About a month or so ago was the ten year anniversary of my first trip to China in 2001. It was a trip that eventually turned into a three year stay. It also changed my life. I therefore would like to mark this anniversary by sharing with you a few photographs that were taken during those first few weeks in Jilin City, located in the northeast of China. It would be another six months before I would meet my eventual wife for the first time, but those first few weeks was when the China bug bit.
It is hard to explain what made those weeks so special, it was a potent mix of so many factors, but they simply swept me off my feet. It was a feeling that with time I grew away from, and in retrospect I think I stayed for as long as I did because I wanted to recreate the feeling that I had in that period, but those extra months and years were not so intoxicating. Pictures will never tell the whole story, but I hope that these images and comments at least begin to explain why China captivated me.
On a technical note, these pictures were taken using film (using an Advanced Photo System
camera and cartridge; which is probably now sitting in a museum alongside a can of New Coke
) and the prints have been scanned. To those passing through this website, please remember that these photographs are now over ten years old and do not necessarily represent China in 2011. Things change. I drove though the city last year and had to be told, 'We are in Jilin City.'
Things can change very quickly. What follows, to a certain extent, are images of ghosts of China recent past.Slim Pickens' 10th Anniversary: Looking Back at Jilin City, 2001
Seeing a statue of CM gave me that feeling of having arrived in the People's Republic of China, to use that oft-used line, it was my 'You're not in Kansas anymore'
moment. I missed out on visiting Berlin while the wall was still in use, have never visited North Korea, so I liked the idea that I had visited China in an era when those statues were still standing.
I used to like walking in my spare time - not for health reasons or a passion for pursuits like hiking - it got me discovering new places. It also helped me to get a better sense of my surroundings and out of a sparsely decorated and potentially depressing apartment. I loved the crisp mornings and the city looked rather pretty after a sprinkling of snow.
In those early days I could not get enough of pavilions, pagodas and temples. Fast forward a couple of years and I did fall into a 'seen one temple and you have seen them all'
mind-set, but in 2001 I would look upon my day with disappointment if I had not seen a Chinese eave.
Whilst walking around the city's main park I caught sight of these two young cadets/soldiers. I suppose this picture was my attempt at being quirky, in a 'if I had been a member of Wham! I would have stood between them wearing one of their hats'
kind of way. In the background you can see an older man looking back at me. A few minutes earlier I had taken his picture without his permission. My use of the international language of smiling, after the picture had been taken, did not mean a jot to him. It taught me a little lesson about taking photographs of people.
The next group to get upset with my picture taking were staff at a large supermarket. They did not like it when they spotted my camera flash. They shouted at me and removed the heads from public view. My companion, who had brought me to the store, urged me to walk away as quickly as possible.
I never quite understood the purpose of their job, or rather the decision to issue them with a piece of equipment which only swept away the layer of snow that allowed my shoes to grip the surface. They made my walk to work more treacherous underfoot, and looking at the pavement in the foreground reminds of the occasions when I ended up on the ground.
This was another job that I did not understand. Nobody seemed to be taking the slightest bit of notice of the man with the red flag. In the background are two buildings which played on my imagination. The building on the left never seemed to have anyone working on it. I would have liked to have known more about the story behind the reason why; when I returned to the city a few years later it was still under construction. The building on the right had me imagining what was going inside the circular observation platform. I was always on my best behaviour when in sight of it; just in case there were police behaving like North Korean border guards, with binoculars pressed to their eyes carefully watching for evidence of my interfering in China's internal affairs.
This is quite possibly my favourite photograph: Dongbeiren meets Ronald McDonald. I was so pleased that he did not budge when I opened my camera and gestured to him that I wanted to take a photograph. I love his expression, a warm blend of confidence and comfortableness. I will never forget his gentle nod of the head as I tried to say 'thank you'
as I put my camera away.
Yes, a tourist picture cliché, but this was me seeing in person what dozens of TV presenters had filmed before me in the food section of their China travelogues. This was one of my Michael Palin moments. What I like about this picture is that the noodle maker would have been doing that even if I had not been there. I have been to some tourist hotspots where the presence of the noodle maker seems to be somewhat contrived. I remember spotting one in Yangshuo, during the final few months of my time in China, and saw two Western tourists taking an identical picture. I was sitting in one of the many cafes that line the main tourist streets (I was eating a traditional English breakfast at that point in a stay in China when finding somewhere that serves dishes from home is as equally appealing as the scenery. I remember someone once posting that Yangshuo was a great place to visit foodwise if you had been living in China for a year or more, because discovering that you could eat a western breakfast would not be such a revelation had you arrived in China just a few days earlier) and initially scoffed at the scene, but I suppose I was rather envious of seeing them enjoy their Michael Palin moment, it reminded me of when everything that felt new to me too.
I grew up watching a lot of Clive James' television work which created a certain image and expectation of the Far East. Although this was northeast China, seeing Chinese employees going through their morning exercise and chanting company slogans was my first taste of what I had seen in so many of those programmes.
The first time I caught a glimpse of students exercising I stood watching as if it were an Olympic opening ceremony. I never grew board of it and tried to make it part of my day, in the same way that some listeners to BBC Radio 4 listen out for the shipping forecast. If the school had removed it from their schedule I would have probably led a campaign to reinstate it, in the same way that Radio 4 listeners complain when changes are made to their beloved station.
It is hard to convey what these pictures mean to me, they were taken as I made my way from the apartment to the school where I gave a few lessons at weekends. I can still hear the rings of the bicycle bells, the car horns, the electronic voice calling out to passers-by from a portable speaker to attract custom, the smell of food being cooked, and the sound of the ice cracking and crunching as I tiptoed my way along the road. These photographs help to preserve some of those memories.
My shoes were not suitable for a Dongbei winter - I had packed thinking that winter in the northeast of China would be similar to winter in the south of England - so I spent one afternoon trying to find winter shoes that would fit me. One of the school owners thought it would be a good idea to have a film crew follow me as I attempted to find some. I visited several stores, but had no luck until I was told there was a shoemaker in town. I asked the crew if they could drive me there, but before we piled into the car they asked me to stop people in the street and ask for directions to the shoemaker. I could barely speak a word of Chinese, so for a few minutes I was filmed stopping people in the street to perform a 'Where is the shoemaker?'
mime, followed by frantic pointing in all directions and a theatrical shrug of the shoulders. Eventually we arrived at the shoemaker and they were able to make me some shoes. I never saw the finished video.
I had some great nights out at Jie Jie's Disco. I doubt the place exists today, and looking at the building in the cold light of day, without the neon and the camouflage of darkness, it does not look the most appealing of places. But if it had been a swanky venue, in a more fashionable city, I probably would not have had the same kind of nights out. I sometimes feel that too much attention is given to questions like, 'What is the best city in China?'
, 'What is the best place to teach?'
, because ultimately it is the people you meet, the people that share the office with you, that will determine the quality of your time in China. It was the people that I met, and a colleague in an office that I later married, that made the difference.
I would love to return to China again for an extended period, but I have been back in the UK for seven years with my Chinese wife, now a British citizen, and our young son who will be two years old at the end of this month. It is no longer about me and what I would like to do.