Posts Tagged ‘childhood


Photographing children in China


Part of a series of portraits of strangers in Shanghai.

Their parents were more than generous in letting a 50mm lens hover so close to their children and sharing with me, details of how they were spending their day. In Shanghai, you always see a family of 3, rarely more.

One thing I’ve noticed about photographing children in China is the willingness, almost pride, that most parents have in allowing you to do so. Perhaps it is the effect of the one-child policy (not everyone abides by the one-child policy in China, choosing to pay fines for more), that any attention on children is largely welcome.

I’ve seen a fair bit of discussion about privacy and morality issues when it comes to photographing children (in the context of street photography) and placing their photos online in photo forums like Flickr. Many Westerners weighing in, especially male photographers, shy away from doing so for many reasons.

One is the fear of being labeled as some kind of creepy kiddy-fiddler, the other is the general wariness by parents for the very same reason. This has largely to do with the public consciouness of pedophelia cases in the West (not that there aren’t in the rest of the world but cases are recognizably more public in proportion to the societal stigma they carry), awareness of child trafficking and child sex workers in Asia and so on. Terribly grim stuff.

A British commentator remarked in one of the discussions, that looking back to photos from the past World Wars, the best photos showed how civilians adapted to the harrowing conditions of war. The innocence of children, given the times, was an integral element in showcasing the enduring fates and faces of conflict. It seemed a shame that in contemporary times, such pure thoughts cannot exist on their own without being muddied by a darker side.

Too much politically correctness? Where do you draw the line in street photography, of the principles in photographing adults vs children, best when they are completely unaware?

So much electronic ink has been spilled in debating this, that the only conclusion I have is that the individual bears the arbitrating responsibility. Be guided by your conscience and instinct. If at all possible, two rules to abide by is to ask politely and take no for an answer, and extend basic acknowledgment or even offer to send them a photo.

I was quite struck by a recent trip to Shantou and Chaozhou in Guangdong province, of the noticably larger families in Southern cities which have more than one child (Rural residents tend to do the same due to looser implementation).

A Chinese friend explained that it was common for parents to bear a hefty fine (RMB 100k/ USD 14k – a lot for Tier-2 city residents), live modestly, than have restricted family sizes. It could also be the influence of more conservative overseas Chinese with relatives in the South: sons are more important than daughters, two sons are better than one.

But are they happier? I found that larger families had a more relaxed dynamic at meal times and kids were often left alone in houses to run rampant. There is less need to overprotect and more normal for a child to be part of a family unit (extended or otherwise).

A little food for thought on photography in China to kick off the weekend. Do share your views. They are as always, greatly appreciated.

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“.


Up in the air

While playing with (and by that, I mean being bullied by) a screaming bunch of pint-sized kids in the longtang one day, a ruddy-faced boy suddenly asked me, “Have you been on an airplane? What is it like?”

Domestic air travel in China reached 215 million passengers in 2009 and with the newly opened Hongqiao Terminal 2, Shanghai now has 2 airports housing 4 terminals. Each day, tens of thousands are touching down and/or taking to the skies to and from our fair city.

But we forget the majority of China travel domestically by bus or train. Not everyone has had, or will have, the luxury of sitting in a flying tin can, eating bad airplane food.

Hence today’s photos. Hardly street level, but yesterday’s foggy and dreadfully wet weather reminded me of the many possible air travellers abandoned in lounges or trapped on tarmacs in Shanghai’s airports.

This is for ruddy-faced A-da (阿怛).

Here’s to you, kid. I forgive you for sneezing all over my camera. May you one day share the same view.

December 2009, en route Shanghai-Beijing


Family business


Children are excellent sales people at the market. Adorable ones attract browsing customers, even if you’re just selling garlic and ginger. 

To call this grandmother’s place of merchandise a stall is a bit of a stretch. She had two baskets of produce that registered a few coins per purchase. Yet it seemed like a way to pass the time while caring for her grandchildren. 

The family was from Shandong province, as were their neighbouring vendors. The market street was sometimes clustered according to your province and hometown, common in migratory patterns.

An old security guard stopped by, played with the children for a bit and bought a few pieces of ginger. Barely 3, the older child, after wiping her snot-riddled fingers on her clothes, picked up the produce awkwardly and bagged them while everyone watched her move in painfully-slow motion.

Next to her, the baby boy, wrapped up in a permanent ball of fleece, simply stared into space while concentrating on standing upright, with much futility.

“Good girl!” a few people clapped enthusiastically when the girl sucessfully bagged the produce. She giggled at the attention.

Suddenly, from behind us, someone snapped in jest, “Oei! Little girl, hurry up! I’m in a rush. Two pieces of garlic.”

More about Shanghai’ street markets here and here.

January 2010


Work’s Momentum

In their hands, these workers carried bricks that once made up houses that are now no more, in neighborhoods that the next generation will have no idea once existed.

Their prerogative is only to deconstruct and construct. This side of history, by no fault of theirs, has nothing to do with them.

Taken west of Shangchuan Huiguan (商船会馆), a former temple and lone structure in a vast ocean of concrete rubble. Even children who played amidst what was left over of the neighborhood, are not likely to recall what it used to be.

March 2010


Some grow up tough

Others are born tough.

He stared intently into my camera and slowly brought his handkerchief up toward me, as if he was readying to wipe my lens.

Quietly, he said, “Enough.”

I stopped, lowered my camera and for a split second, we eyed each other warily.

Then suddenly, he bounded off past me and dived into his mother’s arms and shyly hid behind her.

As we walked away, he continued to watch us. I never could quite figure out what was going on behind those eyes.

January 2010


Homework is an unending journey

The entire country is in a perpetual state of self-improvement so as to reach the next level of the socio-economic ladder.

Since time immemorial, each generation worked to widen the proverbial door for the descendants, they had believed was closed to them. When they tell you Chinese people are hardworking, they didn’t make up that stereotype. It’s true.

As a child in China, one is never free from the clutches of school homework, even on a weekend. If it’s not multiplication tables, it’s copious Chinese text to copy and memorize.

That’s all one ever does. Memorize.

Meanwhile, pencil to paper is all you can do to make the time fly by before playtime, even if all the answers were wrong.

If you’re a more naughty or reckless child, you’d hide the workbooks away and lie about them being completed. Of course, adults always catch on. Who are you kidding? Parents did it growing up too, and rarely succeeded. I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said, “Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes.”

That’s when you hear the parent chasing the child around the room, sometimes wielding a threatening slipper. “Sit down! Stop running! Do your work!” A hard thwack on the bum to set you straight and a firm thump of the table to drive the point home.

Sometimes, you can hear the yelps, laughter and wails of pain from the next alley over.

November 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’

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