Wendy and I had a remarkable
introduction to Chinese photography during the
week we spent at Lianzhou International
Photoweek last November. The purpose of
the trip was to investigate the possibilities
of increasing FotoFest’s connections with
Chinese photographers and photographic institutions
but what we found took us way beyond the usual
scope of photography.
The day broke early as the
alarm went off at 5:30 AM to get us to the flight
from Houston, northeast to Newark, then west
to China. Twenty-five hours later, we landed
in Hong Kong and were met by Jimmy Chu, a close
friend of Mr. Sushi Su, who had invited me to
Lianzhou International Photoweek. Mr.
Si quietly made certain that our arrival would
be flawless by putting us in the hands of Jimmy
Chu. Jimmy is a man in his forties, passionate
about photography, a Hong Kong and Cantonese
native who had been to school in the U.S. and
worked for many years as a trade representative
in China for the Governor of Iowa. He took a
week from his work to translate and guide for
Wendy and me at Sushi Si’s request.
Jimmy took us to the Harbor
Plaza Metropolis Hotel and we checked into our
room on the 20th floor where we were treated
to a magnificent night view of the Hong Kong
Harbor looking west. In the morning, looking
from another angle, we watched the ferries,
junks, and tourist ships plying the harbor,
the second largest ship handling port in China,
and perhaps the world. It was a very exciting
The view from our hotel the night
we arrived and what we saw in the morning below.
I had been to China to a photo
festival in Pingyao in 2002 and found the experience
very interesting. Mr. Sushi Si, the organizer
of the festival, was a well respected writer
and newspaper editor in China who Wendy and
I had met in Japan some years before at an international
conference given by photographer Eikoh Hosoe
in Kiyosato. At that time, Mr. Si was lecturing
about contemporary Chinese photography. I remember
that he described Wu Jialin as China’s
most famous documentary photographer and an
international star. (Click
here for background information on Wu Jialin)
Wu was the unknown photographer who we had invited
to Houston for FotoFest 1996. A trip to China
to visit Wu Jialin to see the world he had so
skillfully captured in Yunan has been one of
our persistent dreams. Wu Jialin was having
an exhibit in Lianzhou and we hoped he would
Jimmy Chu met us at the hotel
the next day and we rolled our luggage to the
Hung Hom train station a 10-minute walk through
a brightly lit tunnel from the hotel. Endless
shops led the way to the modern station. We
checked through Hong Kong Customs (still separate)
and departed on time at 12:15 PM.
Fast train takes us from Hong
Kong to Guangzhou in less than two hours.
The modern train smoothly gathered
speed as we slipped out of Kowloon into the
New Territories, the mainland part of the great
island port of Hong Kong. It passed though what
seemed to be an endless corridor of higher and
higher highrises, factories, more highrises,
and factories. Jimmy Chu explained that we were
following the corridor of the Pearl River, one
of the most important new industrial zones,
created in the early 80's before the incorporation
of Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region
into the People’s Republic of China in
Along the Pearl River
from Hong Kong to Guangzhou stretches an amazing
corridor of growth.
Managerial expertise and entrepreneurial
energy, plus outside money had changed the Pearl
River corridor into an industrial zone that
competes with a similar zone along the Yangtze
River Delta (Shanghai area). Workers were recruited
by the hundreds of thousands to work in the
factories and much of what we passed were worker
accommodations adjacent to the factories that
churned out the low-cost goods that we have
come to expect from China. I suddenly realized
that from hat, shirt, to shoes and the gizmos
in my bag, I was whizzing at high speed by the
people who had dressed me from head to toe.
Many former residents of Hong
Kong are moving to the less expensive accomodations
in the New Territories where housing is more
comfortable than in crowded Hong Kong.
There were other recent changes
in the New Territories. We passed by a lake
and Jimmy explained that this was a place where
retirees seek the good life, selling their expensive
and crowded apartments in Hong Kong Island and
Kowloon, to have less expensive food, housing
and a better life. Millions of others live in
the New Territories and work in the city. The
more spacious water front apartments seemed
a familiar solution for commuters as well as
those seeking a next-to-final resting places
for as retirees.
We were picked up at the train
station with Jimmy Chu and taken by taxi to
We arrived in Guangzhou in
less than two hours on a train that was far
easier on our weary bones than similar trains
in the U.S. or U.K. After clearing Chinese Customs
we were met by an enthusiastic student volunteer
with my name on a card, and we taxied through
a city of amazing 50-70 story skyscrapers, that
frankly, made Houston look like a village. We
stopped at the Hotel Bai Yun (White Cloud),
also known as Best Western. Here we were treated
to a cappuccino. This is the new China.
