Archive for April, 2010


Shanghai Cops: They’re watching you

Yes, they’re everywhere.

Shanghai’s finest, its hierarchy of police men and women, district security guards (协管) and traffic cops are out in full force. In fact, there are so many of them, you’d think they’ve shipped them in from other cities and provinces.

If you are in the financial district in Lujiazui (陆家嘴) in Pudong, you’d notice that police are lined up along all the roads in this area. (By the way, this place shuts down after 5pm today, don’t even think about coming over here.)

The professional police force are mostly younger men and smart looking in their navy suits, helmuts and riding boots. They cruise around on nice shiny motobikes or BMW 5 Series, recently introduced for the Expo.

The district security guards (协管) tend to be older men who also wear navy suits and white helmuts, but ride around on a dinky e-bikes. (That’s a pair of them above, whom I like to call Starsky and Hutch).

Traffic police are attired in mud brown suits paired with reflector vests. The force is made up of mostly older men and women in their late 40s or early 50s, who carry ubiquitous jars of tea and when congregating at breaks, look like a gathering of jolly aunts and uncles.

Shanghai’s finest are dedicated to making the city safe and will be watching your every move. So why not stop them and say hello?

Thank them for their fine work while they frisk you and ask you for your passport.

Give them a hat tip as they hustle you across the busy streets.

And heck, why not give them a hug to see if they’ll bundle you in the back of the police van parked round the corner.

So … welcome, welcome! Are you all ready for the Expo?


The gentleman who does construction

In his paint-speckled work jacket, he had a laizzare-faire air about him that was striking yet charming at the same time.

A profile shot was irresistible. Yet at the sight of my camera, he was unfazed. Rather, a lazy grin spread across his face as he fingered around in his pocket for a cigarette. Keeping a steady gaze at my camera, he whipped out a pack of cheap ciggies and even offered me a teasing stick which I politely declined.

A lit cigarette in his hand, a breakfast omelet in another, he raised his left hand to toast me and ambled away to a corner to enjoy his breakfast. No doubt whatever hard labor that laid ahead of him that busy day, he seemed like a man who would take everything in stride.

October 2009


All animals are comrades

“All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.”
– George Orwell, Animal Farm, Ch. 1

At first sight, the chicken was sleeping. Next to it, the sign screamed pending death, “Chicken! 8 yuan a kilo”. That’s when you realized, the chicken was really contemplating its doomed fate.

I’ve photographed my fair share of animals at Chinese markets (detailed in “The Last Squawk”) but it remains impossible to be completely desensitized by live killings, the preferred way for most Chinese to ensure fresh food.

There are times I’ve had to forgo meat for the rest of the day, haunted by the image of a hawker violently ripping the skin off an entire chicken in one stroke. Then, wiping the blood and flesh bits off her cheek, she’d ask if you’ve had lunch.

Or the image of a frog, split in half and tossed on the street. Its eyes were bulging in delirium, staring at its own flailing legs just inches away, as if swimming frantically away from an imaginary enemy.

Once, a curious duck pecked at my hand when I came very close for a shot, and its friends quacked in unison, as if laughing at me. Looking back at that photo, I noted faint smiles, even a smirk, if you’ve lost your mind like I have.

Were they posing for me or mocking another cruel human? It’s nice to know poultry have a sense of humour, even hours before death.

April 2010


Miscellany #1

I try to keep public service announcements on this blog to a minimum, so please bear with me.

– University of Southern California’s “US-China Today” has published my essay on the impact of the Shanghai Expo on the city’s residents and features a slideshow of my work. You can find it here.

– I’ve also created a “Published Work” page where I will slowly put up links of my work.

– And finally, sincere thanks to all who have commented and written me directly. It constantly humbles me that people take the time to read and offer feedback, it’s greatly appreciated and highly encouraging.


Retrospect: No longer their city

I received a text message recently I thought note worthy.

It was from this old man in his 60s who was living in Hongkou, a site along Haimen Lu (海门路) I had visited since September 2009. I had documented the process of the longtang’s demise, as its footprint faded from live houses, to a half-demolished mess and finally, unrecognizable flat land.

The old man had wrtten, “New house is nice but far from Shanghai. Life is different. Take care, young miss.”

From the beginning, he was reluctant to share with me where he was moving to although I knew some of his neighbors had scattered to Pudong and Baoshan. He had no interest in a follow up but was pleased with the portrait I had given him.

The photo above was taken in September 2009 in the same neighborhood, of his neighbor, of the midget-like man who lived in a self-built house made of rubble and scrap.

When I asked him if he was going to relocate, he merely said, “Sure. I have to find another space. Any space. At the end of the day, this is not my city.”

September 2009


“Speak softly, but carry a big can of paint.”

Wandering along the graffiti street on Moganshan Lu, I counted 4 wedding shoots, 3 model shoots, 2 motor bikers (preening and then roaring down the street) and 1 street artist.

His name is Tommy, an American responsible for a few masterpieces along the Moganshan Wall. I caught him just as he was finishing this giant blue … creature, fine-tuning shades and strokes, vibrancy and clarity.

The paint had barely dried when a pair of teenage girls wandered over to pose by it, flashing the ever ubiquitous V-sign next to pouting glossy lips.

Standing with his gear: a paint mask, step ladder, a wheelie bag filled with incriminating cans of sprays and a variety of nozzles, Tommy looked quite pleased with his deed for the day.

“We don’t do this to be famous,” he said at some point. 

It reminded me of what Banksy once said, “Speak softly, but carry a big can of paint.”

When he left, I stood at the same spot, capturing the flow of traffic past the wall. Some stared, most were oblivious. They’re too used to the color on that street. But isn’t that the beauty of it all.

“Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody draw(s) whatever they liked. Where every street was awash(ed) with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet. “ –  Banksy (Wall and Piece)

April 2010


The taxi rest stop

You could say that it’s one of the most colorful public toilets in Shanghai. That is if you can spot it amidst a long trail of graffiti winding along the curve of the road.

Located along Moganshan Lu (莫干山) by Shanghai’s art district, there is always a car or two pulled over on the side.  A man will emerge in mid-zip before climbing into his car.

It’s a popular spot for taxi drivers, even if the toilet shed may seem obscure to the careless passerby.

That afternoon, I found one of Shanghai’s latest fleet of Expo taxis, the Volkswagen Touran, parked by curb. Mr Xu was naturally puzzled to find me waiting for him when he emerged. Mid-zip, of course.

Tuns out, he has been driving this taxi for a few weeks and was proud of his new vehicle. “They pick drivers with the least complaints and the longest driving record,” he boasted.

On my first ride in the Touran, I learned that business was indeed much better than when he was driving his old Volkswagen Santana.

“Initially, nobody flagged me down. They didn’t realize I was actually a taxi!” he said, “But customers feel more secure in this car, and now everyone wants to ride in it!”

As I alighted to a cheery farewell and reminder to check all my belongings, I thought to myself that if the city had more new taxis, it would lift the spirits and inevitably improve the overall service of Shanghai’s taxi drivers.

Just then another taxi honked deafeningly as it swerved past me on a pedestrian crossing.

Maybe not.


Portraits of Strangers #1

In thy face I see the map of honor, truth, and loyalty.
      – William Shakespeare, King Henry VI

There’s no art
  To find the mind’s construction in the face.
      – William Shakespeare, Macbeth
         (Duncan, King of Scotland)

Taken in Lujiazui Financial District, Pudong, Shanghai

April 2010



“The tanks are coming! The enemies are surrounding us!” he screamed, dodging bullets from the machine guns spraying from all sides.

“Fatty! Quick! Hand me the grenade!”

Fatty, a large and tubby comrade, heaved his way behind a half-destroyed wall to hand over a loose one.

The boy lobbed it over and they both ducked as the explosion consumed its enemies with fiery flames.

Suddenly, sensing another enemy close by, their heads simultaneously swivelled and found an assassin, whose scope zoomed in on them.


“Oei! What you doing? MOMMM!!!!!!!!”

“WHAAT?! She’s taking your picture! Smile, dammit!”

Taken south of Shangchuan Huiguan (商船会馆), Old Town

March 2010

* ‘Malchik’ is Russian for boy, and in this context, harks back to Athony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange“.


The Love of Kite-flying Part Two

It was a most random yet lovely sight. Spread out over a large field, with tall incinerators serving as a backdrop and passing ships along the Huangpu River (黄浦江) blaring horns in the near distance, a smattering of retired and middle-aged men were flying kites with very interesting paraphernalia.

Chatting with them, I discovered that a core group flew kites every day in the field, barring rain or the absence of wind. They also belong to a special club focused on kite-flying and would even conduct demonstations for their former work units (单位).

They also gathered at sunrise on the Bund to fly their kites until about 8am. “Before the crowds and cars become distracting, ” one man said. “You don’t want your kite crashing on someone’s head, or worse, on a moving car!” Another sniggered, “Or ruin your kite.”

The “leader” of the pack, they teased, was Mr (or Master) Li. Incredibly dapper in a red sweater and a smart tie, he showed me his favored eagle kite. I watched him lay it on the ground and gradually swing the contraption in a circular fashion until the eagle was high enough to soar unencumbered. No forced yanking. Only graceful light steps forward and back to maneuver in accordance to the winds and your own fancy.

It takes a certain skill to fly these kinds of eagle kites, Mr Li boasted and the rest nodded in agreement. You don’t see many people flying these kinds of kites in public parks or the city centers they lack the space.. and skill.

“You could train non-stop for 3 months and you might maybe master the basics,” he said while inspecting his prized paper aves.

Each gentleman has several models to practice, and most craft the kites themselves with patient precision and after many rounds of testing. Many of the men had several stashed in their nifty kit boxes affixed to the back or the front of their bicycles.

After a half hour, three men heaved up from their foldable chairs and packed up their tea and gear.

As they wheeled their bicycles across the field, they waved and yelled, “See you all tomorrow!” and added, ” Depending on the weather!.” Hopping on, they bicycled off in a neat row.

Taken by 2523 Yangshupu Lu (扬树浦路), right by the shipdocks

April 2010

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April 2010