Chongming Island (崇明岛) Part Two

Julie, Feng Ran, and I made our second trip to Chongming Island this weekend. This time our team went equipped with a full filming kit: a Canon Rebel T4, Sony Bloggie, Rodi microphone, H4 microphone, tripod and other accessories (spare batteries, Neewer light disc reflector and SD cards).

We arrived on Saturday night to review our plans, prepare the filming equipment and get a good night’s rest for Sunday. During our trip we interviewed a migrant farmer, a local farmer, a local land owner/developer, two migrant fishermen and a local driver. Below are my reflections on our team’s first filming experiences.

TECHNICALITIES

Before we arrived to Chongming, our team practiced filming and testing our microphone’s audio just once. So, I was a bit nervous while setting up the equipment for our first interview. While Feng Ran made casual conversation with the migrant farmer, Julie and I mounted the Rodi microphone to the Canon and the Canon on the tripod. Just before this, we realized the H4 microphone was out of battery, so we crossed our fingers and hoped that the Rodi microphone would capture satisfactory audio. As Fuji stresses, good audio is even more important than the video.

Alas, our team forgot to plug the Rodi microphone cord into the camera during the first two minutes of filming. Julie luckily noticed this mistake early on, and we were able to capture the introductory content, once again, at the end of the interview.

With around 3 hours of nonstop filming completed, the Canon Rebel’s battery was running extremely low and the SD card was filling up faster than we anticipated. We were forced to exchange the battery pack and SD card during the middle of the second interview. This was irritating because it disrupted the flow of the interview and thoughts of our informant. Nonetheless, these interruptions can be easily fixed with editing later on.

Lesson learned: spare batteries and memory storage are necessary. Also, it doesn’t hurt to take a lunch break to charge up the dead batteries and to free up some space on the primary SD card.

The Sony Bloggie also caused our team some technical problems. The Bloggie’s battery died around the same time as the Canon, but we did not know how to recharge it. I plugged the Bloggie into my computer, but the computer did not recognize any activity from the USB drive. Additionally, we had no Internet at our hotel on Chongming, so searching for the solution was not an option. Consequently, the Bloggie remained uncharged for a good portion of the trip, and we missed out on opportunities for footage and various angle shots during interesting interviews. At the end of the trip we figured out our mistake: the Bloggie must be turned on when plugged into the computer for the battery to charge and files to transfer. By this time it was a little too late. Nonetheless, Julie and I did capture around two hundred shorter video clips on the Bloggie during our stay.

LANGUAGE BARRIERS

In Shanghai and around Fudan University’s campus, I will often here English or other international languages spoken on the streets, subways and buses. This is not the case on Chongming Island. Especially among the farming and fishing communities, there were no English speakers. In fact, some people we spoke with declined an interview, claiming even their Mandarin was not good enough.

Since all of the interviews were conducted in Mandarin, Julie and I did not ask any questions during the interviews with the Chongming subjects. Collectively, our team brainstormed topics and questions for each interview beforehand. I was able to follow some of the introductory conversations, but most of my attention was diverted toward filming. During our visit to the fishing village, I wandered off and spoke to our driver and fishermen on another boat. It was exciting to use my Mandarin, but still some parts of the conversation were lost in translation. I asked the fishermen about their children and they asked me about my flight to Shanghai. They even offered to give me a sampling of the crabs they caught. I politely declined, having neither the kitchen nor skill to cook the crabs.

With around 50 GB worth of film, the next steps for our team involve tedious video cataloging. Since Julie and I do not have the necessary language skills to interpret the interviews, we cannot divide the work and conquer this task in a third of the time. Instead, we must sit down as a group and filter the abundance of film down to the most important parts based on Feng Ran’s translations.

A-ROLL AND B-ROLL

A-roll and B-roll together make up any film. A-roll is the video footage of the main subject, like an interviewee speaking about his or her family. And B-roll is the video footage of the surroundings and other contextual images, like shots of an interviewee’s children playing in different parts of the house. The difference between A and B-roll is particularly clear in most documentaries. In my opinion, the interplay of A and B-roll keeps the film interesting. When a film elegantly jumps from the main subject to other scenes that complement the dialogue and content of the piece, it is able to express a more complete story. Using relevant clips apart from the A-roll will improve the illustration and portrayal of the story’s narrative.

During our time on Chongming Island, Julie and I shared the responsibility of capturing A-roll and B-roll while Feng Ran interviewed. We alternated A-roll and B-roll jobs after each interview session. We filmed A-roll on the Canon Rebel and B-roll on the Sony Bloggie. I found filming A-roll more serious and structured. For the most part this job required placing the interviewee in the frame and making sure he or she did not come out of focus. On the other hand, filming B-roll allowed me to be more creative and explore the surroundings. While filming B-roll, I experimented with angles, scale and perspectives. Just for fun I created a short video (see below) of some of the B-roll Julie and I shot this weekend. Now, I need to think about how to pair our team’s A-roll and B-roll footage for our project this semester.

