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Nothing like a Dane
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Eric Messerschmidt visited China a decade ago and felt the country would soon become a hub of global cultural exchanges. Picked by the Danish Ministry of Culture to put together an exhibition on architecture in seven cities in China, in connection with its 50th anniversary celebrations, the Danish architect tried to build bridges with museums and cultural institutes in China.

He kept returning, giving lectures and workshops to architecture students.

Eric Messerschmidt has devoted himself to facilitating exchanges between Danish and Chinese partners in creative industries. [China Daily]

The then director of the Danish Center for Architecture lost the bid for designing the CCTV tower by a whisker to the Dutch company OMA but he stayed on.

In 2002, the Danish Ministry of Culture asked him to coordinate the Chinese leg of the bicentennial celebrations of fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen.

By that time Messerschmidt was married to fellow architect, Guang Mojing, of Mongolian-Chinese descent, and the prospect of settling down close to where her parents were, in Beijing, fell in line with the idea of filial responsibility.

The Andersen celebrations featured more than 500 activities across China - from acrobatic interpretations of fairy tales to music scores inspired by Andersen's writings - and the impact was tremendous.

The media coverage in China was worth almost half-a-billion yuan, according to Danish Financial Times. "The impact on Denmark was profound too. They did not know Andersen had so profound a root in Chinese education and culture," says Messerschmidt.

The project led to the founding of the Danish Cultural Institute in China, with Messerschmidt at its helm. As the institute's director, he facilitates exchanges between Danish and Chinese partners in creative industries. The institute also disseminates information and fosters people-to-people contact.

"When we started out nobody knew of us. But in five years we have succeeded in penetrating local producers, curators and institutions - they know how to make the best use of us," says Messerschmidt.

He modestly owns up to his role in this success story, after a bit of persuasion.

"I have tried sincerely to communicate to Danes that as Westerners we need to make an effort to understand what authentic China is all about and cater to that," he says.

"This wasn't an easy task, for the Western media has its biases."

But the results of his efforts have begun to show. "Now the Danes who come here are more committed and better prepared. Hence the collaborative projects are of finer quality," he says. "If we do not know how to handle the Chinese challenge, we will be unprepared for the future."

Shanghai-based Martin Bech is another great Dane who has had his hands full since he arrived from Copenhagen last year.

As manager of the Nordic Center at Fudan University he represents all five Nordic countries - Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland - and with the Shanghai expo coming up next year, is very busy.

Part of his job is to locate academics in Nordic universities and bring them to Shanghai at the time of the expo, to talk on various issues, particularly on sustainable economic growth and development.

Inviting high-level businesspeople to meet with students and young entrepreneurs is also on the cards.

Besides, there is the Shanghai International Literature Festival coming up in March. Bech is now drawing up an author list from Nordic countries, and, more importantly, "raising the money for the event".

As soon as these heavy-duty jobs are out of his way, and his newborn second son grows up a bit, Bech is determined to travel around China on his bicycle.

Fellow countryman Claus Sjorslev arrived in China from Copenhagen a year ago, because it seemed "vast and ancient and is undergoing tremendous change and is therefore an interesting place to go to".

He began as an English teacher in Guangzhou, but soon branched out into taking up Danish-English translation of software in computer programs and mobile devices.

His third preoccupation necessitated a move to Beijing. Alongside teaching part-time, Sjorslev is trying to put together a radio program on life in Beijing for a Danish Web-based culture radio.

"That involves speaking to as many different people as possible - Chinese and foreigners - to document the variety and many individual perspectives on the city," he says.

He wants to let his people back home know more about China. "There's much more to China besides economic growth," he says. "Hopefully, I'll be able to put together all the impressions I have collected in a radio program to give audiences in Denmark a better understanding of China today."

(China Daily August 3, 2009)


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