Jenevieve Chang has been a participating artist in Griffin’s Cultural Leadership Program. The program is aimed at supporting artists interested in creating work from a diversity of cultural and artistic perspectives, and nurturing the brave new voices of contemporary Australia. Unlike Griffin’s other artist initiatives, the focus is not on the development of the artists’ craft as artists, but instead on providing a more holistic approach to their roles as future cultural leaders. 

As part of the program, Griffin has supported Jen’s travel to China, where she will participate in a range of arts events, and continue developing her own projects. Over the coming weeks, Jen will share her experiences during the trip. 

Sunday laundry at my place

Take where I’m staying : a rickety laneway apartment I’m renting from a Swiss man with a penchant for tattoos that steps right onto Huaihai Lu, the city’s most prominent salute to luxury consumption where Omega, Prada and Hermes are my next door neighbours.

It’s one of the reasons why I love Shanghai – somehow, the most incongruous relationships make sense here, even as preconceptions are blown apart to force uneasy understandings. It’s where I arrived in 2008 with a grant from the UK Arts Council to create a show about ancestral and cross-cultural ties, and ended up leaving 3 years later recovering from the lifestyle binge that came with working in China’s first Vaudeville and Burlesque Club.

Another year, another luxury shopping mall #Shanghai

 And now I’m back – albeit for a tightly temporary stint- to steep myself back into the memories of this city as I take part in a series of literary and arts events that culminate in Australian Writers Week to present my story, promote Asian-Australian writing and engage Chinese and international audiences here.

After two weeks where I’ve endeavoured to write as much as possible in Shanghai, my official schedule has now officially kicked off for the Bookworm Literary Festival (Suzhou), the Jue Arts and Music Festival (Shanghai), followed by presentations in Inner Mongolia and then travelling to Beijing for the official “week” with the Australian Embassy and finally meeting up with the other 5 writers who have been chosen this year to represent the voices of the country.

One of the questions that have come up in the post show Q & A’s so far have been asking about the difference between performing in Australia, and in China – and my answer has invariably been that it comes down to what the audience brings to the experience. In Australia, when I performed as a part of Performance 4a’s Stories Then and Now, commentators brought the relevance of our story collections back to the current climate of national debate around the asylum seeker issue. My first shows in China the other day were for international high schools – where a large proportion of the students are Chinese aspiring towards international prospects in their lives. “What you represent,” the foreign teachers kindly emphasized to me pre-show, “is the enormous potential of what can happen if they applied themselves to their English lessons.”

With students from Dulwich International School, Suzhou.

My audience the next day however, was composed mainly of the English-speaking population at the only multi-lingual bookshop/cafe/bar in a town known mostly for its classical gardens. As I rationalized the themes of my narrative, “…it’s about cross-generational and cross cultural issues…” a young African-English woman in the audience blurted out, “No – I think your story is about love,” And that’s when it hit me with clarity that differences between audiences cannot be divided by culture. It is differentiated by all the other stories in the room, and whatever is universal in the moment of sharing will surely reveal itself, or not.

My audience at Suzhou Bookworm Festival: Note the heart shape at the back of the room, reminding me what it’s all about!

Jenevieve Chang, March 2014