AUGUST ‌2022

This is the ninth city newsletter.  We shall now take a break to research and write a book.
– Philip Dodd and Enrica Costamagna
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It could hardly have come as a surprise when President Xi identified Xiamen as the key player in the cross-straits relationship with Taiwan in a speech last year. After all, Xiamen is only around 180 kilometres at its closest point from Taiwan. 
Xiamen’s dialect is close to that of Taiwan, and the economic investment by Taiwanese entrepreneurs in Xiamen has been substantial.
What, then, is the place of culture in contemporary Xiamen, given the city’s closeness in most senses to Taiwan as well as the 2021 ‘integrative’ injunction by President Xi? It’s worth remembering that Taiwanese television may now be blocked in Xiamen but was not always so; and that like much of China, Xiamen is attracted to Taiwanese popular culture.
The wooing of populations across the straits goes both ways. Late last year, Fujian (the province in which Xiamen sits) hosted a hip-hop and break-dance festival to which Taiwanese youth were invited; and Xiamen set up a cross straits employment and start-up centre for internet entrepreneurs. The Taipei Times said these were examples of China’s weaponizing of culture, trying to seduce Taiwanese youth. On the other hand, Taiwan is as likely to ban this or that aspect of Chinese broadcasting as is China Taiwanese culture
Of course the present intensification of tension between China and Taiwan may threaten some of the existing cultural relations or – on the contrary – might intensify or transform them. Talking with cultural players in Xiamen, there is a sense that the latter is more likely.
Since 1981, China has developed the biennial film festival, The Golden Rooster Awards, hosted by various cities. In 2019 Xiamen was made the sole home of the film festival for the next ten years. There seems to be several reasons why this decision was made. One was to enable the Xiamen-based festival to collaborate or compete with – it depends to whom one speaks – with the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards, established in 1962. It seems no accident that 2019, the year Xiamen was given ten-year ownership of the festival, was also the year that the Chinese government blocked Chinese mainland films, actors and directors from taking part in the Golden Horse Festival, either because Taiwanese independence was mooted in a speech the previous year – or due to increased collaboration between Taiwan and the US.
Given the present tensions, we rang the press office of the Golden Horse Film Festival to establish whether there will be mainland films and performers present this year. The festival told us that nothing could be shared until the list of films was announced later this year. This may be the case or it may be an understandable caginess given political tensions.  The festival takes place in December.
If collaboration between the Xiamen and Taipei festivals is diminished (and this is something devoutly to be avoided we are told by Xiameners), this will be a blow to a city which has wagered heavily on the film and television industry as one of its key cultural activities. This industry in Xiamen was worth RMB 19.6billion in 2020; and one of the most popular contemporary Chinese TV series Reset, based on a novel by Qi Dao Jun, was made in Xiamen. A strong film festival is vital to the city for several reasons – not least because it brings key industry personnel to the city, enabling them to see the resources and locations that the city can offer.
Xiamen’s film and television industry can take one of two routes, although they may not be mutually exclusive. The industry can become primarily a supplier of entertainment to domestic audiences as evidenced by the success of Reset or it can retain international ambitions. It is a sign that this latter route has not been abandoned – even in these times of decoupling – that the Golden Rooster Festival has launched a BRICS strand of the festival (the major Xiamen corporation ITG did import/export business worth US $3.1b with the BRIC companies in 2021).
There is certainly a political dimension to this film decision. But it may also be that Xiamen film and tv companies need and want to build export routes to these friendly countries. Such international ambition is certainly in keeping with the city’s history.

