Across China: Expat-initiated arts collective thrives in multicultural Beijing

2021-06-12 14:35:37 GMT2021-06-12 22:35:37(Beijing Time) Xinhua English

by Shamim Zakaria

BEIJING, June 12 (Xinhua) -- "The first step is for them to take their knees off us. Because we are kneeling to stand"-- as Alexandra Smith finished reciting the concluding lines of her poem, the silence in the room erupted into a thunderous applause from the packed audience.

A tribute to the late George Floyd, the African-American who fell victim to police brutality in Minneapolis, Smith's poem was read on the second floor of a filmhouse-cum-bar in downtown Beijing.

Smith, 33, an expat from the United States, is one of the regular participants in Spittoon, the organizer of the "Poetry Night" event. It is a Beijing-based arts collective giving space to expats and locals alike to unleash their creative talent.

"Before coming to China, I had no idea what to expect, but I have been pleasantly surprised. And I become more impressed every day," said Smith, dwelling on Beijing's vivid literary space and artistic aura.

Started by a British expat in Beijing in 2015 as a monthly poetry night, Spittoon has burgeoned into a regular affair in the Chinese capital before sprawling to other Chinese cities, including Chengdu, Shanghai, and Xi'an.

It also took off in countries like Ethiopia, Sweden, Portugal and Latvia, hosting various events across genres.

In China, the initiative has five core sections -- poetry reading, non-fiction storytelling, fiction storytelling, book club and poetry workshops. It aims to bring together Chinese and foreign writers, artists, and literary enthusiasts.

"The name Spittoon has a punk-rock and unpretentious element to it, which is how we conceived the name initially," said Matthew Byrne, the brain behind the arts collective.

The British poet added that Beijing is a very multicultural city housing numerous stories for unraveling, and Spittoon is helping "publicize Chinese voices to the rest of the world."

Earlier this year, Spittoon teamed up with a UK-based publisher and an English-language magazine on Chinese language and culture to host a conversation between Chinese author Li Juan and many expat readers.

The writer from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region spoke about her latest book, Distant Sunflower Fields, a non-fiction narrative that chronicles her family's life on a sunflower farm.

"Domestic readers may be more interested in the text itself, such as expression skills and aesthetics. And foreign readers want to explore the issues of writing motivation and attitude," Li said, calling this interaction with an international audience a "different" experience.

She added that the enthusiasm of the expat audiences "somewhat surprised" her. "It may be because of the subject. Telling stories about remote and barren land, too far from reality, makes everyone curious, right?"

Spittoon recently celebrated its sixth anniversary. The arts collective is now attempting to bring the city's student population on board through SpittoonU, a university outreach idea. The initiative has gone into a collaboration with Beijing Normal University.

Behind Spittoon's journey is its closely-knitted member community, propelling the initiative forward voluntarily, noted Amy Daml, the host of Spittoon's non-fiction storytelling.

It is a place where there is "something for everyone," said Daml, adding that she expects to see more events added to the roster.

Calling the idea of Spittoon an embodiment of individual perspectives and their cultural heritages, Smith said that she believes such diverse platforms help deepen the role between many different cultures.

"I've heard poetry in Chinese, Spanish, and English, and listening to people from other cultures read stories has been an amazing experience," she said.

Anthony Tao, the coordinator of Spittoon's Beijing chapter, said the arts collective is a torchbearer of creativity in Beijing.

"Creativity is universal, and the idea of internationalism is one of the foundations of Spittoon. People who share their creative works through this forum bring their own cultures and experiences. It is diverse but also signifies that we are all cut from the same cloth," he said. Enditem