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Pearls of wisdom

Johnny Lu, the 'dragon man' of New York, is spreading a message of tolerance through his unique calligraphy, writes Rong Xiaoqing. Pictures by Tim Knox

 

It is the morning of October 28, and as New York prepares to weather the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, a chubby, middle-aged man enters Dag Hammarskjold Plaza park, in midtown Manhattan. His hair is starting to recede and he is dressed in a maroon jacket with traditional Chinese-style knot buttons and navy blue trousers. He takes big strides as he surveys the park, his hands clasped behind his back. Then, he stops. On the other side of the street, St George is attempting to slay a dragon outside an entrance to the United Nations headquarters.

The sculpture, named Good Defeats Evil, is made from fragments of United States and Russian ballistic missiles, put together by Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli. It was given to the UN by the Soviet Union as a gift, in 1990.

Johnny Lu's mission is to stop St George and free the dragon. With the assistance of a friend, he unfurls an 80-foot-long canvas scroll. It is a calligraphic work that begins and ends with the Chinese character for "dragon", and it is almost as tall as the man himself.

There are more than 100 smaller "dragons" embedded in this version of the philosophical classic Tao Te Ching, with several sentences of the original changed to include mention of dragons - "Because dragon does not contend, none can contend with him," and "The best of dragon is like water. Water brings good to all things without contending."

One vertical line reads: "Western dragon, Eastern dragon, different places, different connotations," which is nowhere to be found in the Tao Te Ching.

"I created this line myself," says Lu. "This is the whole point of my dragon calligraphy."

Lu is well known in Chinese circles in New York, especially among those from Taiwan. Lucoral & Lupearl, the jewellery company he and his family founded on the island was, in the 1980s and 90s, the largest pearl jewellery supplier in the world. It no longer dominates the mar-ket, but it has expanded to the mainland, Hong Kong and the US, where it has bejewelled first ladies Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Michelle Obama.

Lu was not known as a calligrapher when he launched his "peace dragon" campaign.

"When I first saw the killing dragon sculpture at the UN many years ago, I was shocked," says Lu. "The dragon is a god in Chinese culture, yet Westerners think it is evil, and want to slay it. I felt very uncomfortable; I knew I had to do something. But China was not as strong as it is now, and few people would pay attention to what a Chinese man had to say."

In February, following the Lunar New Year festivities heralding the Year of the Dragon, Lu attended a party of overseas alumni of Peking University, his alma mater. Zhu Shanlu, the Communist Party secretary and chairman of the council of Peking University, who was visiting, talked about China's new focus on cultural projection, which reminded Lu of the UN sculpture.

"I was thinking, this is the dragon's year and China is now trying to promote its soft power. But there are so many misconceptions in the West about Chinese culture. The sculpture is a good example. If the East and the West cannot reach mutual understanding on things like this, the world will be destined for conflict.

"So I decided to use a well-liked Chinese art form to promote the right image of the dragon," he says. "Maybe not everyone will understand it immediately, but I can at least start a conversation this way."

Lu has always been interested in calligraphy, but he has never studied it or practised by imitating the works of famous practitioners, as many students of the art form do.

"Once you have mimicked the style of the masters, it'd be very hard to be creative," he says. "I wanted my own style. And once I started, I had to be the best."

Lu turned the second floor of his midtown Manhattan jewellery shop into a studio. When he is creating, he lets an imaginary ink brush run through his mind, then strokes those images onto paper. Scrolls cover the walls and lie in piles on the tables and floor of his studio. Some "dragons" are so large that the character covers a whole page. Some are grouped together in various sizes and shapes. All of them are in his unique style; the character of the dragon seems to float on the paper, as if it were alive.

"No one else writes 'dragon' this way in the whole world," he says.

Lu gives his dragon works as gifts to whoever he thinks can help make the world a more peaceful place. Among the recipients have been Chen Yunlin, the chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, and US President Barack Obama.

And he talks about his campaign to anyone who will listen.

