A GOOD MUSLIM I was born in Yogyakarta, in Indonesia, and brought up in a strong Javanese culture. My dad is a Muslim but was raised in a Catholic family, and my mum comes from Muslims but her father was a puppet master, so knew a lot of Hindu stories….
The night is clear and black, the stars are close and the voice of Johan Rockstrom echoes around the open-air cinema of a luxury Thai resort as he describes the world’s impending demise. Reclining in the shadows with pre-dinner cocktails, a motley crew…
South China Morning Post, 3 November 2013. Forsyth’s latest political thriller – cold war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda – is heavy on the thrills and light on the politics. He speaks of spooks, Snowden and Cyberspace with Jo Baker.
AT 74, FREDERICK FORSYTH allowed himself a small concession in researching his latest book. In Mogadishu, he hired a bodyguard. “I’ve only done it once before,” says the veteran novelist, reclining at a desk his Hong Kong hotel suite. “We didn’t stay inside what’s called The Camp – a kind of sandglass-walled and barbed wire enclave used by most foreigners – but in a hotel in the city. Which was… interesting. My wife said I was a stupid old fool, but I felt like if I was going to describe it I had to see it!.”
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Fans might have forgiven Forsyth for researching one of the world’s more dangerous cities, in Somalia, from a distance. But the British thrill master felt that his latest look into the world of modern-day terrorism, The Kill List, should be held to the standards that helped take his other novels to the top of bestseller lists.
Debuting as a novelist in 1971 with The Day of the Jackal, Forsyth has become known for his melding of fictional characters and plot lines with real political intrigues, using research techniques from his days as a journalist.
“I’ve always been intrigued in the things the establishment don’t tell us, rather than those they do.” he says with a smile. “Nowadays we think we know it all, and Mr. Snowden tells us, ‘oh no, you don’t know the half of it – what they’re listening to, eavesdropping on’.”
A journalist in the 60s and 70s, Forsyth has certainly developed a sense for the world’s lurking dangers and blind spots. Growing up in a small ‘one horse’ town in Kent with little money, he failed to secure the career he wanted with the RAF, but dreamed of travel. The idea of ‘diplomatic corp. cocktail parties’ was less than thrilling. “So the only alternative was the by-lines in Dad’s morning paper from cities with amazing names, like Hong Kong, Singapore and Beirut,” he recalls.
From the offices of a daily provincial paper, to London’s Fleet Street and then to the Reuters news agency, by age 23 Forsyth was reporting from Paris, covering the almost daily likelihood of an assassination attempt on president Charles de Gaulle by French extremists. It was a ‘baptism by fire’ he says. This fire raged onward in the mid 60s, with two years in the thick of Nigeria’s civil war, first for the BBC and later – since he was unwilling to toe its editorial line and return to London – as a freelance reporter and writer.
At that time, few had attempted to blend modern-day politics with fiction, and the decision to use his experiences in France and skills as a reporter to write a political thriller, produced Jackal, his sleeper hit. Surprised but gratified, Forsyth continued to write his novels to a similar template, tackling subjects from the underground Nazi movement in Europe (1972’s Odessa File) to international drug cartels (2011’s The Cobra). In researching his books he was able to pursue the once-imagined thrills of a Kent boyhood, with ‘hairy moments’, as he calls them, galore. There was Afghanistan and Pakistan; Equatorial Guinea, where he blithely recalls almost losing a leg to septicaemia; and Guinea-Bissau – ‘a horrible place’ – where he came close to being caught up in a gruesome coup.
Each adventure produced new material for adrenalin-fuelled accounts of dark places and dastardly deeds, with a reporter’s eye for detail. “Travel was the main impulse for fifty years of my life,” he says. “And as an investigative journalist one learns where the knowledge reposes, and how to get at it. So that is how I approached fiction.”
The Kill List, which hit shelves in September, fits squarely into this oeuvre. As cold-war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda, it follows a US government-sanctioned assassin on the trail of a charismatic jihadist, and takes readers into the administrative bowels of an American organisation tasked with tracking and killing ‘enemies of the West’. It then leads them across the gullies and firewalls of cyberspace to various havens of Islamic extremism, from London to Kismayo Deftly paced, the thriller has been reviewed as the usual meticulous yet macho Forsyth romp: heavy on action and intrigue; light on moral complexity and character development.
IT WAS A NEWS REPORT on drone attacks that inspired Forsyth to pick up his pen again. Not long after the extra-judicial killing of Osama Bin Laden by US Navy Seals, the author became curious about how modern-day manhunts take place. Originally called The Tracker, the novel’s name was changed when his American publishers called – in high excitement, he says – to verify that such a list actually exists in the White House. Forsyth was able to tell them, rather smugly, that it does. In 2012 the US government had admitted publicly that it authorizes ‘signature strikes’ on certain targets, with the decision centred around the counter-terror chief in the White House.
Yet this batch of research posed a new kind of challenge. The author had covered the technicalities of espionage and warfare with the Arab world before, in the Fist of God and The Afghan. But for a 74 year-old who, until last year had refused to own a cell phone, and continues to churn out his 10 pages-per-day on a steel-cased portable typewriter, Cyberspace was an alien landscape.
Forsyth has joked that if his first novel had been set now rather than the 1960s, with photos that could be e-mailed and data instantly accessed, it would have been ‘a very short spy novel’. But in choosing the story of an Islamic terrorist, tracked via high-tech military surveillance systems (and with the help of a teenage hacker), The Kill List is an attempt to reconcile these two worlds.
“I had to go to people who are real cyber experts and ask them to explain as if to an idiot, what they were doing and why,” he recalls. “There was obviously a huge generation gap. A lot of the real, talented geeks are younger than my grandson!” Accordingly, the novel gives out a sense of both wonder and foreboding for technology. “The ones who are deeply into this cyber stuff I do find very strange,” he admits. “But also tremendously talented. These hackers can carve their way through firewalls in the databases of the Pentagon with something they bought at Computer World.”
