Songs to the Siren

Han Chao, '1+(-1) Miracle #6' (2013)

Han Chao, ‘1+(-1) Miracle #6′ (2013)

 

 

 

 

 

 

YAMDROK LAKE, literally the ‘Green Jade Lake on the Pasture’, lies just over 100 km southwest of Lhasa on the southern Tibetan Plateau. At 70 km long it is the country’s fourth largest and even today its depths are unknown, fed each spring and summer by melt waters from the mountain ranges that surround it on three sides. On such mornings its surface has the appearance of blue-green glass – an almost miraculous mirror of mountains and sky. Yet by late afternoon it can be transformed into a frenzy of crashing white horses, whipped up by one of the many storms that appear without warning across the mountaintops. It is for this treacherous beauty that it is known not only as one of Tibet’s most holy lakes but also as one of its most wrathful, and since at least the eighth century it has drawn footsore pilgrims over the high passes from all over Tibet, as well as Nepal, India and Central Asia, seeking blessing and enlightenment.

“I learned from a friend that Tibet was a sacred place,” says the photographer Han Chao, who travelled to Yamdrok Lake in 2011. “I was in a bad way then, so I decided to drop everything and go. On the way I met many people – people who’d lost their jobs, or who’d had their hearts broken, or who just felt lost. I was a synthesis of all these kinds of people, so how could I not go?”

Han Chao, '1+(-1) Miracle 14' (2013)

Han Chao, ‘1+(-1) Miracle #14′ (2013)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Han originally planned to spend two years living in Tibet but cut short his trip after only five months when he was invited to take part in an exhibition in Italy. Nevertheless, the works he made during this time mark a dramatic transformation in his creative output. Images such as Miracle #14 (2013), which is based on a photograph taken at Yamdrok Lake, is emblematic of this change and takes the form of a wide panorama in which a crenellated line of distant mountains divides stormy skies from low scrubby hills and the turquoise waters of Yamdrok below. The image, however, is partly an illusion, and a closer look reveals it is in fact composed of right-and-left mirror images of the same shot. The viewer is therefore presented with an invented scene suggestive of dramatic wildness yet composed in perfect symmetry.

Han Chao, '1+(-1) Miracle 16' (2013)

Han Chao, ‘1+(-1) Miracle #16′ (2013)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Further works such as Miracle #16 (2013) make this technique more apparent where the natural fall of the landscape highlights the artist’s manipulation of the original photograph. Here, mirror images of low hills create a shallow valley along which the viewer’s eye is led to the deep green triangle of the lake at the centre of the picture. Above this boil black apocalyptic storm clouds. The artist’s configuration of identical images amplifies the natural drama of the scene. In so doing the tension between light and dark, colours and textures, and the formal arrangement of vertical and horizontal space can be read not only as a metaphor for the opposing forces of harmony and chaos, but also for the artist’s struggle with his own sense of identity.

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HAN CHAO 韩超 was born in 1982 in Liaoning province in northeast China and studied Photography at Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang (2005-2009). As a student he had begun to build his profile with a collection of autobiographical images which describe his experiences on the local gay scene. But it was his move to Beijing in 2009 that reinforced his conviction to pursue art seriously.

Han Chao, 'Yan Yan on my bed, Shenyang' (2007)

Han Chao, ‘Yan Yan on my bed, Shenyang’ (2007)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His photography of this period reflects the exuberance of his new life in the capital. In its guerilla style and candid tone it has much in common with that of other gay artists in China such as 223 and Ren Hang and those focused on the city’s indie and underground club scene. The figure that often emerges from media articles and interviews of the time is of a thrill-seeking provocateur. At their best, however, his pictures achieve a far more complex psychological depth that reflects a persistent questioning of his experience of difference and “otherness”. “Being gay [in China] enabled me to better explore the conflict between the individual and society and the complexity of fate,” he says.

