First School Day

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.

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Modern Monks

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.

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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.

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Temple Street at Night

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.

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Re-Experience China: A Migrant Mother


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.

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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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