With weapons technology and warfare, Forsyth is on more familiar ground. His grasp of the subject has grown with each novel, along with his little black book of experts to consult. And with each novel too, doors for the author have opened at ever-higher levels, aided perhaps by an Order of the British Empire (CBE), awarded in the late nineties. “When I was much younger, particularly for the first three books, the big bosses in the forces of law and order wouldn’t give me house room,” he says with a laugh. “I would have to go instead to the underworld. Now, if I say to someone fairly high up in, say, Scotland Yard that I’m writing a book on the cocaine trade, he’ll put me in touch with his head of narcotics.”
This has no doubt spared him a certain amount of trouble in recent years. Forsyth fondly tells an anecdote from the seventies that almost led to his untimely end, while he was researching his third novel, Dogs of War. He had needed to find out where and how mercenary groups in Africa bought their weapons. With the arms black market based in Hamburg, and being able to speak German, the author decided to masquerade as a South African on a buying expedition for a wealthy patron, he says. “I more or less used the plot of my book about a mining millionaire who wanted to topple an African republic,” he recalls. And all went well until one of the bosses, returning home from a meeting with Forsyth and others, reportedly saw his author’s photograph in the window of a book shop. “I received a call from an insider friend in my hotel room, who said grab your passport and money and run like hell!” he says. “Fortunately I was in the train station hotel, so I ran across the square to station, vaulted the ticket barrier, and dived straight into the window of a departing train – into the lap of a German businessman who had a sense of humour failure.”
He didn’t go back to Hamburg for years. “The book came out in German with them very thinly disguised, and I hear they didn’t like it at all,” he says. Compared to this, he admits, his recent ‘reccie’ in Mogadishu was more leisurely.
As a search-engine sceptic, Forsyth makes heavy use of industry publications, such as those from Jane’s Information Group. His books are populated with the likes of Ukrainian freedom fighters, French paramilitaries, Gulf War soldiers, Somali pirates and Al Qaeda – along with American and British Special Forces and spies. All are often locked in combat and armed to the teeth. Keeping up with the fast-moving world of weaponry is no small feat, particularly for his weapon of choice in The Kill List – drones. “These drones are being modernised and improved all the time, so the stuff used from just ten years ago is outmoded,” he explains. “But the information is mostly public domain. If you know where to go, there’s probably a technical publication that tells you exactly what it does.” At times his digs into the field have been met with warnings, he says, about breaking the UK’s Official Secrets Act. “I tell them, don’t worry – you can read all that in Avionics Today!”, he says with a chuckle.
Yet on the ethnics and legality of drone warfare, still hotly contested, Forsyth has less to contribute. Those who challenge their use, tend to question how any country can strategically use lethal force against individuals without a trial, and outside of a ‘symmetrical’ war. He doesn’t share these concerns. “I think there’s a lot of nonsense talked about the immorality of drones. If it’s a legitimate target, what’s the immorality in destroying it?” he asks. “We are in a defence posture against these terrorists, and when we find them we have a right to defend ourselves from them killing us.”
“I don’t recall that we declared war on Islam,” he adds. “But certain elements of Islam are at war, which they call Jihad, with the Christian-Jewish world.”.
Forsyth will acknowledge that in the UK, the Left has ‘given up’ on him, but he insists that his politics are ‘conservative with a small C’. He calls the euphemism ‘War on Terror’ – coined by the administration of George W. Bush – ‘manure’, and he claims no interest in the UK’s party politics. What he stands for, he explains, is more of a ‘traditionalist attitude’ to life. “It seems to me our forefathers got an awful lot right,” he says. “And I’ve never seen why anyone should be ashamed of loving one’s own country. It seems modish now not to, and I rebel against that. And for it, I’m called right wing.” He has often lamented that he was born in the wrong era. Given the choice he would have lived through the Second World War and what he considers the height of its glory, the Battle of Britain.
This sentiment runs thick through his books. They vibrate with faith in the hard-boiled integrity of his mostly white, male government operatives; with reverence for men in combat and action over ambiguity; and with the cut-and-dry morality of good guys vs. bad guys. Plotlines are streaked with a boy’s thrill for heroism and love of aliases, acronyms and technospeak – at the expense of inner dialogue or political nuance. He rarely uses anti-heroes he says, which tend to be less popular with his audience.
Yet he’ll be the first to explain this approach, in less ideological terms. “I’ve never hidden the fact that if it didn’t pay, I wouldn’t do it.” he says of writing fiction. “It’s more about the bank than the message for me!” For Forsyth, the public’s consistent fascination with spies and terrorist hunters has fit neatly with his own interests and skill set, becoming a cash cow that he says he has been happy to milk.
And he’ll acknowledge, sometimes, where romanticism and reality part ways. “The problem is that 99% of espionage is bureaucracy, scanning communications and technical information. And there’s no James Bond wandering around out there,” he says, gesturing to the Hong Kong skyline. “There are probably a few spooks, but they’re probably rather shabby little people. So yes, there is a false glamour.”
Which his books perpetuate? “Yes,” he laughs. “Or at least a bit; because most people have a banal existence, and it’s what they want. That’s not patronizing. It’s a fact of life.
Yet the size of Forsyth’s ‘conservative C’ seems to be larger, or at least becoming larger, than he will sometimes acknowledge on book tours. Touted as a ‘bestselling author and political commentator’ by UK newspaper the Daily Express, for whom he writes a column, his claim to not be sending messages through his work, seem disingenuous.
