Mosaic of China Season 03 Episode 16 — The Dragon Burner (Francesca VALSECCHI, Dragon Burn)
Francesca Valsecchi is a professor at Tongji University, and one of the participants at Dragon Burn (龙焰). She combines these two worlds under the principles of communality, immediacy and de-commodification.
FV: I don't sing the Cantonese.
OF: You don’t?
FV: I pretend to sing the Cantonese thing, of course!
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.
It's been a short while, but we're finally back with the second half of Season 03. If you’re a new listener, welcome, and here’s a quick recap of how the show works. There are three parts to each interview. The first part is a straightforward two-way conversation, which starts with the guest introducing an object that in some way describes their life in China. In the second part, I ask every guest the same 10 China-related questions, all on the theme of their personal experiences, tastes and opinions. And the final part is just one extra question, where I ask each guest to nominate someone for the next season of the show. And this is how each interview represents a connective tile which builds out into a Mosaic of China.
The podcast has also been designed to include a visual element, so please follow the images on social media, or head to mosaicofchina.com, where you can follow the transcript. You’ll also find details there on how to subscribe to the PREMIUM version of the show, which has an extra 10-15 minutes of content per episode. And if you want to watch the video version of the show - which combines the audio with the images, and the words from the transcript - then please head to the version on YouTube.
Now that you're caught up, let's get on with today's episode, which is one where we take you on a journey of ideas. The journey starts in China, and then you’ll notice that we go on a big detour to Nevada. But I promise that we come back for a great finish in China again.
OF: Thank you very much for coming Francesca.
FV: Thank you, Oscar, for having me.
OF: And your full name is Francesca Valsecci, right?
OF: Francesca Valsecci, This is where you've got a problem, actually. Because your name ‘Francesca’ is three syllables, ‘Valsecci’ is three syllables. It’s long, for a country where actually names are very short.
OF: So what did you go by in China?
FV: My Chinese name?
FV: I have a proper Chinese name, which is 魏佛蘭 [Wèi Fúlán]
OF: Oh, that's completely different.
FV: That’s different, yeah.
OF: Who gave you that?
FV: A friend who used to live here for many years. And she gave me the name 佛蘭 [Fúlán], which is the sound pronunciation for ‘Fran’.
FV: And then there was my martial art teacher who chose 魏 [Wèi] which is like one of the kingdoms. And I like it very much, because it has these components. There is the wood; and then there is the woman; and then there is 鬼 [guǐ] like the spirit. And I said “This is perfect. I’ll take it all.”
OF: That’s such a nice introduction, because I think we're going to be talking about those elements in today’s chat.
FV: In a way, yeah yeah. I think so.
OF: Well, we're running ahead of ourselves, because the first question I should be asking you is, what object did you bring that in some way represents your life in China?
FV: So this is the object.
FV: It’s actually a very recent object. I found it a week ago, more or less. I was walking back home, and there was a trash bin with a bunch of goods. I've been doing a lot of scavenging in old places in China. I have a very small place, with a lot of stuff. And I saw this one. It’s an amulet. One side, there is a Buddhist figure. I actually picked it up because I wanted to try to read what was written there. And then I turned it, and there is a rooster on the other side of the amulet. And I'm a rooster.
OF: Aha. This came to you.
FV: Yeah, we met in the street, which is pretty much serendipity. Like this concept, that makes something happen. Especially when I was unsure which object to bring. And so it was kind of like “I should just take this one”.
OF: I like it, because there's something which is very ‘now’ about it.
FV: Yeah, exactly. And the second reason I was thinking about serendipity is because, one of the things that I do is an informal underground teahouse, which is called ‘Serendipitea’.
OF: Oh, nice. Well, why don't we talk about scavenging then? Because you said this is part of how you have engaged with living in China. What does that mean?
FV: Well, I think everybody understands that this is a place that is continuously under transformation; and things are being uprooted all the time; and so much matter and objects are continuously discarded, or just pass through many many lives. Things that have no value, but they have ‘microscopical beauty’, as I call it. And so I was just going exploring. This is something where you go inside, you take a walk, and you see what's left in the ruins. One of the most remarkable things that we found is photographs.
FV: And we did a project a few years ago with some friends, that was called ‘laoximen.club’. We found some undeveloped film roles. And we have a darkroom, so we developed the films, and so we were the first people to see the pictures printed out of those roles.
FV: And then we did an exhibition with those images. And then we also tried to find where this was, if someone could have recognised the places or the people. But we didn't really find that much. But that was really, really a very cool thing to do.
OF: Nice. Well maybe people who are listening are trying to work out “OK, who the hell is Francesca?” And maybe they're thinking “OK, this must be some kind of artist”. Is that what you are? Like, how do you define who you are?
FV: I don’t think of myself as an artist.
OF: What is your day job?
FV: I’m a professor.
FV: At a university. And I'm not an artist, for sure.
OF: So what do you teach?
FV: I teach design. And… Ah, that's really a wicked question.
OF: Do you know why I know that it's a hard question? Because I am thinking about the person who nominated you from last season, Alex Shoer. And I have the way that he introduced you. So why don't we play that recording now.
