Playing with ‘Variations on Mobility’, the four Creative Commissions teams in 2019-2020 have developed their projects along different trajectories traced by the unfolding movements of People, Objects, Texts and Ideas across times and spaces. As small groups composed of academics who have embraced art in their research practices, or artists working in collaboration with scholars across various disciplinary backgrounds, the Commissions engage different Theories and Methods of mobility, working with ethnographic, archival, historical, anthropological, geographical and creative methodologies. The following text and original images represent a short progress post realised by the team to help us follow the path of their creative work.

Pearls from China. Mobility of goods and migration flows from China to Europe in the 1920s | Progress Post #1

April 30th, 2020

Pearls from China is a project proposed by Daniele Brigadoi Cologna, Matteo Demonte and Ciaj Rocchi that has the goal to deepen and showcase the geographical mobility of goods and people in the mid-1920s. In particular, Pearls from China aims to document how the commerce of fake pearls by Zhejiang’s traders – who exported, imported and marketed them in different European countries – was instrumental in sustaining the earliest Chinese migration to Europe.

Analyzing sources provided by professor Daniele Brigadoi Cologna, Ciaj Rocchi and Matteo Demonte started working on key geographical stepping stones and on a cast of main characters in this migration epic.

By tracing trade and travel trajectories, we have defined a first route by ship that passed through the Suez Canal, and a second by train along the Trans-Siberian railroad.

By profiling the main actors of the mid-1920s Chinese fake pearl trade, we have uncovered the story of a small group of Chinese from Zhejiang whose presence in Japan is proven by documents regarding the compensation requested for the mistreatment suffered following the 1923 Kanto earthquake, as well as by a few rare photographic documents.

There is also documentary evidence regarding the presence of the very same group of fake pearl peddlers in several European countries between 1925 and 1926, when they moved between Germany, Holland, France, Spain, and Italy.

We are now working on the storyboard/videoboard for a short video-documentary. We decided to focus on the turning point: repatriated to China from Japan after the Great Kanto earthquake, our main characters arrived in Shanghai, where an intermediary agency offered them a chance to leave for Europe. There, a Sino-French company was recruiting sellers to sell a novelty product: fake pearls.

According to Chinese sources, in Shanghai and Wenzhou it was possible to refer to banking agencies that facilitated the procurement of passports and tickets for expatriation. To these repatriated migrants, those agencies provided useful contacts to refer to once they arrived in Europe. This process explains the sudden surge of arrivals in 1925-1926: for many emigrants who had just returned from Japan, the money saved during the time spent working in that country may have barely just covered the price of the trip.

In 1925, in Germany, several hundred of Chinese from Qingtian settled in Berlin near the Schlesischer Bahnhof (today Berlin Ostbahnhof), the historic terminus of the trains that arrived from Asia.

In the summer of the same year, in Spain, Madrid’s public opinion reacted with amazement to the sudden spread of Chinese street vendors of fake pearls through the streets of the city center.

A few months later, in February 1926, the same scene repeated itself in Italy, where the press and the prefectures of the Kingdom were alarmed by the sudden “Invasion” of the several hundred Chinese pearl peddlers who arrived in Italy in droves, mostly across the mountain passes with France.

Although this migration left an obvious mark in the statistics of the Chinese presence in France during the same years, only a few French sources on Chinese migration clearly cite the itinerant sale of fake pearls as an economic insertion strategy.

These pearls, made of colored glass, were often passed off as made in Japan items, or even as a Chinese product. Though the early batches of fake pearls sold may have been imported from the Far East, there is evidence of subsequent supply coming through Chinese and European wholesalers active in Paris, who mostly sourced their ware from Central European manufacturers.

Thus, it appears that the pearls may have mainly been produced in Europe. Chinese sources mentioning fake pearls among the goods treated by the wholesalers of the Gare de Lyon and the Marais, speak of them as “pearls of Romania”, but other European sources point at the city of Gablonz, in Czechoslovakia, as a likely source, as between the two wars it had become a key hub for costume jewelry manufacture, with over four thousand companies on site.

Our goal is to recover as many international sources as possible that can help us trace the itineraries linking the production and circulation the pearls, and to prove their role as an economic insertion strategy for the first Chinese migrants who settled down in continental Europe.

As a creative contribution, our ultimate goal is still to realize an animated documentary in which routes and people combine with scenarios and stories that have occurred between Europe and China in the 1920s.