October 15th, 2010
Yangzhou, China, feels unfinished and new, contradicting its history as a trading center older than millennium. Buried in its heart is an old town, one that is newly constructed but mimics the ancient brickwork. It is an ornamental trapping for a city bursting with high tech industry.
There is no decisive line dividing old and new; it’s a graduation from buildings with a city-mandated height to office towers and apartment high rises, sprawling expansively across agricultural plains once governed by the rise and fall of the river.
Our Western eyes were to show this dichotomy, to celebrate the city’s historical wealth and new found treasure, but we did so within the constraints of Eastern etiquette and policy.
I was part of a press junket, a mishmash of art, landscape, and press photographers from across the globe. This may have been the first time I ever walked out of the airport and was greeted by a sign with my name on it. My 15 hour flight ended with a four hour drive through the darkness, from Shanghai to Yangzhou, where all the photographers were put up in a five star hotel without potable tap water. Three hours later, I woke to the sunrise and began taking photos from my window; of apartment blocks, the construction cranes, and the coal-fired power plant on the horizon.
We were treated to some impressive dinners and rounds of speeches by chairmen and business owners of the various companies that sponsored the trip. We sampled everything from sea cucumber to shark fin soup (I know, I know) to pickled double-yoke eggs and abalone. I found the salt content intense and the textures gelatinous, but really what it comes down to is my taste isn’t refined enough to appreciate Chinese cuisine. Still, it was quite an opportunity.
As a tourist, the level of care and courtesy we received was exemplary; we saw a number of historic sites, old residences, and impressive gardens. On the modern side, we toured gated communities, model homes, and the city’s first shopping mall. It was palatial.
As a storyteller, it was more difficult. For the next two mornings of this short trip, I was up before dawn, in a taxi, looking for images that might step beyond the carefully constructed scene our hosts showed us. I had about two hours between sunrise and our meeting time to explore. I wanted to see what was there, before the expansion. I wanted to see the act of urbanization, and I desperately wanted to photograph the industry that was driving it, including the power plants. That week, China surpassed the US in the renewable energy market, even as carbon watch dogs were pointing fingers at China’s numerous coal-fired power stations.
While my requests for access to some of the industry were ultimately denied–granted, they were last minute–our guides did their best to meet the smaller requests, They also gave us what time they could to wander as freely as possible, which I appreciated. I found the true, old market where men sold squirming eels and crawfish on the roadside and I was able to stand out the sunroof to make a long-lens shot down four lane avenue.
As a multimedia storyteller, I look for the narrative in conflict and resolution. I know Yangzhou is growing exponentially, as a distant suburb of bustling Shanghai. I know its industrial strength is increasing, driving a housing boom and pushing its edges further into the fields. If Yangzhou’s economy stays on course, it may regain the economic and geographic importance it once held, when the Great Canal, hand dug 2500 years ago, made it a regional trading hub.
I know there is a deeper story, a Chinese story, that is visually striking, passionate, and revealing of the richness Yangzhou has to offer. This is the story my Western eyes would like to tell. Someday, if I find the opportunity to return to Yangzhou.
If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!