On Wednesday I received a call from the The National, a newspaper based in Abu Dhabi, for a last minute assignment in Panyu, China.
They wanted me to photograph an "artist" who runs a business copying photos of original paintings. Those paintings are usually Arabian-themed, and are sent to him by his Dubai client/business partner.
Ma Zhengcheng, the "artist" in question, has a growing concern churning out these art copies. He has three "studios". One in Dongguan, two in Panyu, all near Guangzhou in China. But excuse the inverted commas. To me this just ain't art.
Don't get me wrong. Mr Ma's a nice guy. We got on well. So much so that I dragged and dropped a few of my photos to his desktop before I left. And I helped him paint a camel. He didn't ask me for the pictures, I just wanted to help him. He said he'll probably use them for marketing, for his web site when he gets one.
The belly dancer in the painting behind Mr Ma is considered risqué in the United Arab Emirates. This is despite the fact that only her face and forearms are uncovered. No wonder The National didn't publish it.
Each "studio" is actually more like a small factory. Several rooms to a floor, with one, maybe two, "artists" to a room. The workers are mostly in their twenties, and a few teenagers too. But I'm sure this work beats the production line.
The kids knock out pretty good, but by no means perfect, copies of whatever they are given by Mr Ma to work on that day.
French impressionism. I'm stuck for the original artist's name though. Any ideas, answers on a postcard, or post a comment below.
The kids know that they have to knock them out fast too. This Tutankhamun took about an hour. King Tut would have been proud. Howard Carter would have been astounded. Quick turnaround is the name of the game.
For some reason, triptychs seemed to be very popular. I saw many "artists" painting them. I'm thinking that maybe they are destined for office receptions, boardrooms, dental surgeries - those kinds of places. What I saw was art that doesn't challenge. Art that doesn't make you think. Doesn't hurt your brain. We've all seen it. On the wall, to brighten it up a bit, but not to be admired. It's usually just there. Possibly to the right of an air con unit, or maybe opposite a ceiling-mounted digital projector. Dust-covered after a few years, but mundane from the start. There's a huge market out there for this kind stuff. I know that now.
But back to Tutankhamun. Next time you are on holiday and want to buy a souvenir of that place, just make sure it's not MADE IN CHINA. Unless, of course, you are in China.
Read the full story in the weekend section of The National here.
The Hong Kong Tourim Board released some encouraging data recently.
Their numbers indicate the global financial meltdown has dealt a blow to this town's economy in the form of a 12.2% drop in visitors to this ex-British colonial outpost.
It seems folk the world over, including our mainland compatriots, are cutting back on luxuries and non-essentials. Like trips to Hong Kong.
It's not difficult to extrapolate that a 12.2% drop in tourist numbers equates to 12.2% more elbow room on our crowded streets.
Today's post is the last set of images from a weekly series of photographs from the e-waste capital of the world, Guiyu, in China's Guangdong Province. Read the full story here.
Kids in close proximity to e-waste. This migrant worker family from Sichuan Province had no clue as to the health hazards of working in the e-waste business.
When my translator told them of the risks, the man sitting on the small red plastic stool, Chen Jiaxin, 29, a father of three, replied: "We never knew that our kids could get cancer or other diseases by touching e-waste. We always thought it was no problem if they just washed their hands afterwards!"
Here's a less than ideal situation for a young mother and baby to be in.
Unloading a truck half full of e-waste.
Migrant workers sorting through piles of e-waste by the side of the road.
A warehouse with a yard full of bags of e-waste.
A pile of hard drives.
Signs on the main street in Guiyu relating to e-waste purchasing.
A man squatting next to a pile of hard drives.
Finally, here's a story I wrote for the Hong Kong JMSC about the Lianjiang River that runs right through the middle of Guiyu...
The Lianjiang – A Story Of A Chinese River
According to China's Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Lianjiang River, which flows through the country’s eastern Guangdong Province, is rated a 'Category 5 River’ - the worst out of a total of 5 possible categories. This means the water from it is neither fit for human consumption, nor for agricultural use.
Major sources of pollution along the river include domestic household waste and industrial pollution from textile factories. But by far the biggest source of pollution along the Lianjiang River is from the processing of electronic waste, or ‘e-waste’. This takes place at the town of Guiyu on the Lianjiang’s upper reaches. Toxic solutions that contains high levels of dangerous chemicals derived from e-waste processing in Guiyu, seep directly into the Lianjiang River. From Guiyu, the toxic chemicals continue their journey into the sea at the port of Haimen Bay. Local fishermen there complain of dwindling catches and are losing their jobs, whilst fishing boats stay moored in the bay for weeks on end.
