From Sunday 20 November 2005 to Saturday 26 November 2005
Lianzhou City - Guangdong Province, China
Report by Fred Baldwin
Wendy and I had a remarkable introduction to Chinese photography during the week we spent at Lianzhou International Photoweek last November. The purpose of the trip was to investigate the possibilities of increasing FotoFest’s connections with Chinese photographers and photographic institutions but what we found took us way beyond the usual scope of photography.
The day broke early as the alarm went off at 5:30 AM to get us to the flight from Houston, northeast to Newark, then west to China. Twenty-five hours later, we landed in Hong Kong and were met by Jimmy Chu, a close friend of Mr. Sushi Su, who had invited me to Lianzhou International Photoweek. Mr. Si quietly made certain that our arrival would be flawless by putting us in the hands of Jimmy Chu. Jimmy is a man in his forties, passionate about photography, a Hong Kong and Cantonese native who had been to school in the U.S. and worked for many years as a trade representative in China for the Governor of Iowa. He took a week from his work to translate and guide for Wendy and me at Sushi Si’s request.
Jimmy took us to the Harbor Plaza Metropolis Hotel and we checked into our room on the 20th floor where we were treated to a magnificent night view of the Hong Kong Harbor looking west. In the morning, looking from another angle, we watched the ferries, junks, and tourist ships plying the harbor, the second largest ship handling port in China, and perhaps the world. It was a very exciting scene.
I had been to China to a photo festival in Pingyao in 2002 and found the experience very interesting. Mr. Sushi Si, the organizer of the festival, was a well respected writer and newspaper editor in China who Wendy and I had met in Japan some years before at an international conference given by photographer Eikoh Hosoe in Kiyosato. At that time, Mr. Si was lecturing about contemporary Chinese photography. I remember that he described Wu Jialin as China’s most famous documentary photographer and an international star. (Click here for background information on Wu Jialin) Wu was the unknown photographer who we had invited to Houston for FotoFest 1996. A trip to China to visit Wu Jialin to see the world he had so skillfully captured in Yunan has been one of our persistent dreams. Wu Jialin was having an exhibit in Lianzhou and we hoped he would be there.
Jimmy Chu met us at the hotel the next day and we rolled our luggage to the Hung Hom train station a 10-minute walk through a brightly lit tunnel from the hotel. Endless shops led the way to the modern station. We checked through Hong Kong Customs (still separate) and departed on time at 12:15 PM.
The modern train smoothly gathered speed as we slipped out of Kowloon into the New Territories, the mainland part of the great island port of Hong Kong. It passed though what seemed to be an endless corridor of higher and higher highrises, factories, more highrises, and factories. Jimmy Chu explained that we were following the corridor of the Pearl River, one of the most important new industrial zones, created in the early 80's before the incorporation of Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region into the People’s Republic of China in 1997.
Managerial expertise and entrepreneurial energy, plus outside money had changed the Pearl River corridor into an industrial zone that competes with a similar zone along the Yangtze River Delta (Shanghai area). Workers were recruited by the hundreds of thousands to work in the factories and much of what we passed were worker accommodations adjacent to the factories that churned out the low-cost goods that we have come to expect from China. I suddenly realized that from hat, shirt, to shoes and the gizmos in my bag, I was whizzing at high speed by the people who had dressed me from head to toe.
There were other recent changes in the New Territories. We passed by a lake and Jimmy explained that this was a place where retirees seek the good life, selling their expensive and crowded apartments in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, to have less expensive food, housing and a better life. Millions of others live in the New Territories and work in the city. The more spacious water front apartments seemed a familiar solution for commuters as well as those seeking a next-to-final resting places for as retirees.
We arrived in Guangzhou in less than two hours on a train that was far easier on our weary bones than similar trains in the U.S. or U.K. After clearing Chinese Customs we were met by an enthusiastic student volunteer with my name on a card, and we taxied through a city of amazing 50-70 story skyscrapers, that frankly, made Houston look like a village. We stopped at the Hotel Bai Yun (White Cloud), also known as Best Western. Here we were treated to a cappuccino. This is the new China.
We soon loaded on a chartered bus to take us on our final leg to Lianzhou. With the exception of Michael Famighetti, a young American editor from Aperture Magazine, the other passengers were young Chinese also going to the festival.
After a slow start the bus pulled into rush hour traffic at 4:30 PM which provided us with a 40 minute traffic jam to the outskirts of Guangzhou where the city gave up its skyscraper-super city look to row upon row of two story food and repair shops then strips made up of somber alcoves where services of every kind were provided by workers with a few tools, sweat, and a pair of hands.
