Category Archives: China

Street Life: Living Outside the Box

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

While watching a video clip from Cuba Feliz (a film of Cuban street musician Miguel Del Morales – known as El Gallo > The Rooster in English) I had a revelation. One of the reasons I absolutely adore countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia (or cities like Paris, Florence and, Montreal) is that people there live in the streets – almost literally. They spend much of their time in public spaces rather than inside their homes. They socialize, play, walk, eat, and drink together on the streets despite the hubbub of automobiles, bicycles, scooters, and other vehicles. The street is where it all happens!

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

Paris, France

Paris, France

In places like Vietnam and Cambodia, not only are dwelling spaces small, but the kitchens are particularly cramped and often poorly equipped. Additionally, everyday meals are inexpensive and readily available at any number of street vendors, cafes, and small semi-permanent food stalls. So, even though there are those who do have modern conveniences like stove-tops, washing machines, or televisions the tradition remains to gather with friends outside of the home. Western cities like Paris and Florence do not have the same street culture as Southeast Asia but, there too, just about everyone walks along the crowded streets, shops at outdoor markets, and rests or plays in public parks. Food vendors/hawkers are not as a common a sight there but open-air cafes, trattoria, tapas bars, etc. definitely are.

Chau Doc, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Chau Doc, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Chau Doc, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Chau Doc, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Streets are meant for people. This is eroding worldwide because of the ubiquitous car and streets that are getting wider to make room for these automobiles. Because of car traffic one rarely sees, in North American cities for example, children playing ball hockey, or hide and seek, jumping rope, or simply making up their own games on the street. Stoop or porch sitting is not a common site either. Spending time on our streets is no longer integrated into our daily lives and is rapidly becoming a thing of the past – so it seems to me. The social lives of city dwellers appear to be increasingly isolated. If I did not live directly next door to a community garden and park, or sit on the stoop of my house (which is facing our dead-end street), I would not know the people in my neighbourhood or have impromptu chats with complete strangers who walk by.

My neighbourhood is changing for the better. When I moved here 13 years ago there wasn’t much to do nearby. Today, there are a growing number of shops, restaurants, cultural centres, and parks which are within walking distance. There are even two farmers’ markets. The quality of life is better, street life is beginning to thrive, and there is little need to drive because this community has almost everything I need within walking distance or on the subway lines right nearby. It is a livable locale where neighbours run into each other on the street as they go about their daily business.

As I have mentioned multiple times in this blog, I am from Montreal. Despite it being a Northern city known for its very cold winters it somehow balances the frigid months with a French/Southern European mentality. Street life is substantial during the summer; people sit on their front stoops or balconies and are thus able to see and catch up with their neighbours. They eat in parks with omnipresent wine or beer so that public spaces become an extension of the private. Life, overall, takes to the streets and parks; the city pulsates with energy and activity.

Atwater Market, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Atwater Market, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

 Vibrant streets call to me. Who wants to be cooped up indoors when there’s food, drink, fun, and people to meet or just watch? Healthy street culture abounds with respect for the other. In many quarters in Montreal or Paris, for instance, children come home from school and almost immediately go outdoors, on their own or with their parents, to play on the streets or on the playgrounds. In Italy, piazzas (squares) are the main gathering areas. During La Passeggiata, which is the time before dinner (around 5:30-8:30), people stroll about the central piazza or main drag of a town (in fact, La Passeggiata comes from the verb ‘to walk’).  This traditional daily ritual is more common in small towns but can also be seen in cities; it is a way for Italians to connect. During passeggiata many people hang-out in the piazzas or surrounding outdoor bars to have an aperitivo. It is a time when you see a mix of age and class. Children flock together yet are within shouting distance of their parents. Likewise, many Asian countries’ city and town residents still work within a block or two of their homes (often, in fact, the front of the home is the place of business). Thus, city blocks are like little villages.

Street life gives one the opportunity for chance encounters. Life outside our boxes and on the street is like being in an outdoor living room where everyone congregates and the community is the pulse of it all. The bottom line, it is good for the heart and soul.

