Saturday, November 3, 2012


Halloween, Easter, Valentine's Day and Christmas holidays are special times in America's candyland not just for the volume of candy sold, but also because the design of the confections aligns with the seasons. I have always loved candy corn and once found it at a shop during the spring season. I don't know why I asked the proprietor if it was fresh (they are like stone pebbles otherwise), especially since I was going to buy them anyway (and they were not).

But in Japan, one cannot eat out of season.

Question: Which of these does not belong? 
            (a) Earth (b) Metal (c) Wood
            (d) Water  (e) Air  (f) Fire
            (g) Beans (h) Rice

Answer:  They're all basic materials required in the alchemy of chanoyu, the Japanese tea ritual.  The first three are the components of the utensils; the next three are essential to transform a simple bush leaf into the fabled elixir which has been the centerpiece in an over four centuries old Japanese social, medicinal and artistic convention.

So far, so good for kettles, tea bowls, scrolls, flower arrangements and the like; what of (g) and (h)?  Combined, they create a complete protein which is the life support system of much of the world's population.  But in the hands of Japanese confectioners and chajin (tea practitioners) these simple foodstuffs become exquisite elements in the great poetry which is a chaji (tea gathering.)

Unlike the Western custom of sweetening a beverage, a guest is served wagashi, (traditional Japanese sweet) in advance of the somewhat bitter tasting green matcha, (powdered green tea leaf).  As nothing incorporated in a chaji should escape the host's meticulous consideration of theme, mood and guest's enjoyment, the form and function of those otherwise mundane adzuki beans and rice are heavily invested with meaning. 

Kyoto, chado central, is also a major center for tea sweet makers.  Just as the main tea families have their formal court of utensil makers (Raku and Sotetsu, by appointment to the Urasenke oiemoto (grand tea master) ceramists and laquerware makers, respectfully), there are sweet makers whose confections have been served at Sen family, school and organization chaji  for generations.  Tomiko Sen, wife of the current (15th generation) grand master of Urasenke recently compiled her essays (translated into English) about her husband's family's favorite sweets in a beautifully illustrated book, An Almanac of Urasenke Seasonal Tea Sweets (Kyoto, Tankosha. 1994).  True to its name, the book takes the reader on a year's odyssey of omogashi (moist)  and higashi (dry) sweets which are served following the kaiseki meal and preceding koicha (thick tea) and usucha (thin) tea presentations, respectively.  Here we have insight into the subtle sensuality and symbolism of sweetness. 

It is said that a chaji stimulates all senses ... matsukaze (sound of wind in the pines) of a boiling tea kettle; the aroma of incense; as well as touch of the ceramic tea bowl and  refreshing visual harmonies of flowers and scroll.  As for the sense of taste, tea sweets are   not sickly sweet as to overpower the palate.   In addition to beans and rice, other basic "structural" ingredients can include kudzu (a starch), agar gelatin and miso.  While the predominant source of sweetness is sugar, the taste can vary with the addition of such traditional elements as chestnuts, ginko nuts and yuzu (a citron), even a cherry leaf. 

While higashi are typically created in meticulously carved wood molds, the omogashi shapes are limited by the ingredients to being cut from a "slab" (like the supermarket available yokan jelly), rolled or pressed by hand.  Some are made to be eaten with the fingers, others with a kuromoji (pick).  Sweets can be contained in fresh green bamboo shoots or wrapped in edible and non edible leaves.   Depending upon the circumstances, traditionally omogashi are served in a 5-tiered stack of black lacquered boxes or bowls (glass, ceramic, lacquer, etc.) ; the higashi are served on trays in one of several formal configurations of laying food items on a tray. 

The handmade sweets are often prepared to order, reflecting historic as well as innovative imagery, taste and shape favored by the host to fit the occasion.  Many of the designs are Japanese classics ... whirlpools to suggest water, rabbits for New Year, various seasonal flowers, red-yellow-orange maple leaves, ears of rice, mushrooms, pine needles and cones.  Standard chaji banter between host and main guest includes inquiring as to the source and poetic name of the sweets.  Names included in this book include:

Snow Drift
Flowery Robe
Raft with Cherry Blossoms
Kashiwa mochi
Oak Leaf Mochi
Rainless Month
Hagi no Tsuyu
Bush Clover Dew
First Geese
Yamaji no Kiku
Chrysanthemum by
the Mountain Path
Blown Together
Bridge Keeper

