Archive for April, 2019

Neocha: Finding Room for Debate

From Neocha

Not just a bookstore, not quite a library, more than a restaurant or bar: what exactly is the Beijing Bookworm? Its motto, “Eat, Drink, Read,” offers a straightforward set of principles, but even a quick stop by this legendary institution makes clear that it’s more than just a place to — in either sense — get lit. The Bookworm buzzes with intellectual energy, attracting novelists, academics, foreign correspondents, and book lovers of all stripes who come by to meet friends or hear a talk by a scholar passing through. It’s the center, or one of the centers, of English-language cultural life in China’s capital, and throughout the year, its lectures, concerts, and children’s story hours draw expats and locals alike.

Without a doubt, the highlight of all this activity is the annual Bookworm Literary Festival, which this March wrapped up its twelfth year. Every spring, speakers come from around the world to talk about literature, politics, current affairs, technology, business, art, and anything else people write books about. Highlights from this edition included Kai-Fu Lee on AI, Leta Hong-Fincher on gender equality, and Helen Zia on Shanghai on the eve of the Communist revolution. Spittoon, a literary collective, organized a series of sessions on Chinese literature, featuring poets and fiction writers reading excerpts of their work while their translators discussed the challenges of bringing the texts into English.


The Bookworm first opened its doors in 2005, but its origins go back a few years further, to a sort of informal lending library that Alexandra Pearson, a British woman living in Beijing, slowly amassed as departing friends from abroad gave her the books they couldn’t ship home. Pearson also organized talks by experts on various topics at Le Petit Gourmand, the French restaurant she helped run in Sanlitun, Beijing’s embassy and nightlife district. But when her library outgrew her apartment, and the restaurant had to close to make way for the Taikoo Li mall, some of her friends suggested she give her titles a permanent home — a place for eating, drinking, reading, and above all for talking about anything and everything related to China.


That home, in a second-story space amid a clutch of international bars and restaurants in Sanlitun, consists of a café area with a full menu and eight beers on tap, an event space off to the side, and a small bookstore in the back, with a rooftop terrace up above overlooking the neighboring buildings. The walls are lined in books, but most of them aren’t for sale: the Bookworm still runs a library, with over 20,000 titles for a few hundred members. “A lot of storytellers, a lot of intellectuals, a lot of people who have a relationship to books, and to Beijing, come here looking for a place to call home,” says Karen Tong, who manages the Bookworm’s events. “It’s fun, it’s chill, and it’s a bit retro.” Pearson moved away several years ago, and now two of the other original investors, Peter Goff and David Cantalupo, run the space and the festival.


Karen Tong, David Cantalupo

Peter Goff

Since 2007, the Bookworm has put on a festival every year except one: in 2017 the sponsorship fell through, and the organizers decided to take a much-needed break. It fluctuates in size, and they chose to keep the 2019 edition manageable — and even so, it spanned two weeks. “The festival remains extremely influential and popular,” says Cantalupo. “We’ve never had a big corporate sponsor, so we’ve always run it on a shoestring.”

What’s surprising is how fearlessly the organizers take on sensitive topics, from state-sponsored sexism to telecom troubles to the trade war with the US. The speakers come from China and around the world, and they don’t pull any punches. All this makes the Bookworm and its festival something fragile and unique — a space for a vigorous exchange of ideas in a city (and a country) where open debate is regarded with suspicion.

At the kickoff party, beer and wine flow freely while speakers, organizers, and volunteers meet and mingle. Someone hammers out Beatles songs on an old piano in the corner. After a few plates of appetizers have made the rounds, Goff, the festival director, quiets the music to say a few words to the people gathered around. He thanks everyone for their work, and takes time to remember the two panelists from last year who are now in detention. It’s an unsettling reminder of the political atmosphere outside. Maybe it’s the two boozy beers on a mostly empty stomach, but I feel a flush of admiration welling up for the people that put this on, at no small risk to themselves.

