Shanzhai Lyric

Since 2015, we (Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky) have collaborated as Shanzhai Lyric—taking inspiration from the experimental English of shanzhai t-shirts made in China and proliferating across the globe to examine how the language of counterfeit uses mimicry, hybridity, and permutation to both revel in and reveal the artifice of global hierarchies. Shanzhai, the Chinese word for counterfeit, translates literally to “mountain hamlet” in reference to a place on the outskirts where bandits abscond with goods from the empire to redistribute at the margins. Through an ever-growing archive of poetry-garments, Shanzhai Lyric explores the potential of mis-translation and nonsense as utopian world-making (breaking), with poetry-garments as the starting point for an ongoing investigation into definitions of property–and who gets criminalized for theft. In late 2020, our research plans thwarted by Covid, we founded the fictional office entity Canal Street Research Association. On Canal Street, New York City’s counterfeit hub, we repurposed an empty storefront as a space for gathering ephemeral histories, mapping local lore, and tracing the flows and fissures of capital. A microcosm of global trade routes, Canal Street has long held allure for generations of artists to occupy this zone of exchange where high meets low, art meets commerce, and original meets copy. At and as Canal Street Research Association, we speculate new modes of inhabiting the block’s complex interplay of hustles. Canal Street is a site of contact and collision where semi-licit activities rub up against the aspirations of luxury developers. Since its days as an actual canal routing waste into the Hudson River, the street has had many lives: second-hand electronics hub, distributor of plastics and rubbers, host to iconic art happenings, and destination for tourists seeking fake name brand goods. In the past decade, increased police surveillance has targeted the migrant communities who make their living selling so-called knock-offs. Yet following the uprisings for racial justice in the summer of 2020, shops were boarded up due to landlords’ fears of looting and a decreased police presence allowed vibrant street markets to re-emerge.
Through this project, we seek to study and honor the complex histories and dynamics of the street. We invite visitors to inscribe neighborhood knowledge directly onto a community-driven timeline of photographs documenting every building on the block. Crucial and underdocumented moments in both collective and individual memory surface through sustained conversation and observation. In collaboration with local vendors, neighbors, and artists, we create happenings, sound pieces, short films, writings, and installations from our encounters.
Taking cues from the block, a current project of Shanzhai Lyric is to tell the story of Canal through a process of restaging—or bootlegging—moments that escape official record due to their ephemeral nature or less-than-legal aspects. We collaborate with our subjects as cocreators of a poetic documentary that straddles the line between fact and fiction. This method allows individuals to play a role in telling stories of the block without incriminating themselves. In this way, we continue to probe the oft-blurry line between authenticity and inauthenticity, real and fake, as categories that can be used to uplift or to persecute. Our aim is to reveal the artifice of systems that celebrate some as rightful property owners while criminalizing others as thieves.