Mong Kok in the Afternoon

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?

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I am an editor, too

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 cover story about Dilma Rousseff. Photos by various photographers. Text by Jonathan Watts.



A special report about Deep Springs College. Photos by various photographers, text by Xiaomei Chen


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so tricky, yet so intriguing, surreal, and yet real.

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:

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

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Sunlight swims in from northwest, lands on her left.

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Re-Experience China: Are We Double Blessed Now?

                                   The Choir at Heyuan Gospel Church sings in Mandarin during a service on May 29, 2016.

                                    My mother’s neighbor, Mrs. Chen, prays at Heyuan Gospel Church on May 29, 2016. She introduced my mother to the Church.

My mother, Wen Meirong (right),  and Mrs. Chen Zhuoxiang at Heyuan Gospel Church on May 29, 2016.

My mother, Wen Meirong, looks for familiar faces while others pray at Heyuan Gospel Church on May 29, 2016.

Heyuan Gospel Church photographed on May 29, 2016.

“My mother did the math and decided against the church,”Lv reclined in a plastic chair outside 21K, a coffee shop in Zhujiang New Town, Guangzhou. He was an editor with Tencent and spoke with an uninterested tone indicating that nothing in China would surprise or excite him.

“Math? How is math related to Christianity?”I asked.

“She did a calculation and decided the time she was to spend at the church and learning the Bible equaled a loss because during the time she couldn’t work on the farm or in the house. Loss of income. A lot of peasant women in my hometown (Yunnan Province) think this way.”Lv explained matter-of-factly.

“Wow…”I was too surprised to say more than a wow.

“She did the same math when the Village Communist Party Committee approached her,” Lv continued as he sipped his coffee.

“Hmm?” I was confused.

“Even though the Party does sometimes give away gifts like a towel or a quilt or a kettle, my mother finds that the gifts she would receive are not worth her time to go to the Party meetings and the required political studies. She prefers to work in the field and do house chores. So she rejected the Party like she rejected the Church,” Lv looked at me with an expression as uninterested as his tone.

But uninterested Lv got me interested in average Chinese people’s attitude toward Christianity. Christianity intertwined with Chinese practicality. This is something I haven’t read about in reports of China’s religion by Western media, which usually focus on the lack of religion freedom in China. It is a fact that over 1000 churches have been decapitated over the past two years. But it is only part of the religion story in China. The political side of it. I am more interested in the cultural side of it and  the everyday life perspective.

Six months after my meeting with Lv, I was surprised again, this time, by my own mother, who suddenly announced that she now believed in Jesus, in a tone a three-year-old announced that she was now a grownup.

Amused, my sister said, “so from now on we won’t worship our ancestors on Chinese New Year?”

Before my confused mother found an answer, my 85-year-old father, a reticent man of few words,  jumped to make his statement, “I don’t believe in Jesus yet!”

However, when I asked my mother how she became a Christian, I was surprised, a third time, to hear that it was my father’s suggestion!

My father got the idea that it might do the whole family good if my mother went to church after hearing my neighbor, Mrs. Chen Zhuoxiang’s story.

Mrs. Chen is my father’s age and has been a Christian for over ten years. She told my father that Jesus visited her in a dream when she was very sick several years ago, “He asked me, are you feeling better today? The next day, I felt much better. Not long after that, I got out of hospital. Jesus blesses me.”

My father told the story to my mother and suggested that she try going to church, too.

So my mother, who rarely reads, not to say understands, the Bible, started going to church.

I followed her to a Bible study group one Friday afternoon at the end of April, when the weather started to get very warm in south China. It was at the home of a church member, 500 meters from my parents’ house.

Hardly had I entered the wide-open gate, when an old woman in her late seventies or early eighties shot her hand in front of me and shouted, “sister, for you!”

She was giving me two small packets of wafer biscuits. I was confused, not knowing if I should accept the gift from a stranger, when another old woman, also in her seventies, explained to me, “her great-grandson was born today.”

Before I got a chance to congratulate her, the new great grandmother shot her hand to my mother, “sister, for you!”

So both my mother and I are her sisters? It felt rather weird and awkward.

My mother took the wafer biscuits from the old woman with a take-it-for-granted smile as she glanced around the room, looking for empty seats. Then she took my hand and walked to two empty plastic stools against the east wall of the room. By then, the 20-square-meter rectangular room was almost full – full of grey hair, bleary eyes, withered cheeks, toothless mouths and callused hands. There were 30 people, all of whom except one were women and  three quarters of them over 60 years old. The group leader was a middle-aged woman who had the look of a strict elementary school teacher.  As she sat on a stool higher than ours at the front of the room glancing around, another woman in her forties sitting five people ahead of me announced in Hakka, “open your books and turn to song 312.”

Most women looked around confused. Several repeated “312” loudly. Sounds of fumbling books filled the room and was soon replaced by a medley of Hakka voices singing out of tune.

I looked around and was almost shocked to see thirty toothless and semi-toothless mouths gaping open and closed, thirty round black holes spitting a volley of untuned music notes in Hakka. A volley of wishes for health, fortune, peace and grandsons.  I turned to look at my mother. She was looking down at the book, singing like a mosquito. Born a shy person and still new to Christianity, she was probably feeling uncomfortable to sing out loud with a group of strangers. But most other women were singing at the top of their lungs like a group of elementary school kids singing after their favorite teacher.

