Interview by : Zhao Chengshuai
HU Yinping: I am the true Xiao Fang
“And my mom is getting older, hat after hat”
It was in the end of 2015, when visiting her family in Sichuan, Western China that Hu Yinping found her mom passing time weaving wool hats which she sold for a meager salary. Her mother’s impoverished situation made her come up with a positive way to intervene. “Xiao Fang” is the name that Hu Yinping gave her close friend to disguise her identity from her mother. From a distance, she would kindly attend to the needs of her mother’s hat production, personally witnessing how providing her with better material conditions boosted her creativity and in turn transformed her world. This article is a summary of the interview YT Art Cloud conducted at Arrow gallery with Huyinping in December 2016.
HU Yinping - “Xiao Fang” – 2016 – Arrow Factory
When Hu Yinping went back to her small hometown in December 2015, she noticed two hemp bags placed in one corner. When she opened one, she found that it was filled with dark wool hats. These were the ones that her mom had painstakingly woven during the winter, thread after thread creating calluses which would ache whenever back to work.
I asked her why she had made so many and her answer was “to pass time”. So I asked her how much she was selling for each hat and she told me approx. 6.4RMB (1 dollar) minus the cost of about 150g of the cheapest wool available, her profit amounting to a mere 1.7 to 1.8RMB per hat. Since her mom is a fast knitter, she can make two hats a day on average, making just a small handful of change a day. But all of the elderly women in her hometown do the same. And once every few months, people from other provinces came to collect their hats to send them to the market for nearly 5 times the price. Hu Yinping’s mom had already been knitting the hats for half a year when Hu yingping came to visit.
About my mom’s knitted hats
At first I wanted to get in contact with the middlemen in charge of collecting the hats from our hometown’s elderly women. So I asked some of my mom’s friends. The man would only sell me my mom’s hats for 8RMB per garment, shipping wasn’t included. But after receiving the first batch which amounted to approximately 100 hats, he stopped the deal. After all, amongst so many people and so many hats, why should we give special treatment to your mom in particular? I offered him more money but he wouldn’t take it, so I eventually flew back to Beijing.
Back in Beijing, the more I thought of the situation the more it disturbed me. The hats weren’t only just hats, they represented my mother’s hard labor. So I decided to cut him out of the deal. After all, why couldn’t I give her the money directly? When I was young, I would always wear what she knitted for me. And since she is ambidextrous, she could switch hands whenever she got tired. Our socks, pants, slippers and quilts were all made by hand. When I began high school however, I refused to wear her clothes anymore, so I took a part-time job to be able to afford the latest Chinese brands. One of which I recall was called Meters/Bonwe. Since my father rarely wore her clothes either, her craft seemingly all of a sudden lost its intrinsic value.
I couldn’t directly buy the hats from my mom. She would fend me off by saying something like, “we’re a family, why would I take my own daughter’s money?” Regardless, I continued to find someone who would help me purchase her garments.
My University roommate was the best person I could think of to play the role. Wang Yan had no connection whatsoever with the Beijing art scene and she hadn’t met my family. Well, maybe she met my mom once but only momentarily, so just to be sure her identity wasn’t revealed, I gave her the nickname “Xiao Fang”.
I introduced Xiao Fang to my mom as an experienced international trader who was willing to sell her hats abroad and give my mom a higher price per unit. My mom believed everything. My mom’s naiveté surfaced once again when she told me her new boss was giving her a premium for her crafts. She added that she’d have to improve the quality to maintain such a good rate! This was essentially the story of how her knitting became valuable again.
In the beginning I bought the wool she needed on the internet and sent it to her with Xiao Fang’s name on each parcel with a note suggesting she would need to send the hats back to Xiao Fang in batches. The first batch I went to gather myself on the outskirts of Beijing at my friend’s home and I gave her the money she would then “pay” my mother with. It was approximately 25RMB per hat plus all the amount of wool she needed. If the work was done well, a little bonus would be given to my mom.
All of the wool I bought for her was imported from Japan. My mom would praise how nice the wool was and how she’d never wove with anything like it before. She is a very traditional woman and would tell me that since her new employer was giving her a premium, she would try her best to make the hats look as good looking as possible. In this way she started weaving little embroideries on the side of her hats and began to classify them by giving them nicknames like “Wind-snow”.
Last year when she came to Beijing, I would make her wear a hat and scarf each time we had to go out. It was under those circumstances that she got the idea Beijing was a windy, cold and snowy city requiring her new collection of “Wind-Snow” Hats. The freedom she was given by her new boss also gave her the liberty to explore other styles of hats. Two of her latest inventions include the “Big-Bag” hat and the “Semi-scarf-hat”.
‘The Big-bag hat is twice as large as a normal hat which you could double-fold on top of your head to keep warm. The Semi-scarf hat is a “2 in 1” hat which has a tail measuring about 1 meter long which you could tie around your neck as you would with a winter scarf. And finally there is the “Eye-Eye” Hat, which essentially looks like a bandit’s hat. I asked her how she got the idea for it and she replied that she saw the style on TV. “With this kind of hat, no need for Wind-Snow or Big-Bag hats, just put it on, adjust the eyes and the mouth and you’re good to go!”’
She has learnt in the last few months to contact Xiao Fang directly using Wechat. I am barely getting involved in their conversation in order not to raise suspicion. Sometimes, when she is finished with a batch, she tells her friends to take pictures of her newest masterpieces. When she sends them to Xiao Fang, Xiao Fang’s role is to confirm that the hats meet her standards and are selling well. Working this way gradually gave her the confidence to create her own aesthetics, making her hats bolder and more creative as time passed. For instance, when taking a closer look at her embroideries on the side of the hats, I realized that they weren’t flowers at all but rather little vegetables. She just wanted to make them look better but wasn’t sure how to proceed. Thus, according to her own sense of aesthetics, little vegetables like carrots suited her hats the best.
