Souvenir from Shanghai – Ai Weiwei and his fighting against imprison of art

This weekend for the first time in its history the Royal Academy of Arts is opening their galleries around the clock for the entire final weekend of Ai Weiwei –  56 hours nonstop!!!

screen shot

Screen capture by author, 13 Dec 2015.

Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most influential artists. What makes him so special and famous is his talent – thought-provoking art projects, as well as his struggle against China’s authority.  But interestingly, his exhibition in RA started while China’s chair man Xi Jinping was visiting UK – the authority and the one struggling with the authority visiting London at the same time. It might have some political meaning or it might not…

‘Souvenir from Shanghai, 2012’ (Cat.19 in the exhibition) is a concrete and brick rubble from the Ai Weiwei’s destroyed Shanghai studio, set in a Qing dynasty (1644–1912) rosewood bed frame.


Ai Weiwei’s ‘Souvenir from Shanghai’, photo by author, 25 Oct 2015, in RA.

The story behind this project is though provoking. Approximately two months before the Sichuan earthquake, the city government of Shanghai approached Ai with an invitation to build a studio in the nearby agricultural area of Jiading as part of a new cultural district. Although he initially demurred, the artist changed his mind and designed a building with an undulating roofline and a central courtyard.


A model of Ai Weiwei’s home and studio in front of ‘Souvenir from Shanghai’, photo by author, 25 Oct 2015, in RA.

But by the time the project was realised in 2010, Ai’s relationship with the authorities had soured. He had published his criticism of the Beijing Olympics in such international publications as The Guardian; campaigned vociferously for the rights of the families of  earthquake victims, as well as those affected by the tainted infant formula that caused the deaths of six children and illness in over 300,000 during the summer of 2008; and suffered a beating by the Chengdu police. The Shanghai authorities suddenly notified him in August 2010 that he had failed to apply for the proper building permits and that his studio would be demolished. They razed it on 11 January 2011, yet paid Ai more in compensation than it had cost him to build.

Ai’s art has a clear characteristic which is political-themed.

Everything is art. Everything is politics.

(web resource)

Some opinions collected by myself around me:

  1. The power of decision making in nowadays China is still hold in the hands of a small number of people and others do not have the rights to speak against the decision makers.  Like in the feudal age.
  2. China is making progress on these issues but it takes a long time to finish the transforming and the country is in the middle of it. Just give it time.
  3. Ai Weiwei is a fake-artist who is good at pleasing the western public and politicians with claptrap-themes which are against China so they can put their fingers into China’s internal issues. The western would like to reach the conclusion that communism is not going to work so China would follow the westerns’ guidance.


Did you just ask what’s my opinion? Well, Ai Weiwei’s exhibition is the easiest one for me to understand among all the art exhibitions I have visited  🙂



ps.  13 Dec is a national memorial day for Nanking Massacre (AKA The Rape of Nanking).  May there be peace in the world for good.




Bracker, A. (2015). Ai Weiwei: An Introduction to the Exhibition for Teachers and Students. Available: Last accessed 13/12/2015.

Royal Academy of Arts. (2015). Ai Weiwei. Available: Last accessed 13/12/2015.

Bing’s Souvenir Poker Cards

Bing is a strong Chinese woman in her late 2os, and she has been a traveller for many years. She is from Heilongjiang Province and came to UK to study in 2010 and went back to China this year. Her plan is to run a youth hostel in Harbin.

Her story with souvenirs were started by a set of poker cards she bought in the Forbidden back in the winter of 2006.

Li Bing's Forbidden City Poker Card

Bing’s first set of souvenir poker card. Themed on Forbidden City. Photo provided by Bing, 24/Nov/2015. Same below. 

“I bought this set of poker cards because each card of it has a thorough and detailed introduction of an ancient building in the Forbidden City. It is a souvenir comes with knowledge of the place I have visited – it can help me understand the place better. Also, it is quite small so easier to carry home than other souvenirs. Not so likely to be broken and it is easier to keep.” Bing said.