In his column, Forsyth has written passionately and divisively about those who hate the West, and the heroism of those who protect it. A few weeks ago, writing in support of the ‘spooks’ and special forces he has interviewed throughout his career, the author consigned whistle-blowers to the seventh circle of hell. “Revealing secrets that enable Jihadists to penetrate our defences, all the better to place bombs where you and I go shopping, that is traitorous,” he wrote of a ‘whingeing and whining’ Snowden. ““Dante reserved the seventh and innermost circle of Hell for the betrayers and he was right.”
Forsyth says that he spent substantial time researching the forms of Islam that feature in The Kill List, and he was keen to present the disdain of moderate Muslims toward fundamentalism. He describes long doctrinal discussions with a British imam, who became a Muslim voice of reason the plot – as a professor based out of Cairo’s revered centre for Islamic learning, Al-Azhar University. In researching the motives of young Jihadists, Forsyth consulted the cofounder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank in London, who had once led an extremist movement and later reconverted. “So he could explain to me why the Jihadists think the way they do,” says the author. “I was trying to hear both viewpoints.”
Yet his grasp and representation of the religion and its politics has still left many cold. One Asian fan on a review site suggested that the religious aspect was unconvincing, and that the book would have worked better without trying to tackle it. “The author raises the question “Why do they hate Americans?” and answers this complex issue very superficially, almost offhandedly,” she or he comments. “The book is good [but] it’s not about Islamic fundamentalism. The flaws are perhaps more visible to Asian minds than to western ones.”
Indeed, there is a sense that The Kill List, with its parallel but polarised universe is not well placed to deliver the reality of terrorism, and rather reduces it, as one reviewer noted in the New York Times, to the world of movies and video games. For all its up-to-date technical wizardry, it still feels to this journalist, rather wistfully behind the times.
Yet a cash cow it remains, and Forsyth’s success and reputation as thrill master seems very secure. In 2012 the Crime Writers Association awarded him its Cartier Diamond Dagger for his body of work; and the Kill List has perhaps not surprisingly been embraced by Hollywood: it is due to be made into a film shortly, helmed by director Rupert Sanders.
But at 74, could this be an end to adventures in Mogadishu? Sitting in his hotel suite and preparing for lengthy anniversary celebrations in honour of his host, the Mandarin Oriental, Forsyth is tired. He has threatened to retire numerous times. Now, with 70 countries and more than 20 books under his belt, he feels that this could really be it.
“There are people who are compulsives, who are not fulfilled unless they’re writing. But I am not one,” he says. “I have to be dragged to my typewriter now. There are so many other things for me to do. And really – I don’t have a message for the human race.” This remains under debate, but the decision will no doubt leave legions of disappointed thrill-seekers in its wake.
South China Morning Post, April 2013. Forty years after his death, two of Bruce Lee’s siblings reminisce about their famous brother’s life and a legacy that is inspiring a whole new generation of fighters. Jo Baker reports
Hard bodies abound. At the annual One Asia Mixed Martial Arts Summit, big names, tight muscles and a whole lot of spin are building an air of promise laced with testosterone.
The most highly billed appearances, however, are those of a pair who are not part of the fight club here at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands resort. As the first day of talks wind down, a convention room fills and falls quiet for two unassuming figures in their autumn years.
Neither compete, but they are happy to spin some eagerly received yarns about a long-dead fighting legend.
“Bruce was way ahead of his time in martial arts,” announces Bruce Lee’s younger brother, Robert Lee Chun-fai. “He wanted to show that there really is no set way in fighting and there is no limit. He believed that martial artists should not be bound to only just one or a few styles.”
Hong Kong’s most famous son is an unofficial figurehead for mixed martial arts (MMA) – not just as an iconic fighter, but as the man who pioneered its founding principles on a global scale. A fledgling but fast-growing sport that mixes fighting styles in showy, caged and sometimes vicious displays, MMA commands an estimated 60-million-strong television audience in more than 70 countries, and has in the past few years begun to reach the Asian mainstream. Its heroes may not be household names yet, but they are beginning to be tossed around in bars, gyms and school grounds, from the Philippines to Japan. And though popular opinion suggests that Lee would have struggled to make it in today’s top MMA tiers, 40 years after his death his name evokes a unique sense of affection among fighters.
“To ask the relevance of Bruce Lee to MMA is to ask the relevance of Picasso to modern art,” says Melvin Lee (no relation), who works at the Budo Academy in Penang, Malaysia. “You ask any top MMA guy, 90 per cent will say that he inspired them to fight.”
It was Bruce Lee’s system, or philosophy, jeet kune do (JKD), that saw a push for martial arts techniques to be cherry-picked to suit the skills of an individual fighter. Based on his principles “take what is useful, reject what is useless” and “be like water”, JKD was radical in a world of centuries-old combat systems closely protected by grandmasters.
Robert Lee, a retired musician now in his 60s, can remember the seeds of JKD being sown among the rooftops and schoolyards of Kowloon during Bruce Lee’s early teens, even before the body of his work was developed in the United States, and broadcast via American and Hong Kong movies.
“I think he started it off, though not intentionally; it was just what he believed in,” says Lee, sitting in a quiet corner with older sister Phoebe. “When he was young he realised that when you fight in the streets, wing chun alone doesn’t work. Bruce always believed in being able to do everything and using the techniques to your advantage, by knowing yourself and your limitations.”
Wing chun was famously Bruce Lee’s “mother” system – a Chinese kung fu style that emphasises straight line fighting and hand-trap-ping techniques.
He chose it, says Robert Lee, to suit Hong Kong’s dense urban setting and tight spaces. But to hone his skills he would join rooftop brawls with fighters of a rival style, choy lay fut, often throwing in techniques learned from boxing, wrestling and street-fighting.
