Archive for the 'Street Stories' Category

03
Sep
10

Buying back old Expo tickets

He stood there holding a small styrofoam board with a bored expression that was only rivaled by the young boy next to him selling ice-cream with his shirt rolled up to his chest.

Apparently, this man was in the business of buying back old mobile phones and transportation cards, amongst other things I’m sure, to recycle and make a bit of profit on the side.

“How come you are buying back old Expo tickets.” I asked, “You selling them online or try to get back into the Expo grounds?” I joked.

The man lazily looked me up and down, “What’s it to you?”

I shrugged. “I have a spare Expo ticket in my pocket to sell, maybe we can talk business. I’m just curious what you do with it, that’s all.”

He eyed my camera suspiciously. “This and that.”

I asked to take a quick snapshot, he pondered for a moment and acquiesced. As I framed my shot, he suddenly swung the sign board right into my lens.

He then proceeded to do a little dance, swimming the sign board all over the place just so it was impossible to photograph it.

“What you doing, man?” I asked in bewilderment. If you don’t want me to shoot, just say so, I huffed.

Ok, ok, he guffawed. As I tried one more time, he began his old antics again. This time, swinging the sign like a pendalum, cackling at his own wit.

Afterwhich, he pointed west and drawled, “There are a bunch more people like me buying back Expo tickets down the road, why don’t you photograph them?” With that, he continued cackling.

Exasperated, I spun on my foot and left. What a joker.

August 2010

23
Aug
10

Before Dinner Time, You Could …

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…  sing a song.

… run an errand.

… play one last round of carom.

… run around with a stick of celery.

… trim your hair.

And just like that, the weekend was over.

August 2010

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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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** For those still unable to view the slideshow, the photos are available in sequence after the jump.

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.

03
Aug
10

Skaterboys

I was “chasing” 4 o’clock shadows at the intersection of 金陵东路 (Jinling Dong Lu) and 西藏南路 (Xizhang Nan Lu) when I heard a loud whoops and whooshes of skater wheels on concrete coming from a distance.

In a large square behind the Shanghai Concert Hall (Update: I have been kindly informed that the area is also called The Love Park (LP among sb folks)), a group of sweaty young men were practicing a variety of maneuvers with utmost seriousness. It was a mixed crowd of mostly amateurs diligently mastering the basics: the “Ollie”, “kickturns”, “board slides”, “kickflips” before graduating to more intermediate moves. (for an always educational list of skateboarding terms, refer here)

They checked in with each other’s progress. “你的Ollie 还这么样吗?” (“How is your Ollie coming along?”) (“Yea, still getting there.” “Which maneuver are you up to now?”)

From a distance, a tall, skinny boy in a purple tee with zig-zags and black skinny jeans was riding out momentum to “air” (ride all 4 wheels in the air) over a set of steps while tapping the board into a full rotation. The result sent him into a full-bodied sprawl on the ground. Sensing no bodily damage, he was up and about repeating the maneuver.

At one point, as I began photographing them, a topless and tough-looking boy eyed me from a distance. “If you want to shoot us, don’t make us look bad.” I was a little perplexed by this and asked what he meant by that. He shrugged and said, “Nothing, as long as you think there’s no problem, we’re cool.” Losing all interest in my presence, he went back to his skateboard.

I sat on the sides and began observing the crowd’s reaction to them. Some curious passers-by would slow down, others simply cut right through their activity without a blink of an eye. The occasional young lass in a short skirt always created a pause in all skateboarding activity for an appreciative gaze.

Children were the most intrigued. At one point, a mother tugged at her son who stood riveted by the skaterboys, “Look at them.” She sneered. “If you don’t do well in school, this is what happens to you.” The young child grinned to himself at the possibility, probably not the best parenting move.

Han Minjie or Jeff Han, considered the “father of skateboarding in China” (more about him next time), once said that the perception of skateboarding in China is still too ‘underground’ (rebellious, individual, dangerous).

It made me think of William Blake’s great quote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is – infinite”. While we were in a public space, the typical passer-by knew little about the skaterboys and what they were about.

Maybe it was because they looked a little intimidating with their tattoos and body scars from too much practice, but listening to the skateboarders discuss at length techniques and paraphernalia with the seriousness of an engineer, it’s hard to be negative.

Just then, the sound of flesh and bones connecting, once again, with concrete caught my attention. I winced. A young amateur sitting next to me stared at the boy in question dust himself off and said to no one in particular, “Man, I wish I could do that.”

July 2010

19
Jul
10

And then the sun came out to play

This past weekend, the sun came out in its full glory, accompanied by clear blue skies and thin wisps of clouds.

For weeks, Shanghai endured a perpetual haze, gloomy skies and temperamental showers. “Plum rain” or 梅雨 (mei yu) – heavy precipitation and constant rain which occurs for several weeks at a stretch during early summer in the Yangtze River Delta – is more or less over.

But what this means also is that we’re now in the throes of a harsh summer. Today, the city is sweltering in 35 degree (95 Fahrenheit) heat, where mere breathing can cause a person to break out in sweat. And we all know it’s only going to get worse.

On the upside, the witching hours of the late afternoon, for a street photographer, are magical. Basking in the brilliance of an afternoon sun after weeks of gloom and rain, clear and stark shadows come out to play.

Everywhere you turn, everything you see, has so many possibilities that are ripe for the picking. You view the world in a third dimension where shadows speak a secret language that you only understand through your lens.

July 2010




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