[Start of Audio Clip]
AS: My suggestion, or recommendation, is going to be Francesca Valsecci. She's the epitome of an environmental warrior. She's very much focused on using design research to essentially reimagine our ecosystems, and consumption, and community development. And she's also super active in Dragon Burn - she’s one of the main organisers - which is the Burning Man of China. So be ready for that.
[End of Audio Clip]
OF: There's a lot going on there.
FV: Yeah, I think I should transcribe what Alex said on my LinkedIn page.
FV: It’s quite concise.
OF: Because I was also thinking today, like “OK, how do I even introduce Francesca?” First of all, how do you know Alex?
FV: Through the burn. Yeah.
OF: Aha. Which is going back how many years now?
FV: This year is number ten.
OF: Oh wow.
OF: Well, that came at the end of his introduction. Let's talk first of all about what he said about your professorship. So what the hell is that? Design, but also ecology? How do you define it?
FV: Yeah, I think for me it's more like, how do you interface people - like citizens or community - with the sustainability concept. And more recently, with the ecological concept. So design has been like a consumeristic drive for decades.
FV: But creativity can do much more than that. My role in the school - and in my research - is to try and show how creativity can work for a non-consumeristic way of producing things.
OF: Oh. That's so interesting, because you're right. When I think of design, I think of making stuff. What you're trying to say is “No, design is actually something which is not consumerist”.
FV: Yeah. I mean it’s not me, there is a bunch of people doing that. You can still create things, but it's not that you necessarily have to sell them. Or they don't have necessarily to be inside of a consumerist space. I think we have enough stuff to live with. They could become a product, somehow. Like, I don't know, one student, she made a sport jacket that can produce electricity by bacteria that lives in a cell inside of the wearable.
OF: Oh, OK.
FV: OK. So you can still make a product that has a function and can be used in a context. But thinking about which is your source and which is your output. When they have to make a decision about where to start from, maybe they can start from a different angle.
FV: And that's the point. Then it's up to them, you know.
FV: Mine is one of the many voices they meet over five years of studying.
OF: Yes. So how did you get from Italy to here, what’s that story?
FV: The trigger, right? So I was depressed and I wanted to leave.
OF: Leave Italy, right?
FV: Yeah, I wanted to leave Italy. I had no idea where to go. It was Christmas Eve, and I was home checking on this list of unread messages. And then there was this application for a post-doc project in China. I said “OK, I can do something.” Then I checked the deadline. The deadline was 1st of January, documents on printed format, arriving in Beijing. And that was tricky, because Christmas Eve in Europe means nothing is open. And that's when my brain got a kick, and said “OK, this is the call. This must happen. I have to try.” So I had a phone call to China saying “Listen, there is this thing. I'm going to write a proposal, I need a letter.” And he said “No problem, you will have it in one hour.” And then I went to the UPS office and convinced them to open the office for me on the 26th. Because I had to send the parcel at the latest on the 26th. I spent Christmas writing the proposal, all of this. Which was not a very great proposal, but still was enough to move myself through the process. And then in February I was in Brussels for the examination at the European Commission. On the same weekend as the Icelandic volcano eruption, so we were all stuck in Brussels, treated by the EU. That was great. And then in June I was on a plane to China. Beijing first for almost a year. And then the project that I wrote, there was an existing design and innovation project on 崇明 [Chóngmíng] Island.
OF: 崇明 [Chóngmíng]. OK, that's the island which is within Shanghai city.
FV: Yeah, it's kind of 80-90 kilometres long.
FV: And if you see the map of Shanghai, it's really occupies a big part. The quality of a project that you write in two days cannot be very high. But regardless, it moved me there. And it moved me there for two years, to coordinate a group of people that was studying what was going on. And I was curating more the agricultural part. So, how you can support the transition to organic agriculture, these kinds of things.
OF: Yes. You’re actually reminding me of a conversation I had in Season 02 with Douglas TSE. He also actually did some work in agriculture on 崇明 [Chóngmíng] Island, and now he is a businessman on an island off the coast of 宁波 [Níngbō]. Did you know Douglon, did you ever cross paths?
FV: No, I don't think so. Maybe I should.
OF: I’m gonna check with him what years he was on 崇明 [Chóngmíng]. Because, I've never been there. It's something which I keep hearing about. And they're going to make the metro to go out there now, aren't they?
FV: Which is a great idea, because the bridge is really bad.
OF: Do you still go to 崇明 [Chóngmíng] Island now then?
FV: Yeah, sometimes. Yeah.
OF: Yeah. Do you have any dreams to live out there?
FV: I wouldn't live there again. I would maybe go to other rural areas. China has a lot of amazing countryside areas, so…
OF: Yeah. Well all of this is making me think “Yes, it’s not a surprise that someone like you would be drawn to something like Burning Man”. Again, just like I haven't been to 崇明 [Chóngmíng] Island, I haven't been to Burning Man. But I have an idea about what Burning Man is. So why don't you tell me how you got into Burning Man, and maybe describe what it is.
FV: Back in the 90s, we were a group of friends with many different underground experiences at the time, looking at the experience of creating a city in one week, and dismantling the city in one week. That's what it is.
FV: So there is a component of festival in terms of music, there is a component of festival in terms of arts, but the thing that it is, is the experience of building a city out of a flat land in a desert, and you dismantle it together leaving a flat land in the desert. And I mean a ‘city’. Because when it started it was very small, but now it consists of 70,000 people. So 70,000 - for a lot of places in the world - is a city.
