Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The 1930s Shower

Yuan has a 1930s shower in her 1930s home. Her home is in the center of Qingdao – Huangdao Lu district, the old quarter. There is an apple tree in the yard and a beer bar on the other side; this is the house where her father was born, where Yuan grew up, and owned by her grandfather, a prolific writer.

She gave me the remains of her grandfather’s writing paper – he was a researcher for the municipal government as well as a writer, circa 1955. It has this smell of damp yesterdays and is wafer thin, yet strong, and can soak up the ink without bleeding. The day I leave I will take the last reams and two ceramic soup bowls that her grandmother gave away. I don’t need silk scarfs or jade as my Chinese memories, I want a little piece of my friends’ lives that smell of Qingdao.

Lin and Yuan 


1930s shower 


“I have to take a cold shower each morning.” Yuan does not have the money yet to fix the shower with hot water and a tank. “What should I do if I want to do ‘Airbnb?” “Just advertise you have a 1930s shower in your 1930s home. It will sell”, I tell her.

She works with Lin Mao, an independent filmmaker who runs the Qingdao Indie film festival, and who has been documenting Qingdao for 20 years. He has an impressive 40 short films and two full lengths under his belt, but, until today, has never shown anything outside China.

San and Lin

Animation piece

Cinema parallel

Checking the screen


The Beijing Film Festival was closed down, as many people who follow the Chinese industry news know, so Lin’s festival is now the only independent film festival in China which government officials do not object to.

Lin moves space each year, and as long as it is not a ‘real’ public event, and kept as a small space with a few people coming and going, and no ‘real’ advertising, the show can go on.

And it does. Directors come from all around mainland China and Hong Kong.

Out of Frame (2017) - by Kwok Wai Lun - a Hong Kong director - was the center piece this year - a film about art, artists, and the risks taken to exhibit work.

This year there was an excellent animation showcase which attracted creators from around the world. Lin’s festival is a very important happening for us in Qingdao.

For anyone interested, it runs each year for the entire month of December. Yuan’s 1930s home might be, by then, fixed up with hot water - and rentable.

This is Cinema banditti - the raw, rough and China true to its principles of “never giving up!”

Lin’s recent film is in post-production. It is 4 hours long.

I was worried - 4 hours long! Lin asked me to come and view it. I was somewhat dreading the official screening in Yuan’s small room, wedged between the 1930s shower, rice cooker, and her grandfather’s desk. 

Stills from the film Sanye

Bird man 

Lady sings the blues 
Saturday singer 

Train poker 

And . . . I was spellbound. Even though only half has been put into subtitles, my Chinese is at the point where I can pluck out the notion and meaning, and Yuan translated now and then. It is about Lin’s friend who is restless and dissatisfied with his life, changes jobs like he changes his clothes, and gambles furiously.

The only thing he has which is constant, other than his long-suffering wife, is his poetry. We move nervously around Qingdao with Lin’s handheld camera, in and out of life, back alleys, bars, arguments and confessions. At one point his friend strips off and stands like a statue above the Qingdao traffic, which blows puffball type smoke upwards as he sobs with melancholy. This might be seen as clichéd in the West, but here, in China, where experimental film is still finding it’s way, it is exciting to watch.

Before I know it, I am asking Lin if I can work with him and Yuan. If l leave the Beijing film school next September when my contract ends, I want to keep my options open to come back to the wonderful city where my friends live on the edge, in small rooms, creating, chain smoking, urgently searching, living on little, where there are still so many challenges and obstacles standing in the way; nothing comes easily.

Street Poetry 

The poet

The poet close up

The poet again 

And in the deep cold winter where the sea wind blows across the ocean and we eat seashells mixed with Qingdao beer, Lin talks about the locals. He knows all the local celebrities and street people of Qingdao, so my mind churns over options, “do I stay or do I go?"

Haha and Zombei 

The feather man 


I have spoken a little bit about money, and how Chinese people earn their living in prior posts, so what about us, the Laowei - foreigners - who live here? What is the reality?

In my own case, my job is through the Chinese government. Each year I am given a Z Visa which takes one month to acquire, a solid insurance, and protection from my school. I get paid, each month, into my Chinese bank account. I have an international tax number. 

Other people who are on tourist visas and come in and out of China every few months and work in training centers teaching English, or like one Montrealer who sells ‘Herbalife’ successfully. Many are students working illegally, traveling through Qingdao, making some money before moving on to another Asian country. They get paid in cash.

Others work for a foreign company based here, and are paid directly into their bank accounts in their own country.

To live and work in China legally or illegally is one thing, but to get your money out is another thing. It is a lengthy procedure. If you do not have a working visa, forget it, there is no chance of having anything other than Yuan or RMB.

