Well that was a bit more than I bargained for. I really should do a better job of thinking things through before opening my big yap.
My self-appointed mission? Take a camera and chronicle a 24 hour period encompassing parts of both the day before and the day of the Chinese Lunar New Year here in Liuzhou. It’s my hope that after seeing these 24 shots, one selected from each hour, you’ll have a bit of a feel for what it was like, both for me and the people I spent the day with, as we celebrated China’s biggest holiday.
The day dawned cold and rainy and deteriorated. The first leg of the quest was a bit difficult as most of that time was spent outside. I took any opportunity to go inside and fortunately for me, most folks most were more than happy to spend a little time with a big foreigner. Over the course of the day I was welcomed into 8 homes and 4 businesses. I would go in, chat for a while, ask some questions, let them ask me some questions and then move along, hopefully before becoming too much of a distraction. Everywhere I went people fed me and by the time I made it to my actual reunion dinner I was waddling like a duck.
Little did I know that taking the photos was going to be the easy part. I met so many wonderful people and saw so much that the process of choosing 24 images was a bear. That being said, the shots selected here are not necessarily the best technically or aesthetically the most appealing images from the day. In sticking to the one shot per each hour parameters I’d set for myself, I’ve attempted here to pull back the curtain and give you a peak at my adopted hometown. I didn’t shoot a lot of pretty landscapes or architecture in this feature. I focused on the people of the city, some I already knew and some I would be meeting for the first time. It’s the people, much more than cool buildings or beautiful scenery, that give each city it’s “vibe”. I hope that by the time you’re finished here, you’ll agree that we are all a lot more alike than we are different.
So here we go. Again, there are 24 photos here, each with a short back-story. If you don’t have the time to invest right now I hope you’ll come back and take a look when you’re free.
The first person I visited is a tailor who has a little shop in the alley just behind my apartment building. I sometimes have to leave for school around 6:30 in the morning and I’ve often seen him already at his sewing machine by then. He’s always been cordial, waving or nodding and saying good morning when I pass. What with the holiday, I wasn’t certain he’d be there, but sure enough, I rounded the corner and there he was. Zhou Shulin is 59 and has been a tailor all of his adult life. I took a lot of shots of Mr. Zhao during our short visit. He has a great face for photography but in the end I chose to use this image showing his gnarled, calloused knuckles at work on his sewing machine. Clearly, there’s a lot of mileage on those hands.
This group had gathered in front of a small store in an alley near Liuzhou’s main bus terminal. I mentioned the cold weather and you can see here these folks are still trying to shake off the morning chill. The lady on the right is the proprietor. Su Shanshan told me she stays open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. I was dubious but she was adamant. She shares a small upstairs living space with her husband (in the middle) and a teenage daughter. Their kitchen is in the back room behind the shop. They all take shifts manning the store and she has a sister who also helps out a few hours each week.
I’ve known Wang Zheng for more than two years. I figure her to be in her late 20’s and only learned on Saturday that she is married with a two-year old son. She works at the bakery where we buy bread. A culinary school graduate, she has been promoted twice and is now in charge of decorating all the cakes and pastries. It’s a big job, especially on this day. She’ll decorate 27 special orders before going home to prepare her own holiday dinner. Here, she’s applying small icing tigers to a cake bound for a family celebrating The Year of the Tiger.
I met Li Linli, 29, and Qin Rongliu, 24, as they were out sweeping the sidewalk and picking up rubbish along their designated route near the train station. It’s difficult work, all still done by hand with home-made brooms and large push-carts. They were scheduled to work until 4 New Year’s Eve and then have New Year’s Day off before returning to work on Monday. Initially camera shy, they quickly warmed up to my interpreter (more on her later) when she jokingly promised I would mention that both girls are single.
Sun Haiping was selling these little whistle/noise maker things near the large cloth and silk mall on Fie ‘e Lu. He was quite funny. He rubbed my belly twice (for luck he said) and added that he doesn’t often get to meet anyone bigger than he is. He’s right of course, as I’m much taller. He sells the whistles at a variable rate. On this day the rate was high and he was optimistically hoping for a good haul.
