There were almost no cars on street. No private cars, only embassy cars. You could walk in the middle of the street. It was very slow, very quiet and very gray. There were not so many expressions on human faces, After the Cultural Revolution, muscles were still not built up to laugh or show emotion. When you saw a little bit of color—like a yellow umbrella in the rain—it was quite shocking. The society was all gray, and a little bit blue.
Then Deng Xiaoping encouraged people to get rich. Those who became rich first did so because of their [Chinese Communist] Party association. Suddenly luxury goods came in to Beijing. Like tape recorders, because if there’s music, then there’s a party; It is a sexy product. [People listen to] sentimental Taiwan pop music. Levi’s blue jeans came very early. People were seeking to be identified with a certain kind of style, which saves a lot of talking [e.g., to establish your identity].
Can you explain the obsession with brand names in Beijing?
People want to drive luxury cars because it gives them a sense of identity; they want to be identified with high quality, though it may not reflect the truth.
This is a society with no sense of religion; it has completely lost any aesthetic or moral judgment. But it is a large space that needs to be occupied. As a human, you need a sense of dignity. If you don’t have a moral or religious or philosophical opinion on the universe, the easiest act is to trust the winner.
How was the transition to New York City, where you lived in the 1980s?
I remember my first glimpse of New York, when my plane came down. It was early in the evening—it looked like a bowl of diamonds. When I grew up, [there was] no electricity when the sun went down—the whole earth would go dark.
Before I came to New York, I only knew this is the heart of capitalism, the most sinful city. Of course, I am crazy [excited] to go since I hate Communists. I thought, that’s a place I would love to go. But I knew nothing about New York—all of my impressions came from Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.
And when you came back to Beijing in the 1990s, how was it different?
I could see some material changes, but I was very disappointed to see so little political change. I could see so many luxury cars. There is no justice or fairness in this society—so far from it—and the gap is getting deeper and wider.