After nine years of collection, Bing’s poker cards have reached a certain number. Most of them were bought at the site of interest, but some of them came from some special shops which only sell cards.

“I don’t might where the cards are produced. It would not affect my opinion and feelings towards them.” Bing said, “I’ve never used them as normal playing cards, they are my precious souvenirs. I store them in a safe place and take them out to have a look when I remember them or when I am in the mood.”

Li Bing's Poker Cards

Bing’s collection of souvenir poker cards.


Beside souvenirs, Bing also collects cards in other ways, like in instant noodles (in some certain era, some brands of instant noodles would put cards in the package for customers to collect. Those cards might come from pop TV dramas, novel illustrations…e.g. Pearl Princess, see below).

Cards of Pearl Princess

Bing’s card collection of TV drama, Pearl Princess. 

After collecting cards, Bing is interested in  collecting other souvenirs. When she travels to a new place, she would buy a set of poker cards, a fridge magnet and send herself a postcard.

It is possible that one of them is missing or she forgets to buy one of them, but she would not buy place souvenirs online. “Missing is missing, I accepted it as part of the place experience. I understand some people buy collections online because they want to have a ‘completed’ collection. But for me, I only want to keep the ones I take home from the places I have been to. Even I forgot to buy, I would not look for them online. It means different.”

Bing started collecting fridge magnet only 1 year ago, so “my collection is not many”, she said.

Li Bing's Fridge Magnet

Bing’s fridge magnets collection. 

Li Bing‘s postcards 2

Bing’s post cards collection, the text side.

Li Bing‘s postcards

Bing’s post cards collection, the pictorial side. 

Bing’s plan is to run a Youth Space – her own youth hostel – in Harbin next year, and she would display all her souvenir collections in the Youth Space.

Best wishes to Bing and I would update here when her Youth Space is open and continue following her souvenirs’ life.

Getting to know tie-dyeing

Hi everyone, finally I am back from fieldwork in China and can update my blog from now on.  I still cannot believe wordpress is blocked (like Facebook does) in China! Anyway, here I am~

My fieldwork in China was quite intense and now I am transcribing the interviews. Along with transcribing, I will post fieldwork story here bit by bit. I might lose my ability to speak English after 3 months in China, so bear with me and tell me whenever you spot a mistake.  Thanks a million~

Today we are getting to know tie-dyeing.  What is tie-dyeing? Let me show you a picture first:

Tie-dyed cloth. Photo by author in Dali. Feb 2015

Tie-dyed cloth. Photo by author in Dali. Feb 2015

According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, to tie-dye something is to make patterns on cloth by tying knots in it or tying string around it before you put it in a dye, so that some parts receive more colour than others.

The main Oxford Dictionary says to tie-dye is to produce patterns in (a garment or piece of cloth) by tying parts of it to shield it from the dye.

Wikipedia offered a rather confusing explanation which mixed tie-dyeing and other resist-dyeing techniques, but it got the technique right. The manipulations of the fabric prior to application of dye are called resists, as they partially or completely prevent the applied dye from colouring the fabric. Resist-dyeing techniques were found in Africa, Japan and South Asia – where Dali Zhoucheng Village (Yunnan Province, China) is.

Landscape of Dali

Landscape of Dali

Zhoucheng Bai Zu tie-dyed souvenirs plant a seed deeply in my heart when I travelled to Dali with my mom 17 years ago (1997). This traditional folk craft product of the ethnic minority Bai Zu somehow managed telling me how important authenticity is back that time. Bai Zu tie-dyeing is closely related to Bai Zu people’s life, linking various forms of traditional culture and cultural space. Also, it combined culture and art in one object; hence it has a unique and precious value and vital significance for both Bai Zu culture and Chinese culture as a whole.

The natural environment has deep influence on the ethnic nationality of Bai Zu people. Bai Zu people worship the colour white, so we are called Bai ethnic group – “Bai” means white in Chinese. “You can see our houses use white walls. We like wearing white clothes – our young people all wear white clothes. White means purity, honest and loyalty and integrity, etc., good characteristics, we worship these characteristics.” Yihui Chen, the heir of Blue-white Tie-dyeing House said.