True to the spirit of the Japanese sense of color mixing, the sweets palette range from the terribly subtle to the awfully day-glo.  I remember an event I attended at Tenryuji temple in Kyoto's Arashiyama many Octobers ago.  Following a kencha (offertory tea) presentation by the Urasenke Iemoto, we onlookers were served tea in the magnificent old, dimly lighted tea rooms by the senior teachers using some meibutsu (old, important, registered) utensils.  It was wabi-sabi heaven ... until the sweets came out: Yamamichi (Mountain Path), from the Tachibanaya confectionary, a bean/rice configuration of an, (bean paste of single consistency like smooth, soft fudge.)   The dark red-brown an center is surrounded by a thin screaming hot-pink, green and yellow rice flour skin with impressions representing mountain peaks and valleys.  (The piece was a cross-section cut from what must have looked when first made like a fluted column with a flat side.)   Ms. Sen observes, "One somehow cannot imagine tramping through such beautiful woods.  When November approaches, the amount of chestnuts in this sweet is decreased, and the colors representing the maple covered peaks, are made brighter, contrasting with the cold air all around us."

Wandering around the narrow old streets of Kyoto, it's difficult to immediately spot a tea sweet proprietor, so beyond the tried and true yet awkward method of peeking in windows, I took advantage of Diane Durston's Old Kyoto (first edition) which listed several, including century-old Shioyoshi-ken (Nakadachiuri-agaru, Kuromon-dori, Kamigyo-ku).    The Taisho-period machiya-styled wood latticed windows revealed nothing of the activities inside; the doorway was hidden by a weathered kamban and a quietly breeze-fluttered calligraphed noren concealed the doorway.  Like most traditional confectioners, the shop was more artist's studios and gallery than retail store.  No English was spoken, so I resorted to an explanation in bumpy nihongo about my chanoyu  studies at Urasenke in Kyoto and the USA, and then after being presented a bowl of matcha.  (Seems I sounded like a serious customer!)  I looked around at the old wood-appointed sales room with its wall of closed wooden drawers and to see a few displays of what looked like a tiny basket of raked autumn leaves from a temple garden ... 3000 yen for about 25 pieces of candy no larger than a thumbnail!  But they were beautiful. 

Unfortunately, Tomiko Sen's book does not have addresses of the confectioners mentioned (some may not be open to the public); however, two of Urasenke's mainstays are easy to find: Yoshinobu (with an expensive tea utensil store on the second floor and a cafe on the first), located on the same side of the street and south of the Chado Research Center (Horikawa at Teranouchi) and Miso Matsukazeya on Kitaoji on the same side and just east of Daitokuji (a fabulous roof tile and stepping stone facade!)   One need not speak perfect Japanese to be received graciously.  Going prices in Kyoto for moist sweets at the high end averaged 500 yen each in the fall of 1994. 

In many cases, the only place you can buy a particular sweet is directly from the confectioner and of course, they are only available in season.  (Some shops have outlets in department stores.)  Sweets must be fresh to be truly enjoyed, as the ingredients can also be re configured into paste and building materials. Resist the temptation to eat one on the run (a Japan faux-pas anyhow) and seek out a place to enjoy the sweet with a bowl of tea in a refined atmosphere of a temple or neighborhood tea room.  Otherwise, it's just beans and rice.

I am working on an okashiya map of Kyoto. Comments, additions are welcome.

LOCAL SIDEBAR: Los Angeles' Little Tokyo has two local omogashi makers, Mikawaya and Fugetsu-do.  At the former I once purchased a stiff gelatin-type sweet which mimicked a bright orange koi swimming in a temple pond.  My favorite proprietor is Chikaramochi in Gardena. The consistency of their mochi is so smooth, the colors are subtly wild and the taste is always fresh. In San Francisco there once was the masterful Yamada-Seika in Japan Town which in season dips strawberry in mochi.

Friday, September 28, 2012

We Are What We Eat … So It Might As Well Be Delicious

We Are What We Eat … So It Might As Well Be Delicious

A Suite of Reviews
Special to Kyoto Journal (  2013 
By Lauren W. Deutsch

Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity,
Katarzyna J. Cwiertka (author) (London, Reaktion Books, 2006)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
David Gelb (director) (Magnolia Pictures, 2011)

Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant
Yoshihiro Murata (text), Masashi Kuma (photography) (Tokyo, Kodansha International, 2006)

I am at the checkout stand in a large Asian supermarket in Los Angeles with two containers of tofu (sprouted, organic, firm), fresh shitake and nori. The patron in front of me, a middle-aged Japanese -speaking woman with a young child, glances quietly over her shoulder at my selections, mumbles something quietly to the child, and, hesitantly asks me, “You can eat?” I reply, “Yes. Of course! Can you eat tofu?” “But I am Japanese,” she says, pointing to her nose. I continue, “But, why do you like it?”

