Interview with Faculty Lena Scheen

There was recently a Faculty Lunch Speaker Series talk about a construction site in Pudong that used to be the location of a 500-year-old temple. The speaker told about a group of old people who frequently visit the former temple site to pray and burn incense in front of the a wall that now surrounds the construction site. Fascinated by the varied stories that came up in her research on this site, I tracked her down for the following interview:


Please give a brief introduction of yourself.

My name is Lena Scheen. I’ve been working here since August 2012, since the opening of the portal campus of NYU Shanghai. I teach various courses on Shanghai, such as a course about fiction set in Shanghai from the last 100 years, a course on urban development in Shanghai, and one where we compare urban development issues in Shanghai and Detroit. I just published my new book on contemporary Shanghai literature, it’s called Shanghai Literary Imaginings: A City in Transformation.


Listening to your talk and the description of your research made me think of storytelling. It seems like a lot of your work revolves around storytelling.

That’s very true. I’m very interested in storytelling. Stories are the source of my research that explores the impact of Shanghai’s fast urbanization on both the individual and on society at large. I look at how the changing city is imagined in stories and how these imaginings express the mental and social impact of the recent transformation. For this I don’t make a distinction between fictional stories, official stories by the government or media, urban legends, oral history, or personal and family stories. I believe that all of these stories not only mirror or reflect the changing city, but also are themselves an intrinsic part of the urban transformation process. For the project of my talk, I look at the fictional and historical stories about this one particular place in Pudong. So, yes, storytelling is definitely the running thread of my research.


Does that make China an interesting place to do research? For example, the Cultural Revolution eliminated a lot of stories, or made some stories more important than others.

That’s an interesting point. Actually, the interesting thing about the Cultural Revolution is that it has created a sort of Black Hole in Chinese history. But because it’s not there, it’s very much there. Take one novel for example by Wang Anyi – The Song of Everlasting Sorrow – people say “well, she largely skips the Cultural Revolution”, but actually, the fact that the years of the Cultural Revolution are sort of skipped make them very present. I see this in a lot of fiction. What is interesting is that the Cultural Revolution tried to erase history, by literally destroying the “Four Olds”, but that now the Cultural Revolution itself is being erased. There is a collective amnesia. Yet it’s present in its absence. Although I have to say that there’s in fact a lot of fiction that does deal with the Cultural Revolution. Now, with the distance of time, we see people retelling the stories of the Cultural Revolution. Stories are erased and replaced by new stories. That’s what history is about.


When you say that “it’s present in its absence” that is also true for the talk you did about the temple, how the construction site remains, but the temple is absent.

Exactly. The physical temple is no longer there, but the fact that people still go to the site to pray makes it very present. I’m fascinated by the fact that if you go to the place, all you see is a white wall – with some characters – surrounding a construction site, a muddy hole in the ground. It’s a non-place that, only through the stories about it, becomes a place. All of these stories come out of this hole in the ground; this large, black hole. That’s what makes it so interesting! You’re standing in front of nothing with a wall around it, but then that nothing becomes a vessel containing all of these stories: personal stories, national stories, religious stories, myths.

If you have a place with a very clear narrative, let’s say the Yu Garden in the old town, where you see these beautiful structures – the nine zig-zag bridge, the old teahouse, the City God Temple – their histories are right in front of your eyes. You know the Yu Garden is located at what was once the center of the city, how long it’s been there, what the function of the buildings was. When you’re there you understand very clearly where you are. To me, that’s not as interesting, because it makes immediate sense. Whereas if you’re standing in front of the white wall around a construction site, you think it’s nothing, but because it’s not defined, or a given, that’s the reason it opens up to all of these stories.


You mean that a place like the Yu Garden has a brand or a message that’s so loud or overpowering that it hides a lot of other stories.

Yes, exactly! I’m sure there are many fascinating stories that have nothing to do with the City God Temple or the Tea House or anything else we know about the Yu Garden. But they’re very difficult to see, because it’s such a marked place with a very clear meaning. That’s why this former temple site in Pudong fascinates me. I think that taking a place that doesn’t make sense at first glance forces you to really look into it, and make discoveries that wouldn’t ordinarily have come up. I didn’t have any preconceptions when I looked at it. I just happened to pass by and asked myself “what’s happening here?” I didn’t know it was going to turn into a research project. I was just curious, but it was the place itself that told me these stories. It kept telling me stories, and it’s still telling me stories. I sometimes feel as if this city is talking to me and all I have to do is listen.


Does it excite you or frustrate you?

