Global Lives project

Global Lives project

Working on a project with other people is really different.  I am used to – actually, really like – pottering off on my own to make photographs.  Others travelling with me are likely to be ‘photo’d’ out really quickly and not understand that the view is very different just 5 steps on, necessitating another photo stop.  However, working  with a group of people all focused on the same thing, all wanting to take another angle, just one more image , was amazing.  This happened with the NGO project “Global Lives” that I was lucky enough to work on.

Global Lives ( aims to follow 10 people from around the world for a full day of their lives. It is a combination of video and still photography, and the final product is showcased on their website as well as in some museums and galleries in different countries.  Our project was to follow a Chinese train attendant as she left home, arrived at work, prepared, worked her shift and finally left the train. Ms Fan Ruixian stoically allowed video and still cameras to literally be in her face for more than 24 hours, to allow us to edit out mistakes, battery change-overs and camera changes. Her patience was amazing!

Will 24 hours in her life change the world?  Maybe not – but it will certainly add to our understanding of the lives of others.

Posted by DeborahH in China, NGO, 2 comments
Old friends

Old friends

One of the results of hanging about a place long enough is not just seeing the changes, but also in seeing what stays the same. When I first came to China one of my favourite breakfasts was ‘jia bing’ – a crepe with egg, veges and a crispy wafer on top – and my particular favourite place to buy this was from the ‘hoppy lady’. This lady and her husband ran a mobile stall specialising in jai bing. What made her special was she was always happy and this happiness translated into a little hopping dance she did as she cooked the food. Her husband worked with her and as a couple they had the process down to a fine art, smooth and easy working. The fact that they were both deaf and had very limited speech had no impact on either the quality of their food or the enjoyment they had from serving their customers.

This weekend I returned to the area where the ‘hoppy’ lady worked, and was so happy to find her and her husband still there. I indulged in their fine jia bing for breakfast each day, and although our chatting was limited, we managed to work it out and she was quite happy for me to take their photos, and for me to ‘help’ her make the jia bing while her husband took our photo.

Nice to go back and see some things haven’t changed.


Posted by DeborahH in China, Homepage, 5 comments
Sharing culture

Sharing culture

Have you had the funny questions about your homeland when you travel? “Do Australians speak English?”, “Do you have a pet kangaroo?” “What do you eat?” … Understanding other cultures is difficult when you have never been there, and as a lecturer in China, teaching Culture among other things, I often have to explain about similarities and differences in “Western” (which western culture you ask!!) and Chinese culture.

One of the ways I do this is to show a ‘video’ I’ve made after each of my sojourns back home. This one is my latest: Australian Weekend The students enjoy the break from theory and research, and the video gives loads of stimulus for questions – and of course, more research and papers/presentations later. :))

When I’m looking for ways to understand the cultures of places I want to visit, I head for websites of photographers who have been there. These photographs give me insights into the people and places I will be seeing. I also enjoy seeing photographs of places I’ve been to – the shock of recognition, the smile of ‘I’ve been there’, the ‘Did s/he see my favourite hidden corner?’ – these feelings make looking at those images more interesting.

Brian Hirschy has some really cool images of what is such a common, everyday occurrence in China, and they give such a clear picture of this part of Chinese culture. Chinese Chess

Another part of the current culture is bikes. From when Chairman Mao decided that bicycles would become the VWs or Trabis of China, Chinese people have taken to riding all forms of bikes, and carrying everything on them. Cars are, unfortunately, making a strong bid to take over, but until income rises significantly, Chinese people will keep using bikes.

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Posted by DeborahH in China, Cultural dimensions, 1 comment
All the tea in China

All the tea in China

Tea? Who drinks tea? At home, generally our parents’ generation drank tea. It was Indian style tea, strong and black in colour. Some drank it white and sweet, some black with lemon, some straight out of the billy, boiled over an open fire and tasting of smoke and gum leaves. The younger generation is more likely to drink coffee or fruit and herbal teas. But Chinese tea in all its variety? Not very many people really know this wonderful part of Chinese culture.

Here, I have learned to love tea and one of my favourite activities is to hit the tea markets and spend all day there, chatting to the tea sellers, sipping different teas, drooling over the beautiful teapots and trying to decide what to buy, how much lightening my wallet can stand.

Little tea shops are lovely places to start learning about tea. Tea shop owners are happy to spend time chatting about tea, while we sip different teas. Fancy tea shops also abound, and in these, the art of tea is as important as the taste. Here, the invariably beautiful girl serving you tea will be dressed in traditional costume, she will sit or kneel before you at a low, highly decorated, ornately carved table, and with graceful gestures pour tea into your thimble sized cups. A traditional musician may be playing nearby.

