Guangzhou, pollution & nature paraphernalia


Australian Stephanie Cobon is currently living in China. Following last week’s eventful visit to the hospital, this week she’s getting mighty confused by nature paraphernalia:

Back in Sydney, my old housemate puts on workshops for practical arts and crafts activities and people flock to them. Originally, they were to teach the delicate art of terrarium making, then silk dying, candle-dipping and more recently, of dream-catcher making. Our happy terrace on Pyrmont Bridge Road was filled with the remnants of these lessons and the beer cans that always followed around the fire pit we dug out in the backyard after the hard work was done. The reason I and the other attendees loved watching her work and learning the skills she had to pass on is that it satisfied a very lovely place in my mind that relies on a balance of both nostalgic transportation to halcyon days tie-dying with my best friend on the deck of her parents’ property in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne and also small reclamations of the value of practicality in our highly impractical lives. It reminds me of growing up with acres to play in, of camping on the Murray, of always smelling eucalyptus and of having the spare time to make beautiful things just because I can.

In my first weeks in China, I’ve found myself on a constant hunt for the reminders of home that I could surround myself with to symbolise normality, to comfort the constant feeling of just vaguely still living in an alternate reality; one in which you packed up your life, moved to a foreign country and now you’re waiting for the everyday activities to form routines and become second nature and even slip into a new history. As though maybe I just didn’t do that at all, but I’m just down at Burwood Westfield getting some groceries at the Chinese grocer and imagining it another country.

It’s an interesting process to watch and I often find it not only cathartic but usually amusing to interrogate it reflectively. So, when walking through one of hundreds of flashing, over-stimulating and anything-but-natural shopping malls in Guangzhou, I recognised the first of 10-15 ‘lifestyle’ island stores in “Fashion Tianhe” shopping complex, I literally squealed with excitement. The shops sell home decoration supplies: small vases, watering cans, cute things to hang cute things off, dwarf varieties of almost any species of plant, bonsai trees, bonsai pots, miniature temples for your bonsai world, cacti, candles and much much much more crap. Chinese teenagers are obsessed with them and anything that can be put in water is collected like tazos.

The further I looked into this absolutely overwhelming amount of nature-paraphernalia, the more confused I became about how something which began as just that natural could be so perfectly manufactured into something so plastic. Where I first saw moss, moisture and foliage, I now only saw cuteness. Where I was searching out the pleasure of creating some essence of those afternoons in my garden, I only saw something pre-assembled, safe and clinically clean. Just like that horrible moment as an adult gzof breaking through the Kindersurprise chocolate and discovering that health and safety laws no longer allow for the building of your own toy, the expectation that the aesthetic beauty of nature is welcomed into a space as long as you don’t need to get dirty kind of hurt.

The separatism of functional and aesthetic life just doesn’t really mesh too well with me. The rakes, shovels and trimming tools for sale at exorbitant prices were too tiny to even fit your fingers in, let alone actually use. There’s no fertilizer, soil or even care instructions. It struck me that there’s very little chance you could actually kill these purchases if you tried. They are just purchases.

Today in Guangzhou, pollution levels became dangerously high once more. Until it rains either tomorrow or the next day, the sun will be so clouded by smog that you’ll be able to stare right at it and see a fluorescent pink ring glowing down. It’s eerie, it burns your throat and although it’s at its absolute worst in March, it lasts five months of the year before blue sky can even be imagined in the Spring. I have a bonsai on the window ledge in my 6th floor apartment. When I look at it with its wild bulbous roots and squishy cool moss, I imagine where the travels of my upcoming leave will take me – to which mountain-top tea house and to which crystal streams in far off provinces.

In a city with a pollution level as high as Guangzhou, I wonder how many ways I can simply manage to avoid facing the fact that the air is blue and if I’m going to live here, I just have to deal with it.

Stephanie Cobon


Words and pictures by Stephanie Cobon.