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A boy hurried toward the school gate, dragging a school bag one third of his body size and possibly too heavy for his size, panting and sweating. He was late for school. The very first day of the semester. He was probably panicking. But things were even worse than he could have dreamed. Instead of being scolded by his teachers for being late, he found himself captured, besieged and attacked by a gang of news wolves. (Yes, we news people in Hk are as cruel as wolves, if not tigers.) Intimidating grown-ups with their recorders, cameras, and poisonous mouths. One reporter kept asking him with an amused smile, “Why are you late on your first school day? Did you sleep in? Are you ashamed of being late?” He looked at the man and his smile, dumbfounded. He probably hated this man’s smile, and others’ smiles. Amused and gloating smiles. He was enclosed by them. How intimidating! I wondered if a nightmare had started awaiting him.
I wish I could punch the reporter who kept asking the boy those cruel questions. Doesn’t he understand the pain of growing up? Doesn’t he know the difficulties at school in Asia? Well, he is probably one of those people who yearn to go back in time and be a kid again because they want to escape the struggles as grownups.
While I sometimes yearn to be a happy and innocent child, I never want to relive my childhood. I particularly don’t want to go back to school in China. I will never forget the summer before my first elementary school year. I was so eager to go to school. I was looking forward to it every day, every hour, every minute. I kept asking my father, “when does school begin?” After a wait as long as for ever, finally came my first school day. My heart was pounding when my father took me to school, the best one in town, with his old 28-inch bike. Sitting at the front of my father’s bike, bathing in the morning sunlight, riding in the wind, touching my school bag, I was full of dreams. But by the end of the day, when I got home from school, I asked my father, “can I not go to school any more?”I was never a teacher’s favorite in China. Among so many teachers and professors I had in China, none, except one professor during grad school years at Jinan University, genuinely appreciated me.
While I never know whether Buddhists should stick to the ancient Buddhist lifestyle, it always fascinates me to see them in the context of modern technology. They, like mostly everybody else, seem to be obsessed by all kinds of gadgets, particularly cell phones. The contrast between their traditional robes and the apple cell phones they hold! The images are from an assignment last week. I made them on the side. They are not really what the editors want.
Today is June 7th, 2017. Three days ago, there was a vigil, the 28th in Victoria Park, HK. If things had happened differently 28 years ago in China, this vigil might not have been necessary. If you don’t know what I am talking about, do the math, and dig out what happened 28 years ago.
Sick, I don’t want to read or write or work serious jobs. Sick, yet not sick enough to stay in bed. So I go to the famous Temple Street Night Market, roaming through an Indian girl’s dreams, Cantonese dirty jokes, delightful bargains, and a fortune teller’s suspicious look.
A slide door. An iron slide door. The kind that may remind you of a prison gate. She opens the door, we follow her in. A tiny studio with a kitchen and a bathroom, a bed and two bunk beds that make a letter L. Packed, dingy, messy. She unstacks three stools. We sit. She offers us tea, then sits on a stool against a filthy curtain serving as a kitchen door, with lots of teddy bears, folded at the bottom.
“How did you come to Hong Kong?” we ask.
She details her life starting from her village in Hunan Province, China. “All hardships. They are my fate,” she says, in Cantonese, with a strong accent, barely understandable. She has been hardworking, despite everything – like her aching hands. She shows her hands. A peasant’s hands, injured from over-working. They are swollen and aching. She couldn’t do much now. She lives on social welfare. She did some cleaning work when they were not too bad, but she hurt them more and what she made from the job was not enough to cover the hospital fee. “I have been working so hard,” she complains, “but she (her daughter) is so lazy, always misbehaves. She doesn’t help. Doesn’t care.” She completely forgets the question. How did she end up in Hong Kong? The social worker has to remind her of the question. She has to remind her of each question we ask.
“Oh, a colleague of mine introduced him (her late husband, a Hong Kong citizen) to me when I was working in Shenzhen,” she says, “I didn’t want to marry him, but he really liked me. I didn’t want to marry him. But he really liked me. He was too old. Too old. Twenty years older than me. Too old. He really liked me.” I examine her. She looks older than her age – fifty-one, weathered, short and chubby. But she must have felt superior to her late husband. When I point to a line of photos of her hanging from one of the bunk beds, she chuckles. I hear her pride and dignity. “When I was young, I had good skin,” she is all smiles, “people even said I should be a model for skincare products. They said I was born a beauty.” She laughs more.
Those are studio photos of her dressed up and heavily made up. They are flatly lighted and over-exposed to make the skin look whiter. Dramatically whiter. Typical studio photo shots popular with women in mainland China from the 1990s till recently. In these photos, women have glaring, unreal white skin.
I wonder if her late husband admired her. He died in 2015. She took care of him. It was hard. She details how she took good care of him before he died. She forgets to tell us why she married him even though she saw him as too old to match her youth and pretty look. Again the social worker has to remind her of the question.
That was because her friend said this old man could take care of her daughter while she went to work. So she married him. That was it. He turned out to be a very poor man, one from the lower class, at the bottom of the social ladder. She worked and worked hard to support the family. He was old and sick. She took care of him. Then he died. But She got her Hong Kong ID card and her daughter got to join her in Hong Kong, finally, after living with different aunts for some years.
The daughter, a fourteen-year-old, over weighty, sleepy, her hair messy like a bird nest, keeps her head down most of the time. She sniggers when I take her photos, and from time to time snaps a few shots of me taking photos of her. She is shy but she seems flattered when I take her photos. I take quite a few photos of her. We can’t publish photos with her face identifiable, though. Nor their names. She sits at one of the bunk beds, plays her phone, buries her head in her chest as her mother complains about her, turns to the social worker when asked questions. She has a clearer mind than her mother, throwing out insightful quotes sometimes.
