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Letters against Separation – Nikita Yingqian Cai in Guangzhou

A couple days ago, I clicked open a short email from Aileen and Johan on the one-hour subway ride from home to work, and I was a little shocked to learn that “Right now it is looking like New Zealand will keep their borders shut for a couple of years (with the exception of Australian).” Aileen and Johan are the directors of Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth. We’ve been corresponding on a regular basis about the touring exhibition of Candice Lin coproduced by the Times Museum, Spike Island, and Govett-Brewster. The domestic lockdown and the closing of national borders have disrupted the schedule of the tour, and what was supposed to be the first presentation—at the Times Museum (from March 21 to May 24, 2020)—has been postponed to 2021. Aileen and Johan are optimistic about installing the exhibition without Candice’s presence and plan to keep the original opening date in August this year. I had been looking forward to visiting New Zealand if the international lockdown got lifted in the coming months, so I could get a physical sense of the installations that connect the artist’s material experiment with the audience’s bodily experience. I was eager to find out how Candice’s critical interrogation would be implemented and perceived in a challenging situation like this. The news from Aileen and Johan has just dismissed this possibility.

This exhibition has a particular meaning in a time of pandemic. When I drafted the first sentence of the curatorial statement in the first week of January this year, I had no idea that it would become a prophecy: “2019 seemed to be the recurrence of a plague year which has haunted human history since medieval times. Regardless of the scale of the epidemics and how they are now domesticated as primary security issues for most modern nation states, diseases related to virus spread between human and animals are still referred to as the ‘Black Death’…” One outstanding structure of Candice’s cinematic setting is a wooden trebuchet filling the space almost to the ceiling. It’s swinging arm seems to be stationary and not threatening, yet people are invited to slip on the plague doctor’s helmet and cloak, and put on VR goggles to experience the launching of decomposing body parts in 3D virtual reality. The nightmarish scenario refers to the the Siege of Caffa in 1346, which occurred during the Black Death plague. The complex installation connects the historical context with the status quo, where the long history of infectious disease is still permeated by racialized fantasy and the many colonial narratives constructed around it.

The conceptualization of the artist’s research, the fabrication of the objects, and the circulation of the exhibition manifest the global chain of production that has been taken as normal in the art world: Candice paid a visit to Guangzhou last year, which situated her research on the opium and coolie trade with the treaty port history of the city; then she experimented and produced the “decomposing body parts” as sculptural pieces in her studio in Los Angeles; as an institution specializing in technical and exhibition services, Spike Island in Bristol took care of the fabrication drawings of the trebuchet, which would be adapted by the two other institutions; all three partners split the cost of production and transportation, and would eventually benefit from the expanded bandwidth of international publicity. All of these seemed to be in good place before the pandemic put on hold bodily and material flows across borders. It is a dilemma that we all have to recognize in the corona ecology: once sovereign borders are redefined for national security reasons, who or what is allowed to travelled will become a new form of demarcation. After years of speculating on the post-human and the material turn, the global traffic of things might indeed survive the pandemic, but human migration may not. Are we really ready to forgo the inter-human, temporal-spatial intimacy that grounds our cosmopolitan imaginations?

Borders and barricades existed long before the emergence of Covid-19. I still remember the anxiety of applying for visas to the Netherlands, Turkey, the UK, and Russia within a single month as part of the requirements to participate in de Appel’s curatorial program. It is almost funny now to recall my European colleagues’ fascination with my diverse visa sticker collection. 2009 was the geopolitical pinnacle of the former east, in my younger mind. I had doubts about my qualifications for being part of the rest-west artworld, as I was not free to travel. Ivan Krastev referenced Ken Jowitt’s post–Cold War metaphor of “a singles bar of a kind” in her essay “Majoritarian Futures”: “This is a world rich in experience, but it does not lend itself to stable identities and it does not engender loyalties. Not surprisingly, as a reaction, we see the return of the barricade as the desired border. It is exactly this transition—from the disconnected world of the 1990s to the barricaded world emerging today—that has changed the role performed by democratic regimes. It replaces democracy as a regime favouring the emancipation of minorities with democracy as a political regime that secures the power of majorities.”1

