Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Reaching For The Gold: My Life In China (& the Beijing Olypmics)

Beijing: Day 1

We decided to go for our very own gold medal and headed to "The Nest" construction site - just to see, if maybe, we could talk to people walking around outside. (We had heard how difficult it was to get into Olympic Construction Sites & how we'd never get access...)

Wind wind everywhere. So windy that part of a wall surrounding the construction zone blew down! Right in front of us! So we just walked in! And spent the entire day there! All you need is a little wind, a little luck... And there you are! It was like the universe took a little puff of air & blew down this particular part of the wall just for us to walk through.

This site is HUGE. We walked around for a bit, shot The Nest from different angles, talked to a few different people, etc... and then happened on a small group of workers who were working in the shadow of the unfinished stadium, moving a scrap heap. One of these workers, Xia Hongguang was here from Hunan Province. He came to Beijing specifically to work on Olympic construction. It was Sunday, things were a bit slow & he kindly agreed to talk to us.

His story turned out to be fascinating. He's been at this particular site for about 2 months, with his wife and children back home. He's proud to be helping build the Olympic Stadium & surrounding areas, but mostly, he is here for the opportunity. Construction work in Beijing pays more than farming back home.

He was likeable, earnest, quick to smile but just as quick to be serious. We liked him immediately and talked as long as we dared, we didn't want him to get in trouble with his supervisors. We asked him to meet us for dinner the following evening & he agreed.

Beijing: Day 2

We met Xia Hongguang & a friend for dinner - Beijing style hotpot. They were a bit wary of us at first, but we chatted & showed them some of the footage from the previous day.

He told us about his life, his reasons for coming to Beijing... We told him about our project, what his role it in would be... & he agreed to take part!!! Him & his friend even snuck Jack & Meng into their dorms that night. This was quite risky for them, as they could get in serious trouble, especially if their supervisors think we are a news organization trying to do an expose on dorm life. The dorms are right on the construction site & the conditions are horrendous. 12 men to a room, in bunk beds. Port-a-Potties for bathrooms, a tap with only cold water...

Here is an outside pic of dorms from another Olympic site. (No pics of "Nest" dorms, you'll have to wait for the trailer!)

Beijing: Day 3

This dinner started off with much less hesitation than the previous one! Although Xia told us how his supervisors had cleaned up the dorms after learning that about our visit. We talked over the focus of this portion of the film, which would be his life & choices in terms of his migration, NOT working conditions at Olympic construction sites. We let him know that we didn't want to cause him any trouble, and he assured us that he wanted to be part of this film. That out of the way, we felt a connection with Xia Hongguang almost instantly. We both couldn't express enough how happy we were to have made a friend from the other side of the world, so different from ourselves.

During his interview, he told us of moving away from home with his father to do construction work and how he goes home at least twice a year for planting & for the harvest. He talked of being lonely, but also of his happiness at his wife's upcoming arrival.

We made plans to keep in contact over the coming months.

Beijing: Epilogue

His wife arrived in Beijing the day after we left, also to look for construction work. Their children are with her father. She plans to live in the dorm with him (12 men & now one woman) indefinately. We are sad to have missed her arrival, but our schedule (budget) just didn't permit us to stay in Beijing. Looking forward to Summer '08.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Lunch with Meng...

Meng, one of our producers finally met up with us in Chengdu to take the train with us up to Tibet...

Here we are at the famous Lhasa Kitchen!

Miracle on the rooftop of the world…

Miracles have been happening everyday, but more specifically, they have been happening to our film project. After two days of shooting at all the monasteries, we finally bade our tour-guide farewell. We felt we needed to put ourselves in a better situation to meet our film subjects. At the same time, we were longing for the comforts of home.

Foot massage is an inherently Chinese tradition and it is popular throughout China, but it's a relatively new phenomenon in Tibet. Therefore, we forced ourselves to go to the nearest foot massage parlor to do some “hard research”. Life had been hard, so we really felt the need to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of “film” and “art”.

