30 Years West

TEXT AND IMAGE BY 圖文提供 x Cai Yuan 蔡元
TRANSLATED BY 翻譯 x Bowen Li 李博文


We used to hear this Chinese proverb often when we were young: thirty years on the East bank, thirty years on the West bank. Describing the ever changing situation of the Yellow River, this proverb was quite popular amongst the elderly. I spent three years in prison from the age of seventeen to nineteen. In the 1980s, without disclosing this history, I enrolled into Nanjing College of Art. Three years afterwards, however, because of my long hair, bell-bottoms, indulgence in pop music and Swing dance, I became the ‘worst’ student, or rather, a so-called ‘hooligan’. The college finally discovered my anti-revolutionary identity and punished me by keeping me under supervision for a year in school.


8 0年,我隱瞞了一段從17歲至1 9歲,三年的坐牢經歷,考取了南京藝術學院。入學三年後,卻因留長發、穿喇叭褲、聽流行音樂、跳搖擺舞,成了全校最壞的學生和流氓,學院政工科終於查出了我隱瞞的反革命政治身份,給了我留校察看一年的處分。

It wasn’t at all common to get married to a foreigner at that time. I left school because I wanted to marry my ‘foreign chick’ of beauty and kindness. During the visa application process however, both the Office of Foreign Marriage and the Public Security Bureau tried their hardest to stop me. The Nanjing PSB only permitted my visa application after the British Embassy in Beijing had stepped in. The officer in charge of foreign affairs lectured me, holding the bilingual letter from the British Embassy in his hand: “So you are going to the UK? Remember this, the UK is the country of least culture, the Eight-Nation Alliance that burned down Yuanmingyuan.” Hearing this, I decided that if I walked out of this country I was not coming back. In order to control my own destiny, I willed myself into exile. With a fantasy of life in the Western free world and a dream of being a great artist, I could give up everything.


On the 1st of October 1983, we landed in the UK and started liv ing in the beautiful countryside of East Sussex. I started using the g arage as a studio and based on materials brought from China, made a number of oil paintings. In the second year, I sent my paintings to the Mall Galleries for exhibition, won the first prize of the Federation of British Ar tists and Young Artist prize and was awarded a certificate, a box of Rembrandt oil paints and one hundred pounds.

In the same year, there was a massive anti-nuclear demonstration in London. I put on my People’s Liberation Army suit and joined the march, hearing: “Maggie Maggie Maggie! Out out out!” When we got to Trafalgar Square however, I could not resist the temptation of the National Gallery, so excused myself seART.ZIP Issue 11 Sep. 20141 copycretly, rushed into the building and finally got to experience face-to-face masterpieces of Western art, as I had always wanted. Facing the paintings, I was reminded of the moments when my lecturer of History of Western Art spoke of and analysed wonderfully the works and schools of Western masters.

19 8 3年10月1日,我們的飛機抵達英國,住在美麗如畫的東薩塞克斯(East Sussex)農村。我用車庫作畫室,根據從中國帶來的素描寫生,斷斷續續畫了些油畫。第二年,我把畫送到白金漢宮旁的摩爾畫廊(Mall Gallery)參展,得了藝術家聯盟的青年藝術家一等獎,包括一頁獲獎證明,一盒註冊倫勃朗商標的油畫顏料和一百英鎊獎金。

這一年,倫敦舉行了一場反核大示威,我穿上人民解放軍軍裝,加入到浩浩蕩蕩的遊行隊伍裡,整個大街響徹著有節奏的呼喊聲:“Maggie Maggie Maggie! Out Out Out!”在遊行隊伍到達特拉法加廣場時,看著對面的英國國家畫廊,終於經不了誘惑,逃離了人群,躲進國家畫廊,如願以償地,親眼目睹了西方自文藝復興以來大師的繪畫原作。


In 1984, my wife and I left the quiet countryside and started l iving and working in London. I then spent seven years in Peckham, wrote t o family monthly but only went back for visit when my first daughter was born in the 1990. Peckham was one of the poorest boroughs filled with vario us ethnic groups but barely any Chinese. The building I was in was filled with jobless youth. After moving in, I painted the wall with Chairman Mao ’s quotations, and a line with black gloss on the glass window : Chinese man Cai Yuan lives here and co-exists with his spirit. I resorted to SOAS library at the University of London in the daytime, greedily reading books and periodical s; at night, I would go to Piccadilly Circus with my easel and paint in front of the Barclays Bank building under the dim light. The spot was crowded with a dozen painters fighting constantly for seats and clients. Feng Dawei from Shanghai and I were the only Chinese there. Among the painters, there we re a couple of alcoholics; after each job they would immediately go to buy beer, get drunk and pick fights with everybody.

8 4年,我和妻子離開平靜安逸的鄉村,搬到倫敦生活和工作。在佩卡姆(Peckham)一住就是七年,直到90年大女兒出生才決定回國探親,期間每個月和家裡通信。那時佩卡姆是倫敦的窮區之一,居住了很多少數民族,幾乎見不到中國人,我住的樓裡基本上都是失業青年。我搬進去後就在墻上寫滿了毛主席語錄,玻璃窗上用黑油漆寫著一排赫然的大字:“中國人蔡元居此並與其精神長期共存”。我白天常常躲在倫敦大學亞非學院的圖書館裡,如饑似渴地翻閱各種書報和雜誌,晚上提著畫具上皮卡迪利(Piccadilly)大街,在一所被樓房遮掩的巴克萊(Barclays)銀行旁,借著昏暗的路燈畫像。十幾個畫家擠在一塊,經常為爭位置、拉顧客而吵架和打架。我和上海來的馮大衛是唯一的中國人,其中夾雜了兩三個酒鬼,他們畫完了遊客就立刻去買啤酒喝,喝醉了,就朝著大街開始罵人,罵周圍的畫家。

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