One afternoon not too long ago, I was exploring Qibao Town, an old river town near Shanghai. The place was packed with tourists. On the outskirts of town merchants set up small stalls selling snacks, DVDs and all the other myriad things you can find on the street in China. Some had no more than a cloth on the grass with a few odds and ends for sale. One young girl was squatting on the ground beside a small cardboard box. In the box were about two dozen small potted plants: cacti, flowers and shrubs. Everybody walked briskly by. No one seemed to be interested in her plants.
My friend and I stopped to have a look. Each plant cost no more than 5 yuan ($0.72). We chose a small cactus and two nice-looking little shrubs. We thanked the girl selling the plants, and walked away. Glancing back over my shoulder, I noticed that a crowd of people, anxious to buy her plants, now surrounded the girl. She was having trouble keeping up with the requests for her plants pouring in from all sides.
In China, especially areas outside of big cities of Beijing and Shanghai, it is easy for a foreigner to be swept into a situation in which his very presence holds far greater significance than he could have known. A white face at a Chinese party can do wonders for the host's status. At trade fairs, the presence of foreigners can give credibility to the businesses on display; at restaurants, a single foreign guest can attract customers, turning a slow night into a busy one.
I thought of the girl and her plants again recently while traveling in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, a small city just south of the provincial capital of Nanjing, when I was again unwittingly swept into a situation in which more seemed to be going on than I had suspected. One day I was wandering around the city when I saw an interesting-looking building, ancient looking, with an old wooden frame and a curved roof. I went in, and found myself in the midst of preparations for an art exhibition. Large paintings inside a long glass display case lined the walls, and someone was playing around with a sound system, making sure it was working properly. Some people noticed me immediately, and soon came over to speak to me.
One of them was named Liu Wangong, and it was his sole exhibition they were preparing. He seemed very glad to see me. He gave me his card and invited me to the opening at 9:30 the next morning.
When I arrived, there was already a large crowd of guests inside the building. At the entrance one of the organizers, a woman whom I met the previous day, waved me over excitedly. She was standing beside two tall beautiful girls in tight dresses. "Welcome!" she said loudly, motioning me over. "Come over to these beautiful girls! They're even taller than you are!"
I soon realized that it was not just an art exhibition, but also a ceremony to honor the artist himself. Everybody was casting me sidelong looks out of the corners of their eyes.
Several people spoke: government officials, other artists and Liu himself. After the speeches were over, we all shuffled into the exhibition hall. Photographers snapped away, recording the event. I could sense them returning again and again to me. Someone looking at the footage later might be forgiven for thinking the guests consisted of a few Chinese people and several very similar-looking foreigners.
Liu's paintings were behind a pane of glass. I thought they were quite good. But I was distracted by the tall beautiful girls in tight dresses who seemed to materialize out of nowhere, walking elegantly behind the glass.
As soon as the girls appeared, the crowd of people instantly massed in front of them, taking pictures over each other's heads. Most no longer seemed to be very interested in Liu's paintings, or in me.
I couldn't help wondering what Liu, and the several other artists who were attending the event, thought of the sudden appearance of the girls. Had it been their idea, or had the ceremony's organizers made the decision? Was the superficiality of the parade of girls any more apparent with the knowledge that it was being observed by the eyes of an outsider? In short, was Liu embarrassed?
I wasn't about to ask anyone any of these questions, content to remain in my simple role as a foreigner impressed by the vibrancy of the Chinese art scene. At one point, though, I caught sight of Liu as he looked at the crowd of people taking pictures of the girls. He glanced at me, and I thought I saw a look of disgust on his face before he turned away, but it might have just been my imagination.
The writer is an American who lives in Shanghai