Portraits of Artists: Vladimir Davidovich Ashkenazy

When I read my colleague Bernice Chan’s interview  with Vladimir Davidovich Ashkenazy, it was almost like listening to him talking again, his eyes glistening with childlike smiles. Shining miles revealing a pure soul. Bernice and I were lucky to get two tickets to listen to him  conducting Glazunov and Beethoven. And we had the best seats! It was one of the best concerts I’ve been to in the past two years. For weeks after the concert, I listened to him and Beethoven at youtube with my Denon earphones late at night, getting too hyper to sleep, till I shifted to Uchida playing Mozart and Schubert, which also stole some of my necessary sleep. My mother would say I am hopeless, like drug addicts.

Here is the piece by Bernice:


(Photos ©  SCMP?Xiaomei Chen)

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Are We Double Blessed Now?

My mother suddenly announced that she now believed in Jesus, in a tone of a three-year-old declaring herself a grownup.

My siblings and I were as shocked as amused by her announcement. How would a Hakka woman as traditional as my mother fit in with Christians?  How could one who knows nothing about Christianity become a Christian out of blue?  And why?

Out of curiosity, I followed her to a Bible study group on an April  afternoon in 2016.  It was at the home of a church member, half a kilometer from my parents’ house in Heyuan City, Guangdong Province.

Hardly had I entered the wide-open gate, when an old woman in her late seventies  shot her hand in front of me and shouted, “sister, for you!”

She was giving me two small packets of wafer biscuits. Taken by surprise, I was not sure if I should accept the gift from a stranger, when another old woman, also in her seventies, explained to me, “her great-grandson was born today.”

Before I got a chance to congratulate her, the new great grandmother shot her hand to my mother, “sister, for you!”

So both my mother and I are her sisters?

My mother took the wafer biscuits with a take-it-for-granted smile as she glanced around the room, looking for empty seats. Then she took my hand and walked to two empty plastic stools against the east wall of the room. By then, the 20-square-meter rectangular room was almost full – full of grey hair, bleary eyes, withered cheeks, toothless mouths and callused hands. There were  30 people, all of whom except one were women and  three quarters  over 60 years old. The group leader was a middle-aged woman who had the look of a strict elementary school teacher.  As she sat on a stool higher than ours at the front of the room, surveying the room, another woman in her forties   announced in Hakka, “open your books and turn to hymn 312.”

Most women looked around confused.  Several repeated “312” loudly. Sounds of fumbling books filled the room but was soon replaced by a medley of Hakka voices singing out of tune.

I looked around and was as amused as shocked  to see thirty toothless or semi-toothless mouths gaping open and closing, thirty black holes spitting a volley of untuned music notes in Hakka. A volley of wishes for health, fortune, peace and grandsons.  I turned to look at my mother. She was looking down at the book, singing like a mosquito. Born a shy person and still new to Christianity, she was probably feeling uncomfortable to sing out loud with a group of strangers. But most other women were singing at the top of their lungs like a group of elementary school kids singing after their favourite teacher.

After three hymns came the prayer. A woman prayed loudly in Hakka with such passion that it sounded like a broken piano being hit by many stones at the same time. The voice at least kept the women awake, who ended the prayer with “Amen! As wished and with loyalty!”

With that, the group leader started the preach of the day and talked about forgiving. In less than fifteen minutes, a third of the women started dozing off, including my mother. I nudged her arm. She  started and grinned guiltily.  She needn’t have felt guilty at all. The monotonous preaching was nothing new and it was what my parents had taught me when I was a kid. I myself would have dozed off if I had not been interested in observing my mother’s fellow Christians. Both my mother and I were relieved when the sermon was over after almost two hours sitting on a plastic stool.

“Do you agree with what the preacher said?” I asked my mother right after we left the gathering.

“I agree,” my mother said earnestly, “we should forgive.”

“So are you going to forgive Mrs Miao?” 

Mrs. Miao had been our next door neighbour for decades, a very difficult woman who hated my mother for no reason and had caused quite some dramas over the years. She died unexpectedly the day before.

My mother was taken by surprise, then laughed embarrassedly, “oh, dear, I can’t forgive Miao. No, I really can’t forgive her!”

I laughed, too, about my mother’s childlike honesty.

When I asked her if she would continue to go to church, she told me about Chong, Mrs Miao’s niece.

