Ziboy Interview

It seems almost silly to bother to say that the photos at Ziboy.com are really good. I think most people that read this blog have seen them and know. If you haven’t taken a look before, go do it now.

Ziboy.com Ziboy.com

The photographer, Wen Ling, has very little to say about himself on his site, however. Well, I got curious and decided to exercise my Chinese. I wrote to him and asked if I could interview him by e-mail. He was happy to do it. It’s not long, but it still took me a while to actually get it all done. The interview is now completely translated and online, in English as well as the original Chinese. Go ahead and take a look.

This is but one of the many sorts of things I’d like to do with this site if I only had unlimited time….

Interview with Ziboy’s Wen Ling

Ziboy is a name well-known among those who frequent China blogs. It is the name of a frequently updated photoblog maintained by a twenty-something professional photographer in Beijing. I won’t say anything about the photography; the pieces speak for themselves. The photographer himself, though — Wen Ling — always seemed somewhat mysterious and inaccessible to me. I had questions. I wrote him an e-mail in Chinese and he was very friendly and open to the idea of an e-mail interview. This is the translated result.

How many photos do you take a week?

I take more than about 500 a week.

How do you organize all your images on your hard drive?

Initially I was creating a new folder every month, but later I was taking too many and just started creating a new folder daily.

Have you ever had any formal education in photography?

No, but I have had formal fine arts education.

How do you capture the people in a natural pose without them being distracted by the camera?

Sometimes I use a 70-200 mid-range telephoto lens to shoot while keeping my distance from them. The Nikon 995 camera I once used had its concealment advantages too. Also I just take many photos [of one subject] successively, and there will always be one or two with good expressions.

Do you have any plans to travel, or do you plan to continue focusing exclusively on Beijing in your photography?

I won’t go travelling in order to take pictures, but I would really like to travel.

How did you make the transition from amateur to professional photography? Was it difficult?

Haha, so funny, this is going to give me a big head.

In regards to photographic technique and knowledge, I have learned a fair amount. You know, when I first started I barely even knew what a roll of film was! Since my job was shooting news on the street, it was more or less the same as before when I was shooting on the street, so the transition from amateur to professional photographer was very natural. I also need to be thankful for the friendly, pragmatic atmosphere of the news office. I got used to my job really quickly.

Do you feel very constricted by digital photography and online space limitations?

I think it was digital cameras that made me feel all the joy and freedom of photography that was never there before. Digital cameras’ shutter lag problem is a shortcoming that I really regret, as a lot of brilliant moments are impossible to capture. I think for now using the three media of text and images along with Flash animation for artistic expression is already relatively technologically mature. There aren’t any problems.

What do you hope that the world outside of China gains from looking at your photography?

To understand the actual Beijing and China, and to feel that a new, better Chinese youth already exists.

I’ve noticed three themes in your photography: police, beggars, and common working people. Are there any particular messages you’re trying to get across with your photography?

My photos are themeless. I just hope I can be as objective as possible, fully exhibiting the Beijing that I see. Relatively speaking, I prefer to shoot young people and don’t pay as much attention to older people.

Has your photography ever gotten you into any trouble?

Not so far, but I’m still pretty anxious, mainly over the problem of portraiture rights. I’m well aware that many of my photos are relatively disrespectful to the subjects, but I have no harmful intentions.

Are there any memorable stories behind any of your photos that you’d be willing to share?

Haha, I’m always very happy to show off to my friends the group of pictures of a fight I took on the evening of July 15, 2002. At the time I was at KFC eating dinner, and saw them fighting through the glass of the fast food chain window. I put down my half-eaten sandwich and went right out to take pictures, first snapping through the glass, later running right up to them to get shots until the police arrived.

What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

Get a digital camera and go seriously photograph what you most want to photograph until you’re satisfied with the results.

–Wen Ling 7.19.2003

Interview published with Wen Ling’s permission, 2003. All photos are his.

