Monday Jan 14th
Tonight I was driven to China; it was my second night since landing in Hong Kong’s January haze. A familiar cloud of insomnia had already begun to separate me from normal consciousness as I watched the darkness roll past the windows, punctuated by shards of concrete.
It has only been 2 months since I was last here,…… back then I had tried to explain in an email to a friend how so much of this city is about night and the crowded boxes people live in. How to stand outside these city blocks is to witness a hundred tiny lives, each lit by fluorescent light and television screens…. living breathing advent calendars hanging in the night sky.
This place still feels so magical to me, I love the fact that no one seems to sleep, the markets remain busy at 1am, whilst taxis and buses flow endlessly past in a stream of red and green. Above the streets the days washing still clings to bamboo poles from almost every window, whilst air conditioning units rattle and drip water onto the unsuspecting heads of tourists.
Here I can walk the streets with my camera and no one bothers me…..I sit on the underground and get lost in the endless different faces. I love being somewhere that feels so different to my normal life. Here there seems to be so much more character, people seem so diverse, especially the old who are my favorite subjects.
The journey across the border into Humen can sometimes take 3 hours so I lay back with my camera on my lap, my finger on the shutter release … Its become a ridiculous habit of mine but I don’t want to risk missing a single moment.
As the car slowed with the traffic I watched the buses drift past,…their cargo of commuters swaying limply from their plastic wrist straps – their arms pulled above their heads,… their expressions blank. Out of the darkness a new bus passed, a girl leant against the window starring out into the night, her eyes hollowed by the glare of the ceiling lights. She looked so lost and empty, she was perfect, I grabbed my camera and took four shots praying one would come out.
It’s funny how sometimes it’s the quickest picture that says the most. I had spent hours the previous night running around some of the poorer districts hunting down anything that would say something new about this city; I wanted more than just a portrait or sky line. Instead I found myself following an old woman who kept one hand behind her back shaking it as she walked. Her hand seemed to say far more than her face; years of hard life were carved into the skin, the nails broken and raw. This girl on the bus was the same, her face was beautiful, but it was her expression that moved me the most. Traveling on my own I guess I am always finding myself starring at others in cars or on the opposite seat of the bus…… its in the most public places that we can sometimes seem the most alone. Without a distraction or a friend to talk to, we get lost in our thoughts, and faces can say far more than words ever could about what that person is going through. I slowly sank back into the seat, my lack of sleep combined with the music in my headphones began to lull me into a dream like state, happy with my picture I rested my head against the cold glass and watched the Hong Kong city scapes melt into the darkness of China.
A hundred tiny lives
This morning I woke up to a cold rainy China. It’s the first time I have ever seen it like this. My bedroom window was wet with condensation, framed by the silhouettes of grey industrial blocks …. The sky hung cold and white beyond.
I feel trapped here, unlike Hong Kong where I can walk freely; this province is small and slightly unnerving at night. There are no markets that I can see from my 19th floor window….. just a handful of distant hotels, flats and night cafes. Two roads join beneath my window so the traffic flows through the night, the noise and lights are relentless even at this height in the sky.
Today I’m tired and really lonely. I cried last night because I felt so far from everyone I loved. I feel caged in this concrete tower, being a woman alone I can’t go out into the streets below. Instead I can only watch from my window listening to the life below wondering what photos and faces I’m missing. Now its late and I can’t sleep; it takes hours to escape the endless darkness of my room. I went to bed at 11, and lay there until 12… I walked around my room, wrote an email, deleted it… sat in the dark by my window and thought about so many things. My mind never rests anymore. Sometimes I wish I could switch off. I envy the vacant stares of some people; I never feel I can find any peace. There are things I wish I could erase from my thoughts, people and memories that haunt me no matter how hard I try to forget. If only I could delete the emotions I have, select the ones that are good for me, only care about the positives. Instead I seem to concentrate on the negatives, the parts that hurt the most, the gaps that remain unfilled.
This noise in my head dulled by the sleeping tablets just won’t leave. I miss home already, I saw this trip as an escape from other stresses but instead it has only magnified them. My camera sits by my side, my silent companion that can’t help me tonight. The city lights refract through the glass and split into threads of faint colour across my skin until they dissolve into the darkness. This view for all its modernity and noise, is still hypnotic and strangely beautiful…….. its 2am, I really have to get some sleep.
Saturday Jan 19th
How do I begin to write about what I have seen today? As I sit here in my hotel room looking back at the photos, my eyes are already wet and my heart skips at the blurred movements and faces on my laptop screen.
Today I found a piece of me I didn’t know was missing. It’s a cliché but I had a moment that will I will never forget and will treasure for the rest of my life.
Everything happened so quickly and none of it was planned …….. It was coming to the end of my first ‘day off’ in China. I had arranged to stay on for the weekend to try and see more of this country than just its hotels and factory floors. My hosts had arranged a five hour drive to Shantou during which we would stop off at various sites on the way and then tour the city the on the Sunday.