Silence. It’s the same exchange I experience from many Japanese practitioners of chado (the way of tea) when I ask them why they have studied it for a long time.

There is general consensus that “You are what you eat,,” yet there are many interpretations of what “you” and perhaps also “we” actually mean. At a minimum, what, and even how, humans eat creates our corporeal selves. Looking deeper, we can see that our choices of foodstuffs and, it appears, foodways, also enable us to know who we are, how others know us and, even further, who we think others might be. The way of washoku (Japanese cuisine) is an excellent vehicle by which to explore some of these ideas.

According to author and scholar Katarzyna Cwiertka, the notion of “national” cuisine is an idea born no earlier than the 19th century. Prior to that social class and regional availabilty of foodstuffs mostly defined the culinary conventions. It was the “opening” of Japan by the intrusion of Western powers that revolutionized existing Japanese conventions, from form and taste to dining furniture and utensils.

Cwiertka’s Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity is a well-written, thoughtfully conceived, scholarly examination of the topic. She initially considers the post-sakoku (isolation) period and the growing multi-cultural foreign presence in Japan, followed by the spread of Japanese food beyond the archipelago. Then she identifies several transforming factors affecting the evolution of the modern Japanese diet: the impact of imperialism, emulation of Western political and economic models, the rise of an “urban mass gastronomy”, the evolution of military and school catering and home cooking, and the post-war climb from desperation to relative wealth.

Is there something unique about Japanese food that seasons national pride? Cwiertka states, “For present–day Japanese, rice, soy sauce and fresh seafood are the ultimate symbols of ‘Japaneseness,’ symbols more powerful than the cherry blossom or the national flag, in that they satisfy visceral cravings.” Yet it is only relatively recently that these three ingredients have turned into standard components of the daily meals of all Japanese people. She concludes there is nothing purely Japanese about a meal based on rice - soup - side dishes, with soy sauce as the dominant flavoring agent.

“The position of rice in the Japanese diet remains ambivalent. The symbolic importance of rice in Japanese history and its role as currency in the pre-modern Japanese economy are indisputable; it was, to be sure, a preferred staple, but there was not enough of it to feed everybody. Scholars have not yet been able to reach consensus as to who ate how much rice and how often outside the urban centers, where white rice had for centuries been a daily staple.”
The New York Times reported that in 1994, when Japan’s domestic rice crop was severely limited, everyone – including the Emperor and Empress – had to rely on imports from the United States, Thailand and China. Domestically grown rice was reserved for school children’s lunches; meanwhile, commoners were trying to trick the auto settings on their rice cookers to deal with what were perceived as inferior imports, but to no avail. The imported rice never tasted, looked or handled quite right.

“Cooks, publicists and even scholars inside as well as outside Japan tend to drape Japanese cuisine in an aura of exoticism, uniqueness and traditionalism … cultivating the myth of Japanese cuisine as refined, time-honored philosophy and practice, and extending the aesthetic qualities of kaiseki  into a kind of eternal attribute of every Japanese meal, regardless of class and degree of affluence. Such fetishized, sentimental notions of the past do not merely falsify history, but also distort our understanding of the present,” Cwiertka comments. Webster’s online dictionary defines kaiseki as a “Japanese tasting menu”. The term’s origin is meeting (kai), place (seki). But it’s more poetically rendered by traditionalists as the warmed (kai) rock (seki) that monk - mendicants would hold against their stomachs to ward off hunger after the last meal of the day.

In contrast, the City of New York will prohibit in March 2013 the sale of 16 oz. super-sized, sugar-containing sodas and other non-diet sweetened drinks at restaurants, concession stands and other eateries. The controversial law is in recognition of escalating rates of obesity and the resulting diabetes and high blood pressure in the general population. The reaction of a vocal minority may be compared to those who oppose gun control: “It’s my god-given right as an American to ‘super-size’ if I want to, damn it!” It took some time, but folks finally realize that they could buy two eight-ounce portions.

 One might easily come to a refinement of the “We Are = What We Eat” equation: Food feeds [national] identity. Cwiertka recognizes that there is in fact a strongly held but mistaken belief that projects an aura of ”timeless continuity and authenticity” on to washoku. Cwiertka observes that it might be argued that the most typically Japanese aspect of Japanese gastronomy is the very adoption of many foreign culinary elements into “Japanese” cuisine.  It may in fact be the quickest way for the three centuries-isolated Japanese population to cross international boundaries without need of passport or visa.

 Going back to that supermarket encounter, what might that Japanese shopper think of my eating “her” food? Cwiertka tags Japanese food–eating gaijin as being “… young, modern and an itsy bit wacky.”  Could we not say the same about Japanese folks who mayo-naize (rhymes with “romanticize”) just about everything (that is not already liquid) to give it a dash of Euro-ness? According to Wikipedia mayo has been a great multi-cultural / international condiment for a long time, changing personality with localized adaptations as it crosses cultural borders.  

Looking from the “other” perspective, Western affinity for Oriental (East and Southeast Asian) food has grown in demand among non-Asians as it has become more accessible in stores and restaurants. The Japanese mayonnaise in those squishy bottles has many international fans, including those who, for lack of access to Japanese markets, will forgo the bottle and attempt to replicate it the home kitchen from online recipies. Perhaps the highest formal accolade of Asian taste is the addition of umami  into the Western catalog of tastes, joining sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Whether this awakening will foster a greater appreciation of the entire Five-Phases-system that marks the food and life style fundamental to Traditional Oriental Medicine remains an open question.

Arguably, the most provocative of all Japanese culinary curiosities co-opted by the West is the sushi craze that has taken the world by storm since the 1970s. Given the general lack of enthusiasm in the West for eating raw flesh, it is very hard to imagine why this ever caught on. What got burger ‘n’ barbeque mavens to open up and say, “Ahhh-hi!”?  And, further, calling a few slivers of cold fish a “meal” seems counter intuitive to people who are trained (via advertisements) to crave a drippy double bacon cheeseburger.

American filmmaker David Gelb has wonderfully explored just how high the (sushi) bar can be set in Japan in his 2011 documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The feature film has earned high acclaim among foodies who can hardly be considered “an itsy bit wacky.” 

 It may not be because of the taste per se, but rather sushi’s mistaken identity as fast food. Few Americans have gone beyond the plastic take-out pre-fab o-bentos-to-go (aka box lunches), even to try kaiten zushi or kuru-kuru sushi (conveyor belt) cafes where the food revolves within the circle of diners.
 While Colonel Sanders and Ronald McDonald seem to have had great success tapping into the Japanese market, on the other end of the spectrum, the traditional Japanese sushi bar has yet to be widely replicated, much less improved abroad. One daring sushi chef in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA created Hayai Zushi (Click link to see a video of the drive-through experience.), probably the world’s first fast-food drive-through joint where the patrons revolve around the sushiya. It closed due to bad reviews of the food quality, the wait and, most probably, poor market research by the proprietor about patron expectations. It seems that some additional invisible aspect of the Japanese food experience was noted as missing. 

The santoku (type of Japanese knife) wielding proprietor of the spare 10 seats subterranean “Sukiyabashi Jiro” (すきやばし次郎 tucked into the warren of a Ginza subway stop, is the octogenarian Jiro Ono. The ultimate gourmet cross-over artist, his is the only sushi bar to win the coveted culinary constellation of three Michelin stars. That honor would have been enough for the average Western chef, but to Jiro-san the greater recognition of his capacity as a shokunin (Craftsman with a capital C) is the Japanese government’s designating him as a “Living National Treasure. [Caution: One should resist discussing this film with your local sushi chef; s/he might be embarrassed or feel inadequate, despite the fact s/he is doing her / his best for you.]
If we are what we eat … can we also be what we cook, or in Jiro’s case, what we slice? The film’s portraits of the sushi are mouthwatering. The editing, like Jiro’s fish, is carefully filleted; one online film critic called it “clinical”. While not actually having put fish to mouth, nonetheless we leave satisfied having devoured something truly amazing with our eyes.

Gelb offers a stunningly clear-focus on exquisiteness, freshness, attention to detail, and determination that happens to be about food. Its freeze-frames shows dazzling, shiny, finger-length slabs of freshly caught raw fish lounging on a pod of rice and how fish-laden pods land one at a time on a pristine black lacquer tray at each guest’s place at the wooden counter.

