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Invisible man Lu Bolin
hidden in graffiti
A handful of graffiti artists are active in Beijing and other cities. Many of them have an interest in hip hop culture and seems to have been embraced it more as an art form than a means of political expression and rebellion. Luo Zhonglis of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute told the China Daily, “Graffiti art in China has gotten rid of the strong rebelliousness and confrontational attitude in Western graffiti.” Instead “it’s related to the aesthetics of people’s lives and leans more towards fashion.”

Fear may be the primary reason the graffiti artists stay clear of politics. One artist in Xian told the China Daily, “There can’t be political themes, and if there are, they must be beneficial towards the government or the party.”

Garbageman’s Graffiti Artist's Retrospective

Reporting from Hong Kong, Joyce Hor-chung Lau wrote in the New York Times, “A toothless garbageman who once wandered Hong Kong’s streets with dingy bags of ink and brushes tied to his crutches is now the subject of a major retrospective. About 300 calligraphic works by the late Tsang Tsou-choi---who is best known by his self-dubbed title, the King of Kowloon---are showing at the ArtisTree art space in a high glass tower.” [Source: Joyce Hor-chung Lau, New York Times, May 4, 2011]

“The show, “Memories of King Kowloon” in a spacious corporate-sponsored dimly lighted gallery, quiet as a library, would have been foreign territory for Mr. Tsang. He was most at home under the tropical sun and neon lights. An outsider artist, he spent half a century dodging security guards and police officers as he obsessively covered lampposts and mailboxes, slums and ferry piers, with his distinctive Chinese text.

“The colorful ink-on-paper pieces make up the best part of the ArtisTree retrospective. But there was little the organizers could do to replicate Mr. Tsang’s real legacy: his street art has been reduced to only four sites, including a single pillar now preserved at the old Star Ferry pier. Mr. Tsang’s work is supplemented with photographs, a documentary film, installations and pieces by other artists said to be inspired by Mr. Tsang. The presentation seems almost too slick for its subject. The space is dark and serious. Newspaper clippings and objects from Mr. Tsang’s apartment---a crushed Coke can, brushes, empty ink bottles---are displayed in light boxes, as if they were treasures. To show where Mr. Tsang’s works once existed, there is a glowing 3-D replica of Hong Kong’s skyline that looks like a property developer’s model.”

Mr. Tsang’s scribbles were once part of a messy but wonderfully human cityscape, and nostalgia for him has grown as modern complexes have replaced wet markets, family shops and streetside stalls. “Hong Kong has been tidied to the point that it no longer makes sense,” Joel Chung a fiend of Tsang told the New York Times. “It’s only tall glass buildings, where people go straight from the home to the metro to the mall, all in air-conditioned interiors.” Mr. Chung acknowledged the irony of having a King of Kowloon retrospective in a skyscraper. “Ideally, his art would be anywhere and everywhere, but it’s too late for that now,” he said. “People in the art world would probably not go seek out some graffiti in Mongkok anyway, so it’s good that we have a show here.”

Swire Properties’Island East complex, which is home to both ArtisTree and the offices of 300 multinationals, is a place of uniformed guards and immaculate lobbies, where nobody would dare litter, much less paint graffiti on a wall. Babby Fung, a spokeswoman for Swire, called Tsang a “cultural icon.” When asked how Swire would react to a modern-day King of Kowloon decorating its glass towers with ink, she replied, “We’re not focusing just on his graffiti. Instead, we’re seeing his as a part of Hong Kong history.” Pressed further, she added, “We’d communicate with him first to ascertain if he was really an artist.”

