chinese government has pursued an aggressive policy of destroying their centuries old hutongs to make room for wider roads and generic looking skyscrapers. Now more recently, with the upcoming Beijing Olympics - China's debutante ball, the Qianmen District which dates to before the Ming Dynasty is being replaced with a new and improved and shinier version - or so says the Communist Party chief, Lui Qi. Since 2005, large sections of this historic residential and commercial neighborhood located near Tienanmen Square have been cleared of residents and demolished. In its place Soho China, a real estate developer has started construction on a Disneyland-like re-creation of the mixed-use buildings that once were. Pastiche and kitsch will replace history. This apparently has become China's version of historic preservation. According to the Financial Times (FT), less than 500 of the 3,000 ancient alleys Beijing flaunted in the 1980's have survived.

Instead of taking the necessary time to conserve and renovate this incredible architectural heritage, China in a rush to show its pollution-free, sparkling clean, technicolor new face to the world in August 2008, has chosen to rebuild these buildings with all the benefits of modern construction and technology with a historic or traditional-looking style. Quoted in the FT, conservationist and resident Zhang Wei describes it best. "Qianmen was 600 years old, but now its culture has been reset to zero."

Main road of the Qianmen District - a construction site in October 2007
(Archery Tower in the distance) Image taken by Kelly Layton
What many of these governments, like that in China, overlook is that their own history can be a powerful revenue generator. The 'experience economy' has become a driving factor in tourism, commerce and entertainment. More and more people around the world are searching for and willing to pay premiums for that unique enriching experience. Travelers, tourists and entrepreneurs have become much more savvy and discerning, and nothing can replace authenticity. If China continues to replace its history with pastiche re-creations, Beijing and Epcot's China Pavilion will start to look indistinguishable.

There are also ethical reasons to protect such buildings. Governments in such extraordinary haste to transform, destroy centuries of legacy and history and deprive all future generations of the grandeur and history that once was. These structures are a part of our shared human history and experience.

The Olympics only last just two and a half weeks and on August 24, 2008, it will all be over and the mass of international crowds will leave Beijing - but forever, this history will be lost.

Original drawing of what became the historic Guanghe Theatre (the oldest opera house in Beijing and thought to be the origins of Peking Opera) built during the final stages of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The opera house was destroyed in May 2007 to be replaced with a new version.

For more information, here are some other articles on the Qianmen District:
"The human cost of the Games" by Clifford Coonan
"The oven that roasted 115m Peking ducks has gone, but the fire burns on" by Jane Macartney
"Beijing Loses Soul to Wrecking Ball" by Robert Saiget
"Theater built in Ming Dynasty to be Demolished"


Dumbing Down Art and Culture for Americans?

Does art and culture and history need to be dumbed down for American consumption? I have some suspicions each time I watch the paltry national and international news coverage on television. But having lived in New York for so many years, one of the premier cultural capitals of the world, I could just as easily have argued otherwise. Well, until this past weekend. Last Sunday, I visited the Terracotta Warriors exhibition at the Bowers Museum in Orange County, California. And now I am pondering this question more then ever.

Let me preface this blog entry, by saying that I was beside myself with excitement, when I realized that this exhibition was going to make its way to California. It was for me, I thought, an opportunity to get a rare glimpse of history, to learn more about my mother's culture, to see first hand what is commonly known as the eighth wonder of the world. The magnitude of this exhibition was highlighted by the president of the Bowers Museum, Peter Keller when he said, "This upcoming United States' tour of the First Emperor's Terracotta Army is of historic proportions. No previous exhibit from China has ever been allowed to include more then 20 'level one' objects. We are bringing 52 'level one' objects." (In China, a panel of experts have a system which rates arts and antiquities in relation to their importance to China. Those with the greatest significance to China are graded level one and the number of those objects that can be out of the country at one time are highly restricted).**

Upon entering the actual exhibition itself, each visitor at the Bowers Museum is given portable player with an audio guide that specifically addresses each figure or item on display. All we had to do was punch in the corresponding number into the player and listen. Since the tickets were rather pricey, the audio tour was free.

It is this audio tour that has triggered my current speculation. Where shall I begin? Well, I did learn a few things from it. There was a commentary that gave some modest insights into the history of China and the life of the First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi and the making of the terracotta warriors. But generally, I found it quite unbearable to listen to (not to mention mildly insulting) because with the commentary, they decided to include some utterly useless narrative supposedly from the various figures on display. Each had different roles, as identified by their attire and stature (eg. soldiers, musicians, strongman, courtiers, etc). Some actor (I am guessing) with a stereotypical affected Chinese accent very poorly attempted to bring these figures to life. For example, 'one of the warriors' described on the audio tour, how their well designed weapons had saved their bacon many times in combat.

Unable to actually play the audio tour here, it is difficult for me to fully convey this aural farce and so I liken the experience to this - it would be like going to a museum to see African American art with an audio tour given in Ebonics by a suburbanite without any descriptions and analysis of much substance. Not only did I find the narrative in the audio tour an insult to my intelligence, I also found it culturally insensitive.