It’s a Bai Zu ethnic tradition that young people wearing white clothes. People of Zhoucheng Village lived on hillside, they went to fields to get firewood, the indigo might coloured their white clothes, and then they discovered that the indigo can be dyestuff, and it can make beautiful blue background and white flowers cloth (Chen, 2015).

In 2006,Bai Zu tie-dyeing was listed in the first national nonmaterial cultural heritage lists (Intangible Cultural Heritage).

Now some Bai Zu tie-dyeing exist as souvenirs. In order to learn about the current situation of tie-dyed souvenirs, I decide to go to Dali again. Dali is a small and remote town in Yunnan Province (southwest China), which is an ethnic minority autonomous region inhabited by ethnic minority Bai Zu. Fieldwork site is Zhoucheng Village (see figure 2), the birth place of Bai Zu tie-dying, and naturally now the making place of most Bai Zu tie-dyeing souvenirs.

A normal street food stand in Zhoucheng Village. Photo by author. Feb 2015

A normal street food stand in Zhoucheng Village. Photo by author. Feb 2015

My fieldwork was carried in Blue-white Tie-dyeing House in Dali (the picture below), and my story is to be continued.

Blue-white Tie-dyeing House @Dali. Photo by author. Feb 2015

Blue-white Tie-dyeing House @Dali. Photo by author. Feb 2015

Wang Wei’s Beijing Opera Facial Mask beverage coaster: Transnational Home Making

Wang Wei’s Beijing Opera Facial Mask beverage coaster: Transnational Home Making

Wang Wei's set of Beijing Opera Facial Mask Coaster

Wang Wei’s set of Beijing Opera Facial Mask Coaster

To see the souvenir, and how Wang Wei handles her souvenir:

A close-up of the Beijing Opera Facial Mask beverage coaster

The placement of the Beijing Opera Facial Mask beverage coaster in Wang Wei’s:

the set of 4 Beijing Opera Facial Masks as souvenir: 

Wang Wei is a female Chinese from Tieling in Liaoning Province, which is in northeast of China. Being in her mid-twenty now, she has been living in UK for 5 years. She said she had spent the most beautiful years of her life in UK. Finishing her study in 2012, she and her Polish boyfriend (now her fiancée) moved to Reading and both found jobs in Reading. She and her fiancée mortgaged a comfortable two-story house in east Reading.

Firstly arrived in Wang Wei’s house is 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Sunlight penetrated the wide window on the wall dividing the garden and the living room. She invited me in and asked me to sit down on the sofa. While she was away in the kitchen fetching a cup of tea for me, I took the chance to observe her newly bought house. Water-blue wall paper was smoothly glued on the walls. The floor is clean. The sofa is dry, soft and clean. In front of me is a modern style glass coffee table which added extra life to the living room. The glass on the coffee table is clear and shiny, with reflection of bright window. There were some cakes and snacks on the coffee table. The coffee table has a black lower shelf, with some magazines, CDs and other things on it, well orgnised. Everything in this house were bright and new. They were new-borns in this family and were ready to have their own biography.

Wang Wei's living room

Wang Wei’s living room

While waiting for the water to boil, Wang Wei came out from kitchen, and took two beverage coasters from the black lower shelf, placed them on the coffee table. These two beverage coasters were ordinary ones, with some flowers on their surfaces.  Wang Wei went back to the kitchen and carried two mugs out with her, and placed them on the two floral beverage coasters.

Wang Wei seemed happy when we start talking about her souvenirs. She reached down to the black lower shelf, and took another beverage coaster. The souvenir Wang Wei going to introduce to me was among other mundane beverage coasters. Wang Wei’s beloved souvenir was a Beijing Opera Facial Mask beverage coaster. Like other beverage coasters, it was made of plastic and paper. What made it outstanding from other coasters, is there is an iron part in the centre of it, which can prevent the heat go through. This is a traditional Beijing Opera Facial Mask on the iron. It is an icon of China.​

Wang Wei's Beijing Opera Facial Mask Coaster

Wang Wei’s Beijing Opera Facial Mask Coaster

She bought the souvenir object in August 2012 in Beijing Capital Airport, when she and her fiancée flied back to UK from Beijing after they went to pay a visit to Wang Wei’s family in China. I interviewed Wang Wei on 25 Oct 2014 @ her home in Reading, which was two years later after their trip in which they collected this souvenir. Back in 2012, it was her first time to bring her fiancée home to see her parents. Their transnational relationship has broadened the scale of this interview immediately.