The taxi ride to the bus took
us through a city that made Houston look like
We soon loaded on a chartered
bus to take us on our final leg to Lianzhou.
With the exception of Michael Famighetti, a
young American editor from Aperture Magazine,
the other passengers were young Chinese also
going to the festival.
After a slow start the bus
pulled into rush hour traffic at 4:30 PM which
provided us with a 40 minute traffic jam to
the outskirts of Guangzhou where the city gave
up its skyscraper-super city look to row upon
row of two story food and repair shops then
strips made up of somber alcoves where services
of every kind were provided by workers with
a few tools, sweat, and a pair of hands.
The Guangzhou traffic jam finally
led us to the highway through the mountains
The thought of Houston as a
village began to subside as we edged through
the traffic; cars, buses, trucks, bicycles,
human pulled carts, people, all going every
which-a way in the snarl. It had begun to rain
and the dark scenes were contrasted with garish
red neon signs in Chinese, blurred and distorted
by the streaks of water that accumulated and
began to run down the dirty bus windows - then
on to grim unlit abandoned factories as we approached
the Pearl River on the outskirts of Guangzhou.
I imagined this to be more like the ‘old’
China when the city was called Canton.
We were finally released to
a four lane expressway but it became a very
different road a few miles from Guangzhou. For
four-and-a-half hours the driver skillfully
maneuvered the jolting bus around the four lanes
pockmarked, fractured by time and neglect. Everything
on this highway was shrouded in gloom. The intermittent
gas stations were dark and it was impossible
to tell whether they were even open. They were
so different from American truck stops, bright
illuminated emporiums of fuel, fast food, clean
toilets, stacked with gewgaws to satisfy the
tired travelers’ impulse to break the
monotony of the road with purchases of stuff
- probably made in China.
After two hours the bus pulled
off for a break; here, under a wooden shack,
it was possible to buy boiled corn-on-the cob
and the local corn boilers were very amused
that I took pictures of the process. The ‘comfort
stop’ was in the back, past the snake-like
mystery food hanging on a wire, to a clean tiled
trough with a blue plastic water tap, a place
where men could relieve themselves. But for
those with more serious requirements –
good luck! It is hard to imagine how a woman,
without special training, could use this accommodation.
The roadside rest stop introduced
us to various Chinese countryside mystery snacks.
We set off again, climbing
on the road that became even more cratered,
into the first mountain range, the barrier between
the regions of Hunan Guang Xi and Guang Dong
toward Lianzhou, the gateway between north and
Finally, close to the city
it smoothed out and around 9:30 PM, and we pulled
up to the Lianzhou International Hotel, a 14
story structure that had the look of a concrete
wedding cake, with balconies protruding from
one corner of the building. It was there and
we were glad to see it. The accommodations were
modern and comfortable.
The International Hotel Guangzhou
The hotel was filled with Chinese
and a few Europeans who looked as though they
had just arrived from Mars. There, a group of
identically dressed young girls bunched together
under signs in Chinese heralding Lianzhou
International Photoweek, and giggling at
the sight of the strangers from the U.S., Europe,
Welcoming volunteers greet us
at the Hotel.
Wendy and I settled quickly
settled into our room and found that we were
across the hall from Jimmy Chu. We went to the
main dining room on the 4th floor and found
ourselves in the midst of a crowded room of
Saturday night Chinese family revelers. There
was a celebratory air; with children, grand
parents, all ages it seemed. Some were eating,
others drinking beer. It was a human version
of the traffic jam on the way out of Guangzhou,
as the young servers darted between noisy guests
retrieving pots and plates and pouring skillfully.
Nobody spoke English. When our waitress understood
that we couldn’t talk to her, she quickly
bridged the communications gap by writing the
question in Chinese. Drink orders were somehow
communicated with hand signals. What we got
was pot of hot water. At least this gave me
a chance to take my Tamiflu pill (I had previously
spotted a picture in the New York Times of a
worker spraying pigeons - guess where? –
Lianzhou). Then, I cleverly noticed that our
neighbors had little baskets filled with something
that might be Dim Sung dumplings. I ordered
and four baskets arrived. The first one I opened
turned out to be a carefully prepared specialty,
a pair of chicken feet. The next one was pork
tripe, and the third was a faintly disturbing
item that I ate out of desperation. It occurred
to me that I might finally lose 15 pounds and
slip into all those old clothes I still owned.
