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Deaffest's adventures in China

Nikki and Marilyn from Deaffest on television in Shanghai

  • Outside Shanghai Open University with director Sam Zheng

13th March 2018

Nikki Stratton, co-director of Wolverhampton's deaf-led film and arts festival, reports on her trip to Shanghai.

Last November my co-director at Deaffest, Marilyn Willrich, and I were invited to go to Shanghai by award-winning deaf filmmaker Sam Zheng (Zheng Xiaosan) and Shanghai Open University’s consultant Dr David James. As co-founders of Deaffest, we were going to offer support and expertise in the organisation of the first ever Shanghai International Deaf Film Festival (SHIDFF), to be launched in Autumn 2018. It is thanks to support from the British Council's UK-China Connections Through Culture programme that this invaluable trip took place.

Marilyn and I founded Deaffest in 2006 and over the years the festival has supported and developed the talents of emerging and established deaf filmmakers and artists from the UK and around the world. Our next – 13th – festival takes place in spring 2019.

During our trip to China, we were delighted to have the opportunity to visit Shanghai’s Open University, Xuhui University of Continuing Education, and to be greeted by a large number of deaf Chinese students studying degrees in film and the arts. We also had the pleasure of consulting with the head of Xuhui University, Mr Du. Fortunately for us, he was able to speak fluent English, allowing our British Sign Language/English interpreter to translate effortlessly. The language logistics were not always the easiest but with Sam being proficient in American Sign Language and International Sign and Dr David James (who is not deaf) being Canadian, our communication was not stilted.

We were shocked to learn, despite a population of 24 million in Shanghai alone and approximately one million deaf people, that there are no recognised qualifications for Chinese sign language or Chinese interpreters. The same applies to the rest of China – a very different story to that of the UK, other European countries and the USA. Instead, establishments rely on CODAs – children of deaf adults – to interpret and/or teachers and heads of department to convey either Chinese or basic gestures to deaf Chinese sign language users.

Whilst many social media apps and websites are banned in China, they have their own very popular alternative called WeChat, which has many additional features such as a built-in translator. This proved to be a very useful tool during our visit.

Our next stop was Shanghai’s Vocational Technical School for the Deaf and Dumb Youth, where several talented young deaf students aged 17-21 greeted us. The head of the college, Yang Qiping, gave us a guided tour and we particularly enjoyed meeting the students and witnessing their creativity and the outstanding examples of work that was on display.

We went on to visit Shanghai’s 4th Deaf School where children from preschool age to 11 are taught. We were greeted and guided by the principal of the school Jin Yuping, who had worked there for several years. It appears that with the advances in medicine and technology (eg cochlea implants), and deaf children attending mainstream education, the Chinese deaf community is on the decline, much the same as the rest of the world. However, as this is a deaf school, pupils here were able to feel comfortable, mixing with others who shared their language. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to meet some of the pupils who demonstrated their excitement by signing “AMERICANS”. We explained we were from England, but seeing their delight in meeting other deaf people who shared a visual language was truly a sight to behold.

We also had an informal gathering with deaf Chinese people during the evenings where we communicated using International Sign. During our conversations, we discovered that some of the deaf people had attended Gallaudet University (a private university in Washington DC for deaf and hard of hearing students) to study media and technology, a field that they excelled in. Their desire was to return home and share their knowledge and expertise in the hope of creating a brighter future for members of the deaf community who have a passion for filmmaking and working in the media industry.

Towards the end of our one-week stay, we were invited to Shanghai’s Educational Television Centre to attend a seminar focusing on the media industry, schools with film and media, and schools with deaf education. We were given the opportunity to talk about how the UK encourages and develops deaf talent in mainstream media and the arts. The aim was to show attendees what could be done and to stress that an event like Deaffest could be replicated in Shanghai if deaf people work collectively and encourage organisations to get on board by collaborating. The Television Centre also interviewed us about deaf people’s potential in the fields of media and the arts; this was broadcast the following day. We were also delighted to have had the opportunity to meet Chen Jie, the chairman of the Shanghai Deaf Association.

Last but not least, the British Council and China-Britain Business Council invited us to the British Consulate to deliver a presentation of Deaffest’s achievements and what SHIDFF can achieve with our support.

On our last day, Sam and his acquaintance He Lifeng, took us around Shanghai’s famous Yuyuan Garden. Shanghai is an amazing city brimming with culture and boasting an impressive skyline, not forgetting other hidden gems such as historical Pudong, a district of Shanghai, with its breathtaking monuments entrenched in Chinese history.

We are very proud to be partners with SHIDFF and are very much looking forward to working with the individuals involved in the festival over the forthcoming months. We will share further information about the festival on our website.