My rich experience of being able to pass through the sliding door of the global art world provides me with a sense of relational criticality and self-reflexivity. I’m more aware than before of the privilege of being minorities, of being able to enjoy the celebrated moments of transnational friendship and loyalty, the emancipatory powers of after-midnight encounters in strange new places, the warm-hearted chats in the corner of an after party, the genuine face-to-face conversation with someone who stays past the Q&A section of a talk…We embark on journeys to refresh our personal identity and ideological backdrop, to get lost on the ground, to be confronted by others and relate to one another in an imagined community. After digesting the message from Aileen and Johan, I stepped out of the subway station and crossed the buzzling street in front of the Times Museum. Am I ready to tell our new curatorial intern that such prospects won’t be promised for their generation that emerges after the end of the current crisis?

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1 Ivan Krastev, “Majoritarian Futures,” Dublin Review of Books , May 1, 2017 .

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Schools have been closed for almost four months by now, and kids are getting used to exploring the unknown mostly from within the domestic world. Adhering to a schedule is a daily battle that most parents are familiar with in these seemingly endless holidays. In our house, philosophical moments happen during bath time, and I enjoy expanding some of these improvised conversations with my seven-year-old boy into nascent thinking about our existential status.

Last night, Danko stepped out of the bathtub unwillingly when I told him we might have to cut down on some of the story-reading time if he stayed in there any longer. Instead of the usual resistance, he responded to my request by asking, “Why does time never stop for me?” I paused for a second and figured that it was probably too early to tell him about the theory of relativity, so I offered to map out the possible scenarios where time could stop. Danko told me about a cartoon he loves in which Santa Claus runs out of time to deliver Christmas presents, so some kids decide to tie the hands of a clock together, to buy Santa more time. I told him that while the virus is spreading wildly across continents and oceans, every day feels more or less the same in our little lockdown, our “peach blossom spring” ( Tao Hua Yuan ) that is shielded from the passage of time. I surprised myself by uttering this Daoist metaphor, revealing my cosmological reconciliation to the temporality of containment. Peach Blossom Spring is one of those canonical pieces of literature that every Chinese kid has to learn in school. It was written by Tao Qian (365–427) and is about a fisherman’s journey into a paradisical grotto where the old and the young, men and women, humans and animals live in harmony with each other. This mysterious grotto has inspired generations of Chinese writers. It references to Daoist conceptualization of time, which counsels a posture of meditative noninterference towards the forces of nature and the cosmic order.

There are a lot of English editions of Peach Blossom Spring available online, and the translated titles vary widely. I will quoting from a popular translation by Lin Yutang, who got a doctoral scholarship to Harvard University in the early twentieth century and excelled in the English translation of classic Chinese texts. Lin transalted the title as The Peach Colony. In this colony, the villagers told the fisherman that

their ancestors had come here as refugees to escape from the tyranny of Tsin Shih-huang (builder of Great Wall) some six hundred years ago, and they had never left it. They were thus completely cut off from the world, and asked what was the ruling dynasty now. They had not even heard of the Han Dynasty (two centuries before to two centuries after Christ), not to speak of the Wei (third century A.D.) and the Chin (third and fourth centuries).

After the fisherman returned to the outside world,

He went to the magistrate’s office and told the magistrate about it. The latter sent someone to go with him and find the place. They looked for the signs but got lost and could never find it again. Liu Tsechi of Nanyang was a great idealist. He heard of this story, and planned to go and find it, but was taken ill and died before he could fulfill his wish. Since then, no one has gone in search of this place.

