Photographing China | The Old And The New

A view of Pudong from across the Huangpu River on The Bund in Shanghai, China.

Time to take a peep behind the bamboo curtain. Shanghai is a large and heavily populated city. Actually it's one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

This photo was made looking across the Huangpu River from the historic riverside region called The Bund. Just off The Bund is Nanjing Road, a shopping paradise for anyone wanting to bring a bit of glitz into their China experience.

But Nanjing Road was behind me when I made this photo. What we see here are some of the more futuristic buildings in the Pudong business district.

Soldiers faces, carved into stone along The Bund in Shanghai, China.

Shanghai is interesting in so much as it provides a great mix of historical and contemporary, east and west. If ever you get the opportunity to visit I’d recommend a long walk along The Bund, a night time excursion along Nanjing Road and, where these two roads meet, an evening in the wonderful Jazz Bar at the Peace Hotel. The band there is simply divine.

The image of the soldiers carved in stone was from my second trip to Shanghai back in 2011. I'm not sure when my first trip was, but I think it was 1996 when I traveled to Shanghai and Chengdu as a guest lecturer for Kodak. I undertook my own travels in the days before and after those teaching gigs. I'm not sure how many times I've been to China, it must be four or five since 1988, and it's hard to describe the changes that have occurred during that time.

Shanghai has been a prosperous and, relatively, outward looking economic zone for many, many years. Basic Japanese electronic products and white goods were available in Shanghai long before they reached other parts of China, even the more conservative capital.

Red walls and orange tiled roofs against a deep blue sky on a spectacular winter's day in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

Visit Beijing For History And Culture

There are so many big cities in modern day China. But, when it comes to impact, I think Beijing reins supreme. I first visited Beijing in 1989 when it was a much quieter place than it is now. Pollution and diabolical traffic have replaced my memories of bicycles and identically clothed blue suited comrades, both men and women, very much in the Chairman Mao mould.

Light throws interesting shapes on a freshly painted window shutter in The Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

Trading On The Black Market

My first trip to China was actually in 1988. It's incredible to think that was 30 years ago. I can remember being obliged to change currency into a special kind of local money designed for foreign tourists, referred to as Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC). USD $100 would get you FEC $100, but you could only use the FEC's at more expensive hotels and restaurants which, needless to say, provided very little real china experience for the traveler.

However, you could trade USD $100 into the equivalent of $170 in local Yuan/Renminbi currency on the black market and, while that seems like strange behavior, the fact is that, back then, the only way local Chinese folk, other than higher ranking Communist Party members, could purchase foreign made white goods and Japanese electronics was at a large city Friendship Store.

These establishments were, theoretically, created as places where foreign tourists could dispose of large amounts of FEC's to buy Chinese and Japanese goods at extremely inflated prices. The system was a wrought because the only way ordinary, everyday Chinese people could get access to FEC's was through the black market. And it cost them dearly to do so.

Of course as the FEC's were only recognized at a small selection of larger city hotels and Friendship Stores, your ability to travel elsewhere was impeded. It was bad enough that, as a foreigner, you were charged up to three times as much as local people staying in the exact same type of room in the same hotel and that, while locals could enter public city parks for free, foreigners would often have to pay.

I remember, on my return to Melbourne, discovering that different price structures also occurred in restaurants where local citizens of Chinese origin paid less than other folks. I made no judgement and believe this was simply a consequence of how people had been brought up.

I suspect many backpackers traded money on the black market as a way to even up the score under such an inequitable system, and still help local folks purchase those dreamed of white goods and electrical appliances that would make their lives more comfortable.

I'm also glad that, these days, costs for local Chinese and foreign tourists alike are much more equitable. The Chinese are a hard working and industrious people and it's incredible to see how they've lifted themselves out of economic hardship into a prosperous and modern economy in such a short period of time.

A massive red door adorned with big, brass studs in the grounds of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

Why It's Important To Understand The Historical Context

Now I was never one of those penny pinching backpackers who expects to get everything at local prices. If a local is prepared to spend time with us, speaking a language that's not native to them, I think it's okay that we pay a bit more for that. And that's certainly the case when we're paying for higher quality.

But I remember the time an old granny sold me a bottle of water after filling it up in a local dam. I was on a short trek and, when I discovered the seal on the water bottle had been broken, I walked back and found her. She felt the full wrath of my wagging finger, I can tell you. It's my belief that, as the central government began to release the shackles on enterprising individuals and allowed them to make money, many Chinese were so intent on bringing in as much money as possible that they didn't give a whole lot of thought to how badly people were treated along the way.

Many group tourists wouldn't even known what was going on, but independent travellers got a much clearer perspective of the lay of the land. But to understand this kind of treatment it's important to place it in an historical context. For many years Chinese people were brought up to hate westerners, particularly those from the colonial powers. As a result they were xenophobic and extremely suspicious of westerners. And that's not unreasonable given the way China had been exploited by colonial powers.

A colorful and highly textured architectural detail at the Temple Of Heaven in Beijing, China.

Back in 1988 I was spat at; yelled at (probably daily); chased by a mob and stoned; and sort refuge inside a cable car while an angry crowd tried to get at my friends and I near the top of a famous Buddhist mountain. I thought they were trying to push us off the mountain. Fortunately the police showed up and, after a bit of push and shove, the ring leader was taken away.

Do I have any grudges? Not at all. I think, even back then, I had some understanding of why folks were the way they were. Despite the adventures, fair and foul, that I experienced on my first visit to China I made a life long friend on that trip: a Chinese girl from Chengdu who's showed me great friendship and loyalty for many, many years.