This old fella’ was one of my favorites of the day. Mr. Wang owns a candy stand in the mall off Fie ‘e Lu and was understandably in good spirits when we met. New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day both fell on the 14th this year and he was already having a banner day. Actually, I didn’t really get to find out very much about Mr. Wang, as he was too busy peppering us with questions about me. He told me he loves America and asked why I didn’t have blue eyes. It’s actually a fairly common question. I did learn he’s a retired factory worker and had owned this shop for 12 years. Lao Wang wouldn’t let us leave without taking two huge bags of candy. First score of the day!
I decided to head to the north side of the river and as we were leaving, spotted 7 year old Deng Yan having noodles at a sidewalk cafe with her mother. Xiao Deng was enjoying the local delicacy, Luosifen. Luosifen is a rice noodle soup with a somewhat spicy base that’s made of snails. I’ve never actually come across any snails in the few times I’ve had the dish but it does have a “snaily” taste. There are a host of other ingredients and no two places seem to make it in exactly the same way. There has been a healthy dose of garlic in every bowl I’ve sampled so far and tofu is also a key. I asked little miss Deng’s mother if the spicy soup wasn’t too hot for a little girl but I think it didn’t translate well. I got that cocked head – furrowed brow thing, but she kept smiling so I wouldn’t lose face.
This is another guy I’ve know for a while. I’ve always called him Ozzie but learned his name is actually Az Zi Mai Ti. Originally from Xinjiang Province, he’s been working the streets of Liuzhou since he was a teenager. He has a barbecue stand on rollers and does a killer cumin lamb kebab. A strict muslim, Ozzie doesn’t prepare pork. He’s been showing his cousin Ba La Ti (right) the ropes for a few months. They constantly play a cat and mouse game with the local beat police, quickly packing up and moving out of sight around the nearest corner, continuing to cook his lamb and beef kebabs even while rolling to the next location. Lunch was on Ozzie today. Free score number two…
Another of my favorites, please allow me to introduce Faust. I don’t think we ever even asked him his Chinese name. We didn’t need to. Faust is a 17 year old who attends Number Two High School and his English is beyond impressive. He chased us down after seeing us from across the street and once he caught up to us he began to talk a blue streak. He wanted to know everything about me but was clearly distracted. He was wearing the pained expression of someone who feels they are about to miss an opportunity. When pressed, he admitted he should have already been home, as his mother had sent him out on an errand to pick up yuan xiao dumplings for New Year’s dinner. He was so excited to talk to me that he was taking the calculated risk of making mom angry! He went to great lengths trying to explain the tradition of eating yuan xiao dumplings and in the end insisted I take the dumplings. When he left us he was racing back the way he had come, I’m sure to return to the store for a second bag of dumplings. Free score number three…
Still walking north down Ba Yi Lu, we next met Ms. Wei. Initially, she was very aggressively trying to get me to buy something from her small street-side snack shop. She wouldn’t give her full name and refused to let me take any photos of her face but she did give us this candy, qui hua zi. It’s something like peanut brittle, maybe a bit softer and made with sunflower seeds and this very sweet tasting molasses kind of stuff. Ms. Wei wasn’t the only person to not let me take photos or give a name. I’ve learned it’s nothing personal. Many Chinese, especially those of a certain generation, are suspicious of anyone with a camera. I’ve even had people ask me if I worked for the government! Seriously, I have. Free score number four…
It was getting late in the day and I needed to make a move toward the eastern part of the city, where I would have traditional nian ye fan (reunion) dinner with my adoptive family, the Zhao’s. Before we could hail a cab I saw a nong tang (alley) that looked like it might be worth exploring. The old alleys are haphazard maze-like communities and fully self-supportive. I always seem to meet some interesting characters whenever I visit one. Walking into the alley we could see the pavement already covered with firecracker residue and hadn’t taken more than a few steps when another barrage exploded about 25 yards in front of us. Yes, the Chinese love their fireworks. I’d be cool with it if it was, you know, like one day a year. It’s not.