When I reread the piece after so many years, I was drawn to the apolitical dimension of Tao’s utopia. It defies the utopian impulse eloquently described by Fredric Jameson. The residents of Peach Colony embrace a reclusive attitude towards the shifting winds of politics and ideology. There is no revolution or evolution in the colony. It is never meant to be discovered by visitors. This contrasts strongly with Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopian projection in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. At the end of this story, a group of idealists decide to walk away from the brutality of the city of happiness:

Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

The story ends with the emergence of political awareness and individual resistance, which goes all the way back to the Kantian dialectic. Le Guin’s utopia is not necessarily an anarchist one, because the story of Omelas starts with a procession that is clearly a public display of order. Be it a ritual in the traditional sense or a spectacle constructed by a state, its performative power serves to shape upcoming social transformations. The impetus for such transformations always comes from a single source of sin, which is either the inhumane treatment of a child, or, as in our current situation, the appearance of a virus with evil origins. One can also read Le Guin’s utopia as an epistemological analogy about the West’s obsession with trauma, catharsis, and the dichotomy of evil and good. By the same token, The Peach Colony can be read as an epistemological analogy about the East’s voluntarily compliance with the status quo.

On 23 March 2020, philosopher Byung-Chul Han wrote an essay titled “We Cannot Surrender Reason to the Virus” in Die Welt. He attributes the successful containment of the coronavirus in Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, and China to Asian people’s Confucianist beliefs and their obedient and submissive trust in the state. But as the scholar An Lan Zhang has written, “For Confucians, the response to the quick passing of life’s experiences involves social and personal responsibilities to family and ruler, a future orientation. For Daoist practice, the sense of time is a social attempt to domesticate the infinite, to give the impression of timelessness.”1 I will probably leave it to Danko to decide what kind of utopia is more desirable when he is ready to read both stories himself. For now, I’ll settle for retreiving a piece of long-repressed Daoist wisdom in order to resolve a minor domestic inquiry from my son, and I’ll let my attention drift away from the intensification of state sovereignty, towards a non-confrontational meditation upon our time.

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1An Lan Zhang, “Timelessness in Chinese Poetry and Friendship,” in Time, Consciousness and Writing: Peter Malekin Illuminating the Divine Darkness , eds. Robert Eddy and Theo Malekin (Koninklijke Brill, 2018), 198.

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Last week, I had a short online meeting with my colleague Bei, who is the director of Times Art Center Berlin. We decided to extend Zhou Tao’s solo till summer, when art institutions in Berlin are allowed to reopen. Bei wanted to know what we had done so far to ensure a safe environment for the staff and for the public, and she asked me how many cases have been confirmed in Guangzhou since January. I told her that according to the official statistics it’s under four hundred, not including the asymptomatic patients. She has access to all the information we can process from within China but probably didn’t expect the number would be so low considering that the city has a population of fifteen million. Nor can I tell right away what are the current statistics for Berlin, even though I have had a particular connection with the city in the past few years. When a crisis situation emerges like the spread of Covid-19, we actively seek out information in order to understand what is happening, but it has also taken more time, energy, and even money to gather the information. As a result, we become even more ignorant of facts that are not pertinent for our current well-being, and become confined to the community you identify with and the society you are living in.

The cost of gathering, analyzing, synthesizing, and verifying information has increased substantially since people were informed about the outbreak in Wuhan. I also experience situations of information friction more frequently than before. I’m sharing some of these personal cases today with the anonymous readers of “Letter against Separation,” who might be interested in reflecting on what has kept us apart besides and beyond the virus. Political scientist Margaret E. Roberts names the mechanism of information blockage “friction,” which “acts like a tax on information by directly increasing the costs of distribution of and access to information, diverting the media and individual away from censored information.”1 She also claims that we all tend to be “the rationally ignorant citizens” because we don’t really benefit much from extensively seeking out information that has political meanings or challenges our cognitive inertia or moral consensus.

