Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 08 – The Handicrafts Designer (Jovana ZHANG, Rong Design Library)
Jovana Zhang is one of the co-founders of the Rong Design Library and the PINWU Design Studio, the team in the Zhejiang countryside that is taking ancient Chinese handicrafts and repurposing them for modern usage.
JZ: What the hell is this?
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host, Oscar Fuchs.
We're back! Happy Chinese New Year to everyone who celebrated it. Unfortunately this doesn't quite include me, I have been trying to deal with the problem of the Instagram account for the podcast. The original one got mysteriously deleted, then I set up a new account, and then that one got deleted. I'm still trying to get to the bottom of all of that, so for now, please see the images from today's episode on Facebook, WeChat, or Patreon, if you're a supporter there. A big thanks to Marc Gupilan for being the first Patreon supporter shout-out in the Year of the Ox, I really appreciate you and the 94 other Patreon supporters too.
Apart from the Instagram drama, I spent most of the New Year period in the hell that was writing my Masters thesis. Which for me meant three weeks of total paralysis followed by one week of blind panic. But it's more or less done now, so I can finally get back to releasing some more episodes. Including today's, which is a special one, because it was recorded outside of Shanghai, in a small village near 杭州 [Hángzhōu], at the home of my guest Jovana Zhang. You'll notice therefore that the sound quality is a little different to the episodes that I record in the studio, and I also think it took a little longer than usual to get warmed up. But give it a little time, I promise it's worth it, especially as we build up to an epic Chinese New Year story in Part 2 of our conversation. So let's get started.
OF: So I'm with Jovana Zhang. And your title is..?
JZ: I'm a designer. Yeah, in our studio, we don't use 'Design Directors', titles or anything, my name card is just 'Jovana Zhang' and I'm a designer.
OF: OK. I want to play you this. This is a recording of someone who you will know,
[Start of Audio Clip]
Noah SHELDON: Jovana, and her husband Lei - the people at the Rong Design Library - are fascinating. They have created this incredible kind of archive of Chinese design. And it's absolutely phenomenal.
[End of Audio Clip]
OF: So that was our mutual friend, Noah, from Season 01.
JZ: Ah yes. Thanks to Noah.
OF: So how do you know Noah, what's the relationship?
JZ: We met several years ago, he came to take a photo of our first library. And then his wife Maggie came here as our resident guest designer. So we know each other for quite a while.
OF: OK. And before we go any further, what is the object that you have brought that in some way describes your life?
JZ: It's an umbrella. It's a handmade bamboo umbrella. It's a part of the, actually, heritage of this area. It's a 余杭 [Yúháng] paper umbrella.
OF: Thank you for bringing it in. I should say thank you, but you haven't gone very far. It's just from your studio here in the village, right?
JZ: Right, right. It's locally made. Actually, it's from 瓶窑 [Píngyáo]. 瓶窑 [Píngyáo] is another small village just around the corner here. Ten years ago, it was the first object that we were researching as a part of design research of the craft research in this area. It's five people, and we kind of hired them for a few months so they could teach us how to make an umbrella. Particularly this umbrella - which we have today - is made by the master's grandson, so this is a really really nice story.
OF: Right. And is it actually a rain umbrella or it's a sun umbrella?
JZ: It's a rain umbrella. The book says 'The 余杭 [Yúháng] oil paper umbrella: not afraid of wind and rain'.
OF: What do you mean by 余杭 [Yúháng]? Can you explain that?
JZ: 余杭 [Yúháng] is an area, it's an ancient area, and it has something like, I think, 5,000 years of history. It's an area that is stretches from 杭州 [Hángzhōu] to Shanghai, so it's a really large area. And 余杭 [Yúháng] town is very close to us, so we were firstly trying to research this 余杭 [Yúháng] area.
OF: OK, and this leads me to discuss what you are doing here. So, what does the umbrella mean in terms of the connection with your life today?
