The day was January 19th on a warm day in the great city of Hong Kong. A day where the sun shined brightly upon our pale faces after a brisk stay in mainland China's Shanghai. A free day where we were able to re-explore a city we have come to know as locals. On the first day back in the city, groups went to Victoria's Peak as well as other prominent landmarks, others also traveled around unexplored Burroughs of the city.
A group of six and I traveled into Central Hong Kong to enjoy the bright sun. A day filled with witnessing beautiful scenes such as a young couples wedding day photo shoot. An interesting Chinese spin on kebabs.
After a long day of walking in the cute European flared area and a great day of getting our bodies out of Vitamin D deficiencies, we knew we would have to go back to the cute neighborhood to check out the world famous night life on the mixed cultured night life hub of Lan Kwai Fong.
On Sunday, we left Shanghai and returned to Hong Kong; this process felt a little like leaving a hostile, foreign land and returning home-- although the analogy is far too harsh on the nature of the mainland megacity and a bit too presumptuous as we had only spent a number of days there. As I reflect on the time spent in Shanghai, I can’t help but realize how much we have learned that does not directly pertain to photography or the traditional contents of a classroom.
Contrary to my beliefs fueled by western mainstream suspicions of the far east, Asia is incredibly diverse; even between cities as relatively close to each other in proximity as Shanghai and Hong Kong. While Hong Kong is dense, crowded, yet ordered, Shanghai is the largest city in the world by population but larger in size, less crowded and far more chaotic. In Hong Kong you can rely on a green pedestrian light to cross the road whereas in Shanghai a protected crosswalk means next to nothing to speeding scooter or a public bus. Then there’s the internet freedom that differentiates the mainland city from the one dubbed a special administrative region; as soon as we stepped foot into the Hong Kong airport, just about everyone was updating statuses, checking tweets, and refreshing Instagram.
While there were countless other differences between Shanghai and Hong Kong that were obvious in a very short time, there were also similarities and valuable lessons to be learned from traveling between the two regions. In both cities, I encountered persistent beggars, wait staff standing outside their respective restaurants begging me to come eat inside, and people on the street (sometimes the same ones at completely different times of day) trying their very best to make a modest profit from selling selfie sticks. Although, the pushy and almost aggressive sales attitude was irritating I couldn't help to think about their lives at home, who they loved, and if there was in fact any real opportunity for them to do something more economically feasible in life.
At the hostel in Hong Kong, I met a young man named Louis from Venezuela. He was encouraged to leave his motherland by his parents when he had barely turned eighteen to pursue a better life. He was staying only one night in Hong Kong to renew his Chinese visa which was very difficult for him to get and forced him to leave and re-enter the mainland every few months. Now, he acts as a type of quality insurance for foreign clients looking to trade with Chinese wholesalers; when someone abroad wants something from China they find a seller, get a quote, and send Louis to go open the boxes in the warehouse and make sure everything is as promised. Louis can only get a visa for a year at a time and as mentioned before it is extremely difficult. When I told him we were granted ten year visas to take pictures in Shanghai for a few days I could see his eyes widen at the prospect although I knew he wasn’t surprised; “its because you’re white and American.” I learned from him that in China many clubs offer all you can eat specials followed by the statement “for foreigners only.” It seems there’s some internal oppression against the common folk in China and some serious social and economic incentive for the rich to stay rich and powerful.
Louis is turning twenty-years-old in a few months and says he loves China. While the country has many social and economic problems in terms of the distribution of wealth and opportunity, it has provided a better start in his professional life than he could have ever hoped for in Venezuela. Check your privilege.
Although you can read about politics and social issues around the world, you will never learn as much about them as when you experience them first hand. After these recent experiences, it feels bizarre walking around with my expensive gear and loft, unburdened consciousness photographing the natives. I care less about the images and more about their stories. Of course the images help tell the stories, but without the stories and the interactions the images are just postcards for tourists.