Xitang and Nanxun: Villages on the China’s Grand Canal.
I suppose I like old bridges and I certainly like small towns, so at some point I’m sure I must have expressed an interest in going to some of the small river towns that still exist on China’s Grand Canal. When my friend first suggested a weekend getaway to this area near Shanghai it occurred to me that it could be an invitation to “Chinese tourist hell”. That would be a place boasting of true historical significance but attracting so many tourists and souvenir shops that the whole site is overwhelmed. It’s basically useless. This was my fear but my friend was undeterred and determined to give it a try. To make matters worse it was going to rain all weekend. Umbrellas, small alleys filled with trinket shops, and tiny fairy bridges don’t go well together.
Ok, so Xitang was indeed a bit of Chinese tourist hell but it turns out that Nanxun, a neighboring town, is quite lovely and not developed as one giant souvenir stand. How lovely it was! Though Nanxun does have its share of tourism its not overwhelmed by it. There are still real people living their lives along the canals. What a relief!
There was quite a lot to do on this trip back to the States. A 30th reunion and my brother’s 60th birthday left just enough time for a quick trip to New York City. Mid spring weather brought great skies. The kind of clouds and strange light that makes photographers gawk and walk into man-holes. New York and I had a good rapport that weekend. Perhaps tourist shy from braving too many harsh and over populated Chinese tourist sites I questioned my decision to head over to the the World Trade Center Memorial. As a I approached the site I felt an strange sense of anticipation. Would the memorial be worthy? Would it be noble and meaningful? Perhaps it was the sky that day but it was a dramatic and deep place to visit. The main visual motif, a void, sucking in air and water into an unknown depth was visually and emotionally powerful.
Being one of those ex-pats without a fancy work visa I’m always looking for places to go for a quick cross border trip. When Ive inquired with my more well traveled friends about Taipei I’ve always received generally positive reports. They always talk effusively about the people and the food but when asked about further explorations its always gotten a bit vague. I was always waiting for one tidbit or lead that sparked my wanderlust but it never came. Everyone loved Taiwan but couldn’t quite tell me why. Indeed, I booked a ticket for Tokyo and left Taipei for another day. That day turned out to be the following morning when I realized that I couldn’t find a single hotel room in Tokyo for the coming weekend. I downloaded the Taiwan Lonely Planet and exchanged my tickets.
I found Taipei to have enough grit and history to satisfy my urban explorer side. Areas like Datong have small streets with colonial era architecture with buildings that range from restored to crumbling. The businesses on those lanes sell mostly traditional wares like Chinese medicine but include a cafes, farming tools, Chinese lanterns, vintage clothing, tape, wholesale paper cups and natural indigo dyed t shirts. Other areas like Yongkang Street offer a lively mix of restaurants and cafes. Yongkang fills up each night with students and families looking for some good noodles or inexpensive japanese food. The further one goes back, the more it changes into quiet alleys dotted with excellent cafes. Taipei is blessed with a cafe for every mood and the coffee tends to be quite good.
Taipei has an extensive subway system that make getting out to various outlying areas easy and cheap. Heading north out of town one can easily get to Beitou which is not only home to many public and private hot springs but also has some interesting hikes. I found myself drawn several times to the bathes not in the least because they were so easy to get to. The sulfurous waters seemed to heal my Beijing-cured winter skin. From Beitou is was easy to reach Yangmingshan National Park. The trail I took led me by many smoking fumeroles and geysers hissing sulfurous fumes up the mountain sides. Except for a few occasions I was left alone on the trail to think about the nascent forces underneath.
Somewhat further out on the same subway line is Tamsui, a port town that played an important role in Taiwan’s colonial history. Its become a bit of a tourist destination but still has its charms. The best thing I found there was an old Hakka Buddhist temple called Yinshan Temple. Its a lovely small temple where the patina of age hasn’t been replaced by shiny new paint or steam cleaned stone.