During a question and answer session with Taiwan's minister of culture, Lung Yingtai, after she delivered a speech to the Asia Society in Manhattan, Lu challenged Lung, in his loud, rapid and broken English, about the sculpture at the UN.

"You are lucky because your last name is 'dragon'. But in the West, they want to kill the dragon. What would you do if you were the secretary of the UN?" he asked the minister, whose last name is written with the same character as that for "dragon" in Chinese.

The minister replied: "I would say that to translate that Western animal into the Chinese word 'lung' is a wrong translation. 'Lung' should not be translated into 'dragon' either, because 'lung' is something that's wonderful, that brings luck, that's the prettiest woman in the world."

Then she turned serious: "As Confucius said, to rectify the name is very important. [In his famous Analects, he says: 'If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things …']." In the reception afterwards, the minister was given a sketch book by Lu, filled with calligraphic dragons.

Talking about his UN stunt in his midtown shop, Lu laughs and asks: "You haven't met a person as crazy as I am recently, have you?"

Crazy or creative? The answer may depend on who you ask.

"That's him. I know his mentality and I expect him to do things like this," says Hesham "Sam" Abdelrahman, an employee of Lu's.

Abdelrahman got to know Lu six years ago, when he visited the latter's store while working for another jewellery company. He had been intending to visit another shop, but had written the address down incorrectly. The variety of Lu's products attracted him so much that he lingered for two hours, during which the men began to talk. They became friends and eventually Lu persuaded Abdelrahman to work for him.

When Obama was campaigning for his first presidency, Lu asked Abdelrahman, an Egyptian who resembles the Hawaiian-born leader, what he'd like to see if the Democrat won the election.

"I said, 'I wish he could find a solution to the Israel and Palestine conflict," says Abdelrahman. "And Johnny encouraged me to do something rather than simply cross my fingers. I wrote letters to Obama and Oprah [Winfrey] as he suggested. Johnny turned me into a world peace envoy." Neither Obama nor Winfrey replied, but the producers of The Tonight Show have been in contact with Sam Obama, as Abdelrahman is now nicknamed, about a possible televised impersonation of the president.

"Johnny is a smart businessman but he is not just a businessman. He is a visionary. He is unusual."

"Unusual" might also be an accurate description of Lu's life.

Born in the Penghu islands, off Taiwan's west coast, in 1953, he is the eighth of 11 children born into a fishing family.

His father, Lu Chingshui, was no average fisherman, however; after graduating as valedictorian from the Penghu Marine and Fishery Vocational Senior High School, he was elected president of the local fishermen's association. Consequently, Lu's family was one of the richest in the township. Little Johnny even had his own bicycle, a rare luxury.

Lu senior set up a rental company that lent fishing boats and equipment to fishermen who couldn't afford them, accepting payment in kind instead of money.

But Mother Nature had other plans: during a series of typhoons, the Lu family lost their own fishing boats and most of the equipment they lent out. The family sank into poverty.

By the time Lu was in primary school, his family was so poor they could no longer afford coal. Lu had to go to a graveyard to collect dried cow dung to use as fuel for the stove.

"I got up at 3am every day to do this," he says. "And I was recommended by classmates as a model student because of it."

The family then turned to another business venture, collecting coral, shells and pearls from the ocean, and turning them into necklaces and other decorations. Before he graduated from middle school, Lu was running a coral-craft workshop, employing more than a dozen teenagers recruited from the street. He pawned his watch to buy a polishing machine, he says. Dividing his workers into four shifts, he kept the machine running 24 hours a day but that wasn't enough to keep up with demand; he fashioned extra tools from whatever he could lay his hands on. The blades of an old electric fan, for example, were removed so the spinning shafts could be used to polish coral.

The family named the company Lucoral & Lupearl, although the direct translation of its Chinese name is "Great East Mount", which is derived from the Chinese idiom "East Mount rises again", a metaphor similar to that of the phoenix rising from the ashes.

By 1984, when Lu emigrated to establish the business in New York, the company's annual revenue had reached US$30 million.

"THERE ARE SO MANY inequalities in the world," says Lu. "In the jewellery industry, a diamond is believed to have the highest value. This is a Western business idea based on the natural resources they control. But now Chinese customers also chase after diamonds and neglect our own jade and pearls.

"It is the same in culture. Western culture is still dominating the world and Chinese culture is considered secondary even by some of our own people. And then, when Westerners try to learn Chinese culture, they do so from [Sun Tzu's ancient military treatise] Art of War and form a misconception that we Chinese like to fight when we are, in fact, a very peaceful people. I think these inequalities need to be changed."

In 1996, Lu fell off his bike and was hospitalised. At the same time, a manager who had been with the company for a long time suddenly left to join a rival business, representing major setback for Lucoral & Lupearl. Lu felt frustrated and depressed. A worried friend took him to church.

Lu was familiar with Buddhism, but was not religious. However, the church experience stoked his interest and he started to study holy texts.

"I found all these religions are essentially the same. But humans interpret them in different ways to serve their own interests. That's why there is so much hatred and war in the name of faith. And that's also why I think we need to stand above our misunderstandings and reach for peace," he says.

At 59, Lu says he is semi-retired and so has more time to devote to his "crazy" projects. He wants to build a jewellery institute in China to promote the value of gems that are available locally, and to establish a charitable reward scheme in which people will receive a pearl in return for good deeds. And, of course, he wants to rescue the dragon's good name.

Asked whether these projects are in fact gimmicks to promote his business, Lu doesn't answer directly. Instead, he tells a story.

"In the 1990s, I was the president of the American Chinese Jewellers Association. When I campaigned for the position, the members asked me and a rival candidate whether we'd use the position to serve our own business interests. He said no, and I said yes. Let me tell you why: as president, my job was to help Chinese jewellers get better business in the US. And I am one of them."

During his term, Lu led members in a campaign that helped lower the import tariff on jewellery made in China.

BACK IN A WINDY Dag Hammarskjold Plaza park, Didier Long, the chief finance officer of an egg-processing company in France who is on holiday in New York with his family, is intrigued by Lu and his dragon scroll.

"To me, the dragon is evil. This is the first time I realised it is considered a god by the Chinese," he says. "But the West is large. There are many countries. For example, I think in France, we can understand concepts from other cultures. But I'm not sure about the US."

"I've never thought about the differences [between dragons]," says another passer-by, 19-year-old New York salesgirl Kim Vandenberg. "But he is right. I probably should. We should always try to understand other people better."

Lu folds his arms behind his back and smiles. As a roaring wind announces the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, he seems satisfied with his efforts.

 

 


ORIGINS - SAYING THE DRAGON

 

It is not certain when the English word "dragon" was first translated as the Chinese character "lung" or why. Some believe the translation first appeared in the earliest Chinese editions of the Bible, translated by Western missionaries.

The Western and Chinese dragons are indeed different animals. They may both be mythical and have serpentine bodies, but the former normally has wings. The latter, although able to fly, has no wings but a much longer body. At best they look like distant cousins.

What distances them more are their cultural connotations. In Western cultures, dragons are generally considered evil. In the Bible, the dragon is often a dark power attacking God and his followers.

"Out of his mouth go burning lamps," the Book of Job tells us, "and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or cauldron."

In Western legends, the dragon is almost always killed by the hero.

One exception can be found on the Welsh flag, which bears a red dragon. But this is only because it is believed to have protected the land from an invading white dragon.

Many Asian cultures consider dragons as forces for good. Many Chinese believe they are descendants of the dragon.

The origin of the dragon in Chinese culture can be traced back to times when people had few means to protect themselves from their enemies and Mother Nature. They created and prayed to this magnificent figure and wished his supernatural powers could protect them from harm. The dragon subsequently became associated with majesty and power, and was thus used as a symbol by emperors. It is the most abundant decorative motif in the Forbidden City.

"Dragon lady", a phrase minted in the 1930s by American cartoonist Milton Caniff in his comic strip Terry and the Pirates, is still used today to denote the stereotypical Asian woman as fierce and mysterious.

 

 

 

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