The tea pouring ritual is fun watch. The tea leaves are selected and we smell them, good aromas, strong or fresh grass green. The tiny cups are removed from the sanitiser with special tongs, and hot water is poutred over them, then water at the correct temperature (it varies with the type of tea) is poured over the leaves to wash them and this tea is then poured over the cups. Next round of water is poured onto the tea and then strained and finally tipped into your cup. The lid of the small tea pot or cup is offered for smelling, the colour of the tea examined and then we can sip. Each round of tea changes flavour, some becoming sweeter, others becoming stronger. Then different teas are offered, and we start again. Tea tasting is fun!!

There is a touch of snobbery around tea, just as there is around wine or olives or cheese back home. ‘Real’ tea isn’t fruit- or flower-flavoured. ‘Real’ tea relies on the mountain it is grown on, the water the tree is watered with, the age of the tree, the time of the year the leaves are picked and many more things aficionados talk about for hours.

To appreciate ‘real’ tea head for the tea markets. Tea markets are wonderful and sell everything to do with tea – the leaves themselves, the special pots, cups, tools and implements that accompany tea. Nimble fingered girls sort tea leaves and stalks. I stop to chat with them and they show me the stalks which can be used to replace your earrings at night. These stalks have an antiseptic quality and prevent infection. Like everything else edible or drinkable in China, tea in all of its forms is good for you!! Pu’er is good in winter, green tea in summer, this tea helps you lose weight, that tea helps you regain your appetite.

I have three “cha hais” – the table-top trays to hold the tea cups and pots while serving. But these are small – not like the huge, elaboratly carved and decorated marble and wooden tables. I also have a collection (growing…) of ‘cha chong’ (tea pets), small scultpures to bring luck. and to keep them beautiful, the waste tea and hot water are oured over them.

Tea is fascinating.

Posted by DeborahH in China, Homepage, 0 comments
Waiting for work

Waiting for work

Teddy Roosevelt had it right when he said “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”. But, China, like every other country has a high rate of unemployment, and here it is obvious. There are long lines in front of the city “talents’ offices, and the job notice board is surrounded by crowds hoping to spot that great job. Away from the offices, along the roads there are unoffical employment offices. Large numbers of people gather, waiting for an employer to offer day employment. One corner has painters, with their bikes and long rollers; another is filled with blue trucks, waiting for hauling work. Graders and large machinery operators play cards while waiting for the call.

To serve these patient people, others create their own jobs cooking food from their mobile stoves. Waiting gets boring… so cardboard boxes make good boards for Chinese chess, wild card games privide entertainment, and newpapers keep people informed. And when a foereigner comes along with a camera there is a bit of time for horseplay. “Don’t take my photo – I’m not handsome – take his”, and the fellas gather round to see the photo.


Posted by DeborahH in China, 0 comments
Memory-makers and Story-tellers

Memory-makers and Story-tellers


Two events conspired to make me think about the purpose of photography this week.

On the weekend I attended a massive festival for QingMing Jie – Tomb Sweeping Day.  Convoys of buses arrived at the Yellow Emperor’s tomb to pay their respects to the “founder” of China.  Bigwigs from the central government came, provincial and local officials attended in all their best clothes. A famous Chinese movie producer turned up.  In amongst all this throng were thousands of cameras.  Mobile phone cameras, Point and Shoots, DSLRs (mine included), hand-held video cameras, big video cmeras for TV stations and the HUGE ones relaying the ceremony to the projector scrreens on either side of the square.

As one of only four obvious foreigners there, I was the subject of many photos and this made me think about a couple of things.  Firstly,  I have NO problem being in photos – I take so many photos of other people I think it is only fair to allow others to take photos of me.  My way of passing it on.  Secondly, what will people do with the images of me – a total stranger – and what will they do with all of the images they took from that day?

The second event was a review of ALL of my images from nearly 10 years of living in China.  I am trying to make Lightroom 4 work for me, and I was making collections of themes I want to use at some time in the future.  My early photos in China were very similar to the ones I saw so many people making on the weekend.  Images of an event, of friends and family, of  being there, doing that.  What am I doing with those images?  And why are my images different now?  Not all of course, I still take photos of events (like last weekend), but now I feel a difference.

Those early photos seemed to me to be memory makers, a diary of my days.  I look them over and laugh at some of the fun times, see photos of people at parties and wonder who they are or where they are now.  Noboyoshi Ariki says “Each photo is a single day, and each photo contains the past and a projection into the future.  … a present instant between the past and the future.”  Thinking about photos like this clearly gives the memory-makers strength and interest.

Now though, I see my photographs as taking a step towards the ‘story-tellers’.  What was it like to be there, in that mass of people, celebrating something that I have no strong relationship too?   What feelings did I see among the people, their reactions, their ideas of what it was about? So my images move more towards the people involved in the event and just bits and pieces of the performance.  I am a part of the process, but I am also looking at it as a way of telling the stories of lives and interests and how people put their lives together, what they do to survive.