Two days later, at the end of a session on Huawei, the audience files out of the event room, continuing the debate over drinks. Are criticisms of the company justifiable? Is its defense convincing? The Bookworm isn’t just a place to hear about current affairs, it’s a place to take part and weigh in. A half hour later the next panel begins, and once again it’s standing-room only. This time the topic is whether gender equality in China is deteriorating, and the speakers include some of the country’s most prominent feminist activists. Foreigners living in China quickly learn to avoid discussing anything controversial, and hearing people take on such sensitive topics before such a large audience comes as a shock.


How do they manage to tackle such ticklish subjects? Partly it’s because, after so many years, the festival has become a fixture on the city’s cultural landscape. “We’ve been an important part of the international cultural scene here, so that gives us a little protection,” says Cantalupo. Sponsorship from several embassies helps — Ireland, Australia, and France supported this year’s event (though financial backing came mainly from a handful of international schools). Another reason is the tenacity of the owners, Goff in particular, who, in the face of subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, has continued to invite speakers on even the most controversial subjects.

Most of all, though, the festival talks are held in English. That’s both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it insulates the event from censorship, since the authorities care more about what’s said in Chinese, yet on the other it insulates it from local interlocutors. In the audience and on the speaker’s dais, China watchers outnumber the Chinese. As a result, the festival’s reach is limited: foreigners and the Beijingers comfortable enough with English to listen to a debate. The price of open discussion is keeping it confined to a niche public.

In the decade and a half since the Bookworm opened its doors, the surrounding Sanlitun area has been torn down and rebuilt. Shops and apartment blocks have given way to sprawling retail complexes, and the whole area feels less like a neighborhood than a collection of international malls. Just a few yards away from the Bookworm, the Intercontinental Hotel towers above, a purple light show dancing across its honeycomb façade like a screensaver.

China has changed, too: as the economy has quintupled in size over the past 15 years, and along the way the country has become far more closely linked to the rest of the world, even as its political atmosphere has grown more tightly controlled — or more “harmonious,” to use a local euphemism. The Bookworm’s survival feels almost miraculous. How much longer can it continue to put on this festival? Cantalupo speculates that for now, at least, city officials see it in their interest to tolerate the event. “On the one hand, there’s some trepidation that some topics are sensitive. On the other, they want Beijing to be seen as an open and international destination.” As a space for discussion and exchange, the Bookworm occupies an ever more vital, but ever more precarious space. It’s one of the places where China meets the world — to eat, drink, read, and talk. That’s something to raise a glass to.

WeChat: BeijingBookworm

Contributor: Allen Young
Photographer: David Yen

Podcast: Women and Chinese Sci-Fi: NüVoices Live at the Bookworm

By NüVoices

Recorded live at the Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival, this week’s episode of the NüVoices podcast features a discussion with two prominent science fiction authors, Tang Fei and Ji Shaoting. The episode was recorded as part of a series of five live SupChina events at this year’s festival.

Tang Fei and Ji Shaoting are both titans in the Chinese science fiction world. Tang Fei is a speculative fiction writer and a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her story “Call Girl,” which was translated by Ken Liu, appeared in Apex Magazine and was reprinted in Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014. In addition, she has authored several novels published in Chinese. Ji Shaoting, a former Xinhua journalist, is the founder and CEO of Future Affairs Administration, a professional cultural brand in China that helps aspiring science-fiction writers develop and produce their work. She is also the co-founder of, a popular science explainer.

Together with NüVoices co-host Alice Xin Liu, Tang Fei and Ji Shaoting explore the various challenges facing female Chinese science fiction writers, including widespread gender discrimination and expanding the market for Chinese science fiction works.

Go for the podcast.

Reprint from supchina.


Bookworm Festival Pulse: Ginkgo – The Tree That Time Forgot

Inspired by the historic ginkgo that has thrived in London’s Kew Gardens since the 1760s, renowned botanist Peter Crane has explored the history of the ginkgo from its origin, proliferation and spread across the planet, to its decline, near extinction and ultimate resurgence

Crane notes, in a presentation of his latest book Ginkgo, at this years Literary Festival in Beijing that the Ginkgo is easily recognizable from the peculiar shape of its leaves, split in the middle and met with a single stem so that each leaf appears torn, or as two joint together as one. And dawning its arrival in Europe it has since sheltered the likes of Virginia Woolf, and in 1815, incentivized the poet Goethe to give symbolic expression to his intense relationship with Marianne Willemer, by giving her a leaf from the ginkgo tree, explaining that, like its deeply cleft yet still whole leaf, he was “single yet twofold.”