The film is foremost a biography of an otherwise nondescript, older, wrinkled-face man who makes his living standing up for hours in a tiny restaurant in a subway stop. A self-made, counter-cultural figure for all his 85 years, Ono-san is an “outsider”, if only for the fact that he is hidari-kiki, left-handed in a very right-handed world, and brandishes long sharp knives in very close quarters. Yet he also sees the bigger picture and is very accommodating, placing the sushi on the diner’s tray angled so that the average (right handed) patron— each of whom has waited about a month for this reservation— may easily grab it with o-hashi.

In Jiro’s world, we are not just talking raw fish on rice … we’re talking about raw fish on rice! A meal at Sukiyabashi is priced at around $300 per diner for a 45 minutes omakase (chef’s choice) meal of 20 single piece servings.

The master is as obsessed with polishing his character as he is with polishing his knife and cutting board after each slice of fish. Throughout the film, Jiro keeps his emotions … like his fish … simple, essential and fresh in the moment. It is therefore not unexpected that he doesn’t seem to be as concerned with the future as might other Living National Treasures who are preparing to retire. He has no such plans, clearly to the chagrin of his protégés – his two sons who are about retirement age themselves.

The older son, Yoshikazu, aspired to be a racecar driver, but has been working alongside his aging father for years. If the day will come in his lifetime that his father retires, Yoshi will take over the restaurant. That is, the younger Ono-san reflects, if the seas aren’t fished out thanks to the worldwide sushi craze. He is concerned about the sustainability of the fish as well as the restaurant.

The younger son, Takashi, runs Sukiyabashi Jiro in Roppongi Hills. The two-Michelin star sushiya is laid out as the perfect mirror image of the Ginza location and boasts the same flavors and techniques as the original. The elder Ono is proud to say that Tashi’s food would not be distinguished from his own by either clientele.

Cwiertka’s thesis about the mythical nature of the notion of Japanese cuisine as a “refined, time-honored philosophy and practice” falls flat when considering the path taken by Yoshihiro Murata to his livelihood as detailed in his exquisite autobiographical look ‘n’ cook book Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto Kikunoi Restaurant. 

The third generation chef - owner of the famed Kikunoi restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo, Yoshihiro did not jump to claim his place in a 400-year-old lineage. (The earliest generations began cooking for Shogunate regents and their cronies in the 17th Century at Kodaiji Temple.)

“While still in college, I stunned my father by announcing that I would not follow him at the restaurant; that I wanted to cook French cuisine instead.” The elder’s reaction was instantaneous, “Then go to France. I’ll take care of your expenses.” Yoshi reflected, “It was my turn to be shocked, since I had never thought about such a drastic move. My mother begged me to apologize to my father, but I knew I’d have to live with my rashness, and I left for France with no plans and a blank slate.”

By traveling around Europe, Murata–san ended up with a deeper appreciation of Japanese cooking and his birthright to accept. “Our cuisine is a product of our own DNA,” he believes.  Returning home, he approached his father with a desire to indeed carry on the tradition, but, was “furious at my change of heart and tossed a glass ashtray at me.” Amends were then made and carry on the family business he has. He respects and follows the principles that came through the unbroken legacy from chef to chef. Murata says that his father “bid us to cook with love, technical skill and passion.

“The food we make should always be refined and beautiful, but not too delicate. It should never be weak, but should have an appealing integrity and strength."

These are all apparent in the beautifully illustrated book with complete kaiseki courses perfectly tuned to the seasons (and with recipes in the back!) The website is equally exquisite and should be visited seasonally, especially if one cannot dine onsite.

In choosing two other chefs to join him in writing introductions, Murata advances the question about what people can come to know about Japanese people’s culture through the cuisine. Ferran Adria, “father of molecular gastronomy” and proprietor of the fabulously famous and now shuttered elBulli restaurant in Catalonia, Spain, states that Japanese cuisine is “ … born of an intimate communion between the work of man and the gifts of nature,” that Japanese work and think “with the soul.” The other chef contributor, Nobu Matsuhisa, whose eponymous restaurant franchise was born in Los Angeles, comments, “Though many Westerners prefer to dine from the same menu, regardless of the time of year, the true measure of the skill of a kaiseki chef is the way he prepares his meal in order to communicate the atmosphere and flavors of the season.”

This is by no means the end-all in comments about the topic; rather, it is food for thought about the primacy of food in cultural identity. Food is ultimately an offering to self and others as a means of surviving. How we eat is perhaps even more critical. “Eating is not a casual hedonistic act; it is a ceremony,” notes the eminent contemporary philosopher and theologian Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his condensed explanation of Kabbalah, The Thirteen Petaled Rose. “When the Temple stood, ritual sacrifice was itself an occasion for a communal meal in which man participated with the Higher Power in an act of communion. Extreme care has therefore to be exercised with respect to what is eaten, and the manner in which one eats has to be consistent with the purpose of consecration.” 