FV: There are roads; there is a traffic department; there is someone taking care of infrastructure; there are restaurants; there is a cinema. One component of the city is that the community aggregates around fire. So what makes Burning Man ‘Burning Man’ is that there is a sculpture - a structure - that is burned down on the last day. There are many burns, but that's the biggest one. I think a lot of Chinese people know about Burning Man, because there has been a mainstream explosion in recent years. But I think not everybody understands the way of making a city is based on several principles. And if you take out this part, then you're doing something that could still be very cool, but different.
OF: Right, so what are those principles?
FV: There are 10 principles that inspire how the community work. And some of them are extremely necessary for the being of the city itself. Like ‘Leave No Trace'. I always went earlier to build, and stayed later to dismantle, and I was in the Leave No Trace Team for many years. And what we do is like we’re sweeping the desert. So imagine you're in the desert with very very fine sand, and every single centimetre of the desert is swept with brooms in order to get every single piece of plastic that is left there. There are people staying for weeks to do this work, and there is infrared to look at what is the amount left over.
FV: And this is the way in which Burning Man gets the permit with the Bureau of Land Management in the United States. But also it’s the way in which the community self-regulates. So if you have a red flag - it means that for each square metre of camp, you had more than, I don't remember, like, two cubic centimetres of trash - you don't get placed the next year.
OF: Oh. OK, it’s quite rigorous. So you'd be the person who, if you do see too much trash, you would put the red flag up.
FV: I'm the person that is going around collecting the trash, more than putting up the red flag.
OF: Yeah. And you're talking about really micro-plastics, when it comes down to it.
FV: I'm talking about a sparkle of your shiny jacket.
OF: Wow. Wow wow wow. That must be quite something when you've been in this place, there are 60,000 people, and then you are still there later when it is literally back to nothing.
FV: Yeah, it's gorgeous. These are experiences with a high level of participation. So they make it scale up to the next level.
OF: Yes. Rather than just come in, fly in, enjoy, then leave. No.
FV: I mean, you can do that. There is a lot of people that just… we use the phrase ‘plug in’, right? You arrive, you plug in…
FV: But you're missing the point.
OF: Yes. Which are these principles. So tell me about another principle.
FV: Burning Man is a place where there is no currency. You cannot buy things.
FV: You don't buy anything, one of the principles is de-commodification.
FV: The other one is immediacy.
FV: Like the amulet before, it's immediacy, you know. Like being present to what is happening in that specific moment.
FV: Do you see a door? “Oh let me see, let me check what is there.” You know, it’s not because you are in a planning mode, that “I have to go exploring a place. And so what's the criteria that I choose that I…" You’re just there, and you follow the trigger of looking inside of that door.
OF: Yes, I'm just trying to relate this to my life. Because I think I'm not an over-planner. But I am a planner. You know, when you're talking about scavenging before, I was like “OK, I'm gonna set aside two hours for scavenging.” Like, no, your point is, you're just living your normal day, and then “Oh!” You’ll just go with the flow.
OF: Mmm. And then how did these principles come out in the festival?
FV: Gifting. Gifting is another principle. So the city is more or less organised in camps. And each of them has an offering, something that they bring to Burning Man to experience.
OF: Ah. So each camp would have their own kind of installation, or whatever it might be.
FV: It could be anything. Like, it could really be a variety of things. Some of them are very simple, some of them more sophisticated. It could be, like, someone that does a bowl of fortune cookies, you know. And then you’re walking to your music concert that you have planned on your schedule for Burning Man. And then there is someone that stops you and says “Hey, you’re beautiful, do you want a fortune cookie?"
FV: You know, and then you get a fortune cookie. And this fortune cookie is what makes your day diverge to another direction.
FV: Because that's the triggering of the mind.
FV: And so you wouldn't say "No, I won't take it because I'm going to the concert,” you know. You can still say ‘No’. But it's not because there is a reason. It's just this happened, this crossed experience.
FV: And it could be anything. The logistics become easier over time, right? Because the first time that you do it, you're like “I don't know how to do this”, but then after that you do it for a while, then no problem.
OF: Yes. And as you're saying that, this is also where maybe the wonder of it might decrease, because you're just a little bit more practised.
FV: No, no. This is, I think, what makes it really amazing. The more you are engaged, the more you're actually ready to discover things that are incredible. The wonder is absolutely infinite.
FV: Of course, it's very subjective. For me, what I like to say is that you can apply the same principles to your daily life. I'm very comfortable in saying this, because that's the way I do.
OF: Got it. Well, all of this is a prelude to asking you about how you have translated this into what happens here in China, which Alex kindly introduced as the Dragon Burn? Is that what he said?
OF: So let's talk about the Dragon Burn in China. What is your role in the Dragon Burn, first of all?
FV: Well, first I have to mention that Burning Man has a community of Regionals. So there are many events all around the world that happen, inspired by the principle of Burning Man. So you go through an assessment process that involves the headquarters of Burning Man, in terms of what do you do, and there are certain practices that you have to follow.