Oh my god, it fascinates me endlessly. You have scientists or academics who get introduced to a topic and get really fascinated by that one topic. I’m someone who can get excited about anything. I’m always fascinated by things that seem random or uninteresting at first sight, but then turn out to be very interesting.

Any object can be fascinating if you really look into it. If you look at this bottle cap [points at the cap of a plastic water bottle, red.], it’s nothing interesting. But then you think, isn’t it fascinating that across the world we all use the same system to cap bottles? Everywhere in the world we use this system with this screw. There must be different ways to cap bottles, yet we all use this particular one! So then I think, when did they start using it? Who designed it? Are there people now inventing new ways? Then I ask, how is it produced? Where does the plastic come from? What happens to it when we throw it away? Then you get into environmental topics, which is yet another whole new, interesting area.


Is it easy to convince the old people who still come to the former temple site to give you their stories?

No, it’s not. As I said, at first I didn't know this was going to be a research project. I was intrigued by what was happening and started visiting them more and more often. The more stories they told me, the more interested I became. That’s when I realized there was a research project. But in order to begin my actual research, I have to get to know them and they have to get to know me. I am literally just hanging out with them three or four times a month. If you don’t build trust, people don’t show you everything or tell you everything. Everyone is vulnerable, these stories are about vulnerability, you have to take that very seriously.


Do you think that if you want their story you have to tell your story?

Yes, I do. As an academic, you’re supposed to maintain a distance and objectivity to your research subject, but when it comes to ethnographic research, when you’re dealing with people, you need to bring yourself in. You can’t deny that I’m a white European asking them for their stories. If I were Shanghainese, it would have been very different. It already makes a difference in how they talk to me, how I look at them, my research approach, how I write about it. My framework is informed by my upbringing in Europe, both as a person and professionally.

Then, on top of that, for me to expect them to open up and give their story, I do feel I have to give my story as well. I think it’s the only respectful way to deal with people’s stories. They are alive, this is their daily life. This is something they deeply care about. They’re very emotional about it, anxious about it. Sometimes angry, sometimes sad, happy. If I didn’t share my story, they wouldn't trust me, and I wouldn’t feel good about it. This also means that you need to invest a lot of time in building that relationship. I’ve been following them since March and still haven’t started the official interviews.


If you extrapolate it beyond ethnography, trying to extract a story from someone is much more difficult than trying to get money from them. Do you agree?

Yes, it is. It’s not a transaction. You can’t say “I give you A, you give me B”. The only way to have people spontaneously, from the heart, telling you their stories, is to win and deserve their trust and to know how to listen. 


It teaches empathy?

Yes, it needs empathy and time. Sometimes you meet someone and the first night you tell your whole life story. That’s a matter of chemistry between two people. Most of the time it’s only the people you’ve known the longest, your family, your friends. When I first met these people, in their eyes I was an “American”, “rich”, “influential”, “powerful”. It took a long time to convince them I’m not the image they had of me. I’m not American, I’m certainly not powerful in the way they think I am. They literally said to me “can’t you just call the Dutch embassy and tell them we need the temple to be rebuilt?” and I said “It doesn’t work that way, even if I were very powerful, I couldn’t just make a call to the Dutch embassy. Even the Dutch embassy doesn’t have that kind of power!”


How do you convince your students that a story about a former temple site is important?

I try not to tell students why something is interesting or important, I don’t believe they should be interested in anything. I ask them questions that forces them to think about why something could be interesting and then I teach them on the possible ways to find the answers. It’s only after they have searched for the answers that they can conclude for themselves whether or not it’s important.

I actually took one of my classes to the former temple site. And when we were standing in front of the wall with the handwritten characters “Here used to be the Qi Jia Temple” on it, and with the stains of burned candles and incense on the ground, I asked them questions like “What are these stains on the ground?”, “Look at this wall, what do you see?”, “Who do you think wrote this text on it?”, “Why would they have done that?” Then they started to guess and guess. They started to fantasize possible stories. That’s when I told them about the place. By that time, they were already hooked, they really wanted to know the answers.

It’s much easier to convince students of the importance of something when you have raised their curiosity. By answering the questions raised on this site, they learned about the religious history of Pudong through the story of the temple and the church that stands right behind it, the history of Shanghai’s battles with the wokou pirates as the temple was built in honor of the Ming general Qi Jiguang, the history of the Communist Party as the famous communist spy Li Bai was killed in front of the temple, and of course they learned about Pudong’s urban transformation. It’s this richness of the history of this seemingly random site that hopefully convinced them of its importance. That’s what the talk at the Faculty Lunch Speaker Series was all about!  

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