Saturday, 8 August 2009

Fear and Loathing in Shijiazhuang

Last week I wrote about the wonderful experience I had when I photographed neighbourhood mah-jong players. I was a bit afraid to approach them, after the experience I’d had when I went to photograph some of the few remaining traditional style houses in Shijiazhuang.

a motor cart driver who didn't mind having his photo taken
I was really excited to do so, as I’d thought that all of them had been torn down to make way for the ubiquitous apartment blocks of modern China. And I was probably just in time, the houses on one side of the street had already been knocked down.

i have no idea what this is, but it looked cool!
Now, a slight diversion. Even when I was just shopping or in the park, people would come up and ask to take photos with me. Normally, people were delighted, if amused, when I took their photograph, and likewise, when I was snapping something that was boringly normal to Chinese eyes but fascinating to mine, there might be laughs or looks of puzzlement from onlookers, but never anything unpleasant.

So, I spuddled off to the old house neighbourhood and started clicking away. Inevitably, I attracted attention, but by this point in my sojourn I was used to being stared at. I asked an elderly woman sitting in front of a house if I could take her photo, and was surprised by how aggressive and unfriendly her response was.
I moved along the street, pretending not to notice the small group of people that had gathered around the photophobic woman. I couldn’t, however, ignore the growing atmosphere of hostility.
the other side of the road

I’d often felt frustrated, sometimes even upset, by my everyday encounters, but this was one of the very few occasions where I felt threatened. It quickly got to the point where I felt seriously uncomfortable, and had to cut my expedition short.

I have no idea why the presence of myself and my camera aroused such animosity – the only reasons I can think of is that either I unluckily stumbled across a group of extreme xenophobes or perhaps they had been screwed over in some sort of property development deal and having a wealthy foreigner wandering around snapping their neighbourhood was salting the wound.


  1. Great photos J nonetheless, the rundown garage gives you sence of how poor they are. Its difficult taking photos of people as they may not want their photo taken, being a communist country wouldn't of helped either as countries under that regime seem to be very secretive.

  2. Could there have been some mistake in your Chinese which meant you said something you didn't mean?

  3. You got some interesting photos anyway. I like that bright red doorway. Too bad the residents were so uncooperative.

  4. Jane - I think the 'garage' was actually a house, it looks a bit scruffy as it was surrounded by freshly demolished houses, but actually these houses are quite respectable residences and I frequently saw (and photographed) people who were a LOT poorer (like the motorcart guy) with no problems.
    3c-I said hello and then utilised the universal language of signs, again, it was the only time doing this caused issues.
    The whole thing just seemed very odd, and out of keeping with the rest of my experiences in China...I guess there must have been something else going on under the surface.

  5. Great wee tale. And you used "spuddled". I like that new word a lot and will try and slip it into conversation up in these parts. In a coupla weeks, all the cool Embra cats will be "spuddlin" for fun.

  6. Colorful houses. It's a shame the people were so hostile. I'm guessing it was the xenophobia you mentioned.