“Are you a student too?”
“Me? Not really, but I’m also working with them”
“The ones doing the paintings? I know there are some foreigners that come here to paint these, someone from Mongolia painted that one over there, I saw them doing it. Do you also paint?”
“No, I'm just doing research around here. Do you like these paintings?”
“Like them? Some of them, I guess... but I think some of you guys are not that good at painting, maybe it’s because you’re still students. This one looks decent, but look at that one - I would like to tell them, carrots don’t look like that at all. You need to live here and get to understand how things look like. I would tell them, no way carrots can get that fat. Carrots should be thinner and longer, like this.”

I’ve been in Xianqiao for only a week, and this is the first time I talk to a local resident about the mural paintings adorning the outer white walls of numerous houses around the village. The murals are painted in bright and pastel primary colors, each in a different style: there are compositions of abstract shapes, traditional folk patterns, pop art graffiti, cute stylized animals, and bright depictions of life in the countryside. One of the latest additions is a surreal facade painted by three artists from Iceland on the side of a milling warehouse: a background fading from rose quartz to serenity blue (the 2016 colors of the year) over which flying fish leap towards a rectangular hole in the sky. “We didn’t know that there was a tree in front of the wall when we drafted our sketches, we noticed it only when we had already started, but it turned out to be quite fitting,” they explain.

Xianqiao is a village located in the middle of Chongming, an island county belonging to the municipality of Shanghai. The nearest town, Shuxin, is a few bus stops southwards, and other villages are all around it, across the rivers and canals cutting up the alluvial countryside, an intricate network of dusty roads and yellow bridges. The village supposedly takes its name – Xianqiao, literally ‘Bridge of the Immortals’ – from the actual arched bridge leading to the neighboring Xiangtong village. Xianqiao gained its village status in October 1976, right after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution, and forty years later it is home to 1,683 people. Most of the residents were born around here, and the large majority of local families consist of elderly couples whose children and grandchildren have moved to Shanghai or other urban areas in search of better jobs. “Here it’s nongcun (countryside),” explains to me the same woman I met while taking photos of the wall paintings. “We don’t have much. It’s Shanghai here, we are from Shanghai too… but it’s not like Shanghai. The weather is better, sure, but it’s not like the city. Or like where you foreigners come from. Here is mamahuhu (so-so), it’s not bad, but it isn’t that good either.”

I’ve been hearing this sort of remarks multiple times – locals identifying as both Shanghainese and Chongmingese, surprised that I understand some Shanghainese words, but at the same time careful to point out that here they speak a different dialect, closer to what is used in the neighboring city of Nantong, Jiangsu province. They often describe their place in terms of a complicated patchwork of processes and tensions: an aging population, an increase in surplus space and unused village housing, the encroachment of plans for urbanization of the island county, and the withering of rural economies, with younger generations leaving and local factories closing. It is in this context that Design Harvests, a project started in 2008 by Studio TAO (itself a division of design firm TEKTAO) and working in partnership with Tongji University and DESIS China, invites visual artists to come to Xianqiao and paint something of their choice on the wall of a local house.

The weekend painting residencies are just one of the multiple projects, programs and events organized by Design Harvests in the larger framework of their “acupunctural approach to sustainability”. Lou Yongqi, Dean of the Tongji University College of Design and Innovation and project director of Design Harvests, defines this acupunctural design approach drawing metaphorically from traditional Chinese medicine: “positive changes can come about by targeting specific areas that in turn influence the whole system”1. For the artists coming over to the village, this program is an opportunity to try their hand at something different and engaging with a meaningful design task. Lia, who is completing a large piece on a house in the southern part of Xianqiao, is overall happy with her experience in the village: “true, it’s not paid… but whatever, they give you the materials you need and offer you a place to stay for the night and fresh food to cook to your liking, that’s already better than staying in the city… even apples are getting so expensive in Shanghai, this is enough for me.”

These paintings, produced by local and international artists coming over for a couple of days over the course of several years and now adorning numerous village houses are just a small part of the activities and projects organized in Xianqiao by Design Harvests. Yet, their presence along village streets becomes the focus of a network of stories: local narratives about rural life and urban aspirations, Design Harvests’ attempts at revitalizing the village, and the need for community art to engage with the community itself – and learn from it how to properly paint carrots.


1 Lou, Y. (2013). Prologue: Design innovation into rural area. In Y. Lou, F. Valsecchi, & C. Diaz (Eds.), Design harvests: An acupunctural design approach towards sustainability (pp. iii–iv). Gothenburg, Sweden: Mistra Urban Futures.