Hip Hop Humans: On The Streets Of Chinatown Internatinal With Cao Fei
In the Silk Road Mocha Internet Café at 30 Mott Street, New York City, a translucent king-size sheet projects CCTV 9, the PRC’s English news channel, to a mix of Chinatown espresso drinkers. Across the room an MTA map of the outer-borough bus routes hangs on an exposed brick wall. Upstairs in the table service area, foam-core display boards tell the story of triumphant Ming admiral Zheng He, surrounded by kitschy reproductions of Ming furniture. The wi-fi signal is strong and the clientele is mixed: local kids, European tourists, bureaucrats on break from the federal buildings nearby.
I entered the Silk Road one morning in January during Cao Fei’s Hip Hop New York shoot to find the artist sitting on an Ikea armchair by the door. She wore a Yohji Yamamoto-esque sweater, jeans stamped with the “¥” symbol for Chinese Yuan, and a Rasta cap bursting with fake dreadlocks. She was assembling the parts to her new handbag-sized HDV video camera. The hat had been purchased in Sittard, the Netherlands where her first museum show had opened at the Het Domein two days earlier. The camera had been purchased at B&Q on 47th Street. Both had been made in China.
Minutes later, Cao Fei inspected a plastic bag holding the costume of Florence Yi Fen Fang, the Taiwanese-born accountant and mother of three who had agreed to dance in the morning shoot. Fang had decided to dress evocatively, in the guise of a Chinatown prostitute. Nearby, Albert Hwang, a Korean-American NYU student and the dance instructor for the day, was teaching Florence how to shift her weight between her feet. Teri Chan, the veteran Chinatown organizer who had been brought on to produce the shoot, watched on. With Albert, Cao Fei spoke English; with Florence, Mandarin; with Teri, Cantonese.
The ménage made its way down Mott and along Doyer, stopping in front of the East-West Beauty Salon where the morning sunlight shone and the Chinatown signage spoke to Cao Fei’s aesthetic demands. Florence stood, freezing before the camera, in a pastel shift. She began to shake her booty and wave her scarf in silence. Albert stood outside the frame, aping the steps to her. Cao Fei crouched on a doorstep filming. Locals passed by, muttering their curiosities in Cantonese. Cao Fei surprised them by tossing aside her false dreads and responding in Cantonese. Later that evening, and still wearing the hat, she was introduced to the Chinatown hip hop ensemble Notorious MSG, who she hoped would agree to perform at her upcoming gallery opening and produce the sound-track to the video. When the group’s lead singer, Hong Kong Fever, saw her approach he cried out “My Canton Sista!” and the collaboration was instantly sealed.
Hip Hop New York was the third installment of a project that, along with the video and photo project COSPlayers, has come to represent the young Guangzhou-based artist’s critical output. In Guangzhou, two years ago, she first shot construction workers and crossing guards on the city streets dancing to a simple Chinese hip hop tune. In Fukuoka, last September, she filmed Chinese immigrants dancing to a mix of Japanese hip hop and traditional rhythms. The resulting videos, in which the movements of these (Chinese) everypeople are paired with cutting-edge beats and spliced into sequences that Hans Ulrich Obrist has called evocative of “the early days of MTV” scream out for simple interpretation, and many critics and curators have responded in to the call. To some, they speak to the vicissitudes of a society undergoing rapid and drastic economic change. To others, they point to the absurdities created by the expansive influence of hegemonic American (née African) pop-cultural influence in lands previously outside its grasp. One wall text, at the Mori Art Museum high above Tokyo last summer, even argued for the works as proof of Chinese people’s fundamental Chineseness: The dancers in the videos attempt to
get down, only to find that they inadvertently move to the inherited rhythms of traditional taijiquan.
Hip Hop demonstrates why Cao Fei’s work cannot be read through the art-as-national-allegory paradigm routinely applied to many of her peers. Born in 1978, Cao Fei belongs to a globally articulated postallegorical generation, to whom the monster metaphors of The Rise of China, The American Dream, Tradition Versus Modernity, and East Meets West appear boring at best, and terrifying at worst. By reveling in something like a global subjectivity – choosing MSN Messenger emoticons with the same care that she selects her next pair of Camper shoes – her position vis-à-vis “China” as a stable historical and
discursive entity fluctuates constantly.
In Beijing, where some artists are still painting Mao with a Coke Can, even those in the inner circle just don’t understand the rap-dance of an elderly street hawker. When Cao Fei asks Siemens assembly – line workers to create installations from the products they manufacture, her peers in the Mainland do not necessarily identify. What does her work have to do with the pained China of the last century or the strong China of tomorrow? Yet if Cao Fei’s position as an elite, PRC-identified Cantonese artist heavily vested in the English and Mandarin-speaking art worlds puts her at odds with received notions of a monolithic China, it also allows her the flexibility to move smoothly among the geographically scattered
and historically divergent sites of the Chinese diaspora – from HK to KL to NY and back. Her comfort in Cantonese, which marks her in Beijing, puts her at home on Canal Street.
Following Cao Fei for a day on the streets, however, one gets the sense that identity politics,
even articulated along relatively subtle regional and linguistic lines, are less important than the fundamentally humanist disposition at the root of her creative sensibility. Her greatest thrill as an artist, she says, comes in giving voice to others: the college students who act in her plays, the alienated teens who populate her photographs, and the Chinatown bus attendants who dance in this video. At the entrance to her website, a heart beats, trapped inside a camera. At the end of PRD Anti-heroes, her latest theater production staged in the Guangdong Museum of Art last November, a banner emerged with an appropriated two-liner slogan from the new Hu Jintao regime’s press book that read, “Continue to Build a Harmonious, Human-Based Society.” On a narrow street in Chinatown two months later, an
accountant, dressed as a hooker, danced for a camera with a golden smile on her face.