Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Museum Quality

“Ugh” that would be the closest approximation to what I uttered when after weeks of going through closets of unopened mail, mildewed shoes and molting feathered hats I unearthed behind a layer of clothing what must have once served as my grandmother’s gift closet. Boxes of unopened ‘collectibles’ from The Franklin Mint paired with tat from the Ye Olde Gift Shoppee in every small town she had passed through in her 98 years. On a family holiday to Kenya when I was 11 she began to refer to the mounds of tourist grade African wood carvings she was amassing as ‘Museum Quality’. She extolled the talents of these unknown artisans. Defending them to the end she would declare that she had seen something just like it in the Louvre. ‘Museum Quality’ became shorthand in the family anytime we passed cheaply made souvenirs or kitsch.  Squished into the pile of museum quality treasures I found this little gem that I had last seen on a very hot and humid day in June of 1992.  My grandfather a staunch believer in capitalism and the American way decided that he needed to take his grandchildren to see his favorite city of Hong Kong before it was handed back to communist China. The humidity in Hong Kong in June is something to behold but despite this my grandmother then in her 80’s decided to accompany me and my parents on a one day tour of Macau and Guangzhou. In the afternoon of that very long, hot day my grandmother decided that she would prefer to stay on the bus while we visited Dr Sun Yat Sen’s home. She was worn out from the heat and the walking. You can imagine our surprise when we rejoined the bus and she now had piles of souvenirs. During our tour she had been wooed off the bus by some ‘darling, giggling Chinese girls’ . Into their home my grandmother had been beckoned and sat down with the family and had tea. They spoke no English and of course my grandmother spoke no Mandarin or Cantonese but she said that they had gotten along ‘marvelously’ with hand signals and had passed a ‘delightful’ time. She then purchased some ‘exquisite’ embroidery and the family returned her to the bus where she had been waiting for us to return from our bog-standard tour.

My grandfather may have believed in capitalism but my grandmother practiced capitalism. We used to joke that her souvenir purchases propped up developing economies abroad and sagging ones at home. Looking back though that is a bit simplistic as whenever I accompanied her on one of these outings she would take the time to admire the artist’s talent and their creative vision. She would chat endlessly with gift shop owners about their lives and their businesses and extol the merits of optimism. She wasn’t simply a consumer she was a supporter. I look at this tacky kitten embroidery and imagine the scene of an 80-ish American woman in a Nancy Reagan-esque suit, heels and her Nancy Reagan-esque hair, in the heat and humidity of the Southern Chinese Summer sitting with a Chinese family, in a Chinese home, drinking tea and laughing. And I cannot help but marvel at the strength of her charming wordless diplomacy.

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