Unearthing China’s ‘cool spirits’ with a camera

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 April, 2013, 6:49pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 April, 2013, 9:51am

Images of China’s capital city engulfed in a thick, yellow-gray blanket of smog and dust since late last year have shocked the world. Now, thanks to the innovative work of a group of young artists, the millions of people who commute by bike every day in northern China can breathe a sigh of relief – and some fresh, filtered air.

An online video of a “breathing bike” that provides purified air for the rider has gone viral on YouTube and Chinese video-sharing sites fuelled by fears over the impact on long-term health of air pollution.

The video shows Matt Hope, a Beijing-based British designer, wearing a helmet connected to a home-made air purifier powered by his bike as he pedals through Beijing streets. The bike is equipped with a pedal-powered engine generating 5,000 volts of electricity when the bike is in motion, according to Hope. The video on YouTube has been viewed more 74,000 times despite the fact that YouTube is blocked in mainland China.

By filming young innovators like Hope, the video’s co-producers O Zhang and Xiaoli Tan say they are sharing the creative and positive ways China’s younger generation are combatting crises such as air pollution.

“The fact is that most people [in China] are trying to survive, with every bit of hope,” Zhang told the South China Morning Post.

Zhang and Tan, both young women in their early 30s, began searching for inspiring and unique young people to film in China for their video series “Cool Sparks” late last year. They met Hope in Beijing and learned about his “breathing bike” idea, and they were convinced that Hope and his invention provided a role model for China’s young people to tackle their problems with daring and innovation.

What China lacks now are role models who can inspire others to think creatively and independently

“What China lacks now are role models who can inspire others to think creatively and independently,” Zhang said.

Zhang and Tan both grew up in the southern province of Guangdong and lived abroad for many years before returning to China in pursuit of their artistic dreams.

“China is our roots,” said Tan.

With the economic downturn in the West in recent years, tens of thousands of young, talented, overseas-educated Chinese like Zhang and Tan have returned to their native land in search of opportunities. Most of them find well-paid jobs in the financial, legal, IT, pharmaceutical and bio technology sectors, and a highly westernised “yuppie” culture has evolved around their lives in major Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

However, to Zhang and Tan, something is missing from this glamorous, hip culture. To them, the real “cool” is when young people combine their pursuit of a modern, comfortable lifestyle with facing the reality of life in China by addressing pressing social issues.

By filming the efforts of young people, the filmmakers hope to capture the zeitgeist in a young generation of socially engaged artists: cool, genuine and insightful.

Ou Ning, a Beijing-based art curator, says he sees a valuable “grassroots wisdom” from the work of Tan and Zhang. “Although people living at the grassroots of society have a low visibility among the elite, their stories have an enduring vitality,” he said.

After “breathing bike”, the young producers are planning a series of short video stories focusing on remarkable young individuals involved in the arts including actors, musicians and art critics.

“They are all cool, inspiring, genuine, fun and have unique lifestyles,” said Zhang.