Archive for February, 2010


Behind the Camera: Howard French of “Disappearing Shanghai”

This is the first of the “Behind the Camera” series. A little background here.

Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was the bureau chief of the New York Times’ Shanghai office from 2003-08, as part of a 22-year career as a foreign correspondent. His most widely exhibited work, “Disappearing Shanghai”, documents the life of neighborhoods “doomed to imminent extinction” as he describes it. French’s work is evocative in its quiet dignity and intimacy with his subjects, like one old soul talking to another.


1. You were most recently the bureau chief of the New York Times’ Shanghai office, following many years of reporting all over the world. Now you’re also increasingly known for your photography. Can you tell us how and when your interest in photography started? Did it influence the way you reported your stories?

HF: I was introduced to photography by my father and by a great uncle. Roughly around the same time, say between the ages of 10-12, the one (my Dad) taught me how to develop black and white film in a simple basement darkroom he helped my older brother and I build, and the other (my uncle) gave me a Kodak Retina camera – way prematurely. I’ve been involved with photography ever since, but became serious about it in an applied way for the first time while living in West Africa in the early 1980s. I began working as a freelance journalist there, and in addition to taking pictures for my own purposes, I started doing so to produce images to accompany my articles.

Working as a reporter with other photographers, like Stuart Isett (to name one), in Japan, influenced my photography and my journalism. I learned a lot about slowing down, about coming at a subject from multiple angles, about the importance of self-criticism, about getting closer to people.

2. When you were shooting in Shanghai, how did people react to your presence and intentions? Can you name a particular incident that left a deep impression on you?

HF: The most interesting facet for me of documentary photography has always had relatively little to do with “technique,” in the traditional sense of the word. Yes, one must have a sense of such things, but the barriers to learning the technical aspects involved in this kind of photography are not terribly high, nor for me do they hold great fascination. What most excites me about the kind of work I’ve done in Shanghai instead is rather what I’d call the personal interface between photographer and subject. Finding my style in the street and getting deeper and deeper into my subject matter was a matter of initiation in a whole new world of communication, a largely non-verbal world, that I had scarcely imagined existed beforehand. Lots of photographers, including most beginners, are seduced by longer lenses and by zooms as a way of drawing closer to their subject. I wanted to do the opposite, to restrict my lens choices to fixed optics from the other end of the spectrum, either standard lenses (50mm on SLRs and 80mm on my Rolleiflex) or wide angles. This necessitated learning how to draw closer to my subjects without alarming them, without having them pose or otherwise perform for me, and sometimes, indeed, without even alerting them. Learning to do so begins with great patience, but that only gets you so far. The next steps come by way of body language and other mostly non-verbal stuff. Sometimes it is a matter of conveying a kind of sympathy. Other times one may convey disinterest, or even boredom. Most often, though, it is a matter of giving a sense of belief in what you’re doing; not looking tentative or apologetic, frightened or unsure.

I don’t have a particular image or story to relate to you. What I can say is that my street work often involved lingering in a circumscribed area, a well-defined neighborhood, a specific block, or maybe a street corner, for hours at a time. After a while, people stop paying so much attention to you. If you visit and revisit these places over and over again, as I did, the chemistry begins to change, and all sorts of new possibilities begin opening up for you.

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Hello, goodbye, again and again

“You missed them. They left two weeks ago for their hometown in Jiangsu.”

The neighbor shivered a little in her shapeless coat while stirring a pot of boiling soup in the tiny room that she shared with her family. She shrugged when I asked for a follow up contact.

I first met the Han sisters a few months ago in the crowded thoroughfare of Old Town Shanghai (上海老城厢). It was surreal, chasing after two girls who were skipping through the alleys without a care in the world. I visited the girls every few weeks, sometimes to drop off sweets, and other times, finding a locked door.

I had given them a framed picture of their portraits as promised. I recalled when I showed up, the little one said solemnly, “I’ve been waiting for you. 1 month to be exact.”

The girls’ parents had worked in Shanghai for several years, and had only recently brought over the younger sister, Hanye for less than 6 months. The older sister Hanbo stayed behind in rural Jiangsu.

Now, it seemed that the whole family has returned home and is believed to have saved up enough money to set up a small business. Maybe Shanghai has become too expensive. Or maybe the family was just tired of being apart.

I never got to say goodbye. Such is the transience of the city.

August 2009


A balloon a day…

A neighborhood market can sometimes be like the beating heart where all arteries lead to, the arteries being the longtangs or alley houses that surround it.

There is nothing you cannot buy. Live fish thrashing in buckets of water or witness sad clucking chickens doomed to be a family’s scrumptious dinner.

How about buying soy sauce in bulk which are stored in huge vats that come up to your waist? If curious, ask the vendor about the medicinal value of antelope antlers or penises he has on display.

Or you could just buy a balloon.

There is nothing like a balloon to brighten up your day.

I hope you’re having a good one.

December 2009


Home owner, house father

I had never met a resident in the longtang (弄堂) who owned all three floors of his shikumen (石库门).

The structure is traditionally narrow – the door opened into a tiny flight of stairs that led to a large living room and a small bedroom, followed by a small kitchen and an equally small shower/toilet on the third floor that was recently installed. Many residents in longtangs do not have their own toilets.

Yet for all the space the gentleman had, one could not help but notice all the clutter.

It was everywhere. Boxes, books, soft toys, clothes, appliances and more bits and bobs were crammed into every crevice that mapped the living room into a topography of an even larger mess. Abashed, he apologized for the state of the room.

He worked at the shipyard and lived with his college graduate daughter who stared blankly at me as I spoke with her father at length. His wife had passed on a while ago due to diabetes. I did not probe. The man cooked and cleaned when he can and at the moment, was taking care of his unemployed daughter who had a slight cold from the winter chill.

January 2009


Worn sole, worn soul

Apparently, in shoe factories in China, it takes two hundred pairs of hands to make a running shoe. Cutters stamp sheets of fabric to form soles, stitchers then sew them together along with logos, shoelace eyelets etc, followed by sole workers who use an infrared oven to glue the soles and frame together. Assemblers will, of course, further assemble the various parts into a final product and finishers will do a quality check and pack.  (“Factory Girls”, Leslie Chang, 2009)

So much labor and so many man-hours. A never-ending supply chain that envelops an entire country.

How many pairs of shoes does a construction worker go through in his work-life time? I wonder.

October 2009


The Singing Ship

This old and rusting ship was moored off the Pudong side of the Huangpu River (黄浦江) by Zhangyang Harbour (张扬码头), but is no longer there.

Nobody was ever able to tell me its history except that it belonged to a family in Shanghai that had been looking for investors to restore it.

In the few times that I’ve been on board after much cajoling, the interior looked as if it entertained Shanghai’s rich and playful in the 1920s and 30s.  (Ed note: A friend – see comments – has wisely corrected me in that the ship was likely borne from the 1980s given that it was welded. Blame my romanticism for such assumptions.) Musical notes were carved into railings, stairs and walls. You could feel ghosts linger in shadowed corners as you walk on rotting floorboards and dodged rusted metal.

I doubt many have seen the ship in its full glory. Sometimes, it looked like an abandoned outcast amidst the hustle and bustle of shipping containers and garish tourist boat traffic.

Other times, the ship looked like a defiant relic proud of the era it represented, as if it was the only thing that stood between the frantic reality we lived in and the tenuous history we so easily forget.

It was an especially iconic sight when the mist comes in after a heavy downpour.

According to a guard who used to live on the ship, it has been towed to Nantong Port (南通港口)in Zhejiang  to be restored in time for the Shanghai Expo. Whether it will look as majestic as its former self, or morph into a cliché strobe-lighted circus on water remains to be seen.

April 2009


Carom precision

The balmy autumn afternoons seem so far away now that the cruel mistress that is winter taunts us with a wet chill that seeps into bones and dulls the heart. Compared to Northern China, which is gripped in its coldest winter in decades, Shanghai has it easy.

Still, I’ve never been a fan of this particular season as the gloomy blues come as quick as sunset and Shanghai is rarely graced with the kind of elegant snowfall that silences the chattering locals.

Yet, cold weather has never prevented this group of retirees from gathering for a game of carom (康乐球), a cross between billiards and table shuffleboard. With two sets of carom tables set up along the sidewalk on Zhoushan Lu in Hongkou, they attract the occasional tourist and plenty of neighborhood traffic. But their concentration rarely waivers. They are deadly serious about the game for there is a running score for the neighborhood players and money occasionally exchanges hands.

September 2009

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February 2010