Meetings with Remarkable Women: Shen Ye, Organic Activist and Chinese Rock Chick

Last post from my recent visit to Beijing

If promoting organic farming through Oxfam partner Beijing Farmers Markets sounds a bit worthy, Shen Ye is

Shen Ye an me looking at beans
Shen Ye and me looking at beans

anything but – she’s one of the funniest people I’ve met in years and during a morning spent visiting farms on the outskirts of the City, was both fascinating and reduced me to repeated fits of giggles, with her mixture of Chinese magical realism and bawdy humour (some of it unrepeatable on a nice, decent blog like this one). Here’s a flavour.

In the cultural revolution, her grandfather survived because he was a much-loved local mayor and devout Communist with whom not even the Red Guards could find fault. He kept his son (Ye’s father) out of the Guards by apprenticing him to a painter who survived by painting murals of Chairman Mao up and down the land. That ensured food and survival, until he made a tragic mistake. He painted a picture on the back of an old poster of Mao, and the paint soaked through and disfigured the Great Leader. He was punished by being buried up to his waist in human excrement for days, until he eventually hanged himself.

On the road in the UK (geddit?). Shen Ye centre foreground.
On the road in the UK (geddit?). Shen Ye centre foreground.

His apprentice survived, but quit painting and rejected Communism. Essentially, he dropped out and ended up as a truckstop chef, specializing in turning the roadkill the truckers brought him into tasty dishes. But one day, when Ye was a young girl, the circus came to town and Ye’s dad fell in love with the high wire artist and disappeared. Following a tip, Ye eventually tracked him down and found he had retrained as a strongman, holding up bicycles with his teeth. At this point, I realized this was not going to be an ordinary conversation.

Ye left school at 17, worked as a maid for an old foreigner, and picked up excellent English. She ended up working for an independent rock band label managing Chinese rock bands. One even band toured the UK. Her most powerful memories are of the women of Newcastle. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say the sheltered young lads in her band never forgot the visit.

She ended up marrying a Brit from near Newcastle, who works in Beijing. They have a cat called Billy, who she Billy the Kitlerdescribes as a ‘Kitler’ (for obvious reasons – see pic). This despite her deep shock at the diet of the good people of England’s Northeast – she swears her husband only ate fresh vegetables when he reached adulthood (unless you count potatoes) – until then everything was tinned. As a typically food conscious-Chinese, she lasted 3 days and then insisted on taking over – she is now teaching her mother-in-law how to cook. They plan to move back to the UK and open an organic B&B in the sleepy coastal resort of Whitby. I hope Whitby’s ready for her.

Hard to think of a better evocation of China’s extraordinary evolution over the last 50 years.

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