However, the spring water flowing from the source of the Lianjiang River is clean. Coming straight out of Dananshan mountain, the water collected at the San Keng Shang reservoir, in Pu Ning County, appears clean and clear. But just one pace from the clay hole in the side of the mountain, the spring water encounters its first piece of downstream man-made pollution, a discarded piece of polystyrene foam. This common packaging material cannot biodegrade. The problem is that polystyrene foam breaks down continuously into ever smaller and smaller pieces. It eventually enters the food chain at the molecular level, with unknown side effects for animals and humans. The spring water of the Lianjiang River at San Keng Shang has been dammed for the benefit of the local townsfolk. Fishing is illegal at the reservoir, but they persist nonetheless.
The worst source of pollution along the Lianjiang River is undoubtedly to be found at Guiyu. Situated on the upper reaches of the river, the town is at the centre of the world's 'e-waste' processing industry. Illegal container loads of discarded electronic goods from the United States, Japan and Europe, find their way to China via the port of Hong Kong. Most of it usually ends up in Guiyu for 'recycling' at informal e-waste processing factories, of which there are around 3,000 in the town. Computers, printers, keyboards, CRT monitors, mobile phones, and other obsolete high tech junk can be seen in large piles strewn across Guiyu.
Migrant workers from other Chinese provinces provide the labor. Some work with sodium cyanide baths used to dissolve lead and precious metals, such as gold, silver and cadmium from computer integrated circuit boards. This is by far the most poisonous and dangerous e-waste processing job of all, as most workers get sick from doing this job within a month. The waste solution can contain lead, dioxins or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and is usually discarded by pouring it into the soil. It then leeches into the water table and the Lianjiang River itself, leaving it severely poisoned.
Metal that is encased in plastic in electronic devices such as printers is freed by uncontrolled open burning. Wires are burnt to free the copper inside. The acrid black smoke released from the fires is carcinogenic and can contain dangerous neurotoxins, dioxins and furans. After the metals have been collected, the black burnt-out refuse from the fires is easily disposed of into the Lianjiang River.
There are no fish in the lifeless Lianjiang River. The children can often be seen playing with toxic e-waste alongside their migrant worker parents. All food and drinking water has to be imported into Guiyu from outside. This results in much higher living costs for migrant workers, many of whom will later be faced with high medical bills.
According to Dr Lin Banghong, a doctor at the hospital in Guiyu who refused to be photographed, the incidence of cancer among e-waste workers in the town is high. Dr Lin said, “Although we can't conclusively be sure of the link between the pollution and the incidence of cancer here in Guiyu, we do strongly believe that the pollution is a factor affecting people’s health here.”
Dr Lin is also concerned that workers in the e-waste industry in Guiyu are falling ill from diseases hitherto unknown in China. This is because much of the imported e-waste is smuggled into China and therefore not subject to China’s stringent quarantine regulations. Keyboards, for example, are notorious for harboring a large variety of different germs.
Education about the toxic side effects of e-waste handling is virtually unknown among the town’s residents. Mr. Chen Jiaxin, 29, a local from Guiyu, runs a small e-waste family business. He has three children. When told about the possible side effects of the e-waste on his children, Mr. Chen said, "We never knew that our kids could get cancer or other diseases by touching e-waste. We always thought it was no problem if they just washed their hands afterwards!"
Further downstream, the industrial run-off from textile factories on the Lianjiang River is another significant source of pollution. The middle reaches of the river are home to many polluting factories producing ladies underwear. To conceal from sight their toxic effluent many factories bury their outflow pipes deep into the river.
The wanton disposal of household waste in the Lianjiang River is a problem too. Many residents in the area are unaware that the throwing of household garbage into the river can pose a serious problem for the environment. At Zhan Long, the Lianjiang River runs through a lock situated between its upper and lower reaches. Chen Jinping, 37, a migrant worker from Chongqing Municipality, spends twelve hours a day at the sluice gate fishing out errant plastic bags and other debris from the water inflow at the entrance to the lock’s hydroelectric turbine. She earns Euro 112 (CNY 1,000) a month, working the twelve-hour shifts with her husband. They rarely eat together. She and husband and two small children live in a tiny room inside directly above the turbine, and she says that she worries for her children’s health. According to Ms Chen, “The local people here are selfish. They throw their trash into the river when no one is looking. This river is like a sewer, and it’s even worse on sunny days.”