Graffiti Artist's Unique Story

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Tsang Tsou-choi with his work
“Joyce Hor-chung Lau wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Tsang, who died in 2007 at the age of 85, created an estimated 55,000 outdoor pieces, almost all of which have been washed away, painted over or torn down by the authorities and real estate developers. He was a rebel graffiti artist decades before it was fashionable, creating art brut in a city that has no time for outsiders.” [Source: Joyce Hor-chung Lau, New York Times, May 4, 2011]

“Mr. Tsang arrived in Hong Kong as a teenage refugee from Guangdong, a southern province bordering Hong Kong, in the 1930s, and began his urban painting in the 1950s. He toiled under the delusion that he was the rightful heir and ruler of the Kowloon Peninsula, dismissing all political factions that had controlled the area: the Qing Dynasty until 1898, the British until 1997 and China today. In his thick scrawl, he marked his territory with “royal decrees’and a “family tree,” using the names of his ancestors and eight children to build an imaginary web of princes and princesses. Intentionally or not, he tapped into the unease of a populace tossed between two governments. He defaced, with equal joy, Queen Elizabeth II’s insignia on colonial-era post boxes and campaign posters for Hong Kong politicians.”

His real-life wife and children shrank from attention when Mr. Tsang’s art became known, and even held a decoy funeral when he died to divert fans and the news media. “The way society saw him, as an insane person, caused his family to feel ashamed,” said Chung, a longtime friend of Mr. Tsang’s who lent hundreds of ink-on-paper works for the show. “He loved his family but, by figuring them so prominently in his work, he embarrassed them and, in their eyes, brought them down in society.” Mr. Chung, an artist and curator who teaches at a creative arts high school in Kowloon, told the New York Times that most of his students had been taught to shun Mr. Tsang for being mentally ill. “Generations of parents and grandparents have been pulling kids away from him on the street saying, “That man is dirty and crazy. Don’t go near him.”

Mr. Chung recounted meeting Mr. Tsang in the 1980s. “He was working at a busy intersection and the crowd around him was so great that I didn’t even see him at first,” he said. “There was this shirtless old man, sitting on a trash can, painting. I stood there transfixed for an hour, but he didn’t notice me until he ran out of ink and started hollering for more. He never said please. He was the king, and kings don’t have to say “please” to their subjects.” For years, Mr. Chung and others in the art scene bought him food and introduced him to writers and visiting artists.

Mr. Tsang’s entry into the mainstream was a 1997 exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, followed by a show at the 2003 Venice Biennale. In 2009, two years after he died, one of his pieces sold at an auction at Sotheby’s. Mr. Tsang, who began receiving disability and welfare payments when a falling garbage bin impaired both legs in 1987, never made a living from his art. “It earned him some pocket money, but it made no difference to him,” Mr. Chung said. “He just handed the cash over to his wife. Except for eating, sleeping and bathing---well, he didn’t bathe often---he was painting.”

Supplying Body Art

Body Worlds piece

In 1990s and 2000s, “Body Worlds” exhibitions---featuring "sculptures" made with skinless cadavers, dehydrated brains, tarred human lungs, and corpses posed like soccer players---were very popular at galleries and museums throughout the world. Some exhibitions attracted over 300,000 people, with people waiting three hours in line to see the works. As of 2006, the shows had been seen by 20 million people and taken in $200 million.

The source of most of the bodies and the body parts for the “Body Worlds” exhibitions has been China---with suppliers centered around the eastern city of Dalian. Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the organizer of the exhibitions, told the New York Times that he came to China because there was easy access to bodies, cheap labor and few government regulations, “When I came here,” he said,” I was told, we’ll have no problems with Chinese bodies.” His Chinese partners told him “we can use unclaimed bodies...Now it’s difficult but then it was no problem at all.”

Most of the businesses that deal in the body trade are a bit cagey when asked where the bodies come from. Some have been legally obtained from the Dalian Medical University. A spokesman for one company involved in the trade said these are unclaimed Chinese bodies that police have given to medical schools. Some are said to belong to mentally ill people or executed prisoners. In June 2006, police in Dandong, a city 150 miles northeast of Dalian, found 10 corpses in a farmers yard. The police said the bodies were being used by a firm financed by foreigners.

Worried about the trade in illegal bodies, the Chinese government issued new regulations in July 2006 that outlawed the purchase or sale of human bodies and restricted the import and export of human specimens unless used in research,.

Processing Body Art

Body Worlds pieces have included livers and lungs damaged by alcohol and smoking, a female corpse cut open to reveal a five month old fetus, and a copse with all of its muscles and organs exposed and its skin draped like a coat over one arm. The bodies and organs have been preserved by "plasitnation"a process in which cell water is replaced by plastic by immersing body parts in acetone chilled to 13 degrees F. The procedure was invented by Dr. von Hagens, an anatomy lecturer at Heidelberg University, as "anatomical artwork."

