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Home in Shop, Neighbors in Home
    2008-08-17 21:23:55     CRIENGLISH.com

Sean Smith (L), a Canadian sports theorist, poses with a new friend whom he encouraged to play sports-themed video games at a street party hosted by HomeShop Games 2008. Smith awarded paper "medals" to the players in Beijing's Xiaojingchang hutong on August 16, 2008. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com/Xie Tingting]

Click to listen:
 Elaine Ho talks about HomeShop (3 min 50 sec)
 Sean Smith talks about the project (1 min 7 sec)

The Xiaojingchang hutong, an old alleyway in central Beijing, was unusually crowded on the evening of August 16.

A mixed bag of beer-drinking hutong residents and a dozen foreigners and their Chinese friends hung around in the alley. A foreigner and a local youngster stood in the middle of the street, playing video games on a projector screen hung at the entrance of a storefront. Behind them, another group with djembe drums followed the rhythms of music coming from inside the storefront.

People were here for a street party organized by HomeShop Games 2008, a community-based project that is running throughout the Beijing Olympics.

"HomeShop basically is my house," Elaine Ho, a Chinese-American artist who initiated the project, said about the storefront space she has been living in for about a year.

Ho's house is a tiny two-room unit with a large entrance facing the street. Above the entrance hangs a blue-on-white banner that has a big "Jia," the Chinese word for "home," printed on it. Such an exterior design makes the place feel like a real store, and it attracts passersby.

"People are wondering what I'm selling, but I'm not selling anything," Ho said.

As an artist who is interested in the relationship between public and private spaces, Ho has long wanted to live in such a place where strangers keep coming and going. She introduces herself and her storefront-living idea and forms fast friendships with them.

"Since I moved in, I've been wanting to do some sort of activities involving not only friends but also people from the community," Ho said. "I saw the Olympics as a perfect opportunity to do that."

HomeShop opened when the Olympics began on August 8. About 50 of Ho's friends and neighbors sat on small chairs in the alley and watched the opening ceremony on her projection screen.

"The old and the young were sitting together," said one of Ho's retired neighbors surnamed Zhou. "Everybody was happy. For both the Chinese and foreign people, I think it was a very honest way to communicate with each other."

"This opening party I did more for my neighbors than for my friends," Ho said. She described how happy she was to see an elderly woman who lived nearby enjoying herself as she watched the Olympic opening ceremony, because she did not have a television at home.

Ho's foreign friends also are trying to fit in. Pauline Doutreluingne, a disc jockey who supplied the music for the street party, said she usually plays diverse musical genres. But for her hutong debut, she said she "wanted to play some Chinese music to please the neighbors here."

Sean Smith, a Canadian sports theorist who is in Beijing for the Olympics, has been picking up some Chinese basics after hanging around HomeShop for about a week. "Chi le ma?" ("Have you eaten?"), a typical Chinese way of greeting an acquaintance, has become his opening line for a conversation with the locals.

Public vs. Private

Despite her current circle of neighborhood friends, Elaine Ho felt like an outsider during her early days in the hutong, where one family lives only a few steps away from another.

"It's probably a little bit strange to a lot of people that I'm living in a shop," Ho said. "They think it's weird, and they don't know how to talk to me, and I don't know how to talk to them."

But HomeShop helped Ho open the lines of communication.

"Within one week's time, it's been a complete transformation of my way of living here," Ho said.

HomeShop arranges small-scale gatherings everyday and on occasion big events such as its opening night and the street party. Ho's little storefront has been welcoming a range of visitors on a daily basis. There are Ho's friends, friends of friends, and complete strangers.

Because Ho is also collecting second-hand clothes for Inga Svala Thorsdottir, an Icelandic artist who will later use them in a project, her neighbors are eagerly coming over and bringing old apparel. Other neighbors simply come and chat for half the day.

"People are coming all the time, even at the time when I was trying to work," Ho said. "But I wanted to explore this [kind of communication], and I gave up my privacy."

Ho said she has learned a lot about Chinese culture and everyday life from chatting with her neighbors.

But what will happen when the HomeShop series ends? Ho is not sure whether her neighbors will keep coming over to hang out with her.

We will have to wait and see.

By Xie Tingting

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