Monday, 6 November 2017

Yuan's Bike

My friend Yuan and I go out on her bike around Qingdao. She bought it for 700 RMB – 60$; it dates back to the late 70s. I love the freedom, the old leather seat and Yuan’s road cunning. She told me how you see things so differently on a bike, how intimate life becomes.

On the road

Life is different, perhaps more compelling. We push along the pavement, weaving in and out of the Harvest Moon celebrating crowds. Little kids press sticky, fishy-licked fingers into our sides, a baby pulls at Yuan’s hat, the seafront pavement lost and bewildered amongst the loud and happy throng.

A bucket of food

Meat line

Chair time

I might leave China next year. I think about this as we fly along the backstreets which look more Central Asian than the main Qingdao drag. I begin to ache as if already saying goodbye to my dear loved ones. I feel a real pain in my heart. 

So why now, so soon…the journey seems to have only just begun?

Is it the upheaval in Europe that is drawing me back? Times are really changing. Or the fact my daughter has also left Canada to live in Europe?

The school has offered another us 3-year contract if we want it. Ying and I have created our documentary direction, and our days are full of energy and action. We are pushed to create. And to be with youth. Never have I had so many young friends under 25.

Fu Hao, me

Fu Hao and Gu Ifan filming The Seahut

Yet, I want Europe too. I have a need to go home and live back in my village in France near the border with Catalonia, which may, by the time I get there, have its independence. To the wildness and back of beyond. To the little house which creaks and groans with her 600 years of spirits and stories.

Our backyard in France

Tuchan at dusk

Go back to my roots.

Make a studio up in the attic where the monks used to write parts of the Bible in the 13thcentury

Dark house

Window stories

Make a veggie garden.

Build a cabin with my brother Ivan, to live the summer months in.

Teach film workshops.

Document my village friends.

Learn how to prune the vines better than I used to.

Watch the magpies, woodpigeons and larks.

Squabble with the gossiping geese in the next garden.

Wind up the plastic musical Virgin Mary from Lourdes who blesses the garden from her niche in the wall.


Watering tomatoes

Party time

I fell in love with my village all over again this summer, like the very first time I saw Tuchan one chilly, misted, November morning, in 1991.

Falling in love has a strange way of motivating one…and changing one’s direction.

When I left Tuchan for Montreal 17 years ago I had my daughter aged 9, two suitcases and 1,000$.

I was going to my then Iranian husband who had become a political refugee in Canada.

We had lived in Iran together, long before France. He escaped from Tehran with help from Canadian friends, and we knew we would not see each other for a long, long time. 

Then one day, the time came, as time comes to one’s doorstep.

He was legally okay and bringing me to Montreal.

Actually, I was running away from the France of 1999 which had become racist and terrible and dark. A France that I could not see any way out of.

 Left our home in the alley. Left our family and our dog. Took a bus into Toulouse. My daughter and I slept at the airport, in a corner, on the floor that night. Our plane was at 6 am.  I penned a love letter to my village. I found the letter yesterday in boxes I have still not unpacked.

Tuchan house alley

I had no education when I entered Canada 17 years ago. 

Yet, we made it, my daughter and I…

Through weeks and months and years, me to here - Qingdao.

Alyosha back home to Europe. Leaving with our pockets full of Montreal, creation and new hope

Green algae

Yuan spins us to a halt; she wants to buy hot chestnuts.

From where we stand the sea has brought onto the beach bright violent green algae. A man peers from his tent to observe the autumn swell. The ardent autumn swimmers don their anti-jellyfish headwear.

Clearing the beach 

Peeping day

Swimwear trends

On the patio of a restaurant below us, a young woman tries on a skirt, and a girl with the longest hair in the world sends a love message.

The longest hair in the world

Trying on a skirt

Pretty as a peach 

Yuan makes us coffee

The only drawback I can think of to being in such a small village is the lack of anonymity. And the other thing, there will always be the few fascists hiding in their lairs. This year in the elections our village, Tuchan, was the only one in the entire Corbières canton that voted for Jean-Luc Melenchon’s communist party in the first round. Those once feisty little fascists walked with a lesser swagger after that. However, in the second round, Le Pen came second. So it is something to think about. I do remind myself of this.