That’s why I was shocked in a Zoom meeting when talking to two researchers based in Kazakhstan whom I have never met in person. They told me that Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest over an article saying the country was keen to become part of China. The Kazakh ministry stated that the article, titled “Why Kazakhstan Is Eager to Return to China,” was published on the privately owned Chinese website sohu.com, and it ran counter to the spirit of a permanent comprehensive strategic partnership officially declared between the two countries. I found the title of the article absurd because it seems to go against the diplomatic rationality of the regime. After the meeting, I did some research online and found out that there is a series of articles with almost the same titles, all refer to neighboring countries of China and claiming that “they’re eager to return to China.” These articles have been disclaimed by official Chinese media, and the private accounts that are spreading the stories have been banned. I understand that it must be really difficult for someone who does not read the language and understand the complex information environment of China to navigate through the flood of news. My shock doesn’t come from the two colleagues and their inquiry, but from my own ignorance of another information sphere.

Sometimes, this division of information flow can be easily detected in our controlled media environment. The social divide is not imposed by a top -down mechanism. When a prominent lawyer, Bao Yuming, was accused by an eighteen-year-old girl of sexual abuse in early April, and the lawyer insisted that he was just serving as her guardian and caretaker, my WeChat moments became a split world. People who are more or less related to the cultural sphere posted and commented on the reports fiercely, while the rest, including parents from my son’s school and a lot of my university schoolmates, remained silent. It’s hard for me to understand why other parents are indifferent to this prominent case of child and sexual abuse, but such emotional friction can also be perceived in a world without the great firewall. I remember feeling torn apart when I was overwhelmed by news from China while staying in Langley, a white suburban neighborhood of Vancouver with my family in January, and everybody around expressed no concern over the emergency in Wuhan. By March, when the pandemic became global, I logged into my VPN first thing every morning and got pretty anxious when scanning the New York Times, BBC, or The Atlantic for scientific facts about the virus, which we already knew about for two months. And now, just a week into May, when summer is approaching and the curve has been indeed flattened in Guangzhou, we’re getting ready to turn away from the stress of information overload.

Since the beginning of 2020, people who are informed and educated in China have witnessed an exponential growth of social science papers and articles translated into Chinese. A lot of the editorial work is done by volunteer experts and laymen rather than official media. The processing and sharing of information have become a valuable form of public awareness, and I have taken upon myself a minor responsibility for digesting, verifying, filtering, and distributing information in my close circle of family, friends, and acquaintances online. This is probably one gesture of resilience we can all perform as critical information processors in a time of crisis, to go around the divide of the information sphere, to reroute around surveillance algorithms and ideological manipulation, and make each other aware of our common inertia of dissonance. If the world returns to normal after the end of the pandemic, we should still hold onto the energy of fact-checking and digging up sources, and bouncing ideas off others who are culturally and geographically far away.

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1Margaret E. Roberts, Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall (Princeton University Press, 2018), 42.

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Last weekend, I was finally able to move out of my work–home geographical binary and took a walk in the oldest neighborhood of Guangzhou. I passed by a local market around 6pm, when the peddlers were getting ready to pack their plastic sheets and throw away the caraway, ginger, and green onions they didn’t manage to sell. The mixed smell of wet floor, fresh vegetables, live fish, and poultry brought me flashbacks of visiting these markets with my mother when we were living in Xiguan. Xiguan was a historical area located west of the old walled city in proximity to the Canton Thirteen Hongs. These market walks marked some of my childhood worldly moments and I can still relate to the farmers who carried baskets of green leaves from their fields to the city every day and didn’t want to pay rent for an indoor space. I never enjoyed the scene of a rabbit being slaughtered, nor the smell of chicken excrement, but I was fascinated by my mother’s capability to tell the good produce from the bad, and her familiarity with the specialties of each vendor. During a podcast conversation, a scholar friend who is currently in Berlin told me after years of living in Europe and shopping for packaged, processed food in supermarkets, he has forgotten how to handle fresh vegetables as basic as getting rid of the root of a spinach.