Near the lock is a plastics recycling facility. Migrant workers from Sichuan Province sift through large bales of crushed plastic bottles from the United States; Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Tropicana and Dasani mineral water, all the big soft drink names are there. The plastic bottles are shredded into small pieces at the plant, ready to be melted down and recycled according to plastic type, of which there are many. A baseball lies abandoned in the plastic chippings, thousands of miles away from it’s original owner. A cow sits forlornly among plastic chippings and discarded glass wool, by to it’s source of water, a filthy tributary of the Lianjiang River.
Eventually the most polluted river in Guangdong Province flows into the sea at Haimen Bay. By now the river is black, bubbling and viscous, clogged up with garbage and algae. Fishermen here complain about the lack of fish in the bay, and about how they need to go further and further out to sea to catch fish. It’s unclear whether the lack of fish around Haimen Bay is as result of the pollution or over-fishing. But it is evident that fishing has become uneconomical in Haimen Bay, with hundreds of boats lined up in the mouth of bay going nowhere. Due to the excess in fishing capacity, catches are now too low to warrant the high cost of fuel required to go fishing.
Zheng Qingzhou, a fisherman in Haimen Bay started to notice the water quality of the Lianjiang River deteriorate about ten years ago. Mr. Zheng said, “Young people here no longer want to work in the fishing industry. And some young fishermen here are finding it very hard to get a wife, since girls these days aren’t interested in men doing jobs with such low prospects.”
No one knows for sure how many people have fallen ill or died as a consequence of the severe pollution of the Lianjiang River. And no one knows for sure what the long-term effects will be on natural environment - the surrounding farmlands and the Pacific Ocean itself.
7th May 2009
Does this man...
...hold the key to clean air here...?
Quite possibly, yes.
The man in question is Wang Chuan Fu, Chairman of BYD Company Limited (1211.hk), a mainland firm listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Today I went to a financial results press conference held by the company. This is highly out of character as I usually avoid these dull affairs like the plague.
In case you've never heard of BYD, I'll try to explain in just a few lines why they are one of my favourite companies, and why I decided to buck the boredom factor to attend their presser this morning.
BYD, which stands for Build Your Dream, are primarily a maker of Lithium-ion batteries, but in recent years have branched out into the production of electric cars. Electric cars. That means cars that run cheaply, don't emit dirty smoke, and don't contribute to global warming. As I posted a few weeks ago, the main source of air pollution in Hong Kong does not come from factories across the border in China. No. It comes from roadside fumes. According to the Hong Kong Clean Air Network website, industrial emissions do make up a significant portion of the filth we breathe, but contrary to what most people believe, the largest slice of the air pollution pie chart in Hong Kong does indeed comes from the roadside; cars, trucks and buses that run on dirty old diesel and gasoline. And what is strikingly obvious to me, but not to others, it seems, is that air pollution does not come from electric cars.
My love affair with BYD is simple really. I hate sucking in a white sky everyday, so I love BYD. And it seems a lot of other people love BYD too. They all live in China, where BYD electric cars are selling like hot cakes. At today's presser Mr Wang announced that BYD's net profit for the first half of 2009 leapt by an eye-popping 98% on the back of "increased brand recognition" and the huge demand for their cool electric cars. Cars that are powered by their funky little Lithium-ion batteries. First half sales volume leapt to 180,000 units, up 150% compared to 2008. And US billionaire Warren Buffett thinks they're a cool company too. MidAmerican Energy Holdings, a unit of his investment firm Berkshire Hathaway Inc bought a 10% stake in BYD back in September 2008. (I still kick myself daily for not having bought just a handful of BYD shares, when that was announced). And at today's press conference Mr Wang announced that Mr Buffett wants to increase his stake in BYD, a fact which sent the stock price soaring to close up 8%. (Alas, it must really, really, be too late to buy now. Sell on the news, and all that).
The BYD factory is just across the border in Shenzhen. I have an idea. Wouldn't it be great if the Hong Kong Government could support a great Chinese company that are doing the world a big favour by introducing to this city a 'cash for clunkers' scheme similar to Mr Obama's? If the Government of Hong Kong fast-tracked the retirement of all the city's dirty smoky vehicles, wouldn't that be a fine thing? Imagine the peace and quiet on Hennessey Road if every vehicle that passed you was electric? Imagine how clean the buildings along King's Road, Fortress Hill would be after they get their first good scrub up in decades, on the day that residents awake to news that fossil fuels, and the fith and grime they cause, have been banished from the city's streets forever?
And as the buses thundered past me in Admiralty tonight, deafening me with the roar of their engines and enveloping me in a hot cloud of dust and carbon monoxide fumes, the only question on my mind was: how long will we have to wait for that Utopian vision to become reality, Mr Wang?