“The bouts were held on rooftops to elude the police,” recalls Lee, with a grin. “The rules were simple, e.g. no gouging of the eyes, no biting and no hitting or kicking the groin.”
Robert Lee in 1968, two years after having founded popular local beat band The Thunderbirds.There were few serious injuries – the combatants were mostly school-age teens with little fighting experience; yet Bruce became known as one of the fiercest, says his brother. He was given the nickname “The King Gorilla” and his reputation began to cause problems.
“Because of his constant fighting, his notoriety became known to the Hong Kong police, and finally my mother was summoned to the local police station,” he says. “She was told that if her son continued his pugnacious behaviour the police would have no choice but to take him into custody. My parents made the decision that it was best for him to have a change of environment.”
This was the move that arguably allowed Bruce Lee’s philosophy to take shape. In the US, he was free to absorb various styles at school tournaments and demonstrations, from jiu-jitsu to judo. He taught kung fu throughout high school and college to earn his keep, and the environment there was more receptive to experimentation. In the late 1960s, Lee’s practice was given a name and gained a following. However, he always thought of JKD as a process of refinement, rather than a style.
“I have not invented a new style, composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from this method or that method,” Lee told an interviewer in 1971. “On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or moulds.”
Robert Lee, who moved to the US in 1969, 10 years after Bruce, and lives in Los Angeles, remembers various discussions with his brother as he developed JKD.
“He told me that it could have been [called] ‘ABC’ or ‘123’ because he didn’t want the name to be mistakenly identified as a style of martial arts,” Lee says.
“I remember Bruce used to own a miniature grave replica made by one of his students, which had the engraving, ‘Here lies a once fluid man, overcome by the classical mess.’ It signified that Bruce did not believe that one should be bound by fixed forms and styles in fighting … One should learn how to relate to his opponent and be able to move with him – like in a non-improvised dance.”
Lee’s use of grapples, biting and other less dignified techniques in movies such as 1973’s Enter the Dragon thrilled much of his audience, young Asians and Western enthusiasts alike.
“I was about 10 when I saw my first [Bruce Lee] movie, and I was really impressed,” says Yung Ka-wai, a Hong Kong-born MMA instructor, at the summit. “It was totally different to any other kind of Hong Kong martial arts movies. What you saw was much closer to a real fight: more spontaneous and rough. Less ‘I’m a gentleman’. Not long after that, I began to train.”
Bruce Lee did not appear to hold back on this point. As well as commissioning that mock-epitaph, he derided traditional combat styles as “baloney” to journalists, and referred to martial-arts competitions as “dry land swimming”.
And as the Lees now recall, it made him a divisive figure among masters, particularly in the East.
“There was a lot of jealousy,” says Phoebe Lee, who was born in Hong Kong and moved, in 1970, to San Francisco, where she worked as a bookkeeper at a meat wholesaler.
Feathers were ruffled, she says, backs turned, challenges regularly thrown down.Yet Bruce Lee’s siblings reject the suggestion that he was ever downcast by this. “Bruce was street-smart, and he knew how to entertain the different masters. He’d taunt them gently and win them over by sharing knowledge,” says Robert Lee.
And when that didn’t work, he’d get physical. Lee recalls a story he heard from Bruce’s wife, Linda, in the 60s, in which a sifu (traditional Chinese master) arrived out of the blue at the Lees’ family home in Los Angeles. The sifu challenged Lee’s teaching methods and his Chinese identity. Then, family legend has it, the sifu lost a duel in the family garage and vowed never to deride Lee again.
Lee’s influence and inspiration went beyond his physical prowess. At the summit cocktail reception, over house wine and cocktail nuts, the siblings’ presence sparks fond reminiscences among fighters and promoters, ranging in topic from Lee’s mind-body philosophy to his holistic approach to health; his early protein shakes to his nunchucks. And, of course, his sartorial flair.
“He was always a sharp dresser, just like The Fonz,” says Robert Lee, grinning. “That’s how he was. He wasn’t trying to be cocky. He was 13, 14, going to school, dressing sharp every day.”
Contrary to more heroic notions, it is here that the seeds of Bruce Lee’s path as a warrior were sown.
“He’d basically get roughed up because of his confidence and his haute couture,” says Robert Lee, with a laugh. “Bruce decided that if he wanted to keep his image he would need to learn to defend it.”
It was also a sense of style he took seriously, according to his sister.
“I remember our servant ironing his trousers for him once, and he noticed it wasn’t right,” she says. “He took the iron and did it himself. He was hot-tempered and he wanted to do everything perfectly, beginning to end. Even ironing.”
Yet the Lees have less light to shine on one of the most intriguing parts of their brother’s story. Bruce was a strong, charismatic Chinese man in a world with few Asian icons. According to the president of MMA’s Ultimate Fighting Championship, Dana White, he made martial arts “the thing to do”, but he also made the world a better place in which to be Asian.
“Look at the way Asians were portrayed back then,” White said in an interview last year. “They were portrayed as kind of goofy and weak. And then here comes this Asian guy who every person of every colour in every country worshipped as the baddest dude in the world.”
But what of the idea – often proffered – that this was intentional; that Bruce Lee was fuelled in part by the sense of being an underdog?
“Bruce didn’t face those problems in Hong Kong,” says Robert Lee. “My mother’s uncle was Robert Hotung, the first knight of the city. He had a lot of businesses and influence in the government, and whatever we wanted to do we could.”
Rather than being in any way oppressed, the picture the Lees paint is of a well-off and well-connected family with chauffeured cars and opportunities aplenty. Bruce’s biggest problem in those early teenage years, his brother says, was defending his right to be fashionable.