A family make their way into a subway on a cold winter's day in Harbin, China.

Being An Aussie Has It's Advantages

I can remember thinking, as I have had occasion to many times while traveling over the years, "Thank God I'm not an American". "They get the blame for everything." It's no co-incidence that I'd often deliberately broaden my Aussie accent in those early days. I can only assume that, if I hadn't, then those stones might have become rocks. Sometimes it's good to be small.

The colonial powers intrusions into China is an historical fact. I was first introduced to this as a child when I saw the movie 55 Days In Peking. Later I became more aware of the Opium Wars and the tragic consequences they had for China. But on my early visits to China I grew increasing suspicious about how, according to the Chinese, everything was all so one-sided. They'd go on and on and on about it but, as soon as you raised an objection or pointed the finger back at them, they'd accuse you of insulting them and their country and how causing such a loss of face was inexcusable.

"Hey, what's good for the goose", I'd often retort. But I wouldn't blame them. They'd been indoctrinated all their lives, probably a little like what happened to Russian, American and other children during the years of the cold war. None of us are perfect.

A detailed image of goods for sale in a local butcher shop in the traditional village of Hongcun, China.

A Fabulous Chinese Banquet, But No Duck

But I was young and I've never tolerated bullies. It's fair to say that I did get a little put out with all this talk of western imperialism. Not to say it didn't happen. History, and the consequence that flow from it, proves that it did.

I must admit feeling quite pleased with myself when, during lunch in a swanky, brand new restaurant back in, I think, 1989 I decided to put some old fool back in his place. Now I was the guest and the restaurant had been booked out for our small group by a top Beijing official. He was an impressive and highly educated man who had spent many years living and working in Russia. I was very friendly with his daughter at the time.

However, during the lunch one of his friends was using every opportunity he could to boast about the glorious Chinese Communist system and the evils of the decadent (Western) Capitalist system. And he used every opportunity he could, through an interpreter, to drop the terms Western Imperialists and Colonialist into his diatribe.

I mentioned that, while the terms imperialism and colonialism are usually associated with European powers, they could also be used to describe the USA and it's expansion into California, Puerto Rico, The Philippines and numerous islands in the Pacific. And, of course, the same could be said about the conquest of Australia, where I live, and the subjugation of the indigenous peoples. These comments made him really pleased and he made a big deal about how intelligent I was and how he was looking forward to a mutually cooperative relationship with more good people from my country.

A colorful view, over a pagoda rooftop, down onto a tranquil pool fed by a small waterfall near Huangshan, China.

But I wasn't finished. I then mentioned that my own country Australia, had been conquered by Great Britain and, as a consequence, much of the indigenous population had been wiped out by military, police and free settlers. Indeed, we're still marred by this injustice and are not doing particularly well integrating many that have lost connection with their past traditions and beliefs.

I continued by drawing parallels with what had happened in China over the centuries and, in particular, since the Communist Revolution and the atrocities that had occurred, under the Communist regime, in Tibet. 

Well, you could have heard a pin drop. And I was just getting started. But, back then, the pain of the Cultural Revolution would probably still have been too recent and too deep for me to bring up. Lunch ended soon after and, as I bid my counterpart farewell, he spat out something about a barbarian from a country of convicts. Suddenly I felt quite proud to be an Australian. I also remember thinking, "what, no duck."

A self portrait of Glenn Guy, the Travel Photography Guru, formed on a shinny set of lift doors in a hotel in Beijing, China.

I Make For An Interesting Dinner Guest

I think it's true that I'm a typical Australian, from days gone by. We hate bullies, which is one of the reasons we've gone to war. We can be disrespectful of authority, particularly when it comes from a position of arrogance and ignorance.

The point that I was trying to get to in that debate was that, for better or worse, our world has been built upon conquest. It is what it is but, to move forward, we need to find common ground and peaceful ways to progress the lives of everyday people in a way that makes them happy. At the end of the day parents want a better and happier life for their children than, in most cases, what they experienced for themselves. And that's true no matter our race, gender, politics, ethnicity or the country into which we were born or reside.

There's also that wonderful saying that, "He who lives in a glass house shouldn't throw stones." I often think that whenever we criticize others, particularly when we travel, we first need to hold a mirror up to ourselves.

A view up a flight of stairs to a beautiful architecutral structure in the grounds of the Temple Of Heaven in Beijing, China.

These days Beijing is a very cosmopolitan city. The modernization of much of the city to showcase the capital during the 2008 Beijing Olympics was an immense achievement. Many overseas tourists, particularly photographers, might be saddened by the loss of traditional Hutong housing regions. What matters most is how the lives of the local people has changed.

But, as architecturally dynamic as these wondrous new buildings are, it’s still the traditional sites like the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City that hold the most meaning for me.

This photo was made in the grounds of the lovely Temple Of Heaven and depicts one of the sites historical structures. While it's a large and heavily touristed site, there's still opportunities to find moments of quiet respite, away from the crowds.

I believe I’ve visited Beijing three times over the years. I hope to return again in a year or so during which time I plan to take a deeper look into the culture of China’s thriving capital city and to continue to explore some of the country's spectacular natural landscapes. I think to do justice to the beauty and complexity of this most incredible country I'd need to spend ten or more years there. Whenever I return I always look forward to making new Chinese friends. They really are an extraordinary people. 

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru