In 1988 I met China – and Xiamen -- for the first time. Since then I have seen amazing changes in the appearance of the city and in the living situations of my friends and colleagues. Babies have grown-up, students have become professors, middle aged friends have retired, and some elders have passed on. The city, too, has changed.
Way Back When: 1988-89
In 1988 I came to Xiamen University to give a series of lectures on art and visual perception (my book, Principles of Visual Perception视觉原理 had been translated and published by Beijing University in 1986). I was told that (except for hired teachers) I was the first foreign visitor to spend more than one day on the campus – I stayed for five days. Wei Chuanyi 魏传义, Dean of the newly established College of Art Education 艺术教育学院, showed me plans for a new modern building to house the art and music departments. We stood together on the windy beach in chilly early spring drizzle, gazing at the empty space, imagining the futuristic new building that one day would stand there. Dean Wei and Hong Ruisheng 洪瑞生, Chair of the Art Department, hosted me to dinner at an upstairs “snail restaurant” outside the back gate across from Namputou Temple. I began to fall in love with Xiamen.
The Xia Da Art Department invited me to return the following year to conduct my Ph.D. field research -- an anthropological study of contemporary ink painters and art education. I arrived on April 1, as the Art Department’s very first foreign Visiting Scholar. A private Chinese language tutor was arranged: Yao Cixin 姚慈心, a retired professor of Chinese as a Foreign Language, lived a 10 minute climb up the hill from the guesthouse where I would live.
The new Art building was still a dream and the art classrooms were tucked into various nooks and crannies scattered about the campus. I attended daily painting and drawing classes for 3rd year ink painting 国画majors. My favorite class was Hong Huizhen’s 洪惠镇Landscape Painting 山水画. The Art Department Office had a TV set, and every day at noon students and faculty would gather there to watch the CCTV news.
I was invited to regular faculty meetings where I noticed many teachers actually sleeping or reading books instead of paying attention to Dean Wei’s lengthy discourses about “serving the people”. To me, however, it was all new and fascinating.
My anthropological research required me to understand Chinese perceptions and perspectives, to learn acceptable Chinese behavior, and to avoid being too much associated with other foreigners. I lived in San Hao Lou 三号楼, a small two-story guesthouse for short-term Chinese visitors. As the first foreigner ever to stay there, I seemed to make Xiao Ji, the guest house manager, rather nervous. My Chinese language at the time was very primitive, and so Xiao Ji would often draw simple pictures to explain his meaning, or he would speak to me in an extremely loud voice -- as one would do with a deaf or retarded person. His daughter, Weiwei, seven years old and curious; liked to visit me in my 2nd-floor room. We played simple card games like “War”, and she would inspect my purse and personal belongings. One day I showed Xiao Ji that I could open a locked door using a plastic credit card (virtually unknown in China at the time) – and I gave him the (expired) credit card. After that, in his eyes, I seemed to have graduated from being a “stupid foreigner” to a “clever foreigner”.
Qin Jian秦健 a graduate student in Oil Painting and the only person in the art department who could speak English – was “assigned” to be my research assistant. Qin and I quickly became intellectual soul mates as he was just as curious about all aspects of American culture as I was about Chinese culture. Su Li 苏力, an undergraduate art student with basic English skills was also “assigned” to me. A native of Xiamen and Gulangyu, he quickly became my trusted “local guide” and led me through the rabbit-warrens of local painting supply shops, teaching me how to assess the characteristics of various brushes and to test the absorbency of various papers.
I made friends with Janice Engsberg (英健 – an American visiting professor in the Journalism Department from about 1988 - 1996). Jan and I often walked or biked together from the campus to downtown to eat lunch, go shopping, and ruminate about our perceptions of Chinese culture.
At that time you could buy almost anything in the Number One Department Store -- kitchen gadgets, hardware, bedding, yard goods. The only place we could find a cup of coffee was the old Lujiang Hotel whose entrance swarmed with money-changers and taxi drivers. We would sit and talk in the hotel’s dreary coffee-shop, watching with amusement as prostitutes casually struck up conversations with the male customers. Occasionally we would spend pennies to eat local specialties in a tiny crowded, smokey hole-in-the-wall restaurant named Hao Qing Xiang 好青香.
At that time, the only “ring road” around Xiamen island was an unpaved trail. Once you left Xia Da’s Bai Cheng gate 白城门, you were immediately in the countryside. One day Jan, myself, and David Wank (王大伟a Harvard sociology student doing PhD research at Lujiang University) spent a whole day – from early morning until well after dark -- circumnavigating the island by bicycle, pedaling through villages, resting at local temples, and admiring the new “rich peasant architecture” made possible by the improving rural economy.
