Train The to Some­where

The Art & Cul­tural In­no­va­tion of Nan­dong

That's China - - The Seascape - Text by / Gemma Piali & Serene Li

When Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping vis­ited the Zhoushan ar­chi­pel­ago on his 14th in­spec­tion trip in May 2015, he en­joyed a leisurely meal in the sun­drenched court­yard of Yuan Qizhong’s farm­house res­tau­rant. “Why not stay here for a night next time when we are here?” The Pres­i­dent said joy­fully, adding that, “Nan­dong is such a good place that it makes it hard for me to leave.”

Xi Jin­ping’s visit changed the life of the Yuan fam­ily. Since that day, cu­ri­ous guests have been pour­ing in to sit on the seat the Pres­i­dent once sat and en­joy the dishes that once im­pressed the Pres­i­dent, keep­ing Yuan Chan­juan and her sis­ter su­per-

busy like worker bees through­out the year. The Pres­i­dent’s visit also made their 68-year-old fa­ther a web celebrity who is still try­ing to get used to flash­ing shut­ters and peo­ple who’d sneak up be­hind him and ask for a pic­ture taken to­gether.

Many years ago, Yuan Chan­juan was ‘forced’ to leave the poverty-stricken re­cess iso­lated by un­du­lat­ing hills from the out­side world to make a liv­ing in cities, dream­ing about be­com­ing a city-dweller. See­ing the changes in their home­town and sens­ing the rise of the area’s new coun­try tourism boom, the fam­ily re­turned to Nan­dong sev­eral years ago to start a res­tau­rant busi­ness.

The Yuan fam­ily is just one of the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the rise of Nan­dong, more of­ten re­ferred to as the Nan­dong Art Val­ley, that serves as a won­der­ful paragon of the ar­chi­pel­ago’s great po­ten­tials in coun­try tourism in­no­va­tion and a con­vinc­ing illustration of the Pres­i­dent’s fa­mous re­marks on turn­ing beau­ti­ful moun­tains and rivers into gold.

Tourists here are now served by about 20 B&B places in Nan­dong. Var­i­ous train­ing pro­grams are open through­out the year to en­cour­age the lo­cals to join the new in­dus­try. In 2014 alone, the vil­lages in Nan­dong drew in more than 200,000 tourists and yielded a gross in­come of 35 mil­lion yuan. Re­cent years saw a yearly 10% in­crease of in­come per capita of the 1,500 peo­ple liv­ing in Nan­dong.

All in all, what’s bet­ter than re­turn­ing home and mak­ing a good life with one’s own two hands at one’s doorstep?

The re­nascence

Lo­cated in south­ern Gan­lan Town, about 20 min­utes’ drive from down­town Ding­hai, Nan­dong is also known lo­cally as the ‘Sun Val­ley”. Driv­ing past the wind­ing roads of Bai­quan­ling, a Chi­nese style shel­tered bridge called ‘Renju’ wel­comes one into a Xanada where peo­ple pre­fer the water from a crys­tal brook over tap­wa­ter as the source of liv­ing water sup­ply.

For many decades, the ‘Sun Val­ley’ was not a land of prom­ise as its name sug­gests, but was sink­ing into the abyss of ob­scu­rity as more and more young peo­ple walked out in hope of ek­ing out a bet­ter life.

One can­not com­pre­hend the hard-earned rise of Nan­dong from a des­o­late place into a cash cow with­out men­tion­ing Yu Jin­hong. Be­hind the vil­lages’ re­nascence is the stun­ning pas­sion, per­se­ver­ance and 10-year-long ded­i­ca­tion of a woman who racked her brain to lead the vil­lagers out of what was be­lieved to be the dead end of Nan­dong.

To re­al­ize what she calls “the sim­ple dream of a bet­ter life”, she tried al­most every way she could think of to make the tourism re­sources of Nan­dong known by the out­side world. Af­ter years of tri­als and er­rors, she saw the light at the end of the tun­nel af­ter a meet­ing with an art teacher who shared with her the in­for­ma­tion that the

coun­try’s 600,000 art stu­dents are al­ways on the look for draw-from­na­ture des­ti­na­tions.

The re­sult of the ‘rev­e­la­tion’ was the whis­tle of the “artsy train of Nan­dong”. Over the past few years, Nan­dong has been grow­ing with the po­tency of nu­clear fu­sion that is far more than enough to re­ward all the hard­ship en­dured by Yu Jin­hong.

Get artsy

The white­washed walls of the lo­cals’ houses were seen as the per­fect can­vases for artists to let loose their cre­ative en­ergy. In “The Mu­ral Vil­lage” over 200 homes have had a makeover, to bring colour and en­ergy to the wind­ing av­enues. Some walls cel­e­brate the ma­rine and farm­ing cul­ture of the com­mu­nity, while oth­ers dis­play in­ter­na­tional pop-cul­ture icons. It makes for a sur­pris­ing stroll down the streets, where one mo­ment ones eyes could be gaz­ing upon a golden fish splash­ing its tail and caus­ing the water to dance around it, to a laneway ded­i­cated to the Chicago Bull’s bas­ket­ball icon Michael Jor­dan. From de­pic­tions of lo­cal fish­er­men gath­er­ing in their catch, to Mario Cart’s Mario in his blue over­alls and red shirt bound­ing across the con­crete. Aside from the vi­brant walls, there are other unique de­tails to draw ones at­ten­tion, such as a statue of Snow White and her seven dwarves stand­ing el­e­gantly next to a pond. Like a whirlpool draw­ing in ev­ery­thing within its vicin­ity, the artists have cho­sen to in­clude all el­e­ments from their lives in an in­ter­est­ing con­trast be­tween the new and the old, the lo­cal and the in­ter­na­tional cul­ture.

