Issue #5: drinking etiquette, Beijing’s foreign models, Little Red Book controversy
It’s Yan, Beimeng, and Charlotte here. This month we picked three very different visual stories from China: a tender personal project that deals with family, memory, and grief; a series of environmental portraits and stills that show the rarely-seen life of foreign models in Beijing, and a video about a school which teaches people how to become skilled drinkers at China’s business banquets. We close this issue with a recent controversy about filtered reality over Red, China’s answer to Instagram. We’d like to hear what you think about this!
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Our top picks in this issue:
Learn Your Business Etiquette at Dongbei’s Drinking School
You might have heard that heavy drinking at the dinner table is how the Chinese do business. But are Chinese people naturally good at it? Do they even like it?
A school in Harbin, Heilongjiang province has been teaching business drinking etiquette—from how much to pour, to who to toast first and what to say when making the toasts. The most telling part of the video is the interview with the students: a businesswoman, a red wine salesman, and an accountant. Few of them enjoy drinking and socializing on such occasions and feel compelled to put on a disguise and suck up to their superiors or clients. But most agree that chugging that glass of beer or Baijiu is an important, possibly the only, way to cement a deal, and thus to advance one’s career and get ahead in life. The accountant, Mingyu Wang, for example, says she used to be terrified about having to socialize at dinner tables. But when she started her own firm, she realized that without participating in the drinking culture, she’d have no chance of signing new clients.
The video came out at a critical moment when more and more young people in China are beginning to reject the business drinking culture, considering it vile and outdated. In August, an employee of Alibaba claimed that she was sexually assaulted by her manager and a client after being coerced into drinking at a business dinner. Last year, a young employee was slapped and insulted by his colleagues for refusing to drink at an informal work banquet. Both incidents sparked discussion and criticism on the toxic nature of the culture. As long as doing business in China continues to rely heavily on personal relationships, the drinking culture is going to be hard to root out.
The (Mostly) White Models Living in Cramped Beijing Apartments
The knowns: the colonized mainstream notions of beauty have helped create a rent-a-foreigner industry in China. White-skinned, blond-haired, female, foreign models symbolize high status and were frequently brought into the country by agents from other parts of the world before China shut its borders due to Covid.
The unknowns: these models, most of whom come from former Soviet bloc countries, often hopped between Asian countries on short-term visas. In Beijing, they dwelled in cramped accommodations in the shadow of the CBD district—where most modeling businesses are based—sharing rooms with as many as half a dozen other models.
Starting from 2015, Li Xiaoliang, or Alexvi, a fashion photographer who has photographed numerous Chinese and international celebrities, has been asking the difficult question of why they came here in the first place. In the project “Peking Apartments”, he has been documenting the living realities of this nameless, yet fantasized about, group.
A Life of Fen and Fang
“I slept with my grandparents as a child, and I slept best when feeling my grandmother’s earlobe. When I grew older, mom asked us to sleep separately, me in my own bed. The first night, neither grandma nor I fell asleep.
When I stayed awake at night, I liked to bring a little stool to sit in their room and listen to their breath. Should the breath be too hard to hear or be taking too long, I would be worried that they were dead.”
This is translated from a short hand-written note as part of the 29-year-old photographer Wu Wei’s project dedicated to her late grandparents, Fang ( Fangyao Du) and Fen (Meifeng Wen). Combined, the word “Fen Fang” means fragrance in Chinese.
Using a combination of old family albums, hand-written notes, poems, medical scans, new photos taken of left-behind objects by the pair (including dentures in a used cup), a narrated video as well as a series of triple exposed current-day “group photos” between the photographer and her grandparents, Wu invites the audience to experience the intimate shared life between herself and the couple who brought her up.
Taiwanese American artist and curator Victoria Yung-Chih Lu has been a legend her whole life. She had her first solo exhibition and her work collected by Taipei’s National Palace Museum when she was a teenager. The defiant, trend-setting creative has always been an active voice in the international art scene until, at the age of 60, she became the caretaker of her elderly parents and her husband, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s disease. But now, at 70, unwilling to give in to a monotonous lifestyle, she has come back with a documentary film that uses her own experience to explore love and life in an aging society.
Photographer Yan Ming published a new book “Land of Bygone” 《昨天堂》 with 108 previously unpublished images from trips across China. The Guangdong-based photographer is known for his poetic black and white images, with previously published works such as Country of Ambition, I Love This Unspeakable Romance.
What we noticed:
The Three Shadows Photography Art Center and Chanel launched the Jimei x Arles “Curatorial Award for Photography and Moving Image”. The award has selected five curators/curatorial teams as finalists out of 53 projects. Their proposed projects will be showcased as a group exhibition at this year’s Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival running from Nov. 26, 2021 to Jan. 3, 2022. One of the five curators will win a curatorial award which comes with career development opportunities as well as a cash award of 100,000 RMB ($15,000).A post shared by Sixth Tone (@sixthtone)
When destinations that were presented on Red—a lifestyle social media app—as “Instagrammable” (or should we say... “Reddable”?), turned out to be not so glamorous in real life, people got angry. In October, Red apologized after tourists complained about photos of travel sites being heavily edited, and committed to launching “a rankings function for travel spots and a list of tourist traps that users should avoid.” Isn’t photography on social media about framing and trying to look good, and Instagram/Red about performing a certain kind of lifestyle? Or is it? What do you think? Let us know!
Who we are:
Yan Cong is taking a break from photojournalism and pursuing a research MA in new media and digital culture in Amsterdam while keeping her ties with the photojournalism and documentary community back home through this newsletter.
Beimeng Fu is a video journalist based between Beijing and Shanghai. She is a lover of language and documentaries.
Ye Charlotte Ming is a journalist and photo editor covering stories about culture, history, and identity. She’s based in Berlin and working on a book about her hometown’s German colonial past.
Writers: Beimeng Fu, Ye Charlotte Ming, and Yan Cong; Copy editor: Sarah Magill
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