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I love to travel but one of the few places that I have never thought about visiting was China.  I guess that it has always seemed so far away to me.  When an invitation to visit the 2008 Xiamen International Animation Festival in Xiamen, China from November 1 through the 5th arrived it was a chance that I could not pass up.  I was very anxious to have the opportunity to see what China was creating in the field of animation since we get to see very little work coming from there in Europe.

Welcome to Xiamen

The entire ASIFA International Board was invited to attend the festival and as the representative on the Board for ASIFA/San Francisco I knew that my members would be interested to hear my observations on the state of the art in China.  The International Board also planned to hold an official Board Meeting during the festival.

The first thing that struck me upon arrival at Beijing International Air Port was how new, modern, and international it was.  Passengers moved between terminals on high speed people-mover trains and the terminal book store shelves featured several languages including the latest best sellers in English.

It was a short flight from Beijing to the island of Xiamen.  From the moment my hosts met me at the airport, I was treated to a most generous and lavish week.  My room at the Yeohwa Hotel was almost as large as my home in Belgium with every amenity imaginable.  The hotel complex, located in a park like setting, was the place where Richard Nixon stayed when he visited Xiamen on his 1972 trip to China.

My plane was two hours late, so almost immediately I was whisked away to what was the first of many magnificent feasts.  Xiamen is famous for its cuisine, which features a wide array of seafood.  I love all types of seafood and was totally overwhelmed by the sheer quantity, variety and quality laid out on the numerous buffet tables arranged around a very large room.  Just in case you couldn’t find exactly what you desired there was a battery of chefs who would prepare anything that you would like.

I was surprised that the head chief was not Chinese but from the United States.  When he discovered that I have a particular weakness for shrimp dumplings, a plate of them appeared at my place every time I sat down to enjoy a meal at the hotel restaurant.  I must admit that I have never had the pleasure of eating all of the oysters and sushi that I have ever wanted before, even at breakfast!

The evening meal was served very early every day, usually around 5:30 PM.  No official activities were planned for most evenings but the hotel had a guest lounge that was stocked with complementary beer, wine, juices, and just in case you wanted an evening snack a nice spread of food including sushi.  Many of the Board members met there in the evenings and it was a lovely chance to catch up on news with each other in a relaxed atmosphere.

Daily activities began very early. I am not a morning person, so my 6:15 wake-up call was a rude shock, but when I opened the curtains it was already sunny and bright outside.  After leaving the cold weather at home in Belgium, the promised 80 degree weather was a welcome treat.

After a breakfast of sushi and steamed pork buns, I was ready for the 20 minute bus ride to the Xiamen Software Park where the festival took place.  The “park”, which has space for 40,000 workers, is brand new, and the festival was the first event to be held there.  The exhibit hall was packed full of the latest technology, more like a trade show than an animation festival.

Young animator at work in the exhibition hall

Along with ASIFA Board Members there were several other special guests.  Bordo Dovnikovic, a pioneer of animation in the former Yugoslavia and Croatia, delivered the key note speech at the official opening of the film festival.   I was very interested to hear Bob Sabiston speak about some of the new innovations in animated effects.   Bob developed the rotoscope program, Rotoshop, was head animator on Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, and created a paint and animation program to be released on the Nintendo DS.    John Sanders, head of production technology at Lucasfilm in Singapore, spoke about the co-operation between East and West under Globalization, and Cary Silver, producer of Star Wars: Clone Wars, and Andrew Harris, Lucasfilm computer graphics and Lighting Designer as also gave a presentation.

Each ASIFA Board member was asked to bring a DVD representing their members’ work which was screened during the festival.  The ASIFA/San Francisco sampler that I took was more industry oriented, with samples from ILM and other Bay Area commercial studios although it did include excerpts from some lovely independent animation such as Sally Cruikshank’s Quasi at the Quackadero.  Each of us was also asked to participate on a panel discussion or give a presentation on a topic of our choosing.  I presented a program on the history of animation through music and afterwards young members of the audience told me that although they were aware of Disney they had never heard of the Fleischer Brothers or Chuck Jones.  They had no idea that this sort of animation was being created long before they were born.

The competition programs, with the exception of a few foreign works in the Best Overseas Animated Short Film category such as Rune Wake’s Rabbit and Alexei Alexeev’s KJFG5, were unexceptional.  Over and over I saw formula styles of 3D characters that fell mainly into two categories – super heros and “cute” little big eyed kids and animals.  Plot lines were minimal.  Most of the films looked like they had been developed for show reels with an eye on an industry or television job.  Unfortunately I could find little or nothing in the way of artistic work.  All of the young people that I talked to asked me the same two questions, “How do I get into the industry?” and “How much money can I make?”