Since Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was confirmed as the outbreak source, the politicized rhetoric of “wet markets” has gained global popularity on social media. You can easily find videos of Chinese “wet markets” on YouTube, which range from mildly orientalist to morally provocative. Delia Lin recently published a scholarly review of the mistranslation and confusing usage of “wet markets” in non-Chinese contexts in the Melbourne Asia Review :

The English term “wet markets” originated in Singapore. It is derived from fresh produce markets’ wet floors caused by the melting of ice used for chilling and storing seafood; and by stall vendors who routinely spray their stalls and fresh food with water … Within China, traditional fresh produce markets are called “nongmao shichang” or “cai shichang” (literally, farmers markets/produce markets) in official documents, and “caichang” (literally, produce markets) in everyday Mandarin. In Hong Kong Cantonese, they are called “jieshi” (literally, street-side markets) and in Guangzhou Cantonese, they are called “shichang” (literally, markets).1

Let me tell you a bit more about the social role of “shichang” in Cantonese culture. After we all returned to the office, the highlight of our working hour at the museum very often has to do with food. The topics vary from “your favorite family recipe” to “where do you get your best food supply?” As a small team of art workers who are constantly under pressure of time shortage, we purchase fresh produce mostly online, including delivery applications that are popular at a national level, small group buying services that are only available locally, and supermarket e-commerce services which are oriented to urban consumers with fusion tastes. Exchanging information about our home cooking and favorite shopping list is a bonding activity, which functions as compensation for the disappearance of visiting a “shichang” in reality.

As Lin clarifies in her short essay, there is no such thing as “wet markets” in our local dialect, and these “shichangs” are not always wet. There is a section of dry goods that sells spices, herbs and dry seafood. In the age of early globalization (the late nineteenth century in Benedict Anderson’s term), these were all popular trade goods in Nanyang, which overlapped with the East India Companies’ colonial trade route in the Asia Pacific region. The dry delicacies’ market value was defined by their scarcity and their symbolic meaning as a precious gift in the tributary system of Imperial China. The pangolin, now a notorious vector of Covid-19, also bears a similar symbolic value in its contemporary circulation and consumption. Anna Tsing devotes a chapter in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins to depicting her observation of the matsutake trade in Oregon, and she sheds light on the peculiar gift value of matsutake in Japanese society. It reveals insights of the capitalist ruins, which is contradictorily driven by the desire for abstraction. I doubt that my young son has much idea about how animals or vegetables end up on our dinner table because his imaginaation of the food supply has been dominated by door-to-door delivery and the glossy diversity of supermarkets. Maybe it’s time for him to visit the messy “shichang” so that he can physically experience the entangled relationship between humans and food.

It’s time to end this entry dairy with a comparative analysis of the “Wuhan Virus” and the “Canton Virus”:

It would make perfect sense, therefore, if the coronavirus had broken out in the Pearl River Delta, encompassing Guangdong and Hong Kong, as SARS did. Looking back, the Delta of the early century was the most likely candidate in China for an outbreak on a global scale. At the time, Guangdong was the province most tightly linked with world supply chains and international finance, as Cantonese families had long migrated to Hong Kong and other overseas Chinese communities. With liberalization since 1979, they revived kinship ties in pursuit of business opportunities, as Hong Kong capital introduced the world market to handbag subcontractors in Dongguan. The initial SARS outbreak emerged from a Cantonese man who brought the disease to a massive hospital in Guangzhou. From there, a Guangzhou doctor carried it to a wedding in Hong Kong, and fellow hotel guests then brought it to Hanoi, Toronto, Singapore, Taipei, and Bangkok. In hindsight, the Guangdong/Hong Kong nexus appears as a perfect storm of wildlife consumption and global integration. (Tellingly, in the 2011 Hollywood film Contagion, a pandemic is traced to a Hong Kong chef who prepares a pig.)2

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1 Delia Lin, “Lost in Translation: Covid-19 and China’s ‘Wet Markets,’” Melbourne Asia Review , April 30, 2020 .