JZ: It means a lot actually, it's really a revolution in our designing way. It's also the philosophy for our studio, and for me. We figured out there are about 70 or more steps to make one umbrella. It's not very easy, you have to cut bamboo in a certain time, it has to be a certain age, then you have to treat it. So we thought "Oh my god, it's going to disappear. These guys were making 25,000 pieces per year, but now only 25. So, waah, it's a pity, let's do something with this umbrella". And while we were doing that, at the same time we had an exhibition in Milan that it was going to happen in April - and we were probably somewhere around December already at the time - and then we had an idea: "Let's make a paper chair, using the same craft as the umbrella". So this is the beginning of our revolution.
OF: So can you explain what you mean by "An umbrella became a chair"? You basically used the same craft techniques that you made the umbrella, to make a chair?
JZ: Right, but not all the crafts of the umbrella, just certain ones. So we decided to go for layering. When you have umbrella bones made of bamboo, you cut the paper, prepare the paper, you have some kind of glue, and you are put them over the top of the bones. But we used the mould of the chair - which we had made before - and we just started glueing these papers over and over, and trying to create a surface with the paper. And after it's dried, the seat was actually solid enough, so it can support a person sitting in there. So it's not something that we created, invented, no. But the idea was revolutionary in our minds, because it's changed the way we think of some objects. It would be a waste of time to try and improve this umbrella to perfection, because it simply doesn't belong as a modern person's accessory. It's heavy, it's breakable, it's not very reliable, you need an umbrella that is easy to fold, you need an umbrella that is light. How to save the craft is not by making this thing better quality, it is by giving it another life. So this is the philosophy that came with the umbrella to us.
OF: Great. And you said that you have now advanced that philosophy. What other things have you used this philosophy with?
JZ: We use a lot of inspiration from silk, from porcelain, from wood, from actually whatever we touch. It has come from somewhere. And in every on of our projects, we use some kind of craft that we kind of changed. Now it is already in our practice, that when we think of design we think of it in craft way. And I think this is just a matter of repetition that we went through so many times, to ask ourselves "OK, what does this material want to be?" We don't want to force this material to be something that he doesn't want to become, but what is naturally his best use.
OF: And that sounds like the same process that, in ancient China, they would have done as well. They would have seen the material, and then worked out how to purpose it in a way that it wants to be, right?
JZ: Yes, this is exactly the thing. And just, we know the materials maybe a little bit more than before. We know their characteristics, we can have better quality of them. And then it's really interesting for me.
OF: And we're mentioning objects. So let's go into the objects that you have collected. Because what you've done here with this library that you put together, is what I find the most fascinating. So tell me about the Rong Design Library.
JZ: Actually Lei was crazy about libraries. He was always wanting to have a library.
OF: And I should jump in, who is Lei?
JZ: Lei is my partner, one of the co-founders, and he's my husband as well. So the library is something that we curated at the beginning. It started as a very small research, for our own sake, for our own studio. But there were a few events that led this library to become a library. That Milan exhibition, which we were nominated for an award, and then we won that award, for SaloneSatellite. And after that, there was the 余杭 [Yúháng] government that came to us and said "Oh, wow, great, you won an award. So now let us give you some budget, so you can do the next exhibition and the next research". And then the 杭州 [Hángzhōu] government did the same thing. We were a little bit puzzled what to do with all this money.
OF: Wow. You didn't even approach them, they came to you.
JZ: They came to us. But I should say that two, three years before when we were approaching them, asking for ten times less money, they were just [blows raspberry].
JZ: Blow us away.
OF: Right. And back then, so - just because you've mentioned it - back then, you had just started a design studio, you were you already set up in 杭州 [Hángzhōu], right?
JZ: Yeah, we were already set up, and the design studio was there, because Lei already had this studio. But they were not doing furniture. So when Chris and I came to China, we kind of re-modified the practice of the studio.
OF: You mentioned Chris there, so who is Chris?
JZ: Chris is our third partner, he is from Germany. And we all met in Milan, and we came to China.
OF: OK, so we have Lei from China, we have Chris from Germany. And you Jovana, where are you from?
JZ: I'm from Serbia, I'm from Belgrade.
OF: OK, so let's go back.
JZ: OK, so we came back with both the sponsorships from the 杭州 [Hángzhōu] government and the 余杭 [Yúháng] government. And we started the two projects. One is called 'Handmade In Hangzhou', whose Chinese name is 融 [Róng], hence the Rong Design Library.
OF: Ah right.
