Mountain Stories

The last three months of 2015, I lived on a trash mountain.

I thought I was going to an eco-park.

The morning after my arrival, I walked out of where I had slept, and discovered a giant dome building, a huge chimney, trucks coming in, and a blinking board of what looked like toxic chemicals with numbers beside them.

Then I walked up the mountain: golf courses, camping grounds, sunflowers, toi toi-like grasses, metal sculptures and views of the mega-city. The place felt idyllic and slightly disconcerting, especially as hiding in-between the bushes were vents with warning signs about exploding gas.

In the distance were more mountains, and even more apartment buildings—some as tall as the mountains, the human-made encroaching on the non-human environment.

Sometimes in the toilets and the basement kitchen, we could smell cooking gas, but the stovetops were electric.

When I met people and told them where I was living, I started to hear stories about how the place used to smell when they were driven past there in their childhood. Suddenly it made sense to me—how the slope of the mountain felt like a strange angle: so uniformly steep all the way around. I visited an exhibition about how the plants on that mountain are all exotic species because the native ones could not survive such conditions.

One day, as I walked through the park to reach the subway, I saw a big hole being dug beside the footpath. Less than 50 cm below the surface of the soil, there were plastic bags mixed with concrete, tree roots growing through them all.

Was I seeing the future from some dystopian science fiction? Well, the future was already the present!

What is the difference between an eco-villge and a slum?

An artist sent through photos from when the eco-park was a ‘slum’: frugal people, handmade houses. I could only imagine the evictions that would have taken place, and the subsequent ‘developments’. By chance I met the Spanish artist, Cristina Leon, who has been researching self-built villages around the world. She told me about an amazing village near Gangnam, that she was planning to visit. A self-built village next to the most expensive apartment buildings in Korea? I had to see it for myself. Catching the subway to Gangnam, then a ten-minute bus ride, Cristina and I arrived at what appeared to be a rubbish collection station. Behind open gates were piles of polystyrene being sorted by workers, giant machine-arms waving cardboard and paper shreds in the wind. 

The offcuts of modern city life gathered here, in-between the feet of the most expensive apartments in Korea and a small mountain.

We followed some fit-looking old men in hiking gear a bit higher up, and suddenly there was a view of a sprawling village with fields of vegetables and handmade dwellings. Stepping down a small path, we entered the village. What looked like concrete walls turned out to be faded packing blankets, with windows made from bubble-wrap, laminated posters and lino floors as wall-covering, and velvet moss-covered roofs. In-between the houses were mustards and leeks growing in polystyrene boxes, persimmons strung up and hanging to dry for the winter, and pots of fermenting kimchi and doenjang (Korean fermented bean paste). Rambling in-between such creative (re)uses of materials and appreciating the intricate spaces and paths, I felt an immense aliveness and fascination, in great contrast to how my body felt in the concrete, glass and steel jungle that I had just left.

I was suddenly confused: What is the difference between an ‘ecovillage’ and a ‘slum’?

Nuclear-powered thoughts

Before arriving in the trash mountain, I had spent a sleepless night in an air-conditioned room in Taipei. My companion said ‘It would be hot and stuffy otherwise.’ That afternoon, I had taken the high-speed train across the island, and found out that the anti-nuclear protest I had participated in two years ago, actually concerned the construction of the 4th nuclear power-plant in the country. I was hit by the realisation that I had been plugging into and riding on nuclear power on the island.

Suddenly, the paintings on the corner of Karangahape Road and Ponsonby Road gained a new significance in my previously politically-disinterested mind.

That night, I realised all these little things in my life: bodily comfort, warmth, cooked food, fast travel, writing on the computer, etc. are all intrinsically linked to the bigger, monstrous power systems that I had not thought about seriously before (for example, the extraction of natural environments under neoliberal economics). Now that I have reached this perspective, what could I do, to not support the systems that I do not believe it?

A few weeks later, I went to a forum on ‘disasters’ in Seoul. The art/activist collective ListenToTheCity gave a presentation on the disproportionate energy consumption in Korea compared to other developed countries, the large number of nuclear power plants, and how the rivers are all dammed for electricity. There was little scientific research being carried out on the effects of such dams on wildlife, since such research does not serve commercial interests and is, therefore, not funded. Thankfully the artist collective conducted their own research and are actively advocating the awareness and appreciation of natural ecosystems.