Back to China

I said goodbye to dear Tianhuili (Anna) this summer, who is now at Concordia’s film school doing her MFA. Meeting the same teachers I had ten years ago. How much has been, and yet how much still remains. She loves school in Montreal and does not miss China.

Only us...

Tianhuili and her mother

With students at graduation

Our department heads

Tianhuili reluctantly putting on lipstick

“You can’t cross the water if you stand staring at it.” Yuan translates for me. The chestnut seller is yelling after a woman who has shrugged her shoulders at his price.

I feel immensity proud of Anna, of the Beijing Film Academy, Concordia, and of Ying and myself … Anna has just been selected by the Beijing Festival of Ethnology for her documentary The Zhaxis Family. We will go to represent her. I miss her being around, but Gu Ifan and Fu Hao will replace that friendship.

Gu Ifan and Fu Hao

Time creeping around corners. Qingdao mists and damp evenings mean the wrapping up of yearly projects, putting new goals into the guidelines. Students are happy playing around with cameras and trying out new techniques and are far removed from worldviews and world politics.

Testing lights

Testing more lights

Testing the camera

Worldviews do not rock China. Catalonia breaking point. Gunman in Las Vegas. Britain at Brexit. Eurozone breaking…

China carries on marching, forwards, slowly, to its future. The National Congress of the Communist Party of China was held on the 18th October. Xi Jiping recognized as only the fourth person to earn the status of "core" leader is revered and the most powerful Chinese leader the country has had for years. Flags flew over the land, down alleys, from roof tops, and patriotic music is played.

Communist Congress

Communist slogan 

Flag flapping on roadside

So what is the future for China?

Yuan does not want to get married. Yet. She does not want to make lots of money either. Yet. She just wants to ride her bike and work in cafes and hang out with the local artists. And fall in love. Then out of love. She likes to experiment. Moving forwards, through traffic, deep in thought. Working towards her own freedom which is to wake when she wants, sleep when she wants, change jobs when she desires, “and don’t look back.” She says.
Yuan drinking tea
Yuan drinking beer
Yuan, me

Fiona will have to wait till next year to begin her new film. Torn between a young child and a husband who works 6 days a week, 12-hour shifts and a sick mother, she juggles without moaning. “This is my life. I must keep going forwards.” She says. “No point in looking back.”

Doctor Lee married a woman he does not love, but respects. He married her because she will look after his family well when they are older. He is looking forward, and forwards he will go, never minding, ever, he is not really deeply in love.

Yu Li is gay, she told me she has never had a problem living with her lover, Katie, who is from Ireland. Katie has lived here for 10 years, running bars. Katie says it is easier for her to be gay in China than in Ireland. “So I ain’t going back.”

So China marches on. Marches forwards, and does not look back.

Lady and baby

Tatooed man

Cockles and mussels alive, alive o!

Making tea

Reflecting in the afternoon sun

Pyjama party 

School Days

Our department’s film festival was held - The LightStar Awards. Last year Anna was here. The cinematography is stunning, more creative, original and with less after effects.  Refreshing. This is the final group work before the students head towards graduation. It is getting harder to put things up using Vimeo. I will bring their work home with me for Spring Break then upload their work then. We are trying to encourage our students to screen their work outside China. They are mostly modest and still don’t quite understand the concept of film festivals.
Lightstar poster

The student prize winners

We hurl down towards the sea. The wind in my hair, sea mist rising just slightly, it is very dramatic, it is all very sensual.

On a sunny afternoon stroll

As we turn the corner and onto the beach front, I see my old friend The Monkey King, dancing slowly, alone, in his world. I get off the bike to film him and decide he will be the entr’acte between this post and the next…

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Spring into Summer

Pretty is the tea they serve

Spring in China is a time when most teachers enter a workaholic phase. It is also the time of the black tea. High up in Shandong's Laoshan Mountains, experienced pickers work nimble fingered to bring us curative, black, Shandong tea.

Time has been divided carefully, like tea leaves, between Qingdao and Beijing, then back to school, running up, down, and along the corridors, trying to locate classes that are last minute changing…students rushing along with us, puffing on sweet-smelling cigarettes. And as we rushed, spring went wild with flowers trilling and singing, tumbling down, entwining with other plants, going anywhere their tiny branch fingers can go - a form of social flower consciousness.

