Tag Archives: shadow puppetry

A Revolution in Shadows

Even though shadow puppetry was widely banned throughout the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), performances still took place. Most of these were pre-approved stories and dramas that towed the line for the New Republic of China, replacing stories of warlords and emperors and other eradicated roles in society.

Many troupes preferred to lay down their shadows all together, rather than take up this new directive. Some troupes weren’t given the choice. Since the 1980s, these shows have not been performed much, if at all. And, when asked about them, I usually get a muttered and incomprehensible answer. Probably, it’s a subject most would like to forget.

Still, I love what few Communist-era shadow puppets I have been able to glimpse. The aesthetic is so different, so modern and simplified – and still so striking. Politics do nothing to sway me here – the puppets are beautiful. Enjoy.

Thanks for reading and looking~

These puppets are all housed in the Luanzhou Shadow Puppet Museum in Hebei Province.

Note: The soldiers in green are Communist soldiers; soldiers in gold/yellow are Guomindang (Kuomintang) or the National Revolutionary’s Army soldiers.

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Look Again: shadows as metonym for a new way of seeing

In the midst of a hearty work session the other day, an email came in from across the world, letting me know that some of my blog links weren’t working. I promptly went to check on them, opened up the home page and was reminded of my blogging silence as of late. No posts in three months! Because this blog has acted as the main mode of communicating my research throughout the last four years, I had somehow subconsciously assumed it would remain as busy as I was – regardless of my efforts towards it. I have often been accused of hopeless optimism.

But the inactivity on the blog is by no means a direct correlation with my thinking and doing as of late. Perhaps the opposite. I have been occupied with finishing my last semester of PhD coursework and have just entered into the comprehensive testing period of my degree. By day, you can find me tucked deep into books on speculative realism, dark objects, performing object theory and object-oriented ontology; by night, you can find me staring blankly at a wall, desperately trying to process what I’ve read and tie that in with my embodied experience in the field. It’s not easy, but it’s also surprisingly fulfilling. Thinking and stewing and marinating so often goes unnoticed as invisible labor, but the work is as real as lifting bricks. Even without putting words on paper, the work is happening – my brain is sweating.

Much has come out of this invisible labor of reading and thinking. Most of it is still undigested and too nascent to publish here, but for me, the thinking on shadows has become clearer. Or, more specifically, my ability to articulate my belief in what shadows are and what they do is becoming clearer.

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In a child’s life, there is a crucial stage of development around the age of three or four. Before this age, a child interprets that dark thing that follows them on a sunny day as a material object. Games are often created to ‘step on’ or ‘bury’ the dark thing until it relinquishes its game of follow, but never to any avail. Pile on the stones and the dark thing appears again; run as fast as you can, but you will never outrun your dark thing; the dark thing ever-faithful to its subject.

After a while, a child begins to comprehend the physical immateriality of this dark thing: non-dimensional, lacking substance and therefore nothing. It is simply the absence of light. And is that not what a shadow is? Nothingness? The actual representation of the absence of something: light? Is there anything else in our known world that so tirelessly carries this task of representing absence? By their unfailing duty to show us distorted absences of the very things we humans know to be truths (trees, humans, structures, clouds, nighttime), is the shadow there to confirm or subvert?

At some point in a human’s development, the shadows recede into their own darkness. When we ‘know’ what they are, they begin to mesh into the rest of the busy world around us, just part of the milieu. The knowledge that shadows are the necessary complement to envisioning the three-dimensional world is lost on us. The knowledge that nighttime is the world-in-shadow is even further from consciousness. There is seeing and there is night, but there are fewer shadows.

Still, shadows play on the subconscious at some level. For such an occularcentric species, visual darkness and ambiguity seem to play upon our deepest insecurities.

The developmental trajectory of the human and the shadow that I have briefly sketched here traces a parallel with a Platonic understanding of enlightenment and its corollary with knowledge: we seek to know and to do so, we must walk away from the darkness and toward the light.

This does not sit well with me.