JZ: And another one is called 'From Yuhang', because this is in 余杭 [Yúháng]. We had a conversation with both of the governments who said "OK, we're going to sponsor you for renting this space, and renovating it, and blah, blah, blah". And this is how we kind of started the library.
OF: So what actually is the library?
JZ: The library is a material base of Chinese craft. But the objects are deconstructed through the steps. We categorise them with paper, lacquer, metal, weaving, textiles, silk, and so on. So now materials, what we have collected, are really a lot. And they include the whole of China. We've been to every Province. We make research before, and then we go there, and in one week or two weeks' time we cover the whole Province. And then go back with the samples, with the telephone numbers of the craftsmen, with information on how you can get there, how you can… Basically all kinds of information that you can collect from one material: documented, filmed, and so on.
OF: Right, and then if you have a project, then you can go through this library and see if there are any crafts that you can link to a certain project. And then you go back to the original people that you met in that Province, and then you make the connection.
JZ: Sure, that's the logic. If we can find a good project for each of these materials, then they don't necessarily need to die, they can just go on. The same as the umbrella studio that continues. So we try to get the library very busy with research, with a lot of projects going on, and then we are doing a ping-pong all the time, so the library can be just energetic, and alive still.
OF: Right. Because it's not there to be like a museum. It's there to be used, and it's there to be contributing to craft work in China.
JZ: Yes, yes, exactly. So we don't want it to just stay there and collect dust, these things. So we want them people to touch them, to make them dirty, to break them, and to feel these materials.
OF: Right. And you mentioned that you've collected these things from around China. Can you think of a few examples, ones that you find the most precious, or has the best memories for you?
JZ: Well, the best memory for sure is 新疆 [Xīnjiāng]. That place was crazy. There were shoes made of leather for the desert. There was a blanket that was supposed to be a colourful blanket made of camel wool. There were Ikat fabrics - Ikat fabrics are silk fabrics where firstly yarn is dyed, and then the pattern is made - that is a crazy crazy lobotomy to understand. He showed me five times, I didn't get it. And then, there were tiles, the Muslim kind of tiles for the houses, they were really nice, they're 3D.
OF: Right, right.
JZ: Yeah, a lot. But we didn't find everyone, this is the thing, some of them in the meantime disappeared, because we will not fast enough, I guess.
OF: Right. So you do your research, you figure out what you're trying to find, you make some connections, but then you don't know until you go there…
OF: Right. What about a different part? So, you know, can you paint me a picture about another part of China through its objects?
JZ: Well 西安 [Xī''ān] was a nice place, with the shadow puppets. We did use them for the one window display for Hermès. And we had the craftsman's daughter come to our studio to help.
OF: So that was a collaboration with Hermès - right, the French company - you said.
OF: Yes. Well, it's not collaboration, it's a window. We've designed their window displays for seven years. So four times a year, seven years, it's a lot of windows, lots of materials. And we try to have, each time, a new material to offer.
OF: And so with that example, then, what was the end result?
JZ: It was beautiful, I think this was one of the best windows I made at that time, it's really nice. It was, I think, two to three years ago. It's called 'Body Language', so the shadow puppets were completely 3D, and there were human sized - even larger - people who were forming a letter, and then it would form the whole word in one window. And if the shop has five windows, then it would be a sentence. So it was nice.
OF: This is where I'm trying to put you into some kind of compartment, because you are very hard to compartmentalise.
JZ: 'Mental', I heard 'mental'.
OF: You are curating all these crafts, you are yourself in design, but then… is it furniture? Is it interior? I find it quite hard to know what to call you, in fact.
JZ: Just 'designer' as I said.
JZ: Just 'designer'. I can do design… I designed this oven here from Siberia, anything.
OF: And so, what is the ultimate goal, then, of the library itself?
JZ: So the goal of the library is not only to be close to the craftsmen, but also to see… it's an experiment. We felt naturally that moving to the village with the library is a better choice. We are more focusing on the customer, and the people who really want to come for us. Not passing by and then, by the way "OK, let's stop to see a little bit of the tour of one library", and then go out, and nothing. And then another thing is to see how the village kids react on growing up with the thought that craft is not something that you should be ashamed of. Being a craftsman in China is often used as, I don't know, rude. Or like you want to insult somebody, or you want to say you're so low level…
OF: Right, it's like a low status thing.