Chongming Island B-roll from Chai Lu Bohannan on Vimeo. Music: “Pretty Girl from Merlefest” by the Avett Brothers.

The River Gone Black

As I further slip into the cadence of this upbeat Shanghai life, things, once considered bizarre and outright wrong, now qualify for the titles of mundane and well accepted; this especially goes for topics concerning the standard of sanitation. However, I was recently reminded of my (involuntarily) subdued concerns last week when I found my apartment threshold loitered by the grounds-crew. It had to be anywhere between 5 – 7 of them, well equipped with (disfigured) brooms, buckets and Mr. Muscle soaps and, unbeknownst to me, they were lined up to fight the thriving cesspool that accumulated outside my kitchen window. After accessing the situation and realizing that I was soon embarking on my final moments with my living, neighboring pollutant, I snagged my camera to catch the final shots of what I whimsically, but appropriately dubbed “The River that Gone Black.”

It’s only sheer coincidence that the cleaning crew came to our apartment moments after Fuji’s class ended, and even more improbable that they were there on the first day of our discussion of the The River Runs Black by Elizabeth Economy. The conjunction of these odds forced me to revisit our initial Shanghai days, wrought with complaints over the Tonghe’s inhospitable conditions and overall cleanliness (or lack thereof). The incessant sulfuric smells, the occasional insects, and the mounds of rubbish are all mere examples, and all of which raised questions on the infrastructure that allowed things to be this way. With slightly irascible members in our group, needless to say, there were outcries to fix our current conditions (and I must say that I appreciate my currently clean kitchen view). I furthered my thoughts with, if these personal accounts are of the microlevel, then would the 500,000 protests (loc. 408) mentioned in the book be the macrolevel? Would the corollary then conclude that all of the overarching developmental problems of macrolevel China obstinately trickle down to the microlevel and leave us with what we figure as haphazardly constructed?

 

I first came across the phrasing “haphazard development” within our first few days in China, and I specifically remember Fuji used the poorly constructed drop-ceiling as an example. I wanted to rhetorically suggest that if the construction adequately fulfilled its function, then why be concerned with the manner of its construction. Elizabeth, however, disputes that notion with her alarming statistical data on the connection between haphazard development and environmental degradation. She figures that what maintains this tendency is the maxim of “first development, then environment,” (loc. 1892), despite the fact that the costs exceedingly outweigh any benefits.

Rhetoric on the environmental protection is gaining momentum and dynamism in Chinese society, and thus desire and need to rectify this collective goods dilemma is too. However, this progressive direction is tenuous and only seems to take root on a superficial level; only by suffocating the deeply routed environmental exploitation that had marked/marred Chinese history would this movement blossom. Conversely, the previously mentioned maxim is tenacious and is instinctual trend of the masses. It just seems that concern for the environment isn’t as genuine on a systemic level. Elizabeth mentions the governmental efforts to clean up of lake Dianchi, but officials concluded it would take 30 years to revert it back to sanitary state because of the monumental damage. What was more shocking is that that figure doesn’t even include the governments (in)ability to prevent nearby polluters (loc. 2416). It’s gut-trenching to know that even after Dianchi’s cleanup, there is promulgated concern that the lake will face threats of pollution.

This example of the blatant disregard and apathy for the environment, despite all efforts to revitalize is an overwhelming and ever-present concern that plagues contemporary China. In ways, my microlevel analogy seems farfetched, but I hold that there is some merit in it, primarily because of the disregard for space. What is environment to its people but a magnified take on space to a man… I look outside my window where my cesspool was and I see an agglomerate of cigarettes, trash and debris in its place. I now wonder to myself if this continual apathy for the surrounding spaces looms something comparable but magnified for macro China.

Gardens = Serenity 吗?

It was great seeing the beautiful gardens in Suzhou this week, but it made me wonder how the Chinese actually consider and appreciate nature. Especially living in the booming city of Shanghai, it is easy to assume that the low air quality and lack of green space, among other urban side effects, corresponds with a lack of regard for the natural environment. And as The River Runs Black points out, one can basically assume this to be true. The rapid economic development of China has come at the cost of the health of the Chinese landscape and population. The government has repeatedly demonstrated that a regard for nature is secondary, at best, to the priority of economic growth and urbanization.

These circumstances made me think about the oddity that is gardens in general, and how they are appreciated in China specifically. It has always been my belief that gardens are meant as escapes or refuges from the urbanized world. We keep them in our backyards sometimes for growing food, but many times for the simple joy of tending to the plants and enjoying the blossoming of the flowers. I know from my conversations (and extensive tour of his crazy backyard) with Larry Ligo that gardens can be immaculately imagined and constructed, made strategically to induce specific responses both visually and on a deeper level. It was my general assumption that gardens are places to unwind and take the chance to observe and share space with the most beautiful elements of nature.