FV: You can do a Burning Man inspired event, whatever you want. And there are also many unofficial burn-like kinds of events around. But you can also be an officially recognised regional Burning Man event. Which doesn't give you any benefits in fact, it's just like a matter of what's the process that the community is following. And there was this friend that had been living here for many years, he had this dream and interest to try to build a community of people that would make a burner event possible in this country. And so a few people started to meet, and then we started to say “OK, what do we need? We need the land, we need to find the place”. So we started to go site checking; we started to do all of the things that make you throw up a festival kind of event - like a three-day event - and the first time was 2013.
OF: OK. And you're saying ‘We’. So basically you just did everything communally? Or did you have specific tasks that you did individually?
FV: My contribution has changed over the years. At the time the team was small, and the first event was also relatively small. And the goal was to have something that could be burned as an effigy at the end of the event, and then having a gate in place. Having this idea of like the ‘welcome home’ kind of experience.
FV: A few details that would create the fact that you are participating in building these things. And this was in June, and I broke my leg in April, so my first burn was in crutches.
OF: Oh yes.
FV: And it was remarkable.
OF: This was where then? Where did you find the land?
FV: The land was so beautiful. It was in 苏州 [Sūzhōu] Lake - it was a little island inside of the lake - and it was really a majestic location. And we really wanted to keep it, but then the second year when we went back for the site check, there was a hotel being built on the campground, so we had to move.
OF: Oh god. So people bring their tents…
FV: They bring their tents; and they bring their food; and there was a stage, like kind of a music area; then there was a place where the effigy was built and burnt. Then there were a few art installations there that people brought.
OF: Like the gifts, right?
FV: Like the gifts. Someone brought ten hammocks and make a situation where there was a ‘Hammockville’. And then the community at the time was really small, and so we kind of knew each other. Over the years, one of the things that I do is building ‘Serendipitea’…
OF: There you go.
FV: …Which is much more than a teahouse of course, but…
OF: Oh hang on then. What is it?
FV: Well it’s a teahouse where you can have a serendipitous encounter. So…
FV: I provide the teahouse, I build the teahouse, it’s usually a very beautiful and comfortable space. Every year is different. So maybe you can find some things that can be done, and explore with the people that are there.
OF: Right. And that was in later years. So let's fast forward then. When it was at its height, can you explain what the Dragon Burn looked like?
FV: Every time is a ‘height’ because it's different. But let's say there was a year in 2019, the number of people were 800.
FV: The venue was in a forest in 安吉 [Ānjí] County. You walk around, and even though you have been organising the backstage and the logistics very carefully - I was one of the people who laid the two kilometres of electric cable for electricity - everything that you see, you didn't know it would be there.
FV: You have no idea that someone was bringing that thing. You knew about the temple; you knew about the effigy; you knew about the logistically organised thing. But you have no idea about what people were bringing.
OF: Yes. You create the idea, you create the space, but then what happens later is completely out of your control, right?
FV: Yeah. And that's where you are really at the burn.
FV: It’s like, you’re going around trying to see what is the next thing, you are being surprised or engaged by things that are completely strange, unique and surprising.
OF: And then do you use the same principle of ‘Leave No Trace’?
FV: Yes. Dragon Burn is an official regional event. So the idea is that you can still apply the same principles as much as you can, or want. ‘Leave No Trace’ is a great example because how can you apply a principle of ‘Leave No Trace’ from a desert where you collect every micro-plastic, to a place where trash is money for a lot of people who are doing trash collecting by themselves? You don't want to cut them out of their work, just because you have an idealistic principle of Leave No Trace. So you are transforming this into, like, 'What is the footprint that you are leaving?’ Or how can you organise your trash, so then they’re collecting.
FV: Like, you're still applying your ‘Leave No Trace’, but you leave the possibility to them to exploit the result of this process in a kind way.
FV: For the people who are participating, they do understand the principle of collective behaviour, and that's totally fine.
OF: Yeah. I mean, this ‘collective' idea, that is quite Chinese. I think people in China are more collectively minded, right? What are the parts that don't fit so well in Chinese culture? Are there parts where you feel like “Oh, this is not as easy to impart in China than it would be elsewhere”?
FV: Yeah, ‘Leave No Trace’ and de-commodification are challenging because of the way in which the context is made.
FV: People are really entangled with their phone life, and the fact that you are always on your phone, or that you carry your phone with you. And then there is also another element that is very important. It’s not a principle, but for some people it’s considered the 11th principle, for some people it’s considered the glue between the principles, which is consent. You want to make sure that people are in the same place.
FV: And so like, for example, at Burning Man if you're taking a photo of someone else, you ask.
OF: Ah. Yeah.
FV: And then when you ask, you're already entering into interaction moment, and so you are already outside of your taking-photo kind of space. Which here is of course challenging, because people are used to taking pictures even before realising the way that you behave. And Dragon Burn, as a loose community of people, has the goal to make cultural connection in an ‘aware’ way. And so that's what are the important things to cultivate.
OF: What is the name in Chinese? It must be 龙 [Lóng]…
FV: 龙焰 [Lóngyàn].
OF: 龙焰 [Lóngyàn].
FV: It’s like a flame, I think. The character is like the flame.
OF: Nice. How has it been for you to not have these outlets? Has that been tough?