2 Andrew Liu, “‘Chinese Virus,’ World Market,” n+1 , March 20, 2020 .

Image via the author.

One day after dinner and a drink, we drove by the area of Taojin (in Chinese it means “gold digging”) a bit after midnight. Our taxi turned around the corner of the Kama Club, which used to accommodate the most exotic and underground nightlife of Guangzhou’s “low-end globalization.”1 I don’t fit the profile of the club’s frequent customers but I remember its bizarre reputation of club fights, drug using, and prostitution in the early 2000, and of being the-longest-standing and latest-to-close club in town. Collaterally damaged by the uncertain period and pattern of Covid-19, the once glamorous Kama Club now sits in darkness quietly and unimpressively. I imagine its spacious floor haunted by the dancing spirits of Latino and Filipino bands, of sex workers and drug dealers, of traders from Africa, India, and Turkey, and of young language teachers from North America and Europe. The name “Kama” reminds me of a very particular trope of modernity, which Yongwoo Lee called “Asian hippie modernity” in the exhibition catalog of “Asia Diva: The Muse and the Monsters”: “One may wonder how hippie counter-culture spread throughout Asia in the light of its global phase, which glorified Orientalism and Eastern philosophy … Psychedelic culture—coupled with traditional beliefs, shamanism, and mass culture—became folded into the public imagination in emergent nation-states.”2

I don’t really know why the significant site of the Kama Club has slipped out of the anthropological gaze of The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Market Place. The book has become the one and only reference which bridges popular perception about the African community in Guangzhou with academic research. In another publication by Gordon Mathews, a building in Hong Kong called Chungking Mansions is described as the “ghetto at the center of the world” and as the origin of low-end globalization. In the digital journal South of the South, recently launched by the Times Museum, I picked up the migration of neoliberal white laborers along the same route from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and the southwest inland of China:

At the beginning of 2000, African traders who used to purchase cheap commodities in Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions began to move to the neighboring city of Guangzhou. Chungking Mansions is located on Nathan Road where numerous small travel agents could process Chinese tourist visas in 24 hours. Nathan Road became a frequent stopover for many backpackers, who exited from Southeast Asia after the Asia Financial Crisis to find a different way of living in China. These “gweilo” (gringo) that settled in the Southwest regions of Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan are a lot less high-profiled compared with the “expats” in Hong Kong or Shanghai. Quite some of them held a hippie dream that had been eroded by the soaring living cost of western cosmopolitans such as London, New York, San Francisco or Paris. While the living cost of big cities in China has been rising since 2010 and visa policies become stricter and more standardized, they are yet to find their next destinations.3

I wonder whether the hippie desires that drive some of us to find the next destinations and escape the exploitation of capitalism will survive the looming global recession. But I’m pretty sure that not only people from the developing worlds or people of color are trapped in the intermediate zones of elsewhere and home, in which the binary of “high-end” and “low-end” should be further scrutinized:

When people in the developed world think about globalization, what typically comes to mind are the goods and services of multinational corporations—McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Apple, Samsung, Sony, Facebook, Google, and so on. This is what I term “high-end globalization”—globalization as typically practiced by vast organizations with billions of dollars in budgets, planet-wide advertising campaigns, and battalions of lawyers. Aside from this, there is another kind of globalization, “low-end globalization,” “the transnational flow of people and goods involving relatively small amounts of capital and informal, sometimes semi-legal or illegal transactions, often associated with ‘the developing world’ but in fact apparent across the globe.” This is globalization as experienced by most of the world’s people, practiced by traders with a few friends or family members buying a relatively small quantity of goods that are often sold by street vendors or in sidewalk stalls rather than in malls or stores.”4

