Jock Lauterer, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Carolina Community Media Project at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has returned to China for a third summer to teach Community Journalism at workshops from Beijing to Chongqing to Guangzhou. His latest book, “Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local,” was released on May 28 in Shenzhen, after being revised and translated into Mandarin Chinese.
His English wasn’t that good, but we spoke another common language fluently. The photographer from the Southern Metro Daily, Zhao (“Jacky”) Yan Xiong, had been sent to take my picture for the morning paper. But after getting his shots, the slim, bright-eyed 30-year-old was more interested in sharing his passion for documentary photojournalism with a kindred spirit. For the last nine years he’s been documenting “the Green Trains,” the narrow-gauge steam locomotives that serve the farmers living in vast rural expanses of China. But the Middle Kingdom, in its dizzying vault to modernity, is retiring the Green Trains in favor of the speedier bullet trains. To my new friend, this is a travesty, and a reason to capture their fleeting images before it is too late. A way of life is disappearing, and with it, part of old China. “On the high speed train, it goes so fast, people don’t talk to each other,” he tells me. “You just play with your cell phone. But on the Green Train, you can talk to strangers, and especially in the mountains lands, where the high speed trains by-pass, the people must use the Green Train to get to market.” Then he tells me something surprising: when he’s shooting the trains, he puts aside his state-of-the-art digital camera in favor of a classic, 35-mm. Leica that uses film. Repeat: FILM — a medium that is as sweet, authentic and as disciplined as the narrow-gauge, steam driven engines Jacky is trying to help preserve visually. Showing me some of his photographs he has stored on his smart phone, he tells me modestly that he hopes to publish his portfolio some day as a book. I promise to help. And I mean it. “When I am out shooting the trains,” Jacky says with satisfaction, “I can put my whole heart into it.”
When photographing in China, I am constantly fascinated by the ironic juxtaposition of icons from America slipping into my camera’s viewfinder. There are those ever-present apartment towers, where hundreds of people live for years without ever knowing their neighbors, I’m told by residents. And then there’s that quintessentially American golden arches sign poking its head up, as if to say: “It doesn’t matter where you wander in this wide world — would you like fries with that?”
She didn’t have an English name, so could I please come up with one? And while I was at it, how about her son? Sitting out in public in Chongqing, where Westerners are few, I was often approached by passers-by who wanted to practice their English on me. But this was a first. Getting to give someone a name? And not just one someone — but two! First, I said, I need to know your real name. The young mother obliged. “Bountiful Autumn Harvest,” she told me. Well then, you’re Dawn, and your son is Luke. Hearing that, she threw her arms around my neck. Pulled back with a blush, uttered a quick thank you, and ran lightly away. Dawn and Luke. Where on earth did I get that?
Every night in the Huixing neighborhood of Chongqing, a back alley comes alive. Known as “Food Street” to the college kids from the nearby university, it is a mélange of food, filth, smells beyond cataloguing and every manner of mouth-searing, tongue-numbing, eye-watering, nose-running Sichuan street cooking you could desire. If they had a health department, they’d shut the place down in a heartbeat. But, “this is China,” as I am told repeatedly, several times a day. As if that justifies almost anything.
You’ve surely of the classic “three pillars of journalism:” Smokin,’ cussin’ and drinkin’. In the case of the latter, the Chinese journalists are second to no one. They start at lunch with their Tsingtao brewskies, and you’d better rise to the occasion when they begin toasting you because frankly it is a test of your manhood. Oh hey! Or your womanhood, should that be the case. Luckily for yr hmbl svt, I was well-trained by “Shu,” a hard-drinking, expletive-deleted, smoke-puffing journalist who could peel paint off the walls with his critique of your sloppy work. So I impressed my Chinese buddies with my hollow leg. And they impressed me right back; did you know you can open a beer bottle with chopsticks?!
About 300 years before Jesus was born, some farmers in China came up with the bright idea of decorating boats like dragons and racing them. Now, some 2,300 years later, the annual Dragon Boat Race Festival in late May is a knock-down-drag-out intercity donnybrook, with teams competing for yearly bragging rights. I’m shooting this race in Shenzhen down in the southern province of Guangdong, and I learn that the longest and best-decorated boat gets buried in the owner’s irrigation canal in hopes that the boat’s good luck will rub off on the local harvest. At year’s end, the boat is exhumed, dried out and re-purposed. Notice the coxswain beating the drum. Maybe the UNC crew team should try that.
You can’t help but be impressed by how physically active the elderly of China are. At every turn, I’d see old folks out dancing, stretching, exercising, doing Tai Chi — or in the case of this old dude, chugging along every morning in spite of the foul air. Which leads me to wonder: aren’t people dropping like flies from the egregious air pollution? Twice now I’ve returned from 3-4 week stays in China with a mysterious skin ailment, which, upon return, dissipates rapidly. Is it just that I’m not acclimatized to the filth those poor people have to live in? On one particularly wretched gray day in Chongqing, when I asked my host to rate the air pollution (from “Terrible, to Moderate to Acceptable”), he chose “moderate.” I responded by telling him if Americans woke up one morning to such a “moderate” day, we’d be marching in the streets in protest. “This is China,” I am told. Ah yes.
Sometimes you have to go halfway around the world to find a treasure in your own backyard. I had no idea the leaves of the sweet potato could be eaten. Turns out the greens of the good old yam are delicious when cooked with garlic, ginger, soy sauce, canola and sesame oils. Coming from the Old North State where the yam is grown in great quantity and where, in Tabor City, they have the annual Yam Festival, it struck me as downright humorous that I had to have a Chinese photojournalist from Guangdong Province be the one to show me how to prepare the dish. Now that I’m home, you can bet I’ll be on the hunt for some yam greens next time I go to the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. Who knew?