2

Why is a Delft vase like a zipper bag?

Europeans can have an uncanny sense of recognition when observing certain aspects of Chinese popular culture. I just had such a moment when, absent-minded, my eyes fell on a zipper bag I bought in China years ago:

Food bag, acquired in eastern China, taken home to western Europe, photographed by author.

Not only had I transported words such as ‘sweet’ and ‘breakfast’ back from China to Europe – this was weird enough, because these words mean completely different things in China where the bag was sold (in as far as English words in Latin script make any sense at all), than in Europe, the place where the words had come from and which I had now brought them back to.

But the bag also pictured a series of household items which, in this style and combination, seem designed to evoke a snug English cottage, or perhaps a Polish farmstead kitchen, a nice old-fashioned home in the Romanian country-side, or any other place sitting firmly on the European continent. The coffee-pots, the loaf of bread, the stew pot, the single-leafed apple: they are European images, or else images associated with European settler cultures – please correct me if I’m wrong. And these images have become part of a European nostalgia, a nostalgia for the perfect home, imagined perhaps to have existed in the late nineteenth or the early twentieth century, a home, one might daydream, where there would always be a mother, a grandmother, a sister at home to tend the flowers in the garden and put them in the old coffee-pot.

Yet as if such nostalgia isn’t unsettling (and delicious) enough, the European viewer is here also confronted with an outsider’s perspective on his or her private nostalgia. To the Asian producer of this bag, the existing, European nostalgia apparently made enough sense to use it for marketing purposes. Although the objects on the bag and the nostalgia attached to them probably have a different meaning to its Chinese users than to most Europeans (for one thing, bread in China tastes completely different from bread in Europe) – something must ‘click‘ for them.

And although a rooted European will never be able to gauge exactly what these images mean to someone raised within Chinese culture, the European user nevertheless senses that the images have changed in the process of cultural transfer: not just because they are now surrounded by Chinese characters, but because they have been reimagined by someone with a different cultural baggage. The coffee-pot, the loaf of bread, all so familiar to me, have undergone a process of estrangement, of alienation. They have left my kitchen, circled the globe, and come back to me with a twist – a twist that might feel uncanny, because I do not know what has happened to them.

However, if I were to go and live in China, the uncanny feeling would no doubt weaken: my alienation is only a lack of cultural knowledge.

And the feeling also becomes less strong if I take a look at our shared history. For many Europeans, China has the name of being a culture of imitation: Chinese factories, Chinese pop singers, Chinese fashion designers, they say, take ‘western’ ideas and reproduce them more cheaply. Of course this stereotype ignores a vast range of ideas, fashions, technologies and tastes that originate in China itself. But what’s more, it ignores Europe’s own history of imitation.

Painted pot and lid with Chinese figure in landscape, made in Delft (Holland) around 1750. Public domain; made availably by Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, object BK-NM-12400-114.

How will Chinese traders have felt when they first saw Delftware, which imitated Chinese porcelain including even representations of Chinese landscapes and Chinese people?

And what did the image on this vase mean to its first buyers – probably Dutch – in the mid-eighteenth century? It seems plausible that part of their satisfaction was the same as the Chinese owners of Chinese ceramics will have felt – admiration of the crafted pot, the painted surface, the landscape with the dotted bushes and the fashionable flaneur. The Delft buyers, however, will have experienced something extra: as a bonus, they were in touch with an exotic culture, one that was all the rage across the globe.

Although a plastic food bag is no dainty vase, I can imagine that the coffee-pot and the white loaf, too, bring a tiny element – not too much, because European-American images are more accessible to today’s Chinese than Chinese art was to early modern Europeans – a tiny element of the exotic into the Chinese kitchen. And back into mine.

Box the bag came in, photographed by author.

Advertisements
0

‘My greatest fear is of waiters and porters’

I am fascinated by the relation between people’s looks and the freedoms they are given by others. An important aspect of this is that I do not believe that so-called public spaces are accessible for everybody. The way people dress, or the way they behave, can be a reason for others to exclude them.

UBL01-P326N312-largeVieuxDoelen

Print of the Vieux Doelen from 1844, published by A.P. van Langenhuysen, now in the University Library of Leiden (Bijzondere Collecties).

The twentieth-century Dutch poet Gerrit Achterberg wrote an evocative poem about this – about being out of place and not feeling welcome in the poshest hotel of the Netherlands’ poshest city (translation below):

Du Vieux Doelen

Het kijken van voorbijgangers braveren.
Doen of ik iemand ben bij elke stap.
Zoals ik deed als knaap en voor de grap,
om mij daarmee allure aan te leren.

Doen of ik niemand ben en zo riskeren
te zweven tussen schouderklop en trap,
tussen toenadering en achterklap,
maar altijd dupe van de hoge heren.

Voor obers en portiers ben ik het bangst.
Een klein vergrijp tegen de etiquette
moet ik bekopen met een blik die kwetst.

Ook al beweeg ik me op ‘t allernetst,
ze blijven uit de verte op mij letten.
Het eind waaraan zij trekken is het langst.

[rough-and-ready translation:]

Hotel Du Vieux Doelen

Braving lookers-on.
At every step pretend to be someone.
Like I did as a boy for a laugh,
in order to teach myself some class.