I also wonder where the wild souls of the Kama Club have gone. Have they returned to Manila, reunited with their families, and joined one of the local choirs that sing American cover songs in malls? Have they secured a visa and opened their small business in the Igbo region of Nigeria? Have they made good money recently by importing or exporting masks between China and Turkey? Have they worked for Huawei in Santiago de Chile? Have they come back to Pearl River Delta from another marijuana trip to Amsterdam? Have they left their wife and kid behind in China and got a job in a gas station somewhere in America? Have they fulfilled their aspirations of individual freedom and found their economic haven? …

Adam, a dear friend of our family who embarked on a similar journey from America to China in March 2005, has recast in his PhD dissertation some of the hippie years in Guangzhou. Those situated experiences have shaped him as a musician as well as an anthropologist. We partied, drank beers, did foot massages, and even spent a holiday together last summer in Cape Cod, but culture and anthropology were never the topics. Adam is now an Assistant Professor in Hong Kong, while an MA student of his has been working on and off as an intern at the Times Museum since last year and joined the local activist group that provides help for quarantined Africans in Guangzhou. Adam links the local form of musical cosmopolitanism with older routes of exchange through the emergence of a “civilized neoliberal subject” and critically reflects on Western anthropology’s romanticizing tendency of finding resistors from the bottom up: “As caste is to India and reciprocity is to Polynesia, the authoritarian state is to Chinese music … This reproduces a cold war attitude toward China that is being reignited with the contemporary rebalancing of world power toward Asia.”5 He also beautifully translated a song lyric written by folk band Mabang, which depicts the intertwined imageries of high mountains and low waters:

Mountains joining mountains, water joining water.

Mountains joining mountains, water joining water.

Mountains joining mountains, water joining water.

Mountains and water joining the hearts of those living far from home….

People come and go through all the years and all the seasons,

and the singing voice floats through the myriad mountains.

The singing voice floats through the myriad mountains.

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NOTES
1 Gordon Mathews with Linessa Dan Lin and Yang Yang , The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Market Place (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

2 Asia Diva: The Muse and the Monsters (Seoul Museum of Art, 2017), 32.

3 Nikita Yingqian Cai, “Editor’s Notes,” South of the South .

4 Mathews, The World in Guangzhou, 69.

5 Adam Kielman, “Zou Qilai!: Musical Subjectivity, Mobility, and Sonic Infrastructures in Postsocialist China,” PhD diss, Columbia University, 2017, 14.

YWY stands in line; native looking, odd enough for the state, but not much else to give her away. She keeps her calm, watching security guards hold their temperature measuring guns to people’s foreheads, red laser beaming against skin. Repurposed tech from SARS, viral disease control at borders worldwide—tech can serve more than one function, can out androids as much as bacterial infections.1

There are temperature guns and infrared thermometers everywhere and my temperature has been checked a thousand times at multiple locations. I’m a “she” of color. I haven’t been to an airport or an exhibition since the first week of February. I wish I could change my temperature by absorbing sunlight and go under the radar like YWY. I wonder how YWY will react to this robot if she travels back from the future to enter UCCA on this particular day in May 2020. Will YWY be picked up as an android if her temperature exceeds 37.2 degrees Celsius? Will YWY consider the robot a low-tech ancestor of hers? Will they have inter-generational communication? What can YWY learn by communicating with the robot and accessing the data it collected from humans? How would they comment on the egoistic messiness of the human world?

Everyone’s wearing a mask except YWY.2

Everyone’s wearing a mask except that I can barely wait to throw away mine. Walking through the high-ceiling white hall decorated with artworks that appeared in my past two years’ institution visit trajectories, the exhibition feels like a glossy déjà vu of fading globalization. I saw Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Wall Unwalled the first time at daadgalerie in 2018, and watched Mika Rottenberg’s NoNoseKnows for a second time in her solo at New Museum last summer. I discovered Angela Su’s Comic Call at Tai Kwun around the peak season of Basel Hong Kong and recently said hi to Musquiqui Chihying at a Zoom conference. My latest encounter (among many) with Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled (Human Mask) was in November 2019 at an exhibition opening of CCA Singapore…

Do androids dream of exhibitions too?