Han Chao, 'Xioaji's face that afternoon' (2009)

Han Chao, ‘Xioaji’s face that afternoon’ (2009)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This conflict is further suggested by Han’s growing interest in Buddhist and Christian teaching and suggests a young man searching for answers. It is a struggle repeatedly played out in his photography and is nowhere better seen than in the portrait Xiaoji’s face that afternoon (2009), an image brittle with spiritual ambivalence. The work was included in his first series of photography entitled Rhapsody for my wretched universe (2010), which was widely exhibited at photo festivals in China.

For Han this ongoing process reached a climax in 2012 with the breakdown of a long-term relationship. It is a period that marks the closest convergence between Han’s life and art. In the series’ God gave the first revelation (2011), shown in 2012 at the East Asia Museum in Stockholm, and Eight and Half (2012), later published in the book Dorian’s Album (88Books, Canada), can be seen a gradual narrowing of Han’s focus as his work converges in ever tighter orbits on the two individuals at the centre of the relationship. “I met Dorian and stayed two and a half years with him and experienced the change from strangeness to intimacy, and from shyness to violence,” says Han. “People change. Life is changeable.”

Han Chao, 'The last photo of me and Dorian' (2011) (Dorian on right)

Han Chao, ‘The last photo of me and Dorian’ (2011) (Dorian on right)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The end of the affair marked a decisive shift in the direction of Han’s art. Within this turmoil lay the genesis of his Tibet works and in them can be felt something like a giant exhalation as the emotional claustrophobia of Beijing gives way to a dramatic celebration of light and space.

This series, entitled Nomad Soul (2013), is Han’s first use of abstraction and in it can once again be felt the thrill of experimentation and of new possibilities. The presence of brooding storm clouds in many images suggests an ongoing struggle but the overall tone is revelatory. In pictures such as 1+(-1) Miracle #11 (2013) the mirror image of land and water is shifted through 90 degrees and takes the form of a radiant golden column bordered with emerald. In another of his vertical works, entitled 1+(-1) Miracle #13 (2013), the mirror image of stony scrub land completely fills the picture plane. Tiny details of rocks and blades of grass radiate out from the central axis of the piece to create a dense abstract pattern and give the impression of a fabulously jeweled and intricate religious icon – a symbol, perhaps, of redemption and renewal.

Han Chao, '1+(-1) Miracle 11' (2013)

Han Chao, ‘1+(-1) Miracle 11′ (2013)

Han Chao, '1+(-1) Miracle 13' (2013)

Han Chao, ‘1+(-1) Miracle 13′ (2013)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Han Chao’s photography has been widely shown in China and Europe including at the exhibitions God gave the first revelation (2013) at the Museum of World Cultures in Gothenburg, Sweden, Eight and half — Exhibition of 10 Contemporary Photographers (2012) in Prato, Italy, and Boys’ World (2011) at Zen Photo Gallery in Beijing and Tokyo. His work has been presented at photo festivals including the 7th Lianzhou International Photography Festival (2011), the Hong Kong International Photography Festival (2010) and the Pingyao International Photography Festival (2009). In 2011 his series Take care of yourself tonight (2011), was nominated for the Third Hou Dengke Documentary Photography Award, a non-government award set up to highlight contemporary society in China. In 2009 he was named Young Photographer of the Year by Xitek online photography magazine in China. He now lives in Shanghai.

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To see more images from this series download the e-catalogue or visit the 3030PRESS website. All images are copyright the artist and must not be reproduced without consent. For more info email 3030PRESS at info@3030press.com.

 

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Photo Shanghai and SHContemporary to merge in 2015?

SHContemporary 2014 - not many takers.

SHContemporary 2014 – not many takers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s to be done with SHContemporary?

Back in 2007 when the fair was first launched there was some pretty high talk: look out Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo, SHContemporary will put Shanghai at the centre of Asia’s art market.

Sadly it’s not really turned out that way. After a fairly strong first couple of years the fair has gradually faded, something not helped by haphazard organization and the strong appeal of Art Basel Hong Kong, which has lured away many of the big-hitting galleries.

In an apparent attempt to halt the slide this year SHContemporary was handed over to Bologna Fiere, an Italian events company better known for healthcare and auto expositions. What better than a little Italian chic to add glamour to a waning star?

The new organisers certainly seemed to have big ambitions. The four-day schedule, which began last Wednesday, included a long list of satellite events, exhibitions, talks and workshops with partner museums and galleries all over the city. Moreover, with the roaring success of Photo Shanghai just the week before SHContemporary could trade on plenty of art buzz. So how come the opening night was such a squib?

A chat with a colleague at China Daily was revealing. According to her source all participating galleries were told in the run up to the opening they could not sell works at the event, which sounded pretty odd for an art fair. A closer look at the promo posters and leaflets was telling, where the official description was of an ‘International Contemporary Art Exhibition’. No mention of art fair — although this didn’t deter all galleries from adding prices to their labels.

"Exhibition" -- not fair.

“Exhibition” — not fair

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A nifty use of the price gun.

A nifty use of the price gun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most disappointing, however, was the number of galleries that didn’t turn up on the night. Perhaps as many as a quarter of exhibitor booths were empty but for a lonely scatter of tables and fold-out chairs. So where was all the art?

Picture 072

 

Picture 037

The toughest sell

The reaons for both could well lie with China’s tangled and sometimes lethargic bureaucracy. Had the organizers secured all the necessary permits and licenses? How many artworks, I wondered, were still languishing in customs warehouses on the opening night? Could Bologna Fiere have underestimated the intricacies of doing business in China? They wouldn’t be the first.

It may also be that the organiser’s ambitions worked against them. Unlike Photo Shanghai, which was concentrated in the mail hall and adjacent balconies, SHCont sprawled throughout most of the exhibition building. Providing more space to roam may not be a bad idea in theory but the effect was to spread the opening night crowd thinly. The result, as one collector said, was that parts of the event felt abandoned. Funereal was another comment. Certainly there was not the excited, buzzy feel of Photo Shanghai.

Perplexingly, the main hall contained virtually no art at all and at the grand opening was given over to a somewhat echoey cocktail party. Another contrast with Photo Shanghai was the total lack of champagne, which even by SHContemporary standards must mark some kind of new low.

PhotoShanghai opening night.

PhotoShanghai opening night

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PhotoSHContemporary opening night — spot the difference

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happily the Shanghai continent made a decent showing. ShanghART, which supports most of the art fairs in the city, self-declared or not, dedicated its space to the spare ink paintings of Wu Yiming.

Picture 113

At ShanghART

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture 115

Wu Yiming, ‘Mountain 3′ (2011)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture 114

Wu Yiming, ‘Four Trees’ (2011)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wu Yiming, 'Bonsai 5' (2014)

Wu Yiming, ‘Bonsai 5 (2014)

 

M97 again showed Wang Ningde’s 3-D photos, as it’d done the previous week at Photo Shanghai. But more interesting for me were the elegant black-and-white abstract exposures by Adou. The artist has come a long way since he won Best Newcomer at the Three Shadows Photography Awards in 2008 with his series of atmospheric portraits of the Yi ethnic minority from Yunnan province in southern China, entitled Samalada. Wang Xieda’s intricate steel and rice-paper mobiles at James Cohan were also worth lingering over.

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Abstract exposures by Adou at M97

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Picture 112

Wang Xieda’s steel-and-rice paper mobiles at James Cohan

 

Picture 111

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps not surprisingly I’ve heard that Bologna Fiere will not be returning next year. Instead, well-placed sources report that in 2015 the entire event will be folded into Photo Shanghai and the two fairs will be presented simultaneously by one of China’s largest ‘privately’ owned publishing groups. This should certainly clear up a lot of bureaucratic botheration. Whether or not it will persuade the gallery crowd to give Shanghai another chance is less certain.

Picture 042

Get me outa here!