“Are you happy?” We ask her.
“I am happy,” she says, casually.
But she bursts into tears when the questions become specific. “I was happy when I first came to Hong Kong (five years ago). I thought I could finally live with mom,” She sobs, “Yes, I like sleeping, but I simply can’t help it. I feel tired all the time. I don’t eat out a lot. I just don’t feel like to eat sometimes…(Her mother’s biggest complaint is the daughter doesn’t eat the food she cooks. She worries about her health.) I don’t shower for an hour! That’s exaggeration. Only half an hour.”
“Even half an hour is way too long,” the mother scolds her.
It goes round and round and on and on.
“She behaves at school. She just doesn’t listen to me. Doesn’t care about a thing at home. We are not meant to be mother and daughter,”the mother sighs.
The mother and the daughter don’t get along. They fight often. Physical fights.
I imagine their fights in this tiny, dingy, messy studio. I frown. Better not imagine the fighting scenes. I turn to look at the mother again. Her lips moving. Her eyebrows knitted. It is depressing to hear her long-winded complaints about life and her daughter. She forgets what she says. She repeats herself. She is illogical. The social worker has to stop her from ranting, steer her back to the topic, then finally finishes the interview. I am sorry for her, and her daughter. I admire the social worker’s patience with them. I feel relieved when we finally stand up to leave. The mother offers us sodas as we turn to the door. They must be precious in her eyes. The sodas. We decline the precious gifts. She offers them again, and again. We say no thanks. Again and again. Finally she walks us to the lift and keeps talking till we enter the lift. She waves her hand and smiles at us when the lift door closes.
The lift door frames her as she smiles and waves us goodbye, but it is closing, like a movie screen sliding into pitch dark. End of story.
But her life continues. So does her suffering.
The sun pours down between high rise buildings on Argyle Street in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, hitting the street crowds, highlighting the emotions in their faces as they stream toward me. Inch by inch the sun crawls west. Inch by inch I follow its track, pointing a bulky 200 mm lens at the intriguing looks. Look of agony. Look of suffering. Look of confusion. Look of joy. Look of impatience. Look of bitterness. Look of determination. Look of doubt. Look of disdain. Look of boredom. Look of emptiness. Look of satisfaction. Look of joy. Look of hope.
Inch by inch, I follow the sun, hunting all kinds of looks, all kinds of emotions. And I wonder who they are, what they are, what make them look the way they look. What lies behind all those looks?
While most friends and colleagues remember me as a photographer, I am actually also an editor – and a writer. After I moved back to China, I worked for Modern Weekly for three and a half years as an editor, taking care of both its visuals and reporting. I upgraded their Special Report section, created VISION, a section dedicated to photo stories and photo essays. Here are a few VISION layouts, and a few from special reports and cover stories.
Next Stop: Home (Migrant workers traveling home for Chinese New Year. Photos by anonymous photographer through an agency. )
Foreign Models in China’s Shop Windows. Photos by Xiaomei Chen.
China by Christopher Brown, showing conflicting elements in developing China.
China mimicking European style architecture, photos by Qian Dongsheng.
Disappearing Historic Buildings in Qingdao, China. Photos by Wu Zhengzhong.
Chinese in Africa (Photos by Paolo Woods, licensed from Redux.)
Chinese Shoppers in Paris, photos by Johann Rousselot
A special report about Deep Springs College. Photos by various photographers, text by Xiaomei Chen
I touched her arm timidly. She turned. I saw the deep sadness in her eyes and I felt the frailty in her thin body. She leaned toward me, about to cry. I grabbed her in my arms and held her tight. She cried like a helpless baby in my arms. I held her tight, let her cry and wished I wouldn’t have to photograph her. But I heard a volley of shutter sounds behind me. Another photojournalist was capturing this moment of this poor woman breaking down in a stranger’s arms. A shame. But later I would have to photograph this woman, too. I couldn’t blame my fellow photographer. And as a professional photojournalist, I was not supposed to hug this woman so I could be neutral in the story. But damn, let that rule go to hell tonight. I wanted to be a human being with a heart only. And yet, I still had to photograph her. I felt a thief.
When she calmed down, I asked, “is it ok I take a few photos of you?” She nodded and thanked me for helping her get the story out. “Let’s hope someone will donate a liver to your husband soon,” I said. She nodded again, her lips clamped tight. She was holding herself from crying again. We all knew the hope was, well, in Bob Dylan’ words, “blowing in the wind.”
I made her stand in front of her husband’s hospital room door and asked her to look into my lens. I wanted to show the solemn sadness and helplessness in her eyes. Then I apologized that I took so many photos of her. Yet she thanked me instead of forgiving me. She knew it was better to get the story out as soon as possible so potential donors could save her husband’s life. She thanked me again and again. But I felt terribly guilty as if I were a thief stealing her soul. And yet I had to wait for candid emotional moments to be captured, too. This was my last assignment of the week. (Please spread the word and help her out: http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/2028408/hong-kong-woman-begs-liver-donor-save-husband-who)
Before this sad assignment, I photographed an architect, Paola Navone. A great character. She was impatient with me at first. The PR said I would have 15 minutes to photograph her. She grunted, “ten!” I asked her, “When you design, how many drafts do you sketch?” She laughed, “I like you.” She became very cooperative, funny and full of vibes. We both had great fun during the photo shoot. I think I got at least 15 minutes.
When I got home and looked at the photos of the sad woman who would probably lose her husband soon and those of Paola Navone, I felt…well… Life is so tricky, yet so intriguing, surreal, and yet real. I also felt grateful. This job allows me to enter all walks of lives, good or bad, happy or sad. They all humble me.
Photocopy rights: Xiaomei Chen/SCMP