It’s an overcast winter’s day at Hu’s Farm in Riverhead, Auckland. I’m here to hang with three other artists as they each create a work, to be showcased at an upcoming exhibition called AMUSE BOUCHE.

Yuan Keru, Shen Piji & David Ye have just arrived from Shanghai and are a part of the ‘2019 Chinese Young Artist Residence Programme.’ Their brief? To create a piece which revolves around ‘luscious intoxications of introductory experiences.’ But first, we need to find our rooms.

Clockwise – Piji plays guitar while David and Rubeta dream up ideas.  

Day One

As I’m introduced to the three artists the feeling I have is one of embarrassment. Why do so many Chinese feel they have to change their names so that Westerners can pronounce them? Are we really that useless? Yuan Keru is a wonderful young filmmaker from Shanghai.

Yuan, lovely name. She introduces herself as Rubeta.

I also meet David Ye, a smartly dressed fashion photographer from Shanghai whose works have featured in ‘Vogue Italy’ and the Asian edition of ‘Forbes’ magazine. He is joyous and cheeky.

Shen Piji is an ex-punk and mixed-media contemporary artist who I met the previous night at an informal launch for the project. Piji is dressed like a monk, all in black, and is dying for a cigarette. A friend of his translates. ‘Piji really misses those punk days. Did you know he locked himself in the forest for 10 years to learn the guqin, a plucked seven-string Chinese instrument of the zither family and the most revered of all Chinese musical instruments. It has a history of about 5,000 years.’

‘Oh, wow.’

‘He looks old, but he’s not.’

Hu’s Farm is scattered with laptops, power plugs, leads, camera equipment and tripods. For the next week we will live in each other’s pockets. Rubeta, Piji and David will each make something. I’m here to follow their creative journey and write about it. Who are these artists? What makes them tick? What are their creative processes? To make some sort of sense of this I download Google Translate and open the ’Hello Chinese’ app on my phone. Then I remember, much to the surprise of my new friends, I have a WeChat account, the most popular social media platform in China.

Technology, the wonderful enabler.

While Rubeta and David head to Auckland city to shop for props, I talk to Piji and soon discover his English is as bad as my Mandarin.

But we find common ground.

As we drink Lion Red, I punch in a few more words. I want to know about the decade he spent in the forest.

Piji has worked and lived in Shenzhen, China since 1993. Back then he was heavily involved in contemporary art and avant-garde music. He left his punk band ‘Sunflower’ when he fell in love with the guqin and 16 years later would conduct a ‘Ted Talk’ on how he used the instrument to talk to frogs.

In 2015 Piji placed five pottery jars into a shallow pool in his studio which soon attracted a group of frogs named Hylarana Daunchina. He used the difference sizes of the jars to change the volume and frogs’ tone, mixing those sounds with the sound of the Guqin playing. Piji did this every day and recorded numerous songs with his new friends.

‘So you played music to frogs and they talked back?’ I ask. Piji nods. ‘Did you pay them?’

‘I fed them,’ Piji replies.

‘Wow, that’s amazing. Ever thought of doing the same thing with sheep?’

(Shen Piji the frog whisperer at his home in Shenzhen.)

David’s wife Lulu and I concoct a meal made from leftover lamb, ginger, onions, rice and pumpkin. Piji has a controversial addition, chopped up cheerios from the fridge. While we cook dinner I learn the word for pumpkin, plate, and rice, and forget them immediately. I make instant friends by telling everyone I have a car should anyone need a ride anywhere. Piji is equally excited when he spies my guitar, which he plays in an instant and confirms I should never attempt a tune in this man’s company.

I want to know more about Rubeta’s and David’s works. Rubeta was born in Hangzhou, China, and currently lives in Shanghai. She graduated with a Masters in fine art from the School of Inter-Media Art at the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou. Her artistic practice focuses on exploring the act of painting, spatial rhythm and narratives in video, combining the emotive experience with history, mythology and dreams. Her works are melancholic and violent and are often immersed with warmth and poetry. Her film Fleeting Strangers was selected for the Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival in 2017.

’I use friends, but I can’t pay them a lot.’

‘But how do you make such elaborate films on such a small budget?’

Res, a character from Rubeta’s film ‘Fleeting Strangers.’

Fashion photographer David thinks of ideas by watching the news and talking to friends. ‘Coming to New Zealand,’ he says, ‘is going to make my heart strong. Shanghai is so fast everyone is trying to make money.’ He says that back home in the commercial sector he struggles with not being allowed to use his own ideas, yet his works, I think anyway, are racy and unique.

(David’s Levraimoi brand shoot, 2017)

Day 5

Fried prawns for breakfast, again. David loves his prawns! Afterwards, he and Rubeta return to the city to shop for clothes, shoes and earrings for their shoot later in the week. When they return and unload their haul I ask Rubeta if she has a story in mind. She shakes her head. ‘But you’ve bought the clothes?’

‘This is how I work,’ she replies. ‘I buy the clothes and create a character and a story around that.’

I sense it’s been a frustrating day. Working away from home is tough. It looks like everyone is just sitting around yakking, drinking tea, but I have no doubt there are ideas aplenty beneath the bonnet.

Shoot Day

Someone poked the bear. Everyone is up before 8am. The energy in the lounge is manic. Rubeta’s fashion model broke her finger last night. I make some calls to try to find a replacement when the injured girl calls to say she’ll make the shoot after all. I feel for these guys. If they were at home in Shanghai they could make a quick call and fix the problem.