Counterfeiting in China

I

It was the year 2000, and I had just arrived in China. I had very few Chinese friends at that point, but I was desperate to practice my horrible Chinese. I had ideas.

I sought out people that couldn’t speak English and couldn’t escape. My first such friends were the guards at the apartment where I lived for my first month. They just sat around in the guardhouse all day handing out newspapers, occasionally demanding toughly where cars thought they were going immediately before meekly opening the gate for them. So they were happy to talk to a walking oddity like me.

I also met a pair who worked at the 1-2-3 Taiwanese burger chain. They were cool to hang out with and talk to at night. I seemed to always come as a welcome relief, since they were bored out of their minds in the shop.

Anyway, it was in the 1-2-3 shop that I got my first good look at a counterfeit bill detector. It looked like a large plastic glasses case or something, stuck half open. You run the bills through it, and the appropriate lights tell you if the bill is real or fake. Employees are supposed to check the money when they’ve got nothing else to do. They showed me fake 100’s, 50’s, 20’s, 10’s, and yes, even 5’s (that’s just over $0.50 US). Until that time I hadn’t realized how rampant counterfeiting is in China.

II

Last semester I was buying snacks at the on-campus grocery store. I handed the cashier a 50. She looked at it for a second and told me it was fake. I didn’t get it for a sec. You never really expect it to happen to you. She didn’t accept the money, but she let me keep it. (Some places are required to hold on to all counterfeit money that comes into their possession.)

I showed it to my friend who works at the Bank of China. She identified it easily and pointed out to me all the little telltale signs. She also told me a few stories about some of the ways people try to scam the bank. I asked her what I should do with the fake 50. “Well, if it was me,” she said, “I’d just spend it.”

I still have that 50. I’ve kept it as a little souvenir. It’s stuck to my fridge with a magnet.

III

Wayne

Wayne

Wednesday night I was at a coffee shop (OK, I’ll admit it — yes, it was Starbucks) with some friends. Wayne, one of my co-workers here at ZUCC, was late. When he SMSed that he would be arriving late he also mentioned that he had tried to use a 100 and been told it was fake. He was sure it came to him as a part of the pay for summer work teaching at Zhejiang University. When he arrived, we talked about it a little more and decided he should take it back to the people who paid him and exchange it. They also need to know their money source isn’t completely reliable.

We later ended up eating at a dim sum place. When the bill came around, Wayne suddenly asked, “should I try to use the fake 100?” Knowing that Wayne is not always the most decisive guy in the world, I seized the moment for a little nugget of excitement. “Yeah, do it, Wayne!” I encouraged him. (It is, after all, what any ordinary Chinese person does when he gets counterfeit money.)

Feeling a little nervous, Wayne did it. We were soon on our way out, Wayne leading the way. It wasn’t until our group was just out the restaurant doors that I noticed Wayne was a little bit ahead of everyone else. He was already clear across the parking lot, rounding the corner to the street. “What is Wayne doing?” we all wondered.

When we made it to the street, we saw that the gap had widened further, as Wayne had made rapid progress down Yan’an Road in the time that it took us to get across the parking lot.

“Hey Wayne!” I yelled to him. “What’s the rush? Wait up!” He did, although clearly not without a little anxiety.

Wayne was indeed doing his best to flee the scene of the crime. He kept expecting the restaurant staff to come flying around the corner at any second. The funny thing was that I had been on a long walk down that very road the day before, and Wayne had refused to exceed a “leisurely” pace. What’s more, when Wayne was already halfway down the restaurant stairs, I watched the cashier put the hundred away without a second glance. But here was Wayne, trying his best for a compromise between a mad dash and an unconcerned stroll.

We kept joking with him about hearing the search dogs catching up, but he wasn’t fully relaxed until we walked down the block, turned the corner, and got in a cab. Even then, were we really safe…?

I guess there are still those that get excited about it, but counterfeit money is really common here. So is spending it.

Let the Past Speak to the Present

I found this link via Zod at 905life. The article was quite interesting.