JZ: Yeah, but but see Japan, it's a national treasure. So this is something that is really important to us. And we want to see that. In the village, you have grandmothers and you have grandkids. No middle middle people. So we are the only middle-aged people that are buzzing around.
OF: Yeah, you are living the life that I think people are talking about more and more, where young people who have roles that aren't necessarily location-specific - you know, your clients are anywhere from Beijing to Paris - but you can choose to move it to a location here, you can get the advantages of living a life close to nature, and you can also give back to this area, which has had depopulation, right? I mean, I see all those things working in concert.
JZ: Yeah, it's worked very well. And we hosted so many interesting people here, coming from all around the world, so it's really not a bother for them to to come over here. And actually they love to come for a few times, several times, staying more, longer. There was one moment that we also thought "OK, maybe we are going to bring the Green School from Bali - The John Hardy School - here". So John Hardy was our guest, I don't know, ten times. I drive him with my three-wheeled car around the village. It's really wild. He's a serious guy. And I'm driving him around here with my three-wheeled car. As well as bringing Eames, the grandson of the famous Eames family.
OF: Really, He came here?
JZ: Yeah. In my three-wheeled car as well. And the the one of the founders of Memphis also was here. Yeah, it's a wild group around here, it's really fun.
OF: Well, I mean, if I think about those people, they must have many meetings in swanky fancy, uber-designed buildings. Surely for them it's special, right?
JZ: Yeah. And then they come here and they can't feel more relaxed, because it's so relaxing here. Yeah,
OF: I should say at this point that I just came here myself. This is my first time in the village. And I'm quite relaxed, because Jovana kindly gave me some Serbian spirits with my lunch. I don't usually drink at all at lunch, but this is really strong. What's it called?
OF: Dunjevaca. But I mean, you're right. I mean, immediately leaving 杭州 [Hángzhōu] and then going into the hills, already you feel so much more relaxed. And then now, just being in your very homely room, you can't help forget the big city.
JZ: Yeah, it's forgotten so fast. We thought it's going to be a difficult transition, and… We wanted to move, like you know you have this urge, "Oh, yes, yes, yes, move, move, move, move". And then suddenly when there was this point "OK, let's move". And I was "Uh-oh, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, I'm not ready, I'm not ready, I'm not ready".
JZ: But then, when it happened, I found out that this comfort zone is much better than the comfort zone I had in the city.
OF: Right, because how long had you lived in 杭州 [Hángzhōu] before you moved here?
JZ: For a good eight years, but yeah, it was the best choice ever.
OF: Yeah. And so now you have your first boy. So congratulations.
JZ: Thank you.
OF: I've met him, Mango, he's very cute. You've now got responsibilities, you've now got this place set up. What do you see when you look into your crystal ball, about 5-10 years in the future?
JZ: Waah, I have no idea actually. The goal is that you feel happy about each day of your life, that's the really important thing. And that the projects that we work on, are making us better, right? It's just easygoing.
OF: Yeah. Don't put too much pressure on.
JZ: Yeah, yeah, it's already perfect. Really, you know, it's already even more than what we imagined what would happen with this library. The challenge is to keep the people here. Because it's a village, the people are young, they want to live in a city and stuff. This is one of the challenges, but it's not the biggest challenge. It's alright.
OF: Yeah. Interesting. Well, you found your home here, and it's certainly a beautiful home. So thank you very much for having me here.
JZ: Thank you, thank you, and welcome.
OF: Well, let's move on to Part 2.
OF: Here we go, Question 1. What is your favourite China-related fact?
JZ: The fascinating thing about China for me is the length of the history. The guys didn't change even the the writing since ancient times. It's the persistence of the Chinese way, it's fascinating for me.
OF: And of course, that's one of the things that draws you to what you do today, right?
JZ: Mmm, probably. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, for sure.
OF: Question 2, do you have a favourite phrase in Mandarin?
JZ: 差不多 [Chàbuduō].
OF: That's your favourite?
JZ: Must be.
OF: Now do you know why I'm reacting like that?
JZ: Why? No.
