[A talk I gave as part of the Hunt & Darton Symposium on Friday 5 February in response to the question How does something as quintessentially British as the Hunt and Darton Cafe thing translate internationally?]
In 2015 the Hunt and Darton Café went to China. It went as part of a Forest Fringe Microfestival that toured to three different galleries in three major cities – Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing.
We arrived first in Guangzhou at the end of July. Holly and Jenny brought with them two new pineapple dresses, a collection of novelty porcelain ornaments, and a suitcase full of British cakes – Battenberg, French fancies, Wagon Wheels – everything we knew we wouldn’t be able to find in China.
Guangzhou is the third largest city in China with a population of over 13 million people. When people prepare to go home for Chinese New Year a queue forms at Guangzhou central train station that can be up to two days long. It is almost impossibly big, filled with skyscrapers and spectacular architectural projects of impossible scale and conspicuous power. It is hot and humid. In Shanghai we are working in a former slaughterhouse with labyrinthine walkways rising up from the ground floor in disorientating spirals. One day we head out to one of the city’s impossibly huge shopping centres and eat expensive sandwiches in a European café. When Holly and I try to get a cab home we end up stranded on a three lane highway for about half an hour, waving at taxis that won’t stop. We stand on either side of the road and when eventually Holly persuades someone to take us I have to run across two lanes of traffic and dive in as he is already starting to pull away. In Beijing we go on a day trip to the Great Wall of China. It is so big and so beautiful.
In Guangzhou the café was intended to temporarily take the place of another more permanent café on a balcony of the gallery perched seventeen floors up on the top of a local apartment block. The day before the first day of the first microfestival on the tour we stood on this balcony and looked out at the endless carpet of city laid out in front of us.
What are we doing here in China? What purpose could our being here possibly have? Can something as small and peculiar as Forest Fringe or the Hunt and Darton Café make any sense in this impossibly huge and entirely different place. Who would come? What would they think? Would any of this make any sense to them? Would we just look like idiots? Would they understand that perhaps we were trying to do so?
China, like any place, is best understood not from the top of its tallest buildings, but from walking through its smallest streets. Or at least it is perhaps noticeable that this is undoubtedly where we all felt most comfortable. Tiny restaurants spilling out on to the pavement on colourful plastic chairs, the appropriated imagery of major international brands, people laughing with you and occasionally at you, occasionally hilarious home-made fixes and resourceful workarounds, all of which make China’s streets such a joyous, unpredictable place to walk. Improvisatory tactics, resourceful acts of cohabitation and appropriation; an ‘art of making do’ as Michel De Certeau would have it. In the shadows of skyscrapers, shopping malls and conference centres, it is on these streets that the world’s most populous country exists on a human scale.
Heading out into these streets was a useful reminder to us that beyond the grand concert halls, China is also a country (as hopefully any country is) that still operates on an intimate, human scale. A place full of people who appreciate the value of distraction and interruption. People who enjoy garish colours, trashy food and the multitude of tiny rituals that make up the way we choose to eat together. People with a sense of humour and an appetitive for oddness. People who enjoy stupid dances and making fun of themselves. People who appreciate the opportunity to gather together and to try something they haven’t tried before. All the things, in short, that make the Hunt and Darton café such a great place to spend some time.
In Guangzhou over 800 people attended the Forest Fringe microfestival in 2 days and almost all of those people spent a lot of their time in the café, chatting to friends, eating cake, watching Jenny and Holly dance and talk with customers and their volunteer helpers and make food and serve food and spill food and throw food and play records and readjust their pineapple headdresses. In Shanghai the numbers were similar. Sometimes it was very busy and the whole place felt like a bewildering, technicolour festival. Other times there were perhaps only a handful of people there and it felt like a café. In either case it always felt undoubtedly like the Hunt and Darton café, or at least a version of it, existing perfectly happily here amongst the skyscrapers and the busyness of contemporary Chinese city life.
Perhaps then the café itself is not quintessentially British after all.
Perhaps it is Holly and Jenny who are quintessentially British. Or perhaps they are just strange in any language.
Either way the thing they have created is not some kitsch object like the porcelain figurines or the mountains of Battenberg cake that arrived with them in a suitcase. It is not some obscure in-joke. Nor is it the kind of exportable, marketable version of Britishness that George Osborne so likes – like Downton Abbey or War Horse or Top Gear or every surviving member of the British Family – fetishized pieces of Brand GB nostalgia sold like souvenir postcards, like some distant cultural other.
Instead the café is an intervention or perhaps a series of interventions within another space that belongs as much to that other space as it does to any antiquated notion of Britishness. It is an interruption, an alternative way of doing things that temporarily takes hold without obliterating the curious localness of each of the places it visits.
The café’s peculiar way of doing things manifests itself in all manner of ways. In China it meant Holly attempting to cook Victoria sponges in a local Shanghai bar owner’s pizza oven at 11 at night on the day before the café opened. It meant Jenny teaching the young women working in the café in Guangzhou how to make salmon sandwiches and what the different kinds of chocolate biscuit tasted like and who Delia Smith is. It meant asking six year olds and sixteen year olds and sixty year olds to push two strange British women around on a trolley as a form of entertainment. It meant making a prestigious Chinese theatre critic lie on a table pretending to smoke a piece of ham like a cigar whilst friends and strangers threw pieces of salad at him.
In the end then, I think the reason the café was so successful in Guangzhou and Shanghai are the same reasons it was so successful in Peterborough or Colchester or Clapton. It is because the café is not an object. It is not an artwork to be admired. And neither is it really a café. It is a performance that employs the language and conventions of a café in order to create a space in which we can all play together.
It is a performance that temporarily occupies a place without ever needing to take it over, without eliminating or obscuring the people and things that were there already. It is a performance of distinctive weirdness that doesn’t attempt to sell us its Britishness but instead invites us to participate in it. A performance whose rules are so simple we can all join in. A performance as familiar to us as the childhood games of make-believe we all used to play – running cafes, running shops, manning hospitals, driving vans. It is that same game of make-believe played with real food and real money. It is a game of ordinary people pretending to be ordinary people, playing out deconstructed cartoon versions of the kind of ordinary interactions that make up their everyday lives, and the strangeness of that is always liberating and delightful, no matter who you are and no matter where you come from.
And the wonderful thing about these curious tactics and alternative ways of operating is that they linger long after the show has left town and the café itself has disappeared. By embroiling themselves in the local everydayness of a place Hunt and Darton become part of that localness. In China they left behind cardboard signs and porcelain ornaments, a love of niche low budget British snacks and recipes for finger sandwiches that have since become part of our Guangzhou hosts’ regular menu. In Shanghai the bar we built is now a part of the venue we built it in. They left behind dances and movements, a way of talking and of playing, a way of relating to the people around you, a silliness and a humour and a recognition that such silliness and humour do not have to be the opposite of seriousness or of taking what you do seriously.
What our trip to China taught me is that it is not the Britishness of the café that makes it so appealing. It is how much a part of the localness of each place it visits it is able and willing to become.