In 2016 she made over 320 hats, sending them over to Xiao Fang once a month, that’s over 20 hats a month!
No more green hats
The first time I ever heard my mother complain was when an acquaintance laughed about the color of her hats. She took out her knitting kit downstairs to chat with her friends as usual but one of her neighbors made the remark “why are you always knitting green hats?” Until then, she had seen no problem with the color, but the upsetting remark set her thinking “Yes, why green? Why is Xiao Fang always making me weave green hats?” In the Chinese language, when a woman makes her husband wear a green hat, it generally means she is having an affair. Thus, her neighbors carried on the conversation by saying “Always making green hats, I wonder whom you are making them for…”
The way we explained it to her was that green is a relaxing color compared to Black or Grey which are considered bad for the eyesight, Red on the other hand is considered too bright. Up until then, 70 or 80 percent of the hats she was making were green. She called me one day specifically to tell Xiao Fang to send her new colors, she told me“ green is too dark and it is bad for people’s eyesight, could you request other colors, please”. But I wittingly replied to her that the hats she was knitting were to be exported to other countries and that green isn’t considered a bad color abroad. But in the end I still bent to her expectations and sent her a variety of replacement colors.
My mum can’t speak Mandarin and Xiao Fang doesn’t understand Sichuan dialect, so in the beginning I acted as a translator. But to avoid raising doubt that I was the one behind the scheme I had to withdraw from their conversations by making my mom learn how to use Wechat (a Chinese IM platform). I brought up the subject once on the phone and so she asked her good friends to show her how to register an account. Our home isn’t equipped with wi-fi so each time she needed to use Wechat to talk to Xiao Fang or send pictures, she had to go to one of her friends’ houses. At one point I told her that she shouldn’t abuse other people’s hospitality and made a deal with her, “Mom, if you make sure to do your job well, I can pay for your internet bill every month. Time has come for you to learn these skills so not to depend on others so much.” Her first steps in the right direction were to text a few words here and there, under the guidance of her friends she slowly learnt to take photos…Now she always harasses me with video calls even when I am driving…
I also made her set up her bank account with Wechat, transferring money this way is much more convenient for all involved parties. She was quite reluctant at first, “If Xiao Fang transfers all of the money on Wechat, then I can’t see if it really exists, plus it’ll be really easy to steal!” But in the end, like all of us, she became accustomed to the idea and stopped worrying about her money getting stolen.
At first, every time she would send a package, she would write my dad’s name in the “sender’s” box, as men are the “pillars” of family life in traditional China. But after she discovered that the job was stable, she maintained her status in the family and was keener with the idea of writing her own name.
She’d say, “Other people are actually jealous of me, they have never seen this kind of wool before, let alone knitted with it, so every time I am knitting, they ask for me to spare some. “My mom is a traditional Chinese woman who was never accustomed to saying no, but now she’s learnt to refuse others from time to time.
On another time, she called me trying to convince me to buy friends’ knit products. “Since those hats sell for high prices and my friends get jealous of me, why not include them as well? I could pay them 15RMB a hat and still make 10RMB, what do you think?” I told her that this wasn’t possible, that Xiao Fang was already doing us a favor by letting us work for her. It’s amusing how the idea of becoming a middleman came upon her!
However I just wanted to collect my mom’s hats, this way I had more of a leverage on her production capacity. During the summer, to prevent her from overheat, I told her that Xiao Fang’s business wasn’t doing well and couldn’t accept as many products. Otherwise, during the winter I told her that the sales were going great in order to keep her busy. My goal wasn’t for her to make as many hats as possible, on the contrary and to improve quality, I controlled the amount of wool I shipped to her in order to manipulate her production capacity.
For the time being there is no need to reveal the inner workings of the business I have set up. I prefer her to continue to be blissfully ignorant. I think that living this way is fine as long as it makes her happy. Covering up the truth is a little like when a parent explains the world to their children in a language they think that they can better understand. Last month however, my grandmother passed at the age of 94. When I was by her side, I had a lot of time to contemplate the hat business, and although it seems warm and comfortable from the outside, I got to see how ruthless it actually was.
If my mom carries on making those hats, on one hand it’ll be a good way to spend the time she has left in this world. However, on the other hand this story will sound more and more like euthanasia, to put it bluntly. I don’t know how much time she has left, 10 years? 20 years? And what else can I really do for her to so that she can happily pass her last few decades on this planet?
Receiving the two hemp bags from Wang Yan
When they got to me, I couldn’t help but to cry. Those two bags contained a year of my mom’s time. All I can do in return for her hard work is to re-distribute the happiness that I felt through this exhibition.
I am turning 33 this year. From University onward, all my time I spent with my parents, barely adds up to 6 months. But I haven’t had a choice; they are not at an age where they need my assistance so there isn’t a lot of ground for us to be together. These past few years have been odd, quite a few distant relatives have passed away…every time my mum calls it seems to be to inform me of some distant aunt or uncle who have passed away, as if it were necessary for her to report this to me. When I return home, I tell them I need to take them for medical exams but they won’t let me, they’re afraid that some bad news might come up, so they continue on with their peaceful yet ignorant ways.
Deep inside, it frightens me, those two hemp bags, they’re an indigestible kind of pain. They’ve already aged so quickly.
HU Yinping - “Xiao Fang” – 2016 – Arrow Factory
Hu Yinping’s written answers to our questions and interview by ZHAO Chengshuai
[采访] Interview - Hu Yinping - 2016