To which we can open up and say, Ah .., yum!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

URBAN CHINA Shanghai Magazine / Planning Group HAs New Finger on the Pulse of China's Future


Shanghai Magazine / Planning Group 

Has New Finger on the Pulse of China's Future
Whoever controls the wrecking ball usually wins land rights battles, but not necessarily in China anymore. In 2007, for the first time in its history, China had in place legislation that offered equal protection for state and private entities which was quickly put to the test by a growing number of protagonists coined by the media as “nail families”, (ding zi hu). The residents of these households, of no set number of folks, primarily in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, refuse, even to the point of committing suicide, to move from their dwellings to make way for “progress”. There is one report of demolition company thugs pulling a 54 year old man out of his home and beating him to death.

In addition to challenging the establishment at every level, the plight of these 21st Century folk "heroes" have also captured the imagination of the international media and academic community due in no small part to the striking photographs of remnant buildings crowning Brancusi-like pinnacles in the midst of deep construction canyons.
According to Global Times, at the end of January 2011, due to pressure from lawyers, China’s Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a joint statement about new legislation that attempts to mitigate disputes over house expropriation and demolition. It strives to give equal consideration to both public interests and property owners' individual rights, and to create a more transparent, level, non-lethal process. It defines the basis for claims of eminent domain; it also rules-out land developers' involvement in the demolition and relocation procedures, outlaws the use of violence means of coercion, and promotes more equitable financial compensation basis on par with the region./var/folders/81/94sr6b3s1hs5lbs484_bf_cc0000gn/T/
Urban China Covers from Facebook

Unlike their predecessors, today’s elected officials, are slowly learning to listen to news from “below”, to observe and understand the ways of the people, not just respond to the needs of the Party. In his introduction to  "The Mystified Boat: Postmodern Stories from China, [1] Manoa Co-Editor Frank Stewart has noted that China’s street-level reality today is fraught with "shifting points of view, characters who misunderstand each other in ways that have direct consequences, unreliable narrators who address readers in order to tell them what to think, events that are improbable or impossible in life outside the story -- these are some of the startling elements possible in life outside the story.”We can continue to expect great things from the people who brought us  fen shui and Traditional Oriental Medicine; there is a precedent for diagnosing the character of a disharmony -- whether economic or corporeal, and to reinstate its systemic balance by economic readjustment. It's just a matter of scale.
 A product of its socialist society, Urban China's contents are deeply scrutinized by the Party’s regulatory machinery to assess compliance with the status quo. Nonetheless, its mission is to demystify that same governmental machine; the publication also informs upper echelons of power about the impact of public policy in real time. Unlike American and European sleek architecture and planning publications, it is less a fanzine for the elite aesthete; its contents are directed to both official and informal operatives who are looking for trends and opportunities.

After years of resistance, putting up with condemnation of their buildings, cutting off water and power, and developers’ early offers of financial compensation, most families finally vacate in exchange for significantly larger pay-outs, new residences and additional land to earn a living. One family succumbed by taking a sum equivalent to 1600% of their original purchase price, upwards of $2.7 million! Not every nail family has caved in, however. In Beijing, for example, a six-lane highway completely surrounds the Zhang family’s home. A four-lane highway isolates another holdout family in Shanghai. (Japan and even the USA has "nail families"; farmlands remain within the perimeter of Tokyo's Narita Airport.)

When looking at these images from a Western perspective, it’s easy to jump to a conclusion that it's another case of the little guy against the bureaucracy and greedy developers. It is not only tempting to play that duality game but according to The Wall Street Journal, it is also possible "Fighting Eviction: The Video Game" is a digital time-killer that pits feisty homesteaders against demo goons hired by property developers, government guards and ever - present opportunistic gangsters. As noted in China Realtime Report, player avatars include “a woman in curlers who throws sandals at encroaching attackers, a pot-bellied man who drops dynamite from the roof, and an old man with a shotgun. When you win a level, the woman appears, pointing a finger at the Forbidden City, the symbolic center of the government’s power. When you lose, the house collapses in a cloud of dust.” A related blog post in The Wall Street Journal points out that film critic Li Chengpeng drew attention for his piece, Avatar: An Epic Nail House Textbook,” in which he compares the plight of James Cameron’s Na’vi to the people who live in “nail houses”.

