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 abstract realised by the team to help us follow the path of their creative work.

Pearls from China | Progress post #3

Combining empirical evidence with a bit of creative imagination to fill in the gaps in the historical record, we wrote this progress report in the form of a script for our short movie production. It focuses on a specific period of the journey that will lead a group of Zhejiang Chinese to Europe during the second half of the 1920s. Given the dearth of direct evidence and with few documentary sources available, we came up with a possible reconstruction based on the individual characteristics of a few protagonists of this migration, people that we know well because of their subsequent European exploits, and the traces they have left behind in the memory of people we interviewed.

What if…

SHANGHAI 1924-1925


Between late 1923 and early 1924, the entire contingent of Chinese people in Japan was repatriated in Shanghai. Their names are listed in a Japanese language publication documenting the operation of the Narashino refugee camp (Narashino Internment Camp for Chinese and Coreans. Relief and repatriation of affected Chinese, Volume IV).

Among these men, anti-Japanese feelings ran high, because of the harassment and brutality that had targeted them following the Kantō earthquake and fire. The Japanese arrogant display of power was all the more a source of chagrin as it followed them to Shanghai, were the Japanese had the upper hand in the section of the International Settlement beyond Suzhou Creek, particularly in the Hongkou district, where most Japanese businessmen and settlers had taken up residence ever since the first Sino-Japanese war of 1895.

In fact, following the Boxer Rebellion, foreign powers had gained further territorial concessions within China, where they enjoyed extraterritorial rights, shielding them from Chinese law. Shanghai was then a foreign-controlled metropolis, a city that all diplomatic missions and business interests of the great colonial powers of the day had made their own. In that world populated by yangren, or “foreigners from overseas”, the fledgling Republic of China struggled to make its voice heard while the Japanese, inheriting the German sphere of influence in Shandong after the Great War, were gradually extending their influence over vast regions of northeastern China.

Lishan, Sichung and Susan, back from Japan, were looking for a new job abroad. In Shanghai, among the guests of the hotel where they were staying, they had met an old friend who also hailed from Qingtian, their home district. Like them, he also had been a maisan, a peddler of umbrellas and other trinkets, in Japan: his name was Tschang Nudin.

All together, they were looking for a way to turn their lives around.

They were walking along the Hongkou pier in search of inspiration and new opportunities.


Lishan: There are Japanese devils everywhere. They seem to be kings in this part of the world…

Sichung: I think that if we want to remove Japan from our lives, well, we have to go to Europe; there will be no Japanese down there …

Nudin: If you decide to leave for Europe, I will be happy to go with you… Will it be like the Bund?

Susan: Probably. Or maybe more like the Ginza in Tokyo, with smaller buildings, but modern public transport, and more cars…

Sichung: A friend of mine told me that many Chinese are going to Paris. There they work as street vendors… After all, that’s what we ourselves did in Japan.

Nudin: Are you serious? Are we really leaving?

Susan: Well, wait a minute! We first need to understand a couple of things. For instance: how much does the trip cost? Then, how do we get a passport, a visa, and a ship ticket…

Lishan: Ship? No way, I would rather travel by train, I’ve had with ships, I get seasick all the time.

Sichung: Don’t worry Lishan. Let us figure out the routes and costs of the trip, then we’ll see whether and how we’ll leave.

Only Lishan already had a passport, Nudin and Susan had to buy one from fellow Zhejiang migrants that had just returned home to attend their father’s funeral, or the birth of their first male child. There were agencies in Hongkou that could provide them with such papers, though they weren’t cheap. These agencies also provided financial services, useful to get remittances to their families once they were abroad, or to borrow money for the trip. Some could also provide easier access to visas and train or boat tickets.

They went back to the inn where they were staying in the Hongkou district, near the river. It was a typical Chinese two-story building, with a shop front and an upper story where you could rent a room. Quite different from the modern architectural marvels strewn along the Bund which, in only a few years, had deeply altered the city’s skyline. Some of the tallest buildings could rival London, or even New York.


Lishan: I have a proposal, it’s a bit risky, but if all goes as it should, it could help us change our lives forever.

Susan: Let’s hear it.

Lishan: If all of us pool our money together, I could gamble it and see how much we win. That way we could raise the money we need for the trip…

Sichung: Typical Lishan, any chance is good for a little gambling… but maybe it’s not a bad idea… After all, that’s why you are known as “the Professor”!

Susan: There’s four of us, we all have stashed away some of our earnings during the internment… and Lishan really is good at winning. Ok, I agree!

Nudin: Me too, sure. So… Do you really mean to pool all of our money?

Sichung: If we have to risk it, well, then let’s do it properly. If we all bet a hundred pieces of silver dollars, it won’t be too big a loss if we lose and we might win a tidy sum. We could go to Europe as gentlemen, how about that?

Susan: And how are you going to gamble our money, Professor?

Lishan: Mah Jong, obviously! But I haven’t decided where yet.

Susan: Well, that’s up to you, but I will go with you. I want to be there when you win for us.

Sichung: Yeah, me too, we all come and if we strike gold, then we’ll go celebrate together!


Mah Jong is a card game with great symbolic value. It has a strong relationship with Feng Shui and it hides many meanings in the features of its tiles. It is a game that requires great skill, strategy, decision making and a little luck. To play Mah Jong you need a pair of dice, 144 tiles and at least four people.


Gambling was officially prohibited in the foreign concessions. As long as it remained a habit of the wealthiest class, in the city it was played in private homes or in tea rooms. Yet as the custom spread within the middle class, many city brothels adopted it as “complementary” entertainment.

Lishan and his friends reached the house of Li Yangchun on foot. It was only ten minutes away from their hotel near the Hongkou Old Dock on the Huangpu river.

Their host let them in and showed them a table where other people were already waiting, standing up near their chairs. Then he shuffled the tiles producing the typical rustling sound that marks the start of the game.

Seats were assigned with a first roll of the dice.

When Lishan sat down, his friends stood behind him.


Sichung: Stay focused Lesà, please!

Nudin: Come on Professor, take us to Europe!


Friends were whispering behind his shoulders while Lishan stared silently straight in front of him. The game had begun, and he didn’t want to get distracted.

The man sitting in front of him had not spoken yet, but he was looking at them with an open smile, as if he were aware of a funny detail. Something that only he knew.

When he opened his mouth, he silenced them all.

They thought that speaking their own local dialect, no one in Shanghai would have understood them. The city was a crossroads of different people and nationalities: there were Chinese from all over the country, each one with their own tongue. They too had formed a group precisely because of their common origin, those mountain villages along the river Ou, just beyond the town of Qingtian. Yet as it were, the man sitting in front of them, was a fellow villager!

Susan: Where are you from?

Shafò: Renzhuang.

Nudin: And what’s your name?

Shafò: My name’s Wang Xuefang, you can call me Shafò. I guess you want to go to Europe. Well, so do I, and apparently we had the same idea: to win a tidy sum before leaving.

Then, looking straight into Lishan’s eyes he added:

Shafò: Let’s play together, ok? Then we divide up the total.

Lishan: So be it.


They played all night long and they multiplied their investment.

Each of them saved 3/4 of the winnings and then they unanimously decided to invest another 100 dollars each the next evening.

They went on like this for a week, and in the end, those one hundred dollars of initial investment had become more than 2500. A real nest egg! In addition, with Wang Xuefang, they had welcomed a new member into the group. Now it was a question of how and when to leave.

Wu Sichung belonged to a family from Wu’an, a big clan with previous migration experience. Some of his relatives had been to Europe at the beginning of the century and, once they returned to China, they had settled in Shanghai where they became business brokers, helping along those who wanted to do business abroad, or even wanted to settle there. They offered various services, functioning both as a travel agency and as a bank, and providing contacts to refer to on arrival in several European cities.


Sichung: Hello uncle, we are here because we would all like to go to Europe, can you tell us how it works?

Uncle Wu: So you would like to try your luck overseas, huh? How much money do you have?

Sichung: We do have money. We recently won a lot, but we definitely want to work: we want to do business abroad, work hard and get rich!

Uncle: Have you ever heard of fake pearls?

Sichung: Yes, we have heard that some Chinese work as street vendors in France, selling such trinkets…

Uncle: That’s right, it’s the easiest way to get around and make your way into their markets and business practices…

Nudin: And… How much does the trip cost?

Uncle: It mostly depends on the class you want to travel in. Are you interested in traveling by ship or by train?

Lishan: Both of them. I think we’ll split up because I really don’t want to go by boat. And I choose to travel in second class so that I start saving right away, but I also want to travel quite comfortably since the journey is long.

Uncle: So you’ll need approximately 400 silver dollars. On the other hand, those who want to take the ship can calculate an extra 50 dollars, always traveling in second class. I will get you the tickets and if you leave me the passports I can also take care of the visas.

Nudin: Me and Susan don’t have a passport though …

Uncle: No problem, let me take care of everything. Come back in about ten days and everything should be ready…

The following week Sichung’s uncle contacted them at the hotel. Everything was indeed ready.

Uncle: There would be a chance for you to leave immediately, the destination is Paris, in France. Are you interested?

Were they ready? They did not know if or when they would come back but they didn’t think too long about it. They were more than ready.


Nudin: Count as all in. Tell us when and where, and we will be there.

Uncle: Calm down, one step at a time. Let’s start from the train journey: it takes 18 days to Moscow and from there, there are another 3.000 km to get to Paris. I could book a double cabin seat in two weeks.

Lishan: Great!

Uncle: Regarding the trip by ship…

Sichung: The important thing is not to choose a Japanese company, I don’t want to have anything to do with them anymore, even if their tickets are cheaper.

Uncle: No, no… I was thinking of a British company that has just started operating on the Liverpool-Yokohama route. It is about 30 days of navigation. You could embark in Shanghai and disembark in Marseille …

Susan: It would be perfect.

Uncle: Ok. Here are your passports complete with a visa to enter France. Once you get there, you will need to contact Mr. Kung He Chong, at 50 Rue de Gravillers, in Paris.

Susan: But how are we going to deal with all these foreign names?

Uncle: Don’t worry about this, sooner or later you will get used to that. As for Mr. Kung’s address, I prepared a note for each of you.

Sichung: Thanks uncle, really! You organized everything.

Uncle: Those who work well will always have good customers, remember that my dear nephew and good luck!!


The fake pearls trade was booming at the time and Europe appeared as a very promising market for these cheap, shiny new forms of bijouterie.

The young friends were so excited that they went to a small river deck restaurant to celebrate the adventure they were about to undertake.


Lishan: So here we part our ways, I will meet you again in Europe. Thanks to Mr. Kung I will be able to find you in Paris.

Susan: Yeah. We, on the contrary, will stick together. We’ll take a gentleman’s voyage by ship. It’s the latest fashion, don’t you know?

Lishan: I know, I know. But I have never liked water and, honestly, I think that from the train I will have the opportunity to see a beautiful piece of the world. I must confess, I am a bit curious. I will use the time I will spend alone to reflect and prepare myself as best as possible for our adventure. Maybe I’ll start studying some French, it could be useful.

Sichung: Au revoir, alors, mon ami et vive la France!