Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Subtle Allure of Getting Lost in Jimei

Here we are at the start of our Way-Losing tour of Jimei District, Xiamen. Previously, I have always been cast in the role of the visiting tour guide who tries to get the locals lost. This time round there were some other visitors too, and none of us could precisely say we were local to Southern China, though a couple of us knew their way around Jimei.

The tour was distinguished by torrential rain that fell in sheets shortly after we began. We jumped into the first bus we saw, then another, and this finally led us far from the centre to an area none of us had been to before. The rain abated long enough for us to go looking for a local 'Tire Museum' but drizzle started again and we took shelter around a table dominated by a Teletubbie. I was reminded of performance artist, Gary Stevens, who lent his voice to these creatures, as we sat drinking inexpensive beer in this makeshift bar. Seeing as some of the group had been looking for a bar all along, it worked out just fine.

One of the attractions of a Way-Losing Tour is that there is not too much pressure on having to be led to anything special. On the majority of more conventional tours, you expect to be lead to supposedly important sites and, more often than not, the locations are ever so slightly disappointing. They are rarely the guide's own personal choices, they simply comprise the city's canonical geography and the guide is there to explain it for you. With a Way-Losing Tour, however, places come and go like weather and it is up to you and your fellow way-losers to find significance in them. This puts the tourist in a more active position.

When looking at sites like this and creating your own narratives from them, you have to look a lot more closely than usual. With so many sites and threads in the air I started trying to make connections between them all. Imposing sense on experience is hard, but inevitable; looking for that sense in unfamiliar places was where the creative work lay for me. 

The Blue Mountains, some way off in the distance, was where my imagination kept drifting off to. They exerted a pervasive influence that transcended the muck, mire and petty affairs of the increasingly scrappy streets below. 

Earlier on in the afternoon we had been talking about the shared bike schemes and then we saw an Ofo bike far from the city, cutting its way through one of the many small lakes that the village had been engulfed in. Looking closely at the the village aesthetic I came to see how it was different to the city's but also how, in places, the village popped up in the city too. This got me thinking that to understand how the city works, and why it looks the way it does, it is essential to also understand the outlying villages like these, too. 

A field that marked the furthest point we would reach, and where Xiamen truly ended, provided the set for this domestic scene. There was a fair amount of creative work quietly going on in the background and this got me thinking that this could all be foregrounded in a creative Way-Losing Tour. This was a mixed group, however, with people here for different reaso so this was not going to be that sort of tour. 

Afterwards we ate food in the adjoining town. We got lucky and it turned out to be pretty good. 

It was not over. A bus took us back onto the island and into the city. Weaving our way back I realised that there must be many more buses like the one we took, connecting the villages to the city, something I had underestimated before. Spat out in Sibei, we stumbled into a rare demonstration: Xiamen University professors complaining about housing resale rights. Unable to get a bus or taxi back because they were clogging the road, I realised that on a Way-Losing Tour, problems do not have to be perceived as problems: they are opportunities to discover more about the place and people. This resistance, or will of the city, is one of the things that is expected, even necessary. The frame of the Way-Losing Tour transforms problems, well it has so far, and demands an interesting balance of being engaged but also accepting of just what fate has in store.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Way-Losing - in Xiamen - 1st July

The 1st of July will bring us back on to the street and into the wilds of the city. This will be a very particular Way-Losing tour because the city of Xiamen in Southern China is undergoing a profound renovation ahead of the BRICS conference later this year. It is in a state of self-conscious preening. This tour, however, will take place on the completely other side Xiamen, in and around Jimei District on the mainland. For most of those who live on the island this will already make it a step into unfamiliar territory. That will not be enough, however, we will expect nothing short of complete disorientation!

Places on this tour are strictly limited so reservation is essential.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Tour of All Tours Exhibition

The Bath Tour of All Tours, from 2014, will resurface shortly in the form of a piece of work in the exhibition Embodied Cartographies. It's been good to revisit the texts and to reassemble the performance within another medium. The exhibition is looking at artists' walking projects and it will include some live events too. 