China has definitely entered the animation high tech race, but it seems to be totally ignoring the creative, artistic process in favor of crass commercialization that has little or no interest in well-developed story lines or high quality animation.  That said, I tried to take in to account that this is an emerging industry in a country that does not have the long tradition and history in an art form that the United States, Europe and Russia all share.  Rather than just accept what modern China produces, I hope that the animation community in other parts of the world will use their years of expertise to help guide China into a more creative direction.

For me the most important part of the trip was our ASIFA International Board Meeting.  There were 12 voting members and 2 non-voting members present as well as 10 proxies from absent members.  The Board had six major topics to discuss: budget, website, ASIFA’s magazine, an anniversary book, and finding an executive director.

Obviously, several of these items, such as the budget, anniversary book, Executive Director, and magazine are interconnected. The first lengthy conversation was about our magazine. Concern was expressed at the publishing and shipping costs of CARTOON which continue to rise.  There was also a long discussion about how to make ASIFA more relevant to the ever changing world of animation so that we can encourage new members to join our association.  Unfortunately, although there were many suggestions, no concrete resolution to this problem could be agreed upon.

As a member of the website committee, my main aim at the board meeting was to secure the board’s approval for the allocation of the 5,000.00 Euros that the committee needs to launch a redesigned website and maintain it for one year.  Anyone who has visited the ASIFA International website recently has seen immediately what an outdated mess it is.  One of our most effective tools to recruit new members to ASIFA International, especially young animators, would be to have a web site that gives up to date, meaningful information. I did achieve my goal of a 5,000 euro budget for the website.  We also agreed to provide an online French translation of CARTOON, ourmagazine.

The matter of selecting an Executive Director consumed a lot of time and generated heated discussion at the 2006 Zagreb Board Meeting. The matter is still unresolved. After more discussion about why this position remains unfilled, Bill Dennis offered to re-define the position and clarify the job responsibilities.  I hope that Bill’s work will make it possible for us to find a qualified Executive Director in quick order.  Filling this position will not solve all of ASIFA’s problems but if we can find the right person it would certainly be a step in the right direction.  There are many grants, especially in Europe, that are available for projects and organizations that encompass several countries and applying for these is a perfect example of a duty for the Executive Director.  A very pressing need is to have a person who can put together an information pamphlet that can be given out at festivals.  I know that what we need is an angel but if anyone can articulate our needs clearly it is Bill.

There were lengthy discussions about our magazine including the need for a new design and a revamping of the mailing system.  ASIFA will celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2010 and it has been proposed that we publish a book commemorating our history for the event.  There were discussions about the budget for the publication, timetable, format and number of pages.  At the time of our meeting we had not yet received our annual fiscal report and so several board members expressed a feeling that we had to wait until we knew our financial state before making definite publishing plans especially since no one on the board could quote definite costs for the proposed project.

There were very important issues that we didn’t have time to discuss, such as the need to rewrite the ASIFA statutes.  There are many issues that have come up in the last year that are not clearly defined in our present statutes.  We also did not have time to talk about membership fees and the possibility of a sliding dues scale according to the GNP of a country and the number of chapter members.

Originally, our board meeting was scheduled for only 4 hours, but with so many Board Members finally face to face and a multitude of major issues to deal with, we shortened our lunch hour and extended our meeting to the last possible minute.  Several of us voiced the opinion that we would like to continue our discussions in the evenings, since dinner was always served very early, but some Board Members didn’t seem to want more time for serious discussions.

I believe in the goals that ASIFA was founded to foster and promote and I will continue to work very hard to try and strengthen these aims, but I feel that we must realize that times have changed.  There is an entire new generation of animators who have no connection to ASIFA.  Our organization cannot live in the glory of the past, but must move into the 21st century and give our members an association that is as meaningful to them as ASIFA was to its founding members 50 years ago.

The entire ASIFA Board visited the mayor of Xiamen at his office.  Along with tea and speeches we were each presented with a beautiful lacquer thread sculpture plate gilded with 24 carat gold leaf which is a 300 year old traditional craft in Southern Fuijan province.