All through the nong tong we came across these ancestral shrines. During The Lunar New Year celebration, families put together a very neatly displayed feast including all kinds of fruit and favorite foods laid out for their deceased ancestors. The amount of food can be rather overwhelming. There is usually an alter of burning candles and incense as well. By the time we made our way to the other side of the neighborhood, we had been invited into 5 homes. I was fed 3 times, given a packet of incense AND a huge roll of firecrackers. It’s a good thing we were headed to dinner because by then I had no more room in my rather large camera bag. Free scores five – eight…
It felt a little strange walking into laoshi (teacher) Zhao’s pristine, almost sterile apartment for dinner. The juxtaposition between the hardscrabble living conditions I’d just seen in the nong tang and the new luxury hi-rise was jarring. I found myself wondering if I would be capable of living in those spartan conditions day in and day out. I looked around at the new digs and at my comfortable Chinese friends, wondering what they had done differently to achieve such a level of success. Definitely something to explore another time. 8 year old Zong Haopu has never wanted for anything. He’s a good kid and out of respect calls me bo bo (uncle). Entering his grandparents apartment, he bypassed everyone and made his way directly to the office to christen the internet connection. I inadvertently busted him when I showed this shot to his dad.
It’s always a challenge to effectively communicate with the older members of the family. My Chinese improves all the time and everyone is very patient with me, but still, it can be a struggle. Fortunately all the women speak fairly decent English and of course the kids do too. It doesn’t matter really, I am accepted and treated like a respected elder. I am elder, so it’s not a stretch. From my friends to you and yours, Xin Nian Hao – Happy New Year – 新 年 好!
One more tradition before sitting down to dinner. Mr. Zhao hands out the hang bao (red envelopes) containing lucky money for the children. In this household anyway, it’s kind of similar to a Christmas present, only cash. Thinking back on it, I can remember a few Christmas presents I would have rather just had the cash. The red color of the envelope symbolizes good luck and is supposed to ward off evil spirits. The firecrackers are also supposed to scare off evil spirits. There should be no evil sprits in all of China today.
After dinner, the family settled in for a night in front of the new HDTV to watch the annual CCTV Spring Festival Extravaganza. It’s the single most watched television show in China, annually drawing huge numbers (and ad revenue) for CCTV. Knowing I would be shooting this project, I had made other plans. Lily and I headed to the Xin Yi Bao Bar to ring in the New Year with a few hundred of our closest friends. As was the case last year, I was the only laowai (foreigner) on the premises, which in itself is often enough to grant one temporary celebrity status. Throw in a camera and unlimited access to every part of the building and I soon became part of the show. Seriously, I think every comedian who hit the stage took a shot at me. This trio was the first act, and includes a couple of my friends, Quan, on the left and a newly bald Blue, on the right.
The New Year’s show at Xin Yi Bao is a little like a Vegas variety show. Of course the talent level isn’t the same and the production and lights are second rate but these kids are mini pop-stars here in Liuzhou. The audience gets involved early and often. This guy has just popped a balloon hoping to win a case of beer. He won the beer and his table went crazy. I mean like “Momma we just won the lottery!”, crazy. It was funnier than much of the show.
There was a magician, a number of comedy skits, a bevy of scantily clad dancing girls, a pretty good DJ and this girl. An acrobat, she did a variety of tricks while suspended on two ribbon-like pieces of fabric. She wasn’t hooked onto anything, using only her hands and feet to wrap the cloth around her limbs she hung in a variety of positions as high twenty feet in the air.
It was a fabulous night and I had a blast interacting with both the performers and the revelers. I find most Chinese have an uncanny ability to live in the moment and that is especially true at moments like these. I learned a valuable lesson last year. You see, EVERYONE wants to toast the foreigner. After welcoming in The Year of the Ox in 2009, I paid the price the next morning. This year I took an empty baiju (hard rice liquor) bottle from old man Zhao and filed it with water. During the course of the evening I would occasionally make a big show of toasting everyone. As it alway does, 12 o’clock eventually rolled around and Xin Yi Bao erupted. Lesson learned, small pieces of metal confetti are not good for your camera.
So, with The Year of the Tiger officially underway, it was time to finish up the final 6 hours. It had all been pretty easy so far but while we were inside having dinner and then later watching the show the temperature had fallen to around 40 F. The earlier spit of a rain had become a steady drizzle and I was also tired, feeling my age. I didn’t know it at the time but I was going to run into a bit of luck over the remaining few hours. Everyone was headed home by then and that was bad for me. I wasn’t going to be walking through any alleys to see if someone wanted to have their portrait taken! I was hoping I would find enough to shoot right around the house and be able to dash in to warm up and dry off. As we were headed home we came upon this impromptu group of vendors set up just on the south side of McDonalds selling barbecue and assorted noodle dishes. Despite the rain and cold and late hour, they were doing a much better business than Micky D’s.