Venue: FaB at Walcot Chapel, Walcot Gate BA1 5UG
10am to 6pm Sat 27 May to Sat 10 June
10am to 3pm Sun 11 June

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Videos of Tours

I was recently invited to contribute to a programme of talks and interventions in London organised by Something Other on the theme of migration. My perspective on this is an unusual one as I am a British artist living in exile, and not self-imposed exile as most assume, but genuine exile as I was not allowed to live with my wife in the UK under new visa rules. This was the basic angle, along with what I have found in China and the role of borders and artistic interventions I was asked to explore through three questions posed by curator Alessandra Cianetti (Performing Borders). 

Following an excellent suggestion of hers, I took the the streets, and malls, of Nanjing city centre. Using just my phone's video it was possible to get some pretty usable results. 

Walking around the same territory that I am currently staking out for my Adam Smith audio tour, it felt like a very natural format. What's more, nobody seemed to trouble me, since a person speaking into a phone is such a common sight it could be assumed to be a video call or a selfie session.

I've often struggled to find a way to record video of the tour type performances I have been making as they simply don't lend themselves to the camera. You really have to be there and to take in the multiplicity of the place. With this format, however, the commentary does at least return to sender stage and the intimacy that the phone provides allows some quite revealing moments too, like this daft one above. I think it is safe to say there are going to be more videos like this in the future: Watch This Space!

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Veiled City and Hyper Heritage: new work in Hong Kong

I'm delighted to announce that I'll be giving some workshops and co-creating a performance next month in Hong Kong. 

The workshop, called The Veiled City, will take place on the 19th and 20th April and it is organised by CCCD. It will be a practical workshop on how to interact with the city to discover more about it. It is called The Veiled City because I believe most of the city's potential escapes up most of the time. While it is not literally put under wraps like a Christo artwork, it is dormant most of the time and requires specific actions performed by the right people for it to be activated. We cannot completely change our identity but we can transform it and we can change our purpose very greatly. We'll find some ways to look more closely and interact with people and places in order to see a little more.

Hyper Heritage (Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, Sunday 23rd April) is a performance I'm making with postgraduate students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong for the festival Saving The Past For The Future. We are looking at the surrounding neighbourhood and its representation within Hong Kong cinema. This is heritage in the sense that it is a collection of stories drawn from and projected onto the neighbourhood, the city and its people. These stories, told over the last century about intrigues stretching back into ancient times and events in a not yet seen future, are fictions that have not just reflected different realities but have also helped shape our sense of it. What are the sources of today's myths? How much is today's Shek Kip Mei a fiction with reality intruding into it? What would the film of films of the area look like? Join us for a Hyper Heritage tour and see.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Audio Tour Experiments

recently wrote about tours whose contents are disconnected from or only loosely connected to their geography. I followed this observation up today with an experiment. The idea was, to make an audio tour that is based upon a text from one time and space and to inscribe it, through precise spoken word directions, onto an entirely new context. In practice this became, how does Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations sound when listened to in a Chinese shopping district.

The results were quite interesting. Unlike most tours, the content is not primarily delivered during stops but rather it flows as you walk along and you have to make the connections yourself. This means that some parts of the text work better than others: the parts where there are links to be made. The choice of route is important too as it can both contextualise the ideas and, potentially, comment upon them. Too deliberate a route and text may feel contrived i.e. listening to Das Kapital while circling the New York Stock Exchange, but too random a combination also has its pitfalls: you might wonder why you are listening to Madame Bovary while walking through a zoo. 

What is quite certain is that this is an area ripe for working in. I've taken book study tours before such as a Machiavelli Tour in Central London where we listened to and debated his ideas as we walked, but this is something different again. A more acerbic but entertaining tour of the mall would have been provided by Arthur Smith's 1894 Chinese Characteristics but Baudrillard's Simulations could work equally well. Hmm. I will be busy!

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Presidential Palace Tour: the parrot's guide

The Presidential Palace in Nanjing is a large historical site that was once very important. That's about all I knew about the place. When we arrived I thought this building was part of it but it turned out to be a historic themed shopping and eating district built alongside the palace. Often in China, it is hard to know where one starts and the other stops. 

A lack of knowledge needn't prohibit anyone from being a guide: after entering I rented the audio tour and started repeating what I heard. At first I was too ambitious: I listened to the Chinese commentary and gave a very rough and ready summary. More satisfying was  listening to the English commentary and trying to repeat it word for word, with added enthusiasm.