FV: Yeah, there are other things that didn't happen over the years, so they happen in different ways, or with certain difficulties. There was one festival that was cancelled the day before opening the gate.
FV: So it was kinda like a little bit… So it’s been hard, the last two years have been hard. And I'm used to going to several regionals around the world, relatively regularly. So the ‘going home’ feeling is very real. There are many homes, and there are many families to which everybody can belong, and that's one of them. So it’s a missing point.
OF: Well, I want to end this conversation on a note of positivity. Because I'm still looking at your object, which is this lucky Buddha with the lucky rooster on the back. And it does typify that you do live your life in this ‘Dragon Burn’ way. In the way that you work; in the way that you impart this to your students; in the way that you are - with immediacy - picking up these little things on your scavenger hunts; in the way that you have just talked about your life today. So I think you are embodying the spirit of those ten principles.
FV: Yeah, I’ll try my best.
FV: Definitely. I’ll keep on doing that.
OF: I'm going to try and embody some of them myself. Thank you so much, Francesca.
FV: Thank you.
OF: We will go on to Part 2.
OF: So the 10 questions, Francesca. Question 1, which comes from Shanghai Daily: What is your favourite China-related fact?
FV: OK, so the China-related fact is that when you pay your taxes at the end of the year, even as a foreigner, you can get a bonus - like, you have a deduction on your taxes - because of your parents. You get a deduction for each of the living parents that you have above 60 years of age.
FV: Yeah, yeah. The lady at the Tax Office asked me “What about your parents?” “Like, what do you mean?” And then I just said “They don't live here." “It doesn't matter. You have them. They’re your parents.”
OF: Yeah, yeah. Why haven't I heard that before? That's awesome. Next question, which comes from Rosetta Stone: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
FV: Yes I do.
FV: This was an easy one, it was kind of straight on my mind, and the sentence is 读万卷书，行万里路 [Dú wànjuǎn shū, xíng wànlǐ lù].
OF: Say it again.
FV: 读万卷书，行万里路 [Dú wànjuǎn shū, xíng wànlǐ lù].
OF: No I don’t know it, go on.
FV: So it's something about reading thousands of books, or walking thousands of miles.
OF: Ah, I’ve heard it before.
FV: And there are different interpretations. Like a kind of relationship between the learning and the practising, like how you study intellectually and what do you practice? There is also a more kind of trivial version, which is like ‘read more and walk more’, which I find very appropriate. And the reason why I like this sentence is because it's connected to a very specific moment, when someone shared this sentence to me, saying “Oh, you are this kind of person”.
FV: And it was a very cool moment of friendship with a Chinese friend. And so I think I want to share it, yeah.
OF: I like it. You've inspired me now, I'll remember this. Next one, which comes from naked Retreats: What is your favourite destination within China?
FV: This was really difficult, so I picked a romantic one.
OF: Is that because you're here with me, Francesca?
FV: Yeah. So I will bring you to 重庆 [Chóngqìng].
OF: Oh 重庆 [Chóngqìng]! That’s romantic?
FV: Well no, it’s romantic because in 重庆 [Chóngqìng] there are the memories of the first time I was there in 2004. I got off a bus after many hours, and we were in front of five layers of highways…
FV: Like, a cyberpunk structure. I was like “Wow, this is great”. I'm a city lover. And before then my favourite city was Athens in Greece, and now 重庆 [Chóngqìng] is kind of like the same. You can see the turn of the river…
OF: I was gonna say that, yeah.
FV: I navigated the river a few times in my life. And there is that specific spot on the bank, where even though everything around that is constructed, you can actually go there and touch the water of the river.
FV: And that's incredible. I really have a strong legacy with that place.
OF: It’s funny because this is the third season of this show. And no-one’s mentioned anything about 重庆 [Chóngqìng]. Until this season, where suddenly the world is converging on 重庆 [Chóngqìng]. And this is where you were the most Italian, because your hands were waving in the air about all these structures flying. Everything is so mountainous, right? And so to build a road, as you say, you've got to build these roads on top of roads and all these layers. It's really fascinating to see that, isn't it?
FV: Yeah, also the only place in China with no bicycle.
FV: That's why I said it’s romantic. I have this very strong emotion from the first time I was there. And every time this is really bubbling in my heart. Yeah, it's really strong.
OF: Nice. Next question, if you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least.
FV: Well, the thing I will miss the most: the random conversations with strangers. The fact that you walk out into the street, and for some reason your start talking about, I don’t know, philosophy or literature or soccer or playing cards or KTV with anybody. From the guy who you're buying your dumpling from, or from the taxi driver, or whoever. There is always a conversation starting. This is the way in which I study Chinese.
OF: Yes, yes.
FV: And this is marvellous. You know?
OF: Yes. In groups, sometimes strangers in China can be very tough. You know, they will just run over you, they will not wait for you, they will push into a lift when you're coming out. All that kind of stuff is true. But then individually sometimes the opposite is true, with strangers. And they will come up to you, and engage with you. Like “What?" And that's the best part about living in a place like this.
FV: Yeah, and I'm one of the people who starts the conversation.
OF: Oh you start it!
FV: Oh yeah, yeah.
OF: Oh nice.