It was Li Zhensheng’s job in the late 1960’s to photograph the happy face of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution for a provincial Chinese daily newspaper. But as he dutifully fed the propaganda machine with uplifting images, he gradually understood that he was also recording history, and so he took a major risk: on his assignments, he began including disturbing aspects of the revolution and then hid the negatives under the floorboards of his home.

I also found the following paragraph heartening.

Today Mr. Li looks back and sees a different China. The excesses and leaders of the revolution were denounced after Mao’s death in 1976. Communist capitalism is now entrenched. Mr. Li, 63, lives in New York and Beijing. He is confident that his book will soon also be published in China.

It’s noteworthy to mention that this New York Times article is not blocked in China.

Laowai Fury

Brendan is wigging out*. Adam is pissed his bike was stolen again. Hank has recently fought off the almost overpowering urge to flee China due to a few particularly bad incidences in Huaibei. Brad has had his share of frustrations recently too.

And me? Well, I’m just great! Of course, I’ve had my unhappy moments here in China too — I’ve posted about them quite a few times. Lately, though, the only things I could find to complain about would be 1) Hangzhou in the summer is HOT, 2) My summer class contains a few students who seem to think they know more than me about how to teach Spoken English, which is just so laughable for so many reasons, and 3) I don’t have much time to blog.

[Ah, blog guilt. It’s so ridiculous, but I think a lot of bloggers out there experience it. You haven’t written in a while, so you feel guilty. Maybe part of it is a twinge of anxiety over the possibility of losing readers? I’m not sure. Although I do feel a bit of this, I think I’ll have to choose a busy social life over a frequently updated, thoughtfully written blog at this juncture. Please understand, dear readers. I will have more time to write soon.]

Despite the fact that things are going nicely for me, I had a somewhat disturbing dream last night. It’s also kind of interesting in that it was entirely in Chinese. I’ll share it here.

I was sitting on the couch in my apartment with a Chinese friend. She needed to take a shuttle bus from Hangzhou to the Shanghai Pudong airport, and we were examining a brochure which offered this service. As were were discussing it, there was a knock at the door.

In came a middle-aged woman with a brochure for a shuttlebus to the Pudong airport. [This is the kind of person you normally bump into when you get off a train. Why she was in my apartment building can only be explained by the fact that it was a dream.]

She started pushing her service when my friend pointed out that we already had the same brochure and were examining it right then. Then the lady started helping to explain how it all works. My friend made a small joke over some point in the brochure, and the lady laughed. I laughed as well.

The lady said to my friend, “Oh, the laowai is laughing too.” Implicit was that I didn’t really understand because they were talking in Chinese, but I was just laughing along for the hell of it.

I told the lady that I could speak Chinese, but she just got flustered, saying that she couldn’t speak English. Then I lost it.

Grabbing her shoulders, I plucked her small frame off the couch and shook her.

“I’M SPEAKING CHINESE. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

No response. I shook her again.

“I’M SPEAKING CHINESE! DO YOU UNDERSTAND??”

She was absolutely terrified. “I don’t understand you…” she was trying to say.

“I’M SPEAKING CHINESE!!! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!?”

She got out a weak, “I don’t understand you….”

I was livid. Still holding her in the air, a rushed to the front door, which was still ajar, and hurled her violently from my home.

I’m not a violent person, even in my dreams, normally. There really seems to be something about China that drives people to the brink of sanity. Furthermore, learning the language seems to be a catalyst rather than an antidote.

* Postscript: This entry has since been removed by Brendan. In his own words, “I removed that post from bokane.org because, frankly, it was disgraceful and I’m ashamed of it…. I don’t want to hate China. I don’t want to hate Harbin. I’m not a mean or hateful person, but I see myself becoming one, and it is scaring me.”

Back

OK, so I’m back. It’s good to be back. Australia was awesome, but I didn’t enjoy being so poor for the last few days. I left the country with $1.20 Australian, and not because I went on a mad shopping spree before I left. But now I’m in China, where money is plentiful again.