The Ginkgo’s leaves are very heavy and are often used as compost. Most of which appear on tiny shoots formed a season before they bloom. The tree made its way to Europe in the 17th century through the botanist John Bradley Blake, who worked in China as a resident supercargo for the British East India Company and sent seeds of indigenous plants to great Britain for propagation. Blake Observed that While some plants simultaneously possessed both male and female reproductive parts, the Ginkgo’s had separate male and female plants from which the females are easily distinguished in the spring by their ovules which develop into large stinky seeds which can be roasted and eaten. Both male and female plants have strange downward growing branches resulting in what Sir Peter Crane describes as a tree that looks more like a thicket than a tree.

But Cranes explains that his love for The Ginkgo is not primarily based on his understanding of it as a Paleontologist, but from the ascetic appeal of its “brim stone yellow” leaves, its grand structure, paradoxically regal and commonplace, recognized mostly as a street tree. The Ginkgo is said to be one of the most famous tree’s in Manhattan. They are remarkably resilient, known in Japan to have survived Hiroshima and the fires of Tokyo.

From an evolutionary stand point, the modern Ginkgo as we know it has remained unchanged for the past 16,000 years. The Ginkgo can be traced back around 2 to 5 million years ago as the last remaining species of its group. Sir Peter Crane stresses that all varieties of plant life can be divided into five groups; Bryophytes (Mosses and liverwort), Pteridophytes (Ferns and horsetails), Gymnosperms (Conifers), Angiosperms (Flowering plants),  and Ginkgo (both a single species and the last remnant of an entire group). It has thus earned a peculiar place in our authors heart from which he has dedicated a period of his focus to document and explore The Tree That Time Forgot.

By Lethokuhle Msimang

Bookworm Festival Pulse: ‘Inspector Chen’

‘Inspector Chen’ novelist says Chinese society crumbling under materialism

A repost from the news agency efe-epa

Chinese crime novelist Qiu Xiaolong at BLF session: “Becoming Inspector Chen”. 

Novelist Qiu Xiaolong, best known for famous crime fiction series of “Inspector Chen”, says the Chinese society, including himself, has lost all its ideals and is morally collapsing under the weight of materialism.

In an interview with EFE, the Shanghai-born, United States-based novelist spoke about the transformations he, his character and China have experienced in the last three decades after the Tiananmen Square massacre – one of the most sensitive issues for the Chinese authorities even today.

“Thirty years ago, people were more idealistic and wanted to change things. But now, people are not so optimistic anymore. We are all more cynical and we are all more disappointed, including my main character and me,” Qiu said.

The novelist said the reality of China was complex and he often felt confused.

The country is improving at many levels all the while revealing a moral collapse with materialistic tendencies that “will have a cost”, he warned.

“Today, young people do not care about all these things. Many are content to make jokes on social networks. The important thing (for them) is to make money and I am worried because there is no desire to fight anymore,” said Qiu who was at a bookshop in the Chinese capital for a talk about his work.

His crime series of detective-poet Chen Cao as the protagonist have all been set in Shanghai where he was born in 1953.

The series, spanning almost two decades now, portrays murky relations between police and the Chinese Communist Party. It lets readers peek into the dark side of Shanghai of the 1980s under the rule of Deng Xiaoping when crime seemed an order of the day.

“For me, it is not just about who killed whom. These are crimes that interrelate with corruption, with pollution and the pollution of the mind, even alienation (…) But the most important thing is in which kind of social, cultural background the crime and the investigations take place,” said the author.

“I hope my books can serve as a window to all the hidden things that happen in China,” says Qiu.

He acknowledged the influences in his work of European authors such as the Spanish Manuel Vazquez Montalban, the Italian Andrea Camilleri and the Swedish pair Mark Sowall and Per Wahloo, who exposed the evil of contemporary societies through the noir fiction.