Dancing in a Park, Beijing, China

Dancing in a Park, Beijing, China

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Open Street Barber, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Open Street Barber Stall, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cahors, France

Cahors, France

Mexico City, Mexico

Mexico City, Mexico

Apologies for no photos of the streets of Italy. Our camera was lost…

 

 

Under the Dome – Investigating China’s Smog

 

The exception to the rule (mask-wearing in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China)

Mask Wearing (Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

Almost a year ago I wrote in my posting “China as I See it“:

[I]t is not uncommon to see city-dwellers wearing face masks to protect themselves from dust, pollution, and germs in general. All across China, cities are experiencing extraordinarily high levels of air pollution. In Kunming, (where pollution levels are somewhat lower than in many other cities in the country), most people do not wear masks that filter pollution particulate matter. Instead, fashionable face masks are often worn as accessories; people want to look good while trying to avoid dust from ongoing construction, germs, and smog. When the pollution is “high” it looks as though there is fog outside. I have experienced this grey/yellow atmosphere in Beijing, produced by extremely dangerous levels of pollution (one can barely see a few blocks away). My teachers claim, as do many others, that it is just fog, but I have noticed that I am sensitive to the air quality as it worsens, and I monitor the air quality index so I know it is definitely not fog when the mountains surrounding the city, or the tall buildings in the distance, are shrouded in a cloud of grey. I bought myself approved masks for heavy pollution conditions, but the majority of the Chinese population buys its masks in convenience stores or other stores where the fashionable models are available. Very few people wear masks that really protect them – although this is beginning to change, thankfully. It’s a small first step because, of course, the greater issue of the pollution itself needs to be addressed.

In Kunming, where I lived from September 2013 until March 2014 and where the air was relatively clear and clean (you could actually see the stars at night), pollution levels would occasionally go above 150 – which means the air quality is unhealthy and that “[e]veryone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects,” according to http://aqicn.org ). I sometimes found it insufferable. Yet, compared to other areas in China, the air in Kunming was relatively breathable.

Exception to the Rule (most people who drive motorbikes in Kunming still do not wear masks - at least not in early 2014)

Mask Wearing (Many people who drive motorbikes in Kunming still do not wear masks – at least not in early 2014)

Walking Kunming

Walking Kunming (During my six months in Kunming it felt as everyone wore a mask but when I looked through my photographs it was practically impossible to find anyone wearing a mask as the three photos in this blog posting attest to.)

Flying over Beijing the pollution is like a wall that one collides with. As you get closer, suddenly, you can barely see a thing outside the airplane window – and what you do see is masked in a thick haze of yellow. This situation is tragic and China has claimed that it wants to reduce its pollution by 2017. Unfortunately, the government has barely taken a stab at it and has censored Chai Jing’s film, Under the Dome – Investigating China’s Smog, which *was* posted on Youku and Tencent until about a week ago (it is still available on YouTube – a site that is blocked in China). This film could have had a key role in promoting public awareness to pollution’s environmental and health issues. No longer.

Yaxue Cao, the editor of the website China Change, comments in his article Under the China Dome – A Reality Check: “The film galvanized public opinion and consolidated its awareness to an unprecedented level. It peeled apart the multi-faceted causes of pollution. It is a mobilization of the public, and it sets expectations for a war against environmental disasters. The film works on many layers of the public psyche, and not all of them are welcomed by the government. This probably explains why it was spectacularly promoted and then shut down.”

And another article in China Change: The Four Forces of China’s Politics of Smog, by  Wu Qiang.

I can only hope the Chinese block of this film is lifted. If you are reading this, however, YOU can watch it: Under the Dome – Investigating China’s Smog

About Face

Yuang Yang Rice Terraces, Yunnan Province, China

Yuang Yang Rice Terraces, Yunnan Province, China

The portraits I took in China between September 2013 and March 2014 are predominantly of the elderly and the very young. As a “laowei” (foreigner), I was particularly struck by the faces of both the children, who will be carrying the impact of the country’s rapid change into the future, and the elders who remain the bearers of centuries-old history and tradition.

I have always considered connecting with people to be one of the central aspects of travel. At heart, instead of going to many of the “must see” travel sites, I would rather meander and observe, interact with, learn about, and photograph people I encounter.