My timing for the trip was quite good ,as I was there during the Tomb sweeping holiday when families gather to clean the graves and pay respects to their ancestors. Fortuitously ,I had planned to visit Longshan Temple on the day just before the onset of the holiday. The temple was buzzing with incense and chanting but not yet entirely overwhelming. I seemed to be at the right place at the right time. Visitors consulted the I-ching by throwing halved crescent shaped wooden blocks and gave offerings.
Overall life in Taipei is well ordered and safe. The sidewalks are separated into bike lanes and pedestrian areas. The queue for the subway is strictly adhered to and there’s even a women’s safe zone along the loading platform. Nature too is protected. In the middle of the city there’s central park that has a bio-diverse pond full of birds turtles and squirrels. The one area where order seemed to breaking down was in the political arena. My first image of Taipei, getting off the airport bus was of hundreds of riot gear clad policemen loading onto buses. They had been coming from the national government area which was occupied by democracy protesters. The entire time I was in Taipei students were occupying a legislature building and surrounding area demanding a free and transparent discussion of China-Taiwan trade agreements. While some might’ve been wary of their tactics I think it would be fair to say that most Taiwanese were proud of this generation of students who weren’t so obsessed with their own issues as to forget about their country’s future. Another thing they were impressed with is how well they self-governed themselves. Occupy movements can become messy affairs but not in Taiwan. The protest movement provided everything from sanitation to back massages. Classes were still held, “sit-in” style on the streets.
I found Taiwan to be a place less focused on the pace of life or “getting ahead” and more focused on the quality of life. The students in the protest movement are in large part worried about how opening up to China will slowly erode their local businesses as well as ultimately threaten their independence.
If in China: Please use a vpn
A video project with Clarissa Sebag Montefiore and Ilkka Jarvilaturi. Finally coming back to video! This project was originally commissioned by the New York Times to go along with a story produced by Clarissa. Gulou is a historic neighborhood that still has many of the traditional homes and families that has for centuries characterized the social fabric of Beijing. Now due to development for the tourist industry much of the area is being knocked down and the residents moved out. Much is being lost and at this point its too early if the destruction will make way for something worthwhile and authentic.
This past March, writer, Mitch Moxley and I traveled to Yangon to report on the Myanmar’s changing press laws that are ostensibly permitting media organizations to publish uncensored dailies. The set deadline for the change was April 1st but what we saw and heard was that the details and implementation of these laws are much more complex. There are still legal hurdles to overcome. The publishing companies themselves are still constructing viable business models to support their operation. Fortunately, Myanmar is blessed with a devoted readership and many eagerly await the anticipated openness.
We talked with several of the leading contenders in the market about their plans and concerns. Our first stop was to the offices of Mizzima, a multi-media news organization that had previously been working as exiled journalists publishing from offices in Chiang Mai, Thailand and New Delhi, India. After twenty-three years in exile the main editors, including Thin Thin Aung have set up a newsroom and production studio in Yangon. Mizzama’s license to publish a daily has already been approved and as for the legal challenges the media face, she states, “The government is learning. If the journalists fight, they will listen.” Mizzima, along with the Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma have all faced exile, prison and harassment for their work so this optimism for the future is a good sign that a healthy press will evolve.
Mitch Moxley’s report stated that “while the sense of optimism and opportunity is palpable among Myanmar’s media professionals, there is also some hesitation. The government remains dominated by the military and in March it submitted a draft media bill that contained many elements of the draconian 1962 Printing and Registration Act, which remains in place. Although the liberal policies enacted by the citizen-elected president Thein Sein since 2011 are unprecedented, no ones knows how the government will react to the challenges of a more open society, and it has already faced criticism for its handling of ethnic conflicts, corruption and land grabs. “
One publisher that is already well established in the weekly and magazine market, The Myanmar Times, has faced other kind of hurdles that seem to suggest that transparency and government media control are still serious obstacles. The publisher and driving force of the organization, Ross Dunkley, is facing serious charges legal charges that seem to be both political and personal. Without going into details, he alleges that a well connected government appointed co-owner (the real co owner was put in jail on trumped up charges) is trying to steal and thwart his efforts to become the most successful daily. The Times operation is quite evolved and professional so they do have a good chance of successfully transitioning to a daily operation.
