Fed guests eat crabs while parsing their meaning in AGO’s Ai Weiwei exhibit
Bill Schiller, left, cracks a crab with a hammer. The Star's China correspondent for five years, he noted that In Chinese, the word for crabs, he xie, also means harmony, but paradoxically is now a synonym for censorship. Using their version of Twitter, "you say anything the government doesn’t like, they censor it. But what they say is, ‘It’s been harmonized.’”
Sheng Xue hasn’t finished her soup. Until she does, everything is on hold, including our discussion about the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and my seafood boil.
The other guests — AGO interpretive planner Gillian McIntyre, AGO social media coordinator Megan Campbell, managing editor of VICE Canada Patrick McGuire and Bill Schiller, a foreign affairs reporter for the Star who lived in China from 2007 to 2012 — have cleaned their bowls of chilled corn soup.
Sheng, a Chinese journalist and human rights activist, has been illustrating how her home country functions by recounting the time she tried to return to China in 1996, only to be confined and interrogated by government officials before being bounced to Taiwan. She laughs through a story that sounds, to me, terrifying. “I laugh at this because I come from China. If I grow up in Canada, I think I should be worried and scared. But I know them.”
Meanwhile, I’ve got my biggest pot on the stove, bubbling with six quarts of water, bourbon, spices and lemons, waiting to start my seafood boil. Next to it is my timetable for adding the ingredients, with the hopes that they’ll cook in sequence: first the potatoes and crabs; three minutes later the clams and sausages; five minutes later the mussels; then the corn and shrimp for just the last 2 minutes. But I can’t start cooking until the last course is cleared, because the food might be ready too early. And I can’t start clearing bowls until the last guest is done with her soup because she’ll feel rushed.
The reason for the shellfish is that a couple days before I’d been to the AGO exhibit, which is on until October 27. I’d read up on Weiwei, the artist and dissident voice of criticism in China who is no longer free to display art or to leave the country. I’d seen the green and white snake of children’s backpacks on the second floor of the AGO, and knew their significance as an indictment of the poorly built Sichuan schools that collapsed in a 2008 earthquake, killing 5,000 children. But it was the crabs that caught my eye.
Surrounded by a tiny rope barrier are 3,200 porcelain crabs, positioned in what looks like a meticulously orchestrated swarm of battle.
“Lots of people are trying to analyze ‘why is this crab here and this crab here?’” laughs McIntyre. “That’s over analysis. (Weiwei) would say, ‘I want it denser in the middle and it should be X number of feet wide.’ And that would be it.”
I love crabs. I love the way they walk, the way they snap, the way they sing Calypso and the way they taste.
So I had to serve shellfish.
Weiwei’s crabs commemorate a feast of river crabs held in his honour, before the government demolished his Shanghai studio.
The Chinese word for crabs is he xie, which also means harmony and has come to be a synonym for censorship in China.
“When you’re using their version of Twitter,” explains Schiller, “and you say anything the government doesn’t like, they censor it. But what they say is, ‘It’s been harmonized.’”
That’s a lot of meaning for a little crustacean.
The digression has allowed Sheng to finish her soup and 20 minutes later my seafood boil forces people to eat with their hands, creating a quick intimacy. Only Campbell holds back. In PR, always on the clock, she eats two slices of corn, two mussels and two shrimp, barely touching her glass of Sancerre.
The timing works perfectly for all the seafood but not the potatoes, which need more time to cook. But there’s warm cornbread as well. And we’ve got our hands full with the platter of shellfish. I’ve placed a wooden board at one end of the table with a cleaver, scissors and a hammer. Schiller bashes the crab claws with the hammer, spraying Maguire and I with milky crab juice, which we enjoy, finding personal harmony in the chaos of the mess.
Works like the crabs and the backpack I get. But it’s hard to understand how such an outspoken critic of the Chinese government helped design a stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as jingoistic as it gets.
“He loves design,” says McIntyre. “I think it was a seductive thing to be involved in.”
Schiller, who was in China at the time, explains that the government was more flexible before the Olympics. “The government was saying, give us the Olympics and we’ll give you human rights.
“Once the Olympics were finished the whole thing came down. Lawyers that you used to be able to phone up and chat with were now being arrested. Some of them were beaten. Nobody wanted to talk to you.”
Weiwei, I’m told, is barely known inside China, where only those with sufficient tech savvy are able to circumvent government censorship of the Internet. Here he is seen as a hero.
When you go to the AGO and see the brainscan of the hemorrhage he suffered from a police beating, remember that our federal government muzzles its own taxpayer-funded scientists from speaking publicly about their work, that our RCMP has recently stopped responding to public information requests and we’ve all but invited the U.S.’s National Security Agency to come snoop through our emails and medicine cabinets. And without a hint of public outrage. Weiwei’s work is a good reminder of how much we take our freedom for granted, as it slips through our fingers. [email protected] . Corey’s book, How to Host a Dinner Party, is available online and in bookstores.
A poet and journalist, Sheng Xue grew up in Beijing and moved to Canada soon after the Tiananmen Square massacre, June 4, 1989. She is a member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center and a member of PEN Canada, also a gracious sponsor of her reading at this festival. As a freelance writer, she has published numerous news reports and commentaries in various Chinese-language media.
In 2005, she won the National Ethnic Press and Media Council for Journalism and Media Award for her outstanding achievements, contributions, and community service, and in recognition of her efforts in promoting understanding the traditions and the interests of Chinese-Canadian communities. She has also won the Canadian Association for Journalists Award for Investigative Journalism and the National Magazine Award, for an investigative report on the lives of Chinese boat refugees, published in Maclean’s in 2000. She is the first Chinese Canadian to win such prestigious awards.
In 2001, Sheng Xue investigated China’s most prominent smuggling case and published a book (in Chinese and Japanese), Unveiling the Yuan Hua Case, which soon became a best seller in Chinese communities outside China and created shockwaves both inside and outside China. China’s Propaganda Ministry immediately banned the book.
She was the Writer in Residence at Carlton University in 2007. In 2008, United Writers Press in Hong Kong published Sheng Xue’s poetry collection, Seeking The Soul of Snow, which was banned by China’s Public Security Ministry, and Ministry of Culture.
from Memory and Betrayal
. . . Then
We run run run and fled in all directions
Huge mourning like a curtain
Covering sky and earth