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Photo Shanghai

Photo Shanghai (5-7 September)

Photo Shanghai (5-7 September)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shanghai’s first photo fair, Photo Shanghai, was launched last night downtown at the Shanghai Exhibition Centre. More than 40 galleries from China and overseas turned out in their evening best to show a wide range of works, from classic images by some of photography’s best-known names to pieces by lesser-known talent from mainland China. The result was a little bit of something for just about everyone, although not surprisingly the works stuck closely to the safe side of the street. Despite a scatter of images by Nobuyoshi Araki, Sakiko Nomura and China’s own bad boy photographer Ren Hang, there was barely a nipple out of place. The event may describe itself as “the chic and vibrant art capital of Shanghai” but it’s also fairly restrained and just a little prudish. It’ll be interesting to see if Shanghai’s headline international art fair, SHContemporary, which opens next week, will tow a similarly conservative line. Photo Shanghai is co-organized by the World Photography Organisation based in London. The Fair Director is Alexander Montague-Sparey who was previously Specialist Head of Photography at Christie’s London. The event continues until Sunday 7 September.

Inside Shanghai Exhibition Centre

Inside Shanghai Exhibition Centre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking the halls on the upper level

Walking the halls on the upper level

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some well known faces, such as Brian Duffy's "Aladdin Sane" portrait of David Bowie from  1973 presented Camera Work from Berlin.

Some well known faces, such as Brian Duffy’s “Aladdin Sane” portrait of David Bowie from 1973 presented at Camera Work from Berlin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Richard Avedon's "Marella Agnelli, New York, December 1953", also at Camera Work.

And Richard Avedon’s “Marella Agnelli, New York, December 1953″, also at Camera Work.

 

To emerging Chinese talent such as Zhu Mo

To emerging Chinese talent such as Zhu Mo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And a sanitized and unrepresentative selection by Ren Hang

And a sanitized and unrepresentative selection by Ren Hang

Ren Hang, Untitled

Ren Hang, Untitled

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mu Ge at Chambers Fine Arts

Taca Sui at Chambers Fine Art

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Selections from Zhang Kechun's 'Yellow River' (left) and Zhang Jin's "Another Season"w , which won "Best Newcomer" award at the Three Shadows Photography Awards in 2013... and turned up for sale at the Three Shadows booth.

Selections by Liu Zheng (right), from Zhang Kechun’s “Yellow River” series (middle) and Zhang Jin’s “Another Season” (Right), which won the artist “Best Newcomer” at the Three Shadows Photography Awards in 2013… and turned up for sale at the Three Shadows booth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also a good opportunity to rubber neck Shanghai's glam crowd

Also a good opportunity to rubber neck at Shanghai’s glam crowd…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

...Which was out in strength.

…which was out in strength.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More of the glam crowd.

More of the glam crowd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And to have one's own photo taken with The Art

And a bit more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But there were plenty there for the art.

But there were plenty there for the art.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture 133

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture 109

 

 

 

 

 

 

And some cerious connoiseurs

And some serious connoiseurs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But many seemed just happy to be along for the fun

But many just seemed happy to be along for the ride.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture 068

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where's Waldo?

Where’s Waldo?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not much ahppening at 'Tank' magazine.

Not much happening at ‘Tank’ magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Personal favourites included Li Lang's "The Yi People No. 47" at A Thousand Plateaus Art Space from Chengdu.

Personal favourites included Li Lang’s “The Yi People No. 47″ at A Thousand Plateaus Art Space from Chengdu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And selections by Sakiko Nomura at Amanasalto from Tokyo

And selections by Sakiko Nomura at Amanasalto from Tokyo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And who doesn't like a bit of Araki, however demure

And who doesn’t like a bit of Araki, however demure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But it was a long evening

But it was a long evening

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking a break.

Taking a break.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I'll be back next year.

It’d be good to see it return next year.

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NightSites

When Fears Were Fictions- key visual2

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN ISAAC ASIMOV‘s classic short story Nightfall (1941) a distant civilization lives on a world of perpetual daylight, illuminated on all sides by six suns. Its citizens have never known darkness, yet predictions of a rare solar eclipse, and with it a few hours of nighttime, cause panic. The people have never known the stars or the infinite blackness of the universe and are so traumatized that society becomes paralyzed by superstition and weird religions before finally collapsing in anarchy and madness. The story was first published as the Second World War in Europe gathered pace, but for the Shanghai-based photographer Xiong Xiaomo (熊小默), Asimov’s vision of a civilization in crisis today seems more prescient than ever and provides the key inspiration for his series of night-time cityscapes When Fears Were Fictions (2009-2010).