Recognizing that he has a social responsibility, the novelist confessed he has had to deal with censorship many times as his editors have had to translate and re-translate and he must accept cuts and adjustments to be able to publish in China.

“In one novel, they falsified the name of the city of Shanghai to ‘H’ but everybody knew it was about that city,” said Qiu.

About his life in the US, he said he travelled to America in 1988 to work for a year but ended up staying forever as The Tiananmen Square riots erupted the following year and the Chinese authorities blacklisted him and froze the publication of a book of poems.

“I hope that in the near future, the Chinese will be able to talk about all this. Nobody, not even your ownself, should tell you what to write or what is desirable,” says Qiu, the son of a victim of the Cultural Revolution reprisal and a Chinese translator of the works of T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Faulkner and Conrad, among many others.

The writer said in his next adventure he was looking to mix the adventures of Inspector Chen with another case set in the times of the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) where then, as now, “there are no private investigators or judicial independence, but high-ranking officials who dictate all the rules”.

“Classical Chinese literature is very (much) linked to poetry and poetry is very important for me and for Inspector Chen,” he said, given that in almost all of his works there are references or transcriptions of poems.

“Love for poetry makes us more human,” said the author, whose novels have been published in Spain by Tusquets publishers: “Death of a Red Heroine” that won the Anthony award in 2001; “Visa for Shanghai”, “Red Mandarin Dress” and “The Mao Case” among others.

By Jesus Centeno

Bookworm Festival Pulse : A Fitting Close to an Inspirational Festival

A Fitting Close to an Inspirational Festival

It’s eight o’clock at night, and The Bookworm is teeming with excitement. This is the last night of the Beijing Literary Festival, and what better way to cap off two and a half weeks of creative energy and intense conversation than this: A Pub Quiz!!

People mill about with their drinks in their hands, waiting for their teams to arrive, or scout out their tables and hunch forward to discuss strategy. The Bookworm staff hover around the edges, dutifully scanning the crowd to see who needs a drink and making sure the sound and lights are all working as they should. Chairs are pulled into tables, people stick out their hands to introduce themselves, and music flows from the speakers.

I stand to the side with the other festival volunteers, busily typing up my final blog post as Sam Waterson, who has been a reliable source of photography for the festival, alternatively sluices between tables and perches on chairs, snapping stills of the participants. Alison Chen, who has been conducting a mind-blowing number of interviews with authors and audience members over the last few weeks, joins us at the table as Karen Tong, this year’s kick-ass BLF manager, surveys the crowd with a satisfied smile.

Anthony Tao, a manager of BLF in previous years and creator of the Literary Festival’s pub quiz, sits at the front of the room in a light purple button-down shirt and blue suede shoes. He is staring intently at his computer with a half-finished beer and a microphone.

The music is lowered and Tao asks for everyone to find their seats and put their group name on their score sheets for the first round. Quick clips of movies that were adapted from books are the first challenge. There is head nodding and drink sipping and a buzz of collective chattering as teams lean in and bounce around ideas.

From art pieces that represent wars, to country codes, to a game of human-telephone where quotes from movies and poems are passed between living participants then announced to the crowd for identification, the quiz question get sillier and sillier. Owners David Cantaloupo, whose charismatic presence has been a constant delight over the past two and a half weeks, and Peter Goff, whose has been sacrificing money and time for this event since its beginning, both make appearances.

The night ends with a spirited debate over the meaning of the title “Khaleesi” in Game of Thrones, with two brave men standing up to dispute its origins. There is a raucous round of applause as the winners are announced. Gifts and rounds of drinks are passed out to the three top scores, the music is raised, the microphone turned off, and just like that, two and half weeks of passion and inspiration and literature come to a close—but then more drinks are poured, and the participants resume their role as customers, and the conversation continues, as it always will at the Bookworm.

Until next year, BLF!

Thanks to all!

Written by: Amanda Fiore

Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China

BLF Volunteer, 2019

WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore

Bookworm Festival Pulse : Jade Life: In Conversation with Andrew Shaw

“I arrived with my suitcase in one hand and my ignorance in the other” – this is how English-born Andrew Shaw describes his first arrival in China. From this humorous beginning, he has since gone on to become China’s only foreign master carver of jade. Over the course of an hour, he discusses his personal history with China, the craft of jade carving, the international jade industry, and every topic in between.

