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 | Progress post #2 – video and synopsis

At the beginning of the century, China was at a turning point. In 1911 the Qing Empire was finally overthrown by a republican revolution, ushering in a complex transition to modernity. The situation was unstable: warlords fought for military and political power, throwing continental China into chaos. Coastal ports, tethered to a growing regional and international web of trade and exchanges since they were first opened to foreign contact after the Opium Wars, were conduits for old and new migration. Abroad opportunity beckoned for the precious few who had contacts overseas or knew how to access them.


After World War I, Japan consolidated its status as a modern power, already well integrated in a global economy. It was geographically and culturally closer to China than America and Europe were, and it was even less expensive. Its ties with the Zhejiang coast, thanks to its proximity to the southern reaches of its territory (Kyushu, but also Taiwan and the Ryukyu islands), intensified, and it became the destination of choice for many Chinese who decided to dedicate to business. Regular shuttle transit connected the Shanghai railway terminals with those of the port of Nagasaki, creating a corridor of commodity and passenger transit that spanned the whole of Eurasia.


Among the early Zhejiang migrants to Japan, there was a young Wu Lishan, anxious to try his luck abroad. According to his documents, he was just seventeen years old when he left his home village, Longxian, in the Fangshan valley of the Qingtian district. He was the secondborn of two brothers and he took to the sea in the hope of making a name for himself. Longxian was already a chaoxiang, a village of migrants, so for his clan it should not have been too difficult to provide for a ticket to Japan.


He finally made it to Tokyo in 1923, together with other young people like him, all coming from different villages along the Fangshan, Sidugang and Ou valleys in the district of Qingtian. Many belonged to the same clans, or their families had forged business or bridal alliances in the past, and they spoke the same language, a peculiar Wu dialect that was hard to understand for other Chinese. They were a very tightly knit group, with common habits and tastes, similar stories and dreams.


Hu Xizhen: This sure is another world!

Wu Xizhong: Yeah! Nothing to do with our little mountain villages…

Wu Lishan: This is not a mere sea-trip, we are travelling towards the future!


These young kids were ambitious: though they sailed off as migrants, their goal was not to become coolies laboring abroad for little money and a life of hardship and abuse. They thought of themselves as traders. Like many other migrants from Zhejiang, they sold cheap Chinese made articles on the streets of the Japanese capital and its environs, especially in Kanagawa and Ōshima, in the vicinities of the port cities of Yokohama and Kawasaki. Like most of his fellow Qingtian migrants, Wu Lishan sold umbrellas, a popular item especially during the hot summer months.


In Tokyo, the most upmarket shopping district was the Ginza. Designed by the Irish architect Thomas Waters as western-looking, brick-house precinct, it was meant to showcase Japan’s modernity. It had wider roads, paved sidewalks, modern lights, tramcars, and a variety of high-end stores, cafes, breweries, and wine shops. It counted about ten large department stores, with the Mitsukoshi being the most iconic.


Wu Lishan worked alone all day, and only in the evening, he retired to the small guesthouse he shared with his fellow countrymen. They passed their free time playing Mahjong, a habit that these Chinese would cherish throughout all their existence. Wu Lishan was a good player, his friends even called him “The Professor”! Life was good, everyone was making good money, and all seemed to be going according to plan.

It would not last.


On September first, 1923 at 11:58 am, an earthquake of magnitude 7,9 hit the Kantō plain, on the Honshū Island. Tokyo was destroyed in minutes; the port of Yokohama was swept away as a tsunami hit both the coasts and the islands to the south, while strong winds began to blow, turning into tornados. It was lunch time, and in most homes fires and cooking stoves were lit. Powered by the winds, the fires started to propagate all around the city, in veritable whirlwinds of fire. As the earthquake had broken the water tanks and it was quite impossible to quell the fire. The fury of the elements caused such mayhem, that it was to be matched only by the firebombing of Tokyo during WWII. More than 120.000 died in the disaster, two million were left homeless. But for the thousands of Koreans and Chinese living in the Kantō area, the worst was yet to come. Prompted by pre-existing tensions between the Japanese and the Korean minority living in their midst, vicious rumors started to spread in the aftermath of the disaster, and Korean domestic servants were blamed for not taking care of the stoves, or even of spreading the fires deliberately, poisoning wells, spreading disease… a murderous wave of xenophobia spread throughout the nation, as vigilante groups were quickly put together to seek out and kill non-Japanese Asians on the spot. Martial law was declared, but it was too late.


Crowd: It was the Koreans! They took advantage of the confusion to cause fire and stole in the houses!


Some soldiers and policemen even joined the vigilante groups, killing thousands of Koreans and hundreds of Chinese from the hinterland of Wenzhou, who were mostly mistaken for Koreans. Trying to protect those who survived, military and police were ordered to collect and transport the surviving Koreans and Chinese in government-run detention centers. Wu Lishan and his friends luckily escaped the wave of mass murder that obliterated many of their fellow Chinese. He was among those interned in the Narashino internment camp, where he remained until the Chinese diplomatic mission in Japan requested the compensation and repatriation of all Chinese people in Japan. After this diplomatic incident, the migration flow from Zhejiang to Japan ceased completely, and it started to be redirected to Europe.


According to some Chinese sources, in Shanghai and Wenzhou it was possible to refer to banking agencies that procured tickets, passports and visas for expatriation, providing also useful contacts in Europe. They played a key role in the sudden surge of Zhejiang migrants in Europe between 1925 and 1926. 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 railroad from Asia. At the same time, Chinese migrants from Zhejiang appeared in Spain, France and Italy demonstrating real migration chains between the hinterland of Wenzhou and several European countries.


Wu Lishan was among them. His name appears both in the papers of the returnees to China from Japan and, since 1934, in the Italian documents. Family stories tell that between 1925 and 1934 he has been wandering through Germany, France and Holland and that he reached his old friends in Italy only in the early 1930s.



After the Kanto earthquake, Wu Lishan and his friends that were repatriated to Shanghai from Japan, came into contact with a broker of a French (possibly Sino-French, or even a Japanese/Sino-French joint venture) trading company that was recruiting sellers for a new kind of product: fake pearls made of coloured glass that were as luminous as the real ones but a great deal cheaper. It is still unclear whether the first batch of this merchandise was acquired in Europe (there is some evidence that its source may have been European from the onset) or from a Qingtian wholesale trader in Paris, but in 1925 and 1926, these fake pearls were all the rage across Europe. Czechoslovakia may well have been the true source of these articles de Japan all along, and there surely were Chinese who imported them from the city of Gablonz an der Neisse (today called Jablonec nad Nisou), in Bohemia, where glass trinkets and artificial jewellery were industrially mass produced since the nineteenth century.


Wu Lishan and his friends had no way to go back home, they had barely started on their migrant journey, and all the money they had was still not enough to repay for their tickets abroad. They needed to up their ante, and this fake pearl selling scheme seemed quite interesting. So, together with his friends, he took the chance to leave and discover what Europe had to offer. He decided to travel by train because the travel was shorter, while his friends chose to go across the globe by sea. At that time there were only 2 possible routes: the Tran-Siberian railway that snaked her way through Asia and Soviet Russia, reaching Berlin in a couple of weeks, and the sea route stretching across the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean, going up the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and finally entering the Mediterranean Sea in about 40 days. The final destination was Marseille if the shipping company was French or Trieste if it was Italian.


In Europe, these Zhejiang Chinese quickly dispersed in search of the best markets, where laws were lenient enough to allow them to work as street hawkers. France, among the European nations, was the one that appeared to have tougher regulations, restricting public selling of goods on the streets to French citizens. Things were better in Germany, Spain, and Italy, at first. Once the fake pearl boom was over, in most countries the Zhejiang migrants switched to different trades: in Germany they sold cheap crockery and in Holland they peddled peanut candy.


In Italy, the Zhejiang migrants quickly switched to different wares, sourcing their merchandise from Italian wholesale traders. Soon, they opted for silk neckties, woolen sweaters and leatherette belts and wallets. It was a germinal moment for Chinese immigration to Europe, one that eventually took full advantage of the transport revolution started during the late nineteenth century, as ever more sophisticated steam engines had drastically shortened the distances between countries and peoples, ushering in an increasingly global economy and a more cosmopolitan society.