Bluffing, bluffing, bluffing….
In this tale of banging around Beijing on a working tour, our ever intrepid photographer/gearhead shows us how fast thinking and native gall can even carry one past the watchful eyes of the Chinese Red Army.
"Kemon achen?" Mr. Li from the Chinese embassy greeted me in near perfect Bangla. I had an invitation to the Middle Kingdom, in Chinese, with a gold stamp and an embossed watermark. I felt important as he ushered me in to the spacious embassy building in Gulshan and offered me tea. Normally, I am not a tea drinker, but this elaborate concoction of herbs and berries steeped in water could hardly be refused. It didn't look anything like tea anyway, and I didn't want to appear rude. He brought pictures of China, gave me a video and showed me their photographic collection. However, despite all the fanfare, what he steadfastly refused to do was to issue me a multiple entry visa. I had half hoped this official invitation by the Mayor of Beijing, would make my subsequent trip to Tibet easier. Oh well!My first trip to China had been in 1986. The Indian photographer Raghu Rai and I had been asked to judge the Standard Chartered Photography Contest in Hong Kong. The photographs weren't that great and we'd gone through them quickly. The organisers were embarrassed. Having gotten us, the judges, over for a week, they now needed to entertain us, and arranged for us to see a dolphin show. Raghu and I both felt a side trip to China would be far more interesting. We had taken the train to Guangzhou, and found to our amazement Hindi music wafting down the aisles. Staid-looking Chinese passengers were glued to the train video, listening to "Ichik dana bichik dana, dana'r upar danaaa". I did have a three-month solo show at the Nikon Gallery in Richmond with that work, but that had been a long time ago, and I was looking forward to Beijing.
The last time I was in Beijing, a brief fly-in, fly-out, was on my way to Mongolia. My mother had wanted to go to China's capital city, and with the then Foreign Secretary Farooq Sobhan's help (he was an ex- bridge partner), amma had been given the red-carpet treatment by our High Commission. So that trip had been more for her than for me, and every time I'd rung up from Ulan Bator to talk to her all I would get was the dial tone: she was away, to the Great Wall, to the Forbidden City, or on some other adventure. So this time around (August of 1999) I was determined to see some of the city for myself.
My old friend, Vincent Menzel, the picture editor of 'M' Magazine in the Netherlands, was there, as were Nicole Aeby of Lookat Pictures in Switzerland. Nicole was exactly as I'd imagined Heidi (as in the prototypical Heidi) to be, and I've never called her by any other name since. It was wonderful to find Bryn Campbell there. The first book on photography I had ever bought back in London in 1980 had been "World Photography" by Bryn. I had never before met the author of one of my favourite books. He too got a new name on that trip. Our charming hostess Jin Yan, called him "Mr. Campabell," and the name stuck.
Chinese hospitality made fitting in the judging difficult. We did go to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and the usual tourist spots. I needed to get my shopping in. Luckily Pathshala (Drik's photography school in Dhaka) hadn't been set up then, but still, with all my Drik colleagues to think of, the children of "Out of Focus" program, and the neighbourhood children, I needed to shop smart. Cheap, light, not too fragile, interesting things in batches of fifty was what I was looking for. Fortunately there were plenty to choose from in China. Eventually I opted for the solar-powered singing birds in small ornate cases. They were a great hit, but sadly, my own birds lie broken, one too many visiting child having treated them with too much affection. And then there were the extensive meal breaks. The Chinese meals I had been taught to expect, had a fixed sequence. You started with soup, had a couple of main meals and ended with dessert. I had not been warned about these thirty-course meals. Neither had I been told what sequence to expect. Soup and dessert came somewhere along the middle, and not knowing how many more dishes were awaiting my rapt attention, it was impossible to pace myself. My grandmother had always liked me because I was a big eater, and I hoped my Chinese hosts would have the same response to my overindulgence.
We survived the judging, the food, the trips to the sites, even the generous offers of massage by the stunning women on all the floors of the hotel, or the women pimps in Beijing streets. Even if I say so myself, I, the bearded man in panjabi pajama from Manjala (Chinese name for Bangladesh), was a great hit. Old women stopped me in the streets to stroke my beard, while kids pointed and giggled. And of course I had found my cyber café, Spark Ice, near the World Trade Centre. An 8-Remimbee ride by taxi, until I realised a bus was 1/400th the price. Later I discovered they had pre-paid Internet cards which I could use from my laptop in my hotel room and no longer had to run the gauntlet of the Beijing pimps.