FV: The fact that you can go and say “Oh, nice haircut”, you know. Like, I do it. And in Italy it would be considered just mad or like kind of harassment but here it’s just like… iI really really love it.
OF: This is where I don't know if it's a China thing, or if it's just a being a foreigner thing. And maybe they’re like "Because she's Italian, maybe I'll allow her.” You don't know, right?
FV: I have observed enough people to see that strangers talk by themselves as well. You could say “Well, mind your business” you know. But at the same time it's very delicate and so evanescent. It’s so easily disappearing, that who cares, you know?
FV: It’s like yes, we are still on the same planet, breathing the same air, so why not?
OF: Yes. This is a bit like Burning Man. This is a bit like, it’s in the moment, and then it's gone. That was a piece of art in your interaction.
FV: Maybe, maybe. I see what you mean. Maybe, maybe.
OF: What about the thing that you'd missed the least?
FV: I don't like people who complain about China all the time.
FV: Just being here, I’m really a little bit tired of that. Everybody can be discontent, that's fine.
FV: But there are ways and ways to express your discontent.
FV: And I don't think that there is a duty to be positive, but we could be a little bit more humble, you know. And find the appropriate space for expressing concerns.
OF: There you go. Next question, is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
FV: Yes, that's what I call the ‘grey zone’.
OF: I think I know what you mean. Go on.
FV: It’s the concept that impossible things are possible. And nothing is really determined. There is always a way, there are many degrees of separation between reality and unreality, possibility and impossibility. You can see it in every aspect of life, for the good, for the bad. But it's a very unique feature. And I keep being surprised by the way in which it can manifest.
OF: Mmm. Can you think of one example?
FV: You know, you’re on a bus and you're making sure with the driver that the bus is arriving at the South Station and not at the North Station. And “Yes, of course it's arriving at the South Station.” And then you arrive at the North Station, but he arranges a guy that is going to drive you to the South Station, you know. And then you're angry at him because you are in the wrong place, and he told you the other thing. But at the same time, how can you be angry with someone who's organising a lift for you to the place where you want to go? This was in 武汉 Wǔhàn back in the day, but it’s still nice.
OF: Nice. Yeah. Next question, which comes from SmartShanghai: Where is your favourite place to go out, to eat or drink or hang out?
FV: Can I mention a place that doesn't exist any more?
OF: Oh! Let’s time travel, sure.
FV: My favourite place for sure is Shelter.
FV: Like, that was like home.
OF: It was an underground club, right?
FV: It was an underground place, also an extremely vibrant, electronic techno scene. Like, musically one of the very sophisticated places for music culture. I'm not nostalgic, I think it was just really a very good place.
OF: Next question, what is the best or worst purchase you’ve made in China?
FV: It was something I ordered from Beijing. I asked a friend to bring it to me, they’re very hard to find here. It’s one of these very thick coats that they use to cover the doors in Beijing restaurants. Made with this green, military, very hard fabric. It’s like a windshield for places without the door.
FV: I live in a house in which the kitchen is open to the garden. And I’ve had one of these for 12 years in my place. And it allows me to be able to cook in the freezing winter, with no problem.
OF: Wow. Why is it so hard to find?
FV: Because it's not really used here. In Beijing it’s used on top of the door. So when you open the door, there is this kind of transition where the freezing air is not coming in. But here the winter is not that cold, so it doesn't really have the function of being a windshield. But for someone that doesn't have a door in the house…
OF: …That’s useful. We haven't talked about how long you actually have been in China. How long ago was it that you were in Beijing?
FV: It was early 2010.
OF: OK. What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
FV: Hahaha. OK, so the first one is like a satanic bunch of weirdo people in a circle, hand in hand and jumping around a star or something.
FV: So it's this feeling of community.
OF: Right. That totally fits in.
OF: I mean, do you use with your Dragon Burn crowd?
FV: It’s more related to something that reminds me of friendships, so…
FV: So it would be more connected to a Christmas dinner than a Dragon Burn crowd.
FV: And then this one, there is a huge field of grassland with, like, this hole in the middle. And everybody is just running to the hole and jumping into the hole. It’s completely nonsensical and meaningful in any situation where you want to leave people with this sense of like, “Wait, what just happened?”
OF: "What does she mean?”
FV: Yeah. It's OK. That's what I mean, you know?
OF: Oh, I love it. That is one that I'm going to start using.
OF: Perhaps on the daily.
OF: Let’s move on. Next question, what is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
FV: Well, it’s a song called 海阔天空 [Hǎikuòtiānkōng] by Beyond, which means like ‘Under a Vast Sky’, I don't exactly know the translation. And Beyond is a Hong Kong rock band from the 80s, like 1980-something. And they're just great. I mean, it's pop rock, but at the same time they have these guitar riffs that are amazing. And they sing in Cantonese, which is the ultimate musical thing.
OF: Well this is where I have to interrupt you, because it's so difficult to sing in Cantonese. How the hell do you do that?
FV: I don't sing the Cantonese.
OF: You don’t?
FV: I pretend to sing the Cantonese thing, of course!
OF: Yes. I don't know if I'll ever ever feel brave enough to sing a song in Cantonese.
FV: Come to karaoke with me and then I’ll show the way.
OF: What was it called again?