In contrast, both Lees admit Bruce did face prejudice in America, but insist he rarely appeared bothered by it. When faced with open disrespect, he would simply counter it with a show of his physical prowess. They give anecdotes of calm, quick aggression and lessons soundly delivered, whether to rude drivers, disrespectful fellow students or taunting movie stars.
“Bruce just really believed in himself,” Robert Lee says. “In America there was no understanding among big guys there that an Asian could be a powerful fighter, and I’ve seen him go up against Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris. I’ve seen Bruce treat them like dolls. He would be like, ‘You think I’m no good? I’ll show you how good.'”
So Bruce Lee would be more likely to use force to make a point than his legendary on-screen charisma?
“Unfortunately, that’s who he was. But I think his self-confidence stopped him from going too far,” says Robert Lee. “If you really believe in yourself, there’s no need for it.”
Real-life stories aside, there is one thing on which everyone at the summit can agree. In the 40 years since his death, no role model has emerged from this region who can cast a shadow on Lee’s legacy. Many at the Marina Bay Sands hope that if one does materialise, it will be from the cocktail of street smarts and showmanship that is MMA.
“This is the first time you’ve had a gathering of this many real-life heroes in pan-Asia,” says Chatri Sityodtong, who founded renowned academy Evolve MMA. “And I believe that the few years to come will be viewed as the biggest inflection point in MMA since Bruce Lee in Asia. I’ll bet that in 10 years people will be saying, ‘Here comes Shinya Aoki,’ for example. It won’t be movie stars but real fighters.”
Robert Lee has yet to see a challenge to his brother’s legacy in the region, least of all in Hong Kong, where he considers the younger generation to be spoilt and restricted. He continues to work on projects to keep his sibling in the public eye, such as the 2010 movie Bruce Lee, My Brother (which he narrated and produced); but he gives the idea of a successor to Lee grudging consideration.
“To get close to matching him, not only do you have to put in hard work, you have to be mentally strong and mentally creative, to be able to know yourself,” he says. “Bruce always emphasised [that you must] really know yourself – your advantages and disadvantages – and that’s the mental part, the philosophy. Does MMA teach enough of this? I don’t know. But it seems like a good start.”
For now, the Bruce Lee legacy is something his surviving family members will continue to nurture.
“If Bruce was alive he would say, ‘Tell people about me as a person,'” says Robert Lee. “If people could just realise who he is, I think he could still have a lot to offer. His influence never ends.”
Discovery Magazine, May 2012. Chinese architect and Pritzker winner Wang Shu may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay.
He calls his studio ‘Amateur Architecture’. His work is anything but.
This year, China’s Wang Shu was lifted from the relative quiet of his small practice in Hangzhou by a heavyweight panel of his peers, hailed as a “virtuoso” and presented with architecture’s equivalent to an Academy Award: a Pritzker.
And yet just as Hollywood has its naysayers and anti-heroes, the Chinese architect is emerging as a kind of anti-designer. “Design is an amateur activity. Life is more important,” he has said. “The Amateur Architecture studio is a purely personal architecture studio; it should not even be referred to as an architect’s office.”
The likelihood of him accepting ‘starchitect’ status and all the trappings that follow, seems low indeed.
Wang Shu’s career has been defined largely by art and experimentation. Born in China’s northern Xingjiang province and inspired by the vastness of the landscapes, he started to draw and paint early. Architecture, he says, was simply a way to fit his own creativity with his parents’ idea of success. Even today he likens his design process to that of a traditional Chinese painter: he studies the shape and the history of a space, then often sits and drinks tea until the ideas to start to flow.
Yet this doesn’t mean that his work is abstract or out of touch. Amateur Architecture is deliberately small and its projects often local, scaled to fit the average person. “I build a ‘house’ instead of a ‘building’” he has said. “Architecture is a matter of everyday life.”
Before he and his wife, architect Lu Wenyu set up their studio in Hangzhou in the late nineties – a city renowned for its natural beauty and art heritage – Wang Shu spent almost a decade studying widely and working with craftsmen “out of the system,” as he called it, mainly renovating old buildings.
This seems to have been the bedrock of his success; he has an uncanny ability to understand and stretch the boundaries of those who build. It has also given him a lifelong love of China’s historic structures, and a dislike of his country’s liberalism with the wrecking ball.
Wang Shu’s landscapes therefore strike a deft balance between the past and the future. They manage to root down deeply into the Chinese cultural context, and yet feel forward-looking in the way that they use technology, or address space. His first major project for example, the award-winning Library of Whenzheng College at Suzhou University, is strikingly modern but keeps with Suzhou’s gardening traditions. Since these dictate that buildings between water and mountains should be discreet, he designed nearly half of the library to sit underground.
This sense of heritage and handicraft is often expressed through material choices. The architect likes to use brick or tiles rescued from demolished hutongs (traditional courtyard houses), or material sourced in the area.
He resurrected two million such tiles in his renowned designs for a campus belonging to the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. His imposing Ningbo History Museum, modeled in part on an ancient Chinese fortress, works traditional masonry into a unique collage effect, to enrich a fascinatingly modern, off kilter-looking structure.
He may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay.
Though he maintains a relatively low profile, Wang Shu is in demand as a teacher. He was the first Chinese architect to hold a prestigious visiting professor post at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the US last year, and spends much of his time at the architecture school of the China Academy of Art, where he is now the dean.
From here he approaches architecture as an advocate too, often speaking out against the “professionalized, soulless” nature of the profession, and urging younger Chinese architects to work locally and more slowly, with an eye towards history.
In the 1980s Wang Shu caused a stir at a conference by claiming that Chinese architects were simply people who knew how to draw, but who didn’t necessarily think while doing so. While he believes that this has changed, he laments that still, the wider Chinese public” often think of a building as just a container whose functions can change at will.”