I have never equated light with knowledge and truth as absolute. Darkness, for me, is a truer truth: the truth that knowing-all is a seduction and a farce. And through their immaterial but significant presence, shadows expose that fragility and hubris. Shadows, for me, are just as true and real and thing-like as the thing that enjoys three-dimensionality. Maybe even more so because of its inherent elusive essence. I believe shadow puppetry, or the human manipulation of shadows for storytelling, is the many millennia-old practice of dwelling in the unknowable: an important and humble place for humans to return to time and time again.

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There are many more thoughts that dig into immaterial things and objecthood, shadows as signifiers and ambassadors, the healthy place that is unknowing, etc. But, I’ll leave this here for now and end my unintended silence.

Thanks for reading~

 

Small is Beautiful

The unimaginable has happened.

In the past few weeks, a strange and lucky set of events have led me to the smallest accomplishment of my life. I have just cut a set of 1”-scale traditional leather Chinese shadow puppets for display in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Thorne Miniature Rooms.

I first saw the Thorne Miniature Rooms when I was a young teen. I’m not sure how or why I was in Chicago, or even how we made our way to the legendary Institute, but the one thing I have never forgotten about were the miniature rooms: glowing boxes of exquisite smallness along mazes of darkened hallways. Once captured in their impossibility, I didn’t want to be let go.

Georgian Dining RoomThe Art Institute of Chicago’s Thorne Miniature Rooms: English Dining Room of the Georgian Period, 1770-90, c. 1937

Part of the spell is their natural beauty, but much of it stems from the perfect comprehensibility of, say, a 1700 Georgian Dining room the size of a shoebox. The observer feels both godlike and humbled by the sheer reducibility of that which seems irreducible. And they are beautiful. All of these rooms are handmade by master craftsman according to the particular specifications of Mrs. James Ward Thorne. All 68 of them. Certainly, seeing these rooms so early on was instrumental in my developing fascination with all things handmade, representative and miniature.

Fast-forward some 20-odd years later and on an unsuspecting morning in October, I received an email from the keeper of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. She was looking for information about Chinese shadow puppetry! With plans to highlight their miniature Chinese room this year, they had hoped to place some traditional shadow puppets within.

My mind reeled. My eyes were wide. I might have been drooling.

What a convergence of wonderful, impossible things.

Instantly, we were in a flurry of exchanges: discussing performances, regional styles and cutting techniques. I offered to give the miniatures a try; wisely giving myself an out if the 1” scale bested me. But of course, I had to try.

{Now, in case you’re not sure, 1” scale means every foot is reduced to 1”. Or 1’=1”. For reference, this means that your laptop computer would be reduced to about 1” or 1.5” wide.}

My first attempt was, well, awful. It seemed as though my monstrously large blade miss-cut the paper-thin leather on nearly every single pass – but I couldn’t even see well enough to tell. My neck ached from crouching eye-level to the table and I was barely holding onto the cut piece with a needle tool. Impossible. Even my first attempt at painting the mangled piece of leather was hideous.

My obsession with the miniature rooms and the knowledge that someone could make those meant I had to be able to make these – this is what pushed me forward. I tried and tried again: smaller, closer, better. Or, more accurately: achier, blinder, worse. In case you’re wondering, there is no god-complex inherent in making minis. More so, the opposite is true: you simply feel like a bumbling, mitten-handed oaf, swearing to yourself the entire time.

At some point, the zen set in. The beauty of working on something so small is that time stands still. In order to work at that scale, everything else must recede. You must forget about your own size, your own weight and volume and become a smaller, quieter, more immaterial conduit for miniature to pass through you. And, somehow it did.

IMG_8548Lady White Snake, 1 1/2″ tall: cowhide, string, paint

IMG_8637Lady White Snake in Shadow

IMG_8643Lady White Snake in scale with the gigantic shadow-hand!

IMG_8560A bridge, 1″ tall: leather, paint

IMG_8610The bridge in shadow

IMG_8612In perspective…such a little bridge!

XuxianLady White Snake’s lover, Xuxian, 1  1/2″ scale: leather, string, paint.

Xuxian ShadowXuxian in Shadow

Now, as I return to the real world back from the small, everything seems large, inexact and – well – lacking exquisiteness. It’s true what they say: small is beautiful.