Business Not As Usual

The continuing saga of Mr. and Mrs. Nail and their Little Tack (remember China’s one-child per family!) is not just about rampant development for progress’ sake. Rather, under the bleary eyes of the Internet-glued world, China is taking pains to learn about itself, its huge and massively growing self ... on its own terms.In the past Chinese people had little agency to petition for a better life than to offer a bundle of smoking sticks of incense and few burning wads of Bank of Hell paper money to offer to a deceased ancestor. Maybe one of them might bribe an official in a dream and affect a more desirable outcome of some terrestrial problem. Even courtiers and bureaucrats sought out auspicious signs and assessed news from “above”.

China's renowned city planning formalities have been emulated by other East Asian population centers. From capital cities to villages geomancy has been highly regarded in societies ruled by emperors, kings, warlords and more "modern" revolutionary dictators. But will principles from Tao to Mao hold up today in support of the world's fastest process of urbanization in recorded history? 

With China's current population around 1.35 billion, capturing the diversity of  opinions and experiences, providing appropriate ways to analyze the information, recognizing trends and taking action is understandably a daunting task, but one that is essential to that big dream of progress. 

A New Finger on the Pulse of China's Urban Future

"It is very difficult to find another civilization in history like China’s, which has been extremely meticulous about control for thousands of years," observed Jiang Jun, Editor-in-Chief of Urban China, in an essay, "Informal China". "This control is not only on political and ideological levels, but is also present in material and spatial realms: from macro-scale urban planning, meso-scale traditional construction rules, to countless micro-scale details of daily life."
Since 2005 Urban China城市中国, has been the only magazine published both in, about and for China devoted to issues of urbanism [2][3]. Jun describes the UC mission as a means to “challenge the way we see this world and, in so doing, re-imagine what the world can be.” 

Urban China’s slogan is “Urban Wisdom Advancing with China”, and its content is at once technical and theoretical, presenting statistical data and analytical considerations. It functions as a research network, think tank, documentary archive, and a tool for artistic production and urban activism.

Urban China incorporates frameworks ranging from ecology, anthropology, media, technology and architecture to demography, political science, geography and sociology to clash and merge in nonlinear ways. The editorial team has at its disposal a vast archive of documentary images, statistics and anecdotal commentary to create what is at once a vehicle of artistic expression and tool for urban activism. UC’s graphic design presents almost a tongue-in-cheek impression that accentuates the incidental, every-day elemental material icons of one’s existence.
Through rigorous research and creative considerations of outcomes,UC has documented how Chinese urban dwellers – like nail families -- create innovative solutions to the problems of daily existence in the 21st Century. They account for the material and ephemeral, the practical and the practically impossible. For example, one issue showed how a basketball produced for export was repurposed as a water bucket by the same factory workers who made it. Some how it is all going to make sense, on a huge scale.

While China is its focus, the UC process indirectly encourages all earthlings to try to come up with new ways to address change and its partner “uncertainty”, to document existence, and to create strategic systems by which to make sense of everyday life. This is possible, it offers, through “dialogues, collections, classifications, explorations and networks”. Even for those who cannot read Chinese, the images themselves provoke consideration about one’s own quality and quantitative measures of life.

There is not doubt that the best laid plans for China's cities of the future -- even those with the "benefit" of input of internationally recognized "green" urban planners and architects -- have to be sensitive to the realities of how  local people do live. For example a widely publicized green city project destined to be a show-piece during the 2010 Shanghai World Expo was never accomplished. In fact, according to Yale University's environment 360 online journal, "Although the project was widely publicized internationally, most locals knew little about it. The political leaders who championed the project were ousted in a corruption scandal, and their successors have allowed construction permits to lapse."

Each issue of Urban China has a theme, such as “Migrating China”, “Chinatown”,  “Urban Graffiti” or “Informal China” and blends the past with the present through graphic details such as archives of historic maps juxtaposed with those of new planning charts. For example, traditional Chinese paradigms, such asfeng shui, are mixed together with diagrams and photographs of current development projects.

In another issue there is an image entitled “Labor–Insurance -- Gloves Coat”, depicting a pair of thick wool work gloves positioned next to a child’s coat knit from the same material”. The caption notes that housewives unravel the yarn from unused extra gloves and repurpose the raw material for more useful commodities. Images of street markets are next to new high-rise towers; personal laundry hangs on public telephone wires. We may take them for granted, but in officially formal China, any informality or unofficial enterprise that permeates these membranes, emerges at an unprecedented scale. The implications are becoming more universal for populations outside China, particularly those with large populations and cities utilizing upon traditional Chinese principles, such as those in Japan and Korea.