As a developing democracy Myanmar is facing serious growing pains that threaten to undo the its recent progress. The freeing of the press from government control will certainly add to the growing faith inside and outside of Myanmar that its on the right track. Each morning Yangon’s streets are full of paper sellers and readers and they, no doubt, are eager to read about where their country is going.
Suzie Q in Seoul
At times this blog is good for a travel tip or two. A couple of weeks ago I was working on a great project in Beijing and Seoul for Audi’s Urban Future Initiative (http://mooove.com/audi-urban-future-initiative) which explores how leading designers, engineers, architects and thinkers envision the future of the city and technology. It was not only a fascinating subject but it also gave me an opportunity to visit Seoul, South Korea. Here’s where the travel tip comes in. I gave myself an extra day so that I could walk through a few neighborhoods and get a feel for that metropolis. This was also my chance to understand the deep societal underpinnings of “Gangnam Style” which for those of you who don’t already know it, is a viral music hit that’s permeated the globe.
The highlight of my exploration was initiated by a serendipitous late night query to two young students at a convenience store in Hongdae. The streets were full of neon signs advertising hundreds of bars but I couldn’t decide on one. One of the girls thought for a second and said,”Suzie Q”! It was close and while it might not have many people on a weekday,could still be fun. Just around the corner in a little alley I found Suzie Q, where Cho Kyu-nam has enshrined his huge (we’re talking by the thousands) record collection. His specialty is Rock and Blues.
The night I was there it was the bartender, a professor of Korean Shamanism and me, drinking Cass beer and Jack Daniels. Our DJ, Mr Kyu-nam searched for our requests (there’s a little cut out in front of the turntables for that) and most of the time found them. DJ Kyo-nam is kind of an original hipster who must have been collecting vinyl for decades. I can imagine that this now 65 yr.old, tall, glass wearing gentleman was once a lead guitar player in a Korean version of the Rolling Stones and has now taken on the mission of educating the art students of Hongik University of Design and Arts which backs up to his establishment. His quiet determination to supplicate the gods of Rock was kind of revelatory. He was a master of his domain.
Post post: To those who wonder why there aren’t more photos I will tell you that the DJ was a bit shy. After a few minutes of shooting the “I’ve had enough time in the spotlight” expression was directed at me and I went back to the “pews” and enjoyed the music.
These days I’m often making somewhat frequent trips to Southern China and spending lots of time in a place that I used to only visit for visa runs, namely Hong Kong. On those past journeys I always knew where the cheapest but certainly not the nicest place to stay was. I think anyone who is doing Hong Kong on a budget knows Chungking Mansions. Thankfully I’m not utilizing the services of those refrigerator-size hostel rooms anymore but on my last trip, my friend and writer Kit Gillet told me he was doing a story about the it. I’m always up for exploring a gritty place like Chungking Mansions a bit more. I volunteered to supply photos for a potential article. I focused mostly on the commercially oriented bottom floor.
A little background: Chungking Mansions is a 50 year old,17 story building complex located in Kowloon, Hong Kong. It houses a multitude of shops, guest houses, restaurants, repair shops, grocery stores, laundries,tailors, ngos, daycare, call centers, barber shops as well as many other types of goods and services that are less officially sanctioned like drugs and prostitution.
What makes Chungking Mansions interesting: Unless one is looking for a cheap stay or to buy a couple of hundred cell phones, the reason to come is to sit down at one of the tasty South Asian stalls and have a chat with the world. In my day and half walking the halls there I met people from all over India, Pakistan, Myanmar, China, Congo, Somalia, Nigeria, Israel, Kenya and of course Hong Kong. Over milk tea and tandoori chicken one can see what Gordon Mathews, author of Ghetto at the Center of the World, calls “low end globalization” in which thousands of traders ferry goods bought at Chungking Mansions back to their home countries where they sell them for a small profit. The intensity of this market is supported by a multitude of other trades and services. Other than the commercial activity its also become a center for Africans who are escaping repression. There is one small food stall where they primarily meet to talk about their appeals for asylum and how to survive in Hong Kong in the meantime.
This selection of photos is hopefully a beginning for what will become an article in the near future.