FV: It’s 海阔天空 [Hǎikuòtiānkōng].
OF: Yeah, and that's Mandarin. But do you have a clue how you say it in Cantonese?
FV: No. No no no, of course not.
OF: OK. And finally, and this comes from JustPod, which is the studio where we're in right now: What or who is your biggest source of inspiration in China?
FV: I think it’s my bicycle guy. This guy has been fixing my bicycle for the past 12 years. We don't talk that much, but I take him as an example and a symbol of all of the people who are making and tinkering their own things, that you see walking in the street. And you see everybody doing adjustments, or some changes, or some fixing, or some personalisation. The way that he fixes the bicycle, he basically most of the time uses a hammer.
FV: So it's the source of inspiration because you go there with a problem, and then nowadays I'm going to say "Let's see how he’s going to use the hammer this time.” Will he smash a piece, or is he cracking something, or is he completely displacing something else? But whatever the process is, he always gives me back a bicycle that is working perfectly.
FV: I have a very old-school bike, and the surprise of the process for me, it's a good metaphor.
OF: Oh absolutely. Yeah, the realness of that work, and the handicraft…
FV: The handicraft.
OF: …Of knowing how to use that one tool to fix something, which normally you would say “Oh I’ll just throw it away and buy a new one”. But yeah, he can fix it. I love it. Thank you so much.
FV: Thank you.
OF: I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you. I think a lot of the stuff is going to bubble in my mind after this conversation, things that I can change in my life. Before you leave, let me ask you the important question. Which is, out of everyone you know in China, who would you recommend that I interview in the next season of Mosaic of China?
FV: I want you to invite Temple Rat.
OF: Temple Rat?
OF: This is a person, or…?
FV: This is person.
FV: It’s the artistic name of a musician and DJ. She's a friend of course, but she's my favourite electronic and techno DJ in the country. But she's also an 二胡 [èrhú] musician and producer. She's producing music with a lot of cultural influence on the stage and on the music part.
OF: Oh, I love it.
FV: I think she's brilliant. I think she's a great soul and a great musician. So I think it's a good piece of the Mosaic.
OF: Woah, brilliant. I agree. And if you could ask Temple Rat one question, what question would you ask her?
FV: If you would be the creator of a sound that already existed, that you know, which sound would it be?
OF: Oh. Nice. That is a very abstract question, I appreciate that. Let's see how she tackles it.
OF: Thank you so much Francesca.
FV: Thank you Oscar.
OF: There are lots of images alongside today’s episode, so be sure to see what Dragon Burn looks like; to see Francesca’s object, the rooster pendant; to see her favourite WeChat stickers; and so on. If you’re on WeChat, make sure to add me there so that I can invite you to one of the listeners groups. There are about 2,000 of us there now, spread over a few groups, and I’ve shared a link there to the Dragon Burn official WeChat account, in case you want to learn more. And speaking of learning more, if you were inspired by Francesca’s affinity with the Chinese countryside, then you should definitely listen to my chat with the rural architect Chen Haoru, from Episode 05 of this season.
As with every main episode of the show, there’s a longer version of my interview with Francesca available on the PREMIUM version, on Patreon or Apple Podcasts Subscriptions internationally, or on 爱发电 [Àifādiàn] in China. Just search for mosaicofchina on those platforms. And here are some clips from what you’ll find there from today’s show:
FV: There’s a hotpot restaurant at Burning Man.
FV: You are in the middle of a desert that is very harsh. And you have to survive.
FV: I don't believe in this distinction that design is for selling, and art is for some kind of intellectual exercise.
FV: Your body completely disengages to the relationship of payment transactions.
OF: Obviously you can tell people who are there for the burn, right?
FV: Yeah. You're chatting on the highways.
FV: I was in Laos for 72 hours. It was not a very great idea, in terms of a lot of things.
FV: Coming back can be shaky sometimes, because…
OF: I mean, yeah. Because I feel that after any holiday. I'm like “Eurgh, I’m back to my real life.”
FV: When people ask me “What do you do?” I say “Like, in which part of the day?”
FV: Apparently you are supposed to visit your parents at least once a year.
OF: Oh! By law.
FV: By law.
[End of Audio Clips]
OF: Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. Stick around after the music for a catch-up conversation with the person who referred Francesca to the Mosaic, the clean energy entrepreneur Alex Shoer, from Season 02 Episode 11. And I’ll see you back here next time.
AS: Hello hello?
OF: Hi Alex.
AS: Hello Oscar. Can you hear me OK?
OF: I can hear you; I can see you. A sight for sore eyes.
AS: Likewise, likewise.
OF: Well, when we first talked - last season, in Season 02 - you had been trapped outside of China and you'd been making it work living outside, hopping between places on the east coast of the States and the west. And then you settled on a houseboat in Sausalito. You were still working China times, and you had every intention of making your way back. So where are you right now?
AS: Yeah, great question. I am currently residing in Brooklyn, New York.
AS: And it's been home for the last year and a half, or so. And I met someone new as well, and I brought her east from California. I continue my China hours journey, I've primarily been running my business, Seeder Clean Energy, which has actually picked up quite a bit with the China energy crisis. You know, coal prices and everything going very high, and a lot of renewed interest in renewable energy, especially due to the increased enforcement of the Chinese government renewable energy targets and emission standards.