And all of us, no matter which Chinese organization we work for, face the tedious problem of changing our money, or doing a bank transfer of our wage.

One needs time, have reserve, determination and patience.

Step one. Get two bank accounts. (One to receive salary into, and the other one to transfer money into - to be converted into Euros – not all banks convert to Euros.)

I am very lucky, and have a very amicable lady who does not mind being photographed as she hands me out thousands of Yuan to be converted into Euros, from bank one – the Agricultural Bank of China. I pack the five packs of money neatly into the bottom of my bag, and because this is China, feel totally safe walking the streets with bundles in my bag.

The bank and Sally

Step two. I go into the city, 40 minutes away from Jinshatan - Golden Beach - by bus, to the second bank – The Bank of China. Outside sits a man who has attached himself for some reason to the bank, which is on the main drag, not far from Yuan’s house and the wonderful St Michael’s German Cathedral.

Sweet Sally

He has a lovely big Mongolian hat, sits right in front of the bank, and likes to accompany people he takes a fancy to, to do our transactions. I thought he was the bank manager waiting to greet people, and found it lovely that he would sit outside in the bitter cold. ”No", another amicable girl whose English name is Sally, said. “No! he just spends his day camped outside - he is our mascot!”

So, once Sally has taken my RMB, People’s money, and deposited it into my account. I then have to call Yuan, who arrives to transfer the money into her account. She is also with the Bank of China.

Once transferred into her account, she can now order Euros for me.

The order is placed and will take about 2-3 days to arrive.

The money machine 

Step three. A few days later, Yuan receives the Euros, which she hands over to me in front of Sally, whose Chinese name is Lu Tian.

What do I do now? I have my Euros in hand, but I only have the right to have or send 500 US per day in transfer. So, either I have to take cash out of China, or, again, ask Yuan to do me a bank transfer - another 2-3 days.

Step four. I could go to a third bank - The Merchant Bank of China - where I could try and open another account to get a Chinese Visa card, which can only be used out of China, but the very thought of it makes me so tired. So Yuan and I give up and end up going to drink beer and eat shellfish. And I have cash…

Sally tells me, “eventually things will change and be easier for Laowei to take money out.” Until then, I stick with the challenge, along with the man in his Mongolian hat and Lu Tian-Sally, who jokes with me and lets me poke my camera in her face.

Outside the bank I see this little heart stuck on the street by the potato seller who makes a fortune in the chilly wintertime.

I could not get a photo of the man in his Mongolian hat. Another time.

China heart 

Hot potatoes 

Beautiful oven 

Potato world 

Christmas and New Year

Of course, we don’t really celebrate here; however, two friends from Montreal came to the house and my Chinese friends-teachers from school came too.

We ate Christmas cake between noodles and seafood and beer, as is the Chinese eating tradition; mixing the tastes, sweet and sour, and back to sweet.

A slight snow fell lasting two hours…

As midnight turned into 2018, we walked out along the beach, walking till sunrise.

Christmas lollipop man 

Sweet n' sour 

Christmas snow 

Christmas dawn

New Year girl 

In the night, on the side of the road, people were burning small fires. These are for the ancestors, so they know the way home.

“No matter where we go,

you come too, you can never get lost,

You are always with us, on your path home…”

On the way home 

Never forget 


Then we went to eat more in the night tents on the edge of the beach.


Midnight tents 

Yuan in a tent 

Street lamp 

31st December 

The moon fell above the ocean. We took the last bus into town. The view over the sea was misty and melancholic. Fires, moon, and the burning, yearning long pathway home.


As I write, I am in a 4-day meeting, the end of the school year for us. The students have gone home, the final exam was yesterday. The department heads have come down from Beijing, and we all have to showcase our term's work. There is terrible pollution in the air. Gu Ifan and Fao Hao have left, my closest student-friends, for the Spring break.

New mask 

Summer and Gu Ifan 

Lu Qian, assistant 

I dread my turn. My wobbly Chinese, fumbling around with the computers, all in Chinese, but this is really more to showcase our students' work. 

King and I taught second-third year documentary this term. We asked the students to be more experimental, to weave other elements into their work. I asked them to use reconstruction, stills, super 8, and fictional elements, narration. 

18 students, 18 films of 15 minutes or more. The final show was exciting, and as always, we am proud of their work, and of our work with them. But it was not easy, by 3rd year the students are tired, coming to the end of 'freedom,' knowing that after the following year, they graduate and out to the world and formality, marriage they will go, so something like a young student crisis screams through the university, sadness, depression, despondency and sometimes suicide creep into the curricular, and it takes quite a lot of energy to steer the students back from the edge. 

Happily we could encourage the students to talk about these emotions in their work, and we had an eclectic festival from a docu-fictional account of depression, to accepting old age and retirement homes. The dating game and a child abandoned by his parents to be brought up by grandmother and the emotional missing, the fashion industry and some experimental work on a school for deaf children.