In early June, the University closed and all the foreigners left –except for me, Jan, and a Polish-American journalist. Wei Chuanyi and I were featured on Xiamen TV making visits to various elementary schools where I demonstrated truly horrible skill in painting bamboo. This seemed designed to assure the local population that life was getting on as normal.
I spent much of the summer in Nanjing 南京and Xuzhou 徐州, where I lived with Qin Jian, his wife, their one-year old son, and his grandmother, who had bound feet. Qin Jian salvaged my research by arranging interviews with numerous local artists and professors at Nanjing Teachers University. By August, travel was less restricted, and I returned to Xiamen for the fall semester.
The Middle Years: 1991-2003
In November 1989. I returned to the US, -- but longed to return to China and to my friends in Xiamen. In 1991, 1993, and 1995, I financed return trips to Xiamen by bringing delegations of American artists and designers to visit Chinese art schools and art departments in Guangzhou, Xiamen, Suzhou, and Nanjing. Xiamen was always the highlight. The new Art Education College building was finally completed, and all art classes and departments were united in a lofty setting high above the ring road and the beach. As a result of her trip, one of the group members, Maggie Siner 塞湄议, learned Chinese and returned to teach oil painting at Xiamen University in 1992, 1998, and 2004.
Qin Jian completed his Master’s Degree and become a teacher in the Xia Da Art Department. His grandmother died, and his wife and son joined him in Xiamen. Qin Jian constantly complained about how “naughty” his son was. and worried constantly that he would not have a good future. In 1992, my PhD dissertation completed, I accepted a teaching job at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota FL. In 1993, Maggie Siner and I sponsored Qin Jian as a visiting artist to the US.
In 2004 or so, Linda Rosenbluth 饶琳达,President of Sarasota Sister Cities Association asked me, as a local China expert, to head a study committee to explore the possibility of a Chinese sister city. The committee – which included other China experts – almost immediately agreed that Xiamen was the ideal match for Sarasota. However, Xiamen already had an American sister city: Baltimore. But yuan fen 缘份 was on our side: Youxie 中国人民友好协会changed the rules to allow districts 区 to have sister city relationships. The Xiamen government supported a relationship between Siming District 思明区and Sarasota萨拉索塔 佛拉理达 . In June 2007, a 6-person delegation from Sarasota, including Mayor Lou Ann Palmer 宝陆安, traveled to Xiamen for the first signing ceremony. In October a 6-person delegation from Siming District came to Sarasota for the final signing ceremony – and our sister city relation was on!
In 2008, an entry from Xiamen to Embracing Our Differences was accepted. In April 2009, Luo Ping罗萍 and Zheng Shenglong郑盛龙two artists from Xiamen University visited Sarasota for two weeks. An entry from Shen Hongying深鸿英, a first grade student at Xiamen’s Egret River Elementary School 鹭江新城小学won Best in Student Division, which brought a $US1000 award to the school, which I presented to the school in person in June 2009. In addition, medals and certificates of excellence from Florida Studio Theater were presented to five 5th-grade girls for their a play “The New Snow White”. The awards made the front page of Xiamen Daily as well as local TV coverage.
Qin Jian is now a professor, and Chair of the Multimedia Department in the Art College at Xiamen University. He has sent many students to successfully study abroad. His son, now 21, is an art student in the Netherlands; he speaks fluent English and is quite a thoughtful young man. Su Li runs a successful design business in Xiamen
The new Art building is now old and a new building is on the drawing board.
Wei Chuanyi (now 81 years old), Hong Ruisheng, and Hong Huizhen are all retired. Yao Cixin passed away several years ago from cancer. Large scrolls -- pine trees and calligraphy by Hong Huizhen, shore birds by Wei Chuanyi -- and a small painting of a plum tree by Teacher Yao all hang on the walls of my home, so every day I am surrounded by friends from Xiamen.
Several years ago Janice Engsberg (Ying Jian), a victim of Parkinson’s disease, returned to the U.S. where she is living with good friends. David Wank is a Sociology Professor at Sophia University in Tokyo and is the author of several books based on his research in Xiamen.
Weiwei is now 27 years old, a graduate of Lujiang University, and an English teacher. Her father has just retired. San Hao Lou was torn down years ago.
Like many of the shops along Zhongshan Lu, the Number One Department Store has completely lost its local flavor. It is now bright and glittery and sells only national and international brands. Hao Qing Xiang has become an up-scale restaurant with two locations in Xiamen; it still serves local specialties, and has wisely refrained from including any English on its menu.
Carolyn M Bloomer, Ph.D. / 白伦美博士
Professor: Ringling College of Art and Design (Sarasota FL)
云凌美术设计学院 / 萨拉索塔吉佛罗理达
Director for Sister City relations between Sarasota FL and Siming District (Xiamen)