Another week and the Philosophy Student could take no more of Hong Kong, so the group packed up and headed to the airport.
Despite writing nothing useful and being “too nice” on the forums, Noble was convinced to pull herself out of her rut and come along.
‘You really need me?’
‘Of course, you’re crucial.’
‘But I haven’t written anything good.’
‘What did I say about ‘but’?’
‘You’re still getting used to things. I struggled at first too, but, trust me, it gets easier. Just read more of our stuff, align yourself to the truth of things.’
‘And stop stressing. You were born in the old ways, it’s normal that it’s harder for you.’
‘Can’t use that excuse forever though, brother…’ said Detroit, looking up from his laptop.
‘Ignore him…sister,’ said the Philosophy Student, flicking a raw baron look at Detroit. ‘We’ll give you as long as you need.’
‘Thank you,’ said Noble, letting herself be patted on the head. ‘I’ll go and buy some new make-up.’
‘In case they notice my skin colour.’
Detroit stared at Noble’s cheeks and nodded. ‘It is pretty grey.’
‘I’m going to lighten the tone a bit. Pass myself off as Finnish or Russian.’
The Philosophy Student stepped to the side, blocking out half of Detroit. ‘I thought most people would assume it was a disease and keep quiet, like in Venezuela.’
‘They do. Here.’
‘Not anywhere else?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Ah. Better to be safe, right?’
The initial target was London, but as soon as they arrived it started to rain, so they re-booked from the airport members lounge and headed to LA.
Money was not a problem.
As Detroit told it, he’d been rich and he’d been poor, he’d lived in old tenements with rats running the walls, he’d eaten cup noodles, he’d had laggy wi-fi, and now, luckily, he had a bit of cash saved up from previous employment.
Noble nodded, touching up some light grey toner on her cheek. ‘What kind of work did you do before?’
‘The hard kind.’
‘Did your parents help out?’
‘Oh. Where are they now?’
‘I don’t know, brother. Working. Arguing.’
‘To be honest, I haven’t seen them in years.’
Noble switched the toner to the other cheek, dabbing gently. ‘I hope they’re not still in the tenement with all the rats.’
‘And cockroaches,’ added Detroit, squinting at Noble’s finger.
‘Ah, they’re not so bad. The cockroaches.’
‘I mean they’re quite easy to kill. I had them in Hong Kong too. You just buy those little traps from Japan Home Store.’
‘Sure, if you’re white and rich.’
‘I think they cost around 40 dollars for 8.’
‘Which is about 5 dollars US.’
Detroit turned away, pulling at the sleeves of his hoodie, then giving up and folding his arms.
‘Maybe you didn’t have them where you lived?’
‘Or maybe they were more expensive back then?’
‘We didn’t have shit.’
Noble nodded, putting away the toner. Internal sensors were telling her that Detroit was lying, he’d never been poor. In fact, he’d probably cribbed the cockroach tale from a forum somewhere, but whatever the source, it didn’t matter as her circuits also told her that pushing him on it could result in a confrontation and she didn’t want to hurt anyone, let alone a comrade.
Best to keep all doubt internal, she concluded, waving at the others.
LA was huge, sprawling, polished. Bigger than any city Noble had ever seen. Bigger than Slovenia. Probably.
The roads were triple sized.
Cars were flash.
Almost everyone looked like Chad Lowe.
The gang rented an apartment in West Hollywood and made plans with other artists in the area to set up a gallery in West Hollywood showing art from oppressed minority voices who lived in or around West Hollywood.
It took a few weeks for the builders to finish renovation, but when they were done the gallery looked pretty…bare. Or post-neo-industrial as Angela called it.
‘It feels like they didn’t do anything,’ said Noble, looking puzzled at the huge amount of grey concrete in the room.
‘Spare is queen.’
‘Less is more. As in, the more blank walls we have, the more people will look at the paintings.’
‘I suppose that’s logical.’
The first artists to exhibit at the gallery were a half Somalian woman called Debit and a gay Chinese guy who initially wore Spanish football t-shirts, but, after re-orientation by the gang, switched to cut-off jeans and a Basquiat hoodie.
‘I still can’t believe you found my work,’ said Debit, as her paintings of grey squares on grey background were tacked to the walls.
‘Thank Charlotte,’ said Katya, wheeling herself up to the greyness, ‘she’s the one who told us about you.’
‘I will. Though it’s kinda weird, I haven’t seen her since our last year at Berkeley.’
‘She remembers you.’
‘I guess. Is she in LA?’
‘Yeah, she just moved here, last week.’
‘Sick, where about?’
‘Ah, no way, we might be neighbours.’
‘You live here too?’
‘Just around the corner.’
‘House with the neon balcony and Doric temple out front.’
‘Small fucking world.’
One of the workers interrupted them and asked where they wanted the other paintings hung.
‘That wall over there.’
The worker nodded and walked out.
A few minutes later he came back in with the first painting from the Chinese artist. A twisted human figure, being penetrated by Chinese script. Noble watched as it was placed on the wall, adjusting her position every few seconds to study a different part.
‘You like it?’ asked the Philosophy Student, appearing next to Noble.
‘He’s actually from a village in the North of China, where gay people are banned. Then he comes here and the very first day, he’s walking down the street and some caveman pulls up, tells him to fuck off back to China. This country is so fucked up.’
‘I like the way the figure has no face…and how the Chinese characters integrate with his body. Looks a bit like he’s being stabbed, or…I don’t know.’
‘Si, the Chinese stuff is cool. Really alien, really different.’
‘I know two of the characters, but not in this context. What’s the meaning of it?’
‘It’s-…actually, I’m not sure.’
‘What did he say about it?’
‘The artist? I don’t know. Forgot to ask.’
Noble wanted to say huh? but, luckily, she didn’t have to as the Chinese artist popped up next to them. She told him she liked his work but wasn’t sure exactly what he was trying to say with it.
‘Very simple thing. It is about China. The Government and the people.’
‘Criticism of dictatorship…’ said Angela, pulling up and nudging the Chinese artist with her elbow.
‘Not exactly this. I want to say, people and the government are trying to understand each other and grow. The country grows too.’
‘Yeah, China is great, Chinese people, the food, but this painting is against the Chinese Govt…right?’
‘No, I don’t think. Not like this.’
‘It’s not against them?’
‘There is the middle ground, neutral side.’
‘Yeah, neutral, okay…long as you’re not supporting them. Cos that would be insanity.’
‘Hmm. They are not so good, but not so bad.’
Angela froze, a vein popping somewhere in her neck. ‘What?’
‘I think, they do some good things. They give pensions to old people, hospitals are cheap in my city, nice trains. This is Chinese culture, leader can rule but he must be fair to the people, so…I think maybe not so bad.’
‘Not so bad? Tell that to the Uyghur people. And Tibet. And that weird gung cult they torture.’
‘Yes, some is not good, but it is not all. They keep the country strong. All those people you say, Tibet, Urghur, many are terrorists, so it is normal to do this. Just same as USA do, Chinese Govt also do, for the country. They try to help us grow from the bad times before.’
‘They created those bad times before, they fucking did it.’
‘Before, yes. A little bit. But not so bad now. They make it better.’
‘Shit. You’re shilling for the dictatorship. Sucking them off.’
‘Shilling…I don’t know what it means.’
‘You’re on their side.’
‘No, not side. I just think there is sometimes good and sometimes bad. You cannot say everything is all evil, especially human.’
‘No offence, but you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.’
The Chinese artist squinted at nothing in particular, air particles perhaps. ‘Fuck I’m talking about? Sorry, this is not offence or…?’
‘Don’t fucking talk to me, Mo Yan. Don’t even look at me. Fascist wretch. We’re fucking done.’
Angela walked over to the grey art, leaving the Chinese artist alone with Noble and the Philosophy Student.
‘Is your friend okay?’ asked the artist, stroking both sleeves of his Basquiat top.
‘She’s got a lot of friends who are Chinese.’
‘They’ve been treated pretty badly by the Govt over there.’
‘Oh? Which friends?’
‘I don’t know the details. But it’s bad. Anyway, forget her, there’s nothing we can do about that now. Let’s focus on your background for tonight’s opening. Make sure we stick to the relevant stuff.’
‘Right, here’s the core of it.’ The Philosophy Student put her arm around the artist’s shoulder, stroking the edge of Basquiat’s hair. ‘You’re gay so that’s where the brunt of the questions will be. Stuff like, what’s it like being gay in China, in the cities? Is it a growing thing? Accepted or still kinda underground? How does being gay affect your art? But you’re also Chinese, so there’ll be some stuff on diversity too, like how tough is it to get your art shown, discrimination stories, those fuck off back to China assholes, stuff like that.’
‘You don’t want to talk about my paintings?’
‘Sure, and the background stuff behind it too.’
‘Your life, basically.’
‘So, I can talk about my paintings?’
‘Of course. Your paintings are great. We love them. ’
The Philosophy Student looked at Noble, who smiled blankly in response, then proceeded to back slowly away from the Philosophy Student, the casual fascist and the painting. She’d only lived in Hong Kong for a year, and learned to read a tiny bit of traditional Chinese, but she wasn’t Chinese and didn’t want to say something that might be deemed wrong by the others in the gallery. It was much better to be part of the cause than an albatross dragging it down.