Category Archives: China

Portable and Precarious

In the latest issue of Radical History Review that focuses on Photography and Work, my extended photo-essay, “Portable and Precarious: Life and Spectacle in China’s Construction Camps,” explores the relations betwen mobile cinema and the portable life of migrant workers inside China’s construction compounds. “[W]hereas shipping containers are transported between seaports and other logistic centers that are mostly devoid of humans, dormitory containers are packed with migrant bodies to be disciplined, exploited, and recuperated. In short, far from being the abstract imagery of capital, these are palpable and yet hidden landscapes of extraction…”

 

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After Modernism

Let’s take a break from Cold War ruins and check out these abandoned factories from the post-socialist era.

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Here and Now

Oftentimes, after I’ve posted an image on social media, people would ask me about its location, even though they did not necessarily have the desire to go there. Somehow, I suspect that that curiorsity is driven by our desire to place a scene to a specific place and therefore insulate it from “our” world. But the truth is that these scenes are all coming from a place called the Planet Earth. My images of ruins and ruination may have rendered certain things more visible, but they are not about elsewhere.

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A Site of Struggles

Zhangjiakou (张家口) has always been a strategic military pass that separates the Mongolian Gobi Desert and the North China Plain. Not surprisingly, dynastic regimes in the past always paid special attention to the sections of the Great Wall passing through the region, rebuilding and upgrading them frequently. Then, during the Sino-Japanese War, the Civil War, and the Cold War, new fortresses and bunkers were added alongside with the ancient war infrastructures.

However, many of these battles were also fought on ideological grounds. There is nothing more illustrative than the Xiwanzi Catholic Church that has been sitting on the fault line of various colliding forces. Towards the end of the 19th century, for example, the church was sieged by the Boxer rebels and defended by the Allied forces. In the final days of the Civi War, the town also changed hand several times in a tug-of-war between the Communists and the Nationalists. Since the community had firmly aligned themselves with the Nationalists, a massacre took place after the Communist victory. The church was ultimately demolished in the Cultural Revolution when a Mao mural was erected nearby.

The struggle has continued since but not without some ironies. Recently, in anticipation of the hosting of the skiing competitions for the 2022 Winter Olympics, the church was rebuilt based on its original form as part of the town’s beautification plan. Meanwhile, the Mao mural, which had long been neglected just like the surrounding communities, was demolished. That really is too bad because another great leader would probably want to have his handsome LED image installed on that wall.

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The Last Picture Show

History was made (and buried) here. Without this secret uranium mine in Hunan Province, China would not be able to develope its first atomic and hydrogen bombs in the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of workers sacrificed their lives due to industrial accidents and radioactive illness over the decades. Yet, their stories were little known to the outside world. When I finally visited the site after months of delay and procrastination, construction workers were busy sealing off the movie theater of this former indusrial town. “My memory is being buried here today,” said a middle-aged woman holding some old tickets that she had just retrived from the ground. Her parents were military personnel sent to work at this Cold War facility in the late 1950s. Hearing all the stories, I too felt incredibly sad but also incredibly lucky. I would not be able to photograph this place at all had I arrived even just a few hours later. At the same time, had I visit the site just a day earlier, I probably would not be able to meet so many former personnel and collect their stories.  Once upon a time, the site was about racing to make history. Now, for me at least, it was about racing to save history.

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The Nature of Xiongan

My encounter with “nature” in a recent visit to the Xiongan New District, which has been slated to become China’s latest hightech zone.

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Some random street shots

It is often said that the keys to understanding the future (and the past) are all around us. Here are some random shots that I made when I was doing photographic work in Zhangjiakou recently. These street scenes remind me of China a few decades ago. Yet, even in these small places, there are telling signs about China’s past, present, and future.

The Peasant Artist (農民藝術家)

Mr. 孙柏山 was once a migrant worker because he hoped to earn enough money to fulfill his dream of going to art school. Years later, he came back to this poor village in Hebei province after earning only two yuan (25 cents). Nevertheless, along the way, he managed to acquire a few auction catalogues featuring Song Dynasty (960-1279) paintings. And that was how his painting career began. Drawing inspirations from those images, he became a prolific painter in the Song dynasty style, no less. This is Mr. Sun’s bedroom, kitchen, and studio.

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Ready to be great again!

In the realm of alternative facts, things are ready to be great again.

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Speculative Histories

In a photo-essay that seeks to bring “future-oriented fictions and urban-centred theories of China and India” together, historian Kavita Philip writes about my photos, along with those by Dipti Desai. “How might we think dialogically about the material geographies of China and India, while not overplaying the familiar comparative analytics of borders and populations, communism and democracy, economic and cultural difference? How might we think in the longue durée about Asian urban and rural change without being overly formalist about theories of development?” >>> READ MORE >>>

China India cover

Science of Giants: China and India in the Twentieth Century (Volume 1, 2016)

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