In 2010 a consortium of three American museums collaborated to present a major exhibition devoted to the UC oeuvre, “Urban China: Informal Cities”: New York’s New MuseumUCLA’s Hammer Museumand the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. According to New York City’s New Museum Curatorial Associate and UC exhibition Curator Benjamin Godsill, issues are “brilliant and strange, intellectual and graphic cornucopias that track the rapid development and flux that are the hallmarks of China today.”

During one of the "Conversations" at the Hammer Museum (see below for links), Jiang explained a common urban planning process based on industrial development needs. For example in a region where shoes are manufactured, the government planning department may situate a new town and factory to make shoelaces adjacent to one that makes innersoles. 
The only Urban China online English language presence is a Facebook page. As mentioned, the magazine is published in Chinese, but Brendan McGetrick has compiled a few issue samples with English translation as a beautifully produced print volume,Urban China: Work in Progress.

Urban China reminds me of the early publishing efforts of Richard Saul Wurman, an American architect by training, whose Man-made Philadelphia and Access© guides deconstructed elements of urban life in a number of major cities world wide. Through the use of analytical tools and orderly graphic design, he made the city observable and arguable more accessible. His latest project is 19.20.21, the title being a reference to 19 cities (includes Beijing, Shenzhen, and Shanghai, Tokyo and Osaka-Kobe, Jakarta, Singapore, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi, Karachi in Asia alone), each with populations of 20 million people in the 21stCentury. Over half the population of the world now lives in cities; the globe is web of cities rather than nation-states. He postulates that denser populations will not only improve the quality of life but may actively result in better environmental solutions. 
What next for China? What's next for the new democracies of the Middle East and of the seemingly worn-out socio-economic realities known as Europe and the USA? Stay tuned!

(Note: None of these graphic images are the property of the blogger, nor is this blog intended for commercial purposes. it is purely for public information. The images will be removed when requested by the copyright owners. Thank you in advance.)


Links to Archives of Urban China 
@ UCLA’s Hammer Museum 2009

7/1/09 -- Jiang Jun, editor of Urban China magazine, and curator Benjamin Godsill of the New Museum introduce a dynamic multimedia presentation on the history of Urban China as well as the exhibition Urban China: Informal Cities. Godsill and Jiang will discuss the rapidly changing nature of Chinese cities and what these alterations of space mean for forms of social control and organization in contemporary China. Never before seen photographs, maps, and diagrams from Urban China's extensive collection will accompany the talk. Co-presented with the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House Urban Future Initiative. (Run Time: 1 hour, 41 min.)

5/19/09 -- An art critic and international curator, Hou Hanru is also the director of exhibitions and public programs at the San Francisco Art Institute. Recent curatorial projects include the 10th Istanbul Biennial and Trans(ient) City, 2007. Qingyun Ma is principal of the Shanghai-based design firm s.p.a.m., established in 1996. Since 2007 Ma has also served as dean of the USC School of Architecture, where he has enhanced the program by developing a number of global initiatives. Conversations on Urban China was co-organized and moderated by Sylvia Lavin, Director of Critical Studies and MA/PhD programs in UCLA's Department of Architecture and Urban Design. Professor Lavin is a leading figure in current debates, known for her scholarship in contemporary architecture and design. She has published in leading journals of the field, and her book Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture was published in 2005. (Run Time: 1 hour, 29 min., 39 sec.) 

4/29/09 -- Widely known for innovative installations such as Sleepwalkers, presented at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2007, Doug Aitken utilizes a wide array of media and artistic approaches, leading us into a world where time, space, and memory are fluid concepts. Catherine Opie is engaged in issues of documentary photography and in how aspects of identity and collective behaviors are shaped by architecture. A Professor of Photography at UCLA, Opie was featured in a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2008. Conversations on Urban China was co-organized and moderated by Sylvia Lavin, Director of Critical Studies and MA/PhD programs in UCLA's Department of Architecture and Urban Design. Professor Lavin is a leading figure in current debates, known for her scholarship in contemporary architecture and design. She has published in leading journals of the field, and her book Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture was published in 2005. (Run Time: 1 hour, 20 min.)

[1] Stewart, Frank and Batt, Herbert J., eds., Winter 2003, Volume 15, Number 2,  University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu
[2] The magazine's website (Chinese only) is  Not supported by all browsers. 
[3] There is a "fan" page on Facebook, the source of the covers in this report.