Text and project by Raven Xu. This project was exhibited as part of “Designer Artist Citizen Site: Exploring Belonging,” a collective exhibition by SAIC students presented in Venice in 2018 as a response to the themes of the US Pavilion.
During the three years that I have studied in the US, I have observed many Chinese immigrants who study, work, and live in the country. Many of those who arrived after the late 1970s came seeking education or employment. They leave their hometown at a very early age accompanied by their parents, who often feel a sense of displacement in their new home.
Chinese parents decide to come to the US to accompany their children and play a significant role in their children’s lives. However, having spent half of their life in their hometown in China, their sense of community is challenged by their new context. Thus, it is important for them to feel both understood and comfortable in their adopted hometowns, being able to incorporate some of their cultural experiences into their new life as citizens who study, live, and work in the US. Where people live and how they live is the best representation of their cultural background.
Many activities in China take place informally, and creativity in modifying the architecture to achieve that informality and foster a sense of community is essential in Chinese culture. For example, my father likes to discuss business during a formal dinner because it helps him understand how committed his partner is as they start to drink and talk casually. Most conversations happen in small corners of the community. Neighbors talk to each other when they are playing chess on a random rock and socialize by exchanging tips about where to buy fresh vegetables in informal markets.
To explore these communal activities, this project proposes a Chinese Communal Graphic Standards, which makes reference to and complements the existing Architectural Graphic Standards. It is a collection of nine communal programs as well as a selection of other activities such as dancing, ground calligraphy, and palm reading. The variety of programs indicates how Chinese social life happens at any given location and time.
The communal pavilion shown in the overall drawing represents one of the infinite organizations of the communal activities documented in the book. The pavilion is located in a generic city lot and can adapt to any city in the Jeffersonian grid to help Chinese immigrants settle into their new community. The pavilion places people rather than architecture as the priority. Considering a 6-ft-diameter as a space for a single person to move freely, walls here are not only defined by the program but also by people’s movement. The arrangement of these spaces creates multiple small corners so that people can enjoy intimate conversations.
The Chinese Communal Graphic Standards becomes a constructive tool to explain how the spaces drawn in the panel can help the Chinese population be part of their new community in the US, similarly to the way they did in China. It also demonstrates how informality can help Chinese residents define a new form of the citizenship in the US.
A MEAL FOR ALL | LAZY SUSAN
Different from Western eating traditions, where each person selects their food of choice, Chinese dinner is more like an agreement of collective interests. While Chinese are adapting to the Western way of having their own empty plates in front of them, their placemats overlap on the round table, which triggers more conversation. The large round table enables people to see each other as well as share the same meal. Chinese people also celebrate the “BIG” dinner. Normally, the formal dinner table should offer seats for at least twelve people.
The Lazy Susan is a typical way to satisfy both the desire of inviting more people and ease of getting food without standing up.
A MEAL WITH FRIENDS | HOT POT
Chinese Hot Pot is rooted into the Chinese tradition of eating together. This started in the 战国 period and quickly became a popular activity that many people still enjoy. There are thousands of ways of eating Hot Pot and it largely depends on what the pot looks like. In the hot pot dinner, people have their own set of flatware but share 1-2 colanders. While people are finding their food and the others are helping them find their food in the pot, it recalls memories from home.
The experience of many people sitting around a steaming pot and boiling food together is the main character of Hot Pot and is also the reason why it continues today: the sense of unity.
A MEAL FOR STRANGERS | TEA HOUSE
The culture of drinking tea is rooted in Chinese history from the Tang Dynasty, the wealthiest period in ancient China when everyone started to explore ways to enjoy their lives. Drinking tea has been very popular since then. Not only are the tea leaves good for the body, but also the action of drinking tea allows people to take a break from their stressful and fast-paced life. The love of tea also binds the relationship between BAIXIN and TIANZI (common people and the emperor) because they don’t commonly enjoy food of the same kind. Nowadays, along with the development of the society, tea houses have become social spaces for people in cities. The informal tea house takes place in a 巷中寺 (narrow alley), 河畔蓬 (along the lake) or 树间地 (between the trees), which results in a smaller scale of furniture. Many of the tea houses have a stage for people to play Chinese plucked string instruments to provide subtle, melodious background music to slow the time down.
A MEAL OF PREPARATION | KITCHEN
This is a communal kitchen which provides food preparation space for both the Western dinner and the Chinese dinner. The western kitchen on the right side has an efficient way of organizing storage on the top with stove and oven on the bottom half and sink on the island. The other half is designed in a looser way for cooking for more people. The tradition of eating from one dish leads to the way of cooking one dish in a big pot with range hoods around it because it saves time and everyone can start eating at the same time.
NEGOTIABLE PRICE | INFORMAL MARKET
The informal market is very different from a supermarket, which is designed to efficiently get what you need. The system of an informal market is like mother nature: the market often opens in the early morning when the sellers have just collected the freshest fish or vegetables. The one who gets up the earliest gets the best and cheapest food. It is a competition for the buyers as well as the sellers. Those who come early can occupy the best spots in the market, where more people walk through. There is neither a clear boundary of the market nor a set timeframe for it to open. Household women exchange their secret tips of finding the freshest food with the cheapest price to build friendship. The sellers also save food for their “VIP” customers who come every day. Every price is negotiable and all of the trades are based on the relationship.
PLAY FOR MONEY | MAH-JONG
Mah-Jong is a popular board game in Chinese tradition. It has four players in each game in which the one who 胡 wins everything is the only set rule. Every province plays Mah-Jong very differently. The rules can be modified as long as all four agree. It usually is a competition of both strategy and chance. One can play for fun but most people play for money. Unlike gambling, it’s a game for friends instead of strangers.
A normal set of Mah-Jong has 144 tiles which divide into four different kinds, 筒子、条子、万and 风向. There are always multiple ways of winning. People calculate a lot while they talk to each other. Playing Mah-Jong has always been the best way to spend time with friends. As it is a game for adults, everyone comes with a different purpose. Sometimes losing a game may allow one to gain trust and appreciation from others.
UNDER THE SUN | CLOTHES DRYING
Chinese people believe that drying clothes under the sun is a more effective way of killing bacteria. Due to the lack of space, some people dry their clothes outside of their apartment window, which creates an identical view of the building facades in the cities. Other people dry their clothes on the shared rooftop of their buildings, where they talk about their daily anecdotes.
BATHE TOGETHER | BATHHOUSE
There are a lot of bathhouses in the northern part of China. As the name suggests, a bathhouse is a place where many people can bathe together. As the air pollution is becoming worse these days, people will take a rough towel to scrub their body to remove all of the dead skin and dust. A bathroom in one’s apartment may be too small if he/she wants to scrub the whole body, so many people go to the bathhouse, where they have enough space or sometimes there are servers who can help them. Despite the fact that the emergence of the bathhouse is because of a need, people seldom go to the bathhouse alone. Being a place where people take off their clothes, the bathhouse is also, more importantly, a reason for old friends to meet again.
SECRETS IN THE RESTROOM | COMMUNAL SQUAT TOILET
You can still find this type of old-fashion restroom in the kindergarten or middle schools in China. Instead of individual rooms, the restroom shares a continuous drain and has partial height ceramic walls as dividers. In schools, friends go to the restroom together so they can have secret conversations. While they squat down to do their main business, they chat when they stand up.
Raven Xu is a Chicago-based designer who recently graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has worked for the architecture offices Kwong Von Glinow in Chicago and BIG in New York. Her work was exhibited in Venice as part of “Designer Artist Citizen Site: Exploring Belonging,” a collective exhibition organized in 2018 as a response to the themes of the US Pavilion.