I had been to Chengdu before for a story about Chengdu’s culinary culture and now I was back with a day to roam. I had finished a project for Fortune which highlighted Chengdu’s role as a modern metropolis and a center for global commerce. Like Guangzhou,another provincial capital,Chengdu has two very different faces. The modern one, that kept my head spinning from side to side in order to note the crazy new designs that popped up on every block and then the traditional one that for me embodies the city’s true nature. These neighborhoods of labyrinthine alleys are home to shady ramshackle tea houses filled with pet song birds, their lovely cages and chatter. Sublime.
If I had been asked what I thought about Guangzhou a few years ago I would’ve given the questioner a quick answer, “its a hot sauna in summer and a cold sauna in the winter.” This metropolis was a central transit point on the way to my first China-based exploratory photo project in 2005.
I was documenting highway development in Guangxi, and Guangzhou was a good way to get there. I didn’t see much of it and really didn’t like the weather. Fortunately, a few years later I ended up working on a project about the African Community in Guangzhou which took place in the fall and I saw much different place that was actually somewhat charming. I’m talking here of the old Canton neighborhoods that are incredibly organic constructions meshing nature and city together. In between blocks or along narrow ancient lanes, large trees, ferns and potted gardens give one a sense of shelter.
Living in Beijing and keeping abreast of all things China, I started to hear about a new area of Guangzhou that was being decked out with stunning architectural showcase buildings. This area officially known as Zhujiang Xincheng is known colloquially as New City (Xincheng). I first heard about Zaha Hadid’s designed Opera House. At that point I knew of her work on paper but most of her designs had never been built. Here was her vision coming to life and I made sure that the next time I was down that way I would go see the project. I finally got there just after its completion. The Opera House is only one project of many that’s transforming a large sector of Guangzhou’s new central business district. There are many notable building projects that are cultural institutions,hotels,malls and corporate headquarters. To top it off (there is a sense of a cherry being placed atop the whole development) the Canton Tower sits opposite the site. This colossal tower, the tallest in China and the fourth highest in the world, is lit in a stream of rainbow colors and is one of the visual focal points of the entire area. At the middle of this district is a brand new park that works hard and sometimes successfully to frame this immense project into a dream of a futuristic China. The park is planted with giant gnarled trees and includes man made wetlands with glowing (literally since they are electric) water lotus. To date this area draws visitors but only some of the buildings are occupied. This orchestrated landscape of buildings and nature is a showcase that stands in stark contrast to the old areas which have layers of nature, history and human habitation melding into one another. Both left me speechless.
This year I’ll be making periodic trips to Guangzhou and hope to produce several more blog entries on this subject.
Late last year I was contacted by Forbes to do a portrait of two Mongolian brothers Tserenjigmed and Ganbaatar Dagvadorj who have quickly become prime players in one of the world’s fasted growing economies. Their empire began with the underground trade of skins and furs and has come to encompass supermarkets, milk bottling, fast-food, road construction, real estate development, hotels (including Ulanbaatar’s newest, the Ramada,whose first guests were the 100-member advance party for Vice President Biden), restaurants, retail shops from clothing to furniture, and the shopping malls to house them and even a couple of gold mines. Their most prized asset however is their 500 head herd of horses. A few of these are western style racing horses, housed in a Kentucky farm that they hope will one day race in the Kentucky Derby.
On the night of my arrival, Soyol, a senior executive at the Max Group, promptly took me to one of The Max group’s restaurants called Budweiser Pub. This homey place, specializing in Czech beer and organic grass fed steak, sits on Sukhbataar Square, Mongolia’s governmental, business and cultural epicenter. As dinner progressed I was able to meet friends of Soyol’s who in themselves embody the heady steam thats keeping Mongolia buzzing.