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

I discovered early on that Chinese people rarely look someone in the eye. Apparently, steady eye contact is viewed as improper and can be regarded as an act of defiance. My attempts to establish a link in this manner were not always reciprocated. However, perhaps because I smile a lot I was often rewarded with eye contact and a smile in return. When I photograph, I approach a person because something about his/her face or demeanour strikes me as worth recording. I seem to have a facility for getting people to agree to let me take photographs of them. Despite the fact that I often get uncomfortably close to their faces, somehow they allow me into their personal space.

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

I met many wonderful individuals in China with whom I broke bread or had the opportunity for brief conversation (despite my fledgling Chinese). Asking permission to photograph them often allowed me to engage and connect with them. Even if we could not easily communicate, many still let their guard down. I tried to capture those moments.

inhong, Yunnan Province, China

Jinhong, Yunnan Province, China

Hong Kong, China

Hong Kong, China

Le Ju Village (Temple Caretaker), Yunnan Province, China

Le Ju Village (Temple Caretaker), Yunnan Province, China

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Tulou, Fujian Province, China

Tulou, Fujian Province, China

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

A Letter to the Newton (Massachusetts) Community

“Henry Degroot is a student at Newton North High School, Massachusetts. He wrote a pro-democracy note in a Chinese student’s notebook during an exchange program in Beijing and signed it. A Chinese teacher found out. Henry was detained for five hours, forced to apologize by his American teachers, and, back to America, the school barred him from prom.”

Read more:  A Letter to the Newton (Massachusetts) Community from China Change

 

China Seen Through the Eyes of a Venture Capitalist

A friend read and forwarded a blog posting about China to me. It was written by a venture capitalist in the health care industry. She wondered if this person’s interpretation of China might have a slightly different slant than that of an artist. It turns out the article was of great interest and written clearly (i.e., not in business-speak so that I could enjoy it!!). I pass it on to you: VC Road Trip Across China.

And to round out the above posting… a blog entry from China Change: What does it mean for the world, for the US, and for us as individuals to have an authoritarian China, with the world’s biggest economy soon and 1/5 of the world population, that rejects universal values?

Was I Truly There??? China? Vietnam? Cambodia?

Me in Front of Storefront, Dali, Yunnan, China

Here I am in Front of a Storefront in Dali, Yunnan, China

It is hard to believe that only a few weeks have gone by since my return from Asia; I am so completely into the swing of things at home in the Boston area. It is ALMOST as if I never left. I can just barely “touch” China (where I lived and travelled from September 2013 until the end of March 2014) and Vietnam and Cambodia (where I travelled afterwards). They are elusive memories. And yet, profoundly, as I was out and about yesterday a large group of Chinese walked past me. Suddenly, a familiar feeling marked me and tied me to my time in China – I had a pleasantly warm and physical sensation throughout my body. My brain reminded me that I did, in fact, have particular experiences at particular times.

I left China feeling indifferent to the place, or so I thought. Now, I find that I miss it. I never thought I would and yet I do… I cannot figure out what it is that I miss; it is completely intangible – especially since while I was there I had mixed feelings about the country itself. But I realise there is something intangible about life there that I wish I could put my finger on. No matter. China did get under my skin and into my heart. I may not recall all of it, and certainly not necessarily on demand, but my past makes me who I am, now. The reality is, I truly was there.

Below is a small sampling of the photographs I took during my final three weeks in China: Shaxi, Dali, Fujian Province.

Shaxi, Yunnan Province China:

Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Shaxi Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters ("If the country wants to prosper and become strong then follow the birth plan" -- jie hua shen yu : one child one couple)

Shaxi Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters (“If the country wants to prosper and become strong then follow the birth plan” — jie hua shen yu : one child one couple)

Doorway (detail), Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Doorway (detail), Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Building a House, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Building a House, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Dali, Yunnan Province, China:

Street Scene, Renmin Lu, Dali, Yunnan, China

Street Scene, Renmin Lu, Dali, Yunnan, China

Bai Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Bai Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Alley, Dali, Yunnan, China

Alley, Dali, Yunnan, China

Fujian Province, China:

Fisherman, Fujian, China

Fisherman, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Fishermen. Near Sanshazhen, Fujian, China

Fishermen. Near Sanshazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Xiamen, Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Nan Putuo Temple, Fujian

Xiamen, Nan Putuo Temple, Fujian

Xiamen, Near Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Near Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Woman, Nanxi, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Woman, Nanxi, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China