Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Tour of Republican Era Nanjing

The city of Nanjing is not as well-known outside of China as it perhaps deserves to be: a city of 10 million people and a former capital, it falls into the sizable ranks of the second-tier largely unknown cities. This tour of the Gulou district was given by a Scottish postgraduate student of Chinese art who lives in the area.

On a generously warm Monday morning in April, four of us assembled outside of Xuanwumen metro station and made our way from point to point. The locations we stopped at were generally buildings of historical importance. Surrounding these sites, however, was the usual clutter of Chinese city streets: advertising, infrastructure from a bygone age and the ubiquitous shared bikes. These historical buildings are not necessarily well preserved, indeed some are run down and slowly crumbling. We passed an old man peeing against the side of the the former foreign ministry.

The tour was focussed on early 20th century history and more specifically on the brief period of time between 1928 and 1937 when Nanjing was once again the capital of China. This could have been a real political can of worms but we were more flirting with the subject than giving a pointed critical perspective upon it.

And this was probably a wise choice since the vast majority of English speaking visitors simply require a Nanjing 101 introduction. Still, knowing what I do, I would have enjoyed a particular take upon the material rather than the presentation of the most consensual aspects of it. 

One of our group turned out to be a historian and long term resident of Nanjing. He was gracious enough not to turn this into a tour with two competing guides, something I witnessed in East London a few years ago. This was one of the many moments we were handed out cards with pictures of republican era politicians. 

When we stepped away from the important sites and looked at this wall, which sports pictures of the neighborhood's architecture, the tour took a different direction. This was the one moment we talked about how contemporary politics had a role to play in shaping an indifference bordering on neglect of the area's history. We were touring the former institutions of state of the KMT, the rivals to the communists, and this was a history that was not politically expedient. Indeed Nanjing remains the, in name only, capital of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and so this tour would never be given in this sort of form in Chinese. As small-scale tourism for foreigners it could be tolerated but if it were given in Chinese there would be too much political investment in its contents to allow it much freedom to deviate from the party line.

In the local tourism centre, basically a lonely room with a scale model of the neighborhood, it was possible to gaze over the district once again. The model looked so much more elegant than the actual streets, as often happens. Looking over this model of the Gulou district gives me the idea of a tour that utilises the Droste effect. I can imagine a tour that represents itself within the tour, and that representation in turn contains its own image of itself. Such a tour has a wicked potential for self-conscious commentary. Having met a VR specialist last week and heard about some of the current possibilities, this is not as fanciful a notion as it may seem. That would indeed be a tour of tours - a tour in which all of the tours would have to appear superficially identical while the commentary framing them would be free to roam wild.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Engeki Quest Yokohama: Invitation From Far Away

The third and last of the journeys I took using the gamebook Engeki Quest was the route titled Invitation From Far Away. I was instructed to start at this ship.

Having already completed two of the routes I was familiar with the format and had found my own way to interact with the book. If I was uncertain about a location I didn't worry too much as I might get back onto the route at the next point; if I fell off the route completely I could still use it as the start of my own adventure.

I was asked to remember people and events from my memories and weave these into a story. At the same time, small dogs were clamouring for attention and demanding to be part of that story too. These worlds didn't belong together so some accommodating needed to happen.

When asked to cross the road, either over the right hand crossing or the left hand one, my curiosity got the better of me and, as well as crossing over the right, I went back through the text to see what would have happened if I had followed the other side. I wanted to know what the consequences of my choices were. As expected, the two paths merged again soon after but by taking the left crossing you get to read a short additional piece of information. While the final destination is the same and routes very similar too, the precise manner of getting there does differ and what you bring to it will alter it a great deal more. To get the most out of this gamebook, then, you have to concentrate on the experience of going through it and not upon the satisfaction that comes with its completion. By chewing over each part and allowing it to add to the overall picture that you hold of the route, the experience becomes more distinct.

I was directed into the lobby of an elegant hotel, like all the other readers of this route. Clutching my copy of Engeki Quest, ready to present it if anyone asked what I was doing, I looked around. I was left in solitude to continue my story. Neither the concierge nor other readers of the book entered into it.

In the internal courtyard I was invited to sit and think of an old teacher of mine. I was always too much of a rebel to remain close to my teachers and besides, in the UK we don't have the same tradition of remaining connected to our former teachers. I thought hard and finally came up with Mrs Pearson, my secondary school biology teacher. She had the unenviable task of teaching sexual education to a group of 30 teenage boys. She managed to hold enough order in the classroom that she was able to teach us the basics, so for that alone she deserves praise. Thank you Mrs Pearson, you probably prevented some major embarrassments and even accidents!