He therefore calls himself a scholar, craftsmen and architect, in that order – and with each project, is on a mission to pass on knowledge and broaden horizons. This starts with his own office staff; he recently sent his team home for a full month to prepare for work on three museums. “They all had homework assignments: books to read on French philosophy, Chinese paintings to study or movies to watch,” he remembers. “When we all got back together we had discussions – then began to work on the projects.”
Many of his peers approve. At only 49 Wang Shu holds a series of awards, from China’s Architecture Arts Award to the French Gold Medal from the Academy of Architecture, and he exhibits worldwide.
Architectural icon, Zaha Hadid, has praised his work for its sculptural power, and the ‘stimulating’ and ‘transformative’ way he uses ancient materials. Veteran Chinese architect Yang Ho Chan meanwhile, also on the Pritzker jury, was gratified by the way he “shows that architecture in China is more than the mass production of market-driven banality and the reproduction of the exotic.”
Wang Shu’s recognition by the Pritzker jury is a nod to China’s big new role in developing global architectural ideals, and the way that the profession should approach for example, the problems arising from rapid urbanization.
His win praises an architecture that is less about iconic forms and brash statements, and more about buildings that are close to people, their hearts and their histories. In other words, just the kind of anti-hero that we need right now.
South China Morning Post, 15 December 2011
Pakistani artist Rashid Rana continues to court controversy while hurdling cultural boundaries
Rashid Rana does not exactly mind being labeled a Pakistani artist, but he does wonder whether the tag does justice to the larger themes in his works. “A critic friend of mine has written that my art speaks a global language, but with an accent,” he grins. “I like that better.” Considered one of his country’s top contemporary artists, Rana’s work has appeared in an impressive string of international shows, spanning the Musee Guimet in Paris to New York’s Asia Society. His Hong Kong debut, Translation/Transliterations, showcases his use of a distinct digital aesthetic to play with cultural motifs and social scenarios on one level, and study abstract visual ideas on another.
Yet it is Rana’s satirical bite, along with his love of both optical and ideological paradoxes, that has defined him among his contemporaries. Much of his work deftly attracts and then repels his audiences in an entertaining cycle. His acclaimed 2007 ‘Red Carpet’, is a digital rendition of a pretty Persian rug that, on closer inspection, becomes a montage of photographs taken in Lahore’s slaughterhouses. It set a world auction record at Sotheby’s for a Pakistani work of art. “The micro and macro images together create a kind of critical tension, and force the viewer to interact with the work and reconsider their assumptions about reality,” he explains. In creating a more recent work Rana photographed traditional Pakistani wrestlers, indulgently splashed with a little fake blood, then spliced and rearranged the imagery to create a disturbing sense of movement and mutilation.
These tendencies were perhaps most controversial in Rana’s 2004 Veil Series, in which the artist built impressionist-style images of women in Islamic burqas using a mosaics of fuzzy pornographic stills, sourced online; two opposing, inflexible stereotypes of gender in one. It was shown in London’s Saatchi Gallery among others, and was received with a good deal of media relish. Rana has enjoyed the range of reactions that it provoked. He remains amused that the question most-asked of him today is whether he has shown the series in Pakistan, a country known for the vigour of its conservative classes. “As an artist you don’t want to take too many risks, so in Lahore I show it to selected audiences and don’t generally involve media,” he admits. Yet he is bothered by the narrow representation of Pakistan by the international media. “It’s a pity, because the majority there vote for the most liberal political party – currently the Pakistan People’s Party – and Lahore has very open liberal art circles,” he says. “Pakistan is a micro-version of the globe. There are strong obscenity laws in Hong Kong too – I looked into them – and,” he adds with a smile, “I won’t tell you the name of the country in Europe where my work got censored.”
Rana’s playfully provocative approach has helped him beat a path to notoriety. After a Fine Arts MA from the Massachusetts College of Art in the early 90s, he decided to reach for the widest audience possible. “I wanted to make art that could compete with billboards: large, easy to understand; something that could grab you when you’re driving but then pull you into the paradoxes and the deeper content,” he recalls. He initially worked with acrylic on canvas, photographic and video performances, and collages of found material among other media, and supported himself, as he still does, as a professor at Lahore’s School of Visual Art & Design, which he co-founded at its Beaconhouse National University. Yet it was his experiments in digital photomontage that brought commercial success, around six years ago. And although he had started out using fairly rudimentary techniques, Rana can now afford to stretch the technological boundaries of the medium with the latest programmes and processes. One of his still photo series, Desperately Seeking Paradise, cost him $100,000 to produce. ”I’m not saying that money necessarily produces good art,” he says. “But it has definitely given me more freedom to explore.” [Continued below].
Buoyed by his success, Rana now confidently chases concepts that are more visually abstract and of less immediate danger to hapless drivers. He delves most often into ideas of duality and polarization, teasing out new tensions between micro and macro images. His influences run extremely broad, from Pakistan’s late Zahoor ul-Akhlaq, who also merged abstract and traditional vernaculars, to the challenging visual language of American Op artist Ross Bleckner; and he admits a particular soft spot for provocative German visual artist Gerhard Richter. He has also started to take his digital work into the third dimension, printing images on aluminium cubes in a bid, he says, to challenge conventional ideas about the way photographic work can represent social and physical realities.
Many of Rana’s ideas continue to be triggered by events or images around his home city, Lahore, but are then developed into more transcendental themes. His Language Series for example [pictured above and below], plays with photographs of Urdu text collected in and around the city that, up close, are reavealed as transliterations of western words and names. While this can be read as casting comment on Pakistan’s colonial past, the artist is much more interested in the way the work explores text as an abstract, non-verbal image, open to multiple uses.