global comings and goings
Media, at opening of Nordic Contemporary Art Centre Xiamen.
 Xiamen’s history as an international city is long. It is not surprising that the Museum of Overseas Chinese is one of the city’s museum landmarks. The Chinese left Xiamen to go to South-east Asia from the late sixteenth century onwards and later in the nineteenth century to the US, Australia and the rest of the world.
The overseas Chinese are an important part of the contemporary landscape of Xiamen too. In 2018 over 300 overseas Chinese enterprises were sited in Xiamen with a total investment of 40 billion US$.
As one of China’s early Special Economic Zones in the 80s, the city became a magnet for overseas investment into China. One of us remembers visiting the city when working for a Spanish fashion brand company which commissioned suppliers in the city. Or there was the US tobacco company Reynolds which owns Camel cigarettes and made them in Xiamen. Its sister  Japanese tobacco company took over the Reynolds factories until 2004 when the Chinese State received them. They are now home – or were so before Covid – to around 100 creative businesses of which around 90 are creative start-ups.
Xiamen has a number of cultural institutions which nurture international collaborations – from the Nordic Contemporary Art Centre and the German founded Red Dot Museum (there are other incarnations in Essen and Singapore) to the Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival, one of whose partners is the Three Shadows Photographic Art Centre. It began life in Beijing but has opened a Xiamen branch. These institutions may not have the heft of ones in Shanghai or Beijing – but their distance from the centre of power can (sometimes) give them more flexibility.
Smartphone exhibition at Jimei x Arles Festival, Xiamen.
Educationally, Xiamen has equally been internationally minded. Xiamen University itself was set up in 1921 by the Malaysian-Chinese, Tan Kah Kee. 93 years later the Xiamen University Malaysia opened, to our knowledge, the first overseas Chinese university (it may be that Shanghai’s Fudan university will be the first Chinese one to open in the EU if the Hungarian Prime Minister Orban has his way). In all the material on the Malaysian initiative, it is stated repeatedly that no money will be repatriated to China.
Perhaps the most enduring physical trace of the city’s international history is the architecture on Gulangyu island (off the island of Xiamen) where 13 foreign consulates set up during the times when Xiamen was a treaty port (after China’s defeat in the First Opium War). It is now a UNESCO Heritage site – and some call it a ‘world architectural museum’, given the variety of building styles, drawn from so many cultures.
The island is another of the homes of the city’s creative industries – as well as a place where foreign artists come to enjoy residencies. It is a common and perfectly reasonable observation by Chinese cultural professionals that there is too often little reciprocity from the countries whose artists enjoy Gulangyu’s hospitality. However complex and increasingly difficult are the relationships between China and many other countries, it remains depressing how unwelcoming countries can be to Chinese culture, either official or unofficial. It is sometimes as if too much of the rest of the world still treats cities like Xiamen as ‘cultural treaty ports’.

By the standards of Guangzhou or Shenzhen, never mind Shanghai, Xiamen is a small city – of around 5 million people. But its cultural offerings do suggest its potential but also its limitations.  Several of our contacts described it as a ‘city of dreams’, a place conducive to imagining a different future – which is too often realised elsewhere, in cities which have the necessary resources.  The late major Chinese artist Huang Yongping may have been born in Xiamen and founded there Xiamen Dada in 1986, but he spent most of his life in France. An even more noteworthy example is President Xi Jinping who spent his early career in Xiamen and now enjoys a rather larger canvas on which to realise his ambition (see the image of the President in Xiamen at the top of this newsletter).
Some compare Xiamen to Seattle – and if Starbucks which began life as a laid-back Seattle enterprise is that city’s totem, Xiamen’s version is Luckin Coffee. The Chinese coffee chain began life in Beijing, has now more outlets in China (all cashless) than Starbucks and survived a major accounting fraud – but along the way it moved its headquarters to Xiamen.
With its substantial university populations, its beaches and boardwalks Xiamen has something in common with Seattle, a laidback identity that seems to attract coffee brands (although this slightly pastoral description of Xiamen was challenged recently during the heightened tension with Taiwan when the young people enjoying the beach found themselves filming tanks on the seashore (see image above).
the application of beauty
In a city marinated in film and tv and with an important photography festival, it seems only logical that the most successful digital company in Xiamen is Meitu – a photo editing and sharing ‘beauty’ software for smart phones.
 It has been remarkably popular in China as well as globally, attracting 260m active users (although it now has many competitors). Meitu’s apps (including a VIP one) let users touch up their selfies using filters, stickers, video editing and other tools. It’s been the centre of some controversy because, it is argued, the beauty standards tend to make people thinner, whiter and more childlike in appearance.
There are many ways of writing about Meitu but it is worth noting that 86% of its users are women, largely between 18-32. The indifference of Chinese men to such apps as Meitu may help to explain if not excuse the outraged condemnation of ‘sissy’ men that we have previously written about (see our Beijing newsletter). If Meitu is any guide, Chinese women are interested in beauty, men largely not (yet).With all the tension between China and the US, there is at least agreement on one thing – that Web 3.0 is a key part of the future. Talking to digital executives in Xiamen, we found them alert to the fact that Web 3.0 for them is a challenge. It decentres power and authority and encourages collaborative working – which as one of the executives told us is so unlike the dominant hierarchical model which the central government represents.
Additional research: Gao Jingyi

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