After three songs came the prayer. A woman prayed loudly in Hakka with such passion that it sounded like a broken piano being hit by many stones at the same time. The voice at least kept the women awake, who ended the prayer with “Amen! As wished and with loyalty!”

With that, the group leader started the preach of the day and talked about forgiving. In less than fifteen minutes, a third of the women started dozing off, including my mother. I poked my mother slightly. She turned to me and smiled guiltily. She needn’t have felt guilty at all. The monotonous preaching was nothing new and it was what my parents had taught me when I was a kid. I myself would have dozed off if I had not been interested in observing my mother’s fellow Christians. Both my mother and I were relieved when the sermon was over after almost two hours sitting on a plastic stool.

“Do you agree with what the preacher said?” I asked my mother right after we left the gathering.

“I agree,” my mother said earnestly, “we should forgive.”

“So are you going to forgive Mrs Miao?” Mrs. Miao was our next door neighbor for decades, a very difficult woman who hated my mother for no reason and had created quite some dramatic troubles for my mother over the years. She died the day before unexpectedly.

My mother was taken by surprise, then laughed embarrassedly, “oh, dear, I can’t forgive Miao. No, I really can’t forgive her!”

I laughed, too. I laughed because I found my mother’s honesty very lovely, and her embarrassed laughter revealed a childlike and pure character.

“Will you continue to go to church?”

“I guess I will.”


“Do you remember Chong?”


“Miao’s niece.” By the way, my mother got along well with Mrs Miao’s family despite Mrs. Miao.

“Is she a Christian, too?”

“Yes. I saw her not long ago. She joined the church about ten years ago. She is a happy person now. She sings (Bible songs) all the time. She sings when cleaning. She sings when cooking. She sings when walking. She would sing even when eating if she had two mouths. She is a very happy person now. She used to be grumpy. Jesus makes her happy.” My mother said both admiringly and amusedly as she described how Jesus had changed once grumpy Chong. But I doubt Jesus would make my mother as happy as Chong easily because she wouldn’t be satisfied until all her children were happily married and all her children, particularly her son, have their own children – sons preferred.

A month later, I went to Heyuan Gospel Church with my mother in downtown Heyuan City. It was a bigger version of her Bible study group. A church with 3000 members. Over three quarters of the members were women older than 60, with grey hair, bleary eyes, withered cheeks, toothless or semi-toothless mouths, and callused hands. The preaching (about husband-wife relationship this time) was again monotonous and long. A few women chitchatted in a low voice. Some dozed off. The only difference, besides the size of the crowd, was the choir sang in Mandarin while the members sang in Hakka. My mother was obviously bored and from time to time looked around the church searching for familiar faces. After three months, she had not made new friends from the church, only found a few faces she had known before, including a cousin of mine, a cousin of hers and a few former neighbors.

“What do you think?” I asked my mother when we walked out of the church.

“I agree with him (the preacher). But he is too long winded. He circles round and round, saying the same thing over and over again.” Then she added with an amused look, “it is amazing those illiterate women follow the Bible better than me. They don’t read, but they sing quite well as if they could read.”

Back home, I asked my father why he didn’t go to church with my mother, he replied, “gee, most church goers are older women. Besides, the Bible contradicts Marxism and evolutionism I was taught as a Communist Party member. It is hard to change a belief you learn at a young age. And the Christians at the church are not that different from the red guards worshipping Mao during the Cultural Revolution.”

My mother gave me a different answer, “one goes to church, Jesus blesses the whole family. Your father needn’t go.”

I believe my parents were both honest with their answers. They were both born before communism took over China, taught by the school and then Communist Party government to believe in Marxism (China version) and evolutionism and to expect progress only to witness regress in both the society and their personal lives: corruption and social injustice in the big world; aging and ailing in their small world. What bothers them the most, however, is they still don’t have a grandson while some of their cousins are now great-grandparents. By the way, my sisters’ children are not counted as their grandchildren and only my brother’s son could carry on the family line according to Chinese Hakka tradition.

Sometimes they blame our family’s Fengshui. They invited several Fengshui masters to inspect our home over the years. They followed a couple Fengshui masters’ advices and moved our house gate twice. This didn’t bring luck to the family as wished. Last year, another Fengshui master suggested our gate be moved (again!) to where my mother’s bedroom was. Fortunately, my parents didn’t follow the advice this time.

My mother also sought blessings from a local Taoist temple as well as from a sorceress. So far, nothing fantastic has happened as my parents wish. They continue to age and ail. My mother hurt her back two years ago. My father got lung cancer last year. They still have no grandson. Two of their children, particularly their son, are still single…

They must feel helpless sometimes. So when my father heard my neighbor was being blessed by Jesus, he made my mother go to church while refraining himself from the church so that he could still worship our ancestors. This way, we might be double blessed. This is how my parents do their math, different from Lv’s mother’s calculation, but with the same practicality.

But are we double blessed now? Are we?