That’s why going to the gardens in Suzhou made little sense to me! I know they used to be private gardens that were serene, but they have now turned into thriving tourist hubs that are as bustling with people as city streets. I remember it was hard to even look up and enjoy seeing a tree or plant. I was able to snap this picture of a flower during one of our brief breaks from walking:

So even though this photo shows a beautiful, untouched, vibrant natural element, much of the trip was dominated by scenes that looked more like this:

This has all led me to think about how nature is perceived in China. Of course there is no simple answer. But what I have deduced is that there is an inherent desire in humans to be connected to nature in some way. Even as I look out my window, I can see trees and grass whose function is primarily superficial. And I can see that the gardens of Suzhou, though extremely crowded during Golden Week, are exceptionally beautiful and serene when absent such crowds. But I think the abundance of people and human influence that bombards these gardens is indicative of the stance that China has made in its relationship with nature. Though the Chinese still have an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world, it functions now as a purely economic entity. The gardens are maintained not for the serenity they provide, but the revenue of its visitors. And as The River Runs Black explains, this type of mentality will continue to affect a gamut of environmental issues in China.

Good, Old-Fashioned Nostalgia

When I’m feeling blue, there’s nothing as bittersweet as remembering (and recreating) my rosy, perfect childhood. In my memories, life is never so sweet and perfect as it was then. A similar dose of nostalgia seems to permeate throughout Chinese culture. Although the future is embraced, the past is lived in many ways. A past that is idealized and glorified. Beyond a simple Confucian ancestral reverence, there is a living appreciation and regeneration of China’s long history.

Since the Cultural Revolution’s end, values on history have shifted. There is a return to traditional beliefs and morality, albeit often with a twist or relabeling. Chinese historical-esque knickknacks are commodified and sold to tourists. Traditional Chinese philosophies are back on the rise. One prime example of a shift in perception is Kongzi. The Chinese Communist Party now hails Confucian principles as eternally valuable, even though Confucius was previously condemned as an obstacle to the Marxist ideas of equity. History is cool again. The concept of ancient China is still very much present in modern Chinese culture.

The generalization of China’s long history is problematic, though. As Jeff Wasserstrom describes in his book China in the 21st Century: What You Need to Know, the presentation of a continuous 5000-year Chinese civilization is a myth. Chinese culture has frequently changed and adapted throughout history, but performances and attractions simply play on a basic nostalgia for old China.

The distinct dress of these opera characters is a tribute to the past. Even the  Tongli boats serve to romanticize an older, simpler time.

Parks imbue the environment with the same sense of longing for the past. Visitors are drawn to remember the days before urbanization when China’s air was cleaner and unpolluted water was plentiful. There’s a strong feeling of finiteness. The rose-colored past is gone. The environment is fleeting, but the park is a preservation of the precious past. During Golden Week at Park, preservation of nature mixes with preservation of Chinese culture.

Of course, preservation and nostalgia is performed throughout the U.S., too. I live an hour from Williamsburg, so I’m no stranger to the historical myths we generate and believe. Still, there’s something unique about Chinese preservation. China is very much on the fence between the past and the present. China is both futuristic and nostalgic, often even at the same time, and it’ll be interesting to see which wins out as the country grows.

 

A Soiled Tradition

Early Thursday morning, the group got ready to head out for a two-day trip to Suzhou and Tongli, an ancient water village.  We soon realized we were not the only people in China who had the idea to travel to these famous towns during the long, country-wide holiday called Golden Week.  The crowds were overflowing and we could see and hear people in every corner of the gardens, bridges, and restaurants.  There were children, teenagers, adults, and elderly people exploring the towns and taking lots of pictures.  In the midst of these large crowds, especially in Tongli, there were a few clues that gave away who was and was not a local.  One woman in particular drew my attention because she was washing a towel and wiping it on her face.  I saw her exit a small home in the village that was right near the water before coming toward me.

The quotidian act of immersing a small face towel into a river would not have been something to catch my eye on any regular day, but in crowded and tourist-filled Tongli, it did.  I cringed as I watched this woman drop her towel into the river and repeatedly wipe her face with it as I thought about all the bacteria in the water.  I thought about the number of people who had traveled through the river on the boat tours, the number of people who had spit in the water, and the number of sewage systems that directly or indirectly lead into that same body of water.  I looked down at the murky, green water and thought about how it could make her physically ill.  This event was a microcosm of a wider critique by Elizabeth C. Economy in her book The River Runs Black.

In this book, Economy discusses the impact of densely populated China bearing an insufficient amount of resources and, as she describes it, a tradition of using nature to fulfill human needs.  Historically, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have all influenced the way people see nature and their relationship to it.  Taoist school of thought in particular teaches that humans are one with nature and that they have a responsibility to create material things out of nature for sustainment.  The high levels of population growth, the pollution that comes as a consequence of that growth, and the policies in place to make China more “productive” make it unsafe for everyday people to use natural resources in their backyard.

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