Chong joined the church ten years ago. She sings hymns all the time. She sings when cleaning. She sings when cooking. She sings when walking. She would sing when eating if she had two mouths. Chong, who was a grumpy wife and mother, is now a very happy person.  “Jesus makes her happy,”  my mother said admiringly. But I doubt Jesus would make my mother as happy as Chong because she wouldn’t be satisfied until all her children were happily married and all her children, particularly her son, have their own children – sons preferred.

A month later, I went to Heyuan Gospel Church with my mother.  It is a church founded by two German priests in 1897, now  registered  under  China’s Religious Affairs Bureau, with over 3000 members. The gathering here was a much bigger version of my mother’s Bible study group. Over three quarters of the members were women older than 60. The preaching (about husband-wife relationship this time) was again monotonous and long.  A few women chitchatted in a low voice.  Some dozed off.  My mother was obviously bored and from time to time looked around searching for familiar faces. Three months after joining the church, she had not made new friends yet.

“What do you think?”  I asked my mother when we walked out of the church.

“I agree with him (the preacher). But he is too long winded. He circles round and round, saying the same thing over and over again.” Then she added with an amused look, “those illiterate women follow the Bible better than me. ”

Back home, I asked my father why he didn’t go to church, he replied, “gee, most church goers are older women. Besides, the Bible contradicts Marxism and evolutionism I was taught as a Communist Party member. It is hard to change a belief you acquired at a young age. And the Christians are not that different from the red guards worshipping Mao during the Cultural Revolution.”

My mother gave me a different answer, “one goes to church, Jesus blesses the whole family. Your father needn’t go.”

I later found it was actually my father’s idea that my mother should go to church.  He got this idea after a neighbour, Mrs. Chen told him that Jesus visited her in a dream when she was very sick several years ago, “He asked me, ‘are you feeling better today?’  The next day, I felt much better. Not long after that, I got out of hospital.  Jesus blesses me!”

So my mother, who had never read the Bible and knew nothing about Christianity, started going to church, at my father’s suggestion.

Quite a surprise. But an understandable surprise.

My parents were both born before communism took over China, but they were taught Marxism (China version) and evolutionism at school,  expecting progress in all aspects of life only to witness regress in both the society and their personal lives: corruption and social injustice in the big world despite the rapid progress in sciences and technologies, ageing and ailing in their small world. What bothers them the most, however, is that they still don’t have a grandson while some of their cousins are now great-grandparents. By the way, my sisters’ children don’t count as only my brother’s son could carry on the family line according to Chinese Hakka tradition.

Sometimes they blame our family’s Fengshui. They invited several Fengshui masters to inspect our home over the years. They followed a couple Fengshui masters’ advice and moved our house gate twice. This didn’t bring luck to the family as wished.  Three years ago, another Fengshui master suggested our gate be moved (again!) to where my mother’s bedroom was. Fortunately, my parents didn’t follow this advice.

My mother also sought blessings from a local Taoist temple as well as from a sorceress. So far, nothing fantastic has happened as my parents wish. They continue to age and ail. My mother hurt her back in 2015. My father was diagnosed with lung cancer the same year.  Two of their children are still single. They still have no grandson to carry on the family line.

They must feel helpless sometimes. So when my father heard about “the magic” Jesus did to their neighbour, he made my mother go to church.  He refrains himself from Christianity so that he can still worship our ancestors. This way, we might be double blessed. This is how my parents do their math of life.

They are not alone when it comes to doing math of life. When asked to join the church, the mother of a friend of mine from Yunnan Province did her math and found the time she was to spend at the church and learning the Bible equaled a loss because she couldn’t work on the farm or in the house.  Loss of working time, loss of income.  She decided against the membership of the Village Communist Party Committee for the same reason.  The small gifts from the Party are not worth the  fee she would have to pay  to the Party and the loss of her time, she told her son.

When my mother announced her new religion, my sister said in an amused tone, “so from now on we won’t worship our ancestors on Chinese New Year?” (It is commonly believed among my mother’s fellow Christians that once converted to Christianity, one should renounce all other beliefs.)

Before my confused mother found an answer, my 85-year-old father, a reticent man,  jumped to make his statement, “I don’t believe in Jesus!”

Obviously my father would hate to lose blessings from our ancestors. In his perfect calculation, my mother’s going to church would bring home blessings from Jesus, while his absence from the church would give our ancestors no excuse to abandon us. Thus, we would be double blessed. 

