Archive for the 'Portraits of Strangers' Category

19
Aug
10

It’s a family affair

Along a quiet part of Huoshan Lu (霍山路), an old, wrinkled woman was parked by the curb in a rattan chair, quietly fanning herself. Surrounding her were two young mothers and a child entertaining herself with an empty plastic bottle. They were lying on a thin rattan mat as if they were in a grassy park rather than dirty asphalt throbbing with heat.

A few degrees cooler, it would have made for a lovely summer day.

“That’s our mother,” a man waved in the direction of the old woman. “And those are our wives,” another man affirmed.

The Jiang (江) brothers were part of a team of migrant labor from Anhui and Henan, dismantling and emptying all scrap materials from an old factory building slated for demolition. The ground floor served as temporary living quarters, together as a dumping and sorting ground for all the wood, clear glass, mirror glass and all other recyclable waste. In the distance, a group of shirtless men were playing cards and listening to a small transistor radio.

I chatted with them at length, charmed by how similar they looked and amused by the elder (or younger?) brother who peppered me with questions, upon learning that I was from Singapore, how he could move there and make big bucks. “In fact, how about you bring me over to Singapore?” he asked. Everyone laughed.

The following week, I returned bearing 2 copies of this portrait for them. The heat was unbearable and everyone had migrated into the building. The brothers were there, as were their families sans the matriarch. Pleased as punch, his wife pushed an ice-popsicle into my hand. “It’s too hot. Cool down, cool down!” she clucked. I stood there awkwardly holding the popsicle in one hand, camera in the other. Something had to give.

And so, their son, who was eyeing my cold treat, got to slurp down another popsicle. Everyone won.

August 2010

17
Aug
10

The Transaction

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In the afternoon that I have been hanging out at a scrapyard along Huoshan Lu (霍山路), I noticed an old man shuffling quietly through with a small bag in hand. He was shirtless given the sweltering heat, and his age showed through his liver-spotted and saggy skin which hung loosely on his person.

I followed him across to another scrapyard by Liaoyang Lu (辽阳路) and discovered him tidying up a large tarpaulin bag filled with plastic bottles. He had an odd movement about him. Upon closer examination, I noticed his shaking hands.

He had Parkinson’s disease.

His right hand shaking more than his left, he stared at his wares and mentally calculated its costs. I thought it made sense he collected plastic bottles, it’s light and portable, but you only earn about RMB 0.20 (USD 0.03) to one jin (斤) which is about 500 grams.

I was standing amidst a group of men in charge of collecting recycled goods – wood, steel, plastic, rubber, junk. They bought scrap from individuals to sell in bulk to recycling plants.

A young man sauntered over to assess the voluminous heap of plastic. A transaction was made with a modest sum exchanged. I could not help noticing the old man’s shaking hands while he waited for his payment. I wondered if he was being medically treated.

The old man then shuffled off counting his money, dragging his dust encrusted feet and slippers.

“He’s about 60, maybe 70.” One of the managers said in response to my question. “We try to give him a fair deal each time.” A look of pity flashed across his eyes as quickly as it disappeared. He then distractedly turned back to jousting with his buddies.

August 2010

Continue reading ‘The Transaction’

05
Aug
10

The Tale of a Skaterboy

My first encounter with 万成(Wan Cheng), he yelled at me to mind my manners.

The second time I spoke with him, I had asked him to remove his shirt for me.

Let me explain.

I had spotted the group of skateboarders one weekend at The Love Park, south of the Shanghai Concert Hall (上海音乐厅南广场), and naturally began photographing from the sides. A tall, lanky boy called out sharply, “If you want to photograph us, at least ask for permission!”

That was Wan Cheng.

I also spotted several tattoos on some of the young men. Not body tapestry like what we’d imagine on a Japanese yakuza or Hong Kong 古惑仔 (gu wai zai in Cantonese), but more modest and minimal.

One in particular stood out. The same lad who called me out the first time had a face tattooed on his shoulder blade. I returned the following week, psyching myself for some major attitude and potential rejection. Amusingly enough, I approached a group of lads and asked around to their bewilderment, “Err, do you have a tattoo on your back. No, not you? What about you? Can I lift up your shirt? No, okay.” Surprisingly, after I explained myself to Wan Cheng, his curious scowl turned into a smile and all was well with the universe.

That’s when I asked him to take his shirt off.

It turned out that the tattoo was of his mother. She lives in Nanjing and as he was busy working in Shanghai, rarely visits her. He decided to permanently ink her portrait on himself. Or rather, it was a portrait of her when she was 22. “Sure, I miss her sometimes,” he said.

The tattoo process took 3 hours given its size. “It was definitely very painful.” he winced, absently rubbing his back at the memory. The affected skin peeled for a few weeks after as it slowly healed.

He volunteered a picture of his mother that he carried in his wallet, carefully pulling out with grimy hands. The young woman in the studio portrait had a small smile and her hair in a tidy plait over the shoulder, a hairstyle reminscent of the time period.

When Wang Cheng grinned, I was startled by how mother and son looked remarkably alike with their small eyes and straight teeth.

Surrounding boys clamoured around us, wanting to have a look as well. A few teased and some guffawed but not in a disrespectful way, I could tell one younger boy was a bit confused by the whole situation.

Would anyone dare utter ‘mother’s boy’ in the situation? I doubt it. Risk Wan Cheng smashing his skateboard over your head? I’m merely kidding. But he did fling his skateboard into the bushes out of frustration when he couldn’t quite master a maneuver. He lost a wheel in the process and had to retire for the afternoon.

I’ve kept in contact with Wan Cheng since then, updating him with the last story and clarifying facts of skateboarding in China. I asked him how his skateboarding friends felt about my last blog post on them. He said, “In the public’s eye, we are all bad boys. There aren’t too many who try to understand us. They’d be pleased.”

Read more stories on Shanghai’s skaterboys here.

27
Jul
10

A day of rest

He was sitting alone, surrounded by concrete sand and mud, reading a newspaper on top of a tiny table. Behind him was his home, a large blue storage container which served as temporary accommodations for workers on that construction site.

I greeted him good day. “No work today, sir?” I asked, motioning my camera for permission.

He smiled, his crow’s feet pressed together to form a startling handsome face. I was so struck, not just by his genial disposition but by how perfectly framed his face was by his beard and hair, colored evenly with grey, black and white.

For a moment, I knelt there, mesmerized by his features while he stared back, not so much at me but past my shoulder at something else. I repeated myself, asking if he was enjoying his day off.

Suddenly, a voice boomed out from the side. “Today’s Sunday! We’re not working. What are you doing here anyway?” A large and portly middle-aged man, in nothing but a pair of bright red briefs, was in mid stride to the container when he spotted me. Standing firm with his legs apart and hands on hips, he waited for an explanation while I tried very hard to look anywhere but his underwear.

I didn’t recall what I stammered in response, only the image of the smiling old man who quietly acknowledged my departure.

July 2010

02
Jul
10

The street that became a gulf

On a balmy spring day, I had ducked in a narrow corridor to get away from the frantic market activity along the stretch of Anguo Lu (安国路), where the street market bustled with clucking chickens, flopping fish and a rainbow of vegetables and fruits.

I found myself in a compound with squat two-storey apartments. It was a mix of communal housing from the 60s and modest shikumen from the early 30s – non-descript concrete intermingled with old wood.

What struck me most was how neat and orderly everything was. Burgeoning blooms rested in small garden patches that lined a courtyard devoid of clutter and decorated with warm, red windows. What the space lacked in interesting architecture, it made up with a quiet and homey space that was bathed in sunlight.

I struck up conversation with two older men which naturally attracted more people. House-proud, the first gent said he had lived here his whole life, “giving” his apartment to the government after 1949, and reclaiming it in the 1980s.

When I complimented on the state of their residence, they beamed. The second gent pointed out, “We make it a point to be civilized (文明) and clean up after ourselves.” Furrowing his brow, he lowered his voice, “Not like the waidiren (外地人) (or out of state residents) who now dominate the houses across the street. The houses are old and have grown messy and dirty and they don’t take care of it.”

Others in the group nodded. A middle-aged woman lamented as she sorted her vegetables, “When more outsiders started moving into the neighborhood, locals would move out. Or maybe the Shanghainese could afford better housing elsewhere, and start renting their old homes to migrants.” She seemed confused about who to blame, then quickly added, “We renovate and upkeep our houses. Whereas they (outsiders) can be so uncivilized and dirty, destroying our surroundings.”

An old man tottered by and offered his two-cents worth, “Even the Shanghainese living opposite don’t like those outsiders.”

The first man jumped in, “If we can help it, we discourage landlords around here not to rent to outsiders. We prefer local Shanghainese.”

He then summed it up for me, “That street (Anguo Lu) is like a river that separates Hong Kong Island and Kowloon/New Territories.” Hong Kong Island is where businesses thrived and living standards are high, compared to New Territories which still has vast tracks of rural land. “We’re all the same city yet different.”

I didn’t respond, only smiled distractedly. I knew a few residents across the street, including a fish monger, a vegetable hawker and a store keeper. Like almost all the street hawkers in the vicinity, nobody was from Shanghai.

When locals refer to out of state residents, or waidiren (外地人), with such distaste, they usually refer to working migrants or labor from poorer neighboring regions. They could have lived here for years and be a permanent blind spot to society. Accustomed to harsh conditions, these migrants take on jobs that locals are less willing to carry out. They tend to be a little rough round the edges given their poorer living conditions. I’ve witnessed rather appalling behavior of construction workers near their living quarters. Enough said.

Of course, there are many wealthier waidiren, like my Wenzhou landlord who owns multiple properties across Shanghai. Or my work colleagues from Zhejiang, Guangzhou and Wuhan, who have called the city home since their university days. They refer themselves to “New Shanghainese” (新上海人). Locals tend to have mixed reactions to them, focusing more on the fact that they no longer feel they owned the city, than how much the city has thrived as a result of local migration.

I recalled a conversation with the fish monger from Jiangxi. In between naps in a plastic tub meant for containing fish, she told me that she felt sorry for many Shanghainese trying to afford property in the city.

“With the money a Shanghainese uses to buy a 90sqm apartment, I can afford a 3-storey house in my home village. At the end of the day, this is not our home and we will all go back. We may even have better lives in our villages.”

It was quite a revelation for me, putting the local vs. waidiren socio dynamic in new light. 

I left the compound after being offered snacks and tea. Whatever the local residents’ opinions, I appreciated warm hospitality and a chatty demeanour.

As I stood in the middle of Anguo Lu, engulfed by bustling crowds, I looked east at the compound where the Shangahinese locals lived, then west-ward where many waidren lived.

There I was, in the cacophonous street that had turned into a gulf, a reminder of the persisting divide that plagues the city.

May 2010

29
Jun
10

Take to the Street (Part 2)

The second of a two-part series of a self-imposed regiment of hip, chest and over-the-shoulder shooting with a 35mm f1.4. Primes are perfect in its speed, restraint and the boundaries you can push with them within those limitations. It’s all about taming plastic and glass into submission.

With a camera, a jaunt turns into a moving picture, capturing a favored Shanghai past-time: shopping.

On weekends, come rain or shine, the city buzzes alive with an even greater need to consume in small and large quantities. The hunger and temptation are palpable. Buy, buy, BUY!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

(Part 1 can be found here.)

25
Jun
10

Take To The Street (part 1)

The weapon of choice is a 35mm f1.4.

The rule, and the only one of the day: no looking through the view finder. Shoot from the hip, the chest and over the shoulder. Whatever.

The journey begins on Nanjing West Lu / Wujiang Lu toward Yongjia Lu / Shanxi South Lu under an innocuous drizzle….

Vodpod videos no longer available.



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