Train The to Somewhere
The Art & Cultural Innovation of Nandong
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?
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.
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.
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