As some of you know, countries outside the U.S. don’t use real money. It’s not even green. Instead they use colorful “monopoly money” which can actually be exchanged for goods and services just like real money. Australia’s bills are garishly colored plastic, and dollars are cleverly disguised coins. In China the big bill gets to be pink. I enjoy using this monopoly money and playing the game both in China and Australia, but I just have a lot more of it in China.

Regardless of my monetary limitations, I had a blast in Australia. I really have to thank Ben, without whom my trip would have been impossible. He and his girlfriend Kristy put Wilson and me up in Brisbane and were wonderful hosts, even driving us to Byron Bay (pics of this are on Ben’s site).

I forgot how many people I know here in China. Last night and this morning I was positively barraged with phone calls and SMS messages. It’s good to be back among so many friends (and potential summer employers), although it’s sad to think that I don’t know when I’ll see Ben and Kristy again, or Wilson, for that matter.

I have begun my summer job. It looks like other positions may be in the works, as well as lots of Chinese lessons. I’m getting special tutoring this summer from one of the teachers where I’ll study come fall so I can place higher in my Chinese class and learn more.

OK, that’s all the boring updates you’ll get out of me for now. I just hate seeing my blog stale for so long. And so my focus once again turns to China…

Byron Bay


Byron Beach, Queensland, Australia
John and Wilson (Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia)

Cute Kangaroo


awwwwww...

John in Oz

I’ll be in Australia for the next two weeks, so I won’t be updating for that time. Australia’s a big country, so I won’t try for more than a few places of interest in Queensland. For the time I’m in Brisbane, I’ll be staying with Ben, a friend and former ZUCC teacher. Wilson is meeting me at the Brisbane airport. He’s already been in Sydney for over a week.

In the meantime, you may want to check out some of the new blogs in the China Blog List. Brad F’s new blog kind of reminds me of mine. I especially like his “answers” entry.

When I get back to Hangzhou, I’ll be just teaching about 15 hours a week and hanging out, hopefully studying some Chinese in preparation for fulltime Chinese class come fall. Derrick will also be here in Hangzhou for about a month. I might be able to make it to Beijing this August, and possibly to the wedding in Kyoto of the oldest son of my Japanese homestay family. If I do that, it’ll be a boat ride from Shanghai to Osaka. Could be cool. At the end of August I’ll be busy helping the new additions to the ZUCC foreign teacher crew get settled. It’s gonna be a great new semester.

OK, I need to sleep. I leave Hangzhou for Pudong Airport at 7:30am…

Fighting Pollution

It’s no secret that “clean air standards” are not real high in China. Some people complain of sore throats when they first come to China, just because of air pollution alone. Dust is no longer that distant, mysterious substance that accumulates in remote places afer several weeks. Oh, you become very familiar with dust here. I find myself not opening the window at times for “fresh air” because fresh air also means fresh dust. Dust accumulates fast here.

So the air quality is pretty bad here, by Western standards. Hanghzou air is not as bad as some places (such as Beijing), but it’s also not the “pristine garden city at one with nature” that it would have you believe. That said, don’t let your imagination go completely wild on you. I mean, if the air quality was really intolerably bad I wouldn’t still be here. One reason I’m here in Hangzhou is that the air quality is pretty good, relatively.

Chinese Pollution Sucks

Hangzhou pollution

Now to my story. ZUCC is located at the north end of town, in a newly created school zone. Unfortunately, the north edge of town was formerly designated an industrial zone. (That means factories are officially allowed to pollute even more out here.) You can see smokestacks to the north of our campus. Usually the pollution doesn’t really seem any worse here than anywhere else in the city, but around the end of April/beginning of May, those smokestacks went to town. In the afternoon we frequently saw lots of thick smoke pouring out of the smokestacks, sometimes even accompanied by a raging flame atop the smokestack. Naturally, a lot of people at ZUCC became concerned.

