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Andrew Singer Talks About China
Vol. 2, Issue 22
In 1980 a young English photographer boarded an American cruise ship in Japan with an excited group of Western tourists. Their destination was a first encounter with the PRC. Only one year had elapsed since the normalization of Sino-American relations reviewed in my last Issue. Join me today as we see the faces of China he captured with his lenses.
China 1980: Scenes from the Shore Excursions
Mike Emery knew what he wanted to do when he left school in the late 1970’s. He wanted to work on a cruise ship as a shipboard photographer. Two passions combined. His first opportunity took him far from his native England to the shores of Japan and a new cruise ship, the M/V Aquamarine.
It was late January 1980, and the M/V Aquamarine was one of the first to take Western tourists to visit the recently re-opened People’s Republic of China. The ship cruised along the Chinese coast in two-week voyages. By day and evening, Mike took pictures. Then late into the night he worked as a blackjack croupier in the onboard casino.
When in port, Mike accompanied groups of tourists to Tianjin, Beijing, and Shanghai. Along the way he documented scenes of Chinese daily life. Over time, he “observed and captured changes in the general appearance of Chinese society. People started to become more individual, expressing themselves with new clothes and more adventurous hair styles….You had a feeling that change was on the horizon with [the] rise of billboard advertising along with slogans from Chairman Mao.”
Children were a special focus of his camera. He was mesmerized by “their cheekiness, their joyfulness and the way their stance evokes a sense of pride, both personal and cultural.”
Yet Chinese people of all ages and walks of life are represented in his pictures.
There were those selling food on the street, resting after work, and waiting at the train station.
There were those farming in the fields, knitting, sitting, washing, walking, and playing.
They split bamboo for baskets, re-soled shoes, painted, wove, and built.
Mike’s first foray into professional photography lasted only four months. During the late April visit to Victoria Harbour, the M/V Aquamarine was impounded by the authorities for nonpayment of port duties. It never left Hong Kong again.
Being resourceful, Mike flew to Singapore and joined a new ship. He traveled the world this way for several years before settling in Australia (he remains a professional photographer).
Mike wrote a successful book showcasing many of his photographs. It is soon to be re-released with an exhibition in China and a new edition in English for the West. Mike’s desire to reconnect with some of his subjects has borne early fruit.
A woman reached out to him identifying her three-year-old self with her mom during this Spring visit with her mother’s colleague and daughter to the Summer Palace in Beijing. She wrote to Mike that “seeing this old photo is the best birthday gift that I have ever had! It is like a time machine that has brought us back to 40 years ago.”
Looking at Mike’s photos also brings me back to similar photos I took as a student in 1986/1987 (granted my Canon autofocus Sureshot was no match for his tricked-out, manual Nikon). One of my first photos was of this friendly group on a Beijing street. I was venturing out from campus downtown and was waiting for a bus.
I rode the train back from Hohhot to Beijing with a Mongolian family and these two guys who were from Hailar up north near the Mongolian border. They were heading south for work and helped translate with the family.
The moon cake they gave me filled me up. When one of them then opened a small can of meat and presented it to me, I felt bad because I could not eat another bite. Fortunately, it was a long train ride, and the meat ultimately did not go to waste.
Passengers on Mike’s cruise ships carried small gifts to hand out to the Chinese children. My father did as well when he and my mother visited me in 1987. While taking a break climbing down Longevity Hill one warm afternoon at the Summer Palace, my father pulled out a balloon, blew it up, and handed it to this little girl standing nearby with her parents.
The cheery red balloon matched her dress. She reached out with a sparkle in her eyes and said “Thank you, Auntie and Uncle” in Chinese. Like Mike, I also wonder what this young family thought at the time and what became of them.
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