I also learnt that the De-Militarized Zone in-between North and South Korea harbours a wild nature reserve due to the prohibition of human intervention. Taking the bus to Gwangju, I was surprised by the continuousness of the concrete jungle along the peninsular, how scarce untouched nature was. I was surprised because I was used to the relative abundance of wild nature in New Zealand (despite its mass deforestation since colonisation, the abundance is mainly the result of our small population compared to elsewhere). It’s the city lifestyle and high-density population which require the massive powers of the nuclear power-plants: fast travel, 24/7 open stores, working day and night…

A view from Guryong village, Seoul, Korea, 2015. Photo by Xin Cheng

A view from Guryong village, Seoul, Korea, 2015. Photo by Xin Cheng

I wondered how people lived in Seoul. It felt like everyone I met was busy and stressed in the megatropolis: spending hours each day commuting to work, working to pay for a place to live, in apartment stacked on top of each other bigger than the mountains beside them… I totally relate to Ellul when he said:

“City dwellers, for example, live in a completely dead environment. Cities consist of brick, cement, concrete, and so on. People cannot be happy in such an environment. So they suffer psychological problems. Mainly as a result of their social climate but also as a result of the speed at which they are forced to live.1

It’s hard to find a t-shirt that fits

My t-shirt grew holes from the dance improvisation I had been doing. I tried mending it— an activity that felt alien to the present time. Before I got around to buying a new t-shirt, I followed a recommendation from ListenToTheCity to watch a special screening of the documentary Factory Complex by Im Heung-soon. It traced the labour struggles of workers, such as the people who assemble our mobile devices suffering long-term health problems due to their working conditions, and their attempts at making this visible against the forces of major corporations. The documentary also included scenes from Cambodia, a country that I had spent substantial time in, where the struggles of present-day factory workers for fair conditions ended in blood.

That evening, I walked out of the cinema: the streets were lined with shops selling shiny new stuff — things that came from the hands of slaves and the result of many sacrifices. To my eyes, the seductive giant images advertising the latest electronic devices suddenly became monstrous lies. Shock was an understatement. I was surrounded by unethical labour, overlooked and untold until then. Even going to the supermarket for food, I felt like I was contributing to something unethical given the new knowledge of how terribly the workers were treated.

I went to my (then) favourite design store for a replacement t-shirt. They had organic cotton, but the label said ‘Made in Cambodia.’ I walked out empty handed. Around the corner was another shop, where a t-shirt could be exchanged for NZ$3.

Why is it so cheap?

(Why haven’t I thought about this question before?)

Eventually, in a bag on the side of the road, I found an abandoned t-shirt. I wore it for the rest of my time in Seoul. It was not a colour or size that fitted me. But at that point, ‘looking good’ was a trivial concern. At least I saved something destined for the trash mountain.

Rubbish/material

By this time, buying new material to make artworks felt like a wasteful activity—not in terms of money spent, but out of a consideration for the ephemeral nature of most art works (if it was not ‘collected’ after the show), and the abundance of ‘waste’ already around that could be used.

Even though I lived on the trash mountain, it was hard to find materials. The ecopark was well-maintained by people in uniforms—the rubbish promptly and efficiently burnt in the giant dome. Instead I gleaned from the side of the road, near markets and next to the manufacturing neighbourhoods on my walks to various spaces. The street was a free store of abundance: old tyres, packing straps, plastic ropes, fabric offcuts. Soon I learnt that the best time to glean is at dusk, where various offcuts are placed on the kerb before being collected by the trucks.

Walking around Mullae and playing with elements of the Nomadic Toolkit during a convivial afternoon with FABCOOP, 2015. Courtesy of the author

Walking around Mullae and playing with elements of the Nomadic Toolkit during a convivial afternoon with FABCOOP, 2015. Courtesy of the author

The materials accumulated in my studio. I made a nomadic toolkit from them. One day when I went to give an artist’s talk at the university (thanks to the invitation of ListenToTheCity), the projector would not cooperate. While waiting for it to be fixed, I took out the toolkit and handed them out to the students. Connections formed across the tables, soon a dynamic, elastic spiderweb-like architecture grew across the tables. The students played: moving, shifting, laughing and singing. What great fun! That accidentally improvised activity also became an inspiration for the collaborative performances I initiated at the artist-run space SPACE VAC, the maker space FABCOOP and the SeMA Nanji Exhibition Hall.

