Saturday, June 25, 2005
East meets west, furniture-style
“I’ve heard you were in the media business before you started selling furniture.” I made an attempt to change the subject after a brief awkward silence. Mr. Li had just proclaimed “having Chinese elements in the furniture design is the most avant-garde”. But my boyfriend, whose new apartment we are moving into, had insisted on a light and airy European style; none of the heavy and intricate Ming woodwork presently crowding around me in Mr. Li’s furniture shop.
“Oh yeah. I worked for SARFT (the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television) for seven years. Before that, I was a diplomat in Europe for eleven years.”
Kristin, an expat friend of ours, had encouraged us to talk to Mr. Li about custom-made furniture. “He understands how to combine the East and the West in some very exciting designs”, she said. Excited, we invited him to visit our empty new apartment. In his late 40s and sporting a carefully trimmed balding head, he carried a patient smile and a confident ease. But his suggestions were less than exciting. We were both unwilling to make our pad into yet another slightly(or not)-fetishized display of affection for the East. As a stay-home filmmaker constantly pestered by the boyfriend to do more for “our” new apartment, I felt obliged to talk to him again to narrow our differences.
“All of the TV satellites covering China now,” he pointed to the roof, “I negotiated and bought them.” The fan buzzed loudly on the Ming bed next to us. Sweat was rolling down my back. It’s one of those sauna-like Beijing summer days. “Why did you leave that business?” I looked around again at the crowded furniture show room and asked him. The Ming bed looked like those in the hip opium-den-themed bar frequented by the expats.
“I’ve never left.” His eyes lit up. “I made a few TV programs for CCTV (China’s central Television station) while at SARFT. They are still asking me to do programs for them.”
He cited one of the most popular talk shows on TV. After talking about the show for a good 15 minutes, I finally understood that he contributed the idea, not the show. But I was glad that our conversation had evolved into something I could pretend to understand.
“I’m talking to CCTV now about a new show, around this guy I know, Mr. Liu. He’s a famous folk musician, calligrapher and composer. He spends most of his time at home reading, practicing calligraphy and playing music. His knowledge about Zen is next to none!” He exclaimed.
“What is the show about?” I imagined an old guy in long white beard and long white robe playing the ancient musical instrument Qin while slowly sipping tea and every once in a while, sighing wisely.
“It will be Mr. Liu talking about Chinese culture, using everyday situations as examples. He’s very learned and he can articulate his thoughts, which is rare among those deep in Chinese culture.”
I checked my urge to ask him about audience segmentation, targeting and all the other un-artisty questions. “That’s really cool.” I said. “When are you going to start?”
“We are still talking to CCTV. My condition to doing the show is that I have to have the international rights. But they are not willing to let go of them.”
“It’s not like they know how to sell the rights!” I shook my head in camaraderie. We shared some anecdotes on the ineptness of the state-owned behemoth.
“Exactly. Those guys have no clue what the audiences want.” Mr. Li’s all-knowing smile never faded for a second. “My proposal is to do this show in a courtyard teahouse. You know, the TV show and the teahouse business will create some great synergy together.”
“Nice.” I said.
“Of course the customers of the teahouse will mostly be expats.” He winked at me as if letting me in on a secret. “We both know that nowadays few Chinese appreciate Chinese culture. I’ve been doing seminars for the devils (author’s note: short for ‘foreign devils’, a not-so-pretty way of describing foreigners) for years on the difference between the Eastern and the Western cultures. I studied Western philosophies in college. I know what the devils want.”
If the Chinese no longer appreciate the Chinese culture, is the culture still Chinese? I played with the words, meaninglessly, for a while.
“You see, the Western culture is about the outside, about seeking and getting what one wants. So naturally it’s the culture one needs to get rich. But the Chinese culture is about the inside, about calmness, contentment and happiness. That’s why a lot of the devils are turning to the East for inspiration now.”
Funny, the East and the West I know seem to be very much the opposite as he described. But people all over the world seem to enjoy the easy access of clichés. I remember an interview I helped on as an interpreter back in April. A European documentary film crew visited Beijing as part of their globe-trotting shooting itinerary. They interviewed a famous Beijing real-estate tycoon in a fancy hotel complex by the Great Wall. During the interview, the tycoon recounted a Zen story about whether the flying flag is caused by the blowing wind or our restless mind. At the lunch table after the shoot, the director and the cameraman exchanged exclamations:
“man, that was so deep”,
“exactly the sound bites we are looking for”,
“He’s a busy businessman yet he has such deep thought”,
“only in the East”...
Every one of the crew of 11 nodded in deep reflection. For a moment, I thought about leading the crew to a local bookstore to buy some comic books of the popular Zen stories.
“The thing is,” Mr. Li took a sip of tea, “we’ll have to market the show to the Western audience first. In each episode of the show we’ll play some different traditional music. The laowais (another term for foreigners) know how to appreciate the Chinese culture. The Chinese right now want all things Western. Once they see the laowais want Chinese culture, they will come back to their roots. Like Mr. Liu. Before a Belgian museum invited him over to do a show last year, the Chinese Calligraphy Association wouldn’t admit him. Now they beg him to be their board member. ”
We sighed and shook our heads in sync. “At the end of the day, the East provides true happiness. But we have to have this round-about way to reeducate the Chinese.” He added.
Thunder clapped through outside. It had turned dark. I wished for a hail storm, frequent in Beijing this summer, to clean the stuffy air and to accompany the meaty discussion inside.
A pretty young girl in heavy makeup and mini-skirt poked her head in. Mr. Li waved at her and pointed to the door leading to the courtyard inside. Some disco songs in English had started playing. “We are having a barbecue party.” He explained.
“A couple of weeks ago a Tibetan lama visited me here.” He refilled both of our tiny pretty ceramic teacups as the girl click clocked by us in her high heels. “The lama said that at the core of each of us is the soul, the wisdom. The rest of our body is just a dirty vessel.” Laughter escaped through the door as the girl opened it and went in. A breeze meandered through the room, pulling with it a hint of cool moisture.
“If we discover our true selves, we will find the wisdom deep in each of us. Education and learning won’t help us much.” He slowly sank into a peaceful reminiscence. “Look at Bill Gates. He’s not very educated but he’s super successful. The lama pointed out to me that Bill Gates is the type who has found true wisdom, which is why they are so rich. So if we all discover the wisdom within, we’ll all be successful.”
Raindrops began hitting the roof and the windows haphazardly, which distracted me a little. I kept on sipping tea and nodding my head slightly, pretending to be in deep reflection of his words. I’d done my share, I thought. Now my boyfriend could no longer accuse me of not caring about our new apartment or the furniture designs…