First we met Jack, a highly placed executive at of one Mongolia’s most important banks. He was one of those guys that you know was living large. He reveled in telling me about his partying nights followed up with morning meetings with international VIPs. He’s was a real schmoozer. If one were to hook up with his posse there is no doubt that you would feel it the next day. Then Oscar, the Mexican investment banker stopped over. Soyol and him were classmates in a prestigious MBA program in Japan. Oscar was an upcoming player in Mongolia’s rapid development. He seemed like a guy you could meet on Wall Street or Hong Kong. Over some more beers he shared his insider’s view of Mongolia’s current political challenges. After shots with Jack and beers with Soyol and Oscar I went to bed totally ready for the everything the next day might bring except of course for sleep itself.
Early the next morning I was ready to take a drive. After several quick stops for supplies (all at Max group companies) we started our 200 km drive, 80km of it off-road. When Mongolians talk about a drive its usually broken down to on-road and off-road and then finally with an estimate of time. As we left UB through the emerging frozen concrete jungle and development I couldn’t help but appreciate the full beauty of several coal fired thermal plants pumping smoke high into the frozen crystalline morning sky. It was actually quite beautiful but then again I live in Beijing which is often just smokey with out the charm or sparkle. We passed the gers, frosty slopes scarred with trails and small settlements. The Mongolian world was waking.
One of our stops along the way was to pick up Ordis who is being supported by the Max Group to become one of their award winning jockeys. He is supposed to learn English and then travel to a Mongolian horse farm in Kentucky. That caught me off guard. Apparently, Ganbataar is hoping to have some of his horses and riders go to the Kentucky Derby. Ordis was also our guide. When we pulled off the main road on to gravel path I was happy that he seemed to know the way. I say, seemed, because its hard to imagine anyone knowing the way out there. There are no roads, just criss-crossing trails and no landmarks. Its just open sky and hills. At times the driver would just make his own path knowing that he was heading in the right direction. For the most part this navigation method is fine, unless you happen to end up in a gulch of which there are many. As we road up the side of one hill and down the other I was stunned to see our herd. There were a few hundred horses heading for water on an open plain. We stopped at a ger and had some milk tea. Inside the ger was an incredible little infant swaddled tightly in a flannel cloth. Mom was busy with her hosting. The ger would be our home base for the day. Shen Jie and Ganbattar showed up a while later and we began. They actually arrived in hunting clothes carrying high powered rifles. They were hunting a wolf that had, the night before taken one of their herd. Like princes, their herdsmen assistants started assembling their wardrobe and riding gear. Honestly, I was a little overwhelmed. I had two guys essentially dressed like Genghis Khan who took there warrior roles pretty seriously. They are true descendants.
So what to do with a couple of warriors and 500 horses? As I maneuvered the herd and my subjects I was to meet the one horse that seemed to be like my long lost cousin. As I was standing on one of my cases to shoot the brothers I was almost toppled off the case by a smallish horse head between my legs. This curious pony had found a friend but I was not sure if was me or my black case. He seemed to stay close to that case wherever we moved it. The other 499 horses backed away for every step we took toward them. I did have a fleeting thought that I could get trampled to death but then I realized how scared they were of us. The herdsmen who handled the pack were amazing. These guys are the true grit of Mongolia. If they were in a Western one could only imagine their nicknames like Grumpy or Pops or The Kid. The shoot went well and we went back to the ger, have some mongolian snacks (pre-cracked goat skulls on the menu) and prepare for another long journey but this time mostly in the dark.
When we finally left the sun was just setting. Shen Jie and Ganbattar re-assembled the wolf hunting party, found their rifles and radios and left for the hills. We started what was a grueling mostly in the dark, 2 hour sprint across the Mongolian steppes. Though we had three working GPS units we still asked three separate passing vehicles on how to go. Imagine the former description and then add total darkness. I definitely imagined the possibility of getting stranded but I was assured that we were heading in the right direction. Bottom line we made it back to the paved road and then to the Budweiser Pub. The next day as I drove to the airport I couldn’t help imagining Ordis, our guide and jockey in training, transposing the harsh Mongolian steppes with the mannered Southern horse farms of Kentucky.
Camera 5d ll
lens 35 1.4 and 50 1.2
Flash 580ex ll and 580 with diffusion
Slaved with Pocket Wizard Flex set
Generally the lighting was set off to the side and the ambient exposure shot slightly underexposed.