Midnight flowers

Roadside flowers in Beijing

Zhou Gu Jing - celebrated brush painter

The other day I leant some words in Chinese to describe Qingdao flowers: Savage, 狂野 - Kuángyě, Willful, 任性, Rènxìng, Restive: 好動 Hàodòng, and Naughty - 淘氣 Táoqì. Just as the Inuit have 50 words or more for snow, I am collecting words for flowers.

Flowers painted by Zhou Gu Jing

Girl and boy love flower

Lily wild  flower

We are by the sea, beautiful Jinshatan - the jewel of the east coast - stunning, beguiling, and all ours. Spring has brought the sea screaming, open mouthed with its fish tales and sea shanties; the lull before the sailors go back out for months-on-end to bring back yields of sea cucumbers, oysters, clams and Spanish-Japanese mackerel. Spring allows the sailors and fishermen to make merry, mend nets and enjoy.

Ladies clean the mussels - Huangdao fishing village

Going home

The sea goes on

Blue, blue, 'lectric blue

In the spring the female toilet cleaners change scarves from orange to yellow. Ming Lee is also my Chinese teacher. She is toilet inspector number 5’s wife.

Beach teacher

For those who love Iggy Pop – I do, do, do – and have his name tattooed on my arm, long before people had tattoos, by an American sailor in Spain too many years ago for me to mention, but it hurt so much that I stopped at IG. The IG has just been awarded France’s cultural honor - commander of Ordre des Arts et des Lettres - for his 70th birthday:

Indian ink and needle on a beach in Spain, long, long ago

In the spring some reptiles emerge from a long deep sleep. Our river snapper turtle just woke up, hungry for clams. We bought him last year at the live market. He was about to be bought by a little lady who told us how she would cook him, her lips quivering, “turtle soup is 美味 měiwèi - delicious". So we snapped him up, poor snapper, before she did for 400 quai. She showed no avarice as we took her turtle, explaining carefully to Ying how to prepare him, with exact details which I will not describe here, except to say we did not eat him.

He is vicious, spiky, grumpy, and with one snap and bend of his head, a finger can come off. Yet I have grown rather fond of him. I am trying to find a place to put him where no one will re-hunt him to re-sell him, to then eat him with lots of ginger and garlic. I call him Gnasher.

Gnasher bored

My birthday was at the beginning of spring, and spent in Beijing, blasted in 30-degree heat. I chose to sit on top of a double decker bus which went round and round and round the centre from one railway station to the next and back again. I sat up top, like a kid, with Ying, front row, best seat, for four hours. It felt like the days of the famed Magic Bus when we would go over land from London to Athens, where heat and colors fused with scented jasmine and lily lilac.




Spring brings with it extended sleeping, people just lie down, anywhere, anyhow, after lunch for what they call "rice sleep". Homes are swept out, cleared of debris and cobwebs, out onto the sidewalks for the day.

Street siesta

Another one bites the spring floor

Street mirror

In the old quarter of Huangdao Lu, Qingdao, another spring is passing and the residents still remain in their homes, resisting yet another year of being moved out and on to newer homes up the road. Life goes on as it has for hundreds of years.

Daydreamer. Photo: Ying Wang

Girl and boy play like in the old days. Photo: Ying Wang

Serious reading

Meat stall and bike

And as we meander slowly, like the warming of the sea, into summer, I dedicate the rest of this blog to our students and school.

Anna-Tiuhilee, our graduate student, was accepted into my old film school, Concordia University’s, for her MFA - thrilled for her - her graduate documentary breath-taking, about a Buddhist tribe in the west of China, where there is friction between father and son due to his gaming addiction

She went back to Ganan, the hinterlands, where the tribe still lives in the tents, to conclude her work. She literally broke down and cried when she got the acceptance letter.

Anna working

Lightstar awards - Anna prettiest star

But - and there is always a but - buts have a way of bringing down any sentence. BUT her English grade was not high enough, she was missing .5! Only .5! So she must re sit her English exam again. Concordia wrote back saying they will keep her place! (Thank you Concordia.)