Pretend to be no one and risk
both pats on the shoulder and kicks,
both friendly approach and backbiting,
but remaining the victim of gentlemen.

My greatest fear is of waiters and porters.
The tiniest breach of etiquette
must be paid for with glances like bayonets

However politely I move about,
they keep an eye on me from afar.
They always get the last laugh.

The poem is part of a series about The Hague, about the modernity of The Hague, and about the lonely flaneur wandering through the glittering city.

Apart from the wonderful rhyme in the original (‘kwetst’ – ‘allernetst’, etc.), this poem is also interesting for what it says about looks and belonging.

Two themes run through the whole of Achterberg’s series of poems about The Hague:

  1. the staggering modernity of department stores with customer lifts and ready-priced items, of shop girls and businessmen; and, perhaps most importantly, of huge shop windows with their live male window-dressers and lifeless female fashion mannequins.
  2. the loneliness of the man who walks through this modern space; the lack of meaningful, long-term relations he experiences; the city-dwellers’ business-like communication that is often wholly reduced to financial transactions.
622px-Eaton%u2019s_College_Street_Store_Toronto_-_ca._1930

Eaton’s Department Store, Toronto, Canada. Archives of Ontario: T. Eaton Company. Available on Wikipedia.

By the time Achterberg was writing in the 1950s, this image of the modern city already had a long tradition in European writing (Baudelaire, Zola, Simmel, Benjamin…). Although attractive enough to many, it is a limited image that stresses the experience of wealthy male observers.

However, Achterberg is a more interesting poet than what I’ve just said suggests, and one of the ways in which he shows this is in this poem about the hotel Du Vieux Doelen. Here, the protagonist is not the wealthy but alienated flaneur who buys empty luxury and empty love on the streets of the city; instead, he is an outsider, not rich and educated enough to be at home in this hotel. Meanwhile, porters and waiters are the princes of the palace.

 

The poem is taken from Gerrit Achterberg, Voorbij de laatste stad, Paul Rodenko (ed.) (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1955, 1978), p. 148.

0

Cycle for freedom

I spend much of my time debunking technological myths.

What is a technological myth? ‘The railways have democratised travel.’ You come across that one a lot.

But the social and administrative structure around the technology may well be at least as important as the technology itself. The way the business of the railways is run, matters a lot. The Trans-Siberian Express, for example, can hardly be called democratic. Those who want to approach the picture they know from the movies to any degree, have to spend many thousands of pounds; and a simple fare costs hardly less.

Photo of the similar repro-Pullman Orient Express by Simon Pielow, CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Photo of the similar repro-Pullman Orient Express by Simon Pielow. CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Rather, it is the government-regulated administration of a reliable, simple-to-use and relatively cheap system of rail transport that has made trains such a success in some countries (and not in others). And even there, it took about half a century from the introduction of passenger trains in the 1830s, to get to that point.

A technology exists, however, of which I am convinced that it is largely the technology itself that makes it so great. That is cycling.

Admittedly, effective cycling depends on surfaced roads (all-terrain biking excepted), people’s ability to cycle and to buy a bike, and some shared sense of traffic rules when the roads get very busy. But then again, it is inherently

  1. cheap. Bicycles (and monocycles, tricycles and, I hope, hand-cycles) are cheap vehicles, and cheap to repair or have repaired. Of course, it depends on where you are in the world whether they are easy to get by, but at least they are cheaper than most other means of wheeled transport (motorcycles, active wheelchairs, cars, trucks…; excepting, I suppose, roller skates).
  2. easy. Cycling is much easier to learn than driving a car.
  3. versatile, global. Although you need surfaced roads for effective cycling, which are hard to get by in many parts of the world, bikes need less room than cars, less ice than skates, less water than rowing boats… Many places around where humans live, are potentially accessible to cyclists. Of course, the good old pedestrian trumps them all…
  4. useful. Bikes do not only carry you: they carry the goods you sell, your groceries, your children…
  5. empowering. Most important of all, cyclists are independent. You don’t need anyone to ride a bike. The most common repairs you can do yourself – even though they cost some time, they require little expertise. You do not have to rely on sheikhs and oil barons getting along to hit the road.You are the one doing the moving. The bicycle is truly an auto-mobile.
This Mountaintrike, designed by Thies Timmermans, does not even need a road surface to roll. Found on http://commons.wikimedia.org. CC-BY-SA-3.0

This Mountaintrike, designed by Thies Timmermans, does not even need a road surface to roll. Found on http://commons.wikimedia.org. CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.

Not for nothing, bikes have been much-contested: people have been explicitly forbidden to ride a bicycle (servants!), and many others have been strongly discouraged, either by fears for their decency (women!) or by prohibitive parameters set by governments (obligatory helmets!). Employers, patriarchs and wealthy technological industries (such as the car industry) are no big fans of the independence cycles bring.

Jean Béraud, 'Le Chalet du Cycle au Bois de Boulogne', probably from the 1890s, found on http://french-painters.blogspot.com/2011/04/jean-beraud-1849-1935.html

Jean Béraud, ‘Le Chalet du Cycle au Bois de Boulogne’, probably from the 1890s, found on http://french-painters.blogspot.com. Free of copyright.