In this way Rana, though clearly a satisfied product of Pakistan and a willing commentator on its cultural intricacies, intends to bypass cultural borders. “I don’t want to be dismissive of my surroundings, or deny my past, but they don’t affect me to the extent that my work is only about ‘issues’. If I have to talk about an issue I can have a discussion or write a sentence, but to translate something into a visual form requires much more breadth,” he says. “Pakistan is an important part of my identity, but at the end of the day my art is also about transcending it.”
South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 16 November 2011 [Original PDF:London Design Fest]
China’s Diaspora designers face stiff competition in the UK, but offer hope for development despite trouble shaking off the Made-in-China tag
In a trendy industrial space bordering a West London canal, an eclectic series of objects sit on podiums, amid coffee drinkers and creative-types at work.
Among them are a ceramic Chihuahua in a neckerchief, labeled as a home accessory; a delicate, extraterrestrial-looking table poised as if for lift-off; a panel of architectural designs for a Buddhist temple in the heart of London; and a stool in mint-green metal entitled, fantastically, the ‘Silent Farter’.
These are just a few recent offerings from London’s Chinese Diaspora designers, and they signal a growing creative confidence amid a challenging landscape.
“The Made-in-China tag has brought some difficulty to Chinese designers trying to work in the UK or around Europe,“ says designer Elva White, who curated the exhibition, Cheers, for the UK China Art and Design Association (UCADA) Festival, which ran during September’s yearly London Design Festival. “There are some issues that particularly affect Chinese designers here, and this was a way for them to talk about them, and also get some needed attention for their work.”
The association developed out of an informal group started by White and other graduates, mostly from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and it last year secured the formal backing of the Chinese embassy and the British Council.
China’s reputation as a manufacturing hub, combined with the negative publicity about its quality control and the youth of its design scene, can weigh heavily on Chinese designers looking to make it big overseas. Many move to the United Kingdom in search of a more cosmopolitan education and a stronger cultural design heritage, and hope to stay on and develop their career afterwards, at least for a few years.
But recognition is hard to come by, and they face stiff competition from their better-placed European counterparts.China is not yet widely known for its design talent, despite recent efforts by the government to reposition the country through international events, trade agreements, and by promoting the cultural and creative fields as new industry pillars.
Staffan Tollgard runs a high end interior design studio in London’s Notting Hill and credits Asian design as strongly influence in his work, but he believes that the manufacturing stereotype has done damage.
This year he co-launched a company, Kurate, to promote and import products by selected China-based designers, but he expects that, despite the success of the studios he’s working with, which include Neri & Hu, Design MWV and HC 28, he has a task ahead in educating the British consumer.
“We’re basically saying that there are some really interesting things coming out of China at the moment, so please, rethink your idea that it’s just a copying nation,” he says. “The closeness of the designers with manufacturers there for example, means that prototypes are quicker to make and modify. We’re really seeing capabilities being pushed.”
In this sense, initiatives such UCADAs, that challenge conceptions of modern Chinese art and design, are coming at the right time. Last year David Jia, who founded one of China’s most successful industrial manufacturing firms LKK Design, opened a branch in London – his first out of China – and he sees the obstacles as unavoidable.
“It’s going to be a hard road. We have to change the European mentality about China’s ability to do good design, and there are always problems of cultural understanding, and of detailed communication between designer and customer,” he says.“But they can be overcome. And it’s our responsibility as a leader in this field in China to try to open this path.”
Through working and meeting with Diaspora designers, UCADA organizers have come across other issues that need addressing. “Many young Chinese designers who arrive in London to study are less likely to have or build a good network, or self promote in the way that others do – partly because of language difficulties, and a lack of confidence,” says Lucy Shum, who directs the UCADA festival.
Some of the exhibitors agreed. Taiwanese exhibitor Hsiang Wang says that he struggled to find contacts and exhibition opportunities in the UK after completing his Master’s degree. Shanghai-based Zhili Liu, designer of the delicate Shrub table, describes the isolation of a degree in Coventry University, which he spent mostly working alone.
UCADA has responded by setting up dialogues between UK and Chinese designers and an award for emerging Chinese talent and, following the exhibition’s successful run at the Beijing International Design Week in October as part of its London Guest City programme, it is hunting for other overseas exhibitions to join.
Funding is a particular issue however. Architect Guangyuan Li and his design partner Mohamed El Khayat took their Reading Chair to the last Milan Furniture Fair themselves, and were pleased with the interest and the opportunities that followed. Yet the chair alone cost them two thousand pounds to transport; they found that they were unable to afford the Beijing event, even though the chair would have made a noticeable splash among a relatively commercial programme.
The UK experience can be quite different for Chinese architects. Na Li works for Foster and Partners and exhibited her design for a Buddhist temple at Cheers. Ten years in the UK has given her a comfortable grasp of British sensibilities, and she believes that her background adds value to her resume.
“In a bigger company, as someone who can speak Mandarin and understand the cultural landscape, you can help it make a lot of connections in China,” she says. “And although I benefited from the more open methodologies here in terms of exploring my work, I feel that I’m still able, like a Spanish, French or any other nationality architect, to bring a fresh perspective to a design.”
The positioning of this Diaspora community between east and west holds promise for innovation across the disciplines. Alice Wang, designer of the Silent Farter [pictured below], opened her Taiwan-based studio following eight years in London. She believes that with a little support, cross-cultural designers such as herself are well positioned to fill the gap between experimental design and the products making it on the shelves.
“Being trained for a few years in Asia focuses you on how to keep the price minimal, on manufacturing or mass production, but often with everything in the same format,” she says “On the other side, in Europe they often care more about the concept, the humour or the theory behind a design, but can struggle to bring these ideas into manufacturing. Merging the two could only be positive.”
Boosting such opportunities and firming up the connection between the two regions could help China’s design credentials develop, while spreading the benefits farther.
