Once upon a time, in a faraway land called Zhongguo, a chubby red-cheeked girl named Tian Shi dreamed of better things to come. Tian Shi did not have much time for daydreams – after a grueling long school session, she had to hurry down the buzzing streets of Shanghai in dusty shoes to her mother's xiao long bao stall on the corner of Wujiang Lu. There, she bustled about crowded tables of rough-voiced patrons, who all talked so loudly their voices melded into a constant humming blur that hung in the steamy air above the scattered dinner long zi.
Saturday mornings were Tian Shi's favorite, as she had time off. She squatted by the pavement with her breakfast bao zi, watching the world go by, stuffing her mouth with food and her head with sumptuous dreams of a wonderful future with a glamorous career, rich husband, big apartment and swanky car.
Twenty years on, Tian Shi no longer sits on grimy pavements, but on Swedish oak furniture in a bright spacious new apartment on Huaihai Lu. She waits for her husband, owner of a big PVC foam sheet export company, and her daughter, Grade 2 pupil at an expensive private school. Millions of thoughts crowd themselves unrelentingly into her mind. There were the house renovations to plan; her daughter's exams to prepare for; her husband's flailing business to fret over. The car was due for maintenance. Why was she passed over for a promotion? Her neighbors were going to Morocco for summer vacation. Her mother's diabetes medication was running out. The ayi was stealing money for sure.
As Tian Shi gazed anxiously out the windows of her beautiful gilded cage, she became struck by a growing conviction that something was not quite right. The shiny dream baubles of her youth had turned into dusty, dull things after their glitzy gift-wrap was ripped off and the thin veneer of newness wore off. The polished steel Italian frames of her window blurred into the steel bars of an iron cage, as Tian Shi watched her dreams turn into bubbles that slowly popped and dissipated into the polluted skies.
Liu Dao's evocative papercutting of an apartment building silhouetted against a burnished rice-paper background encapsulates the growing alarm and building pressures of the Chinese middle class in an animated LED. Perched on the leg of a poised eagle seemingly about to take flight, it remains to be seen if the caged bird would be able to soar high enough to free itself from the claws of its own ambitions.
[Loo Ching Ling 吕晶琳]