I'm reading Tour Guiding Research (2015) and the authors make a sharp distinction between having a living guide, like the dynamic fellow in black above, and listening to audio tours. While I agree that there usually is a clear experiential difference between the two, the line can be pretty grey at times. I've followed robotic sounding tour guides who might as well have been pre-recorded and here, in the Presidential Palace, I was simply repeating the words of the audio tour, live, to a small audience. Was that enough to make it a guided tour? I've followed guides who speak into your ear via a wireless microphone system, so that even if you are not able to see the guide behind the crowd, you can still hear them. What's more, the technology is developing rapidly to the extent that this distinction is becoming muddier with each year. Still, a living breathing guide my group of two got, even if their guide knew absolutely nothing about the location. 

I found myself repeating stories about a government officer who recognised the situation was hopeless and poisoned himself and another about the liberation of the palace by the PLA in 1949. It was straight down the line communist party history but it must have sounded rather off-key when related by a British man who was camping it up and had no real knowledge of the site. I shall definitely have to explore this parrot method more fully. It can be a good way to take a step back from the intended meaning of a tour, something that is a breath of fresh air when the tour is trying its level best to ram a message down your throat rather that trying than interpret a site in all its multiplicity.  

In spite of the buildings being historically important, and not only in terms of Republican China, they were surprisingly functional. The passageways and stairs had scuff marks and stains half way up the walls from the endless press of tourists rubbing up against them.

The audio tour took us on a long figure-of-eight sweep around the palace and gardens. By the time we reached the stables my legs were heavy, throat dry and there was no more humour to be found in parroting this ridiculous recording. This is not untypical; these sort of tours in China often seem to wear you down by design so you can feel you got value for money rather than deliver an exquisitely timed introduction to a site. The stables were notable for looking older and rougher but, on closer inspection, this was a modern rustic effect for they were a reconstruction of the original stables.

When I wrote about Geyuan Garden and how the historic buildings there had pipes and decrepit machinery quietly rattling away round the back, this is what I meant. The Presidential Palace was exactly the same. I was not taken here by the audio tour, of course, but the joy of these tours is you can follow your own interests between stops. This audio tour is a sort of cultural dinosaur that disguises its age by using a decent quality wireless cuing system. This sort of tour will almost certainly continue to exist for a while more as it is kept alive out of a sense of duty. Given that state of affairs, finding and developing more strategies to rewire the narratives and inject some life into what genuinely are interesting and diverse sites, should be a worthwhile endeavour.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Reality Tour of Nanjing

Moving to a new city brings with it many new opportunities for tours. As well as tours of local museums and historical sites, the usual suspect tours, there are often more informal tours that also accompany any move. This tour is one of those: I moved to the Nanjing last week and was offered a tour of the neighbourhood by a friend and colleague.

As we walked the streets and talked about the city and university that we both work at, the  subject we, or I should really say, seemed to keep drifting back to was accommodation. When I arrived fresh off the train I was first taken to this building with the glass door where the foreign staff are housed. My passport was scanned and I was handed a key by a surly receptionist before I was whisked away to a gloomy concrete block in a different corner of the campus. It seems I got the bum deal and ended up in the overspill apartment block which does not have central heating. When we passed beside this block, which is so suffocatingly hot you have to leave the windows open in mid-winter, I was left to rue my misfortune at being assigned to my fridge of an apartment in a city where winter temperatures can drop to -10ºC.

He has a wonderfully sculptural hand which he frequently used to point things out: the subway station over here, the main shopping area down that way. The fact that the hand and finger weren't perfectly aligned made them all the more addictive.  

As we made our way around one of the scruffier parts of the city centre, we talked about the job, the students and our colleagues. None of them were actually there in front of us so this conversation produced a sort of collage of urban bustle and Chinese higher education. Trying to simultaneously focus on the two lead to elisions and omissions but I daresay that some of the connections were not wholly random. While it was clear I was not meant to read one through the other, it strikes me that it can be hugely pleasurable to do just that. This, in fact, might just be the basis of an interesting audio tour experiment: take a forty minute talk on a specialist topic and inscribe it onto a landscape with definite 'turn left, stop at the lights,' directions spoken within the body of the talk. For example, a few pages from the popular economic book Why Nations Fail grafted onto Leeds City Centre might make for an interesting experience. 