But are we double blessed now? Are we?

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Portraits of artists: Xu Bing

The very first time I saw his artworks, I knew he would remain one of my favorite contemporary Chinese artists. That artwork is called “Book from the Ground.” It depicts a day of a man’s life with emojis, and emojis only. Witty and full of humor. Then there is “Book from the Sky,” in which he creates characters that look very real, but are actually conjured up by him. No one can understand those beautiful characters. Thus named book from the sky.  Great imagination. Even greater is its philosophical message.  If Xu creates something, it is something important, something worth our attention and contemplation. Recently, I am fascinated by his movie “Dragonfly Eyes.” A very powerful movie.  I photographed him when he came to Hong Kong for the premiere of “Dragonfly Eyes.” This movie may remind you of the warning from George Orwell’s “1984.” But Mr. Xu says, “no, it is beyond that.” I quite agree with him. Even George Orwell might be shocked by how we willingly, sometimes eagerly surrender ourselves to the public eyes in this digital and internet age.  And here is the trailer of  “Dragonfly Eyes,” a film without actors, actresses and a camera crew.  Brilliant, isn’t it?



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From Mozart to Man Ray to Jimmy Choo

I have been jumpy these days, starting from  my obsession with Mitsuko Uchida.

Even though I urge myself to concentrate on my writing after dinner almost every evening, I  put on my earphones right after I open my laptop,  soon get lost under Uchida’s piano spell and totally forget about my promise to write.

Last night, I indulged myself with Uchida playing Schubert’s D960. And I listened to it twice, which means I didn’t go to bed till after 1 a.m and I had to struggle to get up for my morning assignment in New Territory today. Yet I didn’t feel guilty about failing  to finish my writing quota of the day, or about sacrificing my health by staying up too late. But I hope I don’t miss my deadline for the article on my hometown river. Maybe I will write it tomorrow night.

Tonight, I couldn’t get myself off Uchida conducting and playing Mozart’s K. 466.  From K.466, my brain roams to Mozart’s violin concertos No. 3 and 5, two of my all time favorites. Naturally, they drove my brain  to Man Ray’s famous photograph “le violon d’ingres (the violin of Ingres), then to my apple project, which I did not long before I moved back to Asia from US.  From apples, I think of shoes.  I wonder if one can do an interesting art project with shoes. Say, shoes by shoe guru Jimmy Choo, whom I photographed last week.


Image result for man ray photography violin

le violon d’ingres (the violin of ingres) by Man Ray, 1924 model: kiki

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Happy Father’s Day父亲节,聊聊女权运动中的男人

七岁的黄圣智(Tony Huang)看见父亲黄磊,飞奔过去,跳到他的怀里,亲他一口。黄磊回亲儿子一口,问他都做了什么,嘴巴笑成一条弧线。每天下午3点,黄磊离开公司到小学接大儿子圣智,然后带着圣智去幼儿园接小儿子其原(Alvin Huang)。从幼儿园出来,父子仨在公园里玩耍,然后走路回家。小学、幼儿园和家都在瑞典首都斯德哥尔摩西郊 Västra Skogen 附近,步行不用十分钟。两岁的其原还没学会讲话,已很善于表达自己,很黏黄磊,有时会耍点小脾气,黄磊总是很耐心。圣智大概偶尔会吃点小醋,那天因为我在,没和弟弟争宠,拉着我的手要带我看他的各种发现:蚂蚁窝、猫头鹰、啄木鸟、老鹰、小山坡上的一块大岩石、一棵大树下的鸟食槽、花园里刚冒出头的郁金香 …… 他几次提醒我 :“阿姨,走路千万小心,别踩着蚂蚁。”偶尔扭过头提醒黄磊:“爸爸,别踩着蚂蚁。”带着瑞典口音的京腔,娇声软语,能让人感受到他生长在有爱的环境里。黄磊笑呵呵地看着儿子,不无骄傲地说:“儿子是我一把屎一把尿带大的。”