OF: Because Noah, who was the one who referred you, that's his Least favourite.
JZ: Ah no! Because he doesn't understand it yet.
OF: So tell me why that's your favourite.
JZ: Because everything is 差不多 [Chàbuduō], everything, everything. I must say that it was pissing me off in the beginning, because it's just… Something you get is not good enough, which is something you were hoping to get. Everything. But if you have it the other way around, then it's a blessing.
OF: I agree. What is your favourite destination within China?
JZ: I really love the Yellow Mountains, I really love that area there. That would be some place, 碧山 [Bìshān], that we visited so many times. Our friends, they have a beautiful hotel there in the middle of the fields, this was an old oil factory before, really really nice.
OF: Wow. If you left China what would you miss the most and what would you miss the least? JZ: The least, I would miss the summer here, and the wetness, and the wet foggy area. Yeah that I would not miss at all.
OF: That's very specific to this part of China, right?
JZ: Yeah, very, very much. Especially 杭州 [Hángzhōu], where we saw the air, how the air circulates. It comes from Beijing, the one wind; and from Shanghai, another wind; and they all finish in West Lake, and become a little swirl. And it's just like a dumpling in here, steaming ourselves.
OF: And then what would you miss the most?
JZ: I'd miss the vegetables, the range of vegetables.
OF: Yeah, can you talk about that?
JZ: Cabbages, seasonal… 毛豆 [máodòu] is very nice, 秋葵 [qiūkuí] too, and 萝卜 [luóbo]. 萝卜 [Luóbo] is my favourite, I go there to the dig 萝卜 [luóbo] in the wintertime, it's so nice, yeah.
OF: Because there are some vegetables here, I look at a supermarket, I've got no idea what it is…
JZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's it, that's it. It's just to have a lot of vegetables which we don't have in Europe, and it's such a pity, it's really nice. even some parts of the flowers, and the tree. You know that that tree you can eat it, 香椿树 [Xiāngchūnshù], you see it nowhere else. It's just really nice.
OF: Great. Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
JZ: I must say, less than less. Not so much anymore. I already saw quite a number. I can say one very short story. That was my biggest cultural shock of China. It was Spring Festival a few years ago, we were eating in Lei's parents' home in 余杭 [Yúháng], in 杭州 [Hángzhōu]. And his family from 天津 [Tiānjīn] was visiting, Lei's sister, Lei's mum's brother with his wife, and their daughter, so it's like three generations. And then suddenly - we are we are eating, it was, like, Beijing noodles - I just sat to eat, I wanted to put the thing in my mouth, and then the kid who was, like, about three years old, she suddenly said "I need a sh*t". And then three of them - the the mother, the grandma and grandpa - ran to the kid, took off her panties and trousers, and let her sh*t in the middle of the living room. And I was like "What the hell is this?" And the toilet is just that two metres beside.
OF: You don't see that so much…
JZ: After that, not so many things surprise me anymore.
OF: Here's an interesting one for somebody who lives in the village. Where is your favourite place to go out, to eat or drink or hang out? Is there actually a place in the village that you can go to?
JZ: There is one, 'Mad Monkey'.
OF: OK, so by default does that mean that's your favourite? Or would you basically drive the hour to 杭州 [Hángzhōu] to go somewhere?
JZ: Now I would not drive anywhere to go hang out somewhere because I have a kid, and it's impossible to plan the trip. But before, yes. Yeah, and if it's really really an emergency for some sweets, then I would send Lei to go to 杭州 [Hángzhōu] to buy it and to bring it back.
OF: What is the best or worst purchase you have made in China?
JZ: Oh, worst purchase is all over my Taobao. That's a range of garbage. Best purchase in China would definitely be an apartment. That's a crazy purchase, right? That's a really nice purchase.
OF: Great. What's your favourite WeChat sticker? Have you sent it?
OF: Ah OK, explain what this one is.
JZ: This is so typical. I don't know if its my favourite, but I really love it. This action of the government guy hitting the table while the tea is going up. It's really brilliant.
OF: Oh I love this one. I always use it, and I think I must have got it from you.
JZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
OF: Very good. What is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
JZ: Because I don't do singing - I really don't know how to sing - so it's gonna be ABBA.