Bill Daniels and Bordo Dovnikovic at the mayor's office

Besides the sumptuous buffet meals in the hotel dining room we were honored guests at several banquets including an 8 course dinner hosted by the vice mayor of Xiamen featuring such delicacies as Fo Tiao Qiang Soup with Assorted Seafood, Crispy Codfish, and Fried Rice with Fish Roe.  I was definitely in food heaven.

The vice mayor also kept making the rounds of the table.He would pour a clear white liquor into our glass and toast each of us.  I am still not sure what the liquor was but it certainly did pack a wallop!  The meal was followed by a party honoring ASIFA and more food and drink were served.

Nancy and the Vice-Mayor toasting

ASIFA Board members with Chinese animators

Open air fish market

The division here between rich and poor is very extreme, more so than in any other country that I have ever visited. So far, I had seen new modern China, but I was anxious to discover if any of old China still existed in Xiamen.  One afternoon, my fellow Board Member Heikki Jokinen and I went to an old section of the city.  The sights and sounds were a vast contrast to the calm serenity of our 50 acre hotel compound.  The streets teemed with people and the open air fish market that we chanced upon stretched for blocks, with baskets full of every type of fish imaginable, and a few that I could barley fathom spread out on the ground.  Xiamen is famous for Oolong tea and one narrow street was crowded with entire families, young and old, sitting in their open doorways cleaning tea.

On the last full day in Xiamen, guests were taken to the beautiful island of Gulangyu a short ferry ride from Xiamen.  The island is home to Fuzhou University Arts and Design College as well as a tourist destination.  The works on display in the university gallery ranged from beautiful to creatively innovative and I was particularly taken with a group of fanciful ceramic underwater creature sculptures.  We were given a short tour around the island in little motorized trains with a stop to tour the piano museum.  As we drove past the lovely beaches, I longed to explore them, so I opted out of the museum tour and had a short walk on the beach instead.  I also got to explore the lovely garden below the museum which was full of fish ponds and a long walkway to a pagoda on rocks out in the bay.  When the rest of the group returned to Xiamen I stayed on Gulangyu and spent several serene hours walking on the beaches in the beautiful hot sunshine.  I also climbed to the top of the mountain in the center of the island where I was treated to a breathtaking 360 degree view.  It was also intriguing to explore the narrow streets and alleyways of the one town on the island.  After all of the delicious food that I had been eating, hours of walking was just what I needed, but all too soon it was time to return to the hotel to prepare for dinner and the festival’s closing awards ceremony.

Two Red Heads on the island

If I had any illusions that the ASIFA Board has become a two tiered democracy, my last doubts were dissolved when we arrived at the Xiamen International Conference Center for the awards ceremony.  Our President, the four Vice Presidents and Secretary were led to front row seats with the rest of the invited dignitaries, while the five remaining Board Members were ushered up to the seventh row where we were definitely not served tea.  In a country where the smallest gesture or action carries great significance, the message was not lost on any of us “second class” Board Members.

The “Cyber Sousa” Award program resembled a splashy Academy Awards Ceremony gone awry. It was unlike any closing night award ceremony I had attended in Europe.  The show opened with the “Action Song” Dreams Come True. The presentation of the first award for Best Experimental Animation was followed by a “Dance Drama”, Scarecrow.  By far the most bizarre part of the program was a vocal selection from ChicagoGaojia Opera Clowns, Puppet Show: Daming Mansion, and Theme Songs of classical Chinese and overseas animation works. complete with skimpy costumes.  The award presentations seemed to get lost.  They were stuck in between such overwhelming productions as the

Even more bizarre was the awarding of the prizes itself.  For each award, three young people were ushered onto the stage, with the first prize winner always in the center.  All of the categories and award winners were announced in English as well as Chinese, so I assumed these were the actual award winners since “accepting the award for. . . ” was never said.  When we got to the Best Animation Film from Overseas the three people introduced on the stage were definitely Chinese.   KJFG No. 5 was announced the winner and it was definitely not Alexei Alexeev who stepped forward to receive the trophy but the obvious intention was to give the impression that it was and that all awards, even foreign awards, were won by Chinese.  This was one of the longest award ceremonies that I have ever sat through!

Me and my bear ears

I cannot thank our hosts Johnchill Lee and Anni Liang enough for the generous hospitality that they showered upon all of the ASIFA Board Members.  I also have the fondest memories of my translator who showed great humor and tolerance in putting up with my western ways.  They must have seemed very strange at times to her.  And of course, I will wear my hand sewn “bear ears” from one of the Exhibition Hall’s costume sales booths that she presented to me with great pride and fond memories.