Thursday, 12 January 2017

One-way Ticket

Christmas and New Year

It was the night before Christmas and Qingdao lit and dressed up and became Christmas for the weekend. Trees suddenly springing up out of nowhere with plastic beer bottle trees, Tsingtao beer, beer garlands.

With this liking for Christmas, last minute Qingdao weddings happened outside St. Michael’s Cathedral. This monument built by German missionaries, which stands on a hilltop in the centre of Qingdao. A symbol. Since 1934 it has seen wars, peace, and Mao's arrival. The city beacon, like a lighthouse, where weddings and funerals merge.

Outside the Cathedral, the courtyard hosts hurdy-gurdy players, street artists, cotton-candy-sellers and starfish on sticks. Pretty girls and lithe boys make wedding vows to love and live forever. Central to Qingdao and towering far above the rest, it represents the local community and lures the tourists. Loved, adorned and sometimes feared, St. Michael’s neighborhood is a life unto itself.

Just down the road is Little Bar, Big Culture, where the boss is deaf and dumb, and beer is sold not only in pints, but in plastic bags for takeaways. In here, in the size of a small bedroom, chairs and tables are pushed together with a small TV, the mangy old dog, and enough cigarette smoke to choke ya for a year…but it is home from home.

Locals come in, from all walks of life, for their 50c cup of beer. They call it “Small Bar, Big Culture” because they come and talk about everything and anything, sort the world out, work out every problem, sing, get tiddly, make merry the whole night long.

On Christmas Eve we went by to have some beer and food. The tiny kitchen and the cook, a female family member who never talks and never lingers with the customers, somehow manages to serve up food all day long. You can bring your own fish to grill or slice up into a delicious dish. Apparently, an old man turned up with a fish draping down onto the floor, from waist to toes. We heard four different versions of the story and later ate the evidence with garlic and ginger and dollops of beer.

Beer is extremely important here in Shandong Province. The Germans brought in beer in 1900; the rest is history. Every street has its recipe. Bars pop up like daisies. Beer barrels festoon corners, there is camaraderie in beer - Pijioa - light, happy frothy beer, made from the clear waters of Laoshan Mountain. The breadwinner of Shandong. Everyone drinks beer, like drinking water. Women. men, even kids, grow up with a small glass of beer.

I experienced Qingdao differently over the holidays, the sudden rush and flush of merry fever, quite unexpected: lights, Christmas food, Christmas songs in Chinese, larger than life Christmas trees, apples covered in pretty paper.

31st December. End of 2016.

It was on the 31s December, two years ago, in Montreal, that our letter of acceptance from the Beijing Film Academy, Qingdao Campus, dropped through the letterbox at 2:30 pm. I trudged through the newly fallen snow to my daughter’s house to celebrate. The first thing she asked me was: “Will you miss our Montreal snow, Mama? Will you miss our snow in China?”

I walked down to the beach, where I spent most of New Year’s Eve beachcombing. The fog lifted in the early afternoon.

Silver Beach is more windswept, forlorn and desolate than Golden Beach, and sometimes too full of sprits. The locals tell stories of shipwrecks and lonesome sailors – when I see shoes washed up to shore I think of drowned bodies. I wish I didn’t, but I do. You might too.

Dotted along the shoreline are tombstones which look out over the water. But today, for some reason, this seemed the best place to hang out and wait for the fireworks.

I lay on the nearly midnight, New Year sands and remembered how the last days in Montreal were almost surreal, saying goodbye, having parties, finishing off last minute films…leaving the city which had been home for sixteen years, and where I learnt my craft as a filmmaker, at Concordia’s film school.

I had bought a one-way ticket to Beijing. I love one-way tickets; they mean you are not coming back, not for a long time. Our plane flew over Iran and the Persian Gulf, fire flames below from the petrol flares danced like wild gypsy campfires. I had not been via the Middle East for many years, and an old yearning stirred, something I cannot explain. Intense excitement flooded my soul, and at that moment the child in front of me turned round - fat chubby cheeks, violet eyes, the mixing of two races splattering east and west over his face. He held out a sticky hand with a small Chinese good luck plastic charm, like you get from a Christmas cracker. He dropped it into my hand, and I knew, no matter what, that things would be okay.

Firecrackers pierced the skies, and from far I heard a fanfare play. And still a single light shone from the 5-star toilets, where the husband and wife team closed up for the night. And on the way home I met Mr. Inspector doing the last of his rounds.

Qingdao Independent Film Festival

Once a year there is an independent film festival in Qingdao, run by documentary filmmaker Zimo Lin. It is a rare occasion to see films and have a chance to speak to the directors who come from all over China. The festival runs for two weeks. We cram the small upstairs space in the city library to view works of fiction, experimental and documentary.

Zhou Hao’s awe inspiring fable The Chinese Mayor can be seen on Netflix. Hao is one of the most successful independent Chinese directors. His work is slightly edgy, yet stays within the confines of 'safe'.

He kicked off the festival, a humble, gentle man, who spent three years following the People’s Mayor, Geng Yanbo, in the town of Datong.  Yanbo wants to find an invigorating way to stimulate the economy of this sagging town and is convinced it can be revitalized through tourism and bringing work to the community. He has a huge dream, to create a sort of Forbidden City housing museums, cafes, art houses and cinemas. To make the dream come true he has to relocate 30% of the town’s population - about 500,000 people. We follow his struggles as he works with government and contractors on the one hand and, on the other, citizens who are riddled with fear and emotion about leaving their homes. The sub-plot which runs underneath is the stress of him being relocated before the project can be finished.

Hao often filmed alone, and much was hand-held - Direct Cinema. It is a truly beautiful testimony to one man’s dedication to the citizens. It was given the Special Jury Award for Unparalleled Access in 2015 at Sundance Film Festival. Watch the trailer below:

Li Hiquali’s fiction film, A Winter Vacation, won the Leopard D’Or at Locarno in 2010. It could be a suburb in Montreal, a back-end ally, a rundown housing project, where hopelessness and inertia lie. It was actually filmed in Mongolia's winter, tracing a lifeline along the rough edges of a no-man’s land where the winter backdrop becomes a character in itself. The static frames where characters walk in and out are breathtakingly painful to watch at times, comic in others. Where the protagonists - children, family, youth - examine life in the days left before the end of the winter vacation.

It is not easy for these artists to show their work on a large scale. The Beijing Independent Festival closed down last year, so artists get together to showcase work to small, intimate audiences. Yet, simmering slowly, like a pot cooking slowly over time, there is the New Chinese Documentary Film Movement happening - so it is only time.

Spring Break

School is almost over for the year. Spring break echoes around the corner. But before that, last minute meetings, graduate students finish up work. Anna, dear Anna – Tianhui - is now applying for Canada, hoping to get into Concordia University.

Our winter office is cold, we have to wear coats and hats inside to keep out the chills. Volumes of warm water are drunk to keep the system happy.

However, we still have time to break away from end of term pressures to walk and look out over the chilled sea, where still the mad men swim on and on and on.

Then the doors of school shut, students go all over China, and we go home. I am going to the UK on Saturday, then to France, then on to Montreal to see my daughter and my Canadian friends, and begin the long film journey with Dr. Bethune, our shining star of China.

My favorite statue of him is at the Chinese Medicine Hospital in old Huangdao. He appears to emulate a soft glow from the marble stone. Inside, the edifice is quiet bustle under neon colored lights.

We had our annual party in our flat - the last one ever - as we have to move out, further down the beach, nearer to the fishing village - one of my favorite parts of the beach, especially the fisherman’s rundown hut overlooking the sea.

And things in China go QUICKLY - one day we were having breakfast, the next thing we were told we had to move in five days!

We found the new flat yesterday. Brand new, 16 floors up, looking out to the big bright sea.

We move tomorrow.

And so, to finish this off, the only thing left to say is . . .

Happy New Year

(All the photos copyright of Jeanne Pope)


  1. Jeanne your writing and photography is much unlike old wine. The best of good red wines get better with age. Your writing and photography are an evident contrary. Your older writing and photography have always been good, but surprisingly they keep on getting better. Raw simplicity, authenticity and the elements of surprise and awe are always ready to pounce upon us at the unexpected moment as if you could place at will a Chinese Leaping Tiger around any corner of your choice. Right on. Write on.

  2. Jeannette, un vrai plaisir de suivre ton cheminement à Qingdao et d'en avoir fait parti pour quelques jours.