It’s a race against the clock. We wait for the weather to clear. I watch David work. He smiles a lot and has the rare ability to make his talent feel relaxed and ready. Rubeta dresses her models for her film, one of whom is Piji. Ha! Glad that’s not me!

‘Justin, please wear this,’ David says, handing me a garment which looks like a cross between a ridiculously huge sleeping bag and something a giant Jawa from ‘Star Wars’ might wear.

‘Um, okay?’ I reply. ‘But what do I do?’

‘We go to beach. Murawai!’

‘David, mate, it’s raining. It’s pouring and windy, you’ll get black sand all through your equipment.’

‘We try!’ he says, smiling.

Above – The author, thankful his mates are nowhere near.

10 days later

It’s the night of AMUSE BOUCHE, the exhibition at Hu’s Farm in Riverhead. A crowd gathers. There is beautiful wine and food. Piji plays an original piece on the guqin, along with supremo Kiwi musicians Richard Adams and Nigel Gavin, and presents his artwork. A bleary-eyed Rubeta, up half the night editing, walks us through her short video pieces ‘Before the Storm,’ ‘Clone and Mirror,’ and ‘Reality Park.’ Shot in Murawai, K Road in Auckland, and Taupo, these stories both challenge and charm the viewer.

As for David, his genius behind the lens confirms that you really can put lipstick on a pig.

Above – ‘Strangers’ by David Ye.

They say creativity is the new oil, so how do we maximise this wonderful, yet often elusive tool?

In the past, I’ve written about how Bruce Springsteen does it, and John Cleese, even Salvador Dali, which lead to a fascinating hour with The University of Auckland’s Professor Peter O’Connor.


Surround yourself with people who say yes rather than no.
Ask questions, when you have the answers, question those answers.
Don’t be afraid to screw up and don’t be fixated on the end result.

With thanks to Ingenio magazine.


This past week I was fortunate to join other Kiwi entrepreneurs and business peeps on a state-level delegation to Beijing and Shenzhen, China.

We visited innovation and tech hubs, medical and nuclear plants, attended a BioTech summit and had one too many 12-course meals.

Our first stop was a dinner in Beijing with Madame Qiu, Chinese Minister for Foreign Affairs (centre). Miss Qiu was a very cool, accommodating lady who took an interest in all of our respective businesses and projects. Note – regarding formalities below – I thought it was a huggy pic. Wasn’t.


But I’d already seen Beijing once before, and even though there was the novelty of blue sky, it was Southern China’s tech-powerhouse I really wanted to discover.

30 years ago Shenzhen, a 40-minute drive from Hong Kong, had a population of 30,000. Today it’s home to Tencent and Huawei, among other tech giants, and has a population of 19.2 million, all of whom reside in a very liveable city with a lush climate. There are also some pretty big incentives set by the local government to encourage foreign start-ups to set up shop.

If I was 20 and starting out in innovation and tech I’d be there.


Just when you think an idea is too stupid for words or is best left at the bottom of the wine bottle at 4 am, you discover China’s already selling it. Below is the equivalent of Fitbit for chickens. It’s simple – tag the chicken and the device records the steps, meaning you charge more for a dead, but formally fit, chicken.


Those 12-course meals I talked about earlier included the usual Chinese fare, with the added bonus of duck feet, sea cucumber, and a water creature found only in China, the duck-billed golden-line fish.


Some dishes, however, awaken your typically dormant vegetarian tendencies.


China leaves a mark, it fires you up. It rips you out of your comfort zone. It confronts and challenges you. It inspires and invigorates. It’s also exhausting. So after a week of travelling madness, I stumbled home after an overnight flight happy to hear a little voice say, ‘Dad, I got new pyjama pants with rockets on them!’


Thanks a ton to NZCYF for a top trip. Xiexie!


In almost every Neil Gaiman interview I’ve seen or heard he is inevitably asked the question all creative types despise. Where do you get your ideas from? At least Gaiman has a sense of humour. In the past he has answered this by saying, ‘From the Idea-of-the-Month Club,’ or ‘From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis.’ Nowadays he keeps it simple: ‘I make them up. Out of my head.’

Because the truth is no one knows where ideas come from. I once heard a poet say his best poems fizzed past on a runaway train and if he didn’t grab them with both hands, at that very second, they would be gone forever, never to return.

I always loved the way John Cleese and Michael Palin used to write. They knew ideas don’t arrive fully formed. It takes work to find them. The stars of Monty Python would sit in a cabin in the woods and talk absolute shite, sometimes for hours, before the bare-boned idea for a sketch popped out. They’d worked out the magic ingredient. Riff and talk and riff and talk and risk.

Sometimes you’re lucky. Sometimes, for whatever reason, ideas do just arrive. But it doesn’t mean they’re any good. How many times have we scribbled down an idea at two in the morning and woken too embarrassed to even read it aloud to the dog.

The master of surrealism Salvador Dali pushed the limits of creativity, almost forcing his brain to dance on the spot. He used to slouch in his chair and in his right hand he held a key. Beneath his hand was an upside-down plate. The second he fell into a deep sleep, his hand released the key which clanged onto the plate, at which time he awoke to a fresh pallet of ideas. Which is cheaper than drugs.

Feel free to share what works for you in comments. I’ll think about what’s worked for me and post some more ideas next time.

Over and out.