OF: Which one?
JZ: Money, Money, Money
OF: Oh, wow.
JZ: Yeah. And always sing it in a duet with somebody.
OF: Nice. And finally, what other China related media or sources of information do you rely on?
JZ: No, it's gonna be books. It's gonna be books about crafts.
OF: Is there a particular series that you follow?
JZ: There is a very nice series from the research of Huang Yun Song, amazing, amazing design. He's designing them by himself, it's a really incredible sense of research, humour, and all together at once.
OF: Well, maybe he is the written version of what you are doing in real life, with the library. I can see the connection there.
JZ: Well, that's flattery.
OF: And finally, I have to ask you, who would you recommend that I interview for the next season of Mosaic of China.
JZ: I am suggesting that you talk with Haoru. He is an architect. He's based in 杭州 [Hángzhōu]. And he's doing a lot of things that always involve us as well. With bamboo structure, architecture. I think he has a lot of things to say about the architecture of China.
OF: Great, I can't wait to meet Haoru.
OF: Thank you again.
JZ: Thank you.
OF: Having said my thanks to Jovana, I should also do the same now to her husband, Lei. I crashed their whole family routine for a day, and they couldn't have been nicer hosts. A quick apology to them both as well, because I forgot to mention the name of their design studio, which is PINWU. If you want to visit them at the Rong Design Library, it's located in 青山村 [Qīngshāncūn], which is a pretty little village to the North West of 杭州 [Hángzhōu]. You can find the spelling of that in the transcript for this episode at mosaicofchina.com. And while you're there, why not follow the link to become the hundredth Patreon supporter who gets to hear the full PREMIUM version of these interviews? Here are some clips from today's.
JZ: It's not very easy to actually kidnap the one craftsman for one month.
JZ: We did that with kites from 潍坊 [Wéifāng]…
OF: These are silk kites, I guess?
JZ: No, it's paper.
JZ: We brought a craftsman from China to Paris to do a carving on a concept car which we designed for Peugeot.
JZ: I don't know why. It's such a brilliant idea, I don't know why.
OF: Life didn't work out like that this year, did it?
JZ: Yeah. And I was pissed at that.
[End of Audio Clips]
Just a quick note on the Chinese phrase 差不多 [Chàbuduō] which Jovana mentioned. It's amazing how this one phrase expresses the difference between her and Noah from Episode 09 of Season 01 so clearly. It describes the energy that Jovana uses to get things done, versus Noah's perfectionism which can be crippling if left unchecked. I see myself as somewhere in the middle, so I found myself thinking about this phrase 差不多 [Chàbuduō] very often while writing my thesis. Please also listen to Season 01 Episode 28 with Lissanthea Taylor, to hear her amazing Australian translation of the phrase.
There are some really good images to check out this week, there's Jovana's object the umbrella, and then the chairs she helped to design that used some of the same paper layering techniques; there's of course her favourite WeChat sticker, then there are photos of the library; of the founders; of their trip to 新疆 [Xīnjiāng]; of the Hermès window display' some of them and the other local buzzing around the village; and also some from my own time I the village too.
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. I would have loved to include a catch-up chat with Noah Sheldon now, since he was the one who nominated Jovana from Season 01. But he never gets back to me, and in the end I simply gave up trying. So instead, there is a catch-up with the lovely Roz Coleman from Season 01 Episode 22 right after this.
OF: Hello, Roz.
Roz Coleman: Hello, Oscar.
OF: You're a sight for sore eyes. Because actually, when we did our recording you were basically in your last few weeks in China. And then off you went, and I haven't seen you since.
RC: So true. After I left you, I just went travelling for four months, to be able to see where I've been living for three years. Like around China, Philippines, and then Vietnam, and then Cambodia, I went and took a 10 day silent meditation retreat in Myanmar, went from there to Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, blah, blah, blah. And then I was back in London, what, three months, before we could sort of see Corona coming over the horizon. And, yeah, I think we started to work remotely probably sooner than everyone else, because all my Chinese friends kept being like "Are you OK? Keep safe, keep distance, wear a mask and everything. Don't listen to your government, and herd immunity, everything". And I'm still working for Punchdrunk. But, you know, we were basically locked down by February. And then the weirdest thing happened, which is that my sister was supposed to be going to work for MSF. But she came via London and got trapped with us as well.