When asked should souvenirs be produced locally and why, Wang Wei gave me a clear answer. Wang Wei explains: if it is sold in a tourist attraction spot it is better to be produced in that place, because it represents that place’s character. If it is sold in transporting places like airport, she is ok with souvenirs represent a larger scale to be sold. She offered an example, she is happy to see souvenirs represent other places in China to be sold in Beijing Capital Airport.

(follow up question: buy souvenirs representing where they have not been to, representing somewhere else)

Wang Wei holds a half open opinion for out-sourced souvenirs too. Firstly she stands in sellers’ shoes: to the sellers (who sell outsourced souvenirs in a tourist attraction) there must be some benefits. As we know, if the souvenirs are produced in countries like China and India where human labour is cheaper, the purchasing price  can go down a little bit, if sold at the same price, our-sourced souvenirs can bring more benefit to souvenir shops. But for foods, Wang Wei really prefers it to be produced locally, and even on the spot, because of the freshness.

Then we talked about the usage of this beverage coaster souvenir. Wang Wei thinks a souvenir coaster should be used as a coaster: glasses should be placed on it. “When I drink a cup of tea, I place my cup on this coaster… But since it has the Beijing Opera Facial Masks design on it, I handle it more carefully.” She explains how she use the Beijing Opera Facial Mask beverage coaster.

Wang Wei prefer to collect functional and practical souvenirs which will become handy at some points. She also displays photos in well-designed frames in the house.

There is an interesting point raised in Wang Wei’s interview: this Beijing Opera Facial Mask beverage coaster does not only reminds Wag Wei of beautiful and wonderful memories, but also unpleasant memories. “Every time I saw it it reminds me the flight in Beijing Capital Airport was delayed for two hours that day… Hehe… And how helpless my fiancée and I were…” Wang Wei’s face expression showed her unpleasantness was true and the souvenir did remind her about the unlucky times. But she indicated that she will keep this souvenir, no matter what.

In my opinion this souvenir plays a more important role in Wang Wei’s home-making which she herself has not thought of yet. Wang Wei originally came from China and now living in Britain with her Polish fiancée. Souvenirs from Poland and China would presumably have a huge impact on abstract conceptualization of home in Wang Wei’s case. Home is not just a place for relaxing activities but also being a meaningful place. Wang Wei’s Beijing Opera Facial Mask beverage coaster is a material and symbolic intersection of Wang Wei’s home and her homeland China.

In Wang Wei’s home, national symbols serve not only to make domestic paces home-like, but also to domesticate ideas of the nation, making Wang Wei partly feel like still living in her birth country. Souvenirs in home articulate domestic spaces to national experience (Noble, 2002:54)

The evidence of this opinion can be found in the ways how Wang Wei handle this Beijing Opera Facial Mask coaster. She confirms that she would not throw the souvenirs away even if it is broken in the future. The inner part of this souvenir is made of metal, but Wang Wei still think it is unsecure that she always have something representing China in her home. The solution is, she has back-ups.

Wang Wei's set of Beijing Opera Facial Mask Coaster

Wang Wei’s set of Beijing Opera Facial Mask Coaster

“It is from a set. This is the green face, which represents a deceitful person in Beijing Opera. There are red face, white face and black face in this set as well.” Wang Wei continues. As I go further asking whether she would throw them away if all in the set are broken, Wang Wei answers: “I don’t think they will be broken, but just the metal facial mask gets blurred. I think I will still keep them, they are souvenirs after all.”