It seems Shaw is well used to the amazement provoked by his title of master carver – how on earth did he become so skilled in jade carving, and just what made him start? All is explained in a short video which prefaces his talk, as Shaw uses a mixture of Chinese and English to tell his story.

Originally a senior reporter for the BBC, Shaw stayed in Thailand for four months in 2003. During this time, he visited a jade carving workshop and felt a pull towards the stone. Suddenly all he wanted to do was learn how to carve jade himself. He quit his job, moved to Suzhou – famous for the quality of its jade pieces – and there began the search for a teacher.

After six months of searching, Shaw found his teacher. This first teacher gave Shaw use of a workshop, jade to practise on and tools to use every day for two years – a generosity he says you would be hard-pressed to find among the goldsmiths of London or other similar professions.

This generosity is linked to Shaw’s views on jade and the people it attracts in general. The stone is tied to Chinese culture and has been for thousands of years – Confucius was one of the early speakers extolling the virtues of jade. Jade “represents everything good in China” in a way that attracts good people, Shaw says. He also told us that to fully understand the Chinese symbolism of jade, you really need to talk to Chinese people. His own book is more about “the Chinese jade industry seen through the eyes of a foreigner”.

Nonetheless, it would be hard to overstate Shaw’s knowledge of the stone. When the moderator of the talk, Rianke Mohan, gives Shaw her jade necklace to inspect, he says within seconds the specific variety of jade it was made from and where it was carved – even that it had been carved by a computer.

Shaw’s historical knowledge is similarly broad. Jade was one of the first musical instruments in China, he says. Confucius was said to be good at “playing the stones”, which meant instruments made of jade. Shaw has brought a similar instrument to the panel – a piece of jade curved like a bracelet. When struck, it rings out bright and clear with a delicate, bell-like sound. Whenever Shaw feels stressed in his workshop, he tells us, the sound of jade can always help relax him. There are even jades sold as worry or meditation pieces; holding them in your hand is said to have a calming effect on people. As to the other purported healing powers of jade, Shaw only smiles and says, “There are many myths about jade – it depends what you believe”.

On the more practical side, Shaw leaves us with a few words of advice for buying jade – if you were buying diamonds, “would you go to a tourist trap or a jeweller”? Treat buying jade in the same way, he recommends. “Find a piece you like and then look at the price,” he says. “If you can’t afford it, look for another piece.”

The monetary value of jade is less important than the meaning embedded in an individual crafted piece. The stone finds significance on a personal level, as well as in its symbolic resonance within Chinese culture. For Shaw, this is the true beauty and value of jade.

Written by: Kiera Johnson

Student in Beijing, China

BLF Volunteer 2019

Bookworm Festival Pulse : Addressing Sexism in Fantasy, with Samantha Shannon

Why is so hard for us to imagine, even within the blurred boundaries of fantasy, a world that is equal? This is a question Samantha Shannon, one of the youngest fantasy writers of our time, poses to her audience at the Bookworm.

Why do we keep recreating the same mistakes of the real world, even in fantasy? Why is it so hard to imagine worlds that are equal?

For Shannon, a 27-year old whose career has already outstripped many author’s wildest expectations—she had a book deal while she was still at University, and her 7-part dystopian series will soon appear on television—sexual liberation is a central tenant of her world-creation.

Wearing a black and white polka dotted shirt, and speaking with articulate acuity, she tells us that “when I can name more fantasy books published that are sexist than are not sexist, then that’s a problem.” She connects this to her own literary choices by explaining that “every time I opened a fantasy book there were women being held down by the fact that they’re women, and I wanted to write something different to that. I wanted to write a story where you could have queer characters and queer romance that isn’t a problem.”

Perhaps it is not surprising to hear that in Shannon’s worlds there is a Queendom instead of a Kingdom, or that she goes out of her way to retell legends such as that of St. George slaying a dragon to rescue a princess; in Shannon’s version, there is a woman doing the slaying.