She is now, at home, 4,000 miles away tackling that dreaded test. I hope she gets the 6! I am sure she will get a 6. She must get 6!

I am trying to understand how the exam works. Her English is excellent, albeit a bit slow at times, but isn't slow better than filled with mistakes? So I am very confused by how the exam is graded and who grades it. She has also been given a place in Beijing, but her dream is Canada.


Documentary Class

Our two documentary classes will finish in three weeks. The editing is almost done and it is very exciting. These are first-year students, so sorting out technical glitches was the main problem, reminding me of how Tao Gu, my dear friend, and I first sat in the computer lab at Concordia, our first time ever in front of a Mac and did not know how to turn it on - I am talking only ten years ago! (Sorry Tao!)

Talking of Tao, he has just had screened Taming the Horse, his documentary, at Visions du Réel in competition. For those who read German, here is a critic:

And so, here I am, ten years later, with students who do not know how to create a project to edit with, and many walk around, proudly, holding their hard-drives by the wires, like wiggling mice. “Oops…teacher! Help! It dropped on the floor!” Not saving material. Leaving it on a communal desk top. Buying material online because they think it is better than what they have shot. Forgetting to check for levels on the camera. Forgetting to charge the batteries.The list goes on . . .

Class time, editing lab

We have some real gems, though. One team is shooting a government barber. The old man should have retired years ago, but he keeps on cutting “heads,” as they say, and his clients won’t let him go. He does ten a day, ten quai a pop, so he makes 20$ a day - 120$ a week.

He is a very, very happy man!

The piece is very meditative, locals come in to banter, read the paper, have a shave, a hair rub. Time has stood still, just as it was in the 70s when the shop first opened. The chairs, the tables, the equipment. Nothing has changed.

Another team is shooting “A day with an underwater wedding photographer.” No customers came in the week they were there, so they borrowed one of their classmates, who brought two large goldfish along, as props!

Lady in red

Another team went out on the sea cucumber boat, diving down with the fisherman with archaic gear, filming while they plucked from the ocean.

We watched the hectic and dangerous images today of a diver being pulled up as he was falling unconscious.

Sea cucumber. Photo:

Scuba diver. Photo:

Online Film Festival

Next semester we will put up an online film festival through “iQiyi,” the Chinese equivalent of YouTube, where we will have our own channel for the students. This is to encourage the students to think outside school and prepare to screen to an audience, which is something the Chinese students are often nervous about, being quite humble. We will also screen the work throughout Qingdao and Huangdao, as we did last year.

Professional English

I was not hired as an English teacher, I was hired with Ying Wang, my Chinese co-worker, to create a documentary direction which would be different from what was already being taught in the other departments. However, something told me to do a TESOL teaching certificate before leaving Montreal. Hunches are often worth following up, so I did. Upon arrival in 2015, the department decided to open up a professional English direction alongside our documentary class and asked me to tutor it.

This is my third semester, bumps and scrapes, and a lot of learning along the way.

The class runs 16 weeks and the students create a personal newsreel from A-Z: from writing the idea, synopsis, researching material, shooting, voiceover, subtitles and output. For the final presentation they need to write an artist’s statement on why they want to be cinematographers.

This is my favorite statement:

Hello, my name is Wei Chuanxing. I am not an artist. In fact my heart never wanted to become an artist. I think that the artist has a reputation. I just want to do my own love. I understand life is quiet.  I am quiet. I feel artists are eccentric, crazy, and I am relatively flat. So, I prefer the camera because I hiding behind the lens. For the shy, this is the best way. This is where I find me.

(Wei Chuanxing, 22)

The Newsreel

I almost gave up with my favorite student, the wayward, undisciplined, but original Xue Wen Hao. He turned up late, day of presentation, took me to one side and asked me to not be angry with his Chinese-English-hip-hop video.

How could I be?

Dormitory Chinese-English Hip Hop:

In two weeks we finish semester.
Now it is summer.
Summer flowers.
Summer wine.
Summer walks on the beach.
Summer beer.

Beach boys

Noodles for beach pups

Beach van food

The sea opens her arms, warm, happy, holding us.

And then . . . I go home to Europe for my summer break.

Have a lovely month ahead.

End of semester photo, my two graduate students, Tao and Gau, terrified, just before final presentation