Tag Archives: China

A Question of Privilege

I have been wanting to write about the class structure here. Not about the peasants and migrant workers but about the privileged elite who flaunt their flouting of the laws: the police (off-duty), the military, government officials, and party officials. I have written about the traffic here and the lack of enforcement on even basic laws, but the people with the special white plates do whatever they choose with impunity. Drive the wrong way, drive on the sidewalk, park the wrong way, park on the sidewalk, run red lights…it doesn’t matter because they will not receive any penalties. There has been an obvious police presence and I have seen parking tickets being given by actual police officers, not humble parking officers, but the special people are still excluded from this.

Today Richard and I were walking to a nearby restaurant for lunch. We saw one person receiving a ticket. Just up the street from this car sat another one, facing the wrong way on this one way street, and without any license plates. This is another thing you see a lot of: unregistered vehicles and, no doubt, drivers without licenses. The officer rode his motorcycle up to the car. The driver rolled down his window and did the FBI badge flip. I saw a picture ID and the window rolled back up.

A car here is a sign of prestige and power, and those white plates, or the ability to drive around without one at all, are another badge of honour. It reminds me of the scene in A Tale of Two Cities when the French nobleman runs over a peasant child and gets angry. These guys could do with a history lesson.


Old Dreams

Emei Tree 1

I got a batch of 120 back from the lab last week, and one roll was from a trip I took last September to Emei Shan in Sichuan. It was a lark of a trip and had far too much travelling—plane, taxi, bus, bus on Saturday then the reverse on Sunday—but it was good to get out of The Lair and see something else. It is a beautiful place, but not exactly the same type of mountain hiking as Canada. Pavement and lots and lots of stairs. My friend Matthew and I found a nice cheap hotel where we had a fantastic meal. The hike back the next day was better, and near the end we walked by this mist shrouded lake.
I didn’t have my 30D at that point, just a Sony point and shoot, but I had brought along my Moskva V 6×9 camera which is simply awesome. It’s a lot of fun to use and still in pretty good shape. Focussing is a hit and miss thing and I am not sure about the accuracy, so it’s sort of like a cooler Holga or Lomo. I think these two photos captured the dreamy mood of the area.

Emei Tree 2

The Dragon’s Turn

Following the previous post on the articles in the Telegraph which featured great photographs by Alec Soth, here are parts 3 and 4

Part four is timely, concentrating on the Olympics and all that they have brought and will bring to all of China, not just Beijing. We were given August 8th day off and I’m surprised it’s not a national holiday. I am sure that it will be a day of insanity and nationalism, and insane nationalism, but I want to join in at my peril. The government will probably have a massive screen set up in Tian He park, which is close to both work and my house. The Olympic Torch procession here brought in god knows how many tens of thousands to the area, and I imagine it will be much the same next week.

No matter what people say or wish to decry it, politics has been part of the Olympics for many years, but it is certainly on the forefront this year. It marks a turning point. It doesn’t matter if China wins the most medals this time (though it is likely); the fact is that the US will probably get fewer, a decline that will be extended to its economic and political might.

I’m not sure if this is true, but looking around me and looking again at Part 3 and Soth’s photos of the concrete towers and swirling overpasses, it’s hard not to believe it.

21st Century Place

Veleur 08/07/20

Paris is a nineteenth-century city, New York a twentieth-century city, Hong Kong a twenty-first-century city.

Picture the movie models of future cities imagined since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: they are canyons fringed by towers, blocks, and spires. In Bladerunner, the massive industrial places are dank complexes, forever dark and brooding, hemmed in by man-made cliffs. In The Fifth Element, the city is buzzed by traffic, the ground choked in smog and detritus where no one lives. These are three-dimensional places, where people live up as well as out. Likewise the gleaming and clean places of Minority Report and I, Robot.

Paris is street level. From the Pompidou you can see for kilometres, and it’s only five stories high. New York has its famous skyscrapers, but beyond the few buildings, all the action is on the street. These cities spread.

Hong Kong and newer Asian metropolises like Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou climb, embracing the idea of the future city with fervour. The Chinese cities don’t need to: there is plenty of space, but they do.

Flat land gives way to erupted blocks. High density older dwellings like the hutongs give way for neutron dense housing blocks, fitting a small North American town’s worth of people into a footprint the size of a small mall’s parking lot. Massive overpasses fly through the buildings nestled right next to them.

Look up in the new city; it lives over your head.

I am not sure how I feel about all of this. I loved Paris. Human scale (though the Louvre is on a grand scale). Liveable. Central Hong Kong is a place to visit, a wonder of bustle and money, but I was glad to live on Cheung Chau, on a corner only remotely tethered to the financial fjords of Hong Kong. Manhattan was a compromise. Guangzhou encompasses all three centuries, reaches back past the 19th and forward in the 21st. It is a place in transition, which is why it so entrances and frustrates me.