Begun in 2008, the series focuses on Shanghai and Beijing as emblematic of the cycles of destruction and renewal that have transformed the character of urban life in China. His subjects are often down-at-heel housing blocks, decaying docklands and shabby industrial zones, beyond which can be seen the dazzling lights of vast construction sites and ultra-modern tower blocks. The sense of urgent transformation is magnified where long exposure times give dramatic intensity to nocturnal colours and an exaggerated impression of scale. This intensity is heightened by the works’ powerful geometry which in some cases lends the works a kind of abstraction. The result is a series of cityscapes that tremor with relentless energy and moral uncertainty.

When Fears Were Fictions #3 (Beijing) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo

When Fears Were Fictions #3 (Beijing) (2009) Xiong Xiaomo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Fears Were Fictions #1 (Beijing) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo

When Fears Were Fictions #1 (Beijing) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Xiong Xiaomo was born in 1982 in Shanghai and attended the Publication College of Shanghai University of Science and Technology. From 2006 to 2010 he was chief editor of youth culture magazine M-Zone and in 2012 he was appointed founding editor-in-chief of iWeekly online magazine, which he conceived and set up for Modern Media, China’s largest privately-owned publishing group.

Xiong’s photography has been profiled in magazines including GQ China, Surface (China edition) and The Outlook magazine and has been presented in exhibitions including 1981 (2007) at ZhengDa Gallery, Shanghai; Campfire – Young Chinese Photography (2009) at No Space Gallery, Ningbo; the Lianzhou International Photography Festival 2010, and Tora, Tora, Tora – Cutting-Edge Chinese Photography, curated by the multimedia artist Zhao Zhao and included at the 2010 Caochangdi PhotoSpring festival in Beijing. In 2010 he received an Honorable Mention at the Epson Color Imaging Competition in Shanghai. His work is featured in the book Here Comes the Night (Thiaps, 2010).

 

CONVERSATION

HardPressed: Where does the title, When Fears Were Fictions, come from?

Xiong Xiaomo: I was obsessed with sci-fi writing during my teenage years. I was looking not just for imaginative mirages but also for a sense of the exotic or ‘alien’ in the present world. Asimov’s Nightfall, a novel about how an advanced civilization that has never experienced sunset collapses in one night because of its fear of the unknown darkness, is an important influence, but it’s also a mirror of my own fears. It’s awkward to admit nyctophobia and making this series was a way to confront this. So, the title is about my own fears but it could also be an alternative title for that novel.

HP: What inspired you to start this series?

XXM: My father used to work for a small library and he would bring home ‘retired’ books. We had no TV and I read through most of his collection, including several photo books. I was completely amazed by Brassaï‘s Paris de Nuit and its mystery and beauty inspired me to explore the cityscapes around me in Shanghai, even though I couldn’t then afford a camera. When finally I could, I started to collect different models and to experiment with the different effects they produced. Around 2007 I shifted from black-and-white to colour film, but the city has always been a constant theme.

When Fears Were Fictions #26 (Shanghai) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo

When Fears Were Fictions #26 (Shanghai) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Fears Were Fictions #10 (Beijing) (2008), Xiong Xiaomo

When Fears Were Fictions #10 (Beijing) (2008), Xiong Xiaomo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HP: What were you looking for when you made these pictures?

XXM: I tried to capture Chinese cityscapes in the dead of night with very low light-and-dark contrast. Technically this helps to produce surreal atmospheres. One thing was very important for me; I wanted the scenes to be as anonymous as possible. Documentation was not my purpose. I was looking for contradictions between prosperity and desolation, collectiveness and solitude, the known and unknown. These images could be any city in China. They are familiar but unreal.

HP: Is the city a force for good or bad?

XXM: I was born and raised in one of the world’s biggest cities and have witnessed the greatest process of urbanization in the history of mankind. The cycle of creation and annihilation, as skylines go up and down, is both awe inspiring and horrifying. It’s not about good or bad, but [the city] represents a paradox for our civilization. It is mankind’s greatest creation but also the source of its ultimate destruction. I’m afraid I am not an optimist for humanity, but I feel lucky to have been born in this generation and to be a witness to what is happening now.