A Reflection on RGS-IBG PGF Mid-Term Conference

First Day

2014 RGS-IBG PGF Mid-Term Conference is held in Loughborough University on 14-15 April. This is my first time in Loughborough which is a lovely little town.  Loughborough is similar to Egham. Both of them university town, which have big university area and small commercial town centre.

This two-day conference has around 80 presenters.

A family photo of all the presenters

A family photo of all the presenters

We started with  Hilary’s warm up session,  in which she encourage us to keep a PhD diary (identify your motivation of doing a PhD regularly) and attend more conference to communicate with people alike, and not alike.   She mentioned a project ‘stories from the store’ in science museum interested me.

Then is the presentations. There are massive sessions to choose from, and I am amazed again by the diversity of the topics in Geography.  Some of them are focus on developing countries and some developed; some on old people and some on mobility of drunk teenagers (LOL); some on transportation and some on writing.

Hannah, Miriam, Ella, Mel, Mike and Katie had their projects presented.

Hannah presenting

Hannah presenting


We noticed an interesting point that in one session, two PhD students from Loughborough uni talked about ‘Studentification’, and then Mike pointed out that the person who came up with the word ‘studentification’ is actually teaching here (Professor Darren Smith). The two presenters might be his students, and his idea is proven right by chatting to new friends in Loughborough. XD

Meeting new friends in the garden

Meeting new friends in the garden

We had our conference dinner in the Ramada Hotel, which perfectly ends the first day of the conference,





Second Day

The presentation I enjoyed most is Professor John Anderson’s  ‘China and Global Change’ (on the second day).  I feel excited to look at China from a different angel. Professor John Anderson pointed out lots of problem in China, while showing his affection for the country.

All the problems he pointed out are realistic, I admit it. The central government thought we can take the same way as the western took in the 20 century, but now it realizes that the damage to environment will be too huge to fix if we have the same way of developing (economy first, and then we will fix the environment). So it is taking action now. I was in Chine during Feb 2014, and in this month, several (7 or something like that) iron and steel plants and some cement hills in suburban Beijing had been torn down, to control the producing of steel in order to control the building of new houses, and to control the usage of coal in order to pollute the environment less.

Pro John Anderson on China and Global Change

Pro John Anderson on China and Global Change


Although some action have been taken, I still think the problem is serious and I like the ending of Professor John Anderson’s presentation: if the Chinese continuing taking the same way as the western did, and if the West of China has the same developed level as the East of China, ‘WE ARE F**KED!’  I like how he deals with the conclusion and makes it sound more serious. The more serious the problem sounds, the worse the situation we are in, the central government will pay more attention to the environment. It was a very great presentation! And I am touched about Professor John Anderson’s feeling of China. He must love it and hate it!

I realised my shortness of  reading and dealing with geography journals, so I joined the publishing workshop, which was very helpful.

I have heard some ideas of my souvenir geographies project and found 4 participants who are will to join the research.

To sum up, there are a lot to take in from the conference and we have enjoyed it.

rhul table

rhul table

We even started writing for the Landscape Surgery blog on the train back to London. XD

writing for landscape surgery on the train back to London

writing for landscape surgery on the train back to London


souvenirs from the conference

souvenirs from the conference


On Chinese people buying London souvenirs which are actually made in China

Been thinking about saving money recently, and got a post box money box in a gift shop / souvenir shop after the Landscape Surgery today.


It is a lovely money box, representing part of my life in London: saving money and will get the money ‘posted’ to somewhere when I need them.  This thought looks cool, right? 🙂

I wanted a money box, as well as a souvenir from London, so I bought it in the central London, in the gift shop at the corner where Tottenham Court Road meets Oxford Street.  But  I found this at the bottom of the money box:


It is ‘made in China’.

It is unavoidable that many crafts are made in China and transported to London, and many of these crafts are sold in the souvenir shops.  So what do you think of Chinese people buying London souvenirs which are actually made in China? Is it as stupid as it sounds like?

First of all, it needs to be defined what is a ‘souvenir’, and why people want to buy it.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, a souvenir is ‘a thing that is kept as a reminder of a person, place, or event’ (, accessed 28/11/2013).

(To be continued…)