In Rural China, It Helps to Be Optimistic


“There are no tickets to Wuhan,” said the woman at the train station in Shenzen. “Come back in a week.”

“We need to go today,” said my assistant, who speaks enough Cantonese to be able to make himself understood in southern China. The ticket seller called her supervisor to the booth. They prodded and poked at a computer system and then the supervisor came up with a suggestion. We should catch a taxi to the bus station and travel to the next town. From there we were advised to take the Metro system to the train station and board the train.

My assistant had already made one trip from Hong Kong to Shenzen so he could buy the tickets in advance — only to be told that he needed to buy the tickets the day we were actually travelling. On the day we decided to travel, a massive crowd was packed into the Shenzen railway station. Well, it was Chinese New Year after all … occasion of the largest annual mass migration in the world!

“Can we buy a return ticket?” asked my assistant.

“No need,” said the ticket assistant. “Just buy it in Wuhan.” The crowd around us was pushing and shoving, anxious to buy tickets before they were all sold out. We decided to give up and take our chances in Wuhan.

I wanted to go to Hong Qiao, a village near Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province in central China. For a number of years I have been documenting people living in villages in different countries around the world. Modernity, migration and globalization are transforming these towns, changing forever their culture, identity and everyday realities. There is no work in these small villages for the young people, so they are leaving to work in the cities. I am endeavouring to capture what remains of this lifestyle before it is lost to us forever.

After a 10 and a half hour journey from Hong Kong, we were finally on the train at Guangzhou, ready to commence our 15-hour journey to Wuhan. We were crammed into a small compartment with six bunks and four other Westerners. Sitting in the train carriage, it was all elbows and knees.

Our travel companions were American teachers of English, currently working in Wuhan. One teacher said she was from a farming district near Chicago. All the young people had left her village, she said, because there was no work there for them. Maybe that’s where I should go to photograph my American village!

We sat talking until 2 a.m. and listening to the teachers’ experiences of working in China. Earlier that night, a Chinese man had stationed himself near the door of our compartment and was listening intently to our conversation. Perhaps he was trying to learn English or just keeping an eye on us for safety. Funny how we were the only foreigners on a fully booked train and all happened to be in the same carriage. Coincidence?

After a comfortable sleep on my bunk at the top of the carriage, I wandered through the train photographing people eating their breakfast of instant noodles out of plastic containers, playing cards, snoozing and smoking — still a popular pastime in China.

The train pulled into Wuhan on time, but nobody had informed us that there were two stations in this city and we had got off at the wrong one. Our guide called us on the cell phone querying where we were. He told us to catch a taxi to where he was waiting because his hire car had an even-number plate and only an uneven-number plates could cross the river that day.

The thick gray smog, which covered Wuhan and most of the places that I visited in China, reminded me of when I was a schoolboy in London. I would walk to school running a stick along garden walls so I didn’t get lost, and I whistled to make a noise to stop people walking into me. I was terrified of all the black shadows moving through what in London we called a pea soup.

That night in Hong Qiao I slept fully dressed, including my winter jacket, in a double bed with my assistant. The bed belonged to the ex-wife of my guide, and she was not happy about being tossed out of it. My guide had taken us to a concrete building in a walled compound. He told us that it used to be a police station, but now it was his house. We went up to his apartment on the second floor. Through the windows we could see the fireworks lighting up the sky. Our whole time in China had been accompanied by the sound of fireworks … whoosh, bang, crack, crack, bang. It was Chinese New Year and every house we went into had boxes of firecrackers to celebrate with.

The guide showed us the two bedrooms in the apartment and told us that this was where we would be sleeping. He wandered off muttering something about seeing us the next morning.

My assistant was in the smaller bedroom setting up the bed, and I was in the ex-wife’s room unpacking when she came storming into the house followed by her son. She didn’t say a word to us. We could hear her banging around in the kitchen and boiling water so she could have a wash. The boy came into the room I was in and showed me a message on an interpreter gadget he had. It read, “Can we one bed you one bed?”

Early in the morning we wandered around the village; the guide was related to everyone. “My brother’s house, my uncle, this is my cousin, meet my aunty.” We were invited into every house, and tea and food was brought out wherever we went. People were very friendly. In fact, my young male assistant and a visiting pretty female student, who spoke no English, managed to exchange cell phone numbers.

The houses were mostly inhabited by old people because all the young members of the families had gone to the city to find work. The young people had come back to their village to celebrate the New Year. For the first few days of the Chinese New Year, the families gather for one main meal each day, which the women have spent hours preparing. Egg-cup size containers are put in front of the men, who toast each other and skol the potent alcoholic rice wine.

At the entrance to the village, elaborately carved tombstones were surrounded by haystacks. No space was wasted in this village. On the walls inside the houses there were paintings of Chairman Mao, pictures of Chinese pop stars and racks of meat — pig, chicken and duck.

I shoot with a digital camera and all the old people wanted to see their image on my monitor. One old woman didn’t like her photograph so she changed her outfit and hat, and then posed in the same position that I had photographed her the first time. Another old woman kept looking in my monitor until she thought her husband’s image right. With digital, everyone is a picture editor!

My assistant and I decided that because of the difficulties getting to Hong Qiao, it might be an idea to buy our train ticket several days before we intended leaving. We asked the guide to take us down to the station. He replied, “No need, tickets no problem.” We persuaded him it might be an idea just so we could feel comfortable.

The ticket office was silent and shuttered. The shopkeeper next door said the officer had gone home because he’d sold all the tickets. “No problem,” said our ever-optimistic guide. “You get the bus, only 17 hours back to Shenzhen.”

It was my intention to attend a traditional Chinese wedding in the village. The wedding was scheduled to begin at midday. At 11:30 I asked the guide whether we should set out for the wedding venue. “No, No,” he replied, “First we must feast with my family.” In China the family meal comes first, so back to his house we went. There was so much food the table was overflowing. The eating was interrupted only by the drinking. Up goes the cup, “Cheers, good health” and be sure you don’t leave any dregs.

Blimmey, I thought — any more of this drinking and I won’t even be able to walk to the door, let alone photograph a wedding! The rice was brought out, which was a signal for us to stop drinking. “Thank goodness!” my liver cried.

The guide abruptly got to his feet and said, “Let’s go. First I will ring the wedding party.” He spoke into his cell phone. “Wedding not today, tomorrow,” he announced. Strange, but every other time for the last month we had discussed the wedding it was on this day. Further probing on the subject revealed that the precise date of the wedding was vague, the connection of the bride and groom to the village was tenuous and, overall, the whole thing started to seem a little bizarre.

“Pack your bags. We’re leaving,” I said to my assistant. “Mr. Guide, take us to the bus station please.”

“What about the wedding?” he asked.

I told him that when I came back to photograph the harvesting I would photograph a village wedding. Maybe. Hopefully. Looking over my notes, I said, “The harvesting starts on the 3rd September and finishes on the 15th September. Is that right?”

“Yes, definitely that date. No worries,” he replied.