On the Trail of Deng Xiaoping in the French town where he embraced Communism

montargis-stationBaoding is a sizeable city in central Hebei province, in north China, and synonymous with heavy industry and its attendant ills. Its hardy people – mostly of the country’s Han majority – wear no-nonsense expressions and display a hard­headed­ness born of stoicism. A showcase city Baoding is not.

Yet neither is it poor. As I walk the streets, the trappings of 21st-century capitalism protrude between the Mao-era tenements and identikit high-rise apartment blocks. There are fast-food joints, a few garish shopping malls and a railway station so big it makes those in Europe look like toy models.

Not far from the station, on Yuhua West Road, stands a large, unremarkable middle school that could exist anywhere in China. At the back of the school, on Jingtaiyi Road, a few Taoist fortune-tellers line the route to the gate of a small building fashioned in the Ming style. A sign above the door bears the calligraphic script of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. It reads, Liu Fa Qingong Xianxue Yundong Jinnianguan, or, “The Diligent Work-Frugal Study Movement Museum”.

The museum tells of aspirational young Chinese who went to France and Belgium to work and study a century ago, lured by the promise of acquiring the modern skills and technology with which they might help develop their mother­land. The well-intentioned initiative lasted from 1908 to 1927, but ultimately failed due to the miserable conditions many of the Chinese endured, exploited at the hands of factory owners or deprived of the schooling they had been promised.

Despite the movement’s failings, and due to its celebrity alumnus (namely Deng Xiaoping, who would go on to become China’s paramount leader), the Mouvement Travail-Études has become central to Chinese Communist Party mythology, much like the Long March. Yet despite the propaganda element (posters recalling China’s century of humiliation at the hands of foreign imperi­al­ists, for instance), the museum’s curators have brought to light an often-skimmed-over chapter in modern Chinese history.

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Mining the Zeitgeist

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I follow the map on my phone as it leads me into the backstreets of Songzhuang Art Colony, the world’s largest art village, located on the eastern fringe of the Beijing municipality. Just when I think I’ve been lured into a labyrinthine trap, the unmistakable bald head of Shanxi-native Luo Dawei (罗大卫) emerges from a doorway and beckons me in from the cold.

“Sorry about the mess, we’re just moving in,” he says as I watch computers and office furniture being delivered, unpacked in a tempest of cardboard and dust.

This is Fengmian HQ. Founded in 2017, Luo describes his innovative new-media business as a “photography and cultural education platform.” The company’s official WeChat account has over 50,000 followers who tune in for news on China’s contemporary photography scene, as well as online workshops and talks by critics and artists. Dawei is the man to turn to for Chinese photography.

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China’s Bike Sharing Bubble has Burst

24 Hangzhou Xiacheng2Imperial China’s four great inventions – papermaking, printing, gunpowder and the compass – were milestones in the long march of human progress. Last year, China’s state-run media highlighted the nation’s “four great new inventions” of modern times, but astute readers were quick to point out that high-speed trains, mobile-phone payments, e-commerce and shared-bicycle schemes had all been in use elsewhere for quite some time. The argument seemed to be that China’s taking these to a new level was akin to invention.

For bike-share companies built on concepts first seen elsewhere, for instance, the real innovation was app-driven “dockless” bicycles than could be unlocked and peddled almost anywhere, as long as you had your smartphone handy.

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Changing China: photo show focuses on impact of Wenzhou’s economic success story

ThomasBird-Wenzhou2For three days, attendees of the Lishui Photography Festival have been shepherded from gallery to workshop to seminar. The itinerary has been packed with talks, banquets and trips to the surrounding countryside.

In my free time, I have lost myself in the old winding streets of this small city in the south of Zhejiang province, ambling between galleries, museums and public installations, seeking out beacons of artistic excellence in a sea of mediocrity.

Like many grand gatherings of this calibre in China, the event has been choreographed into an assembly line of meet-ups. Festivities started with a variety show-style opening gala and will conclude with an award ceremony, replete with a spiffy host accompanied by dolled-up female assistants.

The days in between are bursting with activity as photography connoisseurs queue alongside curious locals and students to digest the more than 5,000 works on show.

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Halong Bay’s Cat Ba: a jewel in Vietnam’s island crown

Street1I spend the journey from the Chinese border lying on a bed, softly rocking with the motion of the overnight train. The air conditioning hisses overhead and the carriage smells of the wood that bedecks the interior. Outside, bats are navigating the purple sky as the world slowly turns invisible.

A fellow traveller is snoring gently as I dip into my guidebook and the prospect of Hanoi, enticed by the urban delights – the cool boutiques; Dong Xuan Market, where, apparently, everything that breathes (or once breathed) is on sale; and Hoan Kiem Lake, overlooked by the moss-manicured Turtle Tower.

The Vietnamese capital proves faithful to its contrarian promise – a fiery, contempor­ary city still awash in history. There’s enough great food to clog the most efficient of metabolisms yet the galleries, from hipster haunt Manzi to the prestigious Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, are widely distributed, providing worthy partitions to those belly bulging banquets.

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Chinese Photographer Captures ‘horror and beauty’ of modern China

Ziriver2Li Zhengde lives on the edge of Mount Wutong National Park, in Shenzhen. His one-bedroom flat is on the fourth floor of a forlorn, reform-era tenement building, beside some shabby farmhouses that date back a century or more. The interior is decorated with Li’s own photography and brimming with enough books for a small library. It smells of Hunan chilli peppers.

Outside, tropical storm Ewiniar is menacing the mountain­side, rousing a nearby river to burst its banks while shrouding Shenzhen’s highest peak in continually shifting mists.

“Look how clear the water is,” says Li, pointing out of the window at streams snaking down the slopes. “Mountain fresh!”

Removing a beer from the fridge and lighting a Hongtashan cigarette, Li settles into an easy chair to discuss his epic photo­graphic project, “From the Zi River to the Yangtze”, for which he began shooting images in 2009.

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The first Chinese-built railway, the enthusiast trying to save it and his hero…

6.Nankouw, KMT-chinaIt’s a little after 6am when the sun rises over Changping, a nondescript district in the northwest of the expansive Chinese capital. Flanked by the Mangshan hills, which form a natural limit to Beijing’s urban sprawl, Changping North railway station is small and devoid of distrac­tions. With no cafeteria or convenience store in which to kill time, I settle myself in the spartan wait­ing room and stare at the clock. Most of my fellow travellers are asleep or fiddling with their smartphones.

Eventually, a green train with a yellow stripe along its flank – No 1458, from Changping North to Zhangjiakou South – slides into the station. I board, find my third-class seat and wait for the engine to shudder back to life. We depart at 6.46am, navigating the last tumbledown extremities of the city before concrete is replaced by jagged hills and steep ravines.

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Marinduque: The Heart of the Philippines

Santa-Cruz7I walked through a rusty gate and stepped down the rocks onto the chalk-white shore. Two bleating goats, white as the sand, scurried by. Down the bay I could see children making playhouses of bangkas – outrigger canoes that are ubiquitous in the Philippines.

“Helloooo!” they yelled at me, laughing and radiating with the geniality I’d come to associate with Filipino island folk.

In the distance, the cylindrical rim of the island’s tallest volcano, Mount Malindig served as the backcloth to nature’s soft theatre. Notwithstanding the fishing boat bearing the designation No Woman, No Cry, there were few suggestions of a human world in my viewfinder.

Behind the treeline I came upon a line of makeshift shacks and ordered a coconut. If I’d had the skill, I might have picked one myself. After quenching my thirst, I endeavoured to explore Poctoy White Beach, a coastal strip of Torrijos municipality developed for tourism. It proved a humble affair. There were two ragtag eateries, a few thatch beach huts, and a bar hawking Red Horse beer.

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In Deepest Yunnan

Bruce-R1-00-1 smallA night train connects Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, with the popular holiday spot of Lijiang. Climbing 500 metres above Kunming, the 500km journey takes 10 hours, making the K9602 one of China’s slowest commercial trains. But a second-class ticket buys you a cosy bunk bed in a carriage bookended by bathrooms and hot-water dispensers. A flask of tea and a good book preceding an eight-hour nap – there are worse ways to travel.

When Hong Kong-based photographer and publisher Magnus Bartlett visited Lijiang in 1985, journeying behind the bamboo curtain wasn’t so easy: “It was like time travel; the only vehicles in the cities were bicycles, PLA jeeps and limos with red flags for officials. The people we met were nervous, often astounded. But the country was virgin, really untouched.”

That year, Bartlett accompanied late British travel writer Bruce Chatwin on a trip into deepest China, and when we meet during the Beijing book fair in August, the photographer arrives brandishing film of unpublished photographs of the journey. He holds the film up to the light and I’m treated to a full colour storyboard of Chatwin in motion; getting a shave from a village barber and looking at a map in a peasant’s home while sporting a pair of Nike jogging pants, a camera dangling around his neck.

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The Big Picture

duziThe 2017 Lishui Photography Festival  丽水摄影节 in Zhejiang Province was held in November with the kind of razzmatazz one has come to expect from a large-scale Chinese event bearing the official seal. Festivities began with the obligatory opening ceremony comprising predictable song-and-dance routines punctuated by vaguely jingoistic speeches from local honchos. The pomp set the tone for a festival gigantic in scale: More than 1,500 exhibitions infiltrated all quarters of Lishui 丽水, from North American exhibitions curated by New Yorker Jim Ramer to community photography projects peppering the alleyways of the old town. Legions of volunteers equipped with high-school English were on hand to point lost festival attendees in the right direction, while public buses were free, ensuring visitors could get from photo seminar to workshop to bar with as little bother as a third-tier Chinese city might otherwise cause.

This mammoth effort was part of Lishui’s aim to cast off its image as the ragtag industrial town documented in dispatches by Peter Hessler almost a decade ago. This historic, prefecture-level city — whose name literally means “Beautiful Water,” earned during the Tang dynasty — eschews heavy industry in favor of developing culture and tourism these days, according to those I spoke with in the organizing committee. Lishui even landed a “Chinese Town of Photography” designation from the China Photographers Association 中国摄影家协会 in 1999.

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