Coat-hanger-turned-hook system, found in Guryong village, Seoul, Korea, 2015. Photo by Xin Cheng

Coat-hanger-turned-hook system, found in Guryong village, Seoul, Korea, 2015. Photo by Xin Cheng

What am I supporting with the money I am passing on?

Over time, I discovered some sense of agency from my earlier despair: If every little thing I do is somehow contributing to the bigger system, then every little thing I choose to do differently must also change something, however small it may be.

I decided I would only buy new things if I knew the money I was passing on was going directly to the maker.

Later, in Chiangmai, I bought a hand-made shirt with yellow sashiko stitches on blue cloth from the sister of the maker. A few months ago near Nagoya at a music festival, I ordered a pair of modernised Japanese farmers’ pants from Kumiyo, a woman the same age as me. She did not use measurements but asked me to try on the sample and tell her how they felt. Later, the pants arrived in the post. They costed more than at my former-favourite-design store. But they are so versatile they are about the only pants I wear these days.

Sustenance, other creatures, water

Following another friend’s recommendation, I watched the documentary Cowspiracy (Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, 2014). “A hamburger with 150 grams of beef requires 3000 litres of water to produce — enough for showers for 2 months.” That convinced me to try not to eat meat, as much as I could.

I heard stories about cherry tomatoes grown in hothouses in the middle of snowfields, powered by nuclear-powered warm water. What supermarket packaging doesn’t show…

In one of the plastic crates I picked up on the street, I found a paua-like shellfish. Still alive, his strong muscle searched around the alien world around him. I felt helpless: Its natural habitat was very far away and the nearby river highly polluted. The only thing I could do was to perform euthanasia by placing him in the freezer.

Handmade shelter on the edge of the city

One of the friends I made through dancing was Bongho, a curious and energetic being, he has been living as a dancer for decades. Before my departure, we finally found some time to visit his abode on the very edge of Seoul. He picked me up from the train station and drove towards the mountains, and proudly announced: “That’s where my home is!” As soon as I opened the car door, I felt something different — the air that is alive!

While Bongho sprinted agilely down the small path, like a monkey in his natural habitat, I fumbled down the snow-covered path, trying not to slip. I asked for the secret of his agility. He told me: “First thing in the morning, I go outside, and let my body do whatever he pleases.”

He had built his home from scratch. Initially there wasn’t even hot water for the showers in winter. But he endured, adding to it over time, and rebuilding after it got damaged from a fire. It’s always changing. The latest addition was the ‘tent room’ by the kitchen, where he could do his computer stuff and stay cozily warm. I sat on a swing that hung from the lintel in front of the fireplace and slowly thawed from the cold outside. (How beautiful the crackles of a real fire sounds!) Bongho pointed to the flooring under the ‘bedroom’ part: “That used be the floor from our dance studio. Then we had to move, so it found a new home here.”

When I went back to the trash mountain that evening, I realised for the past three months, whenever I would breathe, I felt like a fish out of the water.

Another mountain, to the south

Eventually, I moved. The next mountain I dwelled on was a stark contrast: in northern Thailand, a growing food forest. It takes 40 minutes to walk to the nearest village. No cellphone, no internet, no clocks. The only audible noise from machine technology was from the occasional motorbikes passing by.

On my first day with the fellow volunteers, we made compost piles: chopping down elephant grass and banana trees, mixing them with kitchen scraps and fire ash for the right brown to green ration.

The kitchen at the New Lands food forest, Northern Thailand, 2016. Photo by Xin Cheng

The kitchen at the New Lands food forest, Northern Thailand, 2016. Photo by Xin Cheng

I learnt how to use a machete and that bananas come from a grass tree, which re-grows fast.

There was a solar panel above the kitchen hut which you could charge phones with when it was sunny, although one needed to be careful to leave enough power for the kitchen light, so we could see what we are cooking at night. We cooked on a rocket stove made of clay. I learnt to chop wood to a suitable size to start a fire. The fire wood we would gather in the mornings from the forest, being mindful of snakes…

It’s like that Zen poem by Layman Pang 龐居士:

神通並妙用
運水及槃柴

How miraculous and wondrous,
Chopping wood, drawing water.