Memories and stories have a similar process – click the shutter and smile when the image comes up on the screen.  I  was there, and I can tell the story.



Posted by DeborahH in China, 0 comments
Lacquer ware – Bagan

Lacquer ware – Bagan

Does making beautiful things compensate for backache, for having to turn up to work  five or six days a week, in heat and rain, in storms or drought? I watched the lacquer artists and saw the exquisite beauty they created, and wondered if it was just a job for them, just a way of feeding their families. I held a romantic hope that, at the end of the day, while they stretched and rubbed their arms and shoulders, if they saw the beauty and smiled, just a little, inside.

The factory is not large – about the size of a tennis court under cover.  But each section has its own space and differing levels where the workers sit, each doing their own part in creating beauty for the tourist market in Yangoon.  Bagan is noted for its lacquer ware, and I can see why.  The care and effort that is needed to create each piece is immense.  One 3-coloured plate can take up to five months to make, and one mistake means sanding it all off and starting again.

As I chatted to the workers, I could see the concentration needed, and a little of the pride they take in their work.  There was not too much ‘office’ repartee happening, I think the work is so intense that to joke and gossip would create mistakes, so I was grateful when each worker stopped to show me his/her skill.

These particular pieces of lacquer ware are made of teak or bamboo, and unlike most other types, have a thin layer of cotton to add strength to the product.  Each piece is carved by hand or using hand driven machinery in the factory, and then layer after layer of lacquer, colour, lacquer, colour is etched, carved, sanded, polished and rubbed.  Drying in a special underground temperature controlled cavern ensures that the layers dry slowly and completely, and the next layer can be painted on evenly.

The completed good were beautiful, and for so much work, not expensive.  And so I wondered about the costs and benefits for the workers, and was grateful, that for me, creating beauty is an option, not a necessity and I can enjoy myself doing it.


Posted by DeborahH in Art and Craft, China, 1 comment

The Edges

Denise visit 3 - trip 366


I was watching a youtube video of an interview with William Allard the other day (  and was struck by his comment that “What’s around the performance is just as important as the performance”…and to ” look around the edges”.

Monastery dancing Monlam Festival Feb O8 172

I thought about this for a while – why are the edges important?  Surely the performance is what is the ‘main game’? This is what people pay for, what they come to see.  But after a while I realised that the edges are the reality, the edges are what gives the performance meaning.  The performance is not reality.  It is planned, practiced, perfected and polished.  Any semblance of reality has been removed.  Even sports events are highly choreographed, with years of practice behind each swing of the racquet, each kick of the ball, each long pass.

BUT.. the edges are the response, the impact of all of that planning and choreography.  The edges create the revolutions, show the passion, the delight, the disgust, the fear, the unity. The edges can provide us with insight into difference, into similarity, into what is important for people. The edges are the real elements that change that performance into something meaningful.

Monastery dancing Monlam Festival Feb O8 171

For the performers, the edges are what creates meaning in their     performance   With no ‘edges’ – no backstage, no audience, no response – the performance can lose intensity, strength and   external meaning for the performers.  No matter how glorious the performance is, with no audience and no response, then  the intent can only become technical or self-indulgent.


Look to the edges for meaning.




Posted by DeborahH in China, 0 comments
Hidden Treasures:  The Luthier

Hidden Treasures: The Luthier

Rural villages hide many secrets.  From the outside they look a little backward, and very… rural.  BUT, delve a little deeper and you can find some surprising secrets.  In the small village of Xi Gan, at the base of South WuTai Mountain lies one such secret.

Xie XiaoShi - luthier (1 of 1)-2

Xie Xiaoshi is one of China’s foremost luthiers. Why is someone whose guitars are the top of the range living here, away from the bright lights and conveniences of the city?  Because the mountains, the peace and the village life give him inspiration to create masterpieces.

When I visited him he had one completed guitar, ready to be sent to an exhibition in the United States and a couple more guitars were still being built.  Xie Xiaoshi is now well-known enough to only work on commission, and each guitar is individual.  To create just the right guitar, he talks to the guitarist.  What type of music will be played most, what personality do you have, how do you hold and handle guitars?  With this information he sets about creating just the right guitar for each guitarist.  Each guitar takes about 45 days to make, and will have his trademark flowing pearl X on the head.

Not only are they specifically designed for the player, they are works of art, using beautiful woods and inlays, loving crafted.  Xie Xiaoshi believes he is the only luthier in China who completely hand makes the guitars himself. There are other guitar makers, but they are usually more like a small factory with several apprentices and workers involved in the making.  Xie has full control from design to final touches.  333rd batch guitar maker 12-05-27-54-2

How did he become a luthier?  Xie Xiaoshi grew up in a musical family in Xinjiang, where he learnt to sing, dance and play the guitar.  He had a band there, playing bass guitar and sax, but maintained a day job as a Mechanical Electric mold maker, then moved into designing award winning toys, and with another sidewards step won prizes for his aviation molds.  In 2003 he decided music and guitars were more important to him, and began to build his first string guitars.  His ‘master’ was Jim Williams, an Australian luthier, whose book he calls his ‘bible’.