在斯德哥尔摩中心社区 Södemalm,建筑设计师和电影艺术家 Daniel Bengstson 在家与14个月大的儿子玩游戏,给他换尿片,喂他吃饭,抱他到楼顶嗮太阳、看风景,带他超市购物。他在休产假,正值产假的第四个月。伴侣 Anna 晚上下班回家问他们父子俩一天都做了什么,他笑答,你该问有什么我们没有做的。他觉得 Anna 妒忌他可以一整天陪儿子,嫉妒他们父子之间的亲密,因此很得意,虽然带孩子烦琐而辛苦,一天下来,累得要趴下。但休产假带儿子的经历让他改变了以往独来独往、独自工作的习惯。儿子给他一种神圣的责任感。因为儿子,他更愿意直接面对矛盾,而他的内心却更加柔软。“看到小孩子,心简直要融化掉。”他笑着说。可是,他自己的父亲并不理解休产假的行为,认为带孩子浪费了他艺术家的才能,对男人的事业是一种伤害。

如果 Daniel 的父亲认识身为投资咨询公司创办人和 CEO 的黄磊,他又会怎么想呢?他会不会改变关于男人休产假的想法,会不会认为做事业与养孩子可以没有冲突?





在瑞典,父母双方一共可以休480天产假,其中父母各自有90天必修产假,其余300天由双方自由分配。休产假期间可领取80% 的工资。孩子满12岁前,如果生病了,父母每年可以累积请假120天。照顾生病孩期间,他们也可领取工资的80%。这些家庭福利之所以能实现,和瑞典税收制度很有关系。瑞典的收入税全世界最高,不少人纳税高达工资的50%以上。正是高税收使这里成为世界上最平等的国家之一,税收政策和透明制度保障了公民从摇篮到坟墓的基本福利。除了父母可以休产假、照顾孩子的病假,瑞典还有高质量的免费教育,这进一步捍卫了国家的平等和幸福指数。而性别平等正是瑞典平等社会极其重要的一部分。

4月,瑞典学院在斯德哥尔摩举办了性别平等论坛。三天会议中,我经常听到一句话:瑞典政府是一个女权政府(AFeminist Government),但还远未达到真正的性别平等。会议结束没多久就爆发诺贝尔文学奖性丑闻。这似乎证明,即便是瑞典,离真正的性别平等也还有很远。有多远?无人能给出确切的答案。但有一点是肯定的,没有男性的参与,两性的平等将遥遥无期。

幸运的是,已经有男性开始参与女权运动。有像黄磊和Daniel 这样的父亲和伴侣,并不自称为女权人士,但一直用行动给家人平等、尊重和爱,一言一行都是对后代的性别平等教育。不难想见,当黄磊和Daniel的儿子们长大成人,他们会很自然地、以完全平等的心态与女性相处。

还有以“女权主义者”自居的男性。来自赞比亚的 Nelson 1997年投身女权运动,经常被嘲讽为“穿裤子的女人”。Nelson 年来致力于赞比亚的性别平等教育,工作重点是向18至24岁的年轻人,尤其是年轻男性灌输两性平等和科学生育的理念。Nelson 说,“要改变人们对‘男子汉气概’的定义。对女人温柔,帮女人做家务活并不等于没有男子汉气概。”他经常到赞比亚农村,与农村男人围着篝火聊天,掘、发展每个村庄平等运动的“领头羊”,再通过这些“领头羊”向更多人传输性别平等思想。

Nelson 打破了我对非洲国家的一些偏见。2017年世界经济论坛发表的《全球性别差距报告》也显示,非洲的性别平等指数高于亚洲。近几十年来经济飞速增长的中国,性别平等指数低于世界平均水平,比津巴布韦、肯尼亚、塞内加尔等非洲国家要低,是否因为非洲比中国有更多像 Nelson 这样致力于性别平等的男性女权主义者呢?

即便在性别平等指数低于中国的印度,也有男性女权主义者。Abhijit Das是一名妇科医生,1985年开始从医。在几十年从医生涯中他发现,相比于生理疾病,印度社会不公对女性的伤害更大。不少印度女性的妇科疾病其实是人为所致。家暴、强奸在印度从不罕见。2000年,Abhijit Das 开始全身心投入女权运动中,组建了推广两性平等的非政府组织 MASVAW (Member of the Alliance and Gender Equality)。注重推广女性的性与生育健康权利。他还是健康与社会正义中心(Center for Health and Social Justice)主任。在他看来,只有男人意识到两性平等的重要性并积极参与其中,性别平等才有可能实现。