Thanks for reading~

(PS: The shadow puppets should be up sometime this winter)

Paradise Lost – Part 1

After a twenty-two hour train ride from Chengdu province to Kunming, I hopped a 10 hour bus ride from Kunming directly to Tengchong. I had ridden a similar bus three years ago when I came the first time, but Yunnan province has worked hard to improve the roads since. We sailed over the highways and stopped at newly built rest stops with impressive restroom facilities. I had forgotten, however, that once you get towards the far west of Yunnan, you have no choice but to start weaving in and amongst the increasingly tall mountain ranges. Somewhere in the midst of the last three hours of hairpin turns, I made a mental note to add travel notes of this nature to my Evernote log: “Hellish bus ride! Remember to take Dramamine 4 hours in, you dummy!” Not sure how I managed to keep my lunch.

We finally arrived, to my great relief, at the lonely longride bus station in Tengchong city proper just before dusk. From there, the puppeteers had told me to find them in their new location just northwest of the city in Heshun. I hopped a cheap taxi and we drove swiftly out of the city and into the green. Yunnan is so blessed with natural beauty it puts everyone, everyplace and everything else to shame. I’m not exaggerating. I would have been jealous of Yunnan had she attended my high school.

Quickly, we arrived at a beautiful little village nestled at the nape of a large mountain range.

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Water rushed between rivers and small lake below, and the sky was lit up with the natural fireworks of a southwestern sunset. Compared with the very nice but predictable city experience I’d had last time, these new digs felt like paradise. We passed some tourist guesthouses and what looked like a host of new construction, but I didn’t think twice about it. I was so happy not to be turning on a bus or stuck in a city somewhere that I went to sleep at the hostel with a smile on my face.

Three years ago, I visited Tengchong for a few weeks. I had met the troupe at the Huanxian Shadow Puppet Conference and had been so impressed with their rough and bold designs that I decided to make the trek down. After my trip, I declared it one of the best and most sustainable situations of any that I had come across in my travels; the government supported most of their work as stewards of Tengchong’s historical culture to leave them time to create new work and continue performing traditionally for their village nearby. They even had some young apprentices who were beginning to master performance techniques and showed interest in beginning puppet making.

The memory of that trip was keeping me optimistic. I figured their move to the tourist area of Heshun was simply following the tourism crowd, but that everything, probably, remained the same more or less.

I awoke with promise the next morning. All I had to do was find the troupe and begin the fun. They had replied to my early communication with short messages like, “Annie, we welcome you!” and “whenever you get here, we are also here!”

As I set off, I realized I was disoriented in this new village. The further I walked, the further I had to reevaluate my understanding of what this paradise was. It was beautiful, for sure, but it was also confusing. Local Baizu minorities were manning much of the food stalls, there were costumed docents in front of the historical temples and there were old folks selling trinkets all along the roadside. But, no one was there. Just me. They looked at me like I was an apparition. They didn’t even try to harass me for my patronage. They just let me pass silently onto the next onlooker. And so it went.

Soon, I got to what was clearly the ‘center’ of this village and here, things became clearer. Modern cafés, jade shops, restaurants and clothing shops lined the small winding streets and cobblestone alleys all the way from the mountain bottom to the water’s edge. The signs began to advertise for the Heshun Ancient Scenic Area. Closer to the base of the village, I spied an expansive parking lot, a main gate and tourist vans by the dozens.

The Heshun Ancient Scenic Area is a new project masterminded by an enterprising Chinese businesswoman who somehow bought visitation rights to the village and developed it for tourism.

M538These are the types of images that come up when you do an internet search for Heshun Ancient Scenic Area.

12_20120405100403_JUJBJUNEJUNCJUIzJUI5JUM1JUQ1JUYyNQ==More idyllic PR images for Heshun Scenic Area.

The main gate ticket is 80 yuan and gains you entrance to the ‘village’, the shops and a handful of old temples. The main entrance is a confusing layout of shops that look more like museums than anything else. And this is where the shadow puppet shop is.