For the first couple of years he sold his guitars at festivals and on-line, but very quickly the rich, broad tone he could achieve was recognized and now he only works on commission.  If you have a spare $US10,000 or so (mates rates!!) you too could own one of these lovingly crafted masterpieces. They are now attaining the status of collectors’ items.

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Xie imports the wood for the guitars from the United States, as local woods are not wide or straight enough. The steel or  nylon strings he uses for his guitars are made in China for the U.S. market, but are easy to buy here.

Ok – so why live out in the middle of nowhere, when he could be in the city with plenty of musical opportunities available?  Xie Xiaoshi believes that to create beauty you need inspiration and the surroundings are important.  His mental state impacts on the sound of the guitars, so to create the depth and richness of tone, he turns to the mountains for inspiration and peace.  Is he a hermit??  NO WAY – Xie Xiaoshi is very sociable, loves a glass or two of the good stuff, enjoys having people around, and will pop into town when friends are playing.    In his own words he has a ‘Bloody cool lifestyle” and feels lucky to be living his life.


So next time you drive past a small rural village, don’t dismiss it as too boring, inside maybe someone amazing.

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333rd batch guitar maker 12-05-27-3-2

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Posted by DeborahH in China, 0 comments

Looking for the Perfect Pot

M&G 1-11

No… not that pot!  The type you eat or pour tea from!!!  I had heard that there was a village dedicated to making pottery about 100km

from Xi’an, and so we decided to organise the perfect pot hunt.

On the way, just to get into the mood, we stopped at Yaozhou Ceramics Museum.  The Yaozhou Kilns have been operating from the Tang Dynasty and the exhibits show some of the beautiful work in succeeding dynasties.  Don’t miss the life size models of life in the Song Dynasty, inside the museum, and also check out the statues of pottery workers outside.  The workshops are behind the museum and they usually let you wander through.  Of course the museum shop will be happy to sell you a ‘greedy cup’ and a ‘magic teapot’.

Chen Lu Village is at the top of a steep loess mountain.  The road slithers along the edge of the mountain, requiring frequent horn blowing to tell the world we are coming and to move, NOW.  Terraces are springing to life with bright yellow rape (canola) flowers, or tiny curved wheat fields.  The occasional goat or cow appears, watched by the elderly owner.

From a distance the village disappears into the hillside. Walls of the buildings are made from local clay or loess adobe, retaining walls and safety walls are made from cast off pots. This village has grown from, and is part of, the countryside.

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The villagers have been making pottery for around 1400 years, and although factories are rapidly displacing the family   potters, there are still some remaining.   Not wanting to buy factory ware, after our hearty country lunch of fried tofu, alfalfa, soya beans with beef slivers and scrambled egg in the tiny restaurant, we asked the waitress where we could find a family potter.  She pointed downwards – so down the hill we walked, on paths stabilized with pottery shards, and lined with locally made bricks, until we saw a courtyard filled with ceramics.

No-one minded as we wandered in, checking the dusty wares laid out for inspection.  Lovely Song Dynasty style censers competed for space with teacups and pots, vases, candlesticks, busts and bowls.  A show room displayed more finished goods, dangerously crammed, definitely not a place to swing a cat.

The woman of the family was carefully releasing lids from molds, concentrating on the delicate work, scraping rough edges and smoothing the top. Inside the workroom, her brother sat on a low stool, making plates on his wheel.  Watching his mud daubed fingers firmly caressing the clay, and so carefully placing the finished plates on a drying stone was magic.  This man clearly loved his work, loved creating.

Modernisation has caught up with the family potters as well – the beautiful old brick kiln is used for storage space and a large metal kiln has taken its place.  This makes it much easier to control firing temperatures, but somehow the rusting metal cube doesn’t have the same romantic appeal of the old brick kiln.  The hills around Chen Lu are dotted with old kilns, now abandoned.

The stairs reaching to the living quarters did double duty as drying racks for larger pots and ewers.  Long trestles held other objects, drying and waiting to be fired. Different glazes were applied to the wares, and the more traditional the glaze the more expensive the piece.  Song Dynasty glazes meant that a small plate was between Y300-Y500.  M&G 1-8With my wallet not quite that thick, I stuck to the modern, but elegant, black glaze for my candlestick and censer, but did lash out a little for a sgraffito teapot, etched with a symbolic fish.  My fish reminds me that at the end of each year, I will always have a little more than I started out with.

I found the perfect pot.






Posted by DeborahH in China, 0 comments