The First Tier
I arrive in Shanghai and am immediately struck by the viscous haziness as I deplane onto the tarmac. This is the reality in most first-tier cities—the major cultural, political and economic centers—in China. After meeting two young Dutch travelers on the train I arrive at an AirBnB I’ve booked last minute. By the time I’m unpacked, it’s dark out and I’m thinking of calling it in early; that’s when I meet Tim. He lives next door and is a photographer. I can’t quite place his accent, but it’s somewhere between Chechen and French. Before I even know where he’s from, we’re geeking out about cameras, sharing pictures, the whole gamut.
It’s now late, but he invites me out to a party on the river where he’s the event photographer. When I show back up, in my fanciest attire straight-out-the-backpack, he replies in a snarky tone, “No. No. No. That will not do”. Sixty seconds later I’m in a full suit, helping carry camera gear down sixteen flights of stairs and off into Shanghai nightlife. Who knew I'd be speaking French on my first day in Shanghai.
The next day I act as Tim’s assistant on a fashion photoshoot. A Chinese designer, two Russian models, Tim and myself are crawling around the bar, setting flashes, doing the whole photographer thing, “You’re beautiful, beautiful. Work it. Work it”. I step back and can’t help but laugh at the whole thing, especially when the designer tells the androgynous model Sasha in a high-pitched germanic-english accent to “Look in the mirror like you’ve never seen yourself before. Like you are a wild animal. Aggressive. Yaaaaaa—make a claw with your hand”. It’s hard to make this stuff up.
With a little more verve in my Chinese two-step, I head out about an hour South to the Shanghai film park. Built by the Shanghai Film Group, it’s one of the largest working studios in all of China. The park stretches over almost 100 acres and includes full-sized sets replicating European towns, 1930’s Shanghai and manicured riparian greenways. The tour comes complete with a rehearsal of a Kung-Fu scene on a film set and I even walk my way onto a live film set. I lurk around with a few other tourists for about an hour until we are noticed and kicked off.
I spend the rest of my time in the film park moseying along the greenway, next to the small man-made lake turned film-set and have the realization that I haven’t really set foot in any place quiet nor green for over a week since getting to China. That I’ve already come to expect the sky will not be blue when I wake up, but rather some impotent dulled silver color. As I’m walking slowly, I become acutely aware that an entire family is sort of lurking behind me. I sit down and the grandfather of the family approaches me. I hear him say the equivalent of ‘picture’ in Chinese so I think he’s asking me to take a picture of his family. I proudly tell him in my broken Chinese, “No worries. I am a photographer”, but before I can even reach my hand out for their camera the entire family has lined up around me and are smiling.
I laugh so hard that my smile must look genuine in the photo. Not fifteen minutes later another family asks for my photo, then a group of teenage girls etc. It’s strange and I contemplate this iconizing of the ‘West’ for much of the day with an increasing awareness of all the fair-skinned mannequins and billboard bimbos touting beauty products. China is as perplexing as it is isolating; as curious as it is conservative; as unromantic as it is beautiful.