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[Homes]: Fan Maker Yang Changgen

The elderly artist and his wife's 20 square meters in Hongkou.
Oct 14, 2019 | 10:27 Mon
Photos: Yolanda vom Hagen
Homes: Homes is where we peek behind the doors of neighbors, looking for insight into how other people are living their lives and building a home in this massive city.
Yang Changgen and his wife Li Zhifang live on third floor of the Ramous Apartments (built 1928) in Hongkou. Their 20 square meter apartment shares a kitchen with their neighbors, and hallways are cluttered with bicycles, suitcases and boxes.

On Work

“I wake up at 5:30 in the morning, pick up the table and stools, put them in the trolley and walk to Luxun Park, where I stay until about five in the afternoon, drawing calligraphy on my fans and selling them.

The park is only a short walk from here, but if I get there later than usual, I’ll probably lose my spot. My wife always comes with me; she helps with cleaning the brushes and pens. We’ve been doing this every day for twenty years.

On Marriage

“I was born here in Hongkou in 1947 and lived here until my company sent me to Chongqing. There, I worked as a heavy equipment driver for a factory. Li’s sister worked in the same plant. One day she came to me and asked, ‘Are you single?’ I said yes. ‘Huh, I have a younger sister, let me introduce you two.” So I went over to their house for a visit. I asked Li out for the first time on a Sunday; it was the only day we both had off.

“This was during the 1970s. There was no time for romance, so I just asked her one day: ‘Do you want to get married?’ She said yes. I came all the way to Shanghai to ask my mother's permission and she simply said: ‘Fine.’ That’s how straightforward things were back then.

“We had our girl in 1975. She's my second child and lives in Shanghai now. I had a son from a first marriage before moving from Shanghai. Today, he lives with his family in an apartment I own in Chongqing. It was given to us by the government as part of a retirement plan. It’s much bigger than this one. Just my working area there is as big as this entire bed! We could live there if we wanted and probably will at one point. When my health demands, we’ll go back. But, for now, I can still handle it.

On Coming Back

“We moved back to Shanghai about twenty years ago. Since everything is more expensive here, we couldn't survive only on my retirement plan, so I started to make fans. On one side, I paint birds, flowers, and natural landscapes in watercolor while the paper is stretched; I assemble it and then take it to the park to draw calligraphy with ink on the backside. It’s all handmade and painted by me.

On The Apartment

“We have only been living in this apartment for two weeks. We had to move around a bit in recent years since one of our homes was demolished and the following one was not so comfortable. We asked a construction worker if he knew about a place to rent and he happened to be working in this building. They just did some renovations here, adding modern things. Our room is smaller than the others, but it’s fine for us. We can even receive friends here.

“Everything is still very messy, as we didn’t have the time to organize yet, but we are very happy about the size of this closet behind us; there's so much we can fit inside! I can also store my books under my bed. I have too many! Chinese history, art, and calligraphy — I’m old, but my brain still works very well! Ah, there are also many of these old female nude magazines. We both liked them. It’s not an erotic thing, just about composition and beauty. As an artist, you need to see as many references as you can.

On Sharing

“Our neighbor’s home is much bigger: she integrated two rooms to live with her daughter. We have high ceilings, so she can easily fit her tall lacquer furniture. We all share the kitchen, which is very spacious and the sink is near to the cooking area, so that makes my wife’s life easier.

We don’t share the food though: we cook for ourselves and eat in our room. You can find many of these dusty suitcases in the hallways. They were left here by the former occupant of my room. We don’t know what's inside.

“We have our own bathroom here. Li doesn't like to waste water with the washing machine, so she does the washing in the bathtub. The bathroom has a large window, through which the sun comes in, so we can also dry the clothes there. Unlike before, our room is on the same floor as the kitchen and the bathroom. We like that because at our age you can't go up and down all the time.

On Staying

“I could try to sell fans in other parks in Shanghai, but I think I would get pushed away because the security guards don’t know me. Everyone knows us here: we have many friends. Besides, I was also born here and grew up here. I came back following the Chinese tradition of going back to your roots. You know, Hongkou is still very similar to what it was during my childhood. Of course, there are more cars, people and high-rise buildings, but the feeling remains the same.”

To see Mr. Yang's work and meet him in person, catch him at the Jiashan Market this Saturday.


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