Portrait of my parents, Wen Meirong, 74, and Chen Guixiu, 85, taken on Dec. 11, 2015.

My parents with my sisters’ children on 2016 New Year’s Day.

                                    My father worships our ancestors on 2016 Chinese New Year’s Eve.

Incense is a symbol of family line. Only a son can carry on the family according to Chinese Hakka tradition.

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Re-Experience China – He Married His Pregnant Wife to a Stranger

Mr. Yang called to confirm my time to leave for Baiyun International Airport in north Guangzhou right after I booked his car via DD car service, Uber’s rival in China. He spoke Cantonese and sounded warm and professional, “I will arrive ten minutes before 8:40 tomorrow (Sunday, May 15, the time I needed his car service).” The next day, at 8:25, he called again, “I have arrived. But no hurry, take your time. Just give me a ring when you are ready.”

I was impressed. I mean, I don’t often meet drivers as professional and considerate as Mr. Yang. I took the front passenger seat instead of sitting at the back.  As a result, during the 90-minute journey to the airport, I got to hear a streetwise man’s strong opinions on all kinds of things happening in China and a shocking incident that happened to him and his wife.

“Oh, those ‘black ghosts’ (African migrants) in Guangzhou! They are the worst. Bastards! They don’t pay for Taxi service! I’ve met many of them.” Mr. Yang started rapping and gabbing when I asked him about his job as a driver, “those ‘black ghosts’ are violent and dumb. I tell you, their IQ is very low! And those Chinese women who marry the ‘black ghosts!’ They are…they are…What can I say about them! If my daughter dares to marry a ‘black ghost,’ she is not my daughter! Can’t call me dad!’

“But Obama, the US president, is a black man,” I reminded him.

“Obama is different. He is American. The black people in America have lived in a civilized society for hundreds of years. They are better educated. Brainwashed by the whites. But those African ‘black ghosts’ are dumb barbarians.”

“Would you allow your daughter to marry an American black man then?”

“I wouldn’t let my daughter go abroad.”


“Women shouldn’t go that far. Women are women. Men are different. I would let my son study abroad, though.”

“Oh, you have a son, too! How come you have two children?” I was surprised, as from his accent, I could tell he was a Cantonese native and city residents his age (mid forties) were not allowed to have two children due to China’s one-child policy that began in 1979 and was only canceled in October, 2015. Certainly some families would pay a heavy fine for a second, even a third child, but a driver like him wouldn’t be able to afford it.

“Fake divorce,” he chuckled.


“My wife got pregnant by accident. What can I do? I can’t lose my permanent job with a state company. I only make 3000 RMB per month from this job, but I will have pension and other benefits from the government when I retire. It is an easy job, too. I get off work at three in the afternoon and can drive part time for DD after that on week days and whole day on weekends. I can’t afford the fine – 200,000 RMB per person! For a couple, that would be 400,000 RMB!”

“You wife works for the same company?”

“No. But all women employees and wives of the men employees have to go to a pregnancy check every three months.”

“Oh, they would have certainly found out her pregnancy.”

“So we got divorced.”

“But she still couldn’t get a pregnancy certificate as a divorced woman.”

“I married her to someone in Henan Province (a province south of Beijing and Hebei Province). Each new couple can get a pregnancy certificate after marriage, you know.”

“You married your pregnant wife to a Henan man, a stranger?!” I couldn’t hide my shocked tone.

“It is not for real. I mean the papers for our divorce and her marriage to the Henan man are all real, but we still live together as a couple.”

“But how did you manage to marry your wife to someone in Henan?”

“I have a colleague from Henan. He introduced us to one of his fellow villagers.”

“Do you have to pay the man?”

“Of course. Altogether we spent 60,000 RMB, 20,000 RMB pre-payment to the fake groom when we were introduced to him, 20,000 RMB after we get the pregnancy certificate, plus 20,000 RMB travel expenses between Guangzhou and Henan. It is a lot of money, but nothing compared to the 400,000 RMB fine – plus I would have been fired.”

“Reasonable,” I said.

“But I think my colleague, not the fake groom, got most of the money I paid, because he bought an Isuzu soon after we paid off for the pregnancy certificate.”

“Oh, well, this is China,” I said, not surprised, “but you get what you want.”

“No easy, though. They put the wrong time in the pregnancy certificate. My wife and I filed a divorce in 2014, but the date in the pregnancy certificate was 2013!”

“Your wife got pregnant in 2014! Bad timing, a year before the one-child policy was canceled! How unlucky!” I felt really sorry for him.

“Yep, bad luck. My son still hasn’t been registered as a legal citizen.”

“What do you do then?”

“We are waiting for them to correct the mistake in the pregnancy certificate.”

“So your wife is till married to the Henan man?”

“No. They filed a divorce a year later.”

“Are you remarried to your wife?”

“No. Even though the one-child policy has been canceled, my wife got pregnant before that. We could still be fined and I could still be fired if they find out. We can’t remarry now. Too risky.”

“Doesn’t your wife worry a little? I mean, middle aged women in China often worry their husbands would desert them for younger women…I read about couples filing divorces so they could buy more apartments than allowed, and many ended up being divorced for real.”

“When we filed the divorce, I put everything, our apartment and savings, under her name. I only own this car I am driving because I need it to make a living. And we have always lived under the same roof. Not much difference, really.”

“So you keep your job and you have a son.”

“Can’t complain. I am a happy man.”

“What about your daughter? Is she happy about having a younger brother? I read that a lot of kids loathe their parents getting a second child after the one-child policy was canceled last year. Earlier this year, a young boy forced his mother to do an abortion because he said his parents would love him less if he were to have a younger sibling.”

“My daughter (14 years old) was not too happy about the pregnancy at first because one of her classmates lost her parents’ favor after her brother was born. I heard this classmate of hers was sometimes abused by her parents after her brother was born. So my daughter was really upset at first. But we care about how she feels. We always satisfy her needs before her brother’s. She is now happy to have a brother.” Mr. Yang chuckled.

“So as long as she is not to marry a black man, you love her,” I said jokingly.

“Of course I love her. I teach her a lot of tricks to protect herself in case she is attacked by a man. Things like, if a man holds her from the front, I tell her to pretend to be frightened, and when the attacker is not too alert, step on his toe real hard, or hit his dick with the knee – that hurt like hell, he would automatically let go, then she could run away quickly. Or if someone tries to kidnap her on the street, I tell her to turn to any adult man on the street and call him dad. The kidnapper would usually panic and let go of her. Things like that, you know.” He laughed, “I was very naughty when I was young and I only had elementary school education. But I can teach my daughter all the tricks against the bad things I used to do, ha!”

I laughed with him and turned to look at him. He was of medium height and weight, had dark brown skin and was gentle as a driver. His laughter was cheery and his baritone Cantonese sounded warm and sincere. I didn’t feel nervous or worried even though he said he used to do bad things as a teenager. He continued to tell me his life stories – his mother left his father to marry a Hong Kong man in the 1980s, resulting in his becoming a bad student; he stole his neighbor’s potted plants and gave them to his teacher as gifts so that this teacher never punished him for his bad grades; he desired to join the army to fight the Vietnamese because he loved China, but couldn’t because he didn’t have a high school diploma; he lamented the fact that his half sister in Hong Kong was too well educated to marry early and he didn’t like her Singapore boyfriend who never bought her anything, “how can you trust a man like this? Go Dutch? Bullshit! A man should pay for his woman because once they get married, the woman belongs to him!”

When we arrived at the airport, he unloaded my suitcase the way a New York cab driver would do and wished me a safe trip. Professional. And I must say he is the most sincere taxi driver I’ve met in China since I moved back in 2011. Despite his sexism and his racism, I rated him a five-star when I paid the fee via my DD app.

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My Landlord

My landlord wants me out again. I love my apartment, but my landlord has been a nightmare. Till last spring, he had been harassing me. I managed to block him with the help of his wife. A few days ago, he used a new cell number to message me asking me to move out by July because he wanted to move back. I called his wife. She confirmed it. So I guess I have to move out…And here is an article I wrote about my landlord last spring…

– – –

I was reading Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” at the hotel lounge in Siem Reap, Cambodia when my cell phone rang. It was my landlord, Zeng. I frowned and felt a twitch in my stomach. Each time he called, I felt this twitch. I tried to ignore it, but it kept ringing stubbornly till I picked it up.

“I am going to check on my apartment at 2 o’clock this afternoon,” he shouted from China. His bossy tone dumfounded me as always.

“But we agreed that you check on the apartment after I am back to Guangzhou on April 4th. It is still March.” I tried to curb my annoyance. I’ve had many landlords in the past 12 years, Zeng was the only one who liked to check on the apartment whenever he felt like to, because, according to him, he was the home owner. There was really no need for him to waste his time checking on the apartment because I had made this place much cleaner and cozier than when he lived in it,  I am a quiet tenant maintaining a friendly relationship with my neighbors, fix whatever broke in the apartment, and pay rent on time.

Unpleasant as it was, I didn’t mind too much his checking on the apartment until one morning he came over to tell me he was divorced. As usual, he showed up without notice. He knocked on the door, came in, made himself comfortable in the couch, gulped a cup of coffee I handed him, and started raving about his success – a man with a master’s degree and with a lot of theories. I was polite but hoping he would leave soon so I could finish my routine morning reading and go in the office after lunch. But he wouldn’t stop bragging about himself.

I finally suggested, “I need to go in the office soon.”

“Oh, I should leave,” he said, but continued to sit in the couch comfortably, his hand still holding the coffee cup, his eyes looking around.

“I’ve been really busy recently.” I made it obvious that he was not welcome.

He totally ignored my hint, “You’ve made this place much nicer. My wife was too messy. She doesn’t clean. Oh, just between you and me, I am actually divorced. ”

“Eh, sorry to hear that. Well, it’s getting late. I have to go in the office now.” I felt awkward. I never wanted to befriend a landlord, not to say share his secret. At least not an ignorant and pretentious one like Zeng.

He left with an upset look, finally.

The next evening, he sent a phone message to me: “Do you have time to chat in the evening?”

Since then, I have found all kinds of excuses to prevent him from coming to the apartment, thus become “a very difficult woman.” One time, I suggested he didn’t need to waste his time checking on the apartment, he replied, “This is my property! I can come whenever I want. ” Another time I suggested he come with his wife, he replied, “she doesn’t have time,” forgetting his telling me he was divorced.

While I was trying to rejuvenate myself in Siem Reap, he demanded from a thousand miles away, “I have time this afternoon. Two o’clock.”

“I am sorry. But I am not home till April 3rd. That’s why I told you to come either before I left Guangzhou on March 20th or after I return on April 3rd. You said you’d come on April 4th.” I reminded him of our agreement and didn’t hide my scorn and irritation in my voice.

“I’ve never met a difficult woman like you!” He howled and hung up.

I put down my cell phone and curled up in the couch, lackluster. He had spoilt my time with Hemingway, my vacation. “At least I am glad I changed the lock,” I thought to myself. After I returned home, my neighbor told me he did try to break in the apartment after he put down the phone. He asked my neighbor to let him jump over their rooftop garden to mine. When my neighbor asked him who would take the responsibility should anything happen,  he replied, “I am just going to my own home.”

Later that night, I woke up at 3 a.m. screaming at a nightmare image, where a huge rat was gnawing at a kitten in blue moonlight.

The day I returned home from Cambodia, I got a message from Zeng: “I have put the apartment back to the market for new tenants. You can continue to rent it if you pay 25% more.”

A day later, he messaged me again, “I am going to my apartment this afternoon. Two o’clock.”

He came with two women, one in her forties, the other in her twenties. Without asking for my permission, he let the women in and showed them around as if I didn’t exist.

“Excuse me!” I was pissed off that these people showed no respect for my privacy and my tenant’s right, “I have paid rent, and I still live here. Without my permission, you don’t have the right to come in! Don’t you know the law?”

“Ha! Law! She is talking about law! Funny.” The younger woman scoffed.

“What law? This is NOT your apartment!”  The mid-aged woman sneered, “And I am moving in. When are you moving out? When?”

I wanted to shout “get out” at them, but I was too furious to utter a word.

“You are such a difficult tenant.” Zeng said with a smile. A cunning smile of stupidity.

“What do you mean I am a difficult tenant! I pay rent on time, I fix whatever breaks and never bother you, I have the leaking ceiling repaired with my own money, I make this place much cleaner and tidier than when you lived here. I am quiet and my neighbors like me…” I started raving, enraged.

“But each time I want to check on my apartment, you are so reluctant and find all kinds of excuses.”

“Don’t you understand law? Don’t you know tenants have their rights to the property, too? And you claim to have a master’s degree and from a so-called ‘family of intellectuals’!” I was furious and he was taken aback.

“A master’s degree! ‘Family of intellectuals’! ” I repeated  scornfully.

He blushed. He must have remembered the plaque he once hung above the dinner table before I moved in. On it carved “Family of Intellectuals.” It looked surreal and ridiculous on a dirty wall  of a messy apartment. I told him to take it with him, “You shouldn’t leave it here. My family is not intellectual. ”

He blushed, then replied, “I have a master’s degree, you know.”

Here he was, blushing again. He had wanted to intimidate me by bringing two women pretending to be his potential tenants, but found himself blushing. “At least he still has a little sense of shame,” I thought to myself, when the younger woman cried, “wow, what a tenant! Don’t you know this is not your home?”

“Who are you? I rent the place. You don’t have any right to be here at MY HOME!”

“This is not your home! We are invited by the property owner!”

“Get out!” I shouted at top of my lung.

My landlord seemed surprised at my rage and asked the women to leave with him. I had been too polite with him before. Now I finally learned a lesson that politeness and reason didn’t work with people lack of common sense.

“Crazy woman!” The younger woman yelped as she walked out.

“We are moving in. I will pay more. Tell her to move out.” The mid-aged woman said.

“We will talk later.” Zeng turned to me and I saw a  smile in his face, satisfied, but ugly and greedy. All of a sudden, I understood it was an act he put on, with the help of two women.

I decided I’d had enough of this stupid landlord and that even the private rooftop garden that came with the apartment – which was the reason I rented the place – was not worth his harassment. I messaged him: “I will move out. Your friends can move in in two months. Take the deposit for my last two months.”

He immediately replied, “Oh. I was thinking we should talk. You know I would let you rent the place if you are still interested. But if you want to move, you must move by the end of this month. I will pay you back the deposit. You can trust me.”

I: “I don’t trust a man who doesn’t pay tax. I will live here till I use up the deposit.” I knew he didn’t pay tax for his rental business as he had told me not to tell others I rented his place so he could avoid tax.

He: “Nonsense! Who says I don’t pay tax?”

I: “Don’t forget I work in the news industry and I know a bunch of people in different fields. I can ask a friend working at the city revenue bureau to check.  Evidence can be easily obtained –  the paying record via my bank account to yours.”

Two hours later, his wife called, “What happened between you and my husband? Why are you reporting him to the revenue bureau?”

“Oh, you call finally. What’s your husband’s problem? Why does he always want to check on the apartment? Why did he bring two strangers to my place without noticing me and let them in without my permission?  Why did he keep telling me you are divorced?”

“Hold on. I call you back this evening.”

When she called again, she apologized for her husband and asked if I’d like to continue to rent the apartment. I told her if I didn’t need to deal with her husband again, I wouldn’t mind continuing to living here. We made a deal quickly.

When I hung up, I received a message from her husband: “Shameless!”

I replied: “You are the one who is shameless. Don’t ever bother me again. I only talk to your wife from now on.”

With that, I blocked his number in my cell phone.

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Foreign Models in China

Here is a photo essay I did for Modern Weekly in  2014.

Here is the link the published text:


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Hua’er, the Sad Former Lass

A bowler, shoulder-length hair dyed blond, an ankle-length wool overcoat whose one half is cut ten inches shorter than the other. Imagine seeing through thick smoke a stylish singer in the 1930s Shanghai, the Paris of the East. Imagine her singing at a smoky hall  with men wearing Fedoras, Ben Hogans and Kufis, cheering, yelling, shouting, smoking, drinking, flirting, sometimes dancing and sometimes fighting.

Now through the smoke, past two black iron stoves burning coal and boiling water, past loud drinkers at the rickety tables and booths, over a floor littered with black watermelon seed shells, sunflower seed shells, peanut shells, cigarette ends and liquor bottle caps, come closer, and stand in front of the stage, right by a plastic Christmas tree. You now see this stylish singer is actually in her fifties, her wrinkled face thick with cheap make-up, her hair dry and awry, her hands short-fingered, chubby and dark.  She has the typical peasant look in northwest China.

She is indeed a peasant. A Tibetan peasant with an amazing voice.  A voice singing a beautiful Hua’er, a kind of folk song sung in Qinghai dialects, popular in northwest China, particularly among Chinese muslims. The literal translation of hua’er is “flower.”  The interpretation of the term Hua’er is romantic: The song is enjoyable like a beautiful flower and the singer is a lass as beautiful as a flower.  Hua’er is the name for both the song and the singer.  An alternative name for Hua’er is Shaonian, or lad. Obviously this kind of folk songs are mostly (though not exclusively) love songs between lasses and lads. But on the stage here, the song is sung by a weathered peasant woman, not a youthful or beautiful lass.  A beautiful song spoiled by an electric piano accompaniment, low-quality mic and speakers way too blaring.

And this place is not a top-notch music hall in the 1930s Shanghai, but a hau’er tea house called Red Butterfly at the southern edge of Xining, the capital city of Qinghai Province in northwest China. A low-end entertainment place not allowed downtown. A Tibetan friend of mine, Suo Nan Ji, once owned it. She recently sold it to a friend of hers and is now a staff singer here. Hua’er tea houses are low-end entertainment places which peasants, workers and small business men frequent to drink eight-treasure tea and strong barley liquor, to enjoy Hua’er, and sometimes to find a lover.  Their customers are mostly men and hua’er singers women. They popped up in northwest China in the 1980s, when the economic reforms began to hit all over the country.  Before that, Hua’er was only heard in the mountains and in the fields.  They are considered “wild songs” and forbidden at home,  as most of them are love songs and singing love songs at home is considered a crime of incest. For the same reason, men usually don’t go to Hua’er tea houses with their family. If a man comes with a woman, this woman is probably his lover, not his wife or wife-to-be.

I turn to Suo Nan Ji, “she has a very good voice, too. Who is she?” I have followed Suo Nan Ji for days and have met all her fellow singers except this one on the stage. I find her style quite hilarious.  A northwestern Tibetan peasant in the 1930s Shanghai fashion.

“She is from a village near mine.  She does have a good voice, but she has a bad name in the Hua’er community.”

“What’s the story?”

“You will see.”

I look at this fifty-something peasant singer in the 1930s Shanghai fashion. She is standing on the stage against a flat photo of northwest landscape with two women in traditional Chinese outfits pasted by photoshop to the two sides of the photo, their arms pointing awkwardly to the center of the photo, a blue sky overwritten by big and bold Chinese characters that says “Welcome to Red Butterfly.”  An ugly stage.  But the singer’s voice is good and high and could be so much more beautiful without the “help” of modern equipment. I wish I could turn off the electric piano and unplug the mic. I fell in love with Hua’er sixteen years ago when I first heard Suo Nan Ji sing it in Lhasa, Tibet, also at a smoky tea house with men wearing Fedoras, Ben Hogans and Kufis, cheering, smoking, drinking, shouting and flirting, sometimes dancing and sometimes fighting.  At that time, they didn’t have the cheap electric piano accompaniment. Suo Nan Ji sang not only with a beautiful voice, but with emotions from the bottom of her heart. Her voice, well trained at a provincial conservatory in the 1980s, but still with a primitive quality typical for a Tibetan, touched me deeply.  I could hear her tragedy even though I didn’t understand a single word she sang.  She indeed has led a dramatic and tragic life. That is a different story. Right now, I try to feel the voice of this new singer on the ugly stage as I curse the cheap modern equipment.  A girl in love, a sad separation, a yearning, and alas, her disappointment. I don’t understand the lyrics in Qinghai dialects, but I can guess what she sings, and can feel the emotions in the voice. It is the primitive quality of the voice and the emotions of the Hua’er singer that attract me tremendously. I guess this singer also has a sad story, a rough life. Suo Nan Ji has told me many times that each Hua’er singer is a tragedy.  Their lives are weaved by tears.

