How I discovered the Christmas Spirit in Shanghai, China
We spent the winter in New York City, kicking off the holiday season on Thanksgiving morning, along with 3 million other people, watching Spiderman and Charlie Brown float down Broadway and turn right on 34th Street. Later, Melinda and I met Megan Hilty of the (late) TV show “Smash” after she sang at Lord & Taylor’s 75th Annual Holiday Window unveiling. At every opportunity we strolled through Rockefeller Center to glimpse the 80 foot tall Christmas Tree trumpeting Christmas from each of its 30,000 LEDs. The street performers in Times Square donned Santa hats and tinsel to their costumes, lights and ornaments glittered in every hotel, restaurant and business; fresh-cut Christmas trees lined the sidewalks and chestnuts really roasted on an open fire, on every other corner. It was easy to be infected with the Christmas Spirit.
Fast forward 365 days: We are living in Shanghai, China where the temperatures hover in the 60’s and the Air Quality Index is a throat scorching, tear shedding 400. Five star hotels and luxury shopping centers have ornate Christmas tree displays and Burl Ives sings about “Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen” in Starbucks, but even if you see a star rising in the east and follow it you won’t find a creche anywhere in Shanghai. Face it, in China it just isn’t Christmas time, it’s China and anyway you look at it Christmas is a Christian Holy Day in a atheist country and a Western Holiday in an Far Eastern nation.
Ho, Ho, Ho!
December 7, 2013, Guijing Village: Even the taxi driver, a local, couldn’t find the easily overlooked Guijing Village driving past the crumbling streets more than once. In an area of Shanghai that has been forgotten by the developers and government officials, the buildings of Guijing Village have been falling down since they were first erected during the Great Leap Forward; some are no more than stacked cargo containers while others are cobbled together from tin and scrap lumber. Outside the public toilet a man scoops out the collection tank and plops the solid material into a steaming bucket; following the rural practices of his Anhui province home, this material will be dried for three weeks and then used to fertilize the garden that grows the bright green vegetables that will be sold and cooked into wontons and other dishes.
The garden is surrounded by fetid water fed by pipes draining from the surrounding homes and businesses. There is no zoning here; an old woman burns wood scraps outside her one room home, next to the rubble strewn lot that sells windows, doors, and lumber scavenged from demolished buildings. Around the corner a brilliant white light blasts from the open door of container converted to a welding shop. There is a truck repair shop in a cavernous warehouse where a toddler in Paul Frank Sock Monkey fleece responds to a passing “Ni Hao!” with a wave. This neighborhood, or village in Chinese parlance, is poor even by local standards. The residents are migrants from a rural province and they lack the official government issued documents, hukou, permitting them to live in Shanghai; without it they can not apply for assistance, healthcare, or enroll their children in schools, ensnaring them in these narrow, dirty lanes for generations to come.
Into this village wandered not Maji, but 4 French, 1 Singaporean, 2 Germans, 2 Canadian, 2 Hong Kong, 4 mainland Chinese, and 1 American with 4 inkjet printers*, 2 coffee machines, 4 walkie talkies, 1 reporter from NPR, 15 bowls of wontons and a partridge in a pear tree. Through the efforts of the Shanghai Flickr Meetup group, we were scheduled to take portraits for 110 families from this village. It was my first time participating in a Help Portrait event after two failed attempts in Seattle and, as with all things in my life, it turns out that this is the one, here in Shanghai, China, that I was supposed to be at. This was the event I needed.
We set-up at 9 AM and by 10 we were shooting the first portraits; by the time we packed up the equipment at 4 PM 215 families and children, and two dogs, received free 8.5 x 11 portraits and the 16 volunteers were blessed with the understanding that it really is better to give than to receive.
Here in Guijing Village I rediscovered the meaning of Christmas.
*(Thank you Canon for donating machines, ink, paper and easel frames)