In the rare moments when our hosts had left gaps in our itinerary, we would go walking down the side streets, generally at night. While there were still the Tai Chi people performing to music early in the morning, I missed the bird people I had seen in Guangzhou way back in '86. They would take their birds avec cage, for a walk in the park in the morning. Later they would take them to the tea stalls, and introduce them to friends over breakfast. I could spend hours photographing those tea stalls.
Meanwhile the floods were raging in Harbin (90 minutes by air from Beijing), and as photojournalists we had to go there. There were a couple of snags. The Chinese government had completely banned foreign media from the flood- affected areas, and I didn't have my passport. In China you need to show your passport even for domestic flights and mine was at the travel agents awaiting a permit for visiting The Tibetan Autonomous Regions. Bryn "Campabell" sensibly passed on the idea, but Vincent and I decided to have a go, and our newfound Dutch friend Astrid, who worked for UNHCR in Beijing, joined us.
We landed at an airport near Harbin and managed to bluff our way out of it. We did have a contact through the journalists in the local radio station but our lead led to a dead end. So we hired a taxi and decided to try our luck. When the road led to the first of the many Chinese military checkposts, with an immense degree of confidence we asked to immediately be taken to 'the leader'.
Bureaucracy loves to run along a single, well-grooved channel. And our technique worked like a charm on the intrinsic inertia of the bureaucrat, the fundamental urge of the bureaucrat to do nothing and pass the buck. By letting us through to 'the leader,' (saying the 'great helmsman' would have been too much, even for the likes of us!) the officers would avoid taking a decision themselves, would neatly avoid either permitting or denying us permission for whatever purpose we had really come for. They were passing the buck and they loved it. So we passed unimpeded, and merrily, through military checkposts, gaining confidence as we progressed. And curiously, as the checkposts became more imposing the farther we went, the more effective was our charade. The very fact that we had progressed that far gave us a degree of credibility that our bureaucrat friends were loathe to question.
Eventually we got to the river itself. The banks had indeed broken and the soldiers were working furiously with typical Chinese efficiency. It was impressive to watch. Still, we needed our 'leader' and repeated our plea to the most impressive-looking officer. He clicked his heels smartly and said he would take us to the control tower. Hey, we realized, we were going to get an audience. Quick thinking was necessary, and given our credentials as nationals of sea-level nations, we rightly felt we should present ourselves to 'the leader' as 'flood experts' from Bangladesh and Holland who had come to evaluate their flood prevention efforts.
The press and media officer came along, and briefed us that the floodwaters had risen 14 metres in the last day. I dared to suggest that perhaps it was 14 centimetres, but the media officer was adamant. 14 metres was what his press briefing said, and that was what it was. It was an awkward moment, but then the leader arrived. An extremely polite gentleman who spoke little and gestured a lot. We were then asked whether we had a vehicle. When we mentioned that we had a taxi waiting, they asked us to let it go. This move had us worried: had they grown wise to our little caper? Not to worry. Soon we discovered that we were no mere mortals, but honest-to-goodness VIPs, and they were going to arrange a limousine for us. But first we had to join them for lunch, no doubt an extravagant Chinese affair. This unexpected turn of events required delicate handling. We had come on a morning flight and needed to catch the afternoon flight back. I had a meeting in Singapore the next afternoon and needed to catch the morning flight the following day. The others had similar plans. Still we couldn't refuse this hospitality. Eventually, imploring that our work was extremely urgent and we needed to hand in our report within the deadline, we managed to avoid the grand lunch, but they filled our limo with packed lunches and off we went (in a limousine!) to the heart of the flood-affected area.
I couldn't really get the shots I wanted from the limo, so a speedboat was arranged, and we went down the river. In many ways it was like Bangladesh, with families pooling together to share resources. Animals and people sharing the small bits of dry space. Makeshift tents where people were busy tending goats, cows and chicken. And as ever, children peering into the lens, making sure they utilised every photo op. We even got pictures of a political leader making a speech. With profuse thanks to 'the leader' and suitable congratulations for doing an excellent job, we scurried back to the airport, eager to exit before the VIP shine wore off.
A smooth take-off, much laughter on board, then back to Beijing, a flight to Singapore, and work, work, work!
Shahidul Alam heads Drik Picture Gallery in Dhaka.