As we made ourselves comfortable in the massage room, four masseuses - 3 girls dressed in black and pink sporty jumpsuits and one boy in a waitors' uniform walked into the room with steaming buckets of Chinese medicinal water.

Masseuse #108 stopped in front of me and gestured for me to put my naked feet into the hot bath. Of course, I didn’t hesitate.

After the brief head massage, we decided it was time to initiate conversation with all of them. We found out where everyone was from and after some back and forth, it was clear who wanted to share their life story.

#108, who was massaging my feet, is an 18 year old foot masseuse from Hunan province. Jia Jing is not your typical migrant worker, she’s an enlightened soul who transplanted herself to Tibet as a foot masseuse to “check things out” and perhaps meet a Tibetan boyfriend. It was refreshing to meet someone who moved for the sake of adventure. There was no desperation, only a positive view towards living life. I am moved by her perspective on life…

Even though Jia Jing is alone in Tibet, she rooms and spends most of her time with Zhang Ting. They do almost everything together. Get haircuts, go to the internet café, look for boys….like any teenage girls.

We can't wait to come back next year to see what's happened during their time in Lhasa!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lhasa's Religious Tourism

There is a lot of talk about Lhasa becoming a new destination for tourists. But it seems to me, that historically, Lhasa has always been a destination for tourists. Religious tourists. They come from all over Tibet, to visit the holiest places of Tibetan Buddhism. The three "must sees" for every Religious tourist & every other tourist are:

Potola Palace

Jokara Monastary

Sera Monastary

Potola Palace - not the holiest place, but definately the largest & most prominent. Here is where the Dalai Lama would live if he were still in Tibet and where most of the other Dalai Lamas are burried. Now it is a shell of its former self. The beauty & splendor are still there, but most of the Palace is empty. About 40 monks (once hundreds lived here) live on as caretakers, and the hundreds of people that walk through the empty rooms every day are temporary visitors - there on a 90 minute walk through.

People walk clock-wise around the base of Potola Palace, spinning prayer wheels as they go.

Most of the visitors are Tibetans from other parts of Tibet. But increasingly, the visitors are Chinese, especially during the summer season.

Jokara Monastary - this is what the real religious tourists come to see & pay homage to. This is considered the holiest place in Tibetan Buddhism. Around 641 AD, a Chinese princess was married to the Tibetan King. She brought with her a giant Buddha Statue & Jokara Monastary is its resting place. Thousands upon thousands of people make the trek to Lhasa to walk around the Monastary & then prostrate in front of it. People were just as interested in us filming as they were in watching the people who were prostrating!

Sera Monastary - every afternoon, at 3pm, the monks of Sera Monastary arrive in this courtyard to debate philosophy. Religious tourists, locals, foreigners... everyone comes to watch.

The monk sitting on the ground is the one being asked the questions. The monk standing asks the question and then claps his hands when the questionee is to answer. Another type of clap denotes a wrong answer. The questions & answers get pretty intenste!

After the debate, the monks gather in the center of the courtyard for a chant & meditation.

Monks leaving Sera after the debate:

We shot a spec Panasonic commercial here too... (no just kidding, but we thought it was pretty funny)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Last stop...Lhasa

Meng Xie met us in Chengdu, after a long long flight from New York and then Shanghai. We were VERY happy to see him & have him join our team! We had the day in Chengdu to rest & prepare... and then we were off to the train station.

T minus 90 minutes... Chengdu Train Station. Where we had our first run in with the police. We took a "van cab" to the train station - after trying to catch regular cabs... to no avail. A little van pulled over & we agreed on a fee to go to the train station. Excellent. At the train station, the police swarmed our vehicle as we were unloading. Turns out, the van was a "black cab" and the police wanted to see to it that he received a fine. We felt TERRIBLE. After all, he had just given us a ride to the train station for a reasonable price, after we couldn't hail regular cabs in the rush hour traffic... 45 minutes, several forms and red ink fingerprints later... we were free to go into the train station but the poor driver was whisked off (along with his van) to the police station to be fined. We paid the driver way more than the fee we agreed upon, but don't know how much the fine will actually be. I hope we covered it.