We headed across the river and back to the house. I went in, drank some hot cocoa and downloaded a batch of photos before bundling up to head back outside. I was hoping upon hope that I would find something nearby to satisfy the shot for the 2 AM hour. I walked out, nodded hello to the security guard, turned left and… viola! This was right on the corner in front of my apartment building.
Two drunk drivers and five drunk passengers, all heatedly, slurringly, trying to blame the other guy. Luckily nobody was seriously injured. I figured there was no way at that hour I was going to find anything more interesting to shoot. Satisfied I had a half-way clear shot I went back upstairs, sat down on the sofa, and… promptly went to sleep. About 35 minutes later another round of fireworks/crackers/explosions woke me up. I hadn’t even bothered to take off my coat so I got up, grabbed the umbrella and my bag and headed out, again hoping to find something nearby that might have some relevance. I turned north on Gu Bu Jie and only had to walk about a block where I found this cardboard tiger cutout suspended in front of a shoe store. The light from the streetlamp illuminated the guy well enough to shoot and there was some color across the street from another storefront. Good enough. The camera was already getting wet and it was too cold to go hunting for something better and I was at most five minutes away from my bed.
On the way back I noticed a big honkin’ red New Year’s display in the Nan Cheng Department Store window. I was tempted to cheat, shoot the window display then and there and call it good but figured since I had come this far I might as well finish proper. Entering the relative warmth of the apartment I actually caught a bit of a second wind. I sat down and for the first time began to browse through the days haul. It was then that I realized selecting the 24 images to be included in this piece was going to be tough. I started weeding through rejects and soon lost track of time. It was almost 4:30 when I headed back down to to shoot the window display. When I came around the final corner this guy was just standing there looking at the display. Nobody else was in sight. This is a motorcycle courier and these guys are everywhere in Liuzhou. He might be a delivery guy or he may offer taxi service, so yeah, nothing unusual at all. Except that it was 4:35 in the morning… on New Years Day. I had been lucky to catch the car accident and again to even notice the cardboard tiger but this guy, with his pink helmet and the red-lit backdrop, was too good to be true. I raised the camera, released the shutter and… nearly scared both of us to death. He obviously hadn’t heard me walk up but clearly heard the camera click from just behind him. He let out a yelp and I in-turn screamed like a little girl. Neither of us said anything else. He quickly scrambled onto his bike and I sheepishly did a u-turn for home, laughing at the absurdity of what had just happened. You KNOW this guy has been telling people about the crazy laowai with a camera at Nan Cheng at 4:30 in the morning on New Year’s Day.
The last shot was the most difficult. I really didn’t want to go back out and had no confidence I would find anything to shoot. I once again thought about bagging it for the final shot but managed to get myself together and head back downstairs. I was right. I walked around for 30 minutes trying to “see” something before giving up and walking back toward the apartment. By this time the security guard stationed at my front door had seen me going in and out with the camera for hours. I’m sure he must have been wondering what I was up to but he never said a word. This was the final exposure of the night.
Special thanks to Song Lujia, who lugged around a reflector, two umbrellas and an increasingly heavy camera bag all while providing excellent translation and comic relief for the first 12 hours. I used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and a 24 – 70mm f/2.8L USM. I went through 2 batteries, emptied my 16GB memory card twice, and the shutter fired 1,008 times. I know a lot of the outside shots are dark and gray. I could have easily brightened them up in Lightroom but chose not to, hoping to perhaps capture the gloomy feeling of the day and how the joy of the holiday played out against the less than perfect backdrop.
Obviously I have many more photos to process. I’m thinking maybe I’ll feature a few of the people I met more in-depth. Young Faust has texted me five times in the last three days. Perhaps I’ll introduce some other folks as well. For now, this was long enough. If you managed to make it this far I appreciate it. No rest for the weary. The Spring Festival is jut beginning and tonight I’l try and get some of the fireworks display. I’ll be posting much more over the next two weeks, culminating with The Lantern Festival.
Again, Happy New Year from all your friends in Liuzhou.