This commitment to equality goes beyond world building for Shannon, who connects her feminist perspective to our popular conception of strong female leads who are considered “strong” because they exhibit stereotypically “male” characteristics.

She gives an analogy most of us can relate to: the sisters Arya and Sansa, from the book series-turned-HBO sensation Game of Thrones. Arya deals with the injustices she’s endured by becoming a fierce warrior, and she is adored by fans for it. By comparison, Arya’s sister, Sansa, who exhibits stereotypically “female” traits such as “cunning and quiet endurance” is not given the same attention.

Shannon laments that these sorts of “female” traits seem to be misunderstood, and sometimes even demonized in popular culture. She argues that people are underestimating their value and that in truth it is these “female” characteristics have been the bedrock of survival for women throughout the ages. Even in Game of Thrones we see that Sansa survives longer than many other characters.

Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, she tells us, is another example: she’s emotionally stoic, she’s physically strong, she’s good with a bow and arrow, and she’s loved for these masculine qualities because this conception of a “strong woman” is idealized by the media.

Shannon isn’t saying there’s something wrong with strong female characters who exhibit these kinds of traits, but hopes, through her own work, to promote a femininity that breaks the mold while still overcoming extremely difficult circumstances.

It is interesting to learn that Shannon got some of the inspiration for the main character of her first New-York-Times best-selling book, The Bone Season, through the experience of being “beaten up on a very public street in London.” While there were people around who clearly saw what was happening, no one stepped in to help her. It is no surprise that this affront to common human decency stuck with the young writer, or that it played a large role in the creation of Paige, the female lead who Shannon describes as someone who would have intervened no matter what; her strong moral compass would not have allowed her to imagine another option.

Shannon describes the 7-part series that The Bone Season represents as her attempt to integrate epic fantasy with a dystopian genre. She says it’s the story of how that dystopia affects one woman, and the huge pressure she’s under to try to fight injustice. But dystopia is far from the only type of fantasy Shannon is interested in; her next series, the first book of which has been recently published (The Priory of the Orange Tree), will take place in a magical version of the past rather than a dystopian future. She is currently enmeshed in research that led the book’s magic system, drawing on the lore of dragon mythology from a variety of ancient civilizations.

Although Shannon goes out of her way to draw our attention to the enduring inequalities of modern-day fantasy, perhaps it is a testament to the changing times that her own books, committed to worlds run by women and dominated by sexual freedom, have been so wildly successful. Perhaps the equality of the worlds she creates will one day mirror real-life change, but until then the least we can do, as Shannon’s own work proves, is dare to imagine.

Written by: Amanda Fiore

Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China

BLF Volunteer, 2019

WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore

Bookworm Festival Pulse : The Art of Creating a Collective

It’s 6pm at the Bookworm, and on stage before a packed audience is a collection of spirited expats who, if you are into art and have lived in Beijing for more than a few weeks, you have almost certainly rubbed shoulders with. Each of them has the artful glow of people whose days are breathed into life by the work they do, and the fact that they are artists.

There is Matthew Byrne, founder of the multi-faceted, and now international arts collective, Spittoon; Amy Daml, co-founder of LoReLi, an open platform for artists of all kinds to express themselves; Shuilam Wong, co-founder of Hole In the Wall, a Zine dedicated to a “visual journalism” that highlights the changing landscape and underground arts movements of Bejing; and David Huntington, who recently took the reigns of the Beijing Writer’s Network, which offers a way for Beijing’s writers to connect and share their writing.

Each of the panelists introduces themselves, and what their projects mean, but the passion in their voices begins to rise when moderator Poornima Weerasekara asks if there has ever been any interest or intent to monetize.

Byrne speaks first, saying of his dedicated network of collaborators that when “people believe in something, they contribute things that they might not contribute if there was the expectation or limitation of a salary.”

Byrne’s sentiment is quickly echoed by Daml, who tells us that LoReLi originally began with the intention of making money and paying people for their work. But, she explains, “once you start paying people they start to expect things,” and suddenly you need money coming in all the time just to keep the operation going. But the worst part, she says, is what is does to the community, because “when people think there’s money available, there’s a mad rush and people change . . . it’s better to rely on [their] passion because they’ll be more invested in your project that way.”