Although the development is one of the nicest I’ve seen, it’s still a development. It has the soulless quality of the copy. And, worst of all, we visited in the low season of rainy June, making the entire place feel more like a movie set than an active village. The longer we stayed, the creepier it got. I couldn’t help but feel for the earnest trinket sellers and restaurant owners who prepared daily for the sad trickle of guests.

I waited at the empty shadow puppet store for a few minutes before I texted my friends. They were on their way for the 4:30 performance. The troupe of four arrived at 4:27, said their brief ‘hellos’ to me with much grinning; then flicked on the lights and CD player to set up for…Turtle and the Crane. Next up? The story of how Er Kuai (a famed dish of Tengchong) got its name. These were the same shows they’d performed nightly in 2011.

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My face dropped as I realized they’ve been performing these shows twice a day, 365 days a year for over three years.

This mistake happens to me often; I assume. It’s a bad habit as an ethnographer. So often I don’t notice the damage it has done until it’s too late. The confidence I had developed for the troupe’s stability in 2011, coupled with the responses I had recently received from the troupe members, had led me to believe the troupe was doing well – maintaining stasis. As I sat through the same two shows, however, with a troupe half the size of what it was, performing in a tourist area in recession, it was clear that Tengchong shadow puppetry had undergone severe changes.

After the show was over, the group’s new leader, Fu Guanguo, her young helper, Qiuju, and a few others headed to tea and dinner. Within an hour, everything was made clear. The troupe’s deal with the government in 2011, their lucrative gig playing to the nightly tourist buses at government-supported restaurants, had dissolved. They then moved the Troupe to the Heshun Ancient Scenic Area, employed as a ‘local Tengchong cultural act’, to enliven the tourist area and help validate that 80 yuan entrance fee. Their job was simply to perform the same shows everyday at 9:30 and 4:30 and if no one came, which they very often didn’t, they didn’t have to perform. With decreased income and almost no audience, the troupe divided.

The main master and his direct descendents, the core of the troupe in 2011, had all returned to ‘real’ jobs in order to provide for their families. Fu Guanguo, her nephew Liu Chaokan, Qiuju and her friend Liu Rong, can afford to keep working as puppeteers because they are not the main income earners in their families. With little income to start with and a tenuous future for the tourist village, innovation and development within the troupe will likely never happen.

I was starting to get that creeping feeling again, one that’d I’d also had in Xi’an when I visited a few weeks back. The decline is happening too fast, the changes too slippery and I can barely keep up with the news of it, let alone the research. But, at that moment, what can you do? I could only take a deep breath, be present and keep moving forward.

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Over an incredibly simple dinner of home-cooked pig’s feet stew, fresh local vegetables and my favorite sour tomato sauce, the mood grew quiet and contemplative. All of us, quietly torn between what we want and what is. We parted ways reluctantly and went out into the dark, empty alleyways under a light, warm rain.

{Continued in Paradise Lost – Part 2}

Thanks for reading~

Don’t Kill the Messenger

On my way west to Gansu Province from Beijing, I had to pass through my old stomping grounds of Shaanxi Province. Xi’an city is the only logical throughway before heading north by bus to the small desert city of Huanxian. My intention was just to check in on everyone, see how they were doing and be on my merry way. I had not expected to find things so wholly changed.

I had heard rumblings prior to my arrival about the Yutian Wenhua company and knew the Xi’an branch had closed down. I was worried about where my puppet making friends had scattered. When I asked my good friend, puppet maker Wangyan, what she’d be up to when I swung into town, she said “just getting back from doing a shadow puppet performance in Beijing”. I was overjoyed at first, but my relief was short lived.

Save just a few puppet cutters from the old Yutian Wenhua cultural commodity company, and they are the best of the best, the rest are currently out of work. One is delivering sodas, another working in a hotel and Wangyan tried a stint at the local mall. No wonder she jumped at a random opportunity to join a one-time-only shadow puppet performance to welcome the Turkmenistan leader to Beijing, even if she finds herself out of work again on her return to Xi’an.

One trip to the famed Muslim Quarter tourist street in Xi’an and everything is explained. The few shadow shops that were there in 2011 were filled with both machine and hand-cut shadow puppets. I had a growing worry then that most of the vendors were passing off machine-made as hand-cut and making a mint, but had still assumed the industry would progress slowly. Having spent so much time researching in China, I should have known better.