Then Jimmy Chu arrived with
Michael Famighetti from Aperture. We commandeered
Jimmy, moved to his table and renegotiated with
the waitress. Fortunately, Jimmy loves chicken
feet, so we retreated to fried rice and a few
other more familiar staples. With Jimmy’s
help, we soon found the dumplings that had eluded
us. I happily ate them every day – eventually
it resulted in a net gain of 7 pounds from my
Jimmy Chu negotiates alternatives for the feet
that I had inadvertently ordered.
Then, Mr. Sushi Si arrived,
the man who had made it possible to come to
Lianzhou. We all went to Jimmy’s room
after dinner where to our astonishment he produced
a new Espresso machine fresh out of the box
and he treated us all to an inky black cup of
coffee with the consistency of Texas crude.
This was sniffing Espresso, guaranteed to keep
anyone awake for two weeks if you actually drank
it. The after dinner gathering and espresso
in Jimmy’s room became the first of many
during our stay in Lianzhou and we were gradually
able to piece together the story of Lianzhou
International Photoweek and FotoFest’s
invitation to China.
The view from our hotel room
(above) and central Lianzhou from the Cultural
I had attended the Pingyao
Festival in 2002, having heard about it from
photography friends in Europe. Wendy was making
a speech and receiving an award from Foto Fiesta
in Medellin, Colombia at the time of my trip
to Pingyao, so she couldn’t come. Like
many festivals, the Chinese realized that Pingyao
festival was an avenue to the outside world.
With the aid of the French, culturally active
and long involved in China, the Pingyao event
did bring people from many parts of the world.
Lianzhou was the second of two very successful
festivals that had been organized by Mr. Sushi
Si with the collaboration of the French organizer
Alain Julian. We heard from other sources that
the local government, taking note of the success
of Pingyao, had decided take it over, dispensing
with the services of both Mr. Si and Mr. Julian.
The Mayor of Lianzhou, Lin
Wen Zhao, a young energetic, progressive man
was looking for ways to push his city forward
and find ways to provide visibility and new
economic development for the city.
This apartment complex is under
construction across from the
China is reaching Lianzhou with brochures, English
language slogans from the height of life
and the experience is up and down,
and European models.
In the process of economic
development discussions with the Guangzhou-based
Hanron Media Co, the subject of photography
came up. The Mayor became interested in sponsoring
a photography event - thinking it would bring
Chinese tourists and photographers to the city.
He was personally involved with photography,
being an amateur photographer himself. The Hanron
Media Co was headed by a dynamic young event
organizer Mr. Van Chan, and it turned out that
Van Chan’s wife, Yuting Duan, had been
an assistant to Sushi Si when he was running
the Pingyao Festival. So when Van Chan became
the event organizer of what became the Lianzhou
International Photoweek, Yuting Duan became
the Vice Director and Creative Director in charge
of selecting the Chinese photographers and guests
for the festival.
Van Chan, Director of the Lianzhou
festival discusses his future plans.
Mr. Sushi Si was asked to be
a senior consultant for the new Lianzhou festival
and he brought his French co-organizer Alain
Julian back into the picture in the same role,
choosing international artists and guests for
the new festival. Julian also provided some
funding and participation from the French government.
Wendy and I were the sole U.S. curators invited
by the Chinese
Mayor Lin Wen Zhao is the real
catalyst and is determined to make Lianzhou
International Photoweek the major draw
for photographers in China and Chinese tourism
– along with industrial development from
outside China. He has put a lot of resources
into the effort and Lianzhou International
Photoweek had a number of large-scale surprises
that went beyond anything we had experienced
at the big international festivals around the
The Grand Opening of the festival
is photographed from the Cultural Center and
celebrated with billboards huge and small throughout
Lianzhou and in the region as far as Guangzhou.
Twelve hundred school children
were trained to help greet and guide tourists.
Ten-story banners, signs huge and small advertised
Lianzhou International Photoweek everywhere,
some as far away as Guangzhou. The 50 foreign
guests were put up at the best hotels and the
opening was a festival in itself, with dragon
dances, ethnic drum beating and massive public
entertainment. The exhibitions were crowded
with local citizens, most of whom had never
seen a photo exhibit. They seemed seriously
involved, along with the thousands of camera-wielding
amateur photographers who had come from all
over China. There had been so much publicity
about the foreigners that it was difficult to
walk from the Cultural Center, one of the exhibit
sites, to the nearby hotel without being deluged
with students who wanted autographs or to have
their picture taken with us. We felt like rock
The foreign guests were
treated like rock stars by the Chinese in Lianzhou.
There are formidable obstacles
to overcome in remaking Lianzhou. Unlike the
ancient, carefully preserved Han city of Pingyao
(reconstructed by UNESCO), Lianzhou is a city
of 530,000 people, caught between the 1950s
and the future. It’s on the Lianjiang
River, in the middle of good agricultural land
but hardly the usual tourist destination. Lianzhou,
like Pingyao, is a very old city, founded in
590 A.D. and the meeting point between two different
ancient races, the Yao from the south and the
Han from the north. It’s located on an
ancient trade route on the way toYunan Province
where goods from three provinces were collected
The city of Lianzhou, like China, is a place
of contrasts and sharp contradictions.
Lianzhou is surrounded by surreal
and beautiful mountains, the Huangchuan Three
Gorges of the Lian Jiang River. However, it’s
difficult to reach by modern standards, with
a broken highway and no current rail or air
service. Moreover, the beautiful scenery around
Lianzhou tends to be obscured by a haze of coal
dust extending from Hong Kong, along the Pearl
River industrial belt to Guangzhou, and up through
the mountains to Lianzhou. It never lifted the
ten days that we were there.
Radically different housing conditions
exist along the same street in downtown Lianzhou.
The materials that we received
at the hotel stated that the purpose of the
festival was to create an event that had great
influence in China (tourism), provide a positive
image of Lianzhou (tourism), and finally to
promote industrial development and investment
in the city. Although the mayor’s efforts
reportedly filled every hotel in the city, some
of the more serious economic development had
to do with the Mayor securing a German sausage
factory that is moving to Lianzhou along with
a proposed beer factory that would in the future
supply yet another tourist attraction, a Chinese
sausage/beer fest, in conjunction with Lianzhou
International Photoweek. The Photoweek
did appear to draw hundreds of Chinese and amateur
and press photographers.
People, young and old,
are very enthusiastic about photography and
professional and amateur photographers are the
source of great hope for tourism.
Wendy and I were able to gain
special insights about Lianzhou, China, and
photography in China with the help of the small
group of Chinese who began to meet in Jimmy
Chu’s room. In addition to Jimmy and Mr.
Sushi Si, we were joined by Lei Gao, a brilliant
and successful young businessman from Beijing
reputed to be the best digital printer in China
-- and a practicing photojournalist in Gaza.
He was a close friend of Jimmy Chu’s.
Professor Pok Chi Lau, a Chinese-American on
sabbatical from The University of Kansas, joined
the group. The Professor, originally from Hong
Kong, was studying and photographing Chinese
society. We called them, with mutual consent,
the Gang of Four. We met at dinner almost every
night and had long talks during the day. Our
ad-hoc think tank discussed strategies that
would accomplish goals with respect to FotoFest
and the Chinese photography scene.
(left to right) Wendy, Sushi
Si, Lie Gao, Jimmy Chu and Pok Chi Lau; the
Gang of Four, meet regularly to plan collaborations.
There is enormous creative
energy among Chinese photographers that reflects
the overall changes taking place in the country.
There were 80 photography exhibits in Lianzhou;
five of them were Lianzhou professionals, the
rest were photographers from China, and abroad.
There was heavy participation from Chinese photo
news associations and other influential groups
with 52 Senior Consultants, Academic Members
and Curators, and Directors (government) listed
in the catalogue. In spite of such large group,
they didn’t seem to exert a negative influence
on the exhibits. The number of interesting shows
Exhibits at the Cultural Center
during the Grand Opening drew huge crowds.
There were four main locations
for shows. The Lianzhou Exhibition Center, the
official cultural hall, also served as a venue
for lectures and discussions. The Lianzhou Museum
was across the street and there were two industrial
buildings, the Shoe-Factory Exhibition Center
and the Candy Factory Exhibition Center that
had been renovated as galleries. Although the
lighting in the Shoe and Candy factories was
sometimes problematical, they served as excellent
exhibition spaces, each with an ad-hoc cafe.
Wendy and I found new talents,
both Chinese and non-Chinese and are considering
several of them for exhibitions in the future
at FotoFest. There is good conceptual and documentary
photo work being done. Many photographers are
addressing the social conditions and changes
that are rapidly altering the face of China.
China is abundant with contradictions and some
of the work dealt with this phenomenon.
Superb digital printing for this
documentary exhibit was donated by Lei Gao.
We were surprised to see exhibits
about poverty, pollution and urban disruption.
However, only a small trickle of this kind of
work has made it out to the West, Wu Jialin
is the star among those who are recording the
racial complexity of old China.