An­other key player be­hind the uniquely artsy scene of to­day’s Nan­dong is Zhang Gao­jun, a lo­cal artist and a lead­ing fig­ure in the coun­try’s fish­er­man paint­ing in­no­va­tion (re­fer to the book’s Chap­ter 3 to read more about the man’s story). Man­ag­ing the Ar­chi­pel­ago Art Mu­seum – China’s first vil­lage-level art mu­seum - that is open free to vis­i­tors and also serves

Nan­dong Art Val­ley serves as a won­der­ful paragon of the ar­chi­pel­ago’s great po­ten­tials in coun­try tourism in­no­va­tion and a con­vinc­ing illustration of the Pres­i­dent’s fa­mous re­marks on turn­ing beau­ti­ful moun­tains and rivers into gold.

as his stu­dio, the man has been en­gaged in cul­tural in­no­va­tion for more than six years, run­ning about to lead the vil­lagers into an artsy won­der­land.

Walk­ing into Zhang’s stu­dio is like ex­plor­ing a per­sonal mu­seum, with a seem­ingly ran­dom eclec­tic mix of ec­cen­tric items. Be­neath the plas­tic grapevines wrapped around the beans of the ware­house-like room, there can be found stuffed plush mon­keys laz­ing about on shelves, the skele­ton of a dinosaur stand­ing proud in one cor­ner with an art­work propped up against its bones, the steer­ing wheel of a boat hang­ing from the bars of a stair­case, a sparkling Santa Claus fig­urine stand­ing along­side boys and girls in their win­ter-coats, plants bloom­ing out of shells or large vases where the roots are ex­posed, and vin­tage goods such as an old tele­vi­sion and film equip­ment.

Like the bower­bird that em­bel­lishes their nest with vi­brant ob­jects, Zhang Gao­jun has cre­ated an in­spir­ing space with hand­picked items. It feels like one has been trans­ported into a “Where’s Wally” scene, where one looks and looks through the in­tri­cately de­tailed illustration and con­tin­ues to find quirky and amus­ing points of in­ter­est. The cen­ter-of-at­ten­tion is the man him­self, smartly dressed in a black shirt em­bel­lished with golden bam­boo leaves. His pres­ence, like his art­works, draws peo­ple in.

Next to his per­sonal space is a small gallery where the man’s ode to the coastal re­gion shines brightly. The in­tri­cate de­tails in the large scaled works, makes one want the view the art­works from both stand­ing afar to soak in the en­tirety of the scene, to stand­ing with ones nose al­most pressed up against the can­vas. As well as dis­play­ing his own works, one can browse through a cul­tural prod­uct sou­venir shop, con­tain­ing an in­ter­est­ing mix of art­works, ap­parel, trin­kets and ac­ces­sories from a range of lo­cal artists.

Sun Val­ley

De­railed from its tracks, a majestic old-fash­ioned train was brought into Nan­dong where in­stead of com­mut­ing pas­sen­gers and goods, the eight car­riages have been re­vamped to con­tain small ho­tel rooms and a cozy café.

In be­tween the col­lec­tion of old Chi­nese books, pam­phlets and pho­to­graphs, there are also posters from vin­tage Euro­pean films like ac­tress Au­drey Hep­burn in the 1953 film Ro­man Hol­i­day, or mod­ern pop-cul­tural char­ac­ters such as Spi­der­man. Like the walls of The Mu­ral Vil­lage, the cafés dé­cor, brings to­gether the com­mu­nity’s lo­cal tra­di­tions and mixes it into a boil­ing pot in­fused with mod­ern cul­ture.

Although this steam lo­co­mo­tive, which bears the date “1933” on the front of the first car, stands still wait­ing for pas­sen­gers to board for a hot bev­er­age or a wellde­served rest af­ter strolling around Nan­dong, the train re­sem­bles the direc­tion of the com­mu­nity’s path­way into a bright fu­ture. The wheels of the train have be­gun to turn, chug­ging along into a fu­ture no one can pre­dict. The steam has been let loose, just as the cre­ative spirit of the com­mu­nity has been ig­nited, and whis­tles for ev­ery­one from ev­ery­where to hop aboard. In­stead of a train to nowhere, it is a train that leads peo­ple to an un­be­knownst trea­sure. As the sun set­tles on the val­ley, one can see the po­ten­tial for the re­gion to re­main­ing shin­ing for many years to come.

Hua Chun Yuan, the farm­house res­tau­rant vis­ited by Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in May of 2015

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