A woman, a fellow singer, goes up to the stage.  She picks a red nylon scarf from a rack next to the plastic Christmas tree, hangs it to the singer’s free arm, then hands a note to her free hand. This is the way a singer is tipped. The tip is not from the woman, but from a man who admires her voice, or her flirts. The woman is a messenger. Another woman walks to the stage. More tips. Tips are the singers’ major income source.

“She makes good money today,” I comment.

Suo Nan Ji smiles. I feel a scorn in the curl of her lips. She is not making much these days, at least not when I am with her. She is probably too well-educated, too proud, and too independent for the customers here. They are fascinated by her fame as a singer in the 1990s, her roles(always supporting and villainous roles)in several local TV plays and her beauty that has been devoured by cruel time and the tragic dramas in her life. But these are exactly the walls that keep many men from flirting with her then tipping her. I have a feeling that my being with her may have made these walls even thicker. She keeps telling people that I am a photographer and writer trained in the USA and often traveling abroad. She likes boasting about my education and showing off our friendship, “We’ve known each other for almost 20 years! She was a little girl then. She is like my little sister.” She says this almost every day, to different people. I have become a tool for her to win respect. Our friendship is the evidence that she is no typical flirtatious Hua’er singer, but a respectable human being with dignity. She says to me one night that my staying with her has given her “face” and made her feel more honorable and respectable than her peers. I don’t mind being her tool to gain respect, as she is a genuine and pure soul with great talents, a kind heart, beautiful inside and out. She has my respect and deserves more. But she has been struggling to make a living at Hua’er tea houses, dealing with men she despises. She does have fans who sincerely appreciate her songs. They often tip her  ten yuan (less than two US dollars), sometimes twenty, even fifty.  But this is not much. You have to flirt with men, drink with them, make them drunk to have good tips. She says she hates flirting with drunkards. And once a man tips a singer a lot – hundreds of yuan, even a thousand or more, he expects her to go out with him at night.  “You know what that means,”  She says.

I wonder if the singer in the 1930s Shanghai fashion hates it, too.  She just finishes her singing and hands the mic to the next singer. (They sing by turns and when they don’t sing, they serve the customers.) She steps off the stage, walks down the aisle between two lines of rickety booths, gives her hands to each tip giver to thank them. She is all smiles. Now she sits down at a booth behind ours.  I turn around to compliment her, “you have a good voice.”  She smiles, but quickly turns to a man demanding a drink with her.  It is a peasant in his sixties or seventies, already drunk.  She pours the 42-degree barley liquor into four tiny porcelain cups sitting at a plate on a messy table full of tea cups, black watermelon seeds, snacks, liquor bottles and cigarettes.  She holds out her right hand to play a finger guessing game with the man.  The one who loses the game will have to drink a cup of barley liquor. This is a very common drinking game in north China. Here in Qinghai, people love it as much as they love drinking.  I refuse to understand it even though Suo Nan Ji and her friends have explained it to me several times.  As long as I can’t play it, I don’t need to drink their hard liquor. I like this privilege as an outsider.

The singer in the 1930s Shanghai fashion obviously loses the game and keeps losing it because she is soon tipsy, then drunk, and drunk enough to sit with her legs wide apart and to rest her head on the man’s shoulder, then his laps and flirt with him shamelessly. I want to photograph her, but feel too embarrassed and intimidated.

I turn back and find Suo Nan Ji gone. I look around. She is standing beside a window looking out. She looks quiet and lonely in this boisterous tea house, with men and women singing, dancing, drinking and flirting. What a waste of her talent, I think as I look at her back, when a man in his thirties approaches me, dancing with a fan in each hand.  He is very drunk.  He invites me to dance with him. I snap a few photos of him but pretend I don’t understand him. He tries to hold my arm to drag me away from the booth. I panic and call out to Suo Nan Ji while holding my camera bag tight. Suo Nan Ji rushes over, pushes the man away and scolds him, “You drunkard! Get lost! She doesn’t dance with you.”  The man dances away, waving two fans with his hands, his eyes still fixed upon me. Suo Nan Ji sits down next to me, “don’t be afraid. T hey are not bad people, just drunkards.  How I hate drunkards! But many of them are afraid of me, they won’t hurt you.”

No sooner does Suo Nan Ji finish her words than a woman in her fifties and a man in his sixties, both drunk, make another scene. The woman wants to dance and tries to drag the man out of the booth. The man pulls her to his arms to kiss her, with his young granddaughter sleeping at the chair right behind him. I recognize them. They come to the tea house almost every day. I point my camera at them. The man immediately lets go of the woman, comes near me and points to the stage, “let’s dance.”  I hide behind Suo Nan Ji, who scolds him for being too drunk and orders him not to bother me.  “I am just joking with her,” he says and returns to the woman, who is smiling at me.  She looks as friendly as she is drunk.  I smile back at her, then turn to Suo Nan Ji, “who is she?”