The thought of Houston as a village began to subside as we edged through the traffic; cars, buses, trucks, bicycles, human pulled carts, people, all going every which-a way in the snarl. It had begun to rain and the dark scenes were contrasted with garish red neon signs in Chinese, blurred and distorted by the streaks of water that accumulated and began to run down the dirty bus windows - then on to grim unlit abandoned factories as we approached the Pearl River on the outskirts of Guangzhou. I imagined this to be more like the ‘old’ China when the city was called Canton.
We were finally released to a four lane expressway but it became a very different road a few miles from Guangzhou. For four-and-a-half hours the driver skillfully maneuvered the jolting bus around the four lanes pockmarked, fractured by time and neglect. Everything on this highway was shrouded in gloom. The intermittent gas stations were dark and it was impossible to tell whether they were even open. They were so different from American truck stops, bright illuminated emporiums of fuel, fast food, clean toilets, stacked with gewgaws to satisfy the tired travelers’ impulse to break the monotony of the road with purchases of stuff - probably made in China.
After two hours the bus pulled off for a break; here, under a wooden shack, it was possible to buy boiled corn-on-the cob and the local corn boilers were very amused that I took pictures of the process. The ‘comfort stop’ was in the back, past the snake-like mystery food hanging on a wire, to a clean tiled trough with a blue plastic water tap, a place where men could relieve themselves. But for those with more serious requirements – good luck! It is hard to imagine how a woman, without special training, could use this accommodation.
We set off again, climbing on the road that became even more cratered, into the first mountain range, the barrier between the regions of Hunan Guang Xi and Guang Dong toward Lianzhou, the gateway between north and south China.
Finally, close to the city it smoothed out and around 9:30 PM, and we pulled up to the Lianzhou International Hotel, a 14 story structure that had the look of a concrete wedding cake, with balconies protruding from one corner of the building. It was there and we were glad to see it. The accommodations were modern and comfortable.
The hotel was filled with Chinese and a few Europeans who looked as though they had just arrived from Mars. There, a group of identically dressed young girls bunched together under signs in Chinese heralding Lianzhou International Photoweek, and giggling at the sight of the strangers from the U.S., Europe, and Mars.
Wendy and I settled quickly settled into our room and found that we were across the hall from Jimmy Chu. We went to the main dining room on the 4th floor and found ourselves in the midst of a crowded room of Saturday night Chinese family revelers. There was a celebratory air; with children, grand parents, all ages it seemed. Some were eating, others drinking beer. It was a human version of the traffic jam on the way out of Guangzhou, as the young servers darted between noisy guests retrieving pots and plates and pouring skillfully. Nobody spoke English. When our waitress understood that we couldn’t talk to her, she quickly bridged the communications gap by writing the question in Chinese. Drink orders were somehow communicated with hand signals. What we got was pot of hot water. At least this gave me a chance to take my Tamiflu pill (I had previously spotted a picture in the New York Times of a worker spraying pigeons - guess where? – Lianzhou). Then, I cleverly noticed that our neighbors had little baskets filled with something that might be Dim Sung dumplings. I ordered and four baskets arrived. The first one I opened turned out to be a carefully prepared specialty, a pair of chicken feet. The next one was pork tripe, and the third was a faintly disturbing item that I ate out of desperation. It occurred to me that I might finally lose 15 pounds and slip into all those old clothes I still owned.
Then Jimmy Chu arrived with Michael Famighetti from Aperture. We commandeered Jimmy, moved to his table and renegotiated with the waitress. Fortunately, Jimmy loves chicken feet, so we retreated to fried rice and a few other more familiar staples. With Jimmy’s help, we soon found the dumplings that had eluded us. I happily ate them every day – eventually it resulted in a net gain of 7 pounds from my Chinese diet.
Then, Mr. Sushi Si arrived, the man who had made it possible to come to Lianzhou. We all went to Jimmy’s room after dinner where to our astonishment he produced a new Espresso machine fresh out of the box and he treated us all to an inky black cup of coffee with the consistency of Texas crude. This was sniffing Espresso, guaranteed to keep anyone awake for two weeks if you actually drank it. The after dinner gathering and espresso in Jimmy’s room became the first of many during our stay in Lianzhou and we were gradually able to piece together the story of Lianzhou International Photoweek and FotoFest’s invitation to China.
I had attended the Pingyao Festival in 2002, having heard about it from photography friends in Europe. Wendy was making a speech and receiving an award from Foto Fiesta in Medellin, Colombia at the time of my trip to Pingyao, so she couldn’t come. Like many festivals, the Chinese realized that Pingyao festival was an avenue to the outside world. With the aid of the French, culturally active and long involved in China, the Pingyao event did bring people from many parts of the world. Lianzhou was the second of two very successful festivals that had been organized by Mr. Sushi Si with the collaboration of the French organizer Alain Julian. We heard from other sources that the local government, taking note of the success of Pingyao, had decided take it over, dispensing with the services of both Mr. Si and Mr. Julian.