There was indeed a well. Every morning, someone rode a stationery bike beside it for ten minutes, to pump the water up to a concrete cylinder for the kitchen. What a luxury it is to be able to turn on the tap and have clean water come out endlessly! We used ash from the fire to wash dishes, and saved the water from the kitchen for watering the plants (taking care only use ash water on trees).

We had showers by drawing a bucketful from the well, in a small shack surrounded by elephant grass. Only one bucketful per shower.

Because it was the dry season, the well was running low. To ensure there was enough water for the plants and the seedlings in the nursery, first we were banned from showers—instead one walked down the road to shower at the neighbours. Then we stopped using the septic toilet—for it needed water to flush—instead we dug a compost toilet in the orchard (basically a ditch in the ground, with rice husks to cover). So nice to think our excrements will be nourishing future fruits of the food forest!

On the kitchen counter, we saved seeds from the dates and limes to grow later. Beside that, an open-weave bamboo basket housed the freshly washed dishes and allowed them to dry. We cooked and ate with ladles and spoons made from bamboo.

We also helped with building cob houses from local clay and elephant dung, and took shelter under roofs made from leaves. One week, PK, a local carpenter, came to repair the kitchen roof. How finely he could split freshly-cut bamboo into thin strips for fastening with only a machete! The forest is a hardware store.

Even then, we still needed to buy food from the local market and bring drinking water up from the village in plastic gallons on the scooter. To grow enough food to support all the volunteers would require a lot more work, and the food forest was not ready.

So much work just to survive…

In the evenings, we sat around the open fire outside, watching the stars, millions of them. Occasionally a shooting star passed by. We rambled over  permaculture, livelihoods outside the capitalist system, sometimes I read passages from David Abram’s book Becoming Animal:

“The human body is precisely our capacity for metamorphosis. We mistakenly think of our flesh as a fixed and finite form, a neatly bounded package of muscle and bone and bottled electricity, with blood surging its looping boulevards and byways. But even the most cursory pondering of the body’s manifold entanglements—its erotic draw toward other bodies; its incessant negotiation with that grander eros we call “gravity”; its dependence upon cloudbursts not just to quench its thirst but to enliven and fructify the various plants that it plucks, chomps, and swallows…its bedazzlement by birdsong; its pleasure at throwing stones into water and through glass; its mute seduction by the moon—suffices to make evident that the body is less a self-enclosed sack than a realm wherein the diverse textures and colours of the world meet up with one another. The body is a place where clouds, earthworms, guitars, clucking hens, and clear-cut hillsides all converge, forging alliances, mergers, and metamorphoses.

“Clearly our body is altered and transformed as it moves through different lands. But if this is so, it is because the body is itself a kind of place—not a solid object but a terrain through which things pass, and in which they sometimes settle and sediment. The body is a portable place wandering through the larger valleys and plains of the earth… a traveling doorway through which sundry aspects of the earth are always flowing. Sometimes the world’s textures move across this threshold unchanged. Sometimes they are transformed by the passage. And sometimes they reshape the doorway itself.” (229-230)

We slept in open bamboo huts under mosquito nets. The sunrise and bird songs were our alarm clocks, the clouds an ever-shifting source of colours.

More mountains, further south

Late January 2016, I came back to Auckland. I lived with my parents in Three Kings— another sort of ‘mountain’: three volcanoes used to be, two of them quarried away for building roads and concrete. Now beside the giant hole in the ground, there were growing apartments in response to the ‘shelter’ issues of the city.

I felt how luxuriously impoverished was this way of life in Auckland: sleeping in walled houses disconnected from the consciousness of other living beings. Thankfully, in the garden, I could still dance with the clouds.

Every time I flushed the toilet, I wondered, where are these excrements going? They could be nourishing the plant life instead.

I tried looking for a job — an activity with monetary reward — that aligned with a reality I would like to contribute to. The only likely ones were in the ‘volunteer’ section.

I decided to live off my savings instead. My excuse being the upcoming projects in Japan and Dunedin, and postgraduate studies in Germany, which made having a ‘regular job’ in the meanwhile difficult.