A few times, when reading the book, I was told to look for a number such as the number of the top left umbrella holder. This number then directed me to the next text entry in the book. In this way there was some interaction between the real life locations and page numbers: you could only find the next entry if you were actually in the location and could check the numbers for yourself. 

As an ending, I was asked to imagine Mrs Pearson coming down the stairs. I had to think hard to picture her from back in my schoolboy days and guess how she now looks, seeing as she must have retired. I would not recognise her in the street but on this blue carpeted stairway, within the frame of this quest it was easy enough to imagine talking to her, now as an adult rather than as a fourteen year old, awkwardly self-conscious boy. "What brings you to Yokohama?" I might begin, and she might reply she recieved, "an invitation from far away," from her nephew who was getting married here in Yokohama. And so the story would roll on.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

The Tour of Yasukuni Shrine: dark tourism, war criminals and a broken audio tour

This Shinto Shrine, located in the centre of Tokyo, is a famous yet highly contentious dark tourism destination. It shot to prominence in 2013 when Japanese president Shinzo Abe visited it to pay respects to the country's war dead, which this site commemorates. Among those honoured are Class A war criminals. This broke international protocol and immediately provoked angry responses from China and Korea.

I had downloaded the app My GPS City which said it offered an audio tour of the shrine. It only featured short text entries for a handful of spots, the map didn't work and other functions were disabled too. It was, in effect, an advert for the real app and a waste of space on my phone.

I picked up the paper guide provided by the shrine and wandered through the gnarled trees. A few things struck me. The shrine was established following a civil war during the Meiji era and later evolved into a national shrine commemorating losses against foreign nations. The names for wars were unfamiliar, there was "the China incident" and "the Greater East Asian War" AKA WW2. Additionally, the English is clumsily written and in need of a proofread. It is obvious no native speaker was ever let close to the text, which says something in itself.  

I came across this panel and immediately connected, eager to see if the audio guide would be as stiff as the brochure. Strangely, however, the audio would not load. I walked to several different corners of this expansive shrine, tried different pages and the Japanese site too, but this audio guide just wasn't happening. This struck me as profoundly odd as I had not experienced this sort of failure of technology before in Japan. This would be the last place I'd expect the technology to seize up so I could only guess there was something to do with the content or management behind the withdrawal of this service. 

Nobody wanted to offer an audio guide then, so I meandered through taking in one "incident" after another. A number of the panels showed Japanese soldiers in China.

The other visitors to the shrine on this chilly February afternoon were mostly middle-aged Japanese men. There can be different motivations for coming to this site and not all who gather here will be right wing nationalists. What is striking, however, is the demographic portrait of the new right that Furuya Tsunehira paints in her article on cyber nationalists in Japanit is precisely the same group. Contrary to what she asserts, I also got the impression during my two-week stay that they were not a spent force but were exercising growing political influence. An interesting thing she points out is that "history education in Japanese public schools is woefully inadequate, and instruction on modern and contemporary history is particularly sparse." 

The version of history which pervades the shrine is one I heard echoes of during a talk a few days earlier that characterised Japan as a victim of the second world war. The shrine sets itself up to be a religious site that simply honours the fallen but it does so in such a way that it proposes a completely alternative narrative of the 20th century. The museum, which I did not visit, has been singled out by other visitors as particularly guilty of "a retelling of the war from the perspective of the ultra-right wing." I now regret being too tight to pay the 1000 yen entrance fee.

There were statues thoughtfully acknowledging the contributions animals made to 'preserving peace in the nation' or Japanese militarism, depending on your point of view. This got me thinking that, if animals' spirits are also enshrined here too, what is the limit of who is in and who is out? The dogs that died in the wars did not choose to have their spirits enshrined here anymore than the soldiers did, it was simply decided that they'd be honoured here. What if they don't want to be enshrined? Did they get a choice? 

Then comes the question of the Canadian POWs who were used as slave labour in Japan during the war and who died in their droves due to mistreatment and malnutrition. They too made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the Japanese war effort, but I'd be surprised to find their spirits enshrined here, though I could be wrong. The section of the video around 1 hour 20 features the Yasukuni shrine and a Canadian survivor meeting Japanese veterans. The failure of their otherwise sound memory when it comes to the crucial details of war crimes is telling.