Plasination preserves the shape and color of the body parts but give them a plastic-like appearance. The factories and work shops that prepare the bodies and body parts are in China. One employs 260 workers who process about 30 bodies a year. The workers, who get paid $200 to $400 a month first dissect the bodies, and remove the skin then place the bodies into machines that replace human fluid with soft chemical polymers.

Describing the workers at one such factory, David Barboza wrote in the New York Times: “Inside a series of unmarked buildings, hundreds of Chinese workers, some seated in assembly line formations, are cleaning, cutting, dissecting, preserving and re-engineering human corpses...In a large workshop called the positioning room, about 50 medical school graduates work with the dead, picking fat off the cadavers, placing them in seated or standing positions and forcing the corpses to do lifelike things such as hold a guitar or assume a balled position.”

Street Art in China as a Commercial Statement

Hannah Seligson wrote in the New York Times, “It isn’t the familiar Adidas look---that bold and basic three-stripe logo. Instead, it’s a design meant to evoke blowing wind, flowing water and flapping wings. The tricked-out design for new T-shirts in China was created by Chen Leiying, a 27-year-old artist known as Shadow Chen who lives in the coastal city of Ningbo. She is not even an employee of the company, but multinationals like Adidas are beginning to turn to young creative types like her to dream up images and logos for the under-30 set in China, a group that is 500 million strong.” [Source: Hannah Seligson, New York Times, April 30 2011]

“Call them China’s youth whisperers. From Harbin in the north to Guangzhou in the south, young artists, musicians and designers are being tapped to make companies’ brands cool. Like its counterparts elsewhere, this arty crowd sometimes looks and acts unconventional---but it’s not with political ends in mind. These young artists tend to set aside politics for commerce, and the promise of attractive paydays from foreign businesses.”

Adidas wants to be cool, “and the only way to be cool is to appeal to young people,” Jean-Pierre Roy, who until recently helped oversee product development in China for Adidas, told the New York Times. To help enhance that image, Adidas selected four Chinese artists, including Ms. Chen, to design 20 graphics for its new T-shirts.

Defne Ayas, an art history instructor at New York University in Shanghai, told the New York Times: “For some artists in this younger generation, the new political has become the “market.” They tend to be curious and friendly to the market; they don’t want to miss out on its opportunities.”

NeochaEdge and Making Money from Art as a Commercial Statement

“At the center of this experiment is NeochaEdge, the first and only creative agency of its type in China,”Hannah Seligson wrote in the New York Times. “It was started in 2008 by two Americans, Sean Leow and Adam Schokora, to showcase the work of illustrators, graphic designers, animators, sound designers and musicians from across China. It now has 200 member-artists; NeochaEdge pays them per project to work on campaigns and product designs for brands like Nike, Absolut vodka and Sprite...Coca-Cola recently teamed up with it for a contest to find a young, creative type to put a Chinese spin on its American theme of “energizing refreshment.” The winner---or winners---will receive up to $65,000 in cash prizes and a trip to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.” [Source: Hannah Seligson, New York Times, April 30 2011]

Members of the agency have also produced a soundtrack and a streetlight graffiti show for Absolut, designed sneakers for the Jimmy Kicks shoe company and created content for an e-magazine for Nike about basketball culture in China. And by the end of this year, NeochaEdge will also become a virtual art gallery, selling artwork from its artists through its Web site.” The government is even starting to put its muscle behind companies like NeochaEdge. In Shanghai alone, the government has created more than 80 creative industry zones for 6,000 businesses. In 2008, the Shanghai municipal government named NeochaEdge as “one of the top representatives of the creative industry.”

“You can’t just stroll into China and see who is a hot artist,” says Roy told the New York Times. “It’s all still a little underground.” So Mr. Schokora, 30, and Mr. Leow, 29, have become trusted guides. “There are not many young Americans who speak fluent Mandarin and are as much at home talking to chief marketing officers as they are talking to graffiti artists in Guangzhou,” says Paul Ward, head of operations for Asia at the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty in Shanghai, which has collaborated with NeochaEdge, “They want to advance their careers, not challenge the political establishment,” Mr. Leow says. “Commercial art has rarely, if ever, contained dissent.”

In the early days of the the company,” Seligson wrote. “Mr. Schokora and Mr. Leow went searching for members at indie rock concerts, gallery openings and music festivals; now, however, the artists mostly come to them. Mr. Schokora says the company receives dozens of e-mails a day from young people all over China who want to be featured on the Web site, which also showcases work from artists who are not members of the consortium. Sometimes, artists even show up at the company’s office in the Jing An District in Shanghai without an appointment.”

“As well as playing matchmaker, NeochaEdge produces trend reports and a monthly e-magazine on the creative scene in the youth market. It also recruits for focus-group research, plans exhibitions and performances and holds workshops and training for artists. “We are a complement to advertising agencies,” Mr. Schokora told the New York Times. “If an advertising agency wanted an illustrator from, let’s say, Harbin, it would be pretty easy to search the database and find their portfolio online,” he says, referring to the capital of Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China. “Then we just hop on instant message and get in touch.”

As companies expand their reach beyond the big cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, local talent and authenticity will be more important, says Damian Coren, chief operating officer at Leo Burnett in Shanghai. “All the brands are looking to get into those second- and third-tier cities, and anything that will help them push into regional markets will be quite welcome.”

NeochaEdge has found its niche in providing innovative art and music. But will that be a selling point with bigger brands that are less out-of-the-box? “NeochaEdge does so much cool, quirky stuff, but a lot of brands want less quirky stuff,” Mr. Ward says. “If they are going to appeal to wider range of brands---a Procter & Gamble, for example---they are going to have to combat the image that they only do stuff with graffiti art.”

History of NeochaEdge in China

‘so how did two young guys from the United States---Mr. Schokora grew up in Detroit and Mr. Leow in Silicon Valley---end up becoming conduits to the young, creative community in China?,” Hannah Seligson wrote in the New York Times. “Before founding the company, Mr. Leow, who studied Chinese as an undergraduate at Duke, was living and working in Shanghai as a business consultant and consuming large quantities of Chinese culture. [Source: Hannah Seligson, New York Times, April 30 2011]

“I was going to a lot of art exhibitions and indie rock shows, and I always thought that China was all about imitation and nothing creative, but I was wrong,” Mr. Leow says. That prompted the idea to develop a social networking site for creative types in China called (“Cha” is Chinese for tea.) There was just one problem: revenue from advertisers was not coming in.

At the same time, Mr. Schokora, who has been living in China since 2003, was working as a manager of digital and social media for Edelman, the global communications firm. “I knew about even before I met Sean,” Mr. Schokora recalls. “It was pretty much the only site out there aggregating what young, creative kids in China were doing online.” In 2007, Mr. Schokora and Mr. Leow met at a music festival in Shanghai, and the meeting quickly evolved into a partnership.

‘soon, Mr. Schokora left his position at Edelman and teamed up with Mr. Leow to take in a new direction,” Seligson wrote. “Mr. Schokora, influenced by his perspective working for a big agency, suggested changing the business model from a social networking site to a creative consortium. The founders say the strategy has worked. They would not reveal their revenue, but they say it has more than doubled in the last year. They are also considering expanding to other Asian markets, like India.”

Artists Who Work with NeochaEdge

“Depending on the type of project, members of the artists’ group make 20 percent to 90 percent of NeochaEdge’s fee, which can range from $10,000 to $100,000,” Hannah Seligson wrote in the New York Times. The compensation, Ms. Chen said is “more or less the same as a senior designer at an in-house agency makes in China.” But, she adds, “there is much more freedom and opportunity to build your name.” [Source: Hannah Seligson, New York Times, April 30 2011]

“Li Man, 27, an independent music producer in Beijing, is a NeochaEdge member who has been contracted to work on three projects over the last year, including a video for Absolut. He makes 6,666 renminbi, or around $1,000, per assignment. “The income I’ve brought in from my work from NeochaEdge has allowed me to buy a lot of electronics,” he said via e-mail, “and I’m now starting to work on record projects.”