This was not a good way to start the train ride to Tibet. A jumping shot brought up the morale a little...

Meng & Jack, outside the Chengdu Railway Station:

Pre-train may not have been so great - but the train ride itself was incredible. We had a tiny, cozy sleeper room for the four of us & immediately turned it into Tripod Position A.

The next day the scenery was mostly rural China, with a city or two thrown in.

The second morning we woke up almost 5000 meters higher than the day before. You know you're in Tibet when...

Fog & Yaks:

Pilgrims prostrating on their way to Lhasa:

Many times we saw rows upon rows of stones set on the ground in a grid pattern that lasted sometimes for miles at a time. I don't know if there is any significance to it, we asked the train attendants and I did a quick internet search but didn't find anything. If anyone knows what this is or what these are for... please leave a comment!

We also passed many small communities of houses, right alongside the train tracks:

Over a few more bridges...

last stop... LHASA.

Monday, November 19, 2007


pronounced, "woah-tam," accent on the "woah"

English meaning: Waste Of Time And Money
Cantonese meaning: punch to the gall bladder

For me, at this time, both phrases have roughly the same meaning.

Back to the blog... Yichang & the 3 Gorge Damn tour was a giant WOTAM.
Not only was it pouring, but it was so foggy that we couldn't see a thing. Greyness. The Nothing. What dam? What gorges? And we were on a boat. In the freezing, biting, foggy rain.

I was a bit down on this part of the trip, until I saw the New York Times article, "Choking on Growth." They just published part IV of this series and it focuses on the 3 Gorge Dam Project. It made me realize that although I personally had a miserable time in Yichang; the 3 Gorge Dam is incredibly relevant to China today. It is a fascinating place where indistrial growth meets tourism, energy needs for the world's fastest growing economy meet forced migrations, environmental concerns meet national pride, and on and on... I'm thrilled that our film will touch upon this and endeavor to use it as another layer, as context illustrating that there are infinite sides to every coin.

Maybe that punch to the gall bladder wasn't quite so bad as I first thought.

That dam fog...

On the boat...

As good as it gets (and that's not saying much...)

We do keep our sense of humor through it all... and i couldn't resist a jumping shot at the 3 Gorge Dam & in front of a Yao Ming billboard. 2 birds with one stone. Made the WOTAM almost bearable. Almost.

P.S. To check out the NY Times article that I mentioned above, follow this link:

Friday, November 16, 2007

Feeling Artsy...

Here are some things I almost forgot to post:

Melanie and Jack brooding after having dinner at "Yellow Door", one of Hong Kong's famous "Hidden Kitchens".

Dinner with my Hong Kong family.

Halloween craziness!

More to come...

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Portraits of Taishan

Up until now its been big city after bity city... and then here is Taishan! A small town surrounded by villages and farms. Very rural. Outside of town are fields upon fields of rice, dirt lanes, lakes, streams and forest.

This journey to Taishan is a very special one for us. We are here to go back to the beginning; to see where Ken's father was born and spent his childhood. Ken's father and aunt will meet up with their brother (Yi Bak from Hong Kong) and do a Baisan - a ceremony honoring their mother at her gravesite. But so far our journey here has not been solemn. It is about family reuniting, spending time together, and making new friends.

Ken's uncle, father & aunt

Ken's uncle, Yi Bak

We are lucky enough to stay with another branch of Ken's family. Yi Bak's wife's brothers and sisters (follow that one??) still live near Taishan & the village. They built a three story house on the foundation of the house that they grew up in. Again, we were welcomed with open arms by the warmest, funniest, most generous people.

Sisters, our new friends and hosts in Taishan.

Here are a few other portraits from Taishan: