Posts Tagged ‘All about China


We are but a shirtless belly away

We flung outselves into Spring’s embrace a few days ago under sun-soaked rays, light breezes and an explosion of blooming flowers.

Other signs make it hard to forget that May is but round the corner.

“Extra security! Speed up the demolition! New roads! Confused cabbies! Visitors from out of town all in the same month. HAVE YOU BOUGHT YOUR TICKETS TO THE EXPO YET?”

Just in case you weren’t aware that the Shanghai Expo is happening. We’re all at the edge of our seats here.

Then, the spring months will pass and before we all know it, summer will be here.

Cue the moans. The hot, the sticky and the smelly.

Cue. The invasion of the shirtless bellies.

You wouldn’t know where to look.

August 2009


Nostalgia in harmony

“The only thing better than singing is more singing.” ~ Ella Fitzgerald

One of the best ways to experience the city is to immerse yourself in the many public parks around Shanghai. There are small parks that accommodate a few chess games, body exercises and common assemblies of retired conversationalists. Larger parks like Lu Xun Park (鲁迅公园) contain a spectrum of activity that warms the heart and cheers the spirit.

Come late afternoon as the sun slides lazily into the early evening, tens of middle aged to the elderly would throng about in large groups in accordance to their indulgences. Some dance, others sing and most do both.

In the centre of Lu Xun Park, there is a large group that does the waltz, tango or cha-cha. Sometimes they dance en mass to a booming speaker that is owned by an accompanying cowboy on guitar. Other times, they surround an outstanding pair or two who twirl and move seamlessly in circles.

But almost all the time, everyone sings.

A few have songbooks that reveal old lyrics from the Communist era filled with patriotism but mostly of nostalgia. They blend into a harmony of voices – tenors mixed with sopranos that are supported by baritones. The more they sang, they more they smiled, some serene and others mile-wide with glee.

In that free space, they lose themselves to fresh air, swaying trees in balmy winds and amongst companions who have experienced life as much as the next person. Yet there was no need to talk about the past when you can share it in song in the present.

April 2009


How do you view China?

If I were a romantic, I’d paint a picture of China’s social and economic contrasts. A stalwart  worker poised on his bicycle, a mode of transportation that once defined an entire generation of Chinese before the country opened up, against the backdrop of the bellowing economic beast.

If I were a skeptic, I’d say that he fits like a small piece in a huge jigsaw puzzle that is China, a cliché that journalists and pundits use to sweepingly illustrate trends like “the widening chasm of income-inequality” or “the growing flows of migrant classes”.

But today, I’m neither.

This man was merely bicycling to (or from) work at 7:30am and enjoying a cigarette in the process.

And when you smiled at him, he nodded gravely and continued along his way.

“(…) it turns out that there’s another way of comprehending the reality of modern-day China — one that captures the contradictions of the place and allows them to co-exist.”

“So the tug-of-war continues, and the stories keep rolling in. The bigger story is a long way from over. Stay tuned.” ~ Christian Caryl, Foreign Policy, 28 February 2010 “Beijing’s Labor Pains”

November 2009


A negotiation in bread

The jolly baker was a fixture at the market where teaming masses of human bodies bumped and jostled their way around.

He always had a smile on his face and ready conversation for his customers while he kneaded and baked his flat bread. For a man who had an almost permanent spot in the market, his baking paraphernalia was incredibly mobile.

A small crowd had gathered as I was taking his photo. A friend had shown one of the customers a random print photo I had taken. They shared it around while making clucking noises. I promised the baker I’d give him a portfolio shot the next time I see him.

“He should pay you for taking his photo then!” someone shouted. Approving murmurs ensued.

“5 pieces of bread for one photo!” another cheerfully volunteered. The baker laughed heartily although you could tell he was mentally weighing the costs.

Then the negotiations among the crowd began in earnest.

“6 pieces!”

“No! 4 pieces but with the sweet filling!”

“No, no!! He pays down payment with 1 piece!”

Over the din, more people joined in, wondering if a hostile argument had broken out.

Finally, his wife came along, perplexed by the commotion. Upon hearing the situation, she wisely settled on 2 pieces for a photo. And with that, all social order was restored.

December 2009


Recounting childhood memories

This past weekend, I met with Terence Lloren who runs “Growing up with Shanghai”, a project series of sound walks with young Shanghainese who grew up in the city in the 1980s and 90s, a period of rapid modernization.

This project is a labor of love for Terence, an American sound recordist/artist who now calls Shanghai home. The recordings are current sounds of Shanghai in the form of dialogue and the natural setting of the hustle and bustle of Shanghai’s streets. The interviewee speaks of memories of childhood locations and a past life, often unrecognizable with new roads and buildings.

On the most recent soundwalk, we were led by Yunqin (who also goes by Emelie), a chatty girl with journalistic aspirations, who took us through a neighborhood in Putuo District in Shanghai, around 兰溪路 (Lanxi Road) and 北石路 (Beishi Road) where she lived until she was 12.

When she was done, she remarked, “I feel as if I cannot stop talking, I could go on forever.”

Her story and many others can be found on the “Growing up with Shanghai” website. The dialogue is in Shanghainese, a deliberate decision to preserve and emphasize the importance of local dialects in China. However, English transcripts allow easy access to this significant project, one that will be hugely appreciated in many years to come.

Continue reading ‘Recounting childhood memories’


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


The remaining days

He laughed when I asked how long he and his wife were living in this house.

“She’s not my wife. She’s my mother-in-law.”

It was only after a closer look, I realized that he was indeed younger than her even though both had a shock of white hair. He was probably in his 60s and comfortably retired. In the afternoon I spent with him and his neighbors, and for the following two weekends, he would read, cook, nap, patch old clothes or shoes, and sometimes just relax on his chair and stare at his surroundings as it were being demolished.

He was a soldier, I assumed with the Red Army, and was originally from Beijing. He landed in Shanghai after “jie fang” or Liberation, which is the term most Chinese people use to refer to 1949 after the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

His mother-in-law was born and bred in Shanghai, looking like she was sliding into her late 80s. She didn’t speak much Mandarin, only Shanghainese, or was very coherent for the matter. So our conversation was a little rudimentary, like two kinds of foul quacking and crowing to each other. But she was incredibly kind and even insisted I stay for some steamed corn.

I’ve been overwhelmingly touched by some people that I’ve been photographing. It takes a bit of time to penetrate the curiosity, sometimes hostility but after a few probing questions, they tend to open up a little. With a touch of warmth and familiarity, they can be generous with what little they had on hand, and unfailingly, with parental concern that was second nature. Are you cold? Are you hungry? Are you married?

I returned recently to give him this photo as a farewell gift. He was very pleased as was I, and insisted on giving me money, which I simply could not accept.

“I didn’ think you would actually give me a photo! You kept your word,” he exclaimed.

Eyeing his portrait, he sighed, “You don’t get much of that nowadays.”

October 2009

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