Companions of 'Living, Making Together: potluck series' (part of the University Without Conditions Aotearoa), making anew 'a welcoming terrain for relaxing, making, eating and being together' after its initial removal, Vulcan Lane, Auckland, 2016. Photo by Xin Cheng

Companions of ‘Living, Making Together: potluck series’ (part of the University Without Conditions Aotearoa), making anew ‘a welcoming terrain for relaxing, making, eating and being together’ after its initial removal, Vulcan Lane, Auckland, 2016. Photo by Xin Cheng

What can you do without money?

In the local library, I found Charles Eisenstein’s A More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible. I was comforted to read that despair and grieving are necessary paths to go through, when one starts to transcend the Story of the World.2 I wondered: are there other people in this city who feel this? Perhaps we could talk about this or do something together?

To find the other people, I proposed a reading group to the Free University Aotearoa. It was accepted. So the living, making together series started on Monday nights at RM, the longest-running artist run space in Auckland, open to lending out the space during its unused times. Miraculously, it was more than my existing friends who came. I made new friends with people living handmade lives, like Dominic, who works on software-libre and sleeps on a boat (thus avoiding the rent issue altogether).

After the first eight sessions, I thought about the power structure of the group and decided that I didn’t want to be the host every time and that I would like to be surprised more often. So we ran a second potluck series, where the hosting was decentralised: two people could host each week, bringing snacks, food for thought, and practical exercises. The sessions were delightful: playing with home-made play dough, eating seaweed kumara fritters while reading about starting a life on boats, and practicing various seating arrangements while reflecting and talking about the experience at the same time.

The location also moved: we started by temporarily ‘squatting’ publically accessible, non-commercial space that offered shelter from the elements, in our case, another tertiary education institute in the CBD. As spring arrived, we moved to the footsteps outside the building. Later, we even had a special edition in the Auckland suburbs, at a friend’s house. There were no public transport available, but last minute, the carpooling worked out by itself.

A mixture of chance encounters helped us live out the title of living, making together in the very last session. It happened during the project Chris Berthelsen and I did for Changing Lanes during the Auckland Artweek. The previous weekend we had made a welcoming terrain for relaxing, making, eating and being together by adding on to existing benches on Vulcan Lane using materials we could gather for free, such as old bike inner tubes, bamboo and used real estate signs. On Monday morning the project manager called: the work had disappeared. Fortunately it was right after the council elections, and in one afternoon, Chris managed gather a whole lot of used election boards from another artist’s project.

In the crisp early summer twilight, our new friends from the living making together series arrived just as we moved the new materials to the site. “Today, we will make before reading together.” We cut up bike inner tubes into lashing, tied bamboo sticks to the benches, and made new shelters featuring our new politician’s faces.

As it turned out to be a big gathering, we made a picnic on the pedestrian lane: A picnic blanket was made by overlapping used election signs. The cardboard boxes from the kerbside became tables, where we laid out the snacks people had brought. We boiled water in a camping stove and made tea, passing them around in the Crown Lynn cups that I had been hoarding. The reading was actually a talk suggested by Yasmin Ostendorf, whom I had met in Korea. My makeshift coconut-speaker was not loud enough, but someone else had a portable speaker in his bag.

Thus, a big group of us sat in the middle of the inner city pedestrian lane (surrounded by law firms jewellery stores and hip bars), ears wide open, as the voice of writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie floated in the breeze, telling the story of how our lives and cultures are made of many overlapping stories…

Temporarily, the street became a living room, a truly open home: where strangers could become friends, a welcoming terrain where you can share things and snacks, without monetary exchange.


Thank you the Asia New Zealand Foundation and Creative New Zealand for the SeMA Nanji Residency that sparked the experience in the first mountain.

Thank you Creative New Zealand for supporting my time to write this in Germany.


1 Jacques Ellul, in The Betrayal by Technology: A Portrait of Jacques Ellul, video by Jan van Boeckel and Karin van der Molen. 1996

2 Charles Eisenstein, A More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, North Atlantic Books, 2013. https://charleseisenstein.net/books/the-more-beautiful-world-our-hearts-know-is-possible/eng/separation/