YWY keeps her calm and I stay alert. YWY is trying to cross the border and I’m trapped within my camp. YWY lurks in the soybean trade route between Latin America and the Pearl River Delta, and I merge into the art world migration from south to north.

Their trade routes will follow almost exactly the same routes as in the sixteenth to eighteenth century, leaving Latin American ports towards the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, then crossing the Indian Ocean up north to the Strait of Malacca, north again through the Strait of Singapore and along the South China Sea to dock at the Pearl River Delta. Back then the goods weren’t soy, but silver mined by African and Indigenous slave labor. After the failure of the Yuan and early Ming dynasties’ handling of paper money, China needed a hard currency, and so up to half of the American silver mined from 1500 to 1800 made its way to China for coinage. In turn, the various European colonial powers, managing both the Atlantic slave trade and silver extraction in the American colonies, received silk, porcelain, and tea from China. As soy attests, though the nature of labor has changed, we are still living in early modernity.

YWY came to me as a contradiction.3

Ching Shin came to me as a revelation of our shared early modernity. On my Hukou —a household registration system that controls domestic migration between the urban and the rural in China—my place of origin is “the South China Sea of Canton.” It seems that instead of going north, my ancestors have chosen to go south and sailed into the ocean. Is my ancestor a Tanka woman, what they call “sea gypsies”? I found a portrait of a Tanka boat woman at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum; the woman on the canvas looks shy and weedy and does not resemble the infamous female pirate lord Ching Shin. Ching lived prior to the outbreak of the Opium Wars, and was said to be a prostitute working in a floating brothel in the 18th century in Canton and later became the wife of the powerful Zhengs (Ching) pirate. Zhengs organized a blockade of Macau’s trading port in 1804 and defeated the Portuguese. After Zheng died in Vietnam, Ching took over the command of pirate outlaws and was glorified as the rejected “Princess of the Chinese Sea.” She was represented as a heroine in the online game Civilization VI , and was “Mistress Ching” in the Hollywood production Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Ming Wong is inspired by Ching’s fictional persona and has developed an ongoing project which projects our contemporary society upon the future by weaving together the genres of science fiction and Cantonese opera.

In The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, a lengthy anthropological work by James C. Scott, delta regions are comparable to highlands as geography of resistance because of their easy access to the waters and their abundance of aquatic products. Scott wrote in the preface, “All identities, without exception, have been socially constructed: the Han, the Burman, the American, the Danish, all of them … To the degree that the identity is stigmatized by the larger state or society, it is likely to become for many a resistant and defiant identity. Here invented identities combine with self-making of a heroic kind, in which such identifications become a badge of honor.”4

An exercise in geomimicry. Rio is a Cantonese landscape. Rio is Guangzhou, is Hong Kong. Less glass, same landscape. If any of these cities were to become empty of humans, plants would soon replace them, take over the concrete. YWY can be placed anywhere. But what does displacement do? Again, it’s the performance that matters, puts agencies and stories in motion. Legacies. Futures. This oblique of a story was meant to be titled YWY, Origins, but what can origins possibly mean in a world of unpredictable umbilical cords? Unplug one and many will fall. We are glued to one another by history, by stories we inherit from one another. Legacies we all carry to the future.5

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NOTES
1 The diary is constructed in fictional dialogue with Pedro Neves Marques’s “YWY, Searching for A Character In-between East and West,” South of the South, digital journal published by Times Museum, 2020 .

2 Marques, “YWY.”

3 Marques, “YWY.”

4 James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009), xii.

5 Marques, “YWY.”