I cannot upload from China due to restrictions, but will do from Europe.

Sweet student 

Lu Tian and Lu Qian - teachers 

Do I stay or do I go?

I am torn, still torn, whether to stay in China or leave in September 2018. I found out, as a Canadian, I can have a 10-year visa, which will make the break less traumatic. I am deeply touched by this city Qingdao. I am deeply in love with my life here; however, my family calls, and that little house in France.

And far off hills and roaming gypsies and European instability.

China moves forwards, Europe moves back? Another challenge.

My eyes and heart roam over the people and life that has been so generous and kind to me over this past year; the children, the workers, the fisherfolk, my peers…

Editing The Sea Hut in my office 

Party hat - still from student work 

Fishing village  - on the way to the Sea Hut

Zombei's new coat - student and animator 

Fishing village women clean baby clams

The birds 

If I leave, Ying will stay, and I can carry on the work from Europe. In fact, a dream would be to spend half a year in China and the rest in France and the UK.

Anna and Ying 

School in Winter  - view from my office studio

I hear from Anna often. She is now in her second semester and with Daniel Cross in Concordia. She is excited to finally be able to do some hands-on work after weeks of theory. It is a culture shock for her. Her film is going to be on this subject of her dislocation, longing, missing and the cultural difference. I am very happy to follow her progress from China.

She did not believe me about the cold in Montreal, and I must admit I was almost smug when she rang and told me she was almost frozen cold waiting outside the US embassy in Ottawa, on one of the coldest days of the year, for her visa to the States !

The Sea Hut

The wobbly little sea hut, like a sailor tilting to the sea

Since the 21st March 2017, I have been editing my own documentary - The Seahut  - while waiting for the Governmental party, 中国共产党 Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng - to give permission to fund our documentary on Norman Bethune, which requires more than my school office studio, Final Cut 10, and a pocketful of dreams.

It is my mother’s story about her Chinese Amah (nanny) who brought her up, as her mother should have done. Sadly, in those days - 1930s in Shanghai - the mothers of the French Concession passed the job easily over to the Amahs – Chinese nannies.


My brothers and I have grown up with the story and this name AmahAlmost fictitious having lived with us all our lives, along with our mother’s line: “I was born in Shanghai” Shanghai synonymous for us as children with adventure, difference and desire.

Of course, this was not the case at all; my mother's story is about about separation and loss. The loss of her father, a homeland – China, the war, her mother’s suffering…and her lovely second mother, Amah, who died a strange and haunting death at the hands of cruel people after the war…

Since living in China, I have thought so much about my mother and Amah. Their entwined lives, the two wars; one raging in Europe and the other in China.

A dark time, but for my mother, at 5, life was about her dog Jack and wandering Shanghai’s back alleys with her sister Monica and Amah.

One day I went up to the fishing village at the far side of town, not far from the film school, where I found a sea hut, almost abandoned, a once-upon-a-time- used space by the fisherfolk for night fishing, card games, stocking nets, and perhaps – I like to think of it – the clandestine affair.

The sea hut 

Sea shells 

Cockle cleaners 

Bay boat 

Sea wonders 

I sat looking over the ocean this particular morning through the broken window, and for a moment I had a truc d’oeil - and thought I was in southern France, in the port of Collioure - so similar is the horizon, the rocks, the seascape. That is when the flash came to recreate my mother’s story which begins in the sea hut, and will finish in there. My documentary is called The Sea Hut.

I knew my mother had  a few photos back home, and on the next trip in 2017 I got a reluctant mother to recount what she remembered. I got one brother Patrick to scan those photos the size of pinheads, blowing them up to a reasonable size for editing with. Ivan, another brother has done voice over for me. His daughter plays my mother in her teens, and one of my student's mother's has done the Shanghai voice for dear Amah...Many of my students have helped in one way or another, either showing me some color correction in Divinci, to helping with the filming, giving suggestions. It is a real Chinese-European production. 

I finished 43 minutes on the 19th January and as I write I am downloading it to make a DVD to show my mother...I am hoping to finish by next summer. It is a 

More photos from the village which inspired my film

Moving by 

Old men talking 

The Summer's catch 

I leave China tomorrow…(Actually, as I write, I am back home in the UK with my family, but for the writing, I leave it as if I am still in China).

The teachers have gone home; the students have left.

I love the emptiness of the school, the silent corridors, the darkness at night, as nothing is lit and I have to weave around in the dark.

Tomorrow morning before I take my plane, I shall go to the fishing village and film some more. Then take the slow bus, with Ying, the locals, the little children, like this one, with his gentle and curious fingers touching thing around him, out to the airport, and then home to Europe . . .

Little hands 

Little hands 2