His city tour didn't include or even mention the nearby local market but instead brought us to the nearest supermarket which was decked out with card lanterns. Neither did we go through nor talk about the alternative entrance to the campus on the west wall. When I stopped to think about this I realised I have a thing for knowing my entrances and exits and would include them in even a rudimentary tour. The simple fact was he used a different set of coordinates to mine and moved between them using a different system of navigation too.  

Where our mental maps seemed to converge was at the parcel delivery office. I rather liked that this tour was not only based upon the showing of places and things as a detached observer, it also included the guide engaging in some of his daily life actions. Here, the showing took place, at least in part, through the doing. This style of tour is not unusual for  workplace initiation tours or if you have family visiting and you are not busy but it is interesting to imagine how it could function otherwise. Taken to its logical conclusion it would mean a person shows you their unadulterated daily life: you accompany them for a period of time and they explain what they are doing while doing it. I believe that there have been attempts by artists in Berlin to do just this, to effectively market themselves as a lifestyle, but how successful this has been I cannot say. I would imagine the observer's presence must inevitably alters the guide's daily activity because people want to show the best of themselves. This reality tour principle does, however, have the potential to be something rather unusual, if taken to its logical extent.  

The tour came to a close in a very special way. After we stepped outside the university shop, he cleared his throat, spat on the pavement and muttered, "I'm becoming a bit Chinese." I have heard of a number of Westerners, well Western men, adopting this habit after spending time here. Where he still showed his foreignness was in how he forcefully spat it out whereas the far more common way I see the pros here do it is that they first hawk up a glob of phlegm, manoeuvre it to the front of the mouth then simply open wide and let it dribble out. In any case, this was a fittingly unaffected way to end for this reality tour of Nanjing: pavement punctuation, a full stop written on the concrete.   

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Three Year's Tours in Review.

There is the rather wonderful looking 15th Urban Research Plaza's Forum taking place in Bangkok next month which I had hoped to attend but will be unable to make it to. In my stead there will be this short video outlining some of the creative tour output of the last three years. Putting it together made me realise what a lot of travelling I've been doing and recall all the people and institutions who've helped make it happen. Thank you all, and may it continue over the next three years.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Tour of Geyuan Garden: a heritage nightmare

Geyuan Garden is, apparently, one of the four most prestigious gardens in the whole of China. I would never have guessed. Numbed from a 24-course Spring Festival feast the night before in which the baijiu toasting went on long and hard, I dragged my way around the residence and formal gardens. It was piercingly cold and despite the many layers I was bound up in, I was still freezing. I was here thanks to a family outing which I got hoovered up into and before even setting off I was saying to myself, this was an absurd moment to come sightseeing. It truly was, and yet so many did.

Rather than following any one single guide, the way this place seemed to work was that the place was flooded with so many guides you could hop on and off their tours and surf your own course around Geyuan. The guides all seemed to be women, mostly under thirty, wearing costumes that featured dashes of shocking pink. The look was of history tarted up according to the tastes of someone lacking in any deep sophistication.

The guides congregated around the built up areas explaining thing like, who this was the former home of, or what that assemblages of stones meant. They looked like they were following a tight script and there were no questions except the obvious ones like, where are the toilets? And the most inevitable one of the lot, where is lunch?  

The crowds were nothing short of crazy. I am used to China, I've been here a while now and learnt how to switch off and find privacy in public, but this was something else. This was the third day of Spring Festival. There didn't seem to be any limit on the number of visitors, this was the moment for Geyuan to fill the coffers. The crowd was very accepting, however, sardine tourism probably came as no great surprise and most people simply made the best of it. The guides cranked up their microphones, great big bottlenecks swelled around gateways and some  boys got bored and ran wild: it was the usual low-level tourist chaos.