The Mayor of Lianzhou, Lin Wen Zhao, a young energetic, progressive man was looking for ways to push his city forward and find ways to provide visibility and new economic development for the city.
In the process of economic development discussions with the Guangzhou-based Hanron Media Co, the subject of photography came up. The Mayor became interested in sponsoring a photography event - thinking it would bring Chinese tourists and photographers to the city. He was personally involved with photography, being an amateur photographer himself. The Hanron Media Co was headed by a dynamic young event organizer Mr. Van Chan, and it turned out that Van Chan’s wife, Yuting Duan, had been an assistant to Sushi Si when he was running the Pingyao Festival. So when Van Chan became the event organizer of what became the Lianzhou International Photoweek, Yuting Duan became the Vice Director and Creative Director in charge of selecting the Chinese photographers and guests for the festival.
Mr. Sushi Si was asked to be a senior consultant for the new Lianzhou festival and he brought his French co-organizer Alain Julian back into the picture in the same role, choosing international artists and guests for the new festival. Julian also provided some funding and participation from the French government. Wendy and I were the sole U.S. curators invited by the Chinese
Mayor Lin Wen Zhao is the real catalyst and is determined to make Lianzhou International Photoweek the major draw for photographers in China and Chinese tourism – along with industrial development from outside China. He has put a lot of resources into the effort and Lianzhou International Photoweek had a number of large-scale surprises that went beyond anything we had experienced at the big international festivals around the world.
Twelve hundred school children were trained to help greet and guide tourists. Ten-story banners, signs huge and small advertised Lianzhou International Photoweek everywhere, some as far away as Guangzhou. The 50 foreign guests were put up at the best hotels and the opening was a festival in itself, with dragon dances, ethnic drum beating and massive public entertainment. The exhibitions were crowded with local citizens, most of whom had never seen a photo exhibit. They seemed seriously involved, along with the thousands of camera-wielding amateur photographers who had come from all over China. There had been so much publicity about the foreigners that it was difficult to walk from the Cultural Center, one of the exhibit sites, to the nearby hotel without being deluged with students who wanted autographs or to have their picture taken with us. We felt like rock stars.
There are formidable obstacles to overcome in remaking Lianzhou. Unlike the ancient, carefully preserved Han city of Pingyao (reconstructed by UNESCO), Lianzhou is a city of 530,000 people, caught between the 1950s and the future. It’s on the Lianjiang River, in the middle of good agricultural land but hardly the usual tourist destination. Lianzhou, like Pingyao, is a very old city, founded in 590 A.D. and the meeting point between two different ancient races, the Yao from the south and the Han from the north. It’s located on an ancient trade route on the way toYunan Province where goods from three provinces were collected and distributed.
Lianzhou is surrounded by surreal and beautiful mountains, the Huangchuan Three Gorges of the Lian Jiang River. However, it’s difficult to reach by modern standards, with a broken highway and no current rail or air service. Moreover, the beautiful scenery around Lianzhou tends to be obscured by a haze of coal dust extending from Hong Kong, along the Pearl River industrial belt to Guangzhou, and up through the mountains to Lianzhou. It never lifted the ten days that we were there.
The materials that we received at the hotel stated that the purpose of the festival was to create an event that had great influence in China (tourism), provide a positive image of Lianzhou (tourism), and finally to promote industrial development and investment in the city. Although the mayor’s efforts reportedly filled every hotel in the city, some of the more serious economic development had to do with the Mayor securing a German sausage factory that is moving to Lianzhou along with a proposed beer factory that would in the future supply yet another tourist attraction, a Chinese sausage/beer fest, in conjunction with Lianzhou International Photoweek. The Photoweek did appear to draw hundreds of Chinese and amateur and press photographers.
Wendy and I were able to gain special insights about Lianzhou, China, and photography in China with the help of the small group of Chinese who began to meet in Jimmy Chu’s room. In addition to Jimmy and Mr. Sushi Si, we were joined by Lei Gao, a brilliant and successful young businessman from Beijing reputed to be the best digital printer in China -- and a practicing photojournalist in Gaza. He was a close friend of Jimmy Chu’s. Professor Pok Chi Lau, a Chinese-American on sabbatical from The University of Kansas, joined the group. The Professor, originally from Hong Kong, was studying and photographing Chinese society. We called them, with mutual consent, the Gang of Four. We met at dinner almost every night and had long talks during the day. Our ad-hoc think tank discussed strategies that would accomplish goals with respect to FotoFest and the Chinese photography scene.
There is enormous creative energy among Chinese photographers that reflects the overall changes taking place in the country. There were 80 photography exhibits in Lianzhou; five of them were Lianzhou professionals, the rest were photographers from China, and abroad. There was heavy participation from Chinese photo news associations and other influential groups with 52 Senior Consultants, Academic Members and Curators, and Directors (government) listed in the catalogue. In spite of such large group, they didn’t seem to exert a negative influence on the exhibits. The number of interesting shows was high.
