Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Exhibition on China and Fashion Attract 0.7 Millions

“中国:镜花水月"Damon Winter/The New York Times
A dress by Guo Pei at the “China: Through the Looking Glass” exhibit.

The talk of Wall Street over the last week may have been Shanghai’s plunging stock market, but many blocks farther uptown, where commuter traffic gives way to verdant sidewalks, a different set of numbers related to China was making news. As it entered its final week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s spring Costume Institute show, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” was attaining blockbuster status.

As of last Friday morning, 735,000 people had attended the show, with a week to go before its close on Sept. 7, including a final Friday and Saturday with viewing hours extended until midnight. That has already made it the most-visited Costume Institute show in the museum’s history, displacing “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” which pulled in 661,509 attendees, as well as elevating it to No. 7 — and climbing — on the museum’s top-10 most popular list, on a par with other 700,000-plus-visitor shows such as the “Mona Lisa” (1963), “Origins of Impressionism” (1995) and “Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” (2010).

Andrew Bolton, curator at the Costume Institute and the man behind the show, said there have been more positive responses left in the visitor’s comment box than ever before. (“Usually people use it as an opportunity to vent displeasure,” he said. “Often at the lighting, or the signage.”)

By any objective measure, this will be the most successful fashion show the Met has ever had. The question is: Why?

“Honestly, it totally surprised me,” Mr. Bolton said. “I was prepared for it to be polarizing. We were predicting around 500,000 visitors. I never expected this level of response. ”

“No one expected it would surpass McQueen,” said Maxwell K. Hearn, the Douglas Dillon chairman of the department of Asian art, and Mr. Bolton’s collaborator on the exhibition, which is in the Asian art galleries on the second floor, some Egyptian galleries on the first floor and the Anna Wintour Costume Center on ground level.

A visitor photographs a Dior dress by John Galliano at the Met exhibition.
/Damon Winter/The New York Times

A visitor photographs a Dior dress by John Galliano at the Met exhibition.

I didn’t expect it, either. Not because I didn’t like the show (it’s visually engrossing in its mix of luxury, whimsy and point) but because it doesn’t have the single iconic hook that can transform a purportedly high culture meditation into an extended pop culture moment.

After all, it isn’t, as Mr. Bolton said, immediately obvious from the name what the show is about. (Answer: the way a received fantasy version of China engages the imaginations of Western designers.) And the subject itself was ripe for criticism from those who thought the approach played to a now-discredited stereotype of the East. You can’t attribute it to the sheer size of the exhibition, the largest ever, or it’s length, because size does not equate to allure.

There wasn’t the sort of human gossip element that helped drive interest in the McQueen show, held a year after the designer’s suicide and days after Kate Middleton married Prince William in a dress by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.

There was, to be fair, lots of striking use of mixed media, which made it seem both very contemporary as well as historic. And it included film — Wong Kar-wai, who wrote and directed “In the Mood for Love,” was the exhibit’s art director, and clips from movies like “The Last Emperor” and “The World of Suzie Wong” abound — always a popular medium.

But Mr. Wong is an independent director as opposed to a household name, and when Baz Luhrmann, a much more recognizable Hollywood figure, was the creative consultant on an earlier Costume Institute show, 2012’s “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” it wasn’t nearly the same hot ticket.

When I first saw the show in May, I was struck by the facile nature of the fashion when juxtaposed against the antiquities. No matter the clothes’ beauty — I remember the runway impact of Tom Ford’s pagoda collection for Yves Saint Laurent and being amazed by the broken blue and white china shards of porcelain on an Alexander McQueen bodice — they pale when compared with the source of the inspiration, in part because the latter has a creative integrity the former only borrows. Often too literally. Please go to The New York Times read more about this story.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale

I just happened to read the book this week. I am impressed by Yang's power of telling a story using her graphic talent. 

When Belle Yang was forced to take refuge in her parents’ home after an abusive boyfriend began stalking her, her father entertained her with stories of old China. The history she’d ignored while growing up became a source of comfort and inspiration, and narrowed the gap separating her—an independent, Chinese-American woman—from her Old World Chinese parents.

