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May 28, 2015

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‘Only a local can capture such details’

FOLK and comic artist Luo Xixian has spent 40 years attempting to capture and preserve the placid smiles on the faces of local people living in shikumen, the distinctive local housing style that once made up 60 percent of city’s housing stock.

“Those smiles were common in the past, yet are vanishing in today’s commercialized city,” says the 70-year-old local painter in an exclusive interview with Shanghai Daily at his studio on Xiangyang Road.

Luo is due to publish his first book of paintings of shikumen life next year.

Shikumen are two- or three-story buildings combining Western terrace housing with a narrow Chinese-style front yard. Each can accommodate as many as 72 residents and are set along alleys called longtang. A stone arch spans the entrance to each alley.

The book will feature 48 paintings, of which Luo has completed 36.

He finished one called “Four Heavenly Kings” the day before the interview. It depicts people buying, selling and eating breakfast favorites dabing (大饼, Chinese pancakes), youtiao (油条, deep-fried dough sticks), doujiang (豆浆, soybean milk) and cifantuan (粢饭团, steamed sticky rice balls) — together known in Shanghai as the “Four Heavenly Kings.”

Luo says being a local helps him capture the nuances and details of the scene. For example, “Four Heavenly Kings” shows a man buying youtiao and using a chopstick to skewer four of the dough sticks together.

“Only local can capture such details, which piece together the real authentic city scene. Food plays an important role in this collection,” says the painter.

The artist’s work offers a new perspective on the city’s food culture, highlighting the connection between food and people.

Luo first found fame as one of the most famous comic artists in China, and has produced 160 comic books since he was 14 — the age at which he began studying at a middle school linked to Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art.

His work in this area was recognized recently when he was awarded inheritor of intangible culture heritage of Chinese comics by Shanghai Culture, Radio Broadcasting, Film and Television Administration, a genre that was born in Shanghai a century ago.

When China’s comic book culture was overwhelmed by Japanese manga and Disney cartoons in the 1980s, Luo turned his attention to folk painting.

He produced two series of works, “Beautiful Jiangnan” featuring ancient water town and “Shanghai Scene,” which became popular among expats in Shanghai and the overseas market.

“Folk painting, which is accessible and easy to interpret, breaks through cultural differences,” Luo explains.

Luo created a new style for these works, combining Chinese and Western features. This is based on Chinese landscape painting focusing on leaving blank spaces, ancient folk painting that breaks the laws of perspective, his comic background featuring vivid characterization and Western oil painting highlighting depth of field.

“Put simply, my paintings express the elegance in life beneath the surface of bustle,” Luo explains.

His composition are inspired by Chinese ancient folk painting, portraying different times of day in one picture.

He uses color sparingly, vibrant splashes making a figure or activity stand out from the monochrome lines of background detail. The artist uses fine brushstrokes to portray his characters — down to the most subtle expression and wrinkle.

This style, vividly evoking people going about their everyday lives is much admired by Luo’s publisher and readers.

“Luo’s paintings of shikumen, especially his portrayal of the people living in them, has strong touch of life, which is based on his 40 years of living in a shikumen,” says Yang Bowei, deputy editor-in-chief of Shanghai Bookstore Publishing House, which is publishing Luo’s forthcoming book.

“I didn’t grow up in an artistic family like many other painters. My artistic dream started from shikumen,” explains the artist.

Luo was born in a shikumen community in Jing’an District, at the crossroads of Beijing Road and Xikang Road, where the street outside the longtang was lined with bookstalls, selling comic books with colorful covers that entranced the young Luo.

“More people outside Shanghai know the city from the early 20th century apartment life described by Eileen Chang in her fiction. But that was the life of city’s upper-class, the top of the pyramid.

“Shikumen, accommodating ordinary people, represent half a century of the city’s history in a real sense,” says the artist.

In recent years, many of Shanghai’s shikumen lanes have been demolished and replaced by high-rise residential and commercial developments. Others have been gentrified and turned into retail and entertainment hubs, such as Tianzifang and Xintiandi, the latter of which saw architecture meticulously preserved but residents relocated.

In the face of such change, Luo believes that it’s his responsibility to record and preserve the history of this quintessentially Shanghai architecture and community.

A day in a shikumen starts and ends with food. Luo says among the earliest sounds he remembers are food peddlers bawling their wares.

Luo’s work demonstrates how getting and preparing food was a major part of the everyday routines.

“Buy Sweet Congee” portrays local people’s traditional way of buying supper. A resident standing on a balcony lowers a basket containing money down on a rope to the stallholder below. The vendor takes the cash, puts the food order in the basket, which the hungry householder then hoists back up again.

Luo’s “Temptation on the Way Home” portrays students buying their favorite malt snacks (made by the stallholder into animal shapes) and tanghulu (糖葫芦, crispy sugar coated fruit on the stick) in late afternoon on their way home from school.

The artist says these food-related memories have a powerful hold.

“A picture called ‘Shikumen Aromas’ brings all my food memories together, highlighted by mantou (馒头, steamed bun) sold by a Shandong Province native, youdunzi (油墩子, deep fried cake filled with shredded radish), shengjian (生煎, pan-fried dumpling filled with pork) and sweetened glutinous rice sold by stallholder riding a bicycle.”

It has been commented that many of the figures in Luo’s work have serene expressions, with smiles of apparent contentment.

“That distinctive smile reflects the time around 1960 to 1980,” explains the artist.

He says the narrow gap between rich and poor at that time brought people closer together and fostered trust. People would rarely lock their doors and hungry children would eat at a neighbor’s kitchen if their mother was busy.

“Regretfully, it’s increasingly hard to find that warm and close connection today, which is the most important thing I hope to express, far beyond those details of everyday life,” Luo says.

Nostalgia for a bygone age is part of the appeal of Luo’s works to locals.

“His painting reminds me of my childhood,” says Bamboo Li, a 30-year-old Shanghai native now living in the United States.

“I miss the close connection between neighbors at that time,” says Floree Li, a 26-year-old local, who lived in a shikumen for six years.

Luo’s shikumen series, besides the paintings, includes three comic strips — a history of shikumen, shikumen and the Chinese Communist Party and famous shikumen residents. The latter category included artist Zhang Shanzhi (1882-1940), known for his paintings of tigers, and who raised one of the big cats in his shikumen home.

Luo is lauded for his loyalty to the comic strip medium.

“He’s one of a few artists in China who insist on the comic format, regardless of its commercial prospects,” says Yang, Luo’s publisher.

But sometimes this has found unexpected success. Luo published bilingual comic books “Terracotta Warriors (2010)” and “Chang Ban Po (2014), and the former became a hit in Sweden, according to Yang.

“If you are eager to know the real Shanghai, look at my work, no matter whether you speak Chinese or English,” the artist concludes.

“His unique painting skill turns abstract city memory into vivid image,” says Dai Yiru, a local culture critic.


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