Posts Tagged ‘China



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

13
Jul
10

The steel nest

I’ve always wondered how much steel is required to hold up an entire building.

Tons, I imagine, snaking through concrete and plaster.

I watched a group of construction workers bend and weld apart long twines of rusted steel and pile them high into a massive truck, which came up to almost 2 stories high.

Interestingly enough, I discovered the core group of workers to be from Chonqing, as the demolition company was owned by a Chongqing family.

One young worker swaggered over to me, shirt wide open, and peered at my camera. I pointed to this picture of him and said, “You look like you’re building a bird’s nest.”

He responded with a blank look, and laughed, “Only a person who doesn’t do construction labor would say something like that.”

July 2010

08
Jul
10

Scooter 1-2-3

Faster and sturdier than an electric bicycle, casual and a small enough an engine that a license is merely a formality. Anyone can learn to drive a scooter or moped (电动车).

It’s relatively quiet, efficient and fast. And affordable. A friend recently bought a black and red one, low CC Chinese-brand scooter for RMB 2500 (USD 368). “Liberating and a ton of fun!” he exclaimed, before tossing his man-purse into the scooter’s seat compartment, and put-put-putting off into the night.

But the best thing about the scooter is that unlike a bicycle, you can carry not just one, but two or heck, even three extra passengers.

Whether you’re travelling alone, with a buddy or as a family, a scooter gives you enough plastic casing, leather seating and that much horse-power, to take you places.

June 2010

06
Jul
10

Because the Street Belonged to Her

She was jaywalking in the huge intersection under the light patter of a persistent drizzle.

The traffic warden yelled out to her to return to the curb as the red man flashed, escalating with a stern tweet of her whistle.  Everyone else stood sullenly by the side, wishing they could do the same.

Ignoring everyone else, she perservered towards the the middle of the street as large buses and shiny cars rumbled by and honked around her.

Suddenly, I was in an episode of Seinfeld, watching George Costanza playing Frogger on the street.

The light changed and the masses began shuffling across just as she got to the other side.

The lady saved herself all but 30 seconds. Probably well-worth in her mind.

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.
23
Jun
10

Don’t poke around, but I’ll happily pose

“Good day, sir! How are you doing today?”

Stare.

“Working hard, I see? I’m curious about this site, I hear it’s a former military barrack. Are you all renovating the place?”

Stare. Unblinkingly. Someone else coughs.

“Okay. Mind if I walk around for a bit. The buildings are very interesting!”

Stare. Then, a monosyllabic “No!” in unison.

“Then how about a photo of all of you. It’s a nice day, you can pose for me.”

Blink. Stare. Come to life. “Yes, I’ll stand here. He’ll stand there. I want a full body shot. But wait until I put on all my clothes. No, no, stand a bit further back. When you are done, let me see.”

June 2010

22
Jun
10

Small town Shanghai: Who’s left?

You don’t have to wander too far from Shanghai to find interesting small towns, that is, ones that have not converted into tourist villages of Disneyland proportions.

An hour-long bus ride from Longyang metro stop (龙阳地铁站) on Line 2, deep into Pudong (浦东), we found ourselves in the town of Dayuan (大团镇) in Nanhui (南汇).

Towns in China have developed with a banal similarity common in suburbia America. The same fading welcome signboards, the same layout of buildings, shops and houses populate next to the highway – all of it, engulfed in swirling road dust. There is nothing particularly outstanding about Dayuan town but there was plenty to explore once you push into the interior.

The dynamic of urban and suburban sprawl applies aptly when you compare metropolitan Shanghai and suburban towns like Dayuan. In the town’s older neighborhoods, you see a mix of elderly and children with a conspicuous absence of the robust working age group of 18 to 25. The young and mobile have migrated to the metropolitan cities in search of more interesting work and that bit of excitement.