This cautionary tale is deepened by Wong, from Hole in the Wall, who shares with the audience her experience bringing people in who wanted to monetize what they were doing. It was this juxtaposition of philosophies that made the driving force behind the project truly clear for the first time. “We rely on passion,” she says, “we love illustration and we love to draw, that’s why we do this.” She realized that if she changed what she was doing to make money, it would no longer be meaningful, because like everyone else on the panel, she isn’t in it for the money. “Stay true to who you are and what you love, and don’t let other people pollute that for the sake of money, because the purpose of having an arts collective is to have an avenue for our passion and our creative talents. The minute that is compromised, the entire purpose is also gone.”

Byrne quickly picks up the microphone to agree with Wong, saying that he too has experienced people coming into the organization who lead with structure or ticket sale before passion. He says this “is the wrong way ‘round. When you lead with that kind of thinking, it’s easy for the passion and the flare to be disappear.”

The other big issue Weerasekara brings up is how the panelists interact with China. “Do you feel obligated to engage with China while you’re here? Or do prefer to allow the artists to do what they do?”

Wong’s parents are from Hong Kong, and she went to high school in Beijing, but otherwise she spent significant chunks of her life in Japan, Singapore, and the UK. She tells us that for her part, Hole in the Wall is able to bridge the language and cultural barrier due to the fact that her medium is visual.

Comparatively, for organizations like Spittoon and The Beijing Writer’s Network, whose bread and butter began with literature, the language barrier can be decidedly difficult.

As Huntington rightly laments, he can’t see a way to have a bilingual writer’s group, due to the fact that the primary purpose of the group is to share and critique language. While they include writers from a huge variety of countries, they have to agree on a common language in order for their collective to function.

Spittoon, on the other hand, has evolved from its poetic roots to put on multi-media and multi-lingual events. Byrne says of the challenge that being an “expat,” and calling yourself one is like “an incantation. You’re casting a spell.” If you call it an ‘expat organization then you’re stuck “in an expat bubble and that’s it.”

He says people accused them of not getting under the skin of where they were, but instead creating a system and awarding themselves within it. “That was a wall when we first were created,” he says, but “we’d be missing something if we didn’t evolve in this direction.”

Spittoon’s answer to the problem has been multi-faceted. For example, they have recently published an edition of their literary journal that is entirely Chinese authors in translation, and they have a monthly “Spit-tunes” event where writers and musicians allow their art (poems, music, and soon to be visual art as well) to inspire a collaborative performance regardless of language. Byrne is even looking to branch out from downtown Beijing into Shunyi, a suburb in the northeast of the city where many international schools are located. Recently, a Chinese gallery owner who lives in Shunyi introduced him to a “labyrinth of hutongs filled with artists” ripe for this kind of collaborating.

For Daml and LoReLi, they determined early on that “the low hanging fruit was the expat community.” They have real interest in reaching out to the Chinese community, “but we realized we couldn’t sacrifice continuity and regular publication” for the sake of attempting to cross that barrier. For LoReLi, it seemed just as important to discover that the expat community around them was welcoming and eager to share their knowledge and experience.

When reflecting on this variety of approaches, it seems quite possible that the balance we see among the panelists is exactly as it should be: each is following the flow of their work into the cross-section of people who most resonate with it.

Moreover, as a foreigner who has lived in expat communities outside of China that did not value or respect the culture they were surrounded by, it seems important to say that these organizations encapsulate so much of what is possible and important about living an international life. Whether that it as a foreigner in Beijing, or a Chinese person who spends a significant amount of time outside their Chinese-circles: we are here, or should be here, to build bridges and knock down barriers. Art has, through the ages, been a consistently successful way to accomplish this. What matters isn’t why or how or to what extent that we do this, but just that we are, in fact, doing it. One song, poem, short story, song, or piece of visual art at a time, which will hopefully lead to understanding, if not a (fluent) conversation.

Written by: Amanda Fiore

Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China

BLF Volunteer, 2019

WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore

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Chaoyang District, Beijing

100027, P.R China

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