The school made a formal complaint but was worried that it was being completely ignored, as pollution is often treated as business as usual here. Hangzhou, however, is a popular tourist destination with a reputation for natural beauty, so it has a little more to lose if the pollution gets out of hand. Still, as ZUCC “foreign teacher liaison,” I decided to act on my own with regards to this issue. Sometimes foreigners’ voices can have a special impact here. I wrote a polite letter to the mayor of Hangzhou requesting that actions be taken. 13 foreign teachers from ZUCC added their signatures to mine. The letter I wrote is below:

I am a foreign teacher of English at Zhejiang University City College, located on East Zhongshan Road in Hangzhou . In writing this letter I represent a small community of foreigners from New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States, all of whom are living and teaching here.

I write to you out of concern for my health, the health of my colleagues, and, indeed, the health of all those around me. In the past several months (April, May 2003) we have all witnessed incidents of thick smoke emitted from the smokestacks of factories to the north of our campus. Sometimes the smoke is accompanied by a large orange flame, other times it is smoke alone. When the factories emit this smoke, the air around our school becomes hazier and heavier, and a bad smell of burning permeates the area. We have photographed said smoke emissions and include the photograph with this letter. [see picture above.]

In addition to health concerns, we also feel that this pollution will harm the development of Zhejiang University City College in that foreign visitors will be given a very poor impression of the school when such heavy pollution is evident so close to the school grounds.

We know that China is working hard at developing its industry, but we believe that this is a serious case of air pollution that cannot be ignored. Our health, as well as the health of all the Chinese students and citizens around us, is at risk. We humbly ask that the government please take actions to curb such blatant air pollution in this area, and that it inform us of what actions have been taken.

Thank you very much.

It may seem silly and futile to write this letter. More than one teacher who signed felt that it would do absolutely no good, but signed anyway. That’s why it’s amazing that only a month later, I learned of the actions taken by the government.

As the author of the letter, I was invited to a meeting at ZUCC along with the college vice president of general affairs and director of human resources, a regional and a municipal representative from the Chinese Bureau of Environmental Protection, the municipal foreign affairs representative, and several representatives of the factory in question. What went down is basically this.

  1. Everyone got introduced.

  2. Everyone got tea.

  3. The Chinese EPA guy explained that during the month that the incident in question occurred, the factory actually exceeded its emissions limit and failed its inspection for the first time. As a result, it is being forced to buy and install 1,500,000 RMB (about US$183,000) particle filtering equipment. Non-compliance will result in stiff fines.

  4. An account of the history of the factory was given. It is the forging plant for a motor manufacturer. It has already moved once. Hangzhou’s industrial section is being moved to the south, across the Qiantang River toward Xiaoshan, so it’ll probably have to follow suit, although this factory is not technically completely under Hangzhou’s jurisdiction.

  5. Kind person gives John a simpler Chinese verion of what was just said, as it was really long and complicated with difficult vocabulary, and the guy giving it had horrible putonghua.

  6. Tea refills.

  7. John is asked to say something. John expresses his appreciation and pleasant surprise at having been promptly and seriously responded to.

  8. Our school’s VP gave an impassioned plea for that factory to please get the hell out of here.

  9. The factory spoke in its defense, saying zero pollution was impossible, the factory had a right to exist, and there was nowhere good for it to go right now.

  10. A few other random pollution issues were discussed.

  11. The mayor’s foreign relations representative stressed that the mayor takes environmental issues as well as foreign relations issues very seriously, and that our letter was translated and acted upon immediately after it was received.

  12. The EPA guy stressed that Hangzhou takes environmental issues very seriously, and that the matter will continue to be investigated, with proper actions taken. EPA guy also passed out his card and gave us the number for a 24-hour pollution report hotline, adding that anything reported would be investigated within 30 minutes of the call.

  13. Meeting adjourned, in less than an hour!

So, basically I’m surprised that such prompt action was taken. Were the actions sincere? Will anything change? That’s hard to say. But I’d say if serious actions were really to be taken, then the meeting I attended would probably be a part of it. I have hope.

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