像 Nelson 和 Abhijit Das 这样男性目前仍是少数,但他们打破了人们对“男子汉”的刻板印象。如今,越来越多人开始反思,男子汉气概究竟是什么?男人表达情感、流泪、为妻子洗衣做饭、给孩子换尿片是否代表“男子汉气概”丧失? 当男人开始思考这些老问题的时候,社会离两性平等就更近了一步。

然而,即便男人们开始反思、重新定义“男子汉气概,”并真心希望促成两性平等,性别平等也无法马上广泛实现。我们离同工同酬还有距离。几乎在所有的国家,包括瑞典,同等资历的女性收入都低于男性。据 Facebook 高管雪莉·桑德伯格在网站 leanin.org发表的数据,女性平均工资比男性低20%。不难想象,如果丈夫的工资高于妻子20% 甚至更多,即便政府给予他们瑞典式的假期,也会是挣钱更多的丈夫正常上班,收入较少的妻子照顾孩子。两性经济不平等得不到改变,两性真正平等的愿景就很难实现。

乐观地说,女性的地位在过去半个世纪里的确有了改进。Metoo 运动证明女性在觉醒。黄磊、Daniel、Nelson 和Abhijit Das 这样的男人也让我们看到希望。Metoo 运动在未来也许会成为历史,不再隔三差五登上新闻。而在父亲节,孩子们会像感谢母亲那样,感谢父亲为自己和母亲做的一切,正如他们的母亲为家庭所做的那样。又或者,未来社会并不需要父亲节、母亲节或儿童节这样的日子来提醒我们家庭中某位成员的重要性。因为那时,每个人每天都享有爱与平等,不需要特定的日子来提醒世人,我们值得拥有这样的平等和快乐。

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Portraits of artist – Jonathan Roxmouth

He was not offended or upset at all when I shut him behind a fire escape door. I  asked him to look into my camera through a  glassed slit. Then I asked him to place his hand up against the other glassed slit. Then I moved him and had him sit on a stool and  positioned him so that he was framed by a rectangular in the wall. I know I could be a very demanding photographer. But he was very patient and cooperative during the whole shoot.  I was impressed, considering the fact that not many stars in the entertainment industry are this down to earth.  This star I photographed weeks ago is Jonathan Roxmouth from South Africa. By the way, I tend to make the subject ugly if he or she is too full of himself/herself. There was a time I wanted to make someone look sinister with two harsh side lights. He was lucky because I didn’t have two lights with me. But I wouldn’t want to make Jonanthan Roxmouth look sinister or ugly. Because I believe he is NOT.  

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Portraits of artists: Fang Lijun

It probably tickled him when I asked Fang Lijun if I could photograph his bald head with his famous “2016 Autumn ”  as a background. That photo taken, he told me that the painted bald head to his left was his, too!  He laughed when I asked if I could also photograph him standing between two walls, which would make him look cornered, or like a student being punished by his teacher.  Like many real and pure artists I met over my years as a writer/photographer, Fang was very down to earth, never to put on airs.  I like Fang’s artworks.  He is one of the few Chinese artists whose works I deeply appreciate.  One of the few who have something to say and and say it in their distinct styles.  Fang’s works send out a strong message in a unique style. And he is very bold, or brave.

(Photo credit: SCMP / XIAOMEI CHEN)

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Tai Kwun

Tai Kwun in Central, Hong Kong, a former prison, is  now a  centre for heritage and arts that will bring culture and leisure experiences. I had an assignment there last Friday and was fascinated by the space there, thus returned there with my 50mm Nikon lens. Its  sense of space and the afternoon light captured my heart. 

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Portraits of artist: Tsai Ming-liang

(Photo copyright: SCMP/XIAOMEI CHEN)

After the interview, I said to the famous Taiwanese director: “I watched ‘What Time Is It

There’ years ago.”

“In China?” He asked.

“In China,” I nodded.

“You must have watched a pirated one,” he laughed.

I laughed, too.

He was right. It was a pirated one.

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Portraits of artist: Yo-yo Ma

I am holding two passports, one issued by my country, the other by my camera. Reasonably I like my second passport better. Much better. From time to time, it takes me to meet great artists.  One day, it took me to Yo-yo Ma, one of my all time favorite musicians. I photographed him during YMCG in Guangzhou, China, in January 2018. His humor and love for fun is beyond description by words. (Photo copyright: SCMP/XIAOMEI CHEN)

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