My day so far had been nice, but I was frustrated with the tourist sites I had been shown. I had walked aimlessly around empty communist museums and public temples full of tourists in colour coded caps. My pocket was full of crushed ticket stubs and pamphlets printed with smiling Buddha’s, but my heart was empty and my camera hung limp and unused by my side.
I knew I should be grateful for seeing these places, but it wasn’t what I was searching for. I wanted life, reality…. faces, people, not glass cases and souvenir shops.
I felt helpless as the car sped past the rice fields and farms. I watched the suns dying rays skim the roof tops of the distant villages, whilst the hills cast shadows over the workers returning from the plantations. I was desperate to see real China, watching all this life through a window left me cold and frustrated. Finally I managed to persuade the driver to leave the highway and head for the villages before it got too dark. The car left the smooth tarmac and began to bump and lurch over the broken dirt track until we came to the entrance of a tiny village. At first the buildings appeared almost derelict; there were some without doors, others with broken shutters hanging from rusted hinges,….. some even had make-shift porches of plastic and bamboo which stood awkwardly in the dust.
I sat in the passenger seat, my heart pounding – what gave me the right to get out of this expensive car and start taking pictures of these people’s lives? I held my breath and stepped out,…… a small group of adults sat silently watching me as I walked past. Embarrassed I half bowed and greeted them, then took my first photos of some of the empty buildings. I could feel the number of eyes burning into my back multiply with every step I took. I wanted to capture these people but I felt so alien, so nervous, and was desperate not to offend them. Out the corner of my eye I noticed two small boys had been following me, I turned and crouched to their level, they seemed fascinated with my camera so I let them touch it. Finally after a few awkward moments I managed to take their picture, slowly more children began to appear…. All of them seemed nervous and excited and little bursts of laughter began to ripple through the group, more children arrived … by now I was surrounded so I crouched down again and this time showed them the picture on the screen of their friends – suddenly there was an eruption of laughter! Their eyes doubled in size as they held onto my arms to see the picture…and so my ‘moment’ began. I turned the camera around and ran with them as the group exploded running in different directions screaming with laughter. Their brightly coloured clothes blurring in the half light, their voices and foot steps echoed against the stone walls.
Once the game became more familiar I managed to capture more of them, every time I took a picture I would kneel down and wait for them to all come running back to look at the screen. I will never forget how this felt – this gasping, breathless ring of children holding onto me, pushing for a better view, their tiny hands pulling at my clothes. I tried to remember each one…. Some had bare feet; others carried their younger brothers and sisters on their backs…. This energy, this purity, this raw incredible moment was beyond words. I ran with them until the light was almost gone, the adults now sat smiling and nodding, the relief that I wasn’t seen as an intrusion was immense. Finally I returned to the waiting car and waved goodbye, the children ran up to the windows and stood together in a line like a finale parade. I managed to catch that last image and now I think its one of my favourite shots – every character is there… the nervous ones, the bold ones… the ones that couldn’t stop laughing. This was what I had longed for but had no idea I would ever experience, it was a simple, wonderful moment that has humbled and touched me deeply.
I’ll never forget them.
we have too much………
After leaving the children, on the way back to the road our driver found what appeared to be a walled village. I was still high with excitement when we stopped, and ran through the entrance hoping to find more people…… but here the streets were deserted, …. this time the buildings really were derelict and empty. The wind had begun to pick up and clouds of dust were collecting around my feet, there were no lights or fires yet I could hear music being played nearby. I left the others behind and ran off through the narrow streets, it was almost completely dark and I didn’t want to lose the chance of getting one last picture. As the street began to open up into a larger, wider dirt road, the music became louder….and that is when I suddenly stopped in complete surprise. In front of me lightly billowing in the wind was a huge white fabric screen suspended between the two sides of the street …… sitting in front was an old man and a projector, playing a Chinese opera film to an audience of three children sitting bewitched on plastic chairs. I fumbled for my camera, this was beyond anything I was expecting, it was so surreal I felt like I had walked onto a film set. I took some pictures but by now the light had almost entirely gone and I knew it was hopeless, so I just stood and watched. Two figures shuffled past me, their faces wrapped with black scarves, their skin heavily marked with deep wrinkles… they paused starring at me and then slowly walked away towards the children. I suppose I looked as strange to them and as they did to me.
By now the night sky was completely clear and it was only then that I began to feel the cold. I stood shivering listening to the high pitch wails of the singers, every now and then one of the children would laugh hysterically or point at the screen……The whole scene was almost too much to take in. I was miles away from home in this bizarre desolate place, desperately trying to remember every detail praying one of my pictures would capture this moment for what it was. Finally I decided to turn back to the car, just as I left the street the film ended and I heard the crackle of firecrackers being thrown on the floor. It was all so strange I could barely make sense of it all, and then as I walked I suddenly remembered what day it was and it made me smile…. It was Saturday night.
Saturday night cinema
……….. To see the whole collection of photos from the trip please visit my Flickr site.