A girl cuddles a giant rabbit. Buy a watch. Another girl cuddles a giant alsatian. Buy a watch.
It's certainly eye-catching. Welcome to the wierd, wonderful, and sometimes hallucinatory, world of Hong Kong advertising.
This billboard, spotted in Causeway Bay a few weeks ago, was carrying a campaign by 'Solvil & Titus', makers of fine 'timepieces' and 'chronographs' to the bourgeoisie. That's watches to you and me. As I looked up at that ad from street level, the only thing running through my mind was: "How quickly can I warn that girl that at any given moment that rabbit could easily turn nasty, spin around, and bite her head off?" Since most people in this city have never seen a rabbit in real life, let alone stroked one, the chances of them ever having been on the recieving end of a sharp pair of rabbit incisors is even more remote. Which is why on that level I am sure that this ad works. Rabbits are well established in the Hong Kong pantheon of the cute and cuddly. And in Hong Kong big is usually better. So it must stand to reason that a big rabbit must be more adorable than a small, or at least a normal-sized, rabbit.
Apparently, according to the Solvil & Titus website, the gist of the ad is the somewhat tenuous link between time and love. The girl in the angelic white on the left is supposed to be waiting her whole life for that 'perfect' someone, whilst the girl on the right in the fiery red dress is 'seizing a moment for passion'. Confucian celibacy versus western sluttiness perhaps? An ad campaign to specifically target frigid office girls with ticking hormone time bombs, wavering in their wait for Mr Right? I don't know. What I do know is the kids at the agency must have been smoking something pretty strong when they thought this one up. Incredibly, they even went as far as commissioning the global market research company Synovate to conduct a region-wide survey on the matter. Gimmick.
And let's not even get into the subject of big dogs.
Buy a watch.
One of the reasons I started this blog was to to share with a wider audience some of the quirkier things that delight me on a daily basis during my 'vie quotidienne à Hong Kong'.
Like this Volvo Stretch Limo. I mean, where in the world, apart from here (or Sweden perhaps), would you ever be likely to come across one of these daft-looking motors? The only question that enters my head when I see this crazy clunker is: why?
And this. Maxim's Group, not content with being complicit in the wholesale wiping out of an entire species, are working hard on wiping out another species. Us. The human race. This 'sam mun jie' has got to be the most heart-stopping, cardiac-inducing, gastronomic death trap known to... the Hong Kong commuter. My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I first spotted it for sale at a little Maxim's Bakery shop in Fortress Hill MTR station this afternoon. Heart-bypass anyone? It seems Maxim's wants to kill us all...
Today I did a site check at the back of Terminal Two for an upcoming photoshoot for a luxury car client.
The airport was one of a handful of possible locations the client had in mind which are supposed to exude a 'contemporary feel'.
The brief they gave me is something to do with "dynamism and cosmopolitan senses of the city".
I hope these pictures are dynamic and cosmopolitan enough to help them to make sense of this city.
Both shots were taken during the evening 'magic hour'. At 7:06pm to be precise.
No Photoshop, no re-touch, just a good old-fashioned tripod, f/11 and a tungsten white balance to make the blues pop.
I love the way the Cheung Kong Center, IFC2 and the Bank Of China are in perfect vertical alignment in the middle of the frame.
Here's a close-up.
Here comes this week's set of nasty e-waste photos from Guiyu, China - a small town with a dirty secret. As usual, the full story behind the images can be found here.
A truck full of plastic CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor cases. These are called 'shells' in the e-waste business. Since the world is now scrutinizing goings-on in Guiyu more closely, it has become a mystery where the the 'yolks', ie the cathode ray tubes themselves, are broken down. This is one sub-industry within the e-waste 'recycling' business that has become highly opaque and impenetrable due to it's very dirty processes, according to my sources at Basel Action Network.
Hanging clothes to dry next to piles of PC power supplies.
Old phones on top of a truck.
Anyone know what this means? I would love to know. It's industry stuff...
Breaking down e-waste bits and bobs.
More breaking down of e-waste bits and bobs.
No idea what this assorted jumble is.
Integrated circuit boards on the back of a tricycle.
Close shot of integrated circuit boards on the back of a tricycle.
Tune in next Tuesday for the final set of pix from Guiyu, the e-waste capital of China, if not the world.
In Hong Kong, it sometimes seems like the urban environment is constantly slugging it out with nature, as both compete for the same small patch of land.
Urban usually wins.
This, in Quarry Bay today.