When Fears Were Fictions #29 (Shanghai) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo

When Fears Were Fictions #29 (Shanghai) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HP: Can photography be more than just a mechanical record of time and place?

XXM: Conventional theories encourage photographers to be as objective as possible. This is still a popular theory in China. But subject matter is a choice, framing is a choice and focusing is a choice. The photographer is not a passive observer. I certainly hope my works record something beyond time and space. By using different technologies and different techniques these works show views which do not exist. The colour of the sky and the land, the over-bright nights, the locations wiped of people are fictional. It’s a series of urbanscapes that can never exist in reality.

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This article is adapted from the e-catalogue essay Nocturne, published by 3030Press to accompany the collection of works When Fears Were Fictions, available online at 3030Press.com. The e-catalogue can be downloaded here.

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A Few Hours in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Botoanical & Zoological Gardens

Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens

A two-minute walk up the hill from Central, past St. John’s Cathedral and the US Consulate is the Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens – the most soothing place downtown to while away a couple of hours between trains (or flights), or any other time.

Public Gardens early 20th century, incl. original fountain (now moved to the Protestant Cemetery in Happy Valley

Public Gardens, early 20th century, including original fountain (now moved to the Protestant Cemetery in Happy Valley)

The public gardens were opened in 1871 and today, although the trees are much bigger and the fountain has been updated a couple of times, it’s not much changed. The mammals section and aviaries were added in 1975.

George V still presides

George V presides

My favourite bits include the avenue of Gum Trees which is an original feature and the huge twisting Flame Trees which line the path near the entrance on Upper Albert Road. Just nearby is a mini Bamboo Garden which includes more than 20 different varieties found in the territory. The Magnolia Garden is spectacular in spring and summer but rather bare during winter.

Avenue of Gum Trees, now & then

Avenue of Gum Trees, now & then

Flame Trees near the gate on Upper Albert Road

Flame Trees near the gate on Upper Albert Road

Bamboo Garden

Bamboo Garden

On the terrace above is a mini garden of ornamental trees. My favourite is the Indian Almond Tree, which is especially dramatic in autumn and winter when its leaves turn a brilliant red. Another in my top ten is the Japanese Pagoda Tree, which has a delicate canopy of tiny pale green leaves. In China it’s also known as ‘The Guilty Scholar Tree’ after a historic Pagoda Tree in Beijing on which the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Chongzhen, hanged himself.

Indian Almond Tress

Indian Almond Tree

Japanese Pagoda Tree

Japanese Pagoda Tree

The mammals tend to catch most of the attention.  When I turned up WaWa, the baby orangutan, was taking the air and we caught up for a handshake. I also like to visit the lemurs who’re always good for a lark, although maybe the cool weather caused them to be in pensive mood when I dropped by.

WaWa and a Human

WaWa & friend

Three Pensive Lemurs

Three pensive lemurs

Macaques, mother & baby

Mother & baby macaques

Exiting via the gate on Glenealy gives a stroll past dense bamboo and towering palms and one particularly massive fig tree (sadly not pictured).  For anyone with a little time to spare I’d definitely recommend it.

Avenue of bamboo & Palm

Avenue of bamboo & palm

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Night Train to Hong Kong

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Somewhere in Zhejiang Province, around midnight

After stricter visa regulations were introduced in China last autumn I was expecting a lot more foreign faces on the overnight train to Hong Kong. Tighter limits introduced last September restrict all Europeans and N. Americans not on a sponsored visa to a 30-day visit only. For some it also means applying for a completely new visa every 30 days – with no guarantee that it will be granted.

Maybe they’re just a lot more organized than I am, however. I only realized on Tuesday I had 72 hours remaining before I needed to cross the border and get my passport stamped.

Normally I would have opted for a cheap fight but at such short notice the train was the only option. A round-trip ticket for the 2,500km journey costs a little over USD130, which is not bad value if you don’t mind just under 40 hours on a hard sleeper. As it turned out return tickets must be booked in advance and all the hard sleepers were taken by the time I got to Shanghai North Station, so for an extra CNY300 I reserved a soft sleeper instead.