In Forget Sorrow, Yang makes her debut into the graphic form with the story of her father’s family, reunited under the House of Yang in Manchuria during the Second World War and struggling—both together and individually—to weather poverty, famine, and, later, Communist oppression. The parallels between Belle Yang’s journey of self-discovery and the lives and choices of her grandfather, his brothers, and their father (the Patriarch) speak powerfully of the conflicts between generations—and of possibilities for reconciliation.

Forget Sorrow demonstrates the power of storytelling and remembrance, as Belle—in telling this story—finds the strength to honor both her father and herself.

Friday, April 10, 2015

At Pearl River, Four Decades of Helping New Arrivals From Asia

Every morning, Ming Yi Chen walks down to the basement of Pearl River Mart, the Chinese department store he opened in 1971, and burns incense. Then he walks back to the first floor to light more incense. He breathes in the sandalwood, to him a calming scent. And the day can begin.

With the news this week that Pearl River Mart, at 477 Broadway in SoHo, would close in December because of a significant rent increase and an unsustainable business model, it became clear that Mr. Chen’s routine — and those of his 40 employees — would soon disappear into the capitalist cloud.

“There are people waiting for this space,” Mr. Chen, 76, said from the tea balcony, overlooking a floor that stretches from Broadway to Mercer Street, 30,000 square feet in all. “Maybe H & M, one of those big chains — with big pockets.”

It is fair to say that those big-pocketed stores do not offer the soundtrack of traditional Chinese music and tweeting birds, nor do they display lanterns, gongs and 60-foot-long paper dragons amid waterfalls. From the soy sauce and Chinese underwear that were lifelines for homesick Chinese immigrants to the slippers and qipao dresses that became staples for New York fashionistas, Pearl River Mart tells a lesser-known tale that is more than the sum of its dry goods.

Run with a strong, nurturing hand by Mr. Chen’s wife, Ching Yeh Chen, 68, Pearl River has provided a life for its immigrant workers for four decades. It has been a welcome alternative to restaurant and supermarket jobs for new immigrants, a place where Cantonese and Mandarin were spoken and employee banquets were held every year. The store, overseen by a board of trustees and 30 shareholders, has helped some workers apply for green cards, once had a matching 401(k) plan and still offers health insurance.

“We are probably one of the few pioneer companies that does that in Chinatown — I’m proud to say that,” Mrs. Chen, the president, said of the insurance plan. “Most of Chinatown, everything is in cash. In that sense, we are pretty fair, and people will stay here long enough.” (The store has been in four locations, including Canal Street.)

Often, two generations have worked side by side, and some employees have turned a job stocking shelves into a lifelong career.

“I’ve been with the Chens since I immigrated to the United States, as a part-time worker,” Wilkie Wong, 50, said. He had just arrived from Burma in 1982 and was attending Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side. Mrs. Chen knew a school counselor and asked her for part-time employees. Mr. Wong showed up with two of his classmates; now he is the company’s vice president.
Asked about the store’s closing, Mr. Wong said, “I have mixed feelings.” He just got an office with a window two years ago, he explained. A graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo with a degree in economics and international trade, he had been doing the accounting in a separate basement office on Wooster Street.

But the future concerns him. Mrs. Chen said she would like to move to smaller quarters, downsize the inventory and, to better compete with Amazon, boost the online business, which Mr. Wong directs. “If we continue, he’s still with us,” she said.

But Mr. Wong’s 16-year-old son will not be joining him. “As an immigrant to the United States, it’s the same as my parents and every parent who wants their kids to have a high education, be a lawyer, doctor,” Mr. Wong said. “Even though I enjoy working here, I want him to have better than what I had.”

For some longtime employees, it might be time to move on. Lapyan Ng, 63, from Hong Kong, has worked at Pearl River for over 20 years. “Maybe I need to retire and take care of my granddaughter,”   >>

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Not Loving It

Salon magazine asked this month whether McDonald’s has developed a “self-hating complex” in China. The reason for its question was the local translation of its slogan – “I’m lovin’ it”.

The Chinese version is Wo jiu xihuan which, as Salon points out, can have pretty negative connotations because the second character in the phrase is used to contradict something emphatically. “The natural implication is that the speaker is responding to someone who has just insulted McDonald’s food,” writes Salon. “While there is no perfect translation for the phrase, it has the same essential spirit as ‘I like it no matter what you say!’”