Shadow Chen heard about the consortium through Twitter. She says NeochaEdge has helped her become noticed. “In China, it’s very hard to be appreciated if you are an ordinary, independent artist, as opposed to a famous artist who is represented by an art gallery,” she says. “NeochaEdge is probably the only good outlet for independent young artists to be discovered.”

Hurri Jin, 26, a Shanghai-based artist who goes by the name Hurricane, has worked on five different projects with NeochaEdge and earned 20,000 renminbi, or a little more than $3,000, since he became a member of the consortium in December 2009. “NeochaEdge has really helped my work,” he says.

Song Dong Installation: The Wisdom of the Poor

Commenting on the Song Dong Installation at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, Chen Nan wrote in the China Daily, “For an ongoing exhibition, the corridors are packed with mundane objects of everyday usage. The man behind the show is Song Dong. The 45-year-old artist was born and raised in Beijing and lives in the city with his parents in a tiny house crammed with wardrobes, roof tiles, bicycles and plank beds. The used items, mostly recycled, titled The Wisdom of the Poor, are tied to Song's deepest memories and emotions.” "For me the hoarding represents an artwork," he says. "Life is art. Art is life."[Source: Chen Nen, China Daily July 22, 2011]

One of the most original figures in contemporary Chinese art, Song started painting early and prolifically. He studied oil painting at Beijing's Capital Normal University and tends to favor familiar, inexpensive and everyday materials.

It took Song six years to put together the display of items used by low-income families living in Beijing's dazayuan, where several families share one courtyard house. Growing up in Beijing's hutong, or traditional alleyways, Song has an insight into the dynamics of dazayuan and how the residents learn to accommodate one another to live comfortably.

From a pigeon coop sitting atop the roof of a house to a double bed built around a tree, the artist fills the exhibition halls with installations that reveal how poor people economize to transform their homes, streets, communities and lives. Their wisdom is reflected in the way they balance public and private space, personal and group rights. "The dazayuan I've been living in has 18 families. The residents there are poor but they have a unique sense of aesthetics and know how to make their lives easier," he says.

The Wisdom of the Poor is part of a series that includes Para-Pavilion - a rebuilding of his 100-year-old parental home and community at the Venice Art Biennale 2011, and another display at his home, located in a narrow hutong in the west of the capital. "I cannot live without hutong and dazayuan. Although my studio is big and I have enough money to buy an apartment, I prefer living in my old house. I still live the way my parents did, storing cabbages in winter and burning honeycomb briquettes to warm the house in winter," he says.

Song Dong and His Mother

Song Dong’s obsession with hutong bric-a-brac comes from his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, who died when she was 71. Song remembers how his mother never threw away anything, no matter how insignificant it seemed. The house Song was born in was 5.8 sq m and the first bed he had was a suitcase, he recalls. "My mother often said: 'We are poor people. No matter how wealthy we become, poverty will always run in our veins'," he says. "My childhood memories are all about tidying up, organizing and finding places to store our things." [Source: Chen Nen, China Daily July 22, 2011]

In 2002, after his father's sudden death from a heart attack, Song began helping his mother clear up things that she was reluctant to throw away. He was shocked to discover the number of things his mother had stocked up. They took up every corner of their house and even spilled out into the courtyard and hutong.

It was this haul that inspired the widely acclaimed exhibition, Wu Jin Qi Yong, or Waste Not, which was displayed at Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2009. It put on display more than 10,000 items collected by Song's mother, including toothpaste tubes, water pots and burnt-out light bulbs. It was a record of 60 years of a Chinese woman's life - showcasing her attachments and way of life.

"I felt warm and powerful when I saw those items," Song says. "When I was a child, I took it for granted, but as I grew up, I became interested in how the poor manage to create space and cozy living conditions." Waste Not led to more research and interviews. Over the past six years, he has scoured second-hand markets to collect items that are disappearing in everyday life, such as benches and iron pans.

"The exhibition is a series. I will keep on adding items that show the wisdom of the poor. I value their philosophy of life, putting together the exhibition comes naturally to me as that is my life," he says. He finds meaning in what most people would call junk. Nothing should be discarded, he says, insisting that everything can be recycled. "Now, most of my works are for my 3-year-old daughter. I hope one day she will enjoy the art of life because everything in life matters."

Guo Jian and His Unsettling Diorama of Tiananmen Square Under Attack

Guo Jian is Chinese-born artist and Australian citizen. Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times, “As an artist, Mr. Guo both actively and unconsciously reflects his surroundings, often via symbols. He said he had no wish to see China plunged into chaos. Yet he is drawn to probe boundaries, and the square’s apparent untouchability, he said, symbolizes the state’s desire for untouchable power.”

Guo has produced an unsettling diorama of Tiananmen Square under attack from helicopters with heavy machinery digging up the square. “In his taboo-shattering diorama,” Tatlow wrote, “this most powerful symbol of Communist Party rule---with its Mao Zedong mausoleum and portrait, its revolutionary monuments and Great Hall of the People---is under assault from all sides.

“In China you can knock down everything, just not Tiananmen Square,” said Mr. Guo. But, “If you have that attitude, then in the end, people will knock down your power.” Because a government intent on maintaining absolute power will eventually generate too much antipathy to endure. “And that’s the cycle of Chinese history,” he said. The diorama, which has not been publicly exhibited, is in his Beijing studio.

In Mr. Guo’s diorama, a 4.6-by-2.2 meter, or 15-by-7 foot, work in progress, toy trucks and diggers balance on piles of “granite” debris, actually Styrofoam. The roof of Mao’s mausoleum is caved in. The Forbidden City’s Gate of Heavenly Peace and the new National Museum of China show damage from both the wrecker’s ball and gunfire. Trees lie felled. Smoke billows.

The diorama plays specifically on the sensitive issue of government land seizures and property demolitions. Tens of millions of farmers and urban residents have lost their homes in the last three decades, forced out by local officials in league with developers. Earth-moving machines and trucks are a common sight in China. But why the attack helicopters? “Doesn’t “chai” look like warfare?” asked Mr. Guo, using the Chinese word for demolition. “Places that have been “chaied” look like battlefields.” Why the giant Ferris wheel, tilting at the edge of the square” “Everything in China today is entertainment, even destruction,” he said. “People gather and say, “Wow, that was knocked down really well.” So why not have fun watching Tiananmen Square being chaied, too?”

Zhang Runshi

Zhang Runshi is known for his portraits of the faceless poor. His sketches of street children, rural peasants and homeless and paintings of urban and rural landscapes bring to life the suffeirng of the poor and vividly illustrate China’s wealth gap. What is all the more remarkable about Zhang is that for a long a time he was one of the faceless poor himself. “At age 11 he was abandoned on the streets by a truck driver father from Shanxi Province with eight kids. With nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat, he he discovered that people would pay for his ink drawings sold on the sidewalk. Pen and ink literally saved him from starvation. Back then, the child artist sold his sketches for 8 jiao ($0.12) each. Thirty-five years and 20,000 sketches later, his black and white drawings of rural poverty sell for 8,000 yuan ($1,180.80) apiece.” [Source: Barry Cunningham, Global Times, August 4, 2010]

“In 1992, a patron paid 100,000 yuan to buy a Beijing hukou for Zhang. No longer did the artist need to scrounge for scrap lumber to create his woodblock prints, or forage in junkyards for metal to do his etchings. Today, Zhang's patrons are fiercely dedicated to his art, a fountain of creativity that spouts from his imagination 12 hours a day at his Beijing studio, with illustrations and artworks that now fill 164 books.”

“Today, I live a good life and often feel guilty that I cannot paint as I did over the past 20 years of perseverance, humility and poverty,: he told the Global Times. “But who else could understand what I encountered in my childhood?

“Zhang's landscapes were exhibited at the XYZ Gallery in Beijing's 798 Art District. Curator Cheng Guoqin says she is grateful that formal training didn't spoil Zhang's natural gift for art forged by a hard life. His buyers are touched by his experience. They can feel the shadow of their past.

Image Sources: Body Worlds, Lu Bolin, Tsang Tsou-choi

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2011

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