Interview on March 1st via email by Angela
AL: The zine first grabbed my attention on the shelves of Yue Space during the last Loreli art market. So how did the group come together? Whose idea was it?
SGC: We formed Sponge Gourd Collective as a response to the constant surreality of living in Beijing in the present moment. We found that we were attracted to a lot of strange, similar aspects of the evolving cityscape, and decided to try to solidify this amazement into a tangible project. Plus, as newcomers to Beijing, we felt a common urge to document the changes we were witnessing. That became the first issue in our zine series, called People's Square/人民广场, which combines all of our skills: Daphne does ethnographic research, Diane is a visual artist, Justin is a photographer, and Beatrix is an aspiring filmmaker.
AL: And what made you want to document urban growth and the dark side of gentrification in China?
SGC: Initially, Diane and Daphne were planning to do a project mapping out the values and priorities that are driving urban development in Beijing and NYC. Because of their experiences volunteering and working at CAAAV, a community organization based in Manhattan Chinatown that works with low-income Asian communities—including Chinatown tenants being evicted because of gentrification—they wanted to see how conversations around this process in New York could inform their understanding of development in Beijing.
We know gentrification isn't the same in both contexts, and that apart from the fact that ethnically Chinese communities are affected in both cities, the environments encompassing these instances of gentrification differ widely. Even within China, the communities affected are diverse: for example, the residents of Enning Lu in Guangzhou have responded differently to processes of gentrification than residents of Beijing's Gulou Hutongs have. The idea for the project connecting NYC and Beijing evolved as we realized that the scope of what we wanted to do was huge, and we had many unanswered questions, so we decided to do a project with a more specific focus on Beijing first.
Growing up in China, Justin experienced the breathless pace of change firsthand, and feels that he hasn't had time to deeply appreciate what past generations have left behind. Like all Chinese people, he has had to confront the meaning of living in a "developing country", and coping with how the reality of the situation often does not live up to claims of increasing prosperity. For those of us who have come to China more recently, after our parents or grandparents chose to leave, living here and witnessing this change is a chance to make sense of what has happened since our families immigrated. For example, the street where Daphne's mother grew up in Shanghai is now a heritage site, Diane's father's rural hometown near Yangzhou is being turned into an ecoentertainment park, and the traditional courtyard house where Beatrix's grandfather was raised is now an unrecognizable apartment tower.
AL: I really love that you guys made the zine bilingual. I personally feel that the subject of gentrification is not being covered sufficiently and efficiently in Chinese. Whose idea was this? Who was the person in charge of translation/interpretation? Did the residents have qualms about speaking to you guys at all?
SGC: It's actually covered in a lot of different ways in China, but without the exact term 'gentrification'. Any news about 拆 is discussed so much that it's a norm. Even apart from that, it's such a common occurrence - most people have lived through experiences of demolition or gentrification of their own neighborhoods or homes - that 'news' about it becomes almost unnecessary. The main difference between our coverage and Chinese coverage may be that we, as a group of newcomers to Beijing, may be more shocked by some elements of what we're seeing, so this comes through in what we make — the framing of the zine narrative is completely from an outside perspective looking in, and the specific content shows what we found striking and worthy of recording, which may already be normal to locals.
As for making the zine bilingual, we want our work to be accessible to readers both in China and in the diaspora, and having it in both Chinese and English broadens our reach.
The residents were fine with speaking to us: some chatted, while others were busy going about their lives and did not talk to us. One woman was surprised we were there - she said there are snakes in the village and people don't normally come visit. The real ethical concern is that what we're doing is coming from a place of privilege compared to people who live in the urban village, and whether we are exploiting their stories for our own gain. There's a responsibility when engaging with any community to think about this ethical concern, and to evaluate your capacity as an outsider (individual or group) for impact (negative or positive, intentional or not). Three of us are foreigners who graduated from Brown. We're coming from a place of curiosity, and that in itself is definitely privileged. We try to maintain awareness of this privilege in how we frame the project; rather than trying to influence readers to see things from our perspective, we acknowledge the subjectivity of our voice while preserving some sense of open-endedness. We hope that the zine takes people through the steps of our exploration instead of making any conclusions, and along the way, invites readers to join in.
AL: Do you feel more empathy towards the buildings or the structures that have been destroyed or the people who were forced to leave / the collapse of communities?
SGC: It's not that we have empathy toward the structures, but it's more that they both symbolize and bear evidence of how the demolition affects living people, in both positive and negative ways. Sometimes renewal and redevelopment can be great for people who live in these places because, for example, their compensation allows them to move into an apartment with proper plumbing and better amenities. We're most interested in understanding whether people are prioritized or exploited in the process of negotiation that happens when land is expropriated. Most of the time, it ends up being very unfair, and that's what the issue is—not that the building has been smashed, but that it was smashed in the middle of the night on a man and his elderly mother, who have nowhere else to go.
AL: What do you hope to accomplish by making this zine?
SGC: We want to record some slivers of Beijing's current state. As we've stated and as everyone knows, China is changing fast, and the present moment-- especially the mundane, perhaps unpleasant parts that don't accord with narratives of progress-- may be quickly and easily forgotten. As human beings, we think we're smart, but most of us have the memory spans of goldfish, and forgetting the past makes us easier to manipulate. Actively deciding to preserve these narratives has the potential to give us more clarity in the face of an unpredictable future.
AL: It seems that even though less than 100 of the original households in this village remain, we learn from the zine that the community is still very much vibrant. Does it matter that the original residents no longer live there if the community is kept alive?
SGC: Community isn't necessarily about being tied to a specific location, or preserving the exact residential makeup through time. It's about people feeling belonging, having history with a place, and attaching their identities to other people's identities. The zine points out that people still live there in order to show that there's a huge imbalance between the state of development and the lived realities of ordinary Chinese people. The current state of the village shows the fluidity of people passing through a place, rather than the "vibrancy" of the community. For example, what was once an elementary school now houses many migrants, exemplifying the transformations outside of Beijing's 5th ring, an area which has undergone huge changes in the last several years due to money flowing in through local governments and developers. The human changes are responses to the influx of money, but the pace of "progress" leaves people behind.
AL: Any upcoming projects? Do you planning on making a series of zines on gentrification in China?
SGC: Yes, the next zine in the series is going to be about Beijing's 簋街! It's going to be like a huge spicy party, but before the party is over the wrecking ball comes down on the house full of guests, and now we're trying to figure out if everyone survived. You're invited!
丝瓜集团(Sponge Gourd Collective) is a loofah for the future, a squad of green goons, a slimy surprise. We investigate urban transformation to explore Chinese futurities. With backgrounds in visual art, photography, anthropology, community organizing, film, and literature, we develop multimedia projects that broaden popular conceptions of China, to leave more room for the blurry spaces in between.
Our projects deconstruct unstable meanings of Chineseness and speak to Chinese youth and members of the global Chinese diaspora. Self-searching is a seed that sprouted this collective; as rapid development calls for a fluid, flexible future, our conceptions of identity too must remain open to flux.
You can reach the team at
or follow them on @siguajituan on Instagram