“Just a customer. I don’t care. It is almost five, off work soon.” She sounds tired and is eager to go home.

Me, too. While I am fascinated by the happenings in this poorly-ventilated, foul-smelling, smoky, and raucous tea house, I can’t wait to leave it every afternoon.  It will take days to clear myself of the smells here.

The customers are now finally leaving. Suo Nan Ji has started cleaning the tables and the singer in the 1930s Shanghai fashion is sweeping the floor. She seems sober now, still wearing her bowler and the unusually cut overcoat. I decide to photograph her the next day.

Unfortunately she doesn’t return to Red Butterfly before I leave Xining. I may never see her again.

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A Phone Flirt

(On a bus from Minghe to Xining in October, 2012.)

A man in his forties jumped onto the bus, took out a chewing gum from his chest pocket as he looked around for a seat, and threw the gum wrapper at the bus door as he sat down next to me, chewing the gum loudly – almost like a proud announcement.

He was wearing a new but cheap black suit, flashy fake leather shoes and holding a cloth bag on his lap. He had the wild look of a peasant-turned Laoban (boss, or businessman, sometimes with a negative connotation of go-getter), a large northwestern Chinese man, a risk taker, a go-getter yet to get rich – a successful Laoban wouldn’t take a half beaten bus to Xining, the capital city of Qinghai Province in Northwest China from Minghe, a town two hundred kilometers away.

This seat mate of mine made me feel a little uneasy. I wished for a woman seat mate, but there were not many women in the bus. In this part of China, people were more conservative or traditional than the folks in south China, where I came from. It was still not common for women in this area to travel alone and there still lived women with bound feet. I had come to Minghe to photograph women with bound feet, and was taking a bus to the Xining, where I would fly back to Guangzhou.

I held my camera bag on my lap, with both hands on it, nervous, tired and bored. The bus finally started and we left the dingy bus station. I looked out of the bus window and lamented that northwest China had become uglier than I remembered. The environment had deteriorated. The mountains were bare, the river far from clear, the city streets dirty, and the traffic messy. Most young people had deserted their homes for bigger towns in richer areas. There was not much to see on the road. It would be a boring two-hour journey. I was about to take out my iPad and earphones to kill my time on the road with music, when I heard my seat mate spoke in a strong northwestern accent, in a dramatic tone, a tone only a peasant-turned Laoban would speak, “He-LLO! I thought about what you said to me for a whole night. I still don’t understand what you mean. What do you mean?”

I turned to look at him. His eyes squinting as he listened to the speaker on the other side of the phone, his lips moving rapidly and loudly from chewing the gum. I could tell he was talking to a woman. I sensed a story. I turned my face toward the bus window, but my ears were wide open and my hand busy taking note.

“What? WHO – said that?” He challenged the other speaker.
“Which Xining man? There are way too many men in Xining. How would I know who you are talking about? Why do you always believe whatever people tell you?”
“Oh, listen to what you just said! So in your eyes, I am a playboy?”
“Be straightforward, speak frankly. I don’t care about all those bad names you give me. Tell me. What do you want to say?”
“Hahaha…I like that. Just like that.”
“So I am actually a good person then?”
“Cataract surgery is a small operation. No need to worry.”
“Don’t worry.”
“Wedding feast? Whose wedding feast?”
“My master’s wedding feast?”
“Mine? Why would I have a wedding feast? I am destined to be single. Who would marry a vagrant? But I have a vagrant’s freedom. ”
“Free as a vagrant, I told you.”
“Nope, not going to marry.”
“Certainty? I don’t need that. If it works, it works. Fine, if it doesn’t work. I am free as a vagrant.”
“Loss? No loss at at all. Marriage means the real loss.”
“She can go wherever she wants. There are women everywhere. I don’t care if she leaves.”
“What is love? No love from me! She just wants to play. So I play with her. Who cares?”
“I know your love…”
“So I take care of you!”
“If I don’t take care of you, who would?”
“Hell, don’t care about him, either. Hey, let’s invite him to OUR wedding feast.”
“OUR wedding feast. OURS! Ha! You listen to me. You raise your kid first. Wait about three years. Oh, Seven years.”
“I’d become an old man. Would you still want me?”
“Ok. An old bag and an old fart. Perfect match.”
“Take good care of the child. We talk about it in seven years, when you are an old bag and I am an old fart. So would you still want me then, an old fart?”
“What are you busy with?”
“Ok, you get back to your work. I call you again when you are done.”

He hung up the phone. I looked at the time in my cell phone. Another hour to go. I looked out of the window again and entertained myself by making movies in my head about the four characters I overheard from my seat mate’s phone flirt, when a dark arm reached over my face, followed by an enormous head. I startled. He might have heard my heart jump. But he ignored me completely as if I were non-existent. I leaned back. The arm opened the bus window and the head leaned over to spit the chewing gum, moved back to his seat, then down, looking at his cell phone as his hand wiped the screen. After a short while, he put the phone back to his trousers pocket and sighed, leaned back and closed his eyes. Before his snores invaded my ears, I put on my earphones to listen to my music. For the first time, I felt my music was not as powerful as this stranger’s story.

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