There is a certain level of ennui I have come to associate with Chinese heritage sites: once you've seen one you've more or less seen them all. There may be exceptions but Geyuan isn't one of them: we trudged from one unconvincing restoration job to the next. When you look around the backsides of the buildings you see hastily slapped together concrete, wires poking through rough holes in the walls and air conditioning units. I was reminded of what Paul Theoux wrote about sightseeing in China, "It has all the boredom and ritual of a pilgrimage and none of the spiritual benefits."

Guyuan has a bamboo garden and this was probably my favourite part of the experience on account of it being ever so slightly less packed solid. That said, I was not crazy for it either as it was all a bit too intentional in its aesthetic for my tastes. 

The garden worked well enough as a backdrop for selfies and group pics, which seems its primary purpose these days. I watched a constant stream of people with phones in hand carefully framing up shots, finding the right expression and then waiting for the moment that the crowd thinned enough so the background no longer resembled the Shanghai Metro rush hour. I think the attraction of the place is that it lets visitors imagine they are in one of the immensely popular costume dramas, but it was doomed to fail on a day like this. There is a paradoxically repressed yet rampant and distinctly Chinese strand of postmodernity at play here. Geyuan is not precisely a pastiche or simulation but a thorough restoration that approximates these in form and function and which offers temporal continuity to the Han who voraciously consume it in a very contemporary and disconnected way. Some sort of narrative continues, whether it has any veracity or not is irrelevant, the point is it must go on, like Burroughs word virus, to reproduce itself and continue being told.

Some distance away from the garden is the Yangzhou Slender West Lake which is truly the cherry on the cake. Actually, I shouldn't get started on Chinese copies of Western cakes, that is a whole sorry topic in itself. This scenic spot, clustered around the water, is in a similar vein to Geyuan but more expansive and thus less crowded. In places it is beautiful, but it is also deeply frustrating. As I looked around a Buddhist monastery I asked myself, what went on here during the cultural revolution? What about other ups and downs? When, how, why and by whom was it restored? The site could be very interesting if there was a way to unpick the different layers, or even more so if there was a desire to make them visible, but there was none of this. The site had been designed to smoother questions and promote historical feel-good. This is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon, British stately homes often give me the creeps too with their Downton Abbeyesque faux historical projection. The lingering impression I was left with here was that heritage used this way can never be true to itself. It is a fiction that refuses to recognise itself as one even when the cracks in the visage are glaring and there for all who want to see. 

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Wood Green Revisited Tour

Today's tour was of the stalwart North London neighbourhood Wood Green in the affable company of Hugh Chapman. I say stalwart because Wood Green is one of those areas that has the character of always being there but never being too obtrusive, like the waiters in the excellent Kervan Sofrasi Turkish Restaurant on the High Road. This is in complete contrast to attention seeking Dalston, for example. This can mean that the place gets taken for granted, which is a pity because changes, such as the imminent demolition of the gas holder, can just happen like weather: it lurches from grey to grey.

Our tour of Wood Green was not a rehearsed walk with a set script, but Hugh did have several locations in mind to take me to. That is what brought us to the Chocolate Factory, a former industrial building now housing creative businesses. It still bore traces of its history of sweetening the tooth of the British Empire but today it housed such things as overspill from Mountview Theatre Academy. As we were walking around this oversized shoebox and later waking beside some of the other refashioned industrial units in the area, I had a sense of familiarity that I now realise came from the old Middlesex University Fine Art School being based here on Western Road back in the 90s. I first visited it as an undergraduate student and then later as a judgemental life model; a cash-strapped 22-year-old performance artist who looked down on life drawing but had to keep his opinions to himself and humbly take the money. The school has long since moved elsewhere, the building changed its appearance and my attitudes to drawing softened.

Back out into the cool grey we ascended the multi-story car park in search of a view and this is the best we got. Whilst Wood Green's centre has some density, it is surrounded by rows of two-storey houses with cars parked out the front and little back gardens filled with patches of grass, bikes and children's plastic toys.

For an area whose name evokes a Robin Hood-like image of a clearing deep in the forest, the reality is resolutely urban with no wood to see and scarce little green either. The slither of greenery that we did come to was the New Riverreached by walking under the train tracks, which neatly slice the urban fabric in two. To the south we arrived at Turnpike Lane Station where the slender Ducketts Common stretched before us but which marked the limit of our walk: we turned around and headed back up High Road. That park is another old haunt of mine: many moons ago I directed A Goat to Grind a performance for six cyclists that briefly interrupted the assembled Special Brew drinkers. Whilst I have been away too long, they looked as if they were still there, still putting the world to rights and peeing in the bushes. It is reassuring that some things don't change.