There were four main locations for shows. The Lianzhou Exhibition Center, the official cultural hall, also served as a venue for lectures and discussions. The Lianzhou Museum was across the street and there were two industrial buildings, the Shoe-Factory Exhibition Center and the Candy Factory Exhibition Center that had been renovated as galleries. Although the lighting in the Shoe and Candy factories was sometimes problematical, they served as excellent exhibition spaces, each with an ad-hoc cafe.
Wendy and I found new talents, both Chinese and non-Chinese and are considering several of them for exhibitions in the future at FotoFest. There is good conceptual and documentary photo work being done. Many photographers are addressing the social conditions and changes that are rapidly altering the face of China. China is abundant with contradictions and some of the work dealt with this phenomenon.
We were surprised to see exhibits about poverty, pollution and urban disruption. However, only a small trickle of this kind of work has made it out to the West, Wu Jialin is the star among those who are recording the racial complexity of old China.
The presence of the French, under the leadership of Alain Julian was strong, and the exhibitions that he provided were of high quality. Alain also brought the Head of Photography of the French Ministry of Culture to Lianzhou, as well as the Director of the Arles Rencontres, and others. The French Government, unlike the U.S. government, has been very active in spreading influence through art and cultural collaborations that create photography festivals in many countries around the world.
There are a large number of talented Chinese photographers who would like to have more exchange with the U.S. and Europe, and there are a growing number of curators and cultural entrepreneurs in the field interested in becoming involved in collaborations abroad. Like so many other things, the visual arts are going through an explosion of energy in China, and contact with the world outside China, particularly Europe and the U.S. are very important to people in China’s art worlds. The Chinese have a particular fascination with photography. Photography festivals in China have started in the last seven-eight years as vehicles for international exchange.
During the week in Lianzhou, Jimmy Chu, Professor Pok Chi Lau, and Lei Gao not only translated for us as we conducted interviews on local TV, and with magazine and newspapers, but also translated for younger Chinese photographers interested in knowing about FotoFest’s exhibition and Meeting Place portfolio review programs. The word quickly spread that FotoFest was interested in creative Chinese artists and curators. Wu Jialin, himself, has done much to deliver good news about FotoFest throughout the Chinese photography world. After his 1996 exhibit in Houston, he subsequently won the Leica Medal of Excellence, a Mother Jones Award in 1996, and had numerous shows in Germany, France, ICP in New York (with Marc Riboud), Moscow and Samara, Russia. Wendy was invited to select the work of 10 important contemporary artists for the prestigious publication Blink, published by Phaidon, and Wu was included.
Wu Jialin had an exhibit in Lianzhou and we were delighted to find he and his wife were staying in the same hotel. As the result of several long conversations, translated by Jimmy Chu and Lei Gao, it turned out that Wu, now 64, retired from his job as photographer for a small government photo agency in Kunming, is living on a tiny pension, and supporting sick relatives. Despite his international fame, he cannot buy good film and paper. To continue working, he is forced to use the cheapest materials available and they are not always reliable. He makes his own chemicals, and mixes them in the local water that is very alkaline. For his show at Lianzhou International Photoweek, for example, he was forced to produce a 35 print show with 50 sheets of photo paper that the organizers gave him – a situation not conducive for producing quality exhibition prints.
We were surprised to discover over the course of the week that FotoFest was well known by Chinese photographers due to our discovery of Wu Jialin in 1996. He has unfailingly described his experience with FotoFest in the Chinese press. The Chinese artists and curators told us that FotoFest was seen as a platform that provided the kind of international credibility that Chinese photo institutions and photographers were eager to get. We were credited as a place for discovery, a situation that is relevant to the needs of many Chinese photographers. This was further borne out by a surprise visit by the new director of the Pingyao festival, Wang Yue, who was visiting Lianzhou International Photoweek. Yue asked if a delegation from The China Pingyao International Photography Festival could attend FotoFest as observers at their own expense.
The day before we left, the Mayor of Lianzhou requested an interview with Wendy and me and arrived at the hotel with a TV crew. He asked about FotoFest and then to our astonishment said that he had learned about FotoFest’s international work and its openness to the world. Wendy and I were then invited to a special lunch, that included the French and later had our portraits taken by a Zhang Jianshe, the official photographer of Premier Wen Jiabao.
With the help of the Gang of Four, Wendy and I formulated the first step of a long-range plan that we all agreed could be a great benefit to the Chinese and the next step would be their presence at FotoFest 2006.
Neither Wendy nor I was prepared for depth and intensity of our experience in Lianzhou.
Fred Baldwin January 15, 2006