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Bording at Shanghai North Station

02. Cabin

My cabin

I’d not done an over nighter for a long time and was quite excited at the prospect. Long-distance train travel has a unique place in modern Chinese culture. Every Lunar New Year festival millions ride the rails from the cities where they work back to home towns in distant provinces. As a result the Chinese care passionately about their trains and nothing sours the national mood quicker than late arrivals and accidents.  Little wonder the authorities are careful to ensure that China’s rail network is among the world’s safest and most efficient.

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Waking up in Guangdong Province

Early morning somewhere in Guangdong

Early morning somewhere in Guangdong

Unlike flying, travelling by train gives a real sense of China’s scale. It’s an extraordinary experience to go to sleep with dripping-cold Shanghai outside the window and wake up with the banana palms and paddy fields of Guangdong flashing by. Perhaps it’s partly this that gives people here such a strong sense of national identity.

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Travelling through Guangdong Province

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Travelling through Guangdong Province

The other striking feature is the strong sense of community.  In the UK passengers typically tolerate each other for the duration of their journey. Yet in China there is a jolly camaraderie to the experience. The train can sometimes feel like a small village on wheels, with the smell of hot food and loud card games up and down the corridor. So long as your cabin door is open it’s not unusual for someone to poke their head in for a chat. The restaurant car around 11pm was raucous and thick with cigarette smoke and plenty of beer and wine being consumed. The only option is to dive in.

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Arriving at Guangzhou East Station – 2 hours to the border

After just over 19 hours and a fitful night’s sleep our train pulled into Hung Hom station in Hong Kong four minutes ahead of schedule. Fresh bedding was delivered and the restaurant car was again orderly after the previous night’s festivities. I got a call later the previous evening to say I was booked on a flight back to Shanghai the following evening, so there was no need to buy a return ticket. On the one hand this was a relief. Nineteen hours seemed to pass quickly but it’s still a long time. Nevertheless, the journey has stoked my enthusiasm for China’s long-haul trains and I’ve already begun promoting the idea among friends for a three-night train journey to Lhasa in the spring.

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GOING HOME. Photography by Mu Ge

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In his series of black-and-white photographs entitled Going Home Mu Ge explores the impact of industrialization on his hometown of Chongqing and the nearby regions along the Yangtze River. Today this is one of the most industrialized regions on the planet and in Going Home, which was completed over five years between 2005 and 2010, he documents the human and environmental cost of this expansion, especially for those communities displaced by construction of the Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2006.

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Mu’s black-and-white treatment gives an elegiac poignancy to many of his portraits in which the people appear bewildered or stunned to silence. The landscape is a persistent theme yet one in which a tension seems to exist between man and nature. Heaps of rotting concrete and vistas of churned mud enforce this feeling of dislocation and perhaps suggest a population for who the environment has become a hostile or alien place, heavy with loss and decay. In other images forests and dramatic river valleys are shown shrouded in heavy mists, as if a half-remembered, distant memory.

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Mu Ge was born in 1979 in Chongqing and graduated from Sichuan Normal University in 2004 with a degree in Broadcasting and Television Directing. He has has participated in festivals including PhotoOff 2011 (Paris), Savignano Immagini – La Fotografia 2010 (Italy), Caochangdi PhotoSpring 2010 (Beijing) Arles Photography Festival (2010) and Format International Photography Festival Biennale 2009 (UK). His work was also included in the group exhibition Rising Dragon: Contemporary Chinese Photography at the Katonah Museum, New York (25 Mar-2 Sept, 2012), Krannert Art Museum, Illinois (12 Oct-30 Dec, 2012) and San Jose Museum of Art (2 Feb-30 June, 2013). In 2011 he was nominated for the Foam Paul Huf Award in the Netherlands.

Selected images from Going Home are published by JiaZaZhi Press as a limited edition book of 600 signed and numbered copies. See more at 3030Press.com.

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All photos courtesy of the artist.

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