One of the purposes of the tour was to test out an idea of mine to explore an urban environment via the reproductions of art that can be found in it. This picture on the left, sitting in a charity shop, is an example. I wanted to first identify its origin and with this see if there was a way to connect this Rembrandt (right) to its contemporary environment. The first thing that I noticed doing this was how unevenly art is distributed: there are vast swathes of the city that art barely touches. What you do see everywhere, however, are the byproducts of art, namely design. Looking for both art and the traces of it through the etymology of images, proved to be a quite fascinating exercise that offered an original method of viewing the city. How the art reflects back upon the city remains to be seen but it can be so rich in content - Balthazar's Feast, Rembrandt's life and the painting's history - that these will, without the shadow of a doubt, include stories that could be reactivated in Wood Green.

Hugh is working for the social enterprise Green Rooms, a hotel catering for the arts sector which has its own arts programme. Naturally, they have an affinity with independent local businesses such as the Big Green Bookshop, a sympathetic place tucked away off the main street. Here we met the people running the place who were happy to chat and willing to be involved in some sort of artistic tour too. This is quite a contrast to another one of our stops, the frozen food store Iceland, where a security guard asked us to stop taking photographs, afraid we might be stealing their stellar design concepts. This division between local stores and national chains was predictable but is worth bearing in mind when making a tour. The temptation is to make tours on a personable and local level, bypassing the brightly lit mall, but that would give a very false impression of the neighbourhood. Somehow, it seems to me the resistance or impersonality that you can encounter in the larger places is interesting in itself and a tone not to be avoided altogether. 

All the time that we were looking around the neighbourhood as a form of artistic research, there was also a secondary very practical task of looking for a suitcase going on. This took us up and down High Road in and out of large and small stores alike. I did finally find a decent case in a sale in one of the smaller places and it was put to use immediately as I checked out of Green Rooms. I expect to see more of the area and, in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I will be back. Touch wood (Green). 

Friday, 20 January 2017

The 42 km Tour aka The Xiamen Marathon

The 2nd of January was a big day for me. Some months earlier I had signed up for the Xiamen Marathon. I followed the instructions, arrived at 7.15 AM, only to be told I could not participate because I had not collected my race number. A trying-to-be-helpful but actually hopeless young lady in a reflective yellow jacket told me race numbers had to be collected the day before. This crucial detail was not included in the communications I received from the race organisers but was instead buried in their website's information on a not so very obvious page. My wife and I tried to get the race assistants to find a manager who could issue a number but the girl in yellow just gave us phone numbers which didn't respond except for one which someone picked up and then immediately slammed back down again.

There was nothing for it but to go home and watch the race on TV. From this point of view, the marathon is basically a two-and-a half-hour tourism promotion. Once the pros had crossed the line and the Ethiopians collected their prize money, the TV coverage wrapped up. 

As I noted when reviewing The Tour of England, sporting events have become another way in which cities are made visible through a sort of tour. With that one, a small number of cyclists followed the route, a few more people lined their way and a considerably larger number of people watched them circle around the city on TV. I think it is very interesting how cameras construct a very selective live video portrait of the city, but what I miss in these TV tours is being inside of frame myself and having firsthand experience of the location. Reality is almost always much more diverse and ambiguous. That’s why the idea of running a marathon, rather than watching one, was so appealing. Well, that and I also wanted to get in shape.

In place of the race number that had been denied me, I donned a pirate flag. I was not going to be running for the corporate sponsors like China Construction Bank and KFC, I was doing this for myself. I know that if I had not been denied a number I would have run the race anyhow, but I started to sense that being excluded was in fact not a bad thing; it alerted me to the true nature of the beast I was dealing with. Call it a stroke of luck or simply the power of self-justification, this race was taking an interesting new tack. I waited six and half hours till the last of the stragglers from the official race had groaned over the line then approached the exhibition centre where the action was. Coming towards me was a tired looking Monkey King. Very few Chinese runners have the gumption to dress up like this and I should admit I was impressed, particularly given the heat. I had been toying with dressing up too, but not being sure if I would complete all 42 km, I was reluctant to fail spectacularly in fancy dress.

