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Wuxi coffee shop figures a way to sell local culture

Updated: 2023-05-05 06:31 ( Xinhua )
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NANJING — A new chain of coffee shops has sprung up in the city of Wuxi, East China's Jiangsu province, themed on the ancient Huishan clay figurine culture — with a few modern adaptations.

The Nanimomo Cafe chain has expanded rapidly since May last year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and now has 11 branches in operation. The coffee shops display a range of figurines and related creative cultural products. In addition to drinking coffee, visitors can opt to have a go at making clay sculptures on site.

Huishan clay figurines are made from the black clay found at the foot of Huishan Mountain in Wuxi. They are said to have a recorded history of more than 400 years and are listed among the first batch of China's national intangible cultural heritage in 2006. In Wuxi dialect, Huishan clay figurines are pronounced nanimomo.

Originally, the figurines were made by the local residents at the foot of Huishan Mountain during the farming season's slack periods. Later, professional workshops emerged in Huishan, with the production of the figurines peaking during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. However, the tradition subsequently fell into decline.

In 1954, the local government organized artists and workshops and set up a cooperative to produce Huishan clay figurines. Four years later, the Huishan clay figurine factory was officially established, and the industry was revived.

In its heyday, the factory had nearly 1,000 people creating, designing, producing and selling clay figurines. The products were sold at home and abroad, with Japan being a major export destination. Then, in the last decade, the market for traditional clay figurines, which were relatively simple in shape and low in production efficiency, began to shrink once more.

The number of employees was greatly reduced, and it was difficult to attract young people to learn the craft, according to Zhou Hanqing, a senior artist at the factory. In recent years, however, Wuxi has carried out a series of reforms and innovation in the cultural field, including introducing private capital to revive traditional cultural industries and promoting the inheritance of intangible cultural heritage projects.

In 2020, the Huishan clay figurine factory was taken over by a private enterprise in Wuxi. The factory seized the opportunity to integrate traditional intangible heritage culture with the emerging coffee culture as a means of reviving the industry. Two years later, Nanimomo Cafe was established.

"A greater number of young people love coffee, and integrating the display and experience of Huishan clay figurines into the coffee shop brings this intangible cultural heritage to the attention of young people again," says Song Xilian, head of operations at the cafe chain.

The two most famous traditional figurines are A Fu and A Xi, meaning "good fortune" and "joy", but the factory has designed and produced several new figurines, such as Nani and Momo, which are more modern and attractive to young consumers. There are also several cute and colorful characters, carrying different types of food for which Wuxi is famous: spare ribs, peaches and steamed buns.

In addition, a wide range of creative cultural products, from school supplies to daily-use items, featuring the images of the figurines, are now being sold. The factory has even signed contracts with local companies to design clay figurines specially for their brands.

This year, in the government work report, Wuxi proposed that it would implement the innovation project for intangible cultural heritage to expand the influence of Xiju, also known as Wuxi Opera, red stoneware, Huishan clay figurines, fine embroidery and bamboo-carving. As a result, the Huishan clay figurine industry is expected to be developed further.

"There is no contradiction between inheritance and innovation. Only by integrating intangible cultural heritage into modern life can we improve its protection and inheritance," Zhou says.

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