OF: Oh, wow. Well, thank you for that. I mean, I wanted to interrupt you quickly, because people who are listening to this episode might not have heard your episode, so don't really know what the hell it is that you were doing in China. So I should say that you were the International Company Manager of Sleep No More here in Shanghai, right?
RC: That's right. For, I guess, two and a half, three years.
OF: Right. The interesting thing about Sleep No More is that it was immersive theatre, where people are very close together. And we discussed that in our episode. So what has happened to immersive theatre during the Coronavirus era?
RC: It's an amazing thing to be able to say that it's still rolling.
RC: The shows… There have, of course, had to be amendments, not least because anybody who left that Chinese New Year - to go on holiday or to see family - a lot of them weren't able to come back into town. And two of the remaining rehearsal directors were able to train up a much more local company, in a very short period of time. They were needing to sterilise everything in the building, and really up the cleaning of everything. And they pulled out every trick in the book, really. And I often think that because theatre is so used to telling people what to do, or gently guiding people in the right direction, that it's actually one of the best placed industries to, you know, roll out some of those infection prevention procedures. But it's that, will people feel comfortable being back in the space? And we were just amazed to discover that, yeah, the audience were really happy to come back.
OF: Yes. Well let's pivot, because I want to talk about all the things that you taught me. The concept of 'Shanghai Flow', for example, there aren't many days where I don't think about that. Now that you are outside of China, living your life in London - or at least, now, a version of your life - do you also reflect on 'Shanghai Flow'? And are there any equivalents that you've seen in London?
RC: That's such a lovely question. I remember when I was still in Shanghai, one of the company members saying to me "I went on The Tube when I went back home", he was visiting his mother, "And it was so hectic, and it was so aggressive, and I really miss China". And at that time, I thought "What's he talking about?" But when I got back to Liverpool Street, you know, a year or so later, I reflected, he was totally right. It's not the 'Shanghai Flow' style, by any stretch of the imagination. But people are just mardy on public transit.
OF: 'Mardy', Can you explain to people not from the UK what 'mardy' means?
RC: Oh, yeah, sure thing, sorry. Such a colloquialism. 'Mardy' is like a more humorous, less harsh version of 'grumpy', maybe.
OF: Well explained, very nice.
RC: But what's been super interesting has been the way in which people are giving way a lot more. It feels a lot less fraught on the roads, people have more patience. And that's definitely true for the street. Like, we're really missing entrances and exits, I think, for greeting friends. And so I have some friends who give each other like a deep, long bow of respect when they arrive to a meeting. Or other friends who sort of do a little dance with cuddling themselves, like, to signify "I wish I could cuddle you, but I can't, so I'll cuddle myself". And those sort of acts of grace and understanding and patience are… that kind of reminds me of Shanghai, in a way.
OF: Wow, this is where I'm slightly out of my depth, because we're not really comparing your life in China to your life in London. It's really comparing life in London before, and life in London now, and whatever life in London will be later. It's almost beyond the scope of this podcast right now, isn't it?
RC: So true. And I feel like we really can't predict how it's gonna go for, like, a few generations.
OF: Mmm. Well, you did give me a great referral for Season 2. Sadly, that referral didn't work out. But I did find a nice replacement. So you will still be part of the future seasons, and there'll still be some kind of connection. But I wanted to say, you know, thank you again for our original interview. I learned a lot about general life in Shanghai from you, that I otherwise would would not have learned. Including, I must say, the best description of experiencing karaoke in Asia out of anyone in the series. So thank you again for being part of this project, Roz.
RC: Ah thank you so much. It's been an absolute joy, and it's really kept me company, you know, through all this lockdown, being able to hear how everyone's going and staying up to date with the podcast and how it's been moving through the year. And I think, especially as we moved into these extraordinary times, just such a useful 'comrade in arms' of like, "How is the other side of the world doing?" It's felt like a very magic portal into a place I really miss. So that's super nice, thank you.
OF: Thank you Roz, and we will have you back as soon as you can come back.
RC: Thanks, I look forward to it.