OF: Well, just to remind people who didn't hear your original episode, we mainly talked about the ups and downs of the solar industry over the last 10 years. So drastic were those ups and downs that we called it ‘the solarcoaster’. And it's really nice to hear that we are now going up again. Is it just solar? It sounded like you are doing more than just solar these days.
AS: That is correct. Mostly, we're looking at general renewable energy procurement now. So that's typically solar or wind energy. Last year, the Chinese government started allowing large corporations in China to actually purchase renewable energy directly through the power exchange. So that has been the thing that honestly we've been waiting for, for 10 years or more. Finally, it's achievable to purchase renewable energy at scale, and to have the credible claim on that renewable energy. It's only in certain provinces, and there are still challenges with getting access to enough renewable energy and negotiating the contracts, because they're very much like one-off bilateral negotiations. But a lot of big corporates are now finally ready to purchase renewable energy. So we're looking at solar, wind, a little bit of hydro, there's even some people who are interested in nuclear. Pretty excited about that.
OF: It's so interesting. And of course, it all depends on the laws that get passed, and the regulations. That really is what your story was about. It was, of course, about the renewable energy industry, but it was broadly more about how China regulates anything. And we have seen how it affected your business. We saw recently, since you left, a similar thing happened in the education industry. I couldn't help but think about your story when those things were happening in that industry. Sudden regulations causing a different kind of rollercoaster. It was one of those moments where I felt “Wow, maybe I am finally starting to learn how China works”.
AS: Yeah, that's such a good observation. I didn't think anyone else picked up on that besides me, but I'm glad that you did. It is one thing, and then it's another. So yeah, it's a challenging situation to be in, if you're running a business.
OF: Yes. So anyone who wants to hear about that story, definitely go back and listen to Alex's original episode, it will teach you how industries can change overnight. It's interesting, because… Well, your story still is a China story. You know, that's where you were able to turn your passion and your dream into your career. So you being in the States now, this is the first time really that you're working in this industry in the States, or in fact really anywhere with one foot outside of China. What does that make you think about, in terms of the differences? Does it make you look back on your experiences in China in a slightly different light?
AS: Yeah, great question. It does make me appreciate some things, especially the relative ease for me of doing business in the US. I mean, just being able to speak a common language and be able to read a contract with ease, it does just change the dynamic of the pace at which I can make decisions. And a little bit more confidence in terms of the framework I'm operating in. That's one aspect. But the downside is that we do spend a lot of time with politics here, in terms of getting regulations, and policies, and political debates, and discourse. And it's exhausting, especially if you're trying to get me thing done. If you want to change things, if you want to move things forward, it's a very lengthy, very cumbersome process to make change happen. And often that change only lasts two or four years until the next cycle, or next election. So I do really miss the long-term planning of China in particular. There's something beautiful about being able to create a 30 year plan and work backwards in five year increments to that plan. As someone who is very focused on the future - and my whole passion and mission around climate change and renewable energy - it is a much easier framework to work within. And then also just the lack of manufacturing capacity in the West, I think it's still…
OF: Oh right, yeah.
AS: It’s such a challenge. I mean, everything is waiting on a supply chain somewhere else. For example, with solar and wind, a big challenge is just getting the products into the country. And the ones that are made here tend to be more expensive. So pros and cons, that is for sure.
AS: And still not comfortable with either side. I would love a hybrid.
OF: Yes. It's fascinating. Could you say one is a more predictable chaos than the other? I don't know, right?
AS: Yeah, I don't think so. It's hard to say.
OF: Nothing is simple, is it? Dammit!
AS: No it isn’t.
OF: You being in Season 02, you are sandwiched between the person who referred you from Season 01, and the person who you referred to Season 03. So let me start with your connection to Greg Nance from Season 01. Have you been in touch with him?
AS: We actually met face to face when he started his run across the United States in Brooklyn, New York. I ran the first mile with him. And it was great to send him off on his way. And he's running across the country to raise awareness around mental health and addiction for young people. That was the first time seeing him in person. And it was such a good moment. And it was great to see him doing his thing, and hitting his stride. No pun intended.
OF: Ha. Your catch-up will of course be tacked on to the end of the person who you referred to Season 03, which was our mutual friend Francesca. So how about you and Francesca, have you been in touch?
AS: Yes, we've been in touch, especially given our active roles in the Burning Man world. There are a lot of overlapping communities. She is someone who I think of when I need a smile. She's got incredible energy. And she gives great hugs. So if you ever get the chance, get a good hug from Francesca.
OF: That's a nice way to wrap this up. As well as saying congratulations, I know that when you mentioned you have come to the east of the States with your partner, that you recently got engaged. So Mazel Tov to you.
AS: Yes. Thank you very much. Yeah, life life goes on. It's kind of crazy how fast time flies. I cannot believe how long I lived in Shanghai, and I cannot believe how long I've been gone from Shanghai. Both numbers shock me.
OF: Yeah. Well it's great to see your face, Alex. Thank you again for being a part of this Mosaic, and I look forward to keeping in touch.
AS: Same here. Thank you so much for all you do. And I'm so glad this is continuing on. It's been an amazing inspiration for me hearing all the awesome people. Keep it going!