BEIJING — Beijing is a city of travellers. On the one hand, China is witnessing the internal migration of 200 million people into cities, leaving families and friends behind for greener pastures in China’s upper tier cities. On the other hand, the country, especially its coastal cities, is opening itself up more and more to international visitors and residents.
Anecdotally, Beijing, like New York, definitely feels like a city of immigrants and migrants. Few people I meet actually grew up in Beijing. They come from provinces like Hubei and Anhui, and countries like Italy and Nigeria. And to stay in touch with home, they use a mix of Chinese social media. like QQ and Sina Weibo, and Western media, like Twitter and Facebook.
For Beijing Design Week, Beijing artist Chen Ke (陈可) partnered with Beijing curatorial lab ChART Contemporary to find a retro, more personal way to connect this city of migrants and immigrants with their loved ones far away. Chen, who originally hails from Tongjiang County in Sichuan, installed hundreds of postcards in a duplex in the hutong area of Dashilar.
“When I was growing up, we used to send letters and postcards to each other frequently,” she told me in Chinese. “But now most people prefer to use email.”
Visitors could pick from any postcard hung on the wall, with clotheslines similar to those used to hang laundry (a ubiquitous sight in China, where people prefer to hang dry their clothing). They could then write a message to anyone anywhere in the world and hang it up. At the end of the exhibition, the postcards will be mailed and sent off to their destinations.
“Most people are reconnecting with family members or lovers,” explained Megan and KC Vienna Connolly, the sister duo and native New Yorkers who direct ChART Contemporary. “They tell them that they are loved, missed and not to worry because they are doing well in Beijing.”
Indeed, one message, written in English and addressed to a Chinese address in Jiangsu province, reads, simply, “Darling, I miss you.” Others, mainly in Chinese and English, fill the entire card, with updates much longer than the average microblogging note.
While many participatory projects require a little cajoling before audience members join in, I found that visitors were eager to get their hands on a postcard. I wrote mine to my family back in Los Angeles. I haven’t seen them for a year.
“Several people are writing postcards to themselves,” added KC Vienna, “as they would like to receive something hand written in the mail.”
According to the Connollys, Beijing Design Week’s art director Aric Chen “had heard about ChART Contemporary and our ongoing curatorial series called Open House” and invited them to participate. For this series, they work with emerging artists from second, third and fourth tier Chinese cities around the theme of “open house.” These interventions often work with spaces that are for slated for rent, sale or demolition.
This makes Chen’s work particularly apropos to the installation space. Home to traditional hutongs and Beijing’s oldest business street, the Dashilar (大栅栏) area is rapidly modernizing, with new shopping centers and snack streets resembling Southern California-style outdoor malls. It was one of three major sites for Beijing Design Week, the city’s largest design event, which features both Chinese and international designers and their work.
This isn’t the first time Chen has addressed feelings of loneliness and longing in a city of people uprooted from home. Last March, she worked with ChART to develop a 10 square meter underground residence called “A Room of One’s Own.” Underground residences are surprisingly common in Beijing and are popular amongst recent migrants who need to save money. Her design helped transform the room into something more comfortable and familiar, rather than alienating.
“I very much like Beijing,” she told me, but she still misses home.
Chen Ke’s postcard and furniture installation, Home Is Where the Heart Is, showed during Beijing Design Week from September 25 to October 3. Her next collaboration with ChART Contemporary will be for Day Without Art on December 1.