Some Chinese are dealing
with change in their country with a critical
and ironic eye.
The presence of the French, under the leadership
of Alain Julian was strong, and the exhibitions
that he provided were of high quality. Alain
also brought the Head of Photography of the
French Ministry of Culture to Lianzhou, as well
as the Director of the Arles Rencontres, and
others. The French Government, unlike the U.S.
government, has been very active in spreading
influence through art and cultural collaborations
that create photography festivals in many countries
around the world.
Many younger photographers have
abandoned the documentary mode for approaches
inspired by commercial work. Some have even
ventured toward the erotic (below).
There are a large number of
talented Chinese photographers who would like
to have more exchange with the U.S. and Europe,
and there are a growing number of curators and
cultural entrepreneurs in the field interested
in becoming involved in collaborations abroad.
Like so many other things, the visual arts are
going through an explosion of energy in China,
and contact with the world outside China, particularly
Europe and the U.S. are very important to people
in China’s art worlds. The Chinese have
a particular fascination with photography. Photography
festivals in China have started in the last
seven-eight years as vehicles for international
During the week in Lianzhou,
Jimmy Chu, Professor Pok Chi Lau, and Lei Gao
not only translated for us as we conducted interviews
on local TV, and with magazine and newspapers,
but also translated for younger Chinese photographers
interested in knowing about FotoFest’s
exhibition and Meeting Place portfolio review
programs. The word quickly spread that FotoFest
was interested in creative Chinese artists and
curators. Wu Jialin, himself, has done much
to deliver good news about FotoFest throughout
the Chinese photography world. After his 1996
exhibit in Houston, he subsequently won the
Leica Medal of Excellence, a Mother Jones Award
in 1996, and had numerous shows in Germany,
France, ICP in New York (with Marc Riboud),
Moscow and Samara, Russia. Wendy was invited
to select the work of 10 important contemporary
artists for the prestigious publication Blink,
published by Phaidon, and Wu was included.
Jimmy Chu (above) and
photographer Wu Jialin at the Chocolate Factory.
Wu Jialin had an exhibit in
Lianzhou and we were delighted to find he and
his wife were staying in the same hotel. As
the result of several long conversations, translated
by Jimmy Chu and Lei Gao, it turned out that
Wu, now 64, retired from his job as photographer
for a small government photo agency in Kunming,
is living on a tiny pension, and supporting
sick relatives. Despite his international fame,
he cannot buy good film and paper. To continue
working, he is forced to use the cheapest materials
available and they are not always reliable.
He makes his own chemicals, and mixes them in
the local water that is very alkaline. For his
show at Lianzhou International Photoweek,
for example, he was forced to produce a 35 print
show with 50 sheets of photo paper that the
organizers gave him – a situation not
conducive for producing quality exhibition prints.
Jimmy Chu, Wu Jialin, and Lei
Gau discussing ways to find better photo materials.
We were surprised to discover
over the course of the week that FotoFest was
well known by Chinese photographers due to our
discovery of Wu Jialin in 1996. He has unfailingly
described his experience with FotoFest in the
Chinese press. The Chinese artists and curators
told us that FotoFest was seen as a platform
that provided the kind of international credibility
that Chinese photo institutions and photographers
were eager to get. We were credited as a place
for discovery, a situation that is relevant
to the needs of many Chinese photographers.
This was further borne out by a surprise visit
by the new director of the Pingyao festival,
Wang Yue, who was visiting Lianzhou International
Photoweek. Yue asked if a delegation from
The China Pingyao International Photography
Festival could attend FotoFest as observers
at their own expense.
(above) Professor Pok Chi Lau
with Mayor Lin Wen Zhao and Fred for interview.
The Mayor invites Wendy, Fred and Professor
for lunch (below).
The day before we left, the
Mayor of Lianzhou requested an interview with
Wendy and me and arrived at the hotel with a
TV crew. He asked about FotoFest and then to
our astonishment said that he had learned about
FotoFest’s international work and its
openness to the world. Wendy and I were then
invited to a special lunch, that included the
French and later had our portraits taken by
a Zhang Jianshe, the official photographer of
Premier Wen Jiabao.
Fred and Wendy get their their
portraits done by the official photographer
of Premier Wen Jiabao.
With the help of the Gang
of Four, Wendy and I formulated the first
step of a long-range plan that we all agreed
could be a great benefit to the Chinese and
the next step would be their presence at FotoFest
Neither Wendy nor I was prepared
for depth and intensity of our experience
Fred Baldwin January 15, 2006
Photographs taken with Leica