The Serendipitous Making of Made in Shenzhen (Episode II)

Previously on this blog, I yabbered a bit about trust and tangents and artists waking up in strange cities.

When I arrived in Shenzhen for my Africa Centre residency, I sensed that this was not a place to be colonised with my brilliant ideas. It was spewing so many of its own, both original and ingenious copies, that I figured, my best strategy, if I wanted to create something authentic in 30 days, would be to listen.

An Apple by any other name.                                                                      Baishizou, Shenzhen.
If your Bucks can’t get you a Star, grab this!                                         In Hubei Shan with Fu Na

To listen is not just to hear with your ears. It’s to observe and learn, to be taught, to be fed, awed, disgusted, dazzled, to sponge it all up and then, when the time is right, respond as one would in any stimulating conversation. Ask a good question. I had a tonne!

And so I opened my heart to Shenzhen, hoping that out of this mesh of new information and confusion would come something honest, something I could make art of, the form of which I was not sure yet, in the same way that one cannot finish the lines of another unless they have a telepathic love.

Ours was not quite there yet.

But I knew I had to follow the leads. Trust the tangents. Get lost. Taste the fear. Be empty. Wrestle with the anxiety of not knowing what to do. Pay attention to each day. Value every single human interaction, because you never know who or what is holding your master key.

This little guy run out of his Dad’s arms & jumped onto the couch next to me. He was taken away kicking and screaming.   Photo by Maryann.

Day 8

It’s the day of my first Salon. Mary Ann, the leader of my host organisation, tells me her only obligation is to set up this Salon. It is mandatory for Handshake 302 artists in residency. First of all, back at home, a Salon is the place where women get their hair pulled in all directions.

So, what’s this Salon about?

“…just to introduce you to the community and perhaps you shall meet the people that will help you.”

Help me do what?

I’m still ‘listening to the City’ {emoji rolls eyes}.  When I have figured out what I want to do, then perhaps help might be helpful.

She insists. We set a date.

If you are an artist, you know that an introduction is a little more than reciting your name. You must find a way to communicate who you are, in, well, an artistic way. I decide to be honest.

My belief is that dance should not hang like a pretty painting on the wall. It is better shared. So, I start by inviting the audience to dance with me.  A risk. You never really know how people will take an invitation. But they play along. We dance, stretch, twist this way and that and jump and turn around. I spot a sweat on one or two brows. The song comes to an end. Panting, they take their seats. I take the stage.

A poetic rant & dance on how lost I feel in this sprawling, multifaceted city, its surging crowds, cryptic language, QR codes and lights. Photo by Kaichin Chang.

“Do you practice contact improvisation in your country?” Someone in the audience asks.

Everything is improvised in my country. 

“Is Baishizou the basis for your first impressions of Shenzhen?”

It makes quite an impression, yes.

“Have you joined the old women dancing on the streets yet?”

To this last one, I say, No. I simply gape, jaw on the floor. I did not know that the people of the grand Republic of China did more than wave colourful fans. That every morning, they gather as colleagues at their shop-fronts to dance. And that they are not afraid to be watched. And that they gather again every evening after work to dance on the streets with anyone who cares to join. I thought they were all Tai Chi, Kungfu and Chairman Mao. No, I’m too amazed to join in.

And this right here is my ‘aha’ moment! Thanks to any number of unidentifiable triggers, the bulbs come on in my head. In this instant, it comes to me, what must be done with the remaining 22 days of my artistic residency.

Make art with Shenzheners!

I am a firm believer in exponential creativity – when two people from vastly different backgrounds come together in agreement over something, a thing more glorious than the total sum of their brilliance is born. And so, I invite the audience to collaborate over the next couple of weeks. Anyone interested? If you’re a musician, photographer, a creator of any kind and you have an idea, I have an idea. Let’s talk.

This is what I love about small shows – the intimacy.  Maryann (L) talks with some of the audience after the second salon.Yes there’ll be a 2nd salon – I’ll tell you all about it in the final episode.  Photo by Marlon Villaverde

After the salon, people hang around for a chat. They are from all walks of Shenzhen. Melody, the girl who sings like a lark, and her mother who beams over her with pride – maybe after she’s completed music school in two years we could perform together; two ladies from Guangzhou –this is fate! they exclaim- they have been looking for an African dance teacher. Ms Gentil – a gentle soul who lives up to her name, she will send me a beautiful prayer later. Nathan proposes a trip to a fishing village and will share a poem that was inspired by my performance. Fang wonders if I could drop by Xinxiu. It’s a small village, near or far depending on where you are. I am touched by how open they all are to working with me.

Because dance is better shared.                                               Photo by Kaichin Chang

I’ll tell you now a little about following tangents, taking a path that opens up before you even though you do not have a clue where it will lead, if anywhere.

We are just about to shut down the venue, when two young ladies walk up to me. Chic, bright-eyed, one American, the other Chinese.

“That was world class stuff!”

They remark, index fingers touching thumbs. 

“And my friend here has watched a lot of good stuff,” the American adds, with that slow I-know-what-I-am-talking-about-and-this-was-soo-good nod.

They look like they really do know their stuff and have absolutely no reason to impress me. So, there! I’d heard the review that puts the performer’s self-judgement to rest. Carrisa, is a teacher and environmental enthusiast. Rachel is a Maker.

What do you mean “Maker”?

She gives me this look like, what do you mean you don’t get it? I make things.


We exchange WeChat contacts and they invite me to an event that will happen later that week at Rachel’s office. I think to myself, why not? Come Friday, I hop into a cab with Carissa and we head to X- Factory. It’s a spanking new Maker space. You can still smell the fresh concrete.

This way to 21st Century Einsteins.

The evening turns into a jaw dropping tour of a geniuses’ lair. Laser cutters – and I drop that name because that is the only machine I can make sense of – the rest are big, menacing, tamable only by the inhabitants of this wonder world. They huddle over black screens running with numbers and letters and churn out the stuff that is quietly but quickly turning the world around. A young man, long hair covering half his face is brooding over his touch wall. Its back is an intimidating web of cables and little red lights, the front looks like a honeycomb. The hexagonal panels jump to life when you touch, vibrating this way and that. Robots are crawling all over tables. A 13 year old is testing his Wi–Fi controlled car. He puts it on the floor, pulls out his phone and swipes left and right, backwards, forwards. The little car obeys its little master pronto. His father sits quietly across from him. He runs an online business and his son’s affairs simultaneously. They are inventors from the future.

Uber, watch out for this guy!

Carissa: Are you finally tempted to return to your Engineering roots?

Me: No, but I would love to make dance with a Maker. It has a ring to it.

Carissa: Well, Rachel is here.

Carissa is one of those people who do not waste time when they spot a good idea. She sells it to the nearest bidder.

Some of that X-Factory coolness begins to rub off Carissa & I.

Sometimes, a gentle nudge in the right direction is all you need. That night, I returned to my apartment way out in Wutongshan, head buzzing, wondering how to broach the subject of making something with Rachel.


It is a true story that if you do not have WeChat in this city you are sunk. It’s like Whatsapp, except you can buy and sell and hire and do just about everything on it. It’s how you know what’s happening in the city. And it is how everyone connects with everyone. So, I drop Rachel a Wechat note.

A lightning fast brainstorm ensues – a thousand and one ideas to fuse dance with technology.

It’s 1am. Our brains are fried. Could we meet next Thursday? There’ll be a presentation by MakeFashion – a company that combines haute couture with haute technologie. Thursday, I make my second trip to X- Factory. Again, I am dazed by the creativity in this place. At the end, I have a chat with the MakeFashion team. They wish to work with dancers – they believe we possess a superior connectivity between body and emotions. One of them thinks my form exudes power. She could tell from the sculpture of my back. Maybe I could join them in Hong Kong for an upcoming show? Maybe. Anyway, the presentation ends. Rachel & I resume our brainstorm.

She wonders: Maybe we should dress you up in a gizmo…

I gush: What about a 3D Shenzhen Skyline for the stage?

She gasps: I’ve always wanted to design a stage set!

I quiz: But didn’t you want to make a Dexter’s lab costume?

She muses: …Black lights … black light paint…

I jump: That’s it!

The instant she says it, I see it in my mind. She knows someone that could do the job and immediately pulls up images of her work – beautiful bodies covered in exquisite patterns.

Looking for my breath: Great! But I can’t do nude! {dumb emoji, eyes wide open}

Rachel is like that piece of rock in an ancient cave that you dislodge and suddenly walls swing open, a staircase rolls out before you, ropes drop out the ceiling and swing you right into the buried treasure. She Makes things happen.

The next few days are a flurry of WeChat messages between Rachel, Nadine the body painter and I. Nadine is an expert at painting tribal body patterns and she wants to know the type of design we want.

By now, I know that the final piece should build onto elements of my first performance. The psychedelic colours of Shenzhen had made a deep impression on me, as did the absolute reliance on technology, Wechat and the use of QR codes to pay for everything, from cabs to fish in the market. So when Rachel suggests black light paint, I see dark skin covered in neon pink, purple, green and white QR codes- an asymmetrical pattern printed over half the face, winding across the left shoulder, creeping down the right thigh to the toes.

Rachel: She wants a Tribal QR Code.

Nadine: Leave it to me.

Where shall we find the paint? What about the stage set? What do we need to build the skyline? White cardboard and wood and nails and screw drivers. What about the lights? Where can we find them?



You don’t know what Taoboa is?

Rachel gives me that from-which-century-do-you-hail look!

Taoboa is the Chinese version of Amazon. You can buy everything except a new life!

Leave it to me.

I leave it to her.

The piece is starting to take form. An A-team is gathering.

14 days to go.

Oh Yeah! We’re well on our way to obeying this mantra on X-Factory’s walls.
Cover photo by Marlon Villaverde

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6 Replies to “The Serendipitous Making of Made in Shenzhen (Episode II)”

  1. “Mommy, it’s oveeerrr!” {monster crying at the end of Just for Laughs)… More! Where is episode 3? I feel lost! Lol… this is great stuff Cath. Totally inspiring. Mighty proud of you gal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hihi! That was always my favourite part of ”Just for Laughs’! Thank you Jean. Episode 3 is sizzling on the grill. COMING SOON! You’re welcome to follow the blog to get fresh updates. Would love to keep you in the loop!


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