I Can See Clearly Now

I needed new glasses. My last pair, a year old, were looking ratty, with the plastic veneer peeling off over the nose. Back in Canada this would have been a major production: tests, many stores to visit to find a pair, waiting, then paying a lot. But I am in Guangzhou, where they have streets for everything. So I headed to Ren Min Lu, just south of the Children’s Hospital, for eyeglasses street.

I rode down after the gym and headed in to the building I go which has two stories of tiny stores. I didn’t venture far, finding some cool stuff at yingxu optical, where, fortunately, Lina, one of the clerks, spoke great English. The store is a closet, but a nicely designed walk-in closet, where their thousand or so frames are all neatly and nicely arrayed. They had these super cool faux-wood frames, which were why I stopped, but they were only wide enough for rodents, not for pumpkin headed people like me.

But I found a great pair of aluminium frames that swoop to match my eyebrows, and got a pair of nice plastic frames for sunglasses. I blew my budget though, doubling it to RMB 850, but the frames are better quality than the last ones. And it’s still below half of what I would spend in Canada. Lina told me that I would have to wait a while, but could I come back at 3pm? It was 1pm. I had my camera, and there’s plenty of stuff to see, so I said sure. She called in about ten minutes to say it would be five, but still, two pairs of glasses in four hours? I am not complaining.

So I got on my bike and rode away. Between then and picking up my glasses—which were ready bang on time—I saw the usual variety of usually unusual things you see in Guangzhou, including a group of people swimming in the Pearl.

piling it on

biking man

Diving in the Pearl

swimming in the pearl

swimming in the pearl


After getting my spanky new frames another of the usual variety of things: sudden thunderstorms and pelting rain; people running; people waiting; people scrunching up under umbrellas; clear skies; workers resting on rubble in front of buildings adorned with glorious socialist realist friezes.

>running in the rain

worker and rubble

death of socialist realism

Another great day in the Lair.

Artful Essays

In Paris I was lucky to catch a show by Alec Soth. His photos were fantastic, and I wish I had bought the books that were there, instead of having to order them off of Amazon like I do now (and possibly have them damaged by the apes at China Post).

A few weeks ago I read part of a series he is collaborating on about the change in fortune in the US and China, as the power of the world slowly transfers. It’s an interesting piece and Soth’s photographs, lovely large format images, are great. The great photo blog, [EV+/-] Exposure Compensation reminded me of them and so I thought I’d pass it along.

Here’s a short video about the project, featuring Soth’s photos

And here are the links to part 1 and part 2, with more to come.

Mapping Progress

I was mapping out my latest photo adventure in Guangzhou, described on my other blog, veleur. I had posted more photos on my Flickr site and was trying to find the locations on Yahoo’s satellite map.
Yahoo’s photos are old. They even have a dusty tone to them, like photos left in an attic for decades. The enormous trade fair buildings are merely foundations, etched out like a body. One of the bridges I went over isn’t on the map. It’s interesting to see the massive changes, and I wondered how long ago the images were taken.

I checked out Google’s maps. Google’s satellite photos are clearer and probably only a year or so old. They have that sheen of newness, of drying ink. The new bridge is partially there, as is the base of the new CCTV tower. It also shows just how much of Guangzhou remains farmland and jungle. It’s one of the great things of this city. Modern developments built around a jungle in the middle, ever threatening. Nice linear roads are matched with twisting paths in the centre. The wilds are great places to go. It’s easy to forget that when you live and work hundred of feet up and you can’t see the trees for the forest of concrete.

That’s an indication of just how quickly things grow here. An article in Vanity Fair just pointed out, that in the time since the Twin Towers memorial site was announced, nothing has really happened. But in Beijing, the Olympic buildings, Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV ‘pants’ building are either complete or nearly there. Same in Shanghai. And here, in the Lair, we have the new opera house, an art museum, and a few towers in Guangzhou, that have been built or are nearly finished.

Comparing the maps is one way to see the rapidity of change. Bridges and buildings appear. Neighbourhoods and land disappear. But mapping out the photos shows changes just on the Google Map. On one, from the June 21 ride, I ended up at a large open field of rubble. A guy was filling a bucket from some water pipe which poked up through the debris. A typical Chinese gate arched over a road through another zone of remnants. Looking at this on the Google satellite picture, I can see the gate, but the fields are still traditional Chinese high-density housing: ramshackle buildings packed cheek-by-jowl.

I am annoyed by Google for one small thing, though. The street map (in Chinese) and the satellite map don’t register correctly. I like to map out my routes on the satellite map, but when I switch to the street map, it seems like I rode though buildings or over the surface of water. Nice, but I am neither ghost nor messiah, even if I do preach the bliss of biking.

Here’s the yahoo map

And the Google one

With the Google map, switch between the map and the satellite to see the registration problem.