Now, the number of shadow puppet shops in the Muslim Quarter has tripled. And, the handcut shadow puppets? Gone. All of them. Not a single hand cut sample in the shops I visited.

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I’ll admit, the grump took a hold of me around the fourth shop or so and I gave an impolite scolding to a shopkeeper; not because they are only selling machine-made puppets but because they are still praying upon the ignorance of the consumer to make a profit.

This domination of the machine-made puppet hawked as the ‘real thing’ and the inability for the general public to tell the difference has put my good friends out of work. These incredible, beautiful artists have laid their hard won talents to rest. Worst of all, they make more working in malls and delivering sodas then they ever did cutting puppets. The world confuses  me at times like these. How have humans come to place more monetary value in a bottle of Coke than in an inherited intangible cultural folk art form?

Certainly, this change is happening swiftly everywhere if it hasn’t already. Worst of all, this market change has cemented the demise of Shaanxi’s famed shadow puppet cutting apprenticeship system.

There are just a handful of cutters now working in Xi’an and only a few more in shadow puppetry’s original hot bed of Huaxian. I can’t help but wonder just how long they can all hang on. And, I can’t help wishing for a miracle.

Thanks for reading~

A for Effort

In the midst of my chaotic China welcome, I snuck in a trip to the outskirts of Tangshan and an overdue visit to the Lu family cutters. It’s been almost three years since I’ve been out east of Beijing and I was anxious to check in.

I was happy to find the Lu family unchanged in the ways that matter: still ineffably warm, earnest and thriving in their multiple modalities. Both father and mother Lu, while busy helping son Tianxiang set up his new apartment in preparation for a wife, catch me up on their latest happenings. The apartment is on the fifth floor of the third building in a large complex of newly built identical high-rises, which are no stranger to the China skyline.

The apartment building is so new, there are only a few neighbors as of yet – everyone in a different state of preparation.

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In the Lu’s apartment, the electric kang (traditionally a steam-heated brick bed) is the only piece of furniture in the place so far. His father is working on the baseboards, his mother on making new buckwheat husk pillows and Tianxiang is intent on patching in the light switches. The pride of having his own place shows in Tianxiang. He lights up when he talks about how he’ll decorate the walls with his father’s shadow puppetry and display his cutting tools on a specially designed shelf. I am honored to be the apartment’s first guest and sleep like a log on the kang.

The next morning, I see that the hustle and bustle of movement and improvement within the small household is no different from the small town of Han Cheng itself. Just a 20 minute bus ride outside of Tangshan proper, Han Cheng is starting to outgrow its dirt roads and farmland feel. There’s a few fast food chains setting up shop in the first floor of the new high-rise apartment buildings and the street’s nightlife reveals a swarming population of younger folk. Tianxiang’s building complex is just one of a few that now break up the previously flat horizon of corn and millet fields.

Shortly after breakfast, Tianxiang takes me to the small village another 20 minutes further out of Tangshan, named Damengang. Here, in collaboration with a few progressive educators, Tianxiang has been developing shadow puppet curriculum with a small village school. The program has been a success from the beginning, clearly evident with a tour through the school’s exhibition room. The pieces on display are creative, careful and wonderful.

plastic headThis cutting sample is made by a student out of thin, flexible plastic – a more economic learning material than leather.

Later, I am privileged to meet the artists themselves. In the hallway, a band of students are studiously at work carving leather pieces on wax boards and painting the finished parts with watercolor.

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In the music room, there is another group manipulating shadow puppets with help of a local troupe and when they see their teacher has arrived, they ready themselves for performance. We are treated to a short set of shows with students at the helm of each. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up a bit seeing the young and the old working together behind the screen.

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Like everything else he does, Tianxiang has created this program with the utmost care and thought. From the choice of plastic for the beginning cutters to the beautiful wax boards for the advanced students, this is no afternoon activity. A well-laid lesson plan of shadow puppet making integrated with performance practice, encouraged by both its long tradition and the pressing need for creativity — this is the kind of thing shadow puppetry needs. Who better to inherit and evolve the craft than China’s youth?