The elderly living in Dayuan tend to have lived in Shanghai for a long time, some migrating from the city center to the outskirts. They while their time away playing cards or chess, drinking tea, cleaning and strolling on the grounds. They live modestly, sometimes growing their own food, diligently recycling what they can into an accoutrement of knick-knacks like dried leaves as broom bristles or using plastic bottles to store loose grain.

A 15 minute walk off the highway where we were dropped off, we found ourselves in a leafy lane hugged by old houses, new shop fronts and the occasional factory space.

In one of the small lanes, we found an old man making old-style cloth shoes in his living room. He measured pieces of paper on cloth, used glue of his own concoction – entirely organic – and glued the layers together and eventually sewed them by hand and machine. 88 years old, he lived in Shanghai his whole life. His living room was stacked high with rubber soles, scraps of cloth and paper. And while his movements were slow and deliberate, he was still alert and humorous, indulging us in great detail of his craft.

In another old-style Jiangnan (江南) house with curbed rooftips, which once served as a sock production unit decades ago, I found a husband and wife couple quietly snipping away stray threads off bags of socks. When asked if they were still in the business of producing socks, they laughed. No no, the wife said, we just get paid a bit of money to clean up loose ends and pack them before they get shipped out. Their relatives continue the socks production business but at a real factory.

As are most small towns, everyone is friendlier and warmer. Come sit down and have a cup of tea, indulge in a tale or two about the history of their lives or the town.  An old man sang and played his erhu (二胡) for us while another showed us his shockingly large collection of junk electronics harking back to the 60s.

There was no better way to spend the day, under leafy trees in the summer sun. And if you collect stories like me, be it large cities or small towns, the stories are always entertaining yet meaningful.

June 2010

17
Jun
10

A Photographer’s Eviction from the house on Yulin Road

From a distance, the row of European-styled houses stood out along Yulin Lu (榆林路) in Hongkou district (虹口区)– burning brick red against squat shop houses and gleaming condominiums. The place has been designated as a heritage site, according to a plaque that hung outside, which offered little beyond a perfunctory description of “simplified classical style … garden residences” built in 1927.

Inside, more than half the rooms had been abandoned because the wood on the walls and floor had rotted. Signs of previous occupation were rare, save for the occasional celebrity or government poster, and drawings in what was once a children’s nursery. There were also several expired eviction letters taped to doors.

Yet there were persistent stragglers living there, evidenced by dried fish and laundry hanging in the hallways.

On the occasions that I have entered the premise unencumbered, residents left me alone. Once, an old man stared at me blankly from his window above before closing it.

One visit was marked by a dramatic eviction of our own. Exploring the cavernous empty rooms with 2 other photographers (one of whom was 席子 Xi Zi interviewed here), we split up to document the various wings.

I was teetering in a corner of a room whose floor had caved in when I heard aggressive shouting. Peering out of the side of the window, I saw a security guard shoving my friends across the courtyard while they resisted and pleaded to complete some shots. Volumes were raised in a staccato of Shanghainese as arms pushed and pulled. Some residents stared at the drama with little interest.

I crouched back against the wall, clutching my tripod to my chest as my heart beat wildly.  I was determined to finish shooting the abandoned rooms and as long as they didn’t know I existed, I had some time.

I moved swiftly but quietly from one room to another, careful to stay clear of the windows lest I be seen. Just as I hear the main gate slam shut against my friends, I heard someone shout from above,

“There’s still one more! A girl! Find her!”

I froze against the window then surveyed the situation. A resident and guard began striding to the various houses while shouting to their informer, “Where? What floor?!”

After a few jerky shots, I packed up my equipment hoping to find another exit. Barely steps away from the door, I slammed right into one of the guards. We stared, shocked and wide-eyed, at each other. Without thinking, I gave him a bright smile and shook his hand,

“Happy new year, sir! So sorry to bother you. Are you having a good day? So sorry to bother you! Thanks and goodbye.”

I sped walk toward the main gate, while the guards just stood there scratching his head. My friends looked equally confused at my grinning face, and we moved on to another house.

January 2010




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