The starting point was now freely accessible so I took my mark and at 2.30 in the afternoon set off on this endurance tour. It was an extremely pleasant 24º C; pleasant if you were sitting in the shade sipping tea and eating watermelon, that is. For me it was anything but relaxing, it was sticky, humid and precisely the time of day I would normally avoid running in Xiamen. Never having gotten further than 22 km before, I knew I'd need to pace myself so I set off speed walking. 

Since the roads were no longer blocked off for runners I pounded along the pavements and cycleways on the side of the ring road and must have been quite a sight: a lanky westerner wearing a pirate flag wiggling his bum furiously from side to side. Some people did take pictures and a bemused older man on a mountain bike followed me for a while. Mine was, however, a very solitary marathon, not the crowd experience of the morning. Perhaps because of this, I listened to music on headphones. At first I set my music library on shuffle which served up a hopelessly random selection of audio oddities many of which were slow melodic thinking stew or even worse, Chinese lessons and audio books. I was, however, prepared for what was to come and had downloaded the three CD album The Workout Mix (2011). In any other context this would have been downright painful to the ears but slogging round the sweaty Xiamen ring-road, this relentlessly upbeat electro-kitsch was exactly what I needed. 

Even when I reached the insipid Emall, a long way short of the mid-point, my feet were already complaining. I had read that there are many things that can go wrong when doing marathons. I knew that for me the feet that were quite definitely my weakest link but there was no plan B, I simply had to endure the dull repetitive pain that grew with each kilometre. I dared not take off my shoes to see what the pain consisted of. One good look at that gore would have been the end of my race.

Making this very particular tour up and down the city's tourist coastline was a good opportunity to reflect upon the current transformation of Xiamen. When I first visited the city in 2010 it seemed much more beautiful than today. There was abundant nature bursting out at evert corner, threatening to reclaim this relaxed tea slurping city. But there has been a shift, maybe for older residents they'd say that already in 2010 that shift had already taken place. What was unmistakable was that the city was now being remade according to a much more intentional aesthetic. It looked like it was trying to style itself as a new Hong Kong or Singapore: high rise, malls and manicured nature. The irony here was that in doing so it was destroying the very thing that made it beautiful in the first place and turning itself into just another Chinese city, albeit one with better weather.

I like the comparison here between the battle hardened face at mid-point and the shell shock of the finishing line. My final time was far from heroic: just over five hours. Still, my sole ambition was to complete the 42 km and this now leaves me with something to improve upon. Crossing the deserted finishing line, littered with the detritus of corporate sponsorship, my immediate feeling was of defiance. The pirate held true! The message: don't let companies who don't care for you deny you of your dreams. 

And here I am making my best efforts at an 'it was easy' smile. With distance, I can see that there are some aspects to marathons which, as a format, have made them become almost inherently corporate. Maybe other cities do a better line in them, I don't know. Not having run one before, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. I later learnt from several other people (Chinese and foreigners alike) that they had the same problem obtaining a number from Xiamen Marathon. The organisers just seem to be very poor at communicating and don't bother to improve as the race is heavily oversubscribed. You really are just a small cog in the wheel and the juggernaut keeps on rolling regardless of your experience. I did in fact ask their press office for comment but they, like all the other phone lines and emails, have also not replied.

When I got home I gingerly peeled off my shoes. My long suffering feet were in a sorry shape. On the sides of the heels were white oversized blisters that looked like miniature pitta breads. My big toe was wrecked too, the next day the nail would go an unusual shade of blue. I cannot say for sure but my guess is that this is a result of fake shoes. I first tried on the shoes in a store and then, like the cheapskate I am, ordered the same pair from a Taobao seller. Either Asics are not all they are cracked up to be or I got a poor imitation, something that does happen in China. I have in any case learnt a lesson here about online shopping, and also another one about the nature of marathons, too. There is quite definitely a whole lot more to them than just an unreasonably long tour. They offer a window into the dynamics of the city and to your own, deteriorating state, over the course of 42 km.