Tianxiang drops me off at his new apartment after a full day at the school. Shortly, he will head back to his parents house for the night. There isn’t much that needs to be said. He knows how much it has meant to me and I know how much it means to him. This work, this toil he offers on his days off, free nights and free hours from his day job in the city — it is something. They cycle of inspiration continues and we carry on.

the fam at their old homeThe Lus at their “old home” in western Han Cheng

Thanks for reading~

For previous stories on the Lus: 
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As The World Turns

I’m back in mainland China for a 10 week fieldwork trip, focusing on shadow puppet troupes and puppet making methods in Gansu and Yunnan. Somehow I finished the first year in my PhD program and left for China within the span of just a few days. I’ll try not to ever do that again. The mental quiet and focus that the school year has demanded has softened my fieldwork rigor for the moment. I was wholly unprepared for the deluge of stimuli and the unforgiving pace of Beijing upon arrival. But, slowly, I can feel myself steeling up again: remembering to carry toilet paper and water with me, abandoning my expectations that anything will start on time and always (always) managing to recheck my assumptions.

As usual, I’m starting my trip in Beijing. It’s the perfect place to recover from jetlag, get my belly used to the oil and spice and get my brain firing in Mandarin again. It is also home to a growing number of shadow puppet friends from all walks of life. Beijing, from the beginning, has never been a place I thought I would invest much time into, as most of what remains here are modern shadow puppet troupes. Still, it grows increasingly undeniable that China’s capitol is the center of many things in this country, which continues to draw artists and innovators, including shadow lovers. Within just a few calls to some of my pals, I see that I’ve lucked out with my timing: so and so has an exhibition, so and so has a new theatre and so and so is opening their new shadow puppet collaboration tonight. Never a dull moment in China, ever.

Hanfeizi, the brother and sister company I first profiled in 2011, is currently busy with a few projects. Most notably, they are participating in an exhibition of handicrafts for the ART BEIJING expo happening. I attended on press day, a day before the exhibition officially opened, and was impressed to see a large showing of journalists, supporters and general enthusiasts. The shadow puppet corner takes up one of the 4 main walls and boasts a small, but classy collection of Dongbei style shadow puppets.

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HFZ 2Hanxing, left, beside two of the event organizers, his father and mother.

Liu Laoshi and the Longzaitian Troupe are also doing well. This troupe of little people remain some of the best trained and most enthusiastic students of shadow puppetry in the country. The manager, curious about my continued returns (this being my third in 3 years), decided I must be serious about shadow puppetry and welcomed me in with decided earnest. He explained that while the troupe’s reputation was growing steadily, with three branches in Beijing and 3 outposts in other provinces, the financial situation was still tight. The government does assist the troupe with things such as rehearsal and performance space, but does little else. They are still mostly subsisting on commissioned collaborations, ticket prices and some private funding. Because I had toted my friend Serge along as well, we got an extra special private showing of their prized blacklight show. So much neon! 

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Over at the Shichahai Shadow Puppet Themed Hotel, which is one of the nicest boutique hutong hotels around, my friend’s Larry Reed and Maomao have just teamed up together to launch a new shadow puppet performance of The Butterfly Lovers for the hotel’s audience. It was exciting to attend their opening night and I was impressed with the amount of work they managed to accomplish in one short week of rehearsal. It’s a great story to translate into shadow and will add to their growing repertoire of shows.

SCH HotelReading for the audience. Isn’t that screen gorgeous?

Buttefly lovers

As the luck of my timing continued, last year’s hutong shadow tour team is all in Beijing at the same time: Julie, my great friend who works with Miao textiles and shadows and Serge, my friend from Holland who works in contemporary painting and performance. Recently, I connected Serge to my friend Tianxiang to help him make leather puppets for some upcoming experimental animated films. Together, Julie, Serge and I did what we like to do. We made some shadow friends, took them to the hutong alleyways and lit up the night.

Hutong Perf

Hutong Perf 1

All in all, a raucous and unrelenting beginning to my trip. I have no false expectations that this good timing will continue, only grateful to have been apart of the convergence. Can’t wait to see what the next two months has in store.

Thanks for reading~