Now if this exhibition of the Terracotta warriors had not first been at the British Museum, I would have chalked this experience up as odd and left it at that. However, now I have a comparison point. The British Museum too had an audio tour. From all the reviews I have read and heard from visitors' accounts, it seems that their audio program was insightful and enlightening. It was narrated by the British Museum director Neil McGregor and included an interview with Jane Portal, the senior curator of Asian art at the British Museum, who not only has written a couple of books on the First Emperor and the terracotta warriors, but was critical in bringing the exhibition from China to the British Museum.

Now with this as the precedent, why would the Bowers Museum not borrow this material or do something similar? Why spend two million dollars to bring one of the greatest archaeological finds in the 20th century to California and not provide the most enlightening experience you can to your visitors? Having spent close to $30 a ticket, I would have not have expected a cartoon-like narration as my guide. Which leads me back to my original question - as to the necessity of dumbing down for American consumption.

Journalist and author, Susan Jacoby, whose latest book is "The Age of American Unreason," wrote in the Washington Post that not only are Americans suffering from a lack of knowledge, there is a certain arrogance and nonchalance about this lack of knowledge. But surely the people she is writing about, are not the people who paid top dollar to wait in a never-ending line to view this exhibition, to learn about the history and culture of another country. Or is it that in this MTV, You-Tube generation, the American attention span has become so limited that it can only tolerate sound bites interspersed with mindless animation? I guess this time, only the curators of Bowers Museum will have an answer for me.

*The top two images were taken from the Bowers Museum website. The latter two are from the British museum. The last image of the terracotta warriors exhibition at the British Museum.
** This quote was taken from the National Geographic website.


Paris, my Love, we will be together soon....

It is hard for me to sit still in one location. The urge to travel, explore, to thrust myself in foreign and sometimes disconcerting environments consumes me fairly often. Unfortunately, a lack of time and funds does not always make it conducive to fulfill of these urges. During these times, I vicariously live through the shows on the Travel Channel and through the travels of my friends and family. These days, I have been experiencing the world through the eyes (and photographs) of my sister.

There are certain cities in the world that somehow, unknowingly they seep under your skin and become a part of you. Paris, for me is one of those cities. I first visited Paris as a child with my parents and baby sister during my summer vacation. I have some distinct memories of that trip, but most of it is rather hazy. I rediscovered Paris, as a college student, on the cusp of adulthood. Since then I have returned repeatedly- each time in search of love, career, inspiration or solace.
And during those odd times, I did not find what I was looking for in Paris, well then there was always the sidewalk cafes, the bistros, brasseries, bakeries and all that good food....


A Toast to Mixed Race Global Babies and Everyone in Between

Picture by Emmauel Dunand
Amongst my inner or outer circle, it has been no secret that I am a big Barack Obama supporter. This past Tuesday evening, I sat in front of the television, glued to the screen as Obama's delegate count continued to rise. At around 7PM (PST), I watched with many others in the U.S. and around the world, history in the making as the first ever mixed-race, third culture kid (TCK, or 'global baby,' as I like to call it) became the Democratic nominee for president.

Of course, that term was not used by the media. In the U.S., the focus was on how he is the first African-American candidate to become leader of a major political party (Democrat or Republican). That is a gargantuan feat - made all the more poignant by the fact that on August 28th, 2008 when Obama officially receives the Democratic nomination at the convention in Colorado, it will be exactly 45 years to the day that Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I have a dream" speech. The magnitude and import of this moment could not be more pronounced. In this world, so filled with racial, ethnic divisions, another wall has finally been torn down.

My initial interest in Obama arose from the fact that he, like me, is a product of multiple cultures, ethnicities and is bi-racial. He has lived internationally as a child (which is what defines a TCK) - and as a result his message has always been more encompassing. I don't think any other candidate has peaked such interest and admiration globally. For some, he was the underdog whose father was from a third-world country - and that garnered him a lot of support around the world.

Although, not frequently mentioned, Obama is also part white. He has a half Asian sister. His entire family is such a blend of cultures, religions and ethnicities, that so many people, can see a part of them in his success. For the first time for me, someone with a globally mixed hodgepodge background like mine is a stone's throw from becoming the leader of the world's most powerful country. That gives me reason to celebrate and hope. After 8 years of purgatory, we will finally be free of George W. Bush's hostile and narrow-sighted "us versus them" cowboy diplomacy as he exits the White House and rides off into the Texan sunset. And in its place, we will have with Obama, greater global cooperation and understanding and - eloquence!

In the Los Angeles Times today, in an article on international perspectives on Obama's nomination - they wrote, "For many, Obama's rise is a global event regardless of the outcome in November." Quoting David Lammy, a British lawmaker, they wrote, "I'm hugely aware of what his achievements mean for the wider world, way beyond America." The editorial of the Khaleej Times, very aptly described it when they wrote "If McCain is America's past, Obama is its future."