A special memorial had been put up for the Indian judge Dr Radha Pal who sat on the  Tokyo Trials of war criminals and who differed in his opinions to the rest of the panel of judges. The paper that is given out on this memorial is very selective in what it takes from Pal and never mentions things like, "Pal never questioned whether atrocities were committed by Japan at Nanking, he just suspected that the accounts included exaggeration." This would put him in the camp of those who downplay the Nanjing Massacre not those who outright deny it like Toshio Motoya, owner of APA Hotels (a major Japanese hotel chain). Pal's stance may be seen within the frame of Indian independence and his major point is that the justice that was administered was a victor's justice that ignored colonial grievances.

If I compare this site to the Imperial War Museum and Cenotaph in London, there are some similarities in that they both offer self-serving narratives of war and colonial expansion. There is also a religiosity to the latter site with severe sentences handed out for decidedly minor crimes committed there. These sort of sites have this tendency the world over. Where Yasukuni differs is the degree to which it has become embedded within political narratives as a result of the version of history that is projected here. For as long as the versions of history told in Japan and those relayed by its neighbours remain so far apart this site will remain a hot dark tourist site. This will almost certainly remain the case for some time to come as neighbouring narratives are not without their own self-serving particularities too. One just has to compare the Beijing and Taipei WW2 museums to see this most evidently. This is not inevitable; France and Germany managed to jointly produce a history book that is read in both countries. Reconciliation can happen when there is a desire to make it happen. Given the existence of shame cultures as opposed to guilt cultures in East Asia, however, this sort of joint initiative looks as far away as ever as it would entail considerable loss of face. Yasukuni will, therefore, remain divisive for many more years. I just wish they'd fix their audio guide so the full mendacity of it can be fully appreciated.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Engeki Quest: Angel's Trick

Following the instructions in the game book Engeki Quest: Yokohama Passage, I went to the starting location of one of the routes, a metro station on the edge of Chinatown. 

Upon arrival the book invited me to imagine I had been told to go there to meet an ex-girlfriend who had not told me why she wanted to meet me: maybe to get together again or possibly something else... I thought of someone, scanned the station in vain for them, then was directed to a cafe where they were also not to be found.

I managed to follow the route as far as a park where a pair of hawks were being fed by an leather faced pensioner. They were both impressive and intimidating. How this scene related to my ex was left for me to decide. Was this a metaphor of a doomed relationship or was there a fresh hunt taking place, and if so, who was hunting whom?

At this point the trail went cold and I could not, for all my efforts, find the next point on the route. No matter, I thought, I'll continue the search on my own! I found what looked like a clue: she also had small feet.

This left me with the question, where to find her? I crossed over a bridge as I figured she being Chinese and it being the first day of Chinese New Year, Chinatown would be my best bet.

I scanned the faces of the steady pulse of people going back and forth. Doing this reminded me of the Situationist idea of the 'possible render-vous' a potential encounter with a stranger, though here the meeting is a one-sided one in which the other person provides a frame through which to view the city. That said, it was necessary to really try and identify her in this giant identity parade, without this genuine effort it would have been just another afternoon in Chinatown. 

Seeing this line of qipaos jolted me: I remember a picture of her in an almost identical one for a Chinese New Year dance. Even if I were not getting closer to her specifically, I was definitely on a parallel trail. What's more, seeing these bright colours, so alien to Japanese tastes, made me see China in a new way. China the land of loud voices and gaudy design. I was caught by a surprise nostalgia for Chinese bling.

I considered getting supernatural assistance as I had once visited a fortune teller with her. Could they tell me where she was? Maybe they could but they would do so in Japanese or, if I were lucky, in Chinese. Chances are, however, they would not even go there but stick to the safe topics of health, marriage and career. 

After completing a circuit of Chinatown I realised that this search was not so much a possible rendezvous, it more akin to a staged disappearance. I once worked with the collective Shadow Casters on examining the traces left behind by people who disappear like Lord Lucan's blood soaked car at Beachy Head so that we could then made trails using a similar logic. This trail, like the Engeki Quest book that started it and the search for Lord Lucan, was growing cold. I had come up with many associations but, predictably enough, no concrete leads. There was one final strategy. 

I sent her a new year's wechat greeting only to get a "XXXX" has enabled friend confirmation. This was a sad and unexpected ending to the tour as last time we communicated it was totally positive. What has happened since? I cannot tell and it is probably something more on her end, but in any case, it was time to bring this Engeki Quest to an end. Her story is an exceptional one that really needs telling; it is shocking, twisted, the stuff of movies even, and I now know I only ever got a very partial side of it. As a tool with which to see the city it is fine, but it deserves space to be told in its own right one day. I'm just not sure I'm the person most able to tell it straight so it might just come out in another way: as a possible rendez-vous, as a staged disappearance or, most probably, as a work of fiction.