As more internationally trained designers and architects are returning to China to become industry leaders, they bring with them the aspirations of older design cultures in which design is infused into every environment – each bin and bus stop – rather than something found in galleries and appreciated only in creative circles.
In this way, ‘Designed in China’ may someday take on some-broad based resonance.
But until then, initiatives by those such as UCADA and Kurate will continue to both confound and raise Western expectations of Chinese design talent in smaller doses.
“At the moment I think there’s a wall between China and Europe, and it’s hard for us to see what we’re doing on each side,” says Na Li. “But we both want to. I think it’s definitely time for us to try to close the gap.”
South China Morning Post, August 2012.
San Francisco has always had an acute sense of the frontier, and this can be said for its arts scene as well as for its gung-ho economy.
As a gold rush town, it was unusually cosmopolitan. In the mid-1800s it hosted up to 37 foreign consuls and boasted newspapers and theatre productions in at least five languages. By the time Mark Twain turned up in the 1860s, the city was a blur of bohemian activity, with strip after strip of saloons, boarding houses, dance halls, brothels and theatres.
During the next century, this bohemia fell victim to industry and the power of the American puritans; it is no coincidence that its architecture is so frothily Victorian. But its role as an artistic frontier somehow survived and ‘heading west’ has brought out the best in many writers since – from Jack London and Jack Kerouac to Isabel Allende and Amy Tan.
For anyone wanting to get a real sense of the place – after the trips to Alcatraz and a few laps of the bridge – there is scarcely a better angle from which to view it.
Once the counter-cultural hub of the Beat scene – the radical 1950s art movement of jazz, booze and ‘free thoughts’ – North Beach rubs shoulders with Chinatown and is defined by its homey European cafes, jazz dens and gelato stands. The Beat Museum, which opened in September, is a great place to start, especially on a Saturday morning when it holds its walking tours.
Converted rather haphazardly from a travelling exhibition, the museum needs a little spit and polish, but you will be pushed to find better memorabilia. Keep an eye out for the Beat pad mock-up, the annotated works of Howl by Alan Ginsburg and the screening of avant-garde films from the era.
A wander outside will take you to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, the original Beat publishing house and still one of the city’s favourite independent bookstores. It also published Howl – a vehement, emotionally raw poem that changed the way literature was received in the United States. Handwritten signs and scattered chairs beckon. ‘Welcome, have a seat and read a book,’ one bids. Another says: ‘Free the press from its corporate owners!’
Next to City Lights on the aptly named Jack Kerouac Alley sits Vesuvio, another old Beat haunt. This snug two-storey bar serves the local literati and is still infused with a ’50s spirit, sans the fashionable fog of tobacco. The bar will begrudgingly offer you the Kerouac special: rum, tequila, orange/cranberry juice and lime served. But no absinthe.
A further stroll takes in the quirky Hotel Boheme, the Purple Onion (where Maya Angelou used to sing and dance before she became an author), 12 Adler Alley, where the word beatnik was born, and other relics and tributes to a movement that, as Beat Museum founder Jerry Cimino said, ‘was the most tolerant, compassionate and inclusive of them all … that told people to do what they love and then watch the world follow’.
The Ritual Roasters Cafe in the Mission is a sea of laptop-lit faces, all oblivious to the chai lattes that grow cold beside them. Local novelist K.M. Soehnlein said: ‘This is very much the situation in San Francisco. People writing their novels and screenplays on their laptops … I’m much more inclined to be the kind of writer who would sit in a noisy cafe to work, to feel the pulse of a lot of strangers and music.’
Outside, Valencia Street is a strip of ethnic restaurants, thrift stores, smoke shops and bars. It is also home to the largest contingent of independent bookstores in the city and is an incredible place to browse.
Modern Times is one of the more progressive hubs in the community, with large sections on globalisation, politics and gender, most of which reflect the Bay Area’s leftist credentials. Borderlands Books and Dog Eared Books are both eclectic and welcoming, the former known for its science fiction, the latter for its ‘zines (the quirky paper forefathers of the blog). Most of these places boast heaving events calendars as notable authors and activists do the rounds.
The bars are also involved in the literary scene. Writers With Drinks is a monthly reading set presented by irreverent transsexual and magazine publisher Charlie Anders at the Make Out Room, while Dalva and Sadie’s Flying Circus has regular, boozy word sessions. Expect writers that range from local upstarts to published authors Michelle Tea or Kirk Read. Other points of interest are Intersection for the Arts – a venue with a great programme of alternative performances and 826 Valencia; a charitable tutoring centre set up by best-selling author and literary titan Dave Eggers.
Though the back area of 826 is set aside for teaching, it is a good hub for lit-mags and a browse around the random Pirate supplies shop that fronts the venue.
While these districts are two of the most vibrant in San Francisco, there are literary snippets to be found across the city. The public library offers a free downtown tour of the haunts of Dashiell Hammett – father of the American detective novel and writer of the Maltese Falcon – and other hints for true relic hunters.
However, the contemporary scene is more rewarding, with its influence even cracking the financial district. During the week, corporate types get their fix from the lunchtime reading series at Stacey’s Bookstore and among the industrial innards of Varnish – a chic gallery, wine bar and literary venue. Then there is the warm woods and rich malts of the Edinburgh Castle – Irvine Welsh’s venue of choice when in town – and the monthly gig at Hayes Valley’s punky Rickshaw Stop.
San Francisco will always have plenty to offer, and this is just one way to take its pulse. But it is in this scene, in particular, that the city spirit is distilled and made unique. ‘Reading feels like an endangered activity,’ Soehnlein said. ‘More people spend time programming their iPods and watching YouTube than sitting quietly and reading, so it’s valuable that in a city like San Francisco you can just immerse yourself in this world. It’s a kind of salvation.