Hence you might use the phrase in a defensive retort when someone asks: “Why do you eat that garbage?” Salon went to the experts to confirm its analysis and Professor Liu Lening, head of Columbia University’s Chinese language programme, said the publication’s interpretation was correct. He advised that a better translation of ‘I’m lovin’ it’ would have been Wo hen xihua and also suggested Wo hao xihuan, which means “I really like it”.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Chocoholics? Ferrero to Open First Chocolate Plant in China

The first record of chocolate in China is from the court of the Kangxi Emperor in 1706. A papal legate by the name of Charles-Thomas Maillard De Tournon brought some with him in order to charm the Chinese monarch. Unfortunately the cocoa-based product, which at that time was served as a drink, failed to impress. One account of the imperial tasting holds that Kangxi took a sip and declared he would much rather have a cup of longjing tea (a specialty from Hangzhou in Zhejiang province).

Three hundred years later and there are still many Chinese who would agree with Kangxi. The sweet, creamy taste  and texture of chocolate – now mainly consumed in solid form – is too rich for many Chinese who grew up with little or no dairy in their lives.

But that is changing rapidly. The Chinese confectionary market is growing between 10% to 20% annually, depending on who you ask, and the big players are all jostling for sales.

Cue another Italian from Piedmont – Giovanni Ferrero, the head of the family-run business that produces Nutella and the gold-wrapped Ferrero Rocher balls. He sees Asia as the main source of his candy company’s growth in the coming years and this summer he will open a Rmb5 billion ($800 million) factory in Zhejiang, reports China Business Journal.

In 2013 the notoriously private CEO told the Wall Street Journal that “the strength of the Rocher brand [in Asia] is an early indicator of the route to follow”.

Four companies currently dominate the Chinese chocolate market – Mars, Nestle, Ferrero and local brand Le Conté. Mars, which has the biggest market share, has two factories in China, producing Snickers and Dove bars, and M&Ms. Mars also makes a locally available rice-infused chocolate called Cui Xiang Mi.

Hershey’s, the world’s fifth largest chocolate maker, has also launched a major offensive: buying Shanghai candy maker Golden Monkey last year and opening a research centre in the city in 2013.

The feeling is that urbanisation, rising wealth and an increasing interest in non-Chinese foods will keep the market growing. Annual Chinese chocolate consumption is currently only 200 grams a year per person. If the average Chinese were to consume even a quarter of the 11kg of chocolate the British munch annually, it would result in more than $20 billion in additional sales for the confectionary industry.

Last month Hershey’s predicted the Chinese market as a whole would be worth $3.4 billion by 2019, up from $2.7 billion today (the global chocolate market will next year grow to $98 billion according to research by the consultancy Markets and Markets).

Ferrero, which had revenues of $8.7 billion last year, is the only one of the major players not to have some kind of Chinese facility.

This, however, is very characteristic of the privately-held company which began life as a pastry shop in Alba. In the years following the Second World War, Giovanni’s grandfather Pietro began mixing cocoa with ground up hazelnut. The result was a solid, chocolatey block. His son Michele – who died last month at the age of 89 –  then came up with the idea of mixing it with vegetable oil to make it spreadable. As Nutella sales surged, an empire was born.

Michele insisted on growing the company naturally and resisted making any acquisitions bar one – a small hazelnut company in Turkey. His son Giovanni, who has been running the company since 1997 shares his father’s business philosophies.

“We’re not interested in maximising revenue in the short term, like everyone else. If we were listed, we would be under short-term pressure to deliver dividends and profits,” the WSJ quoted him as saying in 2013. Indeed, while other multinationals have moved production away from China recently, Ferrero’s long-term mindset has led him to make a major investment instead.

In the short term it may hurt its margins in China. That’s because some Chinese have been heard to moan about the price of imported Ferrero Rocher chocolates. As the Beijing Commercial Daily pointed out, after Ferrero opens its 30,000 tonne a year plant it will be harder for the company to justify the price tag for the locally-made